Tag Archive | romantic novel

Romance Stories: A First Chapter, “If You Believed in Love”


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014If You Believed in Love

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

 “I do not believe I’m doing this.”  Jonathon Danforth strode past the knots of college students who were draped and drawn over every available step and statue.  Had it been cold, they all surely would’ve taken refuge elsewhere, but New York was experiencing one of those fascinating if completely frustrating warm snaps in the middle of January.

It couldn’t last.  They never did.  That’s why Jonathon wore his black wool coat even today when it was 60 degrees out.  He was ready for the moment the cold front, that one not even predicted yet, blew in.  Climbing the steps, he asked himself again, “Ugh.  What am I doing here?  This is completely insane.”

Still he reached for the large door and entered Bennett Hall.  Inside was considerably more crowded and considerably colder as well.  It was nice to see the good people of New York Central College didn’t waste money on little issues like heat and light.  His gaze slid to the ceiling where the lighting, such that it wasn’t, glowed dimly.  With a snort of derision and disgust, he made his way through the old lobby, dotted with students.

They were all young.  Nineteen, twenty.  No more than 22.  Some looked at him.  Most were content to ignore him.  In the middle of the lobby, he stopped and dug out his schedule.  English Literature. Room 103.

As he stuffed the schedule back in his pocket, he had to ask himself yet again why he was doing this.  It wasn’t like he needed an education.  He had one.  Two if you counted life experience which he definitely did.  And yet, here he was, standing at the doors of an old lecture hall that held little if any fascination for him.  Why? drifted through him again, but he beat that back.  Did it matter why?  Did it really?

He was here.  He had made this decision, and now he was going to go through with it whether he liked it or not.

It was a thing of beauty.  Lecture Hall 103.  Elizabeth Forester had been here, in the lecture hall, since eleven a.m.  It was not required that teachers, uh, professors get there two hours before the class was to start, but Elizabeth simply couldn’t help herself.  The old English wood, the desks placed just so.  They didn’t make them like this lecture hall anymore.  It was a throwback to a time long before when students came and sat up straight, ready and eager to learn.

Of course in the past three years since she’d become an actual professor, she had seen very few of such students.  Many today were not interested in doing more than minimal work and collecting a good grade (somehow that the two didn’t go readily hand-in-hand never really made a dent in their social calendars until right before finals).  She wanted to be angry about that, to make them understand what literature could do for a person, but she had no real way of conveying that except to her own heart, so she contented herself in presenting the material and letting what happened, happen.

But 103.  That was a different matter altogether.  First, it was storied—for her anyway.  It was where she had first come into the hallowed halls of higher education as a wide-eyed freshman more years ago than she wanted to admit.  And there was always the aura of Professor Avery, her first mentor, that hung about the place.

As she sat at the old desk which really served no real purpose anymore, save that they couldn’t get it out of the room, she thought about Professor Avery.  “Elizabeth, you are a fine student with a great passion for fine literature.  Have you ever considered teaching?”

And thus had the trajectory of her life forever changed.  It was odd, she thought, running her hand slowly across the smooth old wood, how one minute your life could be so one way and the very next, it would never be the same again.

Although the classroom could hardly be called full, Jonathon took a seat in the back and pulled the schedule out once more.  English Literature was bad enough.  He’d hate to stumble into a really bad class.

Voices came from around him, but he paid no real attention to them.  They were from a different world, a world that, though he might try, he would never again inhabit.  He bent and reached into his black satchel for the notebook he’d purchased for three dollars at the bookstore.  It was only a single subject notebook, not even distinctive.  He shook his head at the cost and placed it on the desk.  So many things had changed since the last time he’d sat in a room like this, praying it would be over and swearing he would never come back.

With a small sigh, he opened the notebook, took out his pen, and in careful block letters wrote:  ENGLISH LITERATURE across the center of the top page.

“Great.  We’re so screwed,” a pasty kid with bad skin and a nose ring said as he sat down with his friend right in front of Jonathon. “We got the Wicked Witch of the East.”  The kid sat or rather slumped into his desk.

“Yeah, dude,” his friend, an equally savory subject of no more than twenty, said as he fell into the desk next to his friend.  “Rachel had her last semester, and she said she required papers and all that shit.”

Jonathon swallowed and beat down the impulse to pulverize the two.  So much had changed since he’d been in a classroom, so much, and he wondered once again why he had let Janet talk him into this.  He dropped his gaze to his paper and wrote down the time of the class 1:00-2:30 p.m.  Tuesday and Thursday.  He had no syllabus or he would’ve written the teacher’s name also.

“If she gives us papers, dude,” nose-ring boy said, “I am so out of here.  I don’t have time for shit like that.  It’s not like I don’t have a life.”

Yes, Jonathon thought, a sad, pathetic little existence that will no doubt only get dimmer and darker the longer you take a breath.

“Good afternoon, class.”  The teacher’s voice, though not exactly English held a mysterious accent that Jonathon snagged on immediately. 

He looked up and sat up straighter.  Good idea or not, he was here, and he was going to make the best of it.

