What You Do to Me
The Haneys Book 1
Chapter 1 excerpt
Brrr. Thermal coffee cup in hand, Sam walked out of his apartment building and crossed the parking lot. He huffed out a breath, and a cloud of steam formed in front of his face. Minnesota winters were frigid, and the frigid had started early this year. They’d already had a couple of near-freezing nights, and it was just the beginning of November.
If it weren’t for hockey, snowmobiling and ice fishing, he’d consider moving south. But then he’d miss Grandpa Joe and Grandma Maggie, along with his younger brother and sister, cousins, uncles and aunts. His siblings might be willing to make the move with him, but his grandparents would never leave Saint Paul. All of their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids were here, which meant he was stuck.
Sam circled to the driver’s side of his old Ford work van and climbed in. Turning the key in the ignition produced nothing but a reluctant RrrrRrrrRrrr. “Come on, buddy. I don’t like the cold or Monday mornings either, but you don’t see me staying in bed.” He patted the dashboard, like that would somehow encourage the van to start. He tried again and got the same refusal. “I’ll let you think about it for a minute or two, and then you have to crank. We have work to do.” He waited a few moments and tried again. The engine turned over, earning another pat to the dashboard.
Content to sit while the engine warmed, Sam sipped his coffee and turned on the radio. He had plenty of time before he needed to show up for work, and his favorite morning talk show was about to begin. He tuned the radio to Loaded Question and adjusted the volume so he could hear the radio over the heater fan and grinned as the cheesy music announced the morning show was about to begin.
“Good morning, Twin Cities! You’re listening to the wake-up crew, Dianna Barstow and Russell Lund, and it’s time for . . . da, da daaaah, Loaded Question!” the male counterpart of the duo announced. “What’s our question for today, Dianna?”
“Well, Russ, I think we have a real winner this morning. Today’s question is: What’s the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done?”
This ought to be good for a few laughs. Sam adjusted the vents so they blew only on the windshield. He could get out and scrape off the ice, but why bother? The glass would just frost up again by the time he was back inside. Better to let the van warm up and defrost on its own. Grandpa Joe always said there were two kinds of people in this world: smart lazy and dumb lazy. If you’re smart lazy, you do things right the first time, so you don’t have to do them over again. Smart lazy. That’s how Sam saw himself.
“Whoa! Good one! What is the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done, Dianna?”
“Ahhh.” She laughed. “Spring break five years ago. No details.”
Their banter went on for another few minutes before the DJs announced their telephone number and turned it over to the listening audience. Since the talk show hosts often gave out some pretty sweet prizes—like hard-to-get concert tickets or cash—Sam had the number in his speed dial. He hadn’t won anything yet, but he wasn’t about to give up. For the next few minutes he listened to one outrageous story after another, choking on his coffee when laughter sent it down the wrong pipe.
A husky, feminine voice came over the air. “Hi, my name is Yvonne.”
“Hello, Yvonne,” Dianna and Russ said in unison. “What’s the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Well,” she began, hesitating slightly.
Her voice sounded familiar, and her name . . . “Nah. Couldn’t be.” “I’m recently divorced, and I kept the house,” Yvonne finally blurted.
“Go on,” Russ prodded.
“It had been a while since I’d . . . you know . . .”
“Had sex?” Dianna chortled. “We’re listening. We’re all listening.”
“I had a few things that needed to be done around the house, and a couple of my girlfriends kept telling me I should hire this handyman named Sam. So I did.”
Sam froze, and not from the cold. “Cripes!” It was her. He’d done some work for Yvonne two weeks ago. He thunked his head against the steering wheel and groaned. “Great. I’m the sluttiest thing she’s ever done.”
“OK, Sam the handyman,” Russ teased. “Tell me. Just how handy was he?”
“My oh my. Let me tell you. He was plenty handy and incredibly hot. After he did the job, I did him.” She sighed. “He was wonderful.”
Yvonne’s happy sigh over the air brought a smile to his face. He should get an award for leaving customers completely satisfied, something like those Employee-of-the-Month plaques you see on walls sometimes. He imagined what his award might look like hanging on the wall at Haney & Sons. Polished brass mounted on an oval piece of oak, and the engraving would read: Sluttiest Carpenter Award of Excellence—for going above and beyond the call of duty.
“You were plenty hot yourself, Yvonne.” Maybe she’d have another job for him to do soon. He shook his head. Not a good idea. Women got ideas when he came around a second time—relationship ideas.
He shuddered at the thought. His life was exactly the way he wanted it. Who needed all the drama, all the demands and upheaval that came with the whole relationship package? Who needed the heartache? Not him. Strings-free, protected sex and the bachelor life suited him just fine. He had his buddies, his brother, sister, grandparents and a great extended family. He lived la dolce vita—the sweet life. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?
Listeners were weighing in about Yvonne. About him.
“It would bother me knowing my partner had probably done it with half the women in the Twin Cities,” the first listener commented.
“He’s the slut,” another caller said.
“Yvonne was just a lonely divorcée. Maybe he’s a sex addict. For all we know, she was just one of a dozen he did that day,” caller three remarked, sending Sam over the edge.
“Sex addict?” He scowled at the radio. “Wait just a doggone minute. I’ve done nothing wrong.” Before he realized what he was doing, he’d grabbed his phone from the cup holder and hit speed dial. His outrage grew with each passing second. He was a good guy, honest and upfront. He never led anyone on. Plus, his moral compass worked just fine, thank you very much. His call was answered on the fifth ring.
“This is Russ, and you’re on the air. What’s the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Yeah. This is Sam Haney. I’m Yvonne’s handyman, and—”
“Whoa! No last names here, Sam Haney. We like to protect the innocent, Handyman Haney. Did you get that, ladies? Sam Haney, the handsiest handyman in the Twin Cities.”
“Hands-On-Haney, the handyman!” Dianna chortled with glee, and the two of them laughed. “Get his number for me, would you, Russ?” Dianna chimed. “As a matter of fact, Sam, why don’t you share your number with all of us?”
Aww, cripes. Idiot. Their jokes were stupid, and he didn’t appreciate being the punch line. “Listen, you wouldn’t believe how women throw themselves at me on the job. I can show up for work scruffy as all get-out, raggedy flannel shirt, faded torn jeans, unshaven and hair a mess, and they’re still all over me. Women love me.”
“I’m sure they do,” Russ said, and both hosts sniggered lewdly.
The word cliché popped into his brain. He shoved it aside. There was nothing clichéd about him. He just needed to find a different morning talk show, that’s all. “Look, I don’t mess with married women, or women who are involved with someone, and it’s not me who comes on to them. They come on to me. We’re consenting adults, enjoying a little safe, recreational sex. That’s all there is to it. No addiction. No taking advantage. Nobody is getting hurt. I’m unattached, clean, healthy and a decent guy. Can I help it if women want me?” Click here to purchase.
Whatever You Need
The Haneys Book 2
Chapter 1 excerpt
Wyatt sat at his drawing table and worked on a panel for his latest comic book series. Elec Tric, his super hero, had been hit by an otherworldly bolt of lightning one sunny day. Twice. Since then, he’d been able to generate his own electricity. Even stranger, an unseen world of demons and super beings had become visible to him from that day forward. Tric had been forced to make a choice: join the forces of evil who intended to reign supreme over the innocent inhabitants of earth, or join the forces of good who kept the evil at bay.
“Join me, Tric, or I will destroy you,” commanded Delilah Diabolical, the demon queen.
“One demon down; three to go.” Tric pivoted to shoot a bolt of deadly electricity at his archenemy. He couldn’t destroy her, but he managed to send Delilah reeling, which bought him enough time to obliterate her remaining minions. ZAP! SIZZLE! ZAP-ZAP! Gone.
Wyatt finished inking in the bolts of lightning shooting from Tric’s hands and eyes to where the superhero had reduced another pesky lower-level demon to a pile of glowing embers and ash. Then he moved on to the next panel, and a new challenge for his superhero.
“Help!” a pretty blonde cried, as two of DD’s minor demons attempted to drag her off to the underworld.
“Somebody, please help me!”
Elec Tric once again rushed to rescue the Mysterious Ms. M, which gave the superhero pause. Why did fate keep throwing the pretty blueeyed blonde in harm’s way? In his way. Was she another distraction sent by the evildoers to keep him from finding out what they were really up to? If not, what did the demon realm want with Ms. M?
Cue dramatic foreshadowing music. Da-da-duhhh.
Wyatt grinned. Sometimes his stories played through his mind like cheesy movies, and when that happened, he was in the zone. Nothing made him happier than working on his comic books while in the zone.
Noise at the back door leading to the parking lot pulled him out of his imaginary world. He rose from his stool and moved to glance out the window. There she was, the blonde who lived in the apartment above his—the pretty neighbor who’d been his inspiration for the Mysterious Ms. M. Her little boy carried a jug of laundry detergent, while K. Malone—he’d read her name on the mailbox more than once—lugged two large plastic tubs full of laundry, one stacked on top of the other.
K. Malone did her laundry every Saturday morning. Wyatt knew this because he took the opportunity to observe her as she left. And every Saturday morning he wondered the same thing: How would she react if he ran downstairs and out the back door to help her with her heavy load? Would she turn her thousand-watt smile his way, introduce herself and ask if he’d like to get together with her soon? He wished. Oh, how he wished.
Longing stole his breath, and he moved back from the window—as if K. Malone might be able to see him watching her from his apartment. “Curse this wretched shyness,” he muttered in his best cartoon character voice.
He wanted so badly to talk to her, to introduce himself and maybe ask her out. He’d even tried a few times, but the words stuck in his dry mouth, his face turned to flame, and his lungs refused to do their job. He was a hopeless mess when it came to women. Hell, he was a hopeless mess when it came to people in general.
He peered out the window until mother and son drove off to the laundromat. Letting loose a heavy sigh, he returned to his drawing table and immersed himself in his made-up world of alter ego, heroic deeds and feats of superhuman strength. It sure beat losing himself in his usual diatribe of self-castigation.
A couple of hours later, Wyatt got up to stretch. He’d finished the panel he’d been working on, and his stomach had been grumbling “feed me” for the past fifteen minutes. He walked to the kitchen to make a turkey sandwich, when he smelled . . . smoke? A second later, the fire alarm went off in the kitchen above his.
“Cripes.” K. Malone’s apartment was on fire. Wyatt took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed 911. As he gave the dispatcher all of the pertinent information, he grabbed the fire extinguisher from under his kitchen sink. Snatching his keys from the table on the fly, he dashed out into the hall and down the stairs to the caretaker’s apartment.
He pounded on the door and listened for signs of life from inside. No movement. Not a sound. He tried once more just to be sure. “Floyd!” he shouted, getting no response. “Shit.” There were three floors with four apartments each. Wyatt took the stairs three at a time, racing to the top floor. “Fire. Get out!” he pounded on the doors of each apartment. “Fire!”
“What the hell, man?” The old hippie guy who wore his long hair in a ponytail, even though he was bald on top, walked out into the third-floor hall in his shorts, no shirt and barefooted.
“There’s a fire on the second floor. Get out. As old as this building is, it’s going to spread fast.”
Extinguisher still in hand, Wyatt dashed down the stairs and did the same on each floor. Then he ran back up to the third floor and herded his neighbors along until he was sure every last person in their twelve-unit building was out the door.
The blare of sirens reached their quiet street, and by the time he made it to the sidewalk, the engines were close. Two trucks with red lights flashing pulled up to the curb next to the hydrant on the corner. Wyatt stepped forward to meet the firefighter who appeared to be directing the crew. “The fire is in the apartment on the southeast corner of the second floor.”
“Your place?” the fireman asked, as the rest of the crew scrambled with gear and attached a hose to the hydrant on the corner.
“No, my neighbor’s. She’s not home and neither is the caretaker. Otherwise I would’ve tried to put it out myself.” He lifted his extinguisher. “I’ll open the security door.” Wyatt ran to unlock the dead bolt. He held the door wide as two firefighters rushed in, dragging the hose with them. “It might be electrical,” he called after them.
“Got it covered,” one of the two firefighters following the first pair told him. They had canisters strapped to their backs and axes and crowbars in their hands.
“Stay out of the building until we give the all clear,” the firefighter in charge yelled.
Wyatt cringed at the sound of K. Malone’s door being hacked open, but what choice did the firefighters have? Floyd had the master keys, and he was nowhere to be found. As usual. The guy was so lame. He did a piss-poor job of keeping the place up, and Wyatt often smelled pot smoke coming from the caretaker’s basement apartment. He’d turned Floyd into a sluglike demon in his comic books. Might be time for Elec Tric to turn that particular demon into a pile of ash.
Wyatt had complained to Floyd about the wiring in the building several times, and each time he’d asked him to contact the owners about the danger. He’d noticed right off the building didn’t come close to meeting code. When his requests failed to produce the necessary updates, Wyatt had resorted to sending letters to the city. When that proved to be unproductive as well, he’d done some research through city tax records and sent letters to the holding company in Chicago that owned the building. That got him nowhere either.
If his suspicions were correct, and the fire started because of the faulty electrical wiring, something had to be done. What if a fire broke out in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping? He couldn’t count on all the ancient battery-operated smoke detectors to work. His hand went to the scars on his neck, ear and jaw. Burns were excruciatingly painful, and things happened so fast. He didn’t wish that kind of misery on anyone.
“Hey,” one of his neighbors said, coming to stand beside him. “You’re the hero of the day. I’m Mariah Estrada,” she said. “Thanks for pounding on my door.”
Hero of the day? He hadn’t really done anything heroic. No people, puppies or kittens had been pulled to safety from a building engulfed in flames. Still, the words trickled through him in a pleasant rush. “No biggie.”
“I’ve seen you around. You live in the apartment beneath Kayla’s. I guess you heard her alarm go off, huh?”
Wyatt nodded. Kayla. Kayla Malone. He liked the way the syllables rolled around in his head. The Mysterious Ms. M had a name to go with his fantasies, a name that would lend itself well to a heroine in his comic books. Maybe he’d give her superpowers in the next story.
“You gonna introduce yourself? I know you only as Hoodie Guy, because you always have that hood up even when it’s hot out. Like today.”
Heat crept up his neck, and he tugged said hood forward. Did the rest of the residents know him as Hoodie Guy too? Great. His neighbors probably thought he had a few loose wires. He couldn’t help himself. The hoods were a habit he couldn’t break. That’s all. Glancing at her, he expected to find derision. Instead, her espresso eyes held only a teasing sparkle. “Wyatt Haney,” he told her.
“I’m a nurse at Fairview Riverside Hospital,” Mariah continued.
Not knowing how to respond to that, he nodded again, and other neighbors drifted over, thanking him for alerting them to the fire. The two silver-haired ladies who lived on his floor even patted his shoulders. Face flaming, he nodded, mumbled and edged away as best he could. He even pulled out his phone, pretending he had important texts to read, so they’d leave him alone. What he wanted right now was to go into the apartment above his to see where the fire had been and to discover the cause.
Of course he couldn’t do that, not without Kayla’s permission. His heart thumped. Dammit, he’d find a way to ask her, because if he was right about what caused the fire, Wyatt intended to raise a ruckus. Something had to be done about the substandard wiring in their building.
