Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Vow Fulfilled--Chapter 4 (and a giveaway!)

If you missed yesterday's chapter, go to MaryLu Tyndall's blog to catch up!
Remember to post a comment for a chance to win a basketful of great prizes including MaryLu Tyndall's latest release, Forsaken Dreams and Laurie Alice Eakes' book, Choices of the Heart. 

And now, A Vow Fulfilled:


Chapter Four
Turner glanced between his cousin and Celia—no, not Celia.  William’s fiancĂ©e.
The “confused” lady he was kidnapping at the bequest of his cousin could be nothing more than Miss Sheldon to him. And as long as he didn’t think of her by her Christian name, she’d stay nothing more in his mind than the living version of the portrait his cousin had painted.  A glorified portrait, he had eventually concluded after weeks of studying it, for no woman with as little guileless and much loveliness as had been captured on that canvas could love or even wish to marry a man as scheming, greedy, and narcissistic as his cousin.
Whether to his chagrin or delight he wasn’t sure, Celia-in-the-flesh was much more than the accurately painted beauty. Having laughed at her clever retorts, admired her bravery, and held her in his arms as he kissed her lily-scented skin—
 Turner shook his head to dispel the traitorous thought so he could think clearly while his cousin and Miss Sheldon exchanged glares—his adoring, hers venomous. The plan had been simple: Kidnap Celia—Miss Sheldon—so William could come to her rescue, which would make her realize she truly loved him. Shooting Turner never had been discussed. Yet he had a bullet mark across his forearm and a bloody sleeve to testify someone had shot at him. Pretense? Or truly to kill?
 Only one man benefitted from his death.
 Turner swallowed to ease the tightening in his throat, yet he did naught to ease his tightened fists. He didn’t need to spend a moment on his knees praying for godly confirmation to know he’d, once again, been duped by a Gregory William Owens. First his grandfather. Now his cousin. What he’d give to smash the prized red plumed hat William wore so ostentatiously.
 Miss Sheldon cleared her throat. To steady her nerves or gain confidence Turner wasn’t sure.
 “What are you about, Gregory?” she asked with grace and confidence of a queen amid the splendor of the moss-laden trees and dense shrubbery.
 “Search your heart, my love. There you will find the answer.” William stepped forward, his immaculately polished boot smashing the wildflowers decorating the clearing. He stopped in front of Celia and reached for her right hand. Before he could touch her, she stepped back and bumped into Turner’s chest.
 He didn’t grab her shoulders to stead her, despite the yearning to hold her again. Instead he took a step back.
 She smoothed the front of her gold linen skirt, although it was unruffled as she appeared to be. “I have searched my heart. Socrates once said, ‘As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.’ I tend to agree with him.”
 Socrates stopped munching on grass long enough to look up, shake his chestnut mane, and snort.
 William’s chuckle echoed in the silent woods. “Be careful what you say, my love.” He adjusted his hat until sat cocked to the side. “My cousin vowed last night that the woman he married would have to be able to quote Socrates, make him laugh, and motivate him to be a better man. He’s halfway in love with you already. And yet what he feels will never match the rapturous emotions I bear for you.”
 She looked over her shoulder; her surprised gaze focused on him. “Did you say that?”
 The back of his neck warmed.  “Miss Sheldon, when a man has had too much to drink . . . .” He left the rest unsaid. Apparently William was not completely without conscience because he didn’t clarify how little wine was consumed by either of them during last night’s deliberations.
 “Are you halfway in love with me already?” she prodded.
 Turner ripped off his left coat sleeve and tore the hole in his shirt to get a better look at the bullet mark and bloodied skin . . . and to keep from seeing Celia. Truth be told, he couldn’t look at her.
 He didn’t want to witness the revulsion in her blue-as-the-summer-sky eyes at the thought of being loved by him. Nor could he lie to her. As the familiar ache grew in his chest, he knew he was more than halfway in love with her, as much as he knew he was a fool for every fervent prayer he’d uttered asking God to bless him with a godly wife. Since his youth, the image in his mind had been of a vague woman. Maybe with mousy brown hair and a demure temperament. Or a feisty redhead. In this moment, all he saw was Celia—the golden-haired, porcelain-skinned woman he’d kidnapped in exchange for something worth far less than her.
 The loss of blood from the bullet grazing was surely making him delirious. Or he still suffered from last week’s bout of influenza. Likely both.
 “Mr. Cane, why will you not answer me?”
 Turner looked past her to his gloating-faced cousin. “Let’s finish this.”
 William whistled.
 Within moments, Reverend Lewis Bachman, the new pastor of First Church Charleston, and the young woman Turner had seen walking with Celia past the East Bay Street shops exited the forest. Three freed men, all recognizable as sailors on one of the Owens trade ships, followed carrying lighted torches.
 While Turner caught his former university classmate’s disappointed gaze—an exact match to the one Lewis wore over dinner two nights ago—Celia ran to her friend. The two women hugged and cried and hugged some more as if they were headed for the guillotine.
 Celia smoothed the red strands loosened from her friend’s bound hair. “Mabel Jean Holloway, what are you doing out here?”
 Miss Holloway sniffed then wiped the tears streaming down her cheeks. “After you left, Gregory stopped in to say you were in great danger,” she blurted at breathtaking speed. “You needed my help because . . . because—well, he said you were confused about your feelings but he still loved you. You must believe him. We were riding on horseback, but then the shooting started and I heard you scream, or maybe that was me, and I—oh, Celia, I was so afraid. Are you all right?”  She sneered at Turner, then whispered, “Did he hurt you?”
 “Despite Mr. Cane’s roguish appearance, he is a gentleman.”
 Miss Holloway didn’t look convinced. “But the scrapes and bruising on your forehead—”
 Celia’s laughter carried a sane edge that her friend didn’t have. “As with most of my wounds, they’re my own fault for not listening to the warnings of one wiser than I.” Her sigh was as lovely as her perfectly formed chin. “I’ll find a way to keep us both safe. Trust me.” After another hug of her friend, Celia turned to Lewis. “While it is always a pleasure to see you, Reverend Bachman, why are you here? What is this?”
 Turner gave Lewis a look that conveyed he was wondering the same thing.
 With a grim line to his mouth, something Turner knew Lewis did whenever he was thinking hard, he withdrew a well-worn Bible from inside the leather shoulder bag he wore draped across his chest of his haphazardly buttoned saffron shirt. He then brushed his dark brown hair back from his forehead.
 “This, Miss Sheldon, is a wedding,” Lewis said matter-of-factly.
 Her eyes widened then blinked. “A wedding?” She glared at Turner as if to ask did you know about this?
 He shook his head. Was he more stunned William had planned a wedding? Or that Lewis was agreeing to officiate? Lewis’s impeccable honor made him unsusceptible to bribes, so William had to have threatened him to force his involvement. But with what?
 As something between a huff and a growl escaped her throat, Celia whirled around to face William. “Have you lost your wits?”
 “My love for you keeps me sane.” William knelt before her, likely soiling the knee of his white breeches on the green grass, and held up the Owens family diamond-and-ruby engagement ring—the very one Turner’s grandfather had demanded Mother return after Father’s death last winter. “Miss Sheldon, I will do anything to convince you of the depths of my feelings. Marry me. Make me the happiest man in the world.”
 Miss Holloway touched Celia’s arm. “Say yes, Celia, do say yes. This is God’s way of giving you a second chance to marry the man perfect for you.”
 Before Celia could answer, William stood and snapped his fingers.
 Lewis released a weary breath. He opened his Bible. “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’ And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.” Lewis paused and looked at Turner, staring for the longest moment, before shaking his head and continuing to read. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Miss Sheldon, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
 William looked at Celia expectantly, as if he had no doubt she’d agree.
 Miss Holloway nodded vigorously. “Yes, she will!”
 “She can speak for herself,” Turner grumbled, walking to Celia.
 “Shhh, Mr. Cane, I can speak for myself.”
 “That’s what I said.”
 “What you said?! You, sir, are a manipulator of words. Now be quiet.”
 He stopped by her side. With all the self-control he’d developed in the last score and five years since his birth, Turner held back his smile. “By your leave, my lady.”
 Her eyes narrowed. Some odd noise spurted from her mouth, and then she backhanded his chest. “Why do you keep saying that to me? No one says ‘by your leave’ anymore. It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s—”
 “Archaic?” William supplied.
 Miss Holloway fanned her face in horror. “He said—”
 “Medieval?” Lewis offered.
 Miss Holloway abruptly stopped fanning and tapped her friend’s arm with the fan. “Celia, you vowed—”
 “Mabel,” Celia warned, “now is not the time to—”
 “I was thinking gentlemanly,” Turner said, giving into his grin that earned him a glare from both women.
 Mabel groaned. “Oh, no—no no no, no!”
 “Untimely, that’s what it is.” Whatever else Celia said died in her muttering.
 Though Turner hadn’t thought it was possible, in the twilight, brightened by a trio of torches, Miss Holloway’s ivory complexion paled. Surprisingly she didn’t faint. “Reverend Bachman, I told Celia she shouldn’t pledge such things before God.”
 Lewis’s brows furrowed. “Calm down, Miss Holloway. What did Miss Sheldon vow?”
 “Nothing.” Celia gave her friend an obvious be quiet look. Then she looked to William. “I would rather marry him”—she pointed at Turner—“a man of no means than marry a swaggering, petulant bully.”
 “You would marry Turner Cane today?” Lewis asked, the corner of his mouth pulling upward. “This moment? Before these witnesses?”
 “No.” Miss Holloway tapped Celia’s arm with more force this time. “You would not.”
 “Yes, Mabel, I would. He is by far the lesser of two evils.”
 Turner scratched his bristly jaw. “Miss Sheldon, you are about as confused as William said you were. Besides, I never asked you to marry me.”
 “Actually,” Lewis calmly interjected, “a proposal is not necessary as long as the bride and groom agree to take each other as husband and wife.”
 The anger in William’s blue eyes drew as tight as the embroidery in his brown tail coat. He withdrew a dueling pistol from inside is coat pocket. “She is mine! She will marry me.”
 “Or what?” Turner stepped between his cousin and Celia. “You will shoot her?”
 Celia peeked around Turner’s right side, giving him a prime view of the top of her bonnet. “Gregory, I would rather die than marry you.”
 “With the proper motivation, you will decide otherwise.” William aimed the pistol at Miss Holloway, who immediately broke into tears.
 “I cannot die,” she wailed. “I am marrying Miles next month.”
 After a quick look heavenward, Lewis drew her behind his back. “That pistol can only hold one bullet. Choose wisely, Mr. Owens.”
Celia stepped forward and opened her mouth, but Turner covered her lips with his hand, silencing her. “Cousin, if my marrying Miss Sheldon would protect her from you, I would do it.”
 Lewis smacked his Bible closed. “You would marry her today? This moment? Before these witnesses?”
 As Celia mumbled against Turner’s hand, he vowed, “I would.”
 “No,” William and Miss Holloway said in unison.
 Lewis withdrew a sheet of parchment, a quill, and a corked bottle of ink from his draped shoulder bag. “Seems to me, Miss Sheldon and Turner have pledged their lives to one another. All we need now to make this official are signatures on this marriage declaration. Mr. Owens, I presume you and Miss Holloway will stand in as witnesses.” He offered the quill. “Who would like to sign first?”