“Class,” Elizabeth tried again.  Although it was precisely 1:00, students still milled about, sitting on the desks, conversing with their friends, standing at the back doors of the hall.  “Um, excuse me.  If you could all come on in and take your seats, we can begin.”

They didn’t really pay her much mind, so with frustrated determination she turned to the chalkboard.   With penmanship that would’ve snarled the mind of the great English masters, she began the lesson.  “This is English Literature.  I am Ms. Forester.  My office hours are from 9 to 11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  You may come see me about any problems you are having.”  Information transferred, she strode to the desk as the students found desks and fell silent.

Pulling the syllabuses with her, she strode to the first of the rows and handed half of them one way and half the other.  “These are the syllabuses. I suggest you take them home and commit them to memory.  They are requirements, not suggestions.”

The groan she had come to expect began on one side and crossed the sea of seats to the other. 

“There are five books on the syllabus.  We will read all five in their entirety.”

More groans.

“Plus, you will have four papers,” she continued without pause, “and three tests.”

“Jeez. What are you trying to do, kill us?” a student down front asked.

“No,” she replied coolly.  “I’m trying to teach you.”  Her gaze snapped from that student up the rows to make sure everyone had the syllabus.  Turning, she readjusted her glasses.  “Now.  We will start with our section on English poetry.”  At the desk she lifted one of the little paperback books she had brought with her.  This particular one looked shabby compared with those the students who thought that far in advance had purchased.  But that was both to be expected and quite unavoidable. No book in her possession lasted longer than four read-throughs.  She had come to expect them to fall apart long before she got tired of them. “That would be this book.”

She held it up in case they could decipher colors better than words.  Opening it, she hardly took a breath before her gaze fell to the words, and she was transported once again to a place and a time that made more sense than any other place she had ever occupied.

“The rain set in early tonight,” the teacher, Ms. Forester, read from the little book that looked a hundred years old and sounded older.  “The sullen wind was soon awake,/It tore the elm-tops down for spite,/and did its worst to vex the lake:/I listened with heart fit to break.”

Something about the young woman and how she read drew Jonathon’s full attention to her though he had never been a big fan of poetry. 

Her gaze swept the class.  “When glided in Porphyria; straight/She shut the cold out and the storm,/and I kneeled and made the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm.”  The words came from her softly, mysteriously as if she knew something no one else did.

Though he didn’t notice, he tilted his head and riveted his gaze onto her.  She seemed ethereal, as if only partially connected to this earth.

“To set its struggling passion free/From pride, and vainer ties dissever,/And give herself to me forever.”

It was much like being caught in a cobweb you can’t get out of; it clings—to your clothes, to your body, to everything.  Only these words clung not to his clothes nor his body, but to his spirit.  He tried to shake them loose, but they were captivating.

“That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good:  I found/A thing to do, and all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,/And strangled her.”

With a gulp, Jonathon backed up.  His eyebrows narrowed on the thought.  What was this?  They were ten minutes into class, and she was already reading poetry about some idiot killing the woman he loved?  He slid back in his desk and fought not to sigh.  She was just like all the rest of the punk-nosed, acne-laden idiots that populated this institute of supposedly higher learning.  If he could’ve gotten up the courage or the energy, he would’ve stood up and left.  In fact, he glanced at the door, wishing he had fought harder against his sister’s insane suggestion.

Frustration crowded in on him as he shook his head, tapped his pen on his notebook, and forced his attention back to her and the reading of death.  This was just what he didn’t need.

“And thus we sit together now,/And all night long we have not stirred,/And yet God has not said a word!”

Jonathon looked around. Maybe there was a thought police guy close enough he could bust her for saying God in a public university.  At least then he could get out of this nightmare and go home to his couch where he should’ve been smart enough to stay in the first place.

“He killed her?” one kid asked down front in confusion.

Ms. Forester looked at him.  “He did.”

“Man, that’s jacked up,” the kid in front of Jonathon said.

“Dude,” the kid next to him said, “that’s just wrong.”

“Why?” Ms. Forester asked, and Jonathon’s eyebrows shot for the ceiling.

Was she kidding?  Reading things like that to impressionable kids who might think it sounded like fun?  It was all he could do to force himself to stay in the seat.  Dropping this class sounded like a very good idea.  In fact, he might just conveniently not even drop but just never show up again. It wasn’t like he was the one who had paid for the class anyway.

“Why’d he kill her?  I don’t get it,” a young lady down front said.  “Didn’t she like come to see him and everything?”

“He killed her to keep her,” Ms. Forester said as if that made all the sense in the world.  “He didn’t want her to find another, and so rather than risk that, he killed her before she could lose her purity and innocence.”

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” the kid in front of Jonathon said, and with everything in him he wanted to bop the kid on top of the head.

“Is it?”  The dark eyes hidden behind the stark, small glasses landed right in front of Jonathon, startling him far more than he could readily admit.  “Does it make sense?  Can you kill love in order to keep it?”