All he had to do was find out which insurance company to contact, and he’d mention the many letters he’d sent to the owners. He’d even provide copies and pictures. Then he’d have his family’s company, Haney & Sons Construction and Handyman Service, bid on the job. The outlets weren’t even grounded, for cripes sake.
His heart thumped again. Harder this time. If he got the job, he’d be spending time in his pretty neighbor’s apartment. If he had any luck at all, she might be there some of the time, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . he could muster up the courage to ask her out. Click Here to Purchase.
Far From Perfect
A Love From the Heartland Novel, Book 1
Chapter 1 excerpt
One for the basket of colors, one for the basket of whites. Ceejay sat in the middle of the living room floor and sorted through a mound of dirty laundry. While most people abhorred this kind of chore, she found a soothing cadence in all things mundane. If only navigating her way through life were this simple—one for the basket of colors, one for the basket of whites.
“Babe.” Matt sauntered into their tiny living room. “Toss me your keys. I’ll pull your car around and meet you out front.”
Her heart tap-danced against her rib cage. Maybe it would be best to wait a few more days before telling him about the baby. She glanced up at him. “Why don’t you carry the laundry, and I’ll pull the car around?”
“You’re not done sorting yet, and I’m itchin’ to go.” Reaching out a hand for her keys, he flashed his dimples, a sure bet for getting his way. Faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt emphasized his lean, muscular frame, while his chestnut waves and sexy brown eyes made him look like he’d just rolled out of bed. Matthew Wyatt looked like her downfall.
“You know where my latest issue of Motor Sport is? I wanna bring it along.”
“It’s on the bedside table, right where you left it.” Ceejay snatched up the rest of the whites and shoved them into one of the baskets. Rising from the floor, she pulled her keys out of her back pocket. “Here.” She nudged the basket toward him with her foot and dropped the keys on top. “Take this one with you so I don’t have to carry both. I’ll get the magazine on my way out.”
“Thanks.” He leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek, and a moment later the apartment door shut.
She hefted the remaining basket to her hip and retrieved the racing magazine from the table next to his side of the bed. Grabbing her purse from the couch, Ceejay slung the strap over her shoulder and made her way downstairs to the exit. They rarely locked their second-floor apartment. Crime was mostly nonexistent in their small town. Besides, who in Perfect, Indiana, would want their secondhand crap anyway?
Maneuvering through the heavy doors to the street, she noticed the basket of laundry Matt had taken sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. She scanned the street for her old Honda Civic and frowned. Her boyfriend and her car were nowhere to be seen. Ceejay placed her load next to the other basket and sat down on the concrete steps in the hot July sun to wait.
Matt had probably run into one of his buddies in the parking lot. Most likely he’d forgotten all about her in his rapture over a discussion about motors and racing. What a relief it would be once he gave it up. Her insides always knotted up when he raced, and she couldn’t relax until he emerged unharmed from whatever souped-up late-model stock car he raced around the oval track.
Sweat trickled down her left temple. Lifting the damp curls off the back of her neck, she got up and moved closer to the street to sit in the shade of the large boulevard oak. The tick-tick- tick-tick-whirr of a sprinkler across the street marked the passage of time, and the electric hum of a cicada in the still afternoon heat made her edgy.
What could be taking him so long? Ceejay glanced at her watch. Nearly twenty minutes had passed. Fuming, she left the laundry and walked around the building to the parking lot in back. Matt wasn’t there. Neither was her car.
Ceejay walked all the way around the block, peering down every street for a glimpse of him, until she’d come full circle. The two baskets of laundry caught her attention, and dread lodged itself in the pit of her stomach. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk while her mind ran through all the possibilities, coming at last to an unhappy conclusion.
No, Matt wouldn’t do such a thing. He wouldn’t. Ceejay dug through the baskets until clothing, towels, and sheets were strewn all over the lawn. Other than a pair of raggedy jeans, some briefs, and a worn T-shirt, none of it belonged to him. Why hadn’t she paid more attention? Oh, yeah. Because she had other things on her mind, like an unplanned pregnancy.
She tore back into the building, raced up the stairs and through their apartment to the cramped bedroom they’d shared for the past six months. There were two small closets in opposite corners of the room. One was his, the other hers.
Ceejay approached his closet as if it harbored all the dreaded monsters from her childhood nightmares. Her hand froze on the doorknob. It took a supreme effort to open the door, and once she did, she regretted the act. All that remained of their love story were a few empty hangers and a pile of old racing magazines on the dusty floor. Well, not quite all. She took a few steps back and placed her hand over her abdomen. He had left her with something to remember him by. Only he didn’t know it.
Replaying the past few weeks in her mind, she searched for clues. Why would he leave? It had been his idea to move in together, not hers. She’d never put any pressure on him other than to suggest he quit racing and find a real job.
Another sinking feeling hit her, and she dashed back to the living room. Falling to her knees in front of their ratty old couch, Ceejay slid her arm underneath to where the lining hung loose from the wooden frame. Frantic, she reached around in all directions. He’d taken it. All the money she’d saved for nursing school, her way out of Perfect, gone.
Crap. He was halfway to somewhere else by now—with her car.
Nausea hit her hard. She pushed herself up from the floor and dashed to the bathroom. Once nothing was left inside to come up, she rinsed her mouth and grabbed some tissue to blow her nose. Turning to toss it into the trash, she spotted Matt’s reason for leaving.
There it was. Mystery solved.
The early pregnancy test she’d taken the day before lay on the bottom of the empty can, dead center with the +yes facing up. No mistaking that message. He must’ve found it when he took out the trash. While she’d been waiting on tables at her aunt’s diner, he’d freaked out and packed up.
Sinking down to the cool tile floor, she stared at the plastic wand for a long time—long enough for all of her dreams to sputter out like a wet match. How could such a tiny piece of plastic have such an enormous impact on her life?
She got up and dragged herself to the phone. Once her car and money were reported stolen, all the sad, sordid details of her bad judgment would be a matter of public record. Might as well rent a billboard, because the news would be all over town by tomorrow noon.
“Warrick County Sheriff’s Office. How may I direct your call?”
“Hello, Inez. This is Ceejay Lovejoy. Is Sheriff Maurer around?”
“Hold on a minute, Ceejay. I’ll put you right through.”
A bad Muzak rendition of “Free Bird“ filled her ear. And here she thought her day couldn’t get any worse.
“Hey, Ceejay. How’s your aunt?”
“Oh, she’s fine, Sheriff. I’m calling to report a theft.”
“A theft? Hold on a tick.” The sound of a drawer opening and paper shuffling came over the line. “All right, tell me what’s missing.”
“My boyfriend, five thousand dollars in cash, and my car.”
The other end of the line went quiet. “Sheriff Maurer?”
“Where’d you get that kind of money, Little Bit?”
“I’ve been saving all my tips from the diner and everything I earn selling beadwork at the craft fairs.” She fought hard not to cry. “It was for nursing school. I’ve been accepted at the University of Evansville. Classes start at the end of August.”
“Why on earth didn’t you keep your money in the bank?”
“That’s a very good question, Sheriff, and if I had it all to do over…” Her voice went wobbly, and the sheriff cleared his throat as if he were the one choking up.
“Did you and Matt have some kind of fight? Maybe you’d like to wait awhile. Could be he’ll cool down and come on home tomorrow.”
“No. We didn’t have a fight, and he’s not coming back.” The image of the pregnancy test flashed through her mind. Ceejay bit her bottom lip to keep from blurting out the real reason her boyfriend had hared off.
“You’re certain this isn’t just a misunderstanding?”
“I’ll need the year, model, and make of your car and your license plate. Do you have the VIN number?”
“I do. Hold on, and I’ll go get it.” She set the phone on the kitchen counter and ran back to the closet, where she kept the cardboard box full of important documents. Ceejay returned with her car registration, gave him all the pertinent information, and then hung up. Her mortification complete, she made for the one piece of furniture worth squat in their entire apartment—the rocking chair that had once belonged to her mother. The mother she barely remembered.
Setting the chair in motion, Ceejay started counting the cracks in the living room ceiling. As long as she focused all of her attention on the numbers, she could ignore her breaking heart and pretend she wasn’t pregnant, alone, and scared shitless. When the light began to fade, she counted the forward and backward movements of the rocker.
Footsteps in the hall brought her to a halt. Sucking in her breath, she went still. He’d come back. Matt had come back for her. She listened and watched. The knob turned, and the door opened a crack.
“Ceejay, come on now. Let’s go home.”
“Aunt Jenny?” Disappointment pressed her hard against the wooden spindles of the chair. “How did you know?”
“I had a feeling.”
“Huh.” Ceejay blew out shaky breath. “Sheriff Maurer called you, didn’t he?”
Jenny switched on the lights and came toward her. The pity in her aunt’s eyes forced her to turn away and start the chair rocking. Where had she stopped? Oh, yeah, 299, 300, 301.
“Gather some of your beadwork and whatever else you need. We’ll send your cousins over tomorrow for the rest. I picked your laundry up off the lawn and loaded it into my car. Did you know you left your purse right there in the middle of the sidewalk?”
Her aunt stopped the chair’s motion with a hand on the frame. “Come home, Little Bit. I never did understand what you saw in that boy. He rolled into town from God knows where, and after a year, you still don’t know much about him. I swear you were just wearing that boy for his looks.”
“He was good-looking.” Hysteria rose like a bubble, bursting out in a laugh that took a turn for the worse. “He stole my money.
He…he took the money I saved for school.”
“I know.” Jenny nodded. “I’ve been thinking—”
“When did you have time to think about this?” Ceejay’s eyes flew to her aunt. “It just happened.”
Jenny patted her shoulder. “You have your job at the diner, and once you get too far along in your pregnancy to wait on tables, you can take over the register.”
Ceejay’s eyebrows shot up. “You…you know about…?”
“You think I didn’t notice those quick trips to the restroom with your face all pasty green? I’ve decided to turn the carriage house over to you. If you clean it out and fix it up, maybe you can find a renter. Along with the craft fairs, it’ll give you a little extra income.”
Not enough for college. Not nearly enough to make her dreams of leaving Perfect come true. Ceejay started counting her heartbeats. The plans she’d made for the future slipped through her fingers like water through a rusted bucket. “You’ve…you’ve already done so much for me. I can’t accept it.”
“Nonsense. You’re family.” Her aunt circled the room, picking up her basket of beadwork and other small items, tucking them into the basket as she went. “You and the baby will live with me in the big house, of course. It’s way too much for one person, and I don’t like rattling around in that big old monster by myself.”
“Oh…Jenny…” Pushing her hand against her mouth, she tried to hold herself together. No use. Grief spilled out in great, gasping sobs. Click Here to Purchase.
What Matters Most
The Haneys Book 3
Chapter 1 excerpt
I’m saying, Uncle Dan, is that I’m not a son. I’m a daughter, and”
“So you’ve reminded me several times.” He rolled his eyes. “Goes without saying, Jo.”
Josey followed her uncle down the hall to the office Grandpa Joe used to occupy. She missed having Gramps there, but he’d retired on the first of the year. That had been four months ago, and she’d been pushing for a name change ever since. “Then it should be obvious why now is the right time to change the name of our company. Haney & Sons no longer applies.” She threw up her hands. “We’re more like … two Haney Uncles & Haney Grandchildren, but that’s just awkward. Notice I said grandchildren, not grandsons.”
“The company name reflects our origins,” Dan said, taking a seat behind Grandpa Joe’s old, putty- colored metal desk. He tapped the keyboard of his new computer, and the desktop sprang to life. “It’s a legacy thing.”
Jo stared at the desk that no longer resembled its previous owner’s workspace at all. Gone were the piles of yellow message pads, the purchase orders, invoices, and scribbled plans for construction or remodel jobs. No more clutter. She missed the clutter.
“Uncle Dan, we’ve made a lot of changes lately, including that computer you’re using and getting our job assignments on tablets. Let’s keep the ball of positive change rolling.”
Truthfully, she wasn’t convinced all the changes were positive. Coming to the office in the morning to have Grandpa Joe pass out their daily assignments meant she, her siblings and their cousins connected every day. Now she sat in her van alone and checked a tablet for her work orders. Also gone were the days of coffee, doughnuts, and conversation before heading off to work. No more returning to the office for a delicious home- cooked lunch Grandma Maggie made for them either. Who knew progress could be so depressing?
They’d even transformed what used to be a supply storeroom into another office. Now two fulltime office persons— one of them a cousin—answered the phones, scheduled service calls, and arranged for job estimates. Grandpa Joe used to do all that stuff. Gramps loved connecting personally with their customers. As the head of the company, he believed doing so was good for business.
Josey took a deep breath and soldiered on. “Keeping the Haney name still honors the company’s founders. Dropping ‘& Sons’ won’t change that. What about other Haney women who work here now, or who will in the future? What about non- Haney female tradespeople who might join us? Don’t we want our company name to reflect the diversity of our workforce?” Her uncle opened the ‘requests for work’ emails, and scrolled down the list.
“Am I, or am I not a full partner in this company?” She knocked on the edge of the desk to regain his waning attention.
He turned his chair to face her and exhaled a long, exaggerated sigh while flashing her an exasperated look. Then he glanced at the wall clock. “Don’t you have a job to go to this morning?”
“Yes, and I’ll head out in a minute.” She placed both palms on the desk and leaned closer. “Can’t we at least talk about this?”
“You’ve been talking about this since Mom and Dad announced their plans to retire.” Dan swiveled his chair toward the computer screen, dismissing her. “Not going to happen, kid. Your father, your Uncle Jack and I started this business with our father in his garage. Can’t deny the whos and hows of our beginnings. Dropping ‘& Sons’ would be like erasing your father’s legacy.”
“Low blow.” The familiar ache of missing her parents formed a tight knot in her chest. It had been sixteen years since her parents had died when their single- engine plane crashed into Lake Superior. Sixteen years, and not a day went by that she didn’t think about them. She never stopped missing her parents.
“I believe Mom and Dad would be cheering me on, not shutting me down.” She straightened. “At least call a meeting with all the partners present and let me make my case.”
“Get to work, Jo.”
Frustration neared the boil- over point, which would only make things worse. “On my way.” She stomped to the door and down the hall as another disorienting ache gripped her. Everything around her was changing. Wyatt’s June wedding was fast approaching. Sam and Haley would have their first child in September. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Maggie were traipsing through Italy. And her life? A total and utter standstill—which reminded her, she had to buy a dress and scrounge up a date for her brother’s wedding. Argh.
Something needed to change, and dammit, she’d tagged the name of Haney & Sons Construction and Handyman Services as “IT.” She could accomplish this one thing if only she had a little cooperation from her family.
“We sure changed the name fast enough when we added handyman services to our repertoire,” she muttered as she entered the kitchen. “All I’m asking is that we drop two words.” Actually, one word and a symbol. “Drop ‘Sons’ and the ampersand, and I’d be happy.”
“Y- you t- talking to me?” Her cousin Jerry stood in front of the mostly empty open refrigerator.
“No. To myself.”