Written by Gina Welborn.


You can read Chapter 5 of A Vow Fulfilled tomorrow at Roseanna White's blog. And remember to leave a comment for your chance to win a gigantic prize package including MaryLu Tyndall and Laurie Alice Eakes' latest release!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Featured Chapter--In the Shadow of Sinai by Carole Towriss

Pi-Ramses, Egypt
Late 13th Century BC
First month of Ahket, Season of Inundation

The crash of the drum echoed in Bezalel’s ears as he slipped out from behind his pedestal on the portico and hastened to the throne room. He dared not risk the penalty for being late—again. His tunic still stuck to his wounds from the last beating and ripped them open whenever he moved the wrong way.
He dropped to the cold limestone floor on one knee and lowered his head, raising it just enough to watch pair after pair of bare feet shuffle west toward the dais. The heavy scent of perfumed oil stung his nose.
The old king ascended his throne as the bare-chested attendants silently lined the walls on either side of the spacious hall then turned toward their sovereign and bowed low.
This daily routine was absurd, pretending that Ramses was a god. He was no more a god than Bezalel was, although Bezalel couldn’t say that El Shaddai was doing him much good at the moment either. In fact, he seemed utterly incompetent. Or callous.
Bezalel rose. From the tiled hall that led beyond the throne room to the private quarters beyond the dais, he heard the jingling of bracelets and anklets. A young girl emerged from the entryway be- hind a number of women who had no doubt dressed her, perfumed her, painted her face, and adorned her with the excessive jewelry of a concubine.
She was roughly twenty strides away. As she neared he saw she was Egyptian and quite young, several years younger than he—perhaps no more than fourteen. A vague scent of jasmine hung in the air.
She glanced at Bezalel as she passed and his mouth went as dry as the desert surrounding him. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Even behind the heavy kohl he grasped the misery in her eyes. His chest constricted in a way he had never felt before and an inexplicable urge to grab her and pull her away from the group overwhelmed him. The king used to take consorts often. Why was she different?
Guards led her to the center of the room. The other girls retreated to the rear. She knelt and bowed low to the king, her head nearly touching the floor.
Bezalel’s face grew hot and his breathing became shallow.
The girl—for though she was to be a consort, he could hardly call her a woman—stood.
Ramses stepped off the dais and walked stiffly toward her. He circled her like a vulture, looking her up and down. He lifted her chin with his wrinkled hand and studied her face. Her shoulders tightened beneath his touch.
Bezalel’s hands curled into fists. The others had seemed more than willing to become part of his harem. Why take one by force?
“She is acceptable. Take her to my chambers.”
A guard grasped the girl’s arm and started toward the hallway.
She stumbled along behind him.
“N—!” Bezalel rushed toward her, but a harsh yank on the neck
of his tunic cut off the word as well as his progress. He spun around, putting his hands to his neck and choking.
An older man came toward him, scowling. “Bezalel!”
Forcing his breathing to slow, Bezalel glanced sideways at him then looked at the floor. He put his hand to his throat again and winced.
“Bezalel, you are under my protection here, but I cannot save you from your own foolishness.”
“But Ammon, did you see her? She is but a child!”
“And he is Pharaoh! Her age is irrelevant. He can marry an infant if he wishes.” The man’s voice softened. “You are lucky I was here to stop you.”
Bezalel sighed and turned back toward the private hallway. His stomach revolted as the guards led the girl into the elderly king’s private rooms. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out his own imagination.
Ammon put a hand on Bezalel’s shoulder and led him away. The man looked older than the last time Bezalel had seen him. His paunch had grown, and almost all of his hair had disappeared. Sun- light bounced off the large jeweled ankh hanging around his neck.
“Why don’t you show me what you’ve been working on while I’ve been gone?”
They strolled toward the long, narrow portico that ran along the back of the throne room. Pillars separated the two areas, and the east side of the portico opened onto a large, airy courtyard that let in the sunlight for most of the day, making the portico an excellent place for the artisans to work. Beyond the courtyard, the Nile rushed toward the sea.
They neared a pedestal that stood on the north end of the long workspace.
“Used to people watching you work yet?” Ammon chuckled as he removed a cover from a sculpture nestled in a sandbag.
“That is why I am here, isn’t it?” Bezalel turned up one side of his mouth.
“Ah, finally a smile! Or at least the start of one.”
“Do you like it?” Bezalel searched his teacher’s face for approval as the man scrutinized the work. He craved the old man’s blessing, even after all these years.
Ammon nodded. “It’s a lovely beginning. What a stunning piece of alabaster!” He drew his hand over the stone. “You’ve only roughed out the face, I see.”
“I started the eyes yesterday. I love that part—they bring the life out.” Bezalel rubbed his thumb over the beginnings of an eye.
“You always did. Come, Bezalel, let us go to your workroom.” Bezalel followed his teacher back across the portico toward a whitewashed hall. Opposite it, on the other side of the throne room, the corridor to the private areas extended west. This hallway ran east and contained workrooms and storerooms. Ammon opened a door and entered Bezalel’s room. He pulled a high stool away from a large table and sat down with a sigh. A large, south-facing window set high up on the wall showered sunlight on the table. A bed hugged the wall under the window. Bezalel grabbed two cups from a shelf and filled them with pomegranate juice.
“I didn’t know you were back from Memphis already.” He handed Ammon a cup.
“I returned last night. I intended to see you this morning, after my visit with the king.”
“You already saw him?”
“Yes. Bezalel, I am afraid I have some news you will not like.” He looked down at his cup and traced the rim with his finger. “I am leaving here. I will no longer be a craftsman for the king. Ramses has awarded me a plot of land ... and I am going to live on it.”
Bezalel furrowed his brow. Surely he didn’t mean right now. “What about the Colossi?”
Ammon drained his cup. “They are far enough along to be finished without me. And the trips to Memphis are too hard on me anymore.”
Bezalel sank to a stool. Air left him as if he’d been punched in the gut. “But why?”
“I am old, Bezalel. You can’t see it because you love me. But I am old and tired.” He stretched the fingers of one hand wide. “My hands ache all night after I carve for even a short time. My back hurts constantly.” He smiled. “But I have accomplished more than I ever dreamed I would. The Colossi are my greatest work, my legacy.
There is nothing left for me to do.”
Bezalel set his cup on the table, stood, and walked toward the door. He whirled around to face Ammon. “But there is always more to do! Ramses needs you. I need you! You can’t leave.” He spread out his arms.
“You don’t need me.”
Bezalel’s head spun. How could Ammon do this to him? “I do!
You are all I have...almost. I have lived in this palace since my eighth summer. You have always been here for me. I have been with you more than my own parents!”
Ammon put down his cup and twisted in his seat. “Yes, I know. And I have loved you like a son, even though you are a slave and a Hebrew. I have trained many artisans, but I have not loved any of them as I have loved you. None of them lived with me here as you have. But it has been twelve years and now you are grown. You are a man. I haven’t even been around much for the last three years, and you have done very well. I heard about you even in Memphis.”
“And Ramses is willing to let you go?”
“He has you. He knows of you and your work, which is the only reason you were not severely punished just now.”
“But I cannot compare to you!”
Ammon stood and crossed the room. He put his hands on Bezalel’s shoulders. “My boy, I have taught you—and you have mastered— everything I know. And before me, you exhausted the knowledge of three other teachers. You have surpassed us all.”
Bezalel closed his eyes and sighed deeply. This could not happen. There must be a way to change Ammon’s mind.
“I have always felt you had a special ability. There have only been a few who can work with so many materials. None had your creativity.
Your work decorates many rooms in this very palace, even the king’s own rooms. I believe Ptah has blessed you.”
Ptah. Bezalel shifted his weight at the mention of the Egyptian god. Why did Ammon always have to bring him up? Bezalel might be angry with Shaddai, but that didn’t mean he worshipped Egypt’s false deities.
Ammon sighed. “I know you do not worship our gods. You have your own gods—”
Bezalel frowned.
“No matter.” Ammon took a deep breath. “I have to leave you now.
I doubt I will see you again. My new home is too far away to come here often.”
Bezalel wrapped his arms around his teacher. He closed his eyes tightly against the tears.
After several moments Ammon pulled away gently, his eyes moist as well, and laid his hands on Bezalel’s face. “Know that you will always be in my heart. And I look forward to hearing many good things about you.” His voice was soft.
He opened the door and left.
Bezalel stared at the empty doorway. Emptiness filled his heart. Just knowing Ammon was there—even if “there” was far away in Memphis—had always been a comfort. Now he was on his own. Alone.
His ability had given him an easier life in the palace, but it had taken him away from home. He knew precious few people in the village other than his family, whom he saw only once a week at most.
Almost all of the Israelites thought of him as a traitor—as if he had a choice of where to work. Now his closest, perhaps only, ally was gone. How would the new chief craftsman treat him?
He walked to the table and reached for his cup. He held it for a few moments then sent it sailing. Red juice exploded onto the wall and trickled down in rivulets as it made its way to the shattered cup. Then he did the only thing he knew to do, the only thing that gave him pleasure. He left his room to return to his art.

In the Shadow of Sinai
Bezalel is a Hebrew slave to Ramses II. An artisan of the highest order, Ramses has kept him in the palace even when all other Israelites have been banned. Bezalel blames El Shaddai for isolating him from his people.

When Moses and Aaron appear one summer, and El Shaddai shakes Egypt to its core, Bezalel must reexamine his anger. Over the course of the next year, Bezalel’s life becomes intertwined with those of an Egyptian child-slave,
the captain of the guard, and especially a beautiful, young concubine.

When spring arrives, all of them escape with the young nation of Israel.
But that’s only the beginning…

Available at Amazon

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Flash Fiction by Author Ramona Cecil

“Reckon me and you’ll be spendin’ plenty of Sundays together soon enough.”