“No,” another young lady from the front said.  “If you kill it, you don’t get to keep it.  It… like… dies.”

“Yes,” Ms. Forester said, and Jonathon saw the con, “but it says, ‘And yet God has not said a word!’  So God’s obviously okay with it, right?”

“I don’t know. Wait a couple days,” one girl said.  “The smell alone will tell him that wasn’t a good idea.”

“Why not?” Ms. Forester leaned into the front rows.  “Why is it not a good idea?  She can’t not love him now.  Right?”

“Because, Miss, if she’s dead, he don’t get to keep her, and she don’t love him neither,” another guy tried. “He just gets to sit there with her for awhile, and then he gets to bury her, and love is just like… gone.”

That pushed Jonathon back from the conversation for good. As intrigued as he had been for most of the class, he didn’t hear one other thing.

Well, at least she had their attention, Elizabeth thought as she pointed out the reading assignment of fifteen poems for the next session over the noise of the departing students.  They were already back to social hour, and with a sigh, she relinquished her time with them.  It hadn’t gone badly, too badly anyway.  That was something.

Gathering up her things, she slid the extra syllabuses into her over-the-shoulder satchel and erased the board.  Her heart did a little slide at the sight of her name on that board.  How overwhelmingly in awe of Professor Avery she had been that first day.  As her hand made large, sweeping arcs, erasing her name from memory, she couldn’t help but hope she had made a difference in someone’s life today like he had made in hers all those years ago.

It was what every teacher wished for, she guessed.  At least the ones who cared.  The truth was, looking at the class today, this class, her class, she knew that English Literature, would be long forgotten by most if not all the second they stepped out of those doors.  It was a least of the worst electives for most.  Not that she blamed them, but she did wish… 

The back door snapped open, jerking her from her reverie.  The next class in here wasn’t for an hour and a half.  She had checked.  However, the man who stepped in was not any faculty member that she had ever met.  She stumbled over both the darkness of his features and his scowl. “Um, can I help you?”

Without answering, he stepped through the back desks, and when he stood, he held up a black scarf.  “Sorry,” he said.  “I left this.  It was a gift from my sister.  She would kill me if I lost it.”

“Ah.”  Elizabeth raised her chin in understanding, but in the next instant questioned everything about him.  He was older, much older than most of her students, and although she searched her memory, she couldn’t remember a single interaction they’d had the entire class.  She pulled her satchel over her shoulder and started up the steps.  “Are you…”  She had to clear her throat to get it all out.  “Hm.  Are you…. Um, were you in the English Literature class just now?”

“What? Oh. Yeah.  Very entertaining.”  He slung the scarf around his neck.  “Especially that whole killing your girlfriend thing.  Very nice.”

Softly and somewhat puzzled, she laughed.  When she got to the top step, he followed her to the door and out. 

“Well, the good news is, that was just to get their attention.”  She glanced back past him into the now-empty lecture hall.  “Next class will not be nearly so gory, I assure you.”

His smile was soft, barely there.  “Then I shall look forward to the next class.”  And with that, he clicked his heels, turned, and disappeared into the crush of students.

Looking after him, Elizabeth frowned.  That was odd.  It was like meeting Mr. Darcy’s almost-witty cousin.  Then she shook her head and rolled her eyes.  “Oh, Elizabeth, really.  I swear sometimes I think you think those characters are real.” With a scowl and another shake of her head, she turned and headed the other direction, hoping the library wouldn’t be crowded today.

For two long days and two longer nights, Jonathon had debated about going to class again—or not.  As he crossed the cold, hard concrete, knowing he was late, he shook his head at the stupidity of coming back.  She seemed nice enough—she, of course being Ms. Forester—especially after class, but it was hardly likely that she even knew he was on the planet.  She didn’t even know he was in a class she’d taught for an hour and half.  That either said a lot about him or a lot about her, and he wasn’t entirely sure which annoyed him more.

Carefully, quietly, he pulled the large wooden door to the lecture hall open and peered in.  Just as he was afraid, class had already started.  Well, at least his grade wasn’t in jeopardy as it had been his first go-round with the education system.  Slipping quietly in, he crossed past two other students to his seat in the back.

“I would I could adopt your will,” she read at the front. “See with your eyes, and set my heart/Beating by yours, and drink my fill/At your soul’s springs—your part my part/In life, for good and ill.”

Jonathon flipped his book open and found the page.  Two in the Campagna.  He’d liked that selection.  Mostly because it was short and also because no one died.

“Sounds like Browning had it bad,” a guy down front said.

“Yes, you’re right,” Ms. Forester said.  Then she stopped.  “I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Oh, uh.  Adam.”

“Adam…?” she asked, searching for the last name.

“Reynolds.”

“Mr. Reynolds,” she said as if she’d just stepped off a carriage in Old England, “would you like to expand on your comment about Mr. Browning’s love life?”

“Oh, well,” Adam said as if he’d never heard a question quite like that one.  “He’s just all ‘O my dove’ and ‘I yearn upward, touch you close.’ I mean it sounds like he’s got some serious needs he’s trying to get this chick to take care of.”