“N- not a good s- sign,” he teased as he shut the fridge door. “I m- miss Grandma M-M aggie and G- grandpa Joe.”
“Me too, but they’ll be home soon. Gram and Gramps wouldn’t miss Wyatt’s wedding.”
“Yeah, I g- guess.”
“I gotta go, Jerry.” Her cousin, who had Down syndrome, had to be struggling with all the changes as much as she was. “Feeling a little lost and off- kilter, Jerry?”
He nodded. Oh, man. His eyes filled with tears, and Jo wrapped her arm around his shoulders. “Hey, it’s going to be all right. I know everything feels different right now, but we’ll adjust. Right?”
Jerry wiped the tears from his eyes, and her heart broke for him. Things had to be far tougher for him. He’d spent every working day in Grandpa Joe’s company, and the two were very close. At least Jerry still had his dad here. “How about you and I meet a couple of mornings a week for a while? I’ll bring doughnuts tomorrow, and we can chat before we have to get to work.”
“Y- yeah.” Jerry’s expression brightened.
“Then it’s a deal. I really do have to get going, but I’ll be back at seven thirty tomorrow morning with treats. You make the coffee.”
“OK.” Jerry high- fived her.
Her cousin Renee walked in just as Jo was walking out. “Morning, Renee. How’re the kids?”
“Good morning. Teens are a holy terror in general, but at least my two are healthy and happy.” She grinned. “What brings you to the office this morning, Jo?”
“I came to badger your father about the name change again.”
Renee shot her a sympathetic look before turning to her brother. “Hey, what’s wrong, Jerry?” Her brow scrunched as she studied her brother. Jerry’s eyes were still a little teary.
“He’s missing Grandpa Joe and Grandma Maggie,” Jo told her. He’s not the only one. “Gotta run.” She zipped her jacket against the chilly Minnesota April air and left for her first job of the day. She blinked back the sudden sting in her eyes. Jerry would be comforted by his older sister, while Jo really didn’t have anyone to lean on through all the changes. Her brothers were tightly wrapped in their exclusive worlds of domestic bliss, and she had no intention of intruding just to dump her overall dissatisfaction with life in their laps.
She grabbed her lunch out of her truck, locked the doors and climbed into her work van. “Stubborn Haney men.” Scowling, she pulled her tablet from beneath the seat and plugged it into the USB port before starting the engine. A few taps brought up her schedule for the day, which was light. Good. She’d have a few hours to work on the building where she now lived in her very own two- bedroom condo. At least she now had her own home, and that was definitely a positive change.
Her first job, a clogged sink, wouldn’t take more than thirty minutes. No biggie. Another tap on her tablet, and the directions appeared on the screen. The client lived on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river. Good. She’d have a nice view on the drive there.
Jo pulled out of the parking lot. “What’s it going to take before Uncle Dan sees reason?” she grumbled. She’d have to corner Uncle Jack again soon. He generally came to work around nine and stayed until closing. She could stop in when she switched vehicles at the end of the day. Her plan? Keep at the two, and maybe they’d come around to her way of thinking.
Twenty minutes later, Jo pulled up to a gatehouse like the kind you’d expect to see on a military base, only prettier. The gated community beyond consisted of a row of four huge detached townhouses all similar in design and built of massive sandstone blocks. The development was located on the river side of the road, the side boasting the million- dollar views of the Mississippi. There were a few “lot for sale” signs at the end. How much would property on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi cost? What did people do for a living to afford places like this, and why did they need a security guard?
The guardhouse window opened, and a man in a uniform leaned out. “Can I help you?”
“Service call for William Prescott.” She rattled off Prescott’s address and showed the guard her tablet with the work order on the screen.
The security guard checked the work order, and then he did something on a computer inside his tiny fortress, which was built with the same materials as the townhomes. The gate swung open, and he gestured her through. William Prescott had to be some kind of celebrity or business tycoon. His name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place why.
Ever so slowly, because of course she had to gawk, she drove south along the winding drive all the way to the end unit. Wow. Location- wise, Mr. Prescott definitely owned the very best lot in the complex. A thick, old- growth forest abutted the fence surrounding his perfectly landscaped yard. She’d seen a sign down the road, indicating the land next to this housing complex was part of a regional park. The Prescotts would always have privacy. As if that weren’t enough, as elevated as his townhouse was, his property overlooked the river and the Highway 55 bridge spanning the Mississippi to the south, with a stellar view of the capital city to the northwest. No matter the season, Mr. Prescott had an amazing view to go along with his more- than- a- million- dollar home.
What must living in a place like this be like? Jo shook her head. She’d never know, and she didn’t really care. She was thrilled with her two- bedroom condo a few blocks up the street from the parkway along the very same river. She was close enough to walk across the newly refurbished Lake Street Bridge to shops and restaurants. So there.
Studying Prescott’s castle- like townhouse, she imagined him to be a rich old geezer. He had to be rich to live here. He must have been a driven man, a workaholic who’d spent his entire adult life amassing a fortune. Come to think of it, he likely owned his own business and paid his female employees less for doing a better job than the men did. “I doubt if he listens to their brilliant ideas either, or worse, he takes credit for them,” she grumped.
His fortune secured, he’d dumped his first wife, the woman who’d borne and raised his children. Then he’d married a young model- type a fraction of his age—somebody who would look good in his fancy car. She glanced at his garage door. Hmm. What kind of fancy car did Mr. Prescott drive? She ran through a mental list of expensive cars. A Jaguar maybe, or a Land Rover.
Jo climbed out of her van, unzipped her jacket and tossed it on the passenger seat. By the time she got her tool box from the back of the van and reached his front door, she’d already made up her mind not to like the pretentious, conspicuous consumers living within the stone fortress. It didn’t help that she’d already been in a bad mood to begin with. She hit the doorbell and stepped back. A few seconds later, the door swung open.
Holy mother of indoor plumbing! Jo pretended to scratch an itch on her chin just to keep her jaw from dropping. Her client had to be a movie star. Not old. Maybe in his late twenties or early thirties. Ebony hair, serious gray eyes fringed with thick dark lashes, and just enough stubble on his angular face to make him look ruggedly handsome. He wore faded jeans that rode low on his hips, and a snug gray T- shirt. Both emphasized his lean, sculpted frame. His feet were bare. He had sexy feet, if such a thing were possible.
“Uhhhh.” Oh, God. Not only had she lost the ability to speak, but she just might be drooling. She pressed her lips together.
He stepped back, canted his head and looked her over from head to toe. “I was told to expect Joe.”
“I am Jo. It’s short for Josey.” She fished out a business card from the back pocket of her Dickies uniform pants and handed it to him.
“You’re a plumber?” He scanned her card, then studied her, his expression skeptical.
After her conversation with her uncle this morning, Mr. Prescott’s attitude stomped on her last nerve. He had a clogged sink for crying out loud. Not exactly a challenge. “Sexist much?” Shit. Never a good thing to insult your first client of the day. Partner or not, losing a job because of rudeness would not go over well with her uncles. “Er … I’m—”
“I deserved that,” he said, waving her card in the air, as if batting away her apology before she could get it all the way out of her mouth. “Haney & Sons comes highly recommended by one of the paralegals who works at the same law firm I do. I’m sure you’re well qualified.”
He opened the door wider. “Come in.”
Josey stepped over the threshold and took a look around. The large foyer opened to a home office to the left. A closet and a half- bathroom separated the office from a large living room. The kitchen and a formal dining room took up what she could see of the right side. The walls were all basic cream color, and the floors were wide plank cherry. The living room featured a massive sandstone fireplace, but the room didn’t hold a single stick of furniture. The walls were also bare. “I am a licensed master plumber.
Who recommended us to you?”
“Haley Haney. Do you know her?”
“Yep. She’s married to my older brother.” Her attention swung back to him. “You work at Bremmer, Stevens & Schmitt?”
“I do. I just made junior partner.”
“Congratulations.” He had a graduate degree, but he couldn’t unclog his own sink. “So, what seems to be the problem, Mr. Prescott?”
The Difference A Day Makes
A Love From the Heartland Novel, Book 2
Chapter 1 excerpt
“Hi, honey. I’m home.” Ryan’s voice reverberated through the stillness, bounced off the bare walls and came back to mock him. He set his lunchbox on the kitchen counter and leaned over to retrieve his supper from under the sink—a brand new bottle of Johnny Walker Red.
Gripping the bottle by the neck, he moved to the living room and set it on the coffee table next to his vintage .357 revolver, the letter he’d written to his folks, and the picture of his platoon, Task Force Iron, 1st Armored Division, 4th Brigade. One more item, and he could begin his nightly ritual. He retrieved the snapshot of Theresa from his billfold, laid it down and took his place on the couch.
Letter. Pictures. Gun. Bottle.
Theresa. Reaching out, he traced the laminated photo with his finger. His throat tightened. God, he missed her. How different his life would be if he hadn’t insisted they go riding that morning five years ago. He’d be coming home every evening from some swank advertising agency job. They’d have a couple of kids by now. A family. His family. He’d be surrounded by love instead of this soul-sucking loneliness.
Ah, but he wasn’t entirely alone, not if the hollow-eyed ghosts plaguing him counted. He closed his eyes, and images from the suicide bombing near Mosul played across his shattered mind.
“Jackson, radio ahead and have Staff Sergeant Reilly pick up the pace,” Lieutenant Langford ordered. “If the civilian truck gets too close, we’ll fire a few rounds into the ground to warn them off. You hear that, Gunny?” the lieutenant called over his shoulder.
“Yes, sir,” Ryan shouted down from his place in the artillery turret.
Yeah, he’d heard all right. He should’ve aimed the M240B machine gun straight into the payload before the truck got anywhere near their platoon. If he had, the IEDs would’ve detonated in the desert instead of in the middle of their convoy. Five soldiers died. Soldiers whose backs he’d sworn to protect.
Familiar sensations gripped him. Sweat beaded his brow, and dread banded his chest until he couldn’t draw breath. Powerless to stop it, he rode the wave of internal chaos, helpless to keep from being pulled under.
“Blow the suckers out of the sand! Shoot to kill. Shoot to kill,” Lieutenant Langford shouted.
Ryan opened fire, sending a flurry of metal casings raining down on their Humvee. Too damned little too damned late. The truck detonated, plunging them into the fires of hell, turning the insurgents into pink mist.
Their Humvee lifted and flipped. Jettisoned out of the turret, Ryan flew through the air amidst the flaming debris and super-heated particles of sand. Bones snapped and cracked on impact. Fire burned through his uniform. He rolled in the sand to put it out and tried to curl in on himself to protect his head. Unimaginable pain assaulted every inch of his broken body.
Seconds passed. Pain-filled, life-altering seconds of mayhem followed by the moans and screams of the injured and dying. Choking on the smell of burning plastic and the acrid stench of singed hair and flesh—was it his?—he opened his eyes to survey the damage.
His best buddy lay in pieces not three feet from him. The back of his skull had been blown away, along with most of his left side. Jackson’s eyes were open, empty and lifeless—an expression of shock permanently etched on what remained of his face.
Ryan forced himself onto his side to vomit into the sand. Another mistake. Grit thrown by the desert wind peppered his raw, exposed burns. The edges of his vision darkened. The blackness spread, and the nightmare around him faded.
Pressing his fists into his eye sockets, he tried to dislodge the memories eroding his psyche. Jackson had a wife and kid to get home to. His best friend had not deserved to die like that. No one deserved to die like that. The familiar vise-like guilt squeezed the air from his lungs, and rage roiled through him. Why did I survive?
He glanced at the table, drawn by the picture of his platoon. There he was, wearing his desert fatigues, all his gear and a stupid grin. Jackson stood beside him, his arm slung around Ryan’s shoulders. He should’ve lived, not me.
Sweaty and shaking, Ryan sucked in a breath through his clenched teeth, lifted the pistol and checked to see that it still held a single bullet. He undid the safety and spun the chamber. Carefully, he set the gun back in its proper place and hoisted the bottle. Up till now he hadn’t had the balls to end his miserable non-existence. Not once had he even come close to pulling the trigger.
“Cheers.” He unscrewed the cap, lifted the bottle in a toast to the fallen, to Theresa, and took a long pull. Leaning back on the couch, he stared at the ceiling. A few more drinks, and he’d do it. Tonight he’d end the pain once and for all. He took another drink and lifted the gun. The cold metallic weight promised instant, irrevocable relief.
The handle resting in his palm warmed. Taking another swig, Ryan savored the heat going down his throat and waited for J.W. to do his part. It didn’t take long before the alcohol dulled the screaming in his brain to a manageable decibel. He brought the gun to his mouth—so close he could smell the tang of gun oil on steel. It took several long seconds before he managed to get his lips apart to place the barrel against his palate. It needed to be positioned just right, or with his luck, he’d live. Not acceptable.
Ryan took a deep, slow breath and held it. Ever so slowly he cocked the hammer with his thumb and curled his finger around the trigger. He blinked against the tears running down his face. When had he started crying? Hell, this was a new twist. It had to mean something, right?
Yes. An uncharacteristic calm and determination steadied his trembling hand. It meant tonight was the night he’d find peace at last. He put pressure on the trigger.
The wall mounted phone next to the kitchenette started to ring.
Pulling the gun out of his mouth, he closed his eyes and willed the interruption away. His heart pounded, and his breathing came in short gasps that did little to fill his lungs. The phone kept ringing and ringing. He took another drink.
If it was his mom, he didn’t want to talk to her, or his dad, brothers or sister for that matter. He hadn’t had much contact with his family since Theresa’s accident. The ringing stopped. Finally. But his momentum had been disturbed, and he had to start over. He reached for liquid courage. One, two, three swallows.
Once again he brought the gun up to the roof of his mouth and wrapped his finger around the trigger. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture Theresa and started the slow pull toward oblivion.
The phone rang again.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Ryan slammed the gun down on the table and leapt up from the couch on unsteady legs. He was tempted to rip the thing off the wall, but when he reached for it, something inside, some spark of morbid curiosity, had him lifting the receiver instead. He never got calls. Bringing the hand piece to his ear, Ryan struggled to get his breathing under control. “Hello.”
“Gunny Malloy? Is that you?”
Adrenaline surged through his bloodstream. The room began to spin, and he had to lean against the wall to stay upright. “Lieutenant Langford?” Ryan’s eyes shot to the photo on his coffee table. No fucking way.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. You were a hard man to track down, buddy. I thought you moved back home to Oklahoma once we got out of the VA hospital.”
“Naw, nothing for me there.” He had to swallow hard a few times before trusting his voice to sound normal. “I…I need to…” His eyes darted around his apartment in a frantic search for something that would buy him time to pull himself together. “Can you hold on for just a minute? I have something on the stove.”
“Sure, I’ll hold.”
Ryan placed the receiver on the counter and made some noise with his lunchbox. Why not? It was metal. He gripped the edge of the counter, closed his eyes tight and leaned over. You can do this, soldier. Front. Come across like everything is all right. Isn’t that what he did every day of his miserable life? He fronted at work, at the grocery store. He even pretended he wasn’t really checking out all the rooftops in town for insurgents. Pretending had become his normal.