Annie’s back stiffened at Ezra’s self-assured tone. It rankled that he assumed they would take up their relationship where they’d left off at Annie’s marriage to Jonah. Though she didn’t understand exactly why, her feelings for Ezra had decidedly cooled.

She lifted her chin and gave him a chilly stare. “Monsieur Martin is Jonah’s kin, not mine. And how I spend my Sundays is of my own choosing.” Ezra needed to know he was not entitled to her affection. He’d have to win it. Whirling away, she stomped toward the front door. But before she could step outside, Brock’s bright voice halted her.

“Annie, it’s nice to see you again—especially without a musket in your hands.” A grin parted his lips. The twinkle in his eyes suggested he found her agitated demeanor amusing.

Still perturbed by Ezra’s earlier self-assured arrogance, she blurted, “Since men are so pigheaded, a loaded musket may be the only way a woman can get their attention.”

His gray-green gaze seemed to melt into hers. “Annie Martin, you’ll never need a musket to get a man’s attention.”

Available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Featured First Scene--Choices of the Heart by Laurie Alice Eakes

 Seabourne, Virginia April 1842

   Esther Cherrett removed the sketchbook from her satchel and lifted it to the highest shelf in the armoire. She didn't need pictures of men whose form existed simply in her imagination's portrayals, in colored chalks—not where she was going. And drawings of her family would only make her sad. Make her feel guilty.
She didn't need the satchel either. Its packets of herbs, rolls of bandages, and canvas apron for protecting her dresses during a lying-in would be of as little use in her new position as were the drawings. She started to hoist it up to the shelf too, but her arms shook as though the black leather bag weighed a hundred pounds instead of ten, and she let it drop.
It landed on the blue floral rug with a thud. The latch sprang open and poked up like an accusing finger. You shouldn't be doing this, it seemed to say in the voice of Letty O'Tool, the eldest congregant in the church. You aren't answering to your calling.
Esther snapped the latch back into place, then popped it open again, retrieved the sketchbook from its shelf, and shoved it amongst the instruments of the profession she had determined to leave behind in Seabourne. Leave behind with the scorn and ridicule she'd faced over the past four months.
"I'm ready now." She glanced around the room growing dim in the April twilight to see if she had forgotten anything essential for a 350-mile trek across the mountains and her new life beyond the Blue Ridge. Nothing on the dressing table, inside the armoire, beneath the bed. She had squeezed all she could manage into two carpetbags and an oilskin pouch. Everything else must remain behind.
"Except—" She dove beneath the bed and reached up between headboard and wall. Her fingers encountered stiff paper, and she yanked at it.
A bundle of foolscap and fine stationery tied together with a black ribbon dropped into her hand. She should either take the letters or burn them before she departed, whatever necessary so her parents didn't find the condemnatory, derisive, even threatening words from people they thought they knew well—her father's parishioners, her mother's patients. People her parents thought liked them and respected them, but who condemned them as well in the missives.
"Once I'm gone, they'll see it's not your fault," Esther said to the mental pictures of her parents.
She shoved the written messages into the oilskin pouch amongst her books, then turned to the door. The time had come to tell her parents about her plans to spare them all from more heartache.
Head high, knees wobbly, she descended the steps to the first floor—the ground floor, Papa called it in his confusing English way. At that moment, on that late April evening with the celebration of her youngest brother's wedding behind them and the guests about to depart, it was the crowded floor. Laughter and the clink of china cups on saucers rang out from the parlor. In the music room, someone played the pianoforte, accompanied by the chime of silverware in the dining room, where the maids cleared away the supper dishes. The scent of lilacs and squeals of delight drifted through the open windows as children chased moths through Momma's garden.
Momma herself stood in the front hall, a shawl flung around her shoulders and her satchel in hand. She glanced at Esther, and her heart-shaped face lit with the warmth of her smile. "Are you coming with me after all?"
"Coming with you?" Esther blinked. "There's a lying-in?"
"Yes, Mrs. Parker's time has come." Momma's eyes glowed as they always did at the prospect of bringing a new life into the world. "I thought you would have heard their boy come to fetch me. But no matter. I can wait a few minutes if you wish to come."
Momma's half smile, her downcast eyes, conveyed her longing for Esther to say yes, she would go. The cord that had held her to her mother's profession for nearly six years tugged at Esther's heart, urging her to go, to experience the moments she had found so precious. She took a half step forward.
Then she saw the words from more than one missive emblazoned on her mind's eye. Jezebel was the kindest of them. If she went, she could further harm the career of midwifery at which her mother had worked for over forty years.
Esther retreated to the first step, her back against the balustrade. "Thank you, but I. . . can't." Esther's eyes burned, and she looked away to avoid seeing Momma's tightened lips.
Six years ago—no, six months ago—she would have been the one waiting for Momma before dashing out the door. For most of her life, she had eagerly awaited the day she would become Tabitha Eckles Cherrett's new apprentice midwife, carrying on a family tradition that had been passed from mother to daughter for generations, beginning in England and continuing in America. And now Esther must break the chain so Momma could continue her work of delivering babies and healing.
"I came down to—to speak to you and Papa for a few minutes," Esther added. "But if you must leave . . ."
She would have to tell Papa and let him break the news to Momma. Surely that would be easier than seeing Momma's heart break.
"It can wait a bit," Esther continued.
"Not if you're troubled." Momma set down her satchel. "I'll send the boy ahead to tell them I'm on my way. They're only across the square, so if there's a need for me to be there sooner, I can run over." She turned toward the kitchen, where the Parkers' servant would be waiting to accompany the midwife across the darkening town square. "Your father is in his office looking for a book."
"Her father is now in the hall to see why his two best ladies are talking about his whereabouts." Papa emerged from behind the staircase with the languid stride not in the least diminished by his fifty-seven years. "Going out, Tabby?"
Momma turned to him like a compass to the North Star, her mouth relaxing into a smile again, her eyes more shining blue than gray. "Yes, Mrs. Parker's time has come."
"That's wonderful news." Papa laid his hand on her cheek and kissed her on her widow's peak.
   Esther clutched the newel post and fought a surge of pain in her middle strong enough to give her nausea. Since she'd turned sixteen, she had sought for a man who would make her look at him as Momma did Papa, and the other way around. She had conjured his image in her mind and set her dreams in colored chalks in her sketchbook. She observed her brothers courting, marrying, and the eldest two producing children. At the same time she watched the men on the eastern shore of Virginia shy away from her, call her Queen Esther behind her back, and end up marrying other females who didn't have an English marquess for an uncle, a mother who knew all the town's secrets, and a profession of her own.
Now the eligible young men simply ran from her as though fearing for their virtue.
"Are you going with her, Esther?" Papa turned to her, eyes wide.
"No, I" Esther made the mistake of looking into his face, the eyes she dared not call beautiful since the same dark brown orbs with their gold flecks and ridiculously long lashes peered back at her from every mirrored surface, as did her own delicate version of his aristocratic features.