The answer was crude, and even if Adam was trying not to be, Jonathon rolled his eyes in embarrassment for her.  To have to expound on that one would have landed him in the hospital with an aneurism. 

“You’re right, Mr. Reynolds.  Mr. Browning did have some serious needs as you put it.  He was in love, deep, deep desperate love, with his soulmate.  Her name happened to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Hold up,” another young man down front said.  “Didn’t she write that other one?  That ‘How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways’ at the end?”

Ms. Forester smiled that little smile that said she knew secrets they could only guess at.  “Very good, Mr….?”

“Oh, Taylor.  Roman Taylor.”

“Very impressive, Mr. Taylor.  You read the assignment and can quote it.”

“I’d heard that one before,” Roman said.  “It’s on like Hallmark cards and sh… stuff.”

She laughed and then fell serious.  “The Brownings are one of the greatest love stories in all of English Literature.  The best part is, they were for real.”

“Did he kill her too?” one of the guys on the other side asked.

Without hesitation, Ms. Forester turned her attention to him.  “Mr….?”

“Cruz.”

“Mr. Cruz.” Ms. Forester took a moment to regather herself. “No, Robert did not kill Elizabeth, but they were both very in touch with the fact that love here on earth does come to an end.  They often wrote of such things as losing the other and the indelible pain that would bring.”

“So were they like in a war or something?” one of the girls asked, and when she saw her teacher begin the question, she answered it.  “It’s Letty.  Letty Rahman.”

Ms. Forester tipped her head to the side, illuminating the wisps of light brown hair that escaped from the weave of the two braids twisted at the back of her head.  “No, Ms. Rahman.  They were not at war.  There were wars going on, to be sure, but the English society during which the Brownings and the others we will be studying wrote was characterized by extreme manners in genteel society.  For example, people in the upper classes addressed one another as Mr. and Mrs.—even if they were married.”

“If they were married?”

“Yes.  It was all very formal and proper.  There were rules about society and about family, and you did not break these rules or terrible things would happen.  You might end up penniless and destitute.  You might end up married to some scoundrel who took you as a bride for your family’s money.  Or you might have to marry someone not for love but for family honor or to keep the family from dishonor.  For young women, life revolved around whom they would marry and who would marry them.”

“That’s whack.  Who needs a guy to be all up in your business?”

Ms. Forester turned and questioned the petitioner with one raise of the eyebrow.

“Susanna Suertes,” the girl replied.

“Ms. Suertes.”  Like she was gliding on glass, Ms. Forester strode to the space just in front of the girl four rows back almost exactly between Jonathon and the teacher.  He swallowed the trance down, fighting to break free, but it did not leave.

“In this time period, women were considered no better than cattle or horses.  They were basically property.  Fathers paid suitable and sometimes unsuitable gentleman to marry their daughters.  That was called a dowry.  If she did not have a dowry, a young lady’s chances of being suitably married were drastically reduced and therefore her chances for a life of anything more than life as a servant were greatly reduced as well.  But you have to understand, it wasn’t like a young woman could simply buy the nearest castle and move in.  Women could not own property.  They could not own their own homes.  They did not own horses or even the knickknacks or silver in the household.  The man owned everything.  If the male of the family passed on, the estate passed to the next suitable man whether he was part of the family or not.”

“Girl, that’s whack.  Why couldn’t women own anything?  Women are just as good as men.”

“Now.  Maybe.”  Ms. Forester spoke the words like small bombs, dropped with precision.  “But back then, an unmarried woman with no father was at the mercy of other relatives and the gentleman the estate went to.  Minus that, she had very few options.  So the noble class of women could go from living in idyllic settings one day to destitute the next just like that.”  She snapped her fingers.  “But this made love all the more important.  For a man who loved his wife and daughters would go to great lengths to ensure they would be provided for upon his death.  Death and love were ever at the forefront of the thoughts of these people because they were so intricately entwined.  Listen…”

And then she read from Rabbi Ben Ezra, another of the poems they had read.  Fifteen poems was enough for anyone.  Jonathon had finished this one sometime around three a.m. Wednesday morning when he couldn’t sleep for the question of if he was even going to come today.  Now, today, for the most part, he was glad he had come.  It wasn’t all symbolism and sonnets as he’d been afraid it would be.  When she talked about love, it was even kind of nice.  If you believed in such a thing, which he didn’t.

“’Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be,/The last of life, for which the first was made./Our times are in his hand/Who saith, ‘A whole I planned;/Youth shows but half.  Trust God; see all,/nor be afraid!’” 

She slipped the book closed.  “Listen to those words.  In them Robert Browning is calling us all to be more than we are, calling us to love with a love that will slip through the provincial bonds of time and complete the whole.  ‘The last of life for which the first was made.’  He’s saying both parts are important.  This part you are living now will teach you what is right and what is important so that the last of your lives can come full circle into something that means something to the world and to God.”