Ryan gritted his teeth, straightened and picked up the phone. “Hey, Lieutenant, it’s good to hear your voice.” He raked a shaky hand through his too long hair, “Where’d you end up, anyway? Last I heard you were on a mission to find your stepbrother’s kid. How’d that work out?” Laughter filled Ryan’s ear, and an unidentifiable emotion ricocheted through him. Jealousy? Hope?
No. Not hope.
“It worked out really well.” Noah chuckled again. “I adopted my stepbrother’s daughter and married her mother. We have a little boy now, too, but I want to hear about you. What are you up to?”
“I’m back at the same place in Texas I worked before I enlisted.”
“Yep, pre-fab.” Dead-end boring. “I go by Ryan now. Gunny is…it reminds me of…”
“I understand. Listen, are you happy working for that cabinet place?”
“No, but I’m not happy in general.” He swallowed hard. “Man, it’s been a while, hasn’t it Lieutenant?” He had a white-knuckled grip on the phone, as if holding on that hard might save him somehow.
“Yeah…yeah it has…I don’t go by Lieutenant anymore either. How about we start all over as a couple of civilians? Ryan for you. Noah for me.”
“Deal.” Ryan had to blink hard against the emotions swirling through him. Hearing the lieutenant’s voice brought it all back—the good times, the bad—the worst. “Where’re you living now? What are you up to? I know you never went back to Philly, because I tried to find you a year or so back.”
“That’s why I called. I live in Perfect, Indiana, not too far from Evansville. A couple of years ago me and my wife’s cousin started a custom furniture company. We sell mostly over the Internet. The business has been growing faster than we anticipated.”
“OK. That’s good, right?” Where was Noah going with this, and what did it have to do with him?
“We recently took over a building in town. It used to be a general store or something. There are two stories above the storefront. We have a showroom, production space and offices.”
“Sounds like you’re doing great.”
“We are, and we need help.”
Ryan frowned. “Shouldn’t be hard to come by in this economy.”
“Probably not, but I have a new mission.”
“Well of course you do. You haven’t changed much.” Rusty laughter grated its way out of Ryan’s throat. He remembered every time he’d heard those same words come from his commanding officer’s mouth. Sometimes his missions involved getting his hands on some kind of hooch, so they could all get plowed. “I’ll bite. What’s your new mission?”
“I’m only going to hire veterans.”
“To do what?”
“Right now I need someone with a graphic arts and design background, and preferably someone who has experience working with wood. I need help with the website, advertising, processing orders—that kind of stuff. Someone who can jump into production when needed would be nice. Naturally, you came to mind. I remember you saying you have a B.F.A. or something to do with graphic design. I also remembered you worked as a cabinetmaker.”
“M.F.A. I have a masters.” Ryan rubbed his forehead and tried hard to wrap his head around where the conversation had taken them. “So…let me get this straight. Are you offering me a job?”
“I am. We can’t pay you a huge amount of money right now, but there’s room to expand. You can make something out of this, Ryan. It’s an opportunity to grow with Langford & Lovejoy Heritage Furniture.”
Ryan’s heart thundered so hard his ears rang, and his legs gave out. He slid down the wall until his ass hit the floor, and the phone cord stretched to its limit. “No shit?”
“No shit. You interested?”
“Hell, yes.” He hadn’t done anything creative since Theresa died, hadn’t even wanted to. Back then, he’d just wanted to blow things up, aim a gun at something and shoot away the pain eating away at him from the inside out. Did he even have it in him to be creative anymore? He didn’t know.
“Like I said, we can’t pay much. We’ve put most of our profit into this recent expansion. But my wife and I have a carriage house on our property. I can offer it to you for dirt cheap. It’s completely furnished.”
“I don’t care about the money. As long as I have a roof over my head, I’ll be fine.” Ryan ran his free hand over his beard. “It’s been…It’s been hell. At least working with you I’ll be with someone who gets it…someone who was there.” He harbored no illusions. It would be great to work with the lieutenant again, but it wouldn’t make a difference. He’d strayed way too far into unfixable territory to expect miracles.
“Exactly. You get the mission. If we hire only vets, we can help each other through the tough spots. How soon can you start?”
“Give me a couple of weeks to settle things here.”
“Great. You have an e-mail address? I’ll send you the details and directions to Perfect.”
He rattled off his information, and the lieutenant hung up. Still sitting on the floor, Ryan stretched his legs out and leaned his head back against the wall. He started to laugh, cry and shake all at once. One minute he’d been pulling the trigger, and the next he’d accepted a new job in a different state. The emotional shift left him weak and wobbly as a newborn foal.
It took about twenty minutes before any semblance of control returned to his limbs. Ryan pushed himself up to standing, put the phone’s receiver back and turned to face the coffee table.
Letter. Pictures. Gun. Bottle.
Curious, he moved toward the table and hefted the gun. What would’ve happened? Would he have hit an empty chamber, or…? He aimed the pistol at his couch and pulled the trigger. The single bullet exploded through the barrel, burning a black hole through the cushion. A tidal-wave of shock slammed into his gut. The gun fell from his hand, thudding to the carpet a full two seconds before he lost his legs again and landed on his knees right next to the discharged .357.
“Damn.” Click Here to Purchase.
A Change of Heart
A Love From the Heartland Novel, Book 3
Chapter 1 excerpt
Silt. No, make that sludge. Cory’s blood had turned to thick, muddy sludge in her veins, and all the internal heaviness left her immobilized. Cracking an eyelid, she peered around the room. Nothing had changed in twenty-three years—not the worn blue bedspread with the white fluffy clouds or the mismatched dresser and desk. Not even the saggy twin mattress and box spring on the bare metal frame. Nothing. Her days in the double-wide on the south side of Evansville, Indiana, were supposed to be behind her. Yet here she was right back where she started, living on the fringes of the seedy side of town.
No career. No future. Trailer trash.
A single tear slipped down her cheek. She’d fought so hard to become something else, something better—like her dad, the decorated war hero she barely remembered. Eight years of her life devoted to a military career—brutally stolen. Gone, with nothing to show for it but this suffocating, sludgy misery pressing her down into a lumpy old bed. Another tear followed the first, and she pulled the bedspread over her head.
“Cory, baby.” Her mother knocked on her door. “Brenda Holt is here to see you.”
“Tell her I’m not feeling well.” She couldn’t face anyone. Not now. Maybe in a week or two the heaviness would lift, and she’d be able to figure out the rest of her life…or at least the rest of the afternoon. “Tell her I’ll give her a call…sometime soon. Real soon.”
The door creaked open. “You haven’t been out of this room for more than half an hour at a time since you’ve been home.” Her mom’s voice scraped along her frayed nerves. “I’m not leavin’ this spot until you agree to come out and say hello. Brenda made the effort to visit. Now you’re gonna make the effort to haul your butt outta that bed. You hear?”
She knew that tone. When Claire Marcel made up her mind, nothing could sway her. She’d stand in that doorway all day if she had to. Cory groaned. Hopefully a fifteen-minute conversation would satisfy her mother. Then Cory could crawl back into her black hole and sleep away another day. “Fine.” She threw the covers off and sat up. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Good. We’ll be in the livin’ room.”
The door shut, and she dragged herself out of bed to the army-issue duffel bag on the floor. She found an almost clean pair of sweats and pulled them on over the oversize T-shirt she’d slept in. Her hair hung in a lifeless mess to her shoulders. Not bothering to pull a brush through it, she snatched a rubber band off her dresser and pulled it back into a ponytail. Maybe she could manage a shower today. Or not. Who cared whether she bathed, brushed her teeth, or washed her hair? What difference did it make to the four walls of her childhood bedroom?
She forced herself down the hall to the living room. Her mother and Brenda sat on the couch huddled over her mother’s scrapbook of the media frenzy surrounding Cory’s court case. The humiliating history of her total annihilation lay open on their laps. Her stomach hit the floor. Dammit. How could her mom show that to anyone? Why would she want to? Bile burned the back of her throat. She turned around and headed back to her room.
“There you are,” her mother called. “I was just tellin’ Brenda how proud I am of you.”
“Proud of me?” She leaned her head back and shut her eyes. “For what? Letting my guard down—for being careless?” It’s not like she hadn’t known better. Stupid, stupid, stupid mistake.
“’Course not.” Her mom’s tone carried a hint of exasperation. “I’m proud of you for standin’ up for yourself.”
“Hey, Cory.” Brenda took the dreaded scrapbook from her mother’s hands and set it aside. “It’s been forever since we’ve seen each other. Let’s go for a walk.”
“Outside?” Her heart raced, and dread spread like an oil spill in her chest.
“Unless you want to walk up and down the hall here.” Brenda’s expression filled with sympathy, and something else— concern? “Let’s go to the playground like we used to when we were kids.”
“What’s it like out there?” Cory frowned, assessing the risk.
Brenda raised a single, arched eyebrow. “Is that a rhetorical question?”
“No. It’s more like a weather question.” She averted her gaze and swallowed hard. Brenda must think she’d gone mental. She had. In fact, she’d been treading water in the deep end of the crazy pool for a while now, and it was getting harder and harder to keep her head above the surface.
“It’s like a typical late April day in Southern Indiana. The sun’s out. It’s going to get very warm, and you’re way overdressed.”
“I’ll be fine.” Baggy sweats had become her style of choice lately. Not only could she wear them in bed, but out of bed as well. Plus, they didn’t attract attention. A shudder ran through her at the thought of that kind of attention. Don’t need it; don’t want it.
She slipped her feet into an old pair of flip-flops by the door and followed her childhood friend outside. Hypervigilance and the prickly sense of being watched consumed her. Scanning the area, she walked beside Brenda toward the old playground where they’d spent countless hours as youngsters.
The slide had taken on a pronounced tilt to the right, and the heavy steel frame of the swing set had more rust than she remembered. Someone had tossed one of the swings over the top several times until it coiled with the seat a few inches from the crossbar. The rickety wooden fence separating their trailer park from the trucking company next door was covered in graffiti, and the grass hadn’t been mowed in weeks. Not much had changed here either.
The day promised to be warmer than average with a generous dollop of humidity thrown in to make everybody miserable. She must look odd in her long-sleeved sweatshirt and heavy sweatpants. Brenda, on the other hand, looked cool, fresh, and as gorgeous as ever. Her thick blonde hair had been done up in a French braid, accentuating her high cheekbones and big blue eyes. She wore a stylish outfit designed to show off her curvy figure.
What a pathetic contrast she must make to so much puttogether attractiveness. If she didn’t get her appetite back soon, Cory wouldn’t have any curves left at all. That suited her just fine. Who needs them? Easing herself down, she took a seat on one of the three remaining swings and did another perimeter scan.
“Claire means well,” Brenda said. “Your mom is proud of you. We all are, and it’s not because your image has been plastered all over the media for the past year either. It’s because you managed to do something few women in the military have been able to.”
Brenda glanced at her. “You’re kind of the poster child for—”
“Can we talk about something else?” Cory’s empty stomach churned, and she studied the stunted grass growing around the bare patch of dirt under her feet. “What are you doing these days? Last time I visited, you were in school.”
Brenda sent her swing into motion. “I graduated from cosmetology college quite awhile ago, and I work in a really nice salon in town now. I’m doing OK for myself.” She planted her feet to stop the swing. “Did you hear Wesley’s home? He retired.”
“No, I hadn’t heard.” Her eyes widened. “We were just little kids when your brother joined the Marines. I still remember the day he left for boot camp.” She shook her head. “Wow. Has it been twenty years already?”
“Yeah. Which leads me to my next question. What are you going to do now that your case is behind you?”
“It’s not behind me.” Hot, angry tears filled her eyes once again at the ultimate betrayal of her loyalty and trust. “The Yale Law School’s veterans legal clinic is working on getting disability benefits for me.”
“Is that what you want? Disability checks for the rest of your life, while you hide out in your mom’s mobile home? That doesn’t sound like the Corinna Lynn Marcel I’ve known since we were four.”
“That girl is gone.” Rage exploded into a flash-and-burn conflagration in her chest. Once she’d been happy, optimistic about her future and open to the possibility of meeting someone special. She’d even thought she’d marry and have a few kids some day. That dream was dead. Her breathing came in short, ineffectual gasps, and her heart lodged itself in her throat. Brenda reached out and touched her forearm. Cory jerked away. Touch, a basic human need, was no longer tolerable.
“Hey, it’s just me.” Brenda set her hands back in her own lap. “Wesley is working at a custom furniture company in Perfect, a small town about forty-five minutes east of Evansville. The owner is a veteran who survived a suicide bombing in Iraq.”
“Oh.” Her mind was only half engaged. The other half floated from a distance, watching the conversation with disorienting detachment.
“Langford & Lovejoy Heritage Furniture only hires veterans. Wes told me they’re looking for someone to take over maintaining their social media, website and stuff like that.”
The pervasive sense of detachment spread. Time to go back to bed.
“He told the owner about you.”
“What?” Cory blinked back to full attention. “Why?”
“Because you have skills. You were an IT specialist, and you’ve always been a whiz kid with anything having to do with computers and electronics. You’re perfect for the job.”
Shit. “I’m not perfect for anything.” Not fit to serve and less fit to live, no way could she face a group of strangers inside an enclosed space. “I can barely get out of bed. I don’t think—”
“You can’t give up now, and spending the rest of your life in this trailer park is not an option.” Brenda shot up from the swing and came to stand in front of her. She grasped both chains of Cory’s swing and gave them a shake. “I won’t let you do this to yourself. I can’t stand by and do nothing while you slide down the drain a little bit more each day.” She glared. “In fact, I gotta tell you, I’m really pissed that you’ve been home for three weeks and you didn’t even bother to give me a call.”
“I’m sorry.” She blew out a breath. “I’m sorry, I…I can’t—”
“Nope. Stop.” Brenda shook her head. “This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to go take a shower and brush your teeth.
Please.” She waved a hand in front of her nose. “Shave your legs and pits while you’re at it.”
“Well, that was brutal.”
“You need brutal.” Brenda stared a hole through her. “I brought my equipment with me. Once you’re cleaned up, I’m going to cut your hair and put in some highlights. Then we’re going shopping for something to wear besides those raggedy old sweats and baggy army-issue cammies.” She canted her head to study her. “And makeup. You need makeup.”
“I don’t think I can do the shopping thing.” Her mouth dried up like a sponge left out in the sun. “And I’m positive I’m not doing the makeup thing.”
“You’re going to do both if I have to drag you kicking and screaming. I’ll be right there beside you, and if anybody messes with you, I’ll lay ’em out flat.”
A choked laugh broke free, and memories poured through her of the way she and Brenda had always watched each other’s backs. Their friendship had been like a flower growing through a slab of concrete—tough and resilient, thriving against all odds in a barren landscape. They’d fought the trailer trash stigma together all through school, shared their secrets and dreams, and been as close as twins. “I don’t have any money, Bren. I haven’t seen a regular paycheck since the army cut me loose.”
“I know. I’m floating you a loan, which I will not allow you to refuse. We’re just talking Target here, not Neiman Marcus. Jeans, a few pairs of shorts, blouses, T-shirts, shoes, and a few new necessaries. It’ll help you feel good about yourself again. I promise.”