She flicked her gaze right and down, concentrated on a drift of lilac petals fallen from a vase and onto the polished floorboards. "I still can't. I" She took a long, shuddering breath and gripped the newel post with both hands, curling her fingers into the carved leaf design like marlinespikes holding a sail line in place—holding herself in place before she raised her eyes to her parents' faces. "I'm leaving Seabourne."
Momma caught her breath and pressed her hand to her lips.
Papa's eyes widened further, and his chin hardened. "By whose leave, young lady?"
"Mine. That is—" A lifetime of obedience crowded down upon her shoulders. "I have to go. I have ... no future here now."
"Of course you do." Momma spoke hastily. Perhaps too hastily. "Your sweet spirit will overcome the talk."
"When some new scandal comes along?" Esther cast her parents a smile that barely moved her lips up at the corners. "Perhaps in another thirty years or so?"
"Sarcasm is not attractive in a young lady," Papa said. Then he sighed. "But I wish it didn't hold at least a drop of truth." He closed the distance between them and rested his hand over hers on the newel post. "You aren't going to brazen this out, my dear? Have I raised a craven for a daughter?”
I think so." Esther blinked back tears and would not meet his gaze. "I'm running away, I am well aware. And I see no other choice."
"You could have discussed it with us." Momma joined them at the foot of the steps. "If you want to go, we can send you back west with the Dochertys."
"I thought about that." Esther glanced toward the parlor and the remaining guests who had come for the wedding. "But they know."
"They'll never tell anyone," Momma said.
Esther nodded. "I agree. But they know, and perhaps they have their doubts about me. About whether or not I'm telling the truth." She removed her hand from beneath Papa's and backed up a step. "I just wanted to tell you of my plans so you wouldn't worry."
"As if we won't." Papa reached out his hand to her.
Esther's fingers twitched to take it and go down to him and Momma, let them hold her as they had when she was small, as they had four months earlier, as they had every time she hurt and needed comfort. The idea of living without their loving arms around her whenever she needed reassurance, which seemed like every day now, felt like a hole ripping open inside her.
She backed up another step, out of arm's reach. "I need to go where no one knows anything more about me than they need to."
"But you can't, child," Momma protested. "How will you live? You might not be safe on your own."
Esther bit down on her tongue to stop herself from reminding them that she hadn't been safe living at home.
"I won't be on my own," she said instead. "The families I'll be working for are coming to fetch me."
        "Indeed." Papa's supercilious eyebrows arched toward a hairline now more silver than the deep  
           brown shot with copper and bronze that Esther had inherited. "And when is this, and who are 
           these families?"
Esther crossed her arms over her chest. "S-soon, and no one you ever heard of. They live on the other side of the commonwealth. I didn't want to leave without letting you know first."
"I suppose we are honored," Papa murmured.
Momma laid her hand on his arm. "Sarcasm, love."
"Ah, yes, my dear conscience." He smiled at Momma.
Esther's heart crushed down on her stomach, it hurt so much to see how deeply they loved one another even after thirty-three years of marriage. She had dreamed of having that kind of future with her husband. Now she would never have a husband.
"Please," she whispered, clasping her upper arms with her hands, "just let me go."
Papa gazed up at her, the corners of his mouth tight. "Esther, we would be neglecting our God-ordained duty if we let you go without knowing to whom and to where."
"And if they are godly men and women," Momma added before drawing her lower lip between her teeth. She failed to stop a tear from slipping from one corner of her eye.
Esther's own eyes burned. "I can't. I mean, I'd rather no one here know so the letters can't—" She clapped her hand over her mouth.
Papa's eyes narrowed. "What letters?"
"Nothing." She started to turn away.
"Do not!" Papa surged past her up the steps and blocked her way. "Esther Phoebe Cherrett, what letters?"
She looked up at him without meeting his eyes. "Some notes people have sent me, is all."
"And why were we not told about them?" Papa demanded.
Esther shrugged, realized how disrespectful that was, and shook her head. "Please don't make me tell you. They were mean."
"Did they suggest you leave town?" Momma asked. Esther nodded.
Papa ground his teeth. "And you think you'll give in?" "To protect all of you, yes." "Protect us?" Momma began.
"Regardless of why," Papa said at the same time, "you will go nowhere without telling us where and with whom."
"Nor without us meeting—" Pounding on the front door interrupted Momma.
"Mrs. Cherrett," a shrill voice called through the panels. "Mrs. Cherrett, quick."
Momma dropped her head for a moment, then straightened her shoulders. "Dominick, I am so sorry to have to leave you, but duty calls."
"I know, Tabby. It is quite all right." Again he gave her that devastating smile that must have melted Momma's heart the first time she met him.
Esther closed her eyes and considered making a dash for the rear staircase while he was distracted with Momma's departure. She took a step down.
The parlor door opened, and her four brothers, their wives, and two guest couples spilled out, chattering and laughing and talking about joining the children on the lawn. People Esther loved so much she couldn't breathe. Her heart raced at what she was about to do, but she had no choice. She flung herself into their midst and followed them into the yard and the growing darkness. Behind her, Papa said something about her coming back. She ignored him. If she turned back and read the pain on his face, she wouldn't be able to leave for anyone's sake.
The cool, damp air of mid-spring wrapped its arms around her, a contrast to the cold fog that had clutched her as she ran home in January. Ran away from the disaster she had surely brought upon herself. 
Run. Run. Run now and don't look back.
Not yet. She couldn't leave her things behind. She wanted to see her family one more time.
She ran to the garden gate and opened the latch. The wrought iron swung out on well-oiled hinges.
And two shadows detached themselves from either side of the opening.
She gasped, choking on a cry, and flattened herself against the gate, hand groping for the latch.
"You're safe." The voice belonged to a female, gentle and low with the hint of a mountain twang. "I'm Hannah Gosnoll. My brother Zachary Brooks and I are here to carry you west."
"But I thought—I thought—" Esther's breathing and heart raced as though she'd been running. She took a deep breath to steady herself. "I thought the Tollivers were coming to fetch me."
"They were." The voice of the taller shadow—presumably Zachary Brooks—was deeper, smoother than his sister's. "But our cousin Griffin suffered an unfortunate accident on his way here."
"An accident?" Esther's mind raced over the letter she had received from Mrs. Tolliver, the plea to take the work for the sake of her younger children. She had warned that life in the mountains could be difficult but not dangerous. "What sort of an accident?"
"Nothing serious," Hannah said.
"As long," Zachary added, "as that knife in his belly didn't go through his innards."

She thought she'd left her old life behind. . .

Esther Cherrett comes from a proud line of midwives and was trained by her mother to take over the family calling. When a terrible scandal threatens all she holds dear, Esther flees, taking a position as a teacher in the wild western mountains of Virginia. But instead of the refuge she was seeking, Esther finds herself in the midst of a deadly family feud--and courted by two men on opposite sides of the conflict. All she wants is to run away again.

Yet could it be that her past holds the key to reconciliation--and love?

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Featured Chapter--Where Treasure Hides by Johnnie Alexander Donley

Chapter One
August 1939

The stringed notes of “Rule, Britannia!” grew louder as the crowd quieted, eyes and ears straining in their search for the violin soloist. The patriotic anthem echoed through Waterloo Station’s concourse, and as the second chorus began, sporadic voices sang the lyrics. Travel-weary Brits stood a little straighter, chins lifted, as the violinist completed the impromptu performance, the last note sounding long after the strings were silenced.