Without bothering to open the book again, she continued, though Jonathon noticed she’d skipped a few lines. “Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years,/Do I remonstrate—folly wide the mark!/Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.”  The mystery was back in her voice again.  “Hear that?  Do you hear it?  ‘I prize the doubt.’  He’s saying, ‘Don’t live your life thinking you have to have it all figured out.  Prize when you don’t know.  Prize when you’re on the verge of something big and you don’t know if you can do it.  You can for ‘Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years…’ Don’t waste time now being afraid and sitting on the sidelines.  Don’t let hopes and fears take away these years.  They are quick, and before you know it, they’ll be gone.

“‘Low kinds exist without.’  If you are chained to this earth by your doubt and your fears, you are a low kind.  You are a ‘finished and finite clod.’  That means if you let your doubts and your fears take over your life, then this is it.  This is all there is. If you stayed chained to the fear and doubt of this earth, then you are a finite clod, and when you die, they will put you in the ground, and you will rot, and that will be it.  You will be untroubled into eternity by the spark of love… or even of life.

“Browning understood something that few of us ever do.  It is in the risking to really love, to really put yourself out there that life is truly and most wondrously lived.”  Her gaze caught the large clock on the wall.  “I know it’s almost time to go, but please, just a couple more.”

No one, least of all Jonathon moved.

“All I could ever be.”  Her voice reverberated around the room. “All men ignored in me./This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped./Aye, not that the Potter’s wheel,/That metaphor! And feel/Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay–/Thou, to whom fools propound,/When the wine makes its round,/’Since life fleets, all is change; the Past is gone, seize today!’”  She seemed transported to a wholly different space and time, and with her most of the class.  “Listen to that.  The Potter made you, and even though the world may ignore you, the Potter knows what He’s doing, but we have to seize what’s right in front of us and not let this moment slip into the Past.”

He wished she wouldn’t keep looking at that clock.  It reminded him he would have to leave very soon.

“One more,” she said as if begging for permission.  A soft groan crossed the classroom.  “I know. I know, but this one is really good.  ‘So, take and use Thy work;/ Amend what flaws may lurk,/What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!/My times be in Thy hand!/Perfect the cup as planned!/Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”

The final words rang in the great hall and whispered there for another moment into eternity.  Had this been a performance, Jonathon would’ve been the first to applaud sarcastically, but this was no performance.  He could see it in her eyes and could hear it in the breathlessness of her voice, she believed every single word of it.

“He’s saying,” she said softly, and not even a pen moved, “that we may not be perfect.  We may have our lives all out of sorts, and our cups may not look like what we think they should, but the strain of the stuff that happens to us, those intentions that went past the aim—those times are in God’s hands, and He can fix them if we’ll let him.  Then in our old age we will approve of those lessons we learned in our youth, and our death will bring us full circle.”

A second and then another the words hung there, and then she smiled softly almost apologetically.  “Read the rest of the poems in the book for Tuesday’s class please.  You are free to go.”

They might have been free to go, but it took several long seconds for anyone to move.  And then they were moving, but it was subdued, hushed in a way it hadn’t been before.  Jonathon moved slowly, blinking and trying to understand the trance he’d fallen into.  He didn’t bother to put his Poetry of Robert Browning book back in his satchel.  As the other students crossed out into the noisy world beyond, he watched her up front.  She moved like she was not even on solid ground.  Dressed in that soft tan cotton dress that swirled around her ankles encased in black boots, she looked more like a spirit escaped from history than a real, live person. Stepping to the board, she erased the markings there and then strode to the desk to gather her things.

He’d never stayed behind before to talk to a teacher, that he could remember anyway.  And he knew doing so branded him as a hopeless kiss-up, but his mind and body simply wouldn’t shift back into normal mode.  She climbed the steps and smiled when she saw him coming down the row.

“So, see,” she said as if she was proud of herself.  “No one died today.”

He smiled, amused in spite of himself.  “That’s a definite improvement.”

At his row she stopped and waited for him to join her before they stepped out into the hallway.

“So, did you enjoy these poems?”

Man, he wished he could just say yes.  Instead, he wrinkled his nose. “I’m not really a poetry kind of guy.”

“Oh.”  She lifted her chin, revealing a long slender neck.  Then she pursed her lips and nodded.  “I guess not.”  When her gaze came to his, it almost knocked him backward.  Soft with a hint of both sadness and determination, she looked at him.  “Well, I hope to see you Tuesday.  Watch My Last Duchess, it’s kind of an echo of Porphyria’s Lover.”

“Oh, okay.”  He nodded.  “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’re welcome.”  She jerked her gaze away from him and then smiled. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”

He lifted the book in a half-hearted wave.  “Tuesday.”

And with that she turned and strode off across the lobby and down the hallway beyond. 

When she was gone, Jonathon’s senses kicked back in, and he dropped his gaze to the book in his hand.  It held something, something that was innate about her.  Vowing to figure out just what that something was, he did not turn the other way as he had the previous Tuesday.  Instead he headed for the library.  His apartment was so horrible for studying. 