“You’re still the same pushy bitch you always were,” Cory muttered affectionately.
“That’s right, and I’m going to help you reclaim your own inner bitch. Somehow you managed to get through your court case, testify before congressmen and senators, and have your picture and story plastered all over the media. You’re tough, my friend. Don’t crumble now.”
“Too late. I crumbled months ago.” Her jaw clenched. “I don’t know if I can do shopping, makeup, or a regular job. All of that stuff you mentioned I did? It was fueled by rage. Rage was my sole reason for getting out of bed each day. It’s done. I’m out of momentum and reason.” She crossed her eyes and twirled her finger by her temple. “In more ways than one.”
“Then it’s time to find a new reason to get out of bed.” Brenda’s face took on a resolute, dogged expression. “You have a job interview tomorrow afternoon, and I’m here to make sure you look your best.”
“What? No!” Her blood turned to ice water, chilling her to the sludge-filled center of her bones.
“Yep. Let’s go. Hup, hup.” Brenda pulled her up and pointed her toward home. “Right, left, right, left. March. You stink, and your hair is a greasy, stringy mess.”
“I like my hair this way.”
“No, you don’t.” Brenda gave her a gentle nudge. “Ready or not, here comes your new life.”
“I’m not ready.” Panic sent her heart racing, tightening her chest and robbing her of breath. “I’m not ready, dammit.” Click Here to Purchase.
The Twisted Road to You
A Love From the Heartland Novel, Book 4
Chapter 1 excerpt
Wesley set his broom aside and checked the wall clock. Almost the end of his shift. As soon as Langford & Lovejoy’s day crew arrived, he’d head to the Perfect Diner for his daily dose of Carlie, the diner’s pretty assistant manager. The food wasn’t bad, either. Anticipation thrummed through him, bringing a grin to his face.
“You do that every morning,” Ken grumbled. “It’s creepy.”
Wes’s smile widened. Ken was always grumpy at the end of his shift. He ought to know, since he’d been supervising the overnight crew of furniture finishers here in the small town of Perfect, Indiana, for a year and a half now. “Grinning is creepy?”
“It is when you do it every single morning at exactly the same time,” Ken groused. “Makes me think you’re up to something.”
“Naw, bro. It’s not creepy. That’s just your paranoia talkin’.” Miguel slapped Ken on the shoulder. “Wes is just smiling ’cause he’s gonna go see his girl soon.”
Wes walked over to his dog’s bed and scratched the old German shepherd behind the ears. Rex had already had his trip outside. He’d be fine here for a while. “I don’t have a girl.”
“Right. Have it your way.” Miguel chuckled and shook his head. “It takes a woman to put that stupid smile on most men’s faces. But I guess for you all it takes is eggs and bacon. How about I join you for breakfast this morning?”
“Sure, but won’t your wife be upset when you don’t come home for the breakfast she’ll have waiting for you?”
“Good point.” Miguel patted his flat belly. “Nobody cooks like my Celia. Guess I’ll head home after all.”
The back door swung wide, letting in a blast of early November air. “Morning,” Ted Lovejoy said, holding the door open for his fiancée, Cory.
“Hey, Ted, Cory.” Wes did his customary once-over on Cory to make sure everything was good with her. Her radiant expression said it all. She was doing well and continuing to heal from the trauma she’d suffered at the hands of her staff sergeant a couple of years ago.
He and Cory had grown up in the same trailer park on the south side of Evansville, and he’d always looked out for her. She and his youngest sister were best friends and had been since the day Cory and her mother moved into the park. “How are the wedding plans coming along?”
“I’m glad you brought it up,” she said, taking him by the arm. “Come with me. I have a favor to ask.”
His stomach rumbled, but this was Cory. Hunger could wait. She led him to the storefront, dropped his arm and fished around inside the purse she carried slung over her shoulder.
Pulling out a thick, butter-colored envelope, she turned a hopeful look his way. “This is your invitation to our wedding. I’ve talked it over with my mom, and she agrees. You’re like a brother to me, Bunny,” she said, reverting to his childhood nickname. “You’re the reason I have my job here. If it weren’t for you, Ted and I wouldn’t have met. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you in my life.” Her voice quavered.
“Will you walk me down the aisle?” She handed him the invitation. “Whoa, Squirrel. Didn’t see that coming.” Warmth spread through his chest. “I’d be honored.” He stared at the fancy script on the front of the envelope. Wesley Holt . . . and guest.
“Good.” Cory patted his forearm. “One more thing.” “What’s that?” He raised his gaze to hers.
“Bring a date.”
“Uh . . . no. I don’t think so.” He rubbed his forehead and shifted his weight, edging toward escape. “I’m not—”
“Ask Carlie. We’d like her to be there, but we don’t know her well enough to invite her.” Cory’s chin angled up a determined notch. “You and Carlie have chemistry. Neither one of you can keep your eyes off the other when you’re at the diner.” She poked him in the chest. “Ask her.”
Memories swamped him—an e-mail sent by his wife, now his ex, while he was deployed. Two short paragraphs. That’s all she wrote, but those two paragraphs had plunged him into a deep, dark well of misery and rage the night before a mission. His throat tightened, and a familiar image flashed into his brain. Wes forced the image of the young Marine’s face back into the far recesses of his mind, but then the anger and betrayal living in his gut like a parasitic worm raised its ugly head. He inhaled and exhaled slowly, while visualizing himself stomping the worm into the rocky desert with his Blackhawk Desert Ops combat boots.
He no longer risked getting involved. Who needed that kind of pain? Not him. His heart was no longer up for grabs. Coping with his PTSD was about all he could handle, thank you very much.
“It’s time, Wes.” Cory’s brown eyes filled with concern as she peered up at him. “Just because your heart was broken once doesn’t mean the same thing is going to happen again.”
It had been a struggle, a constant uphill climb, but he was content with his life and somewhat at peace. Admiring Carlie from a distance was all he could handle. What did he know about her, anyway? Sure, he lusted after her, but . . . nope. Not worth it. The dreams he’d had for a family of his own were long dead. Besides, he was almost forty—too late for a do-over. He’d gotten into the habit of sleeping during the day, because he had fewer nightmares then, and even though he’d come a long way in the past year and a half, he still experienced the occasional flashback. Irritability and paranoia still got the best of him sometimes, and he never could predict what might trigger a reaction. What kind of parent and partner would he make? “I’ll think about it.” No, I won’t.
“Good.” Cory nodded. “Think about it all the way down the street to the diner, and then ask her.”
He raised the invitation. “Consider me RSVP’d. I’d be honored to walk you down the aisle.”
“Thanks, Bunny.” Cory’s voice went shaky again. “My dad was a Marine, too, you know? Having you stand in his place means the world to me.”
The next thing he knew, she had him in a hammerlock hug. His heart melted, and he hugged her back. “Me, too,” he mumbled before disentangling himself. “Get to work, Squirrel. I’ve got to go get something to eat.”
“All right.” She glanced at him, her eyes bright. “While you’re at the diner, don’t forget to ask Carlie to be your date for our wedding.”
“Humph. Think I’ll head on out to the truck stop for breakfast this morning,” he teased.
Cory’s laughter brought his smile back. He handed her the invitation. “Put this in my in-box in the production room, would you? I’ll grab it when I get back.” His smile once more firmly fixed, Wesley headed the two blocks down the street to the local diner. Pancakes sounded mighty good this morning, or french toast with a side of thickcut bacon and extra-crispy hash browns with onions.
Half a block away from the diner, the air carried the scent of sausage, bacon and onions. He salivated, and not just for food. The sight of Carlie Stewart bustling around the retro fifties diner in her snug black jeans, equally snug white T-shirt and red apron did that to him.
In the summer, she’d worn shorts, giving him an eyeful of her shapely legs. Even better.
The small bell chimed as he opened the door. He looked around . . . and frowned. Someone was sitting at his corner table—the table Carlie always reserved for him. She was nowhere to be found. Disappointment fogged his brain.
Jenny Maurer, the diner’s owner, approached. “Good morning, Wes.” She motioned him toward a different table.
He didn’t budge. “Where’s Carlie?” Since he’d moved to Perfect, he’d never known her to miss work. His gaze roamed the interior of the diner, even though he knew he wouldn’t find her there. Her absence was a tangible force pressing him back against the wall. Overreact much? Nothing more than his PTSD acting up. Slow inhale. Slow exhale.
“We don’t know. She didn’t show up for work this morning, and she hasn’t called.” Jenny’s brow creased with worry.
That brought him up short. A prickle of unease raised the fine hairs at the back of his neck. “Did you call her?”
Jenny nodded. “Several times. She’s not answering.”
Twenty years of finely honed combat instincts flared to life. Something was wrong. He hadn’t overreacted. Images of Carlie trapped in the wreckage of her car somewhere along the highway flashed through his mind. What if she was unconscious in her house from a fall or a carbon monoxide leak? “Where does she live?”
“Do you know the McCurdy farm?” Jenny asked. “It’s about ten minutes west of Perfect. Carlie rents the little white house about a mile down the road from there. It’s the only other house on that stretch of road.”
“No.” He shook his head. “But if you have an address, I can put it in my GPS.”
“I don’t. You know how it is when you’ve lived your entire life in the same small town. I know where everything is, but I couldn’t give you more than a handful of addresses.” Jenny moved to the cash register. “Harlen, hand me a piece of paper and a pen. I’ll draw a map.”
“Way ahead of you, honey.” Harlen glanced at Wes. “I was about to head out to check on Carlie myself, but that would leave Jenny even more shorthanded here at the diner.” He handed Wes a piece of paper. “I drew a map while you two were talking. Sheriff Taylor’s personal cell phone number is at the bottom. I was going to give him a call just as you walked in. I still will, though at this point there’s no real reason to send him out to Carlie’s. Would you mind heading out that way to check on her?”
“No, I don’t mind. I have the time.” Wes caught something in Harlen’s expression as he took the map. The older man knew something he didn’t. Harlen was also a veteran. He’d been in the military police during the Vietnam War, plus he’d been sheriff of Warrick County for twenty-five years before he retired. Wes pulled out his cell phone and entered the sheriff’s number into his contacts before folding the map and stuffing it into his back pocket. “What do I need to know, Harlen?”
“Carlie has . . . history.” The retired sheriff glanced at his wife. Jenny nodded slightly. “It could be that her past has come looking for her. Then again, her absence might be nothing at all. Maybe she had car trouble this morning, and she’s on her way right now. She could have misplaced her cell phone, or her son might be sick.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “We’d appreciate your willingness to give her a hand if she needs one.”
Wesley frowned. He had a feeling her absence wasn’t as simple as a lost cell phone or a sick kid. Adrenaline flooded his system and he tensed, battle ready. “On my way.”
“Wait a minute,” Jenny called as she disappeared into the kitchen.
He didn’t want to wait. Worry for Carlie twisted his gut. “What kind of history are we talking here, Harlen?” he asked. Carlie was divorced and had a son named Tyler, that much he knew.
“I’m most concerned about her physically abusive ex-husband.” Harlen’s voice dropped to barely audible. “All we know about him is that he’s a real piece of work with a criminal record.”
Wes nodded. A bully he could handle. He rolled his shoulders and turned his head from side to side to loosen up, forcing himself to remain where he was until Jenny reappeared. She came back to the register, holding a white paper bag in one hand and a to-go coffee in the other.
“On the house,” she said, handing him the bag and the cup. “It’s a fried egg, bacon and cheese sandwich, and the coffee is just the way you like it. You can eat on the way.”
“Thanks.” He took the bag and the coffee from her. “I’ll call you when I find out what’s going on with Carlie.” In its current knotted state, his stomach couldn’t take food, but Rex would appreciate the treat. Sucking down the coffee on the fly, he hurried back to L&L.
Three sets of eyes turned to him the minute he burst through the back door. His boss, Noah Langford, glanced at the clock, and Ryan Malloy, L&L’s design genius, raised an eyebrow. Wes took the egg sandwich from the bag, unwrapped it and tossed it to Rex. The dog caught it midair and devoured the treat in seconds flat. The empty coffee cup and paper bag Wes tossed into the trash bin.
Ted Lovejoy, co-owner and business manager of L&L, straightened up from whatever furniture design the three of them were studying. “You’re back fast. Is everything OK at the diner? Is my aunt Jenny—”
“Jenny’s fine.” Not wanting to waste any more time, Wes took the stairs two at a time to his third-floor apartment. Once he was inside, he headed for the closet in his living room where he kept his handgun in a locked metal box. He unlocked the box and took out the handgun, its cold weight fitting against his palm familiar. Too familiar.
He loaded the M9 Beretta, put on the safety and shoved it into the back of his belt. Years of training and experience took over, and he went through the mental steps preparing himself for the job ahead. Rescue and protection. Carlie and her son, Tyler, were his mission. If her bully of an ex-husband had anything to do with her absence, he’d set the man straight. As he ran back down the stairs, he planned how he’d go about getting the job done. He crossed to the hooks on the wall where he kept one of Rex’s leashes.
“Why the gun, Wes?” Ryan followed him and blocked the back door.
Grabbing Rex’s leash from its hook, Wes shook his head. “We’ll talk later. Might be nothing.”
“Do you feel like it’s nothing?” Noah studied him.
Shortly after retiring from active service, Wes had met Noah through the VA center in Evansville. They’d gotten to talking, and the next thing Wes knew, he’d been offered a job in a growing furniture business that only hired veterans. Plus, Noah had offered him a place to live in the small, quiet town of Perfect.
If anyone understood the way battle-honed instincts acted upon a veteran, it would be Noah. They had both commanded a platoon during their military careers. They were both haunted by the loss of good soldiers under their command. Ever since that first meeting, they’d been in the same PTSD support group, along with Ryan Malloy and a couple of the other L&L employees.
“Carlie didn’t show up for work this morning.” Wes’s grip tightened on the leather leash. “Harlen and Jenny are worried. She never misses work, and she’s not answering her phone. They asked if I’d check it out, offer her a hand if she needs one. Harlen is worried her abusive ex-husband might have something to do with her absence. The gun is just a precaution.”
“You want backup?” Ryan asked.
“No, but thanks. Harlen already called Sheriff Taylor. He’s on standby.”
“All right.” Noah straightened. “Be careful, and call us if you need anything.”
“Roger that.” Wesley clipped the leash onto Rex’s collar and commanded the three-legged dog to heel. Pulling Harlen’s map out of his back pocket, he strode to his SUV. Rex’s right hind leg had been shattered beyond fixing by mortar fire in Afghanistan, and jumping into Wes’s vehicle was no longer easy for the retired explosives-detection dog. Like all military dogs, he’d undergone two trainings—explosives detection and bite-to-capture. Wes had been required to learn what the dog’s training entailed before he could adopt him. He needed to know the commands in order to avoid inadvertently causing Rex to go into attack mode around other people. He lifted the dog and placed him on the front seat. “Time to work, buddy.”
Rex’s tail thumped, and his ears stood up at full alert. Wesley ruffled the fur around the dog’s head for a second before circling around to the driver’s side and climbing in. He studied the map. Not too complicated. Not a whole lot of chance for error when it came to the few rural roads he’d have to navigate. He started his car, pulled out of his space and headed west.