Alison Schuyler gripped her leather bag and threaded her way through the crowd toward the source of the music. As the final note faded inside the hushed terminal, she squeezed between a sailor and his girl, murmuring an apology at forcing them to part, and stepped onto a bench to see over the crowd. A dark-haired boy, no more than seven or eight, held the violin close to his anemic frame. His jacket, made of a finely woven cloth, hung loosely on his thin shoulders. The matching trousers would have slipped down his hips if not for his hand-tooled leather belt.

Either the boy had lost weight or his parents had purposely provided him clothes to grow into. Alison hoped for the latter, though from the rumors she’d heard, her first assumption was all too likely. She stared at the cardboard square, secured by a thick length of twine, that the boy wore as a cheap necklace. The penciled writing on the square numbered the boy as 127.

Other children crowded near the young musician, each one dressed in their fine traveling clothes, each one labeled with cardboard and twine. Germany’s castaways, transported to England for their own safety while their desperate parents paced the floors at home and vainly wished for an end to these troublesome days.

“Now will you allow him to keep his violin?” A man’s voice, pleasant but firm, broke the spell cast over the station. The children fidgeted and a low murmur rumbled through the crowd. The speaker, dressed in the khaki uniform of a British Army officer, ignored them, his gaze intent on the railroad official overseeing the children.

“He better,” said a woman standing near Alison. “Never heard anything so lovely. And the lad not even one of the king’s subjects. I’d take him home myself — yes, I would — if I’d a bed to spare.”

Alison mentally sketched the tableau before her, pinning the details into her memory. The officer’s hand resting on the boy’s shoulder; the official, a whistle around his neck, restlessly tapping his clipboard with his pencil; the dread and hope in the boy’s eyes as he clutched his prized instrument. The jagged square that tagged his identity.

The travelers at the edge of the children’s irregular circle collectively held their breaths, waiting for the official’s reply. He shifted his glance from the nervous boy to the expectant passengers, reminding Alison of a gopher she had once seen trapped between two growling mongrels. The memory caused her to shudder.

“He might as well. Don’t know what to do with it if he left it behind.” The official waved a plump hand in a dismissive gesture. He certainly hadn’t missed many meals. He blew his whistle, longer than necessary, and Alison flinched at its shriek.

“Get organized now. Numbers one through fifty right here. Fifty-one through a hundred there. The rest of you . . .”

The show over and the hero having won, the onlookers dispersed, their chatter drowning out the official’s instructions to his refugees.

Alison remained standing on the bench, studying the man and the boy. They knelt next to each other, and the boy carefully laid the violin into the dark blue velvet interior of its case. His slender fingers caressed the polished wood before he shut the lid. The man said something too softly for her to hear, and the boy laughed.

The spark flickered inside her, tingling her fingers, and she knew. This glimpse of a paused moment would haunt her dreams. It rarely occurred so strongly, her overwhelming desire to capture time, to freeze others within movement. She quickly pulled a sketch pad and pencil from her bag. Her fingers flowed lightly over the paper, moving to a rhythm that even she didn’t understand. Tilting her head, she imagined the notes of the violin soaring near the high ceiling, swooping among the arches.

Her pencil danced as she added determination to the man’s jawline and copied the two diamond-shaped stars on his collar. She highlighted the trace of anxiety in the boy’s eyes, so at odds with his endearing smile. What had he left behind? Where he was going? She drew the cardboard square and printed the last detail: 127.

The man clicked shut the brass hinges on the violin case and, taking the boy’s hand, approached the station official. Alison hopped down from the bench and followed behind them, awkwardly balancing the pad, pencil, and her bag.

The brown hair beneath the officer’s military cap had been recently trimmed. A pale sliver, like a chalk line, bordered the inch or so of recently sunburned neck above his crisp collar. Alison guessed he was in his mid-twenties, a little older than she. Identifying him, from his bearing and speech, as gentry, she positioned herself near enough to discreetly eavesdrop.

“Where is young Josef here going?” asked the soldier. “Has he been assigned a home?”

The official gave an exaggerated sigh at the interruption. He lifted the cardboard square with his pencil. “Let me see . . . number 127.” He flipped the pages on his clipboard.

“His name is Josef Talbert.”

“Yes, of course, they all have names. I have a name, you have a name, she has a name.” He pointed the eraser end of his pencil, in turn, to himself, to the soldier, and to Alison.

The soldier looked at her, puzzled, and she flushed as their eyes met. Flecks of gold beckoned her into a calm presence, sending a strange shiver along her spine. She turned to leave, but her stylish black pumps seemed to stick to the pavement. She willed her feet to move, to no avail.

When the soldier turned back to the official, Alison thought the spell would break. She needed to go, to forget she had ever felt the pull of his calm determination, to erase those mesmerizing eyes from her memory. But it was too late. The Van Schuyler fate had descended upon her, and she was lost in its clutches. Her heart turned to mush when the soldier spoke.

“My name is Ian Devlin of Kenniston Hall, Somerset. This lad’s name, as I said, is Josef Talbert, recently come from Dresden. That’s in Germany.” He stressed each syllable of the country. “And your name, sir, is . . . ?”

The official scowled and pointed to his badge. “Mr. Randall Hargrove. Just like it says right here.”

Ian nodded in a curt bow and Josef, copying him, did the same. Alison giggled, once more drawing Ian’s attention.


She flushed again and almost choked as she suppressed the nervous laughter that bubbled within her. “So sorry. My name is Alison Schuyler.”

“You’re an American,” said Ian, more as a statement than a question.

“Born in Chicago.” She bobbed a quick curtsey. “But now living in Rotterdam, as I descend from a long and distinguished line of Dutch Van Schuylers.” Her fake haughtiness elicited an amused smile from Ian.

Mr. Hargrove was not impressed. “Now that we’re all acquainted, I need to get back to sorting out these children.”

Ian’s smile faded. “Mr. Hargrove, please be so kind as to tell me: where are you sending Josef?”

“Says here he’s going to York.” Mr. Hargrove pointed at a line on his sheaf of papers. “He’s got an uncle there who has agreed to take him in.”

Ian knelt beside Josef. “Is that right? You’re going to family?”

Ja,” Josef said, then switched to English, though he struggled to pronounce the words. “My father’s brother.”

“All right, then.” Ian patted the boy’s shoulder. “Keep tight hold of that violin, okay?”

Josef nodded and threw his arms around Ian’s neck, almost knocking him off balance. “Danke. Tausend dank.”

“You’re welcome,” Ian whispered back.

Alison signed and dated her sketch, then held it out to Josef. “This is for you. If you’d like to have it.”

Josef studied the drawing. “Is this really me?”

Ja,” Alison said, smiling.

Josef offered the sketch to Ian. “Please. Write your name?”

Ian glanced at Alison, then put his hand on Josef’s shoulder. “I don’t think I should—”

“I don’t mind,” she said.

“You’re sure?”

“For him.” She whispered the words and tilted her head toward Josef.