First there was the refrigerator.  When he was bored, it was too much of a temptation, and reading these poems was about as boring as it got.  Unless she was in the front of that lecture hall reading them.  Focusing on the fact that she saw something there he clearly didn’t, he directed his steps to the library.  He would read as long as he could, and then he would go home.  Thursday wasn’t turning out to be so bad after all.

 

IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt from “Cowboy”

Ebook Romance Stories presents an Excerpt from “Cowboy” by Staci Stallings…
Cowboy New 2-2014Fatigue hit Ashton hard as he pulled up next to the small establishment winking an OPEN sign. For the first ten seconds after he killed the engine, he considered simply calling Meredith and asking her to come get him. But as he sat and the quiet came around him, the thought that he didn’t want to have to deal with her—or anyone else ran through him. For a few more minutes, he just wanted to be alone, and this looked like as good a place to do that as any. He glanced out the window to the light shining from the plate glass door out into the darkness. Warm. Somehow it looked so warm, and he felt so very cold.

It took everything he had to get the car door open. His head hurt, his eyes hurt, his body hurt. Everything hurt. Maybe he should call Meredith, he thought as he stepped out and right into the middle of an ice-cold rainwater puddle. With a jerk he yanked his foot out, but the muddy water seeped through the holes in his shoe just the same. Trying not to feel the chill oozing through the fabric of his sock, he pulled himself out of the car, making sure to miss the puddle the second time. Once standing, he started slowly across the puddle-strewn lot for the door. However, the wind whipped the icy droplets of rain seemingly right through him. When they found his all-but unprotected body and his neck, all thoughts other than getting inside vanished. In a dead run, he crossed the lot and stumbled inside.

“Nice night,” the waitress at the counter said.

Ashton brushed the cold ice water drops off his shirt and shivered. “I’d hate to see a bad one.” He stomped his feet on the ground, sending mud and water scattering in little fans on the mat and across the hard tile floor.

She grabbed a menu. “One?”

It took a moment to process the question as he brushed at his cap and neck. “Oh, uh, yeah,” he said, glancing up. “One.”

“Right this way.”

Without question he followed her across the diner to a corner booth. He reached up and repositioned the cap on his head, cupping the bill of it in one hand.

She stopped at the back booth cornered by a wall and a window. “This okay?”

“Fine.” He slid into the seat.

With a smile he barely saw, she laid the menu on the table. “I’ll bring you some water.”

“All right.” When she stepped away, he squeezed his eyes closed to shut out the fatigue flooding over him and shivered again. “Tell you what…”

She stopped short and turned back.

He forced his eyes open as he ran his hands down his now-wet jeans. “Just bring me some coffee.”

This smile at least made it to her face. “Coffee it is.”

He looked down at the menu under his fingertips. Although it had been several hours since he’d eaten anything, eating right now just didn’t seem appealing. He tilted his head to one side and then the other, trying to work out the kinks that were going nowhere.

“Here you go.” With a small clink, she set the coffee cup in front of him and filled it.

Gratefully, he glanced up. “Thanks.” But before his gaze managed to get to hers, the pain slashed through him again and pulled his gaze down lest she see.

For one second and then two she stood there. “I’ll take your order when you’re ready. Let me know.”

“Oh, okay.” His hands found the warmth of the cup. It felt wonderful. He didn’t really know how, but he knew she had walked away. Slowly he lifted the cup and took a sip. It was the most wonderful thing he’d ever tasted in his life.

Beth watched him from her perch at the counter. Something about him gripped the middle of her soul. Maybe it was the slump of his shoulders as he bent over the cup, or maybe it was the ache on his face. Whatever it was, her gut told her that he was in trouble. Big trouble.

Sitting in this diner so far away from everything he had come to know was like sitting outside his body and looking in, and for the most part, Ashton didn’t like anything he saw. It wasn’t the clothes—it was the shell of the man inside them. Being here felt so familiar. He’d been in many all-night diners driving back from gigs in far away towns.

He let his mind drift back to those days when playing for a couple hundred people was a good night, when making enough money to get the band to the next stop was a major accomplishment. Slowly his mind traced back through the band. Greg, James, Evan. All friends he’d somehow lost track of during his climb to the top. All friends he’d sat with in places just like this one, dreaming of living the life he now found himself in. But dreaming about this life now seemed totally absurd. It was more like a nightmare.

“Refill?” she asked, materializing in the front of the table.

He looked up into her smiling face and pushed the cup over to her. “Sure.”

She refilled it without ever losing the smile. “You ready to order?”

“Oh umm… I’m not really hungry.” He reached down and raked one hand down the side of his jeans. Then he glanced up into her smiling blue eyes, and all motion stopped.

“That’s okay,” she said softly. “Enjoy your coffee.”

“T-thanks,” he said, and she retreated back to her seat at the counter.

In a way it was odd, he thought as he dragged his attention back to the coffee cup, sitting here in what could at least pass as being in public—and not being mobbed or even asked for an autograph. Anymore he couldn’t go anywhere without constant chaos surrounding him.  Everyone wanted autographs. Everyone.