Scanning the side of the two-lane road, he searched for any sign of a car accident. Relieved at not finding Carlie’s car in a ditch, he searched the side of the road for the green fire marker with the number Harlen had written down. There it was—the intersection with an oak tree on the west side, a winter-wheat field on the east and the McCurdys’ farmhouse set back at the end of the long gravel driveway. He turned left onto the narrow road. Carlie’s house would be a mile down on the right.
Trees and brush grew alongside the lane, and leaves still clung to some of the branches. Good. Cover was good. About a quarter of a mile from the small white house, he pulled over and parked his Chevy in the dry grass beside a gnarled blackberry thicket. If Carlie was in trouble, he didn’t want the bad guy to see him coming.
Carlie’s old Ford Escape was parked in the driveway, alongside a late-model sedan. Now he knew for certain she wasn’t alone. He gripped the steering wheel, and his mouth went dry. What if she’s with a lover and just forgot to set her alarm clock? His chest tightened, and the familiar burn of betrayal scorched him. What? Let it go. He had no business putting that on her. Carlie had every right to see whomever she wanted. It wasn’t like he’d ever made a move on her or even asked her out for coffee. Nope. Their association started and ended in the diner.
Wes helped his dog down and gripped the leash. Keeping close to the side of the road, taking cover where he could, he moved slowly toward the house. Once he was within range, he pulled out his cell phone, snapped a picture of the unfamiliar car and license plate and sent them in a text to Sheriff Taylor’s cell phone number. Just in case.
Using the parked vehicles for cover, he crouched low and made his way to the corner of the house. Then he crept along the foundation until he reached the bay window to the right of the front door. He heard an angry male voice on a rant.
Man, what he’d give right now for some of the high-tech surveillance gear he’d had access to while deployed. Holding his breath, he rose slowly and peered through the window. What he saw stopped his heart cold. Carlie and her little boy sat huddled together on the couch. A man paced in front of them, waving a wicked-looking combat knife in the air. Carlie’s right eye had swollen shut, and her lower lip bled where it had been split. Wes dropped back down, swore under his breath and focused on listening.
“You and the kid belong to me, Kara. We’re a family. You had no right to take my son from me. No. Right. You and Tyler can either come with me today or I end you now. After what you did to me, I should end you. Worthless bitch, with or without you, I’m not leaving this hellhole without my boy. You hear me? I’m taking my son.” Kara?
Carlie responded. Her voice was too low for him to hear what she said, but he could detect the note of pleading. Rage exploded in his chest. What kind of man beat a woman, threatened to end them and terrorized their kid?
Wesley unleashed Rex, gave him the hand signal to heel and circled around to the back of the house. He prayed he’d find the back door unlocked. Folks in Perfect rarely locked their houses, especially out in the country. If he was lucky, he could sneak in and capture the enemy before the guy even knew he and Rex were there.
Slowly, he pulled the screen door open and checked. Not his lucky day. Damn. The back door had been locked, probably by the asswipe terrorizing Carlie and her son. Stepping back, he drew his gun, undid the safety and sized up the door. One kick, and a resounding crack filled the air. The wood frame splintered around the piece-of-crap dead bolt, and the door swung wide.
“Get ’em, Rex,” he commanded. Growling, his dog shot through the house. Wes followed. “Drop your weapon,” he shouted, gun raised. Rex slipped on the polished wood floor. The dog went down and scrabbled to recover. The slip gave the bad guy the seconds he needed to sprint out the front door. Rex followed on his heels, and Wesley ran out after them. The guy managed to slide into his car, but Rex had him by the ankle, and he wasn’t letting go. The car started. The man put the sedan in reverse and gunned the engine, dragging Rex alongside the vehicle.
“Rex, out,” Wes called, aiming his Beretta. He didn’t want Rex getting caught under the tires—or by a bullet. Rex let go, and Wesley fired. He missed the tire, and the bullet pinged against the hubcap. He fired again—and missed. The car door slammed shut, and the car peeled off in a wave of gravel and dust.
“Heel,” Wes called. Rex trotted toward him, stiff legged, with his ruff still standing on end. His heart hammering against his rib cage, Wes put the Beretta’s safety back on and shoved the gun back into his belt. “Good dog,” he crooned, scratching the dog behind his ears, giving Rex the reward he sought for a job well done. The shepherd’s ruff settled, and his tail wagged. Wes snatched his cell phone from his pocket and called Sheriff Taylor. “This is Wesley Holt—”
“I ran the license plate. The vehicle is stolen,” Taylor said without preamble.
“Figures.” Wesley ran a hand over his buzz cut. “A man had Carlie and her son at knifepoint. He’s gone now. Took off in the stolen car. She’s been beat up, and I overheard the guy threaten to kill her and take her son.” He turned back to stare at the house.
“On my way,” Sheriff Taylor said. “I’ll put out an all-points bulletin with the vehicle description. Will you remain on site until I arrive?”
“Hell, yes.” Wesley eyed the open front door. “I’m not leaving.” For now, Carlie and her son were safe. Wesley planned to see that they stayed that way, no matter what it took. He and Rex headed for the house. He had no idea how to comfort Carlie and her boy after such a trauma, but he’d do his best. He just hoped his best was enough.
“Rex, drop.” The dog plopped to his belly on the rug inside the front door, his ears pricked up for any sign of danger. Wes couldn’t bear the hurt and fear he saw in Carlie’s pretty blue eyes, and seeing her lovely face so battered and bruised turned him inside out. His hands curled into fists. He wanted to inflict the same damage and worse on the scumbag who’d split her lip and put that frozen-in-fear look on her little boy’s face.
“Sheriff Taylor is on his way. I’ll be right back.” He went to the kitchen, opened the freezer and snatched a bag of frozen corn. He returned to the living room and handed it to her. “That man . . . he’s your ex?” Her eyes filled, and his gut tied itself into a painful twist.
Carlie nodded. She pressed the bag of frozen corn to her face and drew her son closer to her side with her free arm. “You saved my life, Wesley. If . . . if you hadn’t—”
“Glad to help.” Wes crouched down in front of the two of them, eye level with the kid. “Hey, I’m Wesley Holt, a friend of your mom’s. You OK there, buddy?” The little guy’s face had lost all color, and his eyes didn’t seem to focus until he spoke to him.
The boy glanced at Carlie and then at Wes. “I”—his chin quivered—“I had a accident.” Color rushed back into his face.
Wes patted the kid’s knee. “Happens to the best of us.” He reached out to touch Carlie’s cheek but stopped himself. He wanted to gather her up and hold her until she stopped trembling, until she knew she was safe in his arms, but they weren’t on a touching basis. Instead, he placed his hands on the couch on either side of the two, encircling them as closely as he dared. He met her eyes. “You OK?”
She shook her head. “No, but I will be, thanks to you. Come on, Tyler. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Wes rose and reached down to help her up. She dropped the bag of corn on the couch and placed her hand in his. His breath hitched, and a frisson of heat coursed through him at the skin-on-skin contact. He steadied her once she was on her feet. Her tears had started in earnest, and helpless frustration stirred him to a froth. He needed something to do with his hands—something that would keep him from wrapping his arms around the woman who tugged at the ragged edges of his soul the way she did.
“You have accidents?” Tyler stared up at Wes, saucer eyed.
Grateful for the distraction, Wes nodded. “I’ve had one or two, sure. It’s natural to be afraid when you’re being threatened, and sometimes that fear causes a man to lose control.” The child’s face relaxed a little, and Wesley’s heart turned over in his chest.
“You coming with me and my mom to my room, Mr. Holt?” Tyler’s gaze turned to the shadowy hallway between the living room and the kitchen.
“You can call me Wes.” He peered down at the little boy whose blue eyes were so much like his mother’s. Tyler gripped Carlie’s hand with double-fisted tenacity, like he was afraid she might disappear if he let her go.
“I thought I’d stay here in the living room and keep an eye on things,” he told the kid.
Tyler’s face went pale again, and his eyes filled with panic. He couldn’t even imagine what it must be like for Carlie’s son right now.
He’d seen his mom get beaten up, and the little guy had heard his dad say he planned to end his mother’s life. Wes’s jaw tightened, and a lump clogged his throat. Not right. Not right at all.
Wes backpedaled. “On second thought, how about I stick close to you and your mom? You and I would make a pretty good team, don’t you think?”
Tyler nodded, and his shoulders unbunched a fraction. Wes followed the two down the hall to Tyler’s bedroom. Dark blue walls with glow-in-the-dark planets and stars appliquéd all over the surface greeted him. A matching bedspread covered the twin bed of the cozy, little-boy bedroom. He stood at the door so that he could keep the two of them in his sights.
“Get what you need, Ty. I’m going to go fill the tub.” Carlie gently pushed her son toward the dresser, and then she left for the bathroom.
Wes couldn’t tear his eyes from her. Petite and curvy, she was dressed in her snug black jeans—the best part of the uniform she wore for work—and a long-sleeved white T-shirt. He hated seeing her shoulders so slumped and defeated. He hated that her ex had stolen the smile from her pretty face and the light from those heart-stopping blue eyes of hers. The need to protect her had him itching once again to drag her into his arms.
Shoving his hands into his back pockets, he turned his attention back to Tyler’s room. A wide bookshelf crammed full with books and toys caught his eye. He imagined Carlie reading to her son at bedtime. Wesley’s mom had never read to him or his brothers and sisters. By the time she finished her day cleaning other people’s houses, she was exhausted. It was the same with his dad, who worked at a tool and die company.
His parents had worked long, hard hours to keep their large family afloat. They were good people, and he never doubted their love for each other, or for their six children, but it had never been easy. Still, as tough as it was, neither of his parents had ever raised a hand in anger against each other or their children. They’d always been a close, loving family, and he counted his blessings where they were concerned. As the oldest, Wes had been the one to read to his brothers and sisters, help with homework, clean and bandage scraped knees and dole out the PB&J sandwiches for lunch.
Tyler opened dresser drawers, pulled out clean jeans and a pair of briefs with some kind of superhero printed on them. Wes’s chest took on a whole new ache, this one churning with anger. The little guy’s sense of safety and security had been ripped to shreds. No child should have to live in fear, and when the source of that fear is one of the people you should be able to trust the most? Well, that just made it a thousand times worse. “All set?”
“Let’s go, partner.” He took the bundle of clean clothes from the boy and held out his hand. Tyler tucked his small hand in his, and again Wesley’s heart wrenched.
The sound of a siren grew close—Sheriff Taylor, no doubt. Carlie met Wesley and Tyler outside the bathroom. “That will be the sheriff.” He squeezed the little boy’s hand. “I have to go meet the sheriff, but I’ll be back.” He handed Carlie the clothes and left Tyler with his mother. Then he walked through the house and out the front door to wait.
The sheriff’s SUV raced down the country road, lights pulsing and the siren breaking the peace and quiet of the autumn rural landscape. The incongruence brought a frown to his face. The sound of a siren and the sight of flashing lights didn’t happen very often in Perfect, Indiana, and when they did, it was usually due to a car accident or some act of stupidity on the part of the local adolescents. Wes crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against Carlie’s Ford.
The vehicle barreled down the gravel driveway, coming to a sudden halt a scant few yards away from where he stood. Paul Taylor, the sheriff of Warrick County, climbed out, clipboard in hand. He shook Wesley’s hand. “Hey, Wes, I appreciate your help. Is everything secure here?” “For now.” Wesley gave him a description of Carlie’s ex and filled him in on the details of what he’d witnessed and heard. When he finished, the two of them walked toward the house together. They found Carlie waiting for them, with her son stuck to her side like he’d been fastened there with Velcro. Rex’s head came up from his paws, looking to him for direction. He motioned for him to stay, and the dog let out a long sigh and dropped his head to his paws again, clearly disappointed by the lack of action.
“Jared violated the restraining order I have against him,” Carlie said, slipping a legal-looking document from the manila folder she held against her chest. She handed it to the sheriff. “I . . . he shouldn’t be out of prison yet. He . . . he’s not eligible. No one notified me that he was out. They were supposed to let me know.” Her voice held an edge of fear.
Sheriff Taylor gestured toward the couch. “Let’s sit down, Ms. Stewart. We can start from the beginning.”
Nodding, Carlie and her boy moved to the couch. The sheriff took the chair in the corner, and Wes remained standing. Prison? Her ex had called her Kara. Was she in some kind of witness protection program or something? “So, violating a restraining order, assault with a weapon and car theft—if he is on parole, he’s pretty much blown it, right?” Wesley arched a brow in question.
“I have my deputies out looking for the stolen vehicle, and hopefully he’ll still be in it. I’ve also notified the neighboring counties. Now that I know who he is, we can issue a warrant, though I suspect there may already be one outstanding.”
Sheriff Taylor and Carlie got down to business, and Wesley scanned the yard from where he stood, looking for any movement in the surrounding fields and forest that might indicate the bad guy had circled back. The thought that Carlie’s ex might be out there watching and waiting sent a chill down his spine. Her place was too damned isolated—too far from help should she need it.
“Thank you for the picture, Ms. Stewart. This will help. I have everything I need for now.” The sheriff rose from his chair. “We’ll have a deputy parked in your yard tonight in case your ex returns.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Carlie set the folder down on the couch and rose with the sheriff, walking with him to the door. “I didn’t have my house locked. I’ll keep both doors locked from now on—and the windows.”
Wes shook his head. “I wrecked the back door.” He pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll see that it’s replaced today, along with a better dead bolt than the one you had before. Do you have a tape measure?” “I do,” Carlie said before heading down the hall.
The minute his mom left the room, Tyler moved to Wes’s side and reached for his hand. Wes took it and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “I’ve got it covered here, Sheriff. I’ll bring Carlie and Tyler with me when I go for a new door. They won’t be alone, and her ex knows I’m armed. I took a couple of shots at his tires.” He shrugged. “I’m out of practice. Missed both times.” He’d have to make a point to get to a shooting range to practice.
“I’m going to assume you have a permit for that handgun.” The sheriff’s brow lowered.
“Of course I do.”
“This is the moment where I have to tell you officially to stay out of police matters. Unofficially, though, the Warrick County sheriff’s department is undermanned and lacking resources. We don’t even have our own SWAT team anymore. I have to call on Evansville to have their team come out when we need it. I can’t really spare the manpower to keep a deputy here around the clock. I appreciate your willingness to keep an eye on Ms. Stewart and her son. Just don’t turn any more vigilante than you already have today. Got it?”
“Got it.” Not really. If Carlie’s ex crossed his path, he’d do what needed to be done to render the guy senseless until the sheriff could come and haul the piece of human garbage away.
The sheriff attached his pen to the clipboard. “I’ll be in touch.” He opened the door. “I’ll have a deputy parked in her drive by the time you get back. Call me on my cell if you catch sight of Carlie’s ex.”
“Will do.” Paul left, and Wes hit speed dial one-handed for L&L. Tyler still clung to him, and he wasn’t about to let go of the kid.
“Langford & Lovejoy,” Paige Malloy answered. “What can we build for you today?”
“Hey, Paige. This is Wes. I need to talk to Noah.”