Borrowing Alison’s pencil, Ian printed his name beside his likeness. He returned the sketch to Josef and tousled the boy’s dark hair. Ian opened his mouth to say something else just as another long blast from the official’s whistle assaulted their ears. They turned toward the sound and the official motioned to Josef.

“Time to board,” he shouted. “Numbers 119 to 133, follow me.” He blew the whistle again as several children separated from the larger group and joined him.

“Go now, Josef,” Ian urged. “May God keep you.”

Josef quickly opened his violin case and laid the sketch on top. He hugged Ian again, hesitated, then hugged Alison. They both watched as he lugged the violin case toward the platform and got in the queue to board the train. He turned around once and waved, then disappeared, one small refugee among too many.

Where Treasure Hides
Artist Alison Schuyler spends her time working in her family’s renowned art gallery, determined to avoid the curse that has followed the Schuyler clan from the Netherlands to America and back again. She’s certain that true love will only lead to tragedy—that is, until a chance meeting at Waterloo station brings Ian Devlin into her life. Drawn to the bold and compassionate British Army captain, Alison begins to question her fear of love as World War II breaks out, separating the two and drawing each into their own battles. While Ian fights for freedom on the battlefield, Alison works with the Dutch Underground to find a safe haven for Jewish children and priceless pieces of art alike. But safety is a luxury war does not allow. As time, war, and human will struggle to keep them apart, will Alison and Ian have the faith to fight for their love, or is it their fate to be separated forever.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Featured First Scene--Small Town Dad by Jean C. Gordon