He remembered the first autograph he’d ever signed. It was at one of the broken down bars he’d played so long ago he no longer remembered its name. The young girl had sat in the front row clapping and cheering after every song. After the second set, she’d come up and asked him for his autograph. It had been the first of many. His mind drifted back to that minute as the present ceded control to the past.

“My autograph?” he’d asked in disbelief never seriously thinking anyone would want his name on a piece of paper. “What for?”

Her soft, satiny face framed a smile that melted his heart. “That way when you become a big star, I can say I knew you when.”

In the present he smiled at that. He hadn’t thought of that conversation in a very long time.

“Oh, well, okay,” he had said as professionally as he knew how at the time. “Who should I make this to?”

“Just make it to Sharon.”

His heart filled with the memory, and before he could stop them, the tears in his heart were on his lashes. He swallowed and knotted his forehead to keep them from falling. She was so beautiful. He could see her standing there in the dim bar light. Right from the start she’d been his biggest fan—never wavering in her belief in him or his music. She had been with him every step of the way, and now she was gone, and he would never hear her voice or smell her perfume or see her smile or feel her touch again. Like a tidal wave the pain washed over him.

“’Nother refill?” the voice standing above him asked, and he looked at her before he thought better of it.

Beth saw the tears and the crushed, pain-filled look instantly.

“Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” she asked as concern for this tattered stranger traced through her. “Maybe there’s someone I can call, or…”

But he just shook his head and tried to smile. “No.” He looked back down at his empty coffee cup. “I’m all right.”

With pursed lips, she refilled his cup and set it down in front of him. “I’ll be right back.”

And she disappeared again. Ashton squeezed his eyes closed to stop the tears, but there were too many, and they had been held back for too long. Slowly, his head bent over the steaming cup in front of him, and he gave up. How could he ever have known that night as he’d looked at Sharon the first time how quickly it would all end? How could he ever have seen how much the top resembles the bottom when you have no one to share it with?

It was true, he had people around him 24 hours a day, and yet he had never been so lonely in his life. Suddenly the rain-soaked accident scene began to look rather good compared with going back and facing the emptiness his life had become. Barry and his checklists, Meredith and her constant demands. They said they cared, but they really didn’t. They would be gone in a flash if anything ever happened to him.

He’d had only one true friend in his life, and now she was gone.

“Here,” the waitress said, suddenly standing at the edge of his table again. When he looked up, confusion overtook everything else. With a twist of the plate in her hand, she set it down in front of him. “I know you said you weren’t hungry, but I think it would be good if you just had something to eat.”

His gaze fell to it. “But…”

“It’s okay,” she said with a smile. “Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me.”

“But…” he began again looking through the blur of tears at her and then to the scrambled eggs, sausage and toast now lying before him.

“No, buts. Now, eat.” She pointed to the food. “I’ll get you some more coffee.”

In utter disbelief and confusion, he watched her walk back to the counter.

Beth couldn’t explain it exactly, but she wanted to do something for this poor, lost soul who had stumbled in from the rain looking for a warm cup of coffee and a place to cry. She’d been there. Running, climbing the invisible railing between life and death, wanting only for the pain to end. It was no place to be. She smiled when she got back to the table. “Here you go.”

He looked at her as if she might disappear if he blinked. “You really don’t have to do this, you know.”

Her gentle laugh jumped from her heart. “It’s okay. You look like you need a good meal… and maybe somebody to talk to?”

He ducked his head as she picked up his cup and refilled it.

“So, there’s your meal,” she continued never losing the softness in her voice, “and if you need somebody to listen, I’m here.”

Carefully she set the cup on the table and looked at him, waiting for some sign that he wanted to come back over the railing, but he didn’t move. Then in a breath he looked up from the table and right into her eyes. The deep brown of his eyes held only pools of pure anguish.

Ashton knew the second their gazes met that he should look away or she would know everything, but for some reason he couldn’t. His brain scrambled trying to remember the last time anyone had looked at him like that. Offering only and not expecting anything in return.

“Well,” she said softly, “I just thought I’d offer.”

“Oh.” His senses crashed back to him. “I’m… I’m sorry. Where’re my manners? Please, have a seat.”

She hesitated.

“Please,” he repeated, indicating the other side of the booth.

After only a second more, she slid gracefully into the other side and set the coffee pot down between them. “All right.”

He watched her intently, knowing in his heart she must be some kind of apparition that was going to disappear if he took his gaze off of her again.

She smiled at him and pointed to the plate he had forgotten. “Your eggs are getting cold.”

He looked down to where she was pointing and laughed. “Oh, yeah.” He glanced back across the table to make sure she was still there and then picked up his fork and stabbed it into the one mound of eggs. The first three forkfuls were in his mouth before he had a chance to think again. He was starving, and he hadn’t even realized it.

“So, you work the graveyard shift?” he asked between bites as she sat on her side folding and unfolding the edge of a napkin between her finger and her thumb.

“No, I’m mostly a day girl,” she said off-handedly, “but Harry needed help tonight, so I came in.”