“I heard Carlie is missing. Is everything all right?”
“For now.” He frowned. “Man, news travels fast in Perfect. How’d you hear?”
“Jenny called to talk to Noah. I just happened to be the one who answered the phone. She didn’t say much, only that Carlie was missing from work this morning and you were checking things out. We figured something might be wrong when the sheriff raced through town with his siren blasting.”
He glanced at the folder Carlie had set on the couch. “I need to talk to Noah—or Ted, if your brother isn’t available.”
“What’s going on? Did you find Carlie and her son?”
“I did. They’re fine for now, but I need some help with—”
“You’ve got it. I’ll get my brother. Hold on.”
Carlie returned to the living room with the tape measure. With the phone pressed between his ear and his shoulder, and Tyler’s hand in his, Wes headed for the door he’d busted. Noah came on the line, and Wes gave him the short version of what had happened. “I need to install a new door and dead bolt at Carlie’s, and I could use a hand.”
“I’ll help,” Noah said. “Do we need a new frame?”
Wesley eyed the mess he’d made. “Afraid so, and I don’t want to go the prehung route. The door she had on here before kicked in way too easily. I’d like to do some reinforcing with a new door and a good solid frame.”
“Hmm. We can come up with a plan for something sturdier.
“On it. Hold on.” He let go of Tyler and handed the phone to Carlie, trading it for the tape measure. “Tyler and I will measure; you relay the information to Noah. All right with you, partner?” He peered down at the boy.
The hint of a smile lit Tyler’s face, and he nodded. Carlie went to one of the kitchen drawers and pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen.
“OK.” He put the end of the tape measure on the outside of the broken frame. “Hold it here for me, Tyler.” It would’ve been much easier and faster to do the task himself, but he wanted to take the kid’s mind off the scary stuff. The two of them measured and gave the dimensions to Carlie, who wrote them down and relayed the information to Noah.
Once the task was completed, he took the phone back. “What do I need to get?” He listened while Noah gave him a list of supplies. “Got it. I’ll call you back when we have everything together. Later.” He hit End Call and took the pad and pen from Carlie to make a list. “Get jackets. We’re heading to Home Depot. You can call Jenny and Harlen on the way.”
“No, Wes.” Carlie averted her gaze. “I owe you an explanation first.
You have a right to know what you’ve stepped into.”
“No. I don’t.” A fresh surge of adrenaline fired up his nerves, sending his pulse skyrocketing. He sandbagged his heart and hunkered down behind the barricade. Knowing stuff about Carlie meant getting close. Too close. Too personal. “You don’t owe me a thing.” Click Here to Purchase.
Tangled in Time
Chapter 1 excerpt
Present day, County Meath, Ireland
Regan couldn’t see the passage tomb in the predawn darkness, yet every single internal here-be-spirits antenna within her stood on end. And the closer she got, the more those antennae boogied. Newgrange, aka Brú Na Bóinne, was like Mecca to beings not of this world, not to mention a central hub for magic.
She’d sensed the powerful vibrations the day before, while visiting the ancient tourist attraction. What she’d sensed had compelled her to come back to take a closer, more private look. If she could tap into the energy here, perhaps she’d figure out how to harness a portion. Maybe then she’d be able to use the magic to shut out the ghosts once and for all. That was her hope anyway, and the driving force behind her trip to Ireland.
Legend had it her family’s giftedness sprang from the fae, a boon bestowed upon an Irish ancestor in their distant past. She wished she could give the gift of sight back to that ancestor, or at least learn how to close herself off from it. “If you want to shut off the flow, you have to find the source,” she muttered to herself. So here she was in County Meath, schlepping through dew-covered pastures, about to trespass on a national historic site.
The rolled yoga mat hanging from the strap over her shoulder swayed to the rhythm of her strides. Her shoes and the bottoms of her leggings were sopping wet. Regan trekked on, her blood humming in concert to Brú Na Bóinne’s pulse.
She paused as the dim outline of the wooden shack she’d been looking for took shape in her flashlight’s beam. The kiosklike structure stood at the base of the large hill. This was where visitors purchased postcard photos of the interior of Newgrange while waiting for the park shuttles to take them back to the visitor center. Focusing on getting through a patch of brambles without tearing her clothes, Regan aimed for the low wooden fence she needed to climb to get onto the grounds. What would happen if someone caught her trespassing? She went a little breathless at the thought. Would the Irish police, the Garda, come take her away?
Just as the first blush of dawn crested the eastern horizon, Regan made it to the top of the hill. The large, flat stone guarding the entrance to the tomb came into view. The spiral glyphs etched into the surface were only dimly visible. She reached out and traced one of the coils, and a tingle ran up her arm, coursed along her nerves throughout her entire body and raised goose bumps in its wake.
The view from the top of the hill was incredible. Miles and miles of green, rolling hills in every direction, with the River Boyne meandering in a winding path through the lush landscape. The verdant surroundings carried the sweet scent of growing things and spring blossoms. Birds had begun to stir, singing their own trilled version of the sun salutation.
Regan took a few steps back and dropped her things. She tucked the flashlight into her day pack before unrolling her mat on a relatively flat stretch of grass. After toeing off her shoes, she settled on the mat in a half-lotus seated position and closed her eyes, adjusting her position until she found her center of gravity. Hands on her thighs, palms up, thumbs and pointer fingers touching, she stilled.
Immediately all kinds of ghostly whispers and pleas intruded, distracting her. Some were unintelligible, ancient languages she didn’t recognize; others came through clear as day with the same old familiar refrain. Help me! Where am I? And of course . . . I want to go home. She mentally brushed them aside like so many cobwebs in the corners of her mind. “I’m ignoring all of you,” she called out. “So you may as well quiet down.”
Regan narrowed her throat for ujjayi pranayama, the breath of victory. The inner sound of her breathing, like ocean waves, helped her focus. Concentrating, she opened her mind to the magic surrounding her.
According to everything she’d read, practitioners could use magic to repel unwanted energies. Some were able to mask their presence with a spell. Hiding from dead people and their bereaved families would work. If she couldn’t divest herself of her abilities, at least she’d have a shield.
Thoughts flitted around for a few minutes, but at least they were hers and no longer ghostly. She simply observed them until her inner self quieted. Reaching for the powerful vibrations, she waited—and waited some more. Regan meditated as hard as she could, inviting the magic in.
The minutes ticked by, at least forty of them, and nothing happened. No flow, not even a trickle or a drip seeped into her. Magic all around, and she couldn’t touch it. So, this was not the way magic worked, or she lacked what it took to call that kind of power to her.
Disappointed, she heaved a sigh and rose to standing.
Despite her failure in this first attempt, she couldn’t help but appreciate the glory of the rising sun. She’d greet the day here, so slogging through dewy fields wouldn’t have been a total waste of time. Besides, holding on to disappointment wouldn’t do her any good. Better to embrace the newly born day with gratitude.
Facing the east, she brought her hands together over her heart and began her salutation. “With hands folded in prayer, I face the sun, feeling love and joy in my heart.” She moved into the first asana. Flowing into the second pose, she continued her prayer. “I reach out and let the sun fill me with warmth. I bow before the sun’s radiance, and place my face to the ground in humility and respect.”
By the time Regan had completed four sets of the sun salutation, the burning orb had risen in a blaze of orange and pink against an azure background. She switched to Ashtanga Yoga, and moved through the more challenging poses. Inhale. Move into the posture. Exhale, and . . . hold.
“What is the daft lassie doin’ then?” a very male voice said from behind her.
A burst of adrenaline wrecked her meditative state. She drew in a long cleansing breath, letting it out slowly through her nose. He had to be a ghost, because she would’ve heard a fellow trespasser’s approach.
“Until you interrupted her, the daft lassie was doing Ashtanga Yoga,” she said, coming out of her pose. So much for ending her practice with another brief meditative effort to grasp hold of the magic here. So much for shutting out the dead.
Since birth, it had been deeply ingrained in her by her family that her gifts were meant to be shared. She’d been born to guide confused spirits to the light, offer the bereaved some closure and chase away beings who had no business messing with humans.
Whether she wanted to or not, interacting with the spirit world was her lot in life. Doing so took a lot out of her and left her empty. It wasn’t always the dead who stole her energy, though their proximity chilled and exhausted her; sometimes it was their needy, grieving relatives who drained her the most. The living didn’t always want to let go, and they were persistent with their demands for her help. The worst part, though, was the effect her abilities had on her social life. Communing with the dead and otherworldly often repulsed potential love interests among the living.
“You hear me?”
“Grand. Do the thing where ye balance on one foot, arch your back like a bow and touch your toes to the back of your head again, if you please. Only . . . face me this time. Liked that one, I did,” he said.
“’Twas quite . . . provocative.”
Ghosts remembered lust and sex, though they no longer experienced the physical sensations. Annoyed, she turned to scowl at him, only to gape instead. As far as ghosts went, this man was one finelooking apparition. Lean and fit, he stood maybe five foot ten. He wore his long, auburn hair in numerous braids, held back in a knot bound with strips of leather. The original man bun?
His features were strong and angular—broad forehead, long, straight nose, flaring slightly at the nostrils, high cheekbones and a wide, expressive mouth over a tapered chin. Though he was fair and freckled, his eyes were a deep, rich brown, and they were filled with keen intelligence. He must have been quite strong in life to be this vivid in death. He was the most colorful spirit she’d ever encountered. He looked almost corporeal.
She eyed his coarse linen shirt, worn under a vest made of some kind of sleek fur. Seal? A green woolen cloak rested over his shoulders, held in place with a gold brooch of Celtic knots with a crouched wolf effigy in the center. Suede leggings fit him snugly, and the soft leather shoes he wore resembled moccasins. He reminded her of the ancient Roman descriptions she’d read of Celtic warriors, and the pictures of equally ancient rock and wood carvings she’d studied in books.
Standing a bit straighter under her perusal, he cocked his head slightly. “What might ye be called, Álainn?”
Aww, he’d just called her a beauty, and he’d said it with such an enticing Irish lilt too. “Regan MacCarthy. And you?”
“Fáelán of Clan Baiscne at your service,” he said with a bow. “Fáelán means wolf.”
“I believe it’s the diminutive form of the word, isn’t it? That would make you Little Wolf.”
“Ah, well, even the mightiest bear starts out as a cub, aye?” He winked at her. “An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? An dtuigeann tú?”
“I don’t speak Irish well, but I do have some Gaeilge, and yes, I did understand what you just said.”
“Hmm.” His gaze bored intently into hers. “And ye see me.”
“I do. Just so you know, I’ve helped many like you, and—”
“Many like me?” He crossed his arms in front of him, widened his stance and lowered his brow. “Meanin’ what, exactly?”
He stomped around in front of the tomb’s entrance and let loose a string of expletives, all in his native Irish. “I’m no scáil; I’m cursed.
Woman, do ye have any idea who or what I am?”
Huh. She’d been demoted from beauty to woman. “Little Wolf, better known as Fay-lon of Clan Bask-nuh?” Regan hid her grin and checked the horizon. The visitor center would open at nine. She slipped into her shoes and gathered her things.
“I am one of Fionn MacCumhaill’s elite, one of the Fianna who served the high king, Cormac MacArt himself. Do ye have any idea how difficult it was to become one of the few skilled enough, clever enough to be ordained into the Fianna? Do ye have any idea how prestigious it was to be counted amongst their ranks? Why, I defeated nine warriors at once, I did.”
“After walking barefoot through snow up to your waist and climbing over a mountain, no doubt,” she muttered. His ego certainly hadn’t diminished with death.
“Nay.” He flashed her a look of confusion. “’Twas midsummer. I passed many such tests to become one of Fionn’s warriors, not the least of which was proving my skill with sword, bow and lance.”
“Good for you.” Out of all the deceased she’d encountered, this boasty ghosty took the prize for being the most entertaining. Regan couldn’t wait to call her sisters to tell them about today’s encounter. Was she supposed to help him? Was that what drew her back to Newgrange and not the magic after all? No. Fáelán was but one of many ghosts hanging out on this hill. And she had no interest in working with dead people anymore. Honestly, she never had. All she’d ever wanted was to be ordinary and to have all the ordinary things life had to offer, like a job she loved, a husband, children and a nice house in the burbs.
She started down the hill, heading for the fields she needed to cross to get to her rental car. “I believe you, but the Fianna existed in what . . . the second and third centuries? This is the twenty-first century, so—”
“Ye know our history.” His gaze lit with approval. “I’m cursed, I tell ye, by the Tuatha Dé Danann princess Morrigan. Tricked me, she did. Came to me in the guise of a mortal and seduced me into her bed. Had I known her true identity, I never would have lain with her, and—”
“And you’d be long dead regardless. Nobody lives into their thousands.”
“And ”—he scowled—“not knowin’ the brief tryst meant aught to her, I took another lover soon after. Morrigan caught me and my lover between the furs once upon a winter’s eve, and that is when the fae princess cursed me.”
“Killed you more like.” No point in mincing words. If he was to cross over, he had to first accept his state of deadness.
“Nay. I told ye, I’m no ghost.”
Fáelán strode ahead, turned and faced her, forcing her to stop in her tracks or walk right through him. She hated the walk-throughs, hated the creepy chill and the overwhelming fight-or-flight instinct that shot through her every time it happened. Even thinking about it caused a shudder.
“Do ye want to hear the curse, lassie?”
His expression was so earnest, so hopeful, how could she resist? “I’m guessing you wish to share it with me.”
“I do,” he said, his gaze roaming over her face, coming to rest upon her lips.
She turned away. Too strange, this feeling of attraction to a dead man. “Go ahead, but we need to keep walking. I’m trespassing here and don’t want to get caught.”
“If we must, but I won’t be able to do justice to the recitation.”
“Oh?” He was funny, charming and somehow vulnerable. Add to that his breathtaking good looks, and she could see why a fae princess might want to crawl between the furs with him. “I know how difficult it can be to walk and talk at the same time, but I trust you’ll do the best you can,” she teased, earning her another disgruntled look from her ghostly companion. “You remember the curse word for word after all this time?”
“Of course.” His shoulders squared. “I had to commit to memory all the verses of poetry about our people’s history, and I recited every last word to Fionn without error afore I could be ordained into the
Fianna. I also proved myself a poet in my own right.” “Boasty ghosty,” she muttered.
“Cursed,” he snapped back, just as they reached the wooden fence separating the heritage land from the fields beyond. “I’d lend ye a hand, lassie, but I fear I cannot. I exist in the void, whilst ye reside in the earthly realm. We cannot touch.”
More likely, if he tried, her hand would go right through his. “It’s all right. I can manage.” She climbed over the fence, only to find him already on the other side by the time both her feet hit the ground. “So, the curse?” She set off across the field.
Fáelán cleared his throat, shook out his arms and huffed out a breath. He began, in a rich baritone, projecting his voice from his ghostly diaphragm . . . in Irish.
She hated to admit it, but her curiosity had been piqued. “Wait. My Irish isn’t good enough to get much out of what you just said. Can you translate the curse into modern-day English for me?”
“Of course. I’ve had centuries aplenty to learn all forms of English, French and German. I suspect ye might be from the Americas, but your accent is none too familiar. Where are ye from, Álainn?”