His guard unit's tour of duty in Afghanistan had prepared Neal Hazard to face just about anything. Except, evidently, returning to the classroom after seventeen years. He looked down the hall of the main building of the Ticonderoga campus of North Country Community College and wiped his hands on his jeans. How had he ever let his daughter, Autumn, talk him into starting college?
"Hey, Dad," Autumn called from behind him.
Just what he didn't need, more of her help.
She hurried over, followed by a young man and woman. "This is Sean and Lindsay."
He nodded to the couple. He wanted to know Autumn's friends, but he wanted to get this advising meeting over with.
"So, did you meet with your advisor?"
"No, I'm on my way to her office now." He took a step toward the room.
"Have you gotten your books yet?"
Autumn's voice took on the oh-so-patient tone he'd often used with her when she was small. "You know NCCC has a virtual bookstore. You could order them online and have the books shipped to the house. I could stop by later and help you."
"I don't even have my schedule finalized yet. But I'm sure I can handle it." I handled the transport of supplies for hundreds of troops. I can order a few books online.
Autumn wrinkled her nose.
"Bummer," Sean said. "That happened to me my first semester. The schedule thing. The biology book had to be back ordered, so I didn't have it for the first few days of classes." He squeezed the hand of the girl next to him. "Fortunately, Lindsay let me share her book until mine came." The boy gave Neal a knowing look.
Neal coughed to hide the chuckle that erupted deep in his belly. He didn't think he'd be making the kind of social connections Sean was intimating.
"And, Dad," Autumn said. "Keep next Friday night free."
Neal racked his brain for what they had going on next Friday and came up blank.
"Us upperclassmen are hosting a get-together for the freshmen at the Saranac Lake student center." She grinned at him with the smile she'd used a thousand times before to wheedle something out of him.
She must be razzing him. She couldn't think he'd go to a party for a bunch of eighteen-year-old kids.
"Or, if you can't make it, maybe your truck could? Jack's scheduled to be on call with the tow truck that night, so I don't have any transportation."
Jack was Autumn's longtime boyfriend and nearly constant companion. Her socializing without him wasn't a bad idea, even if it involved Neal's truck. "Sure, I can't see any reason why not. I don't have any plans."
"Thanks, Dad." She hugged him.
He pulled away with an uncomfortable feeling that people were staring at them.
"You could come with me. You know, since you're not doing anything anyway." Again with the smile.
Why didn't he have a normal kid who was embarrassed by her parents and avoided them in public? "I'll think about it."
Neal Hazard. Anne Howard read the pop-up on her computer alerting her to her next student appointment. Her thoughts went back to her sophomore year of high school. She and her mother had spent that year with her grandmother in Paradox Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, not far from North Country Community College. Her parents had separated—again.
A Neal Hazard had been her practice partner for the Schroon Lake High School Science Olympiad team. She did the math. Her student appointment could be Neal's son. If so, he was taking after his dad. Anne remembered that Neal had wanted to be an environmental engineer.
A knock on her open office door drew her attention.
"Dr. Howard?" An attractive man about her age strode across her office and offered his hand.
Anne rose to accept it.
"I'm Neal Hazard."
Her hand went limp in his, and his smile stiffened.
Of course. The sandy brown hair, short and neat in an almost military style. Hazel eyes that had held hers in a virtual vise. He was taller, broader than the last time she'd seen him. But he'd been seventeen then. He must be thirty-six now.
She tightened her grip and finished the handshake. "Anne O'Connor Howard." She waited to see if the use of her maiden name would elicit a reaction.
He blinked. "Annie? Annie O'Connor?" His smile widened.
Her heart quickened. He did remember her.
"I never would have recognized you."
"It's been a long time." She motioned him to the seat in front of her desk. "We can catch up while we wait for your son."
She wouldn't have pegged the Neal Hazard she'd known in high school to become a helicopter parent, but who was she to judge—as long as he didn't interfere with her curriculum. If he'd followed his college plans, he'd have as many years of environmental engineering experience as she did. But the new environmental studies program was her baby.
"My son?" Confusion spread across his face. "You mean Autumn, my daughter? She's not meeting me here." His expression cleared. "She's a second-year nursing student, not environmental studies."
"Then, why the appointment?"
He shifted in the chair and tapped his finger on the metal binder he'd placed on her desk in front of him. "For my student advisement."
This Neal was her student Neal Hazard. "What happened?" she blurted, and immediately wanted to crawl under the desk. Michael had schooled her—successfully she'd thought—on curbing her impulsiveness. To be professional at all times.
"I mean, you talked about going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute." That wasn't any better. Obviously, her training had completely deserted her. But the Neal she'd known had such big plans.
He set his jaw. "Autumn happened. Not that I regret that for a minute."
"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to be rude." She modulated her voice into her most professional tone. "You're here to have your class schedule approved?"
His masculine features hardened into a neutral expression. "Yes. I took a couple of math and science courses online. The credits transferred, but I need your signature to substitute them for the program requirements to take the 200-level conservation course."
He flipped open the binder and pulled out several papers that he pushed across the desk to her. "My transcripts and proposed schedule."
She scanned the schedule. The only class on it that she was teaching this semester was the conservation one he needed her permission to take. Her gaze moved to the transcripts. Maybe the courses wouldn't match the prerequisites. Then she wouldn't have to have him in her class. Teaching someone she'd dated, even if it was years ago and only a couple of times, wasn't something she was prepared for. Her North Country environmental program was a clean slate, something she wanted to do all on her own, with no baggage from her past.
Her stomach dropped. The classes were interchangeable with the North Country requirements. "The classes look fine. Let me check online registration to see if the conservation class is filled. It was close to full yesterday."
He nodded.
Anne clicked into online registration. The class was closed to additional students, with a waiting list that wasn't long enough to add another session.
"Sorry, it's full," she said a tad too brightly.
Neal raised an eyebrow.
"I can put you on the waiting list. We might be able to work out an independent study if there's not enough to add another session." Preferably taught by someone else.
"Do that." He held her gaze, adding a belated "Please."
She focused back on the computer screen and typed in the necessary information.
"Here you are." She signed his schedule and handed the papers to him. "You can register at Admissions while you're here on campus or do it online."