“That’s nice of you.” He stabbed another forkful of eggs. “With the rain and all, I mean.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, well we’ve had a couple of waitresses out this week with this and that, so I fill in when I can.”

He nodded as he took a bite of sausage. As he chewed, the air began to return to his lungs.

“So, what brings you out on a night like this?” she asked, treading on each word carefully.

The memory of his flight from the arena played back in his mind, and Ashton forced himself to swallow the sausage. He took a long drink of coffee to wash it down. “I was just out driving.” Appetite gone, he stared at the plate in front of him. “I just kinda ended up here.”

She nodded, and the wave of a curl at her temple swayed. “I’ve been there before. Sometimes the best thing to do is get away—to clear your head so you can think straight again.”

“Yeah,” he said, staring at the eggs without really seeing them.

“You’re not from around here. Are you?” she asked, surveying him for mere moments at a time.

“No.” He didn’t look up. “I’m originally from Montana, but right now…” He stabbed into the eggs just to have something to do. “Well, I’m pretty much here and there these days.”

The napkin edge crinkled under her fingers. “You been driving long?”

“Too long,” he said, thinking of the hours upon hours he’d spent on that road. City after city until he wasn’t even sure which city he was in anymore.

“Must be hard being out there all alone.”

He nodded and forced himself to swallow another bite of eggs as she watched. “Yeah. Sometimes it feels like the road’s the only home I have anymore,” he said as much to himself as to her.

“It can get that way.” Her gaze never moved from him. He felt it although his gaze was on the plate in front of him. “When my husband died, all I wanted to do was run.”

When he looked up, he found himself staring at the part in her hair. For a moment she let that statement settle, then she looked across the diner and then back at him. The sadness in her gaze washed over him.

She smiled obviously forcing the words out. “And I did for awhile—run, I mean. I ran—just packed up and took off. I wasn’t really thinking, you know? All I knew was I had to get away from the pain.” Her gaze drifted over to the counter as her face scrunched on the memories. “But the road can be a weird place when you’re running from something. The harder I tried to run, the more the pain followed me. It followed me all the way to Miami.” She raked in air, then forced it down her throat and held his gaze. “That’s where I found myself sitting in a hotel room thinking I’d just be better off if I ended it all right there.”

At that moment he knew she was an angel, and he couldn’t have torn his gaze from her face if the sky had fallen at his feet.

However, the admission sent her gaze skittering. “I kept telling myself it was the only way, that I just couldn’t run anymore. I was tired of running, and I was tired of hurting. In fact, you know… I was just plain tired.” The story seemed to lose steam in the memories.

He nodded as he gazed across the table. Tired. It was a feeling he had come to know very well in the past few months.

She reached up and scratched the back of her neck just under the fall of loose curls that started at her head and cascaded down the sides of her face. “I was sitting there getting ready to end it all, and….” Her monologue drifted into silence, and the fight it was taking to get the words out was clear.

He shook his head searching her countenance trying desperately to figure out where this was going.

Then, with the smallest of laughs her gaze found his again. “A maid came in.”

“A maid?” he asked as his eyebrows knitted in confusion.

“Yeah.” She laughed, louder this time. “She was there to change the sheets or something, but I’ll tell you what, she took one look at me and forgot all about those sheets. She didn’t know me. We’d never even met before, but I know for a fact she saved my life that day. She showed me that running doesn’t help, and neither will killing yourself.”

“Yeah?” he asked sarcastically as he repositioned himself in the booth. “Then what does?”

Her eyes turned to soft orbs of gentleness. “Letting other people help you through it.”

The burden of fatigue and heartbreak he’d been carrying for months pulled his gaze to the table just as the bells at the door jingled. Although he never looked up, he heard her slide from the booth.

“Finish your breakfast.” She pointed to his plate. “If you need someone to listen, all you have to do is ask.”

And with that she left his booth to go help the other customers.

Let others help, he thought sarcastically. Yeah, right.

He couldn’t trust anyone with this pain.  He couldn’t let them in. Besides, they didn’t want to listen—not really. They wanted him to say everything was fine and keep going as though nothing in the world had happened. They wanted him to be Ashton Raines, superstar, and as far as what happened to the real Ashton Raines, they couldn’t care less.

Loneliness descended on him again, and his whole body slumped toward the table with the weight of it. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep himself upright. All he wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep forever.

If he could just think of one friend. One real person he could call, one real person he could talk to.

“If you need someone to listen, I’m here,” he heard her words again in the depths of his soul, and he looked up to see if she was actually standing there. But she was across the restaurant helping someone else.

“I can’t tell her.” He shook his head and clutched the top of his cap, rolling it down around his face at the absurdity of the very thought. “I don’t even know her.”

Then his gaze lit on the all-but empty plate in front of him. She had given him a meal and asked for nothing in return. She had shared a piece of her heart with him and expected nothing. It was by far the greatest act of kindness he’d experienced in a long time. He looked down at the empty coffee cup, closed his eyes, and raised it off the table. “Miss, could I get a refill?”

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