“Tennessee. The curse? Please continue.”
He cleared his throat again and seemed to ponder for a few moments. Finally, he began.
“Foolish, fickle human,
’tis a royal covenant ye have broken.
Harken well to my edict, for ’tis your penance now spoken. By wind, water, earth and fire I vow,
’til blood of sidhe in a mortal will tell, ’twixt here and shadow shall ye dwell.
Not without mercy, a daughter of Danu be, I grant ye one path by which ye might be free. During the interludes when the realms collide, in the earthly world may ye bide. Seek she who sees ye, and woo her well. For once your heart is fully given, when your life for hers ye’d gladly give, in the earthly realm may ye once again live.”
“Impressive.” He truly was a poet if he could spew out something like that at a moment’s notice. “What does the curse refer to when it mentions realms colliding?”
“During solstices and equinoxes, the veil between the worlds lifts, and the realms merge. I know of only three: the shadow realm where the dead go to be judged afore rebirth, the void realm where the fae make their home and the earthly realm where we humans are meant to dwell.”
She’d read the Celts believed there were different realms, and building his fantasy upon what was culturally relevant to him made sense. Besides, ghosts had to go somewhere when they stepped into the light, and she’d often wondered where that might be. Who was she to say there weren’t other dimensions? “When did this happen, Fáelán?”
Getting a ghost to think about time’s passage was the first step in a multistep process for helping them accept they were dead. She should write a manual for ghost whisperers, a twelve-step program for helping spirits depart. Once she found a way to rid herself of her gift, she could pass the manual along to some other unfortunate soul who’d been born with the sight. Perhaps she would write that book. Now that she’d sold her chain of yoga studios, she had the time. Step two: confront the ghost with empirical evidence of their demise—or at least the implausibility of their continued existence. Regan glanced at her ghostly companion. “How do you explain not aging or dying after all this time?”
“I cannot, for I do not understand the reasons myself. ’Tis said the Tuatha Dé Danann, the children of the goddess Danu, partake of the Elixir of Life, which is the source of their immortality. Morrigan may have slipped a drop or two of the elixir into the food I am provided with in my captivity.”
“Hmm.” Poor guy. Clearly, he was a ghost with a rich imagination, unwilling to accept his own mortality. And why would he? He’d died so young. No wonder he’d stuck around. Acceptance would be difficult for such a strong personality. She’d encountered the same denial many times with accident victims, especially young men. What was it about young males that led them to believe they were immortal?
“Ye see me,” he said, sweeping his arm in a wide arc and turning in a circle. “Seek she who sees ye, and woo her well.” He lowered his chin and winked at her again. “Perhaps you’re the lassie I’m fated to love with all my heart, aye?”
Speaking of hearts, hers broke a tiny bit for him. He was so deep in denial, he’d created an entire fantasy for a way to return to the land of the living. Despite her wish to be done with ghost busting, she was tempted to help this spirit come to grips with his reality.
“’Tis a wonder. Might you be mo a míorúilt lómhar, my precious miracle? I do hope so, for a lovelier miracle I could not have imagined.”
His over-the-top flirty tone didn’t match the desperate hope she glimpsed deep in his eyes. “For a ghost, you certainly are a shameless flirt.” She couldn’t keep from grinning. The notion that she could be anyone’s precious miracle tickled her. “It’s highly doubtful I’m the one destined to win your heart after all these years, but I’ll help you in any way I can.”
Meaning she’d come back to Newgrange a few more times and lead him as gently as possible to the realization that he was no longer of this world. Once he accepted his death, she’d guide him toward the light, and he’d cross over.
A sense of rightness settled over her. For this boasty ghosty, she’d put aside her search for a way to cut herself off from the spirit world. Temporarily. Once he’d departed, she’d take up the search right where she’d left off. Click Here to Purchase.
True to the Highlander
A Novel of Loch Moigh, Book 1
Chapter 1 excerpt
New York, Present Day
Alethia Goodsky gave all things supernatural a wide berth—and Madame Giselle reeked of magic. The old fortune-teller often followed her around the fairgrounds, popping up whenever Alethia took her breaks—always watching. She couldn’t help but feel uneasy around the woman. Fixing a wary eye on the fortune-teller’s greenand-white-striped tent, she contemplated the two paths before her. The longer route to the parking lot meant an uphill trek all the way around the New York Renaissance Festival fairgrounds, in her gown no less. The shorter path cut the distance in half, but she’d have to pass within a foot of Madame Giselle’s door.
A gust of wind whipped a cloud of dust into her face, stinging her eyes. She gagged on the sour smell of garbage carried by the breeze. Exhaustion tugged her toward the shorter route. As much as she loved her job at the Renaissance festival, weeks of working around the clock had taken their toll.
Shifting the strap of the canvas duffel biting into her shoulder, Alethia started down the hill, her violin case bumping against her hip with each step. Near the tent’s entrance, she clutched the skirt of her Renaissance gown and tiptoed past.
The sound of muffled sobs brought her to a halt. Crying?
Torn, she listened for a moment before compassion won out over common sense. Moving the tent flap aside, she peered in. “Hello, is everything all right in here?”
“No, it’s not.” Madame Giselle had changed out of her gypsy costume and into gabardine slacks, a cashmere sweater and a suede blazer. Riffling through her designer handbag, she resembled nothing more sinister than someone’s upper-class grandmother. She pulled out a linen handkerchief and turned to face Alethia. “I’m glad you stopped by. Come in.”
Alethia really didn’t want to go into that tent, but she’d been the fool who’d lifted the flap, and disrespecting an elder went against the grain. She took a tentative step forward. “What’s the matter?”
“Oh.” Giselle blew her nose into the fancy hanky. “Someone I care about is in grave danger. I’d do anything to help.” She turned red, puffy eyes toward Alethia. “Wouldn’t you if it were someone in your family?”
“Yes, ma’am, I would.”
“I thought as much.” Giselle’s eyes lit up through her teary smile. Dark eyes shining with acuity and something deeper fixed on Alethia. “You grew up on your father’s reservation, didn’t you, near the Canadian border?”
“How could you possibly know that?” The familiar prickle of unease she felt around Giselle cat-pawed its way up Alethia’s spine.
“Not all of what I do is for show.” Giselle arched an eyebrow. “You better than anyone should understand.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Heat rose to Alethia’s cheeks at the lie.
“Come now, you can be honest with me. You have . . . certain gifts, do you not?”
Gifts? That’s not the word she’d use to describe her abilities. Alethia could read other people’s energy and always knew whether someone was lying or telling the truth. She’d read everything she could about ESP. Her talent wasn’t all that unique. Still, on top of being biracial, her so-called gift made it even more difficult to fit in. “I don’t—”
“There are depths to you not yet tapped,” Giselle added as if speaking to herself. “You’d be able to survive anywhere.” Her eyes narrowed. “You have plans for the future, a carefully laid path already in the works?”
She didn’t know about the tapping depths part, but her plans at least felt like safe territory. Alethia nodded. “I graduate from Juilliard next spring, and I already have a job lined up in Los Angeles.” Pride rippled through her. “I’ll be playing in a Hollywood orchestra that does soundtracks for movies.”
“Sounds lovely.” Giselle smiled back. “Why don’t you sit? That pack looks heavy.”
“I can’t stay. My ride is waiting.” Alethia stepped back, and the air in the tent became charged with an unfamiliar tension. Magic. Giselle’s image blurred and shifted as if it had been superimposed over another’s, more ethereal and insubstantial. Alethia’s heart beat inside her chest like a fly trapped in a glass jar.
She blinked, and the ordinary grandmother in gabardine came back into focus. Not possible. It’s exhaustion, that’s all. Alethia took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Stay for a moment.” Giselle pointed toward a rickety chair set close to an equally shabby table. “I thought of you while packing my things.”
Alethia frowned as her legs carried her toward the chair. She didn’t want to sit, much less stay, but she couldn’t seem to turn herself around to march out that door. “You thought about me?”
“Oh yes. I’ve been thinking about you for a very long time.”
“A long time? This is the first festival we’ve ever worked together, and we’ve never even had a conversation. How—”
“Time is relative, Alethia, and completely malleable for one such as myself.”
What the hell does that mean? Despite her desire to bolt, Alethia stayed planted where she was. Giselle mumbled to herself while she rummaged through a plastic bin full of her fortune-telling paraphernalia. Alethia shuddered as she listened.
“Ah, here it is.” Giselle turned back with a pendant on a gold chain dangling from her hands. The charm was an animal effigy made of Celtic knots with a green stone mounted in the middle. “You’ve been so kind, stopping by to cheer me up even though I’m a stranger to you. I want you to have this.” She slipped the pendant around Alethia’s neck.
Alethia traced the intricate design with her finger. The knots formed the image of a crane. Among her father’s people, the Anishinaabe, she belonged to the Crane clan. “It’s beautiful, but I can’t keep this.” She lifted the chain over her head to return it. “It must be worth a fortune.”
“It’s yours.” Giselle caught her hands and pushed the pendant back down around Alethia’s neck. “This was crafted in the Highlands of Scotland eons ago. It is fitting that you should have it. Don’t you think?”
Her mother had been Scottish, a MacConnell, but how could Giselle know so much about her life? The gold chain came to rest with unnatural warmth against Alethia’s skin. Every instinct she had screamed at her to get the hell out of there. Now. “Thanks. Can I pay you for the necklace? I didn’t really do anything to deserve it.”
“Ah, but you will.” Giselle laughed. “I don’t want your money. The pendant is a gift.”
Alethia grabbed her things from the ground, relieved to find that her body finally obeyed her mind. “I hope everything turns out all right with your relative.”
“I am certain it will. Go, child. Your destiny awaits.”
Giselle had obviously played the role of the gypsy fortune-teller far too long. Alethia’s future had nothing to do with destiny and everything to do with hard work, determination and careful planning.
Alethia took a step toward the tent’s exit, and every hair on her body stood on end. An eerie electrical charge filled the tent, along with the distinctive scent of ozone. All the familiar sounds associated with the closing fair faded. A loud clap made her ears pop, and everything flattened in an impossible two-dimensional way.
Pulled by a powerful current, she lurched forward. It took all of her strength to hold on to her things, and she fought to remain upright against the invisible force pressing in on her from all sides. A blur of light and color flashed by in microsecond increments. Nausea and pressure made it hard to breathe. She gasped for air, and pain ripped through her. God, she was being torn apart. I’m going to die. I don’t want to die!
Blackness edged its way in around her as she struggled to remain conscious. No use. The vortex pulled her under. Click Here to Purchase.
The Highlanders Bargain
A Novel of Loch Moigh, Book 2
Chapter 1 excerpt
Robley sat in his uncle’s solar, his thoughts drifting like thistledown in a stiff breeze. His father, uncle and cousin droned on and on about their clan’s kine, the condition of this year’s crops, the villagers and the needs of their crofters. He placed his elbows on the table and scrubbed his face with both hands, stifling the urge to yawn.
“Something ailing you, lad?” Robley’s uncle William, the earl of Fife asked, his tone slightly exasperated.
Robley straightened, taking his elbows off the table. “Nay, just a bit fatigued.”
“Mayhap less time spent in the village inn drinking and carousing and more time sleeping at night would no’ be amiss,” the earl scolded.
His brow shot up, but he kept his mouth shut. Since the return of their King James to take his rightful place on Scotland’s throne, Robley’s role in their clan’s welfare had been reduced to that of page. He ran errands, carried messages and aided his father in the execution of his duties as seneschal for the MacKintosh holdings.
Robley’s future, right down to the kine, the crops and the crofters, offered little in the way of excitement. The drinking and carousing gave him a brief respite from the powerful yearning for adventure plaguing him and filling his dreams.
He sorely missed the days when he had a battle or a tournament to anticipate. He missed the adventures he’d had with his brother and cousin while traipsing across the continent.
Malcolm and Liam were settled now with families to raise. Peace had its merits, aye, but naught stirred the blood like a war of wits and brawn.
“’Tis long past time you took a wife, my lad.” His father placed a hand on Robley’s shoulder and gave it a shake. “Your mother and I long to dandle both our sons’ bairns on our knees. We wish to see you settled and content.” Robert turned to his brother “What say you, William? Shall we cast about for a suitable bride for my lad? Mayhap the ladies can recommend a willing lass with a generous dowry.”
Settled? His mouth went dry. He couldn’t be much more settled than he was now, and the tedium was killing him. “Ah . . .”
His cousin Malcolm smirked. “Aye, Rob. ’Tis time you married. Have you no’ said you wished to find a braw and bonnie lass like my True?”
“There are none like your lady here.” He scowled. “Shall I seek the faerie who sent her to you through time, and request she fetch me a bride from the future as well?” Had he given voice to his heart’s desire? Was this the source of his restless obsession? Aye, and truth be told, he wanted to find the lass himself. He yearned to see with his own eyes the wonders the future held: airplanes, automobiles and lights that came on by the mere flick of a switch. These were but a few of the marvels True had mentioned. How could he not turn his mind once again to the fantastic tales she told of her life in the twenty-first century? His obsession. He longed to see the future. ’Twould be his last adventure. How he kent this, he could not say, but the certainty had lodged itself firmly in his gut, and he could not free himself of the notion.
Malcolm shrugged. “My wife was sent here to save a life. That we fell in love had naught to do with Giselle’s purpose, and I dinna suppose her ilk take well to requests of any kind. ’Tis best to stay as far from the fae as possible, lest you get caught up in their machinations. We mere mortals are naught but pawns to them.”
“Aye, keep your distance, Rob.” The earl rose from his chair. “You’ve a responsibility to our clan. One day you will take your father’s place as seneschal, as Malcolm will take mine. I remember what it is to be young and restless, but have a care. The well-being of our people rests squarely upon our shoulders.” He fixed Robley to the spot with a stern stare. “Come. We’ve work to do, and the hour grows late.”
“I ken well my responsibilities, Uncle.” He pushed his chair back and stood, chafing at the scolding. He was a man of four and twenty, and a blooded warrior besides. “If anyone should need me to carry a message or inventory the buttery, I’ll be in the lists.” His remark garnered sharp looks, but no more reprimands. Striding out of the solar, he contemplated his situation.
He could let his family arrange a marriage for him. Mayhap he’d even come to care for whomever they chose, but would he love her? Would his heart thrill at the sight of her, as Malcolm’s did still when his lady wife entered the room? “No’ bloody likely.” Jealousy burned a path through him, and the weight of his future settled upon his shoulders like a yoke. One more adventure—was it too much to ask?—and then he’d settle into his predestined role within the clan.
He took the stairs down to the great hall, pausing when he found his cousin’s wife there consulting with their cook, Molly. Lady True was already growing large with her second bairn, and another pang of jealousy shot through him. He wanted a family of his own, but not without love. The indignity of the scolding he’d received still stung, along with the restless desire to act. He waited until True sent Molly on her way before approaching. A plan, such as it was, had germinated in his mind for far too long. The time was at hand to put it into motion. “Good morn,
True. How do you fare?”
“I’m fine.” She rubbed her belly and studied him in that piercing way she had. Her abilities as a truth-sayer had saved their clan more