He stood. "Thanks." Neal paused, his lips parting slightly like he was going to say something else.
"It was good seeing you again," she shot out to fill the momentary silence.
"Yeah, see you around."
Anne slumped in her chair as he turned to leave. She'd been so sure that heading up the environmental studies program had been God's plan for her to get past Michael's sudden death, his infidelity and the shaky business practices it had exposed. A chance to succeed on her own. Neal Hazard was a complication neither her hard thinking nor her prayers could have taken into account. But, as she'd come to understand, she'd read God's desires wrong before.
Neal walked into the kitchen of his parents' house. His home. The familiarity soothed him. But it was time—past time—for him to get a real place of his own. Before Autumn had gotten an apartment in Ticonderoga with her best friend, Jule, living here had made sense. Now, even though he had his own apartment over the garage, it struck him as just plain juvenile.
"Hi." His mother breezed in. "How was school? Did you get all the classes you wanted?"
"All but one." He winced at how similar the conversation was to their usual interchange when he'd come home from high school. Deciding to make up for lost time, to do some of the things he'd missed by becoming a father so young, hadn't meant he wanted to regress to adolescence.
He stopped himself from rummaging in the refrigerator for an after-school snack. "You'll never guess who I ran into."
"Someone from high school? I told you you wouldn't be the only older student."
"Annie O'Connor."
"That sweet girl you took to the prom?"
Neal tried to remember Anne as she'd looked then. They'd been more friends and teammates than boyfriend and girlfriend. What had attracted him to her was her quick mind. All he could picture was her beautiful waist-length strawberry-blond hair and the ugly glasses that she'd had a habit of repeatedly pushing up on her nose when she was nervous. A far cry from the poised woman he'd met with this afternoon. Her shoulder-length hair had darkened to a rich light brown. And without the glasses, her expressive dark-fringed eyes transformed her looks from average to beautiful.
"Yep, only she's Dr. Howard now, my student advisor."
Mary Hazard made a choking sound and covered her mouth with her hand before bursting out in laughter. "Oh, Neal, seriously? Was it terribly uncomfortable for you?"
Neal scratched the back of his neck. At thirty-six years old, he wasn't up to after-school sharing time with his mom. "Not any more than it was for her. She thought I was my son."
His mother's forehead creased in confusion.
"Now that's an interesting proposition." His very pregnant sister, Emily, waddled into the room. "Like that riddle. Brothers and sisters have I none, but that man's father is my father's son."
"Hey, Jinx." He purposely called her by her childhood nickname to irk her.
She lowered herself into a chair at the table. "Go ahead."
"When Annie—Anne—saw my name, she thought the Neal Hazard she had an appointment with might be my son."
"Oh, no," Mom said.
"So, old man," Emily teased, never missing a chance to point out the eight-year difference in their ages. "Was she surprised when you walked in?"
"No. She thought I was there to meet my son and sit in on her meeting with him. Can you imagine what Autumn would do to me if I tried that?"
Emily faked a shudder. "I don't even want to think about it."
"Me either," their mother added. "I've got to run. I'm taking Edna Donnelly to her doctor's appointment in Ti-conderoga. You'll have to bring Annie by sometime now that you've reconnected." With a quick wave, she left.
"Looks like Mom has that all mapped out for you, probably right down to a playmate for this guy." Emily rubbed her belly.
"Hardly. She's Dr. Howard, not Dr. O'Conner. Her husband might have something to say about that."
"Or maybe not. The interview with her that I read in the Press Republican didn't mention her husband. She could be divorced or widowed, I suppose."
"Still not a chance."
"Not a chance of you going out or not a chance of you helping me fulfill Mom's dreams of a houseful of grandchildren?"
"I've done my part already with Autumn. No more kids for me."
"So you say now. But, with the right woman
 Want me to do some digging? Find out for sure if Anne is single?"
"No. Dr. Howard is the head of the environmental studies program and my advisor to boot. Even if she is single, I'm sure the college has rules against instructors and students fraternizing."
"Fraternizing?" Emily laughed. "I think that's officers and enlisted personnel. Remember, you mustered out of the National Guard after your tour in Afghanistan."
He wasn't likely to forget that.
"But you are interested. I can see it in your eyes."
What was it with women that they were always interpreting everything into feelings? His mind flashed back to Anne. At least, to the Annie he used to know. She thought more like a guy.
"You're not the typical North Country student. I'm sure it wouldn't be any problem if you are interested."
He glared at his baby sister.
"What? Assuming she's single, you're her peer."
Age-wise, yes. Career-wise, not by a long shot. And it bothered him. But the fact he was bothered bothered him more. He'd been perfectly happy with his electrician business until Autumn had put the idea of going back to college in his head.
"No, I don't think Dr. Howard and I will be traveling in the same social circles."
"Come on, big brother. You can't tell me you're not a little interested."
Emily was right. He couldn't tell her that.
Anne dabbed on a little mascara and lip gloss and inspected her face in the mirror. What had possessed her to let her next-door neighbor Jamie talk her into going to the Singles Plus group Bible study at Jamie's church? Since relocating to the Adirondacks, Anne had been looking for a church to attend, but she wasn't ready for any kind of singles' scene. Michael's betrayal and death were still too fresh for her, even though it had been over a year.
She ran a comb through her hair and tucked it in her bag. Jamie had insisted the group was all about fellowship, not people looking for spouses. In fact, Jamie wasn't even single. Her husband was in the army and had recently deployed back to the Middle East.
Anne heard a knock at her back door, followed by Jamie's friendly, "Hello."
"Be right there," Anne called back. She stopped and checked her reflection in the full-length mirror one more time before heading downstairs to join Jamie. She pushed the bridge of her nose, an old habit left over from when she'd worn glasses. Michael had insisted she wear contacts. Her tailored slacks and short military-style jacket were all wrong. Maybe a quick change into her blue linen dress.
"Anne?" Jamie called.
"Coming." The suit would have to do.
Her fears of being overdressed were confirmed when she saw Jamie in her jeans and a hooded sweatshirt over a bright pink T-shirt.

Small Town Dad
Small-town electrician Neal Hazard gave up his dreams years ago to raise his daughter. Now it's his turn to make those dreams a reality. But when his community college advisor turns out to be his high school prom date, he can't believe his eyes. Widowed Anne is more beautiful than he remembers, and completely wrapped up in her career. But when she suddenly becomes guardian to an orphaned toddler, it's Neal's turn to teach Anne a few things. Maybe together, they'll learn how priorities, parenthood and love truly fit together to create a family.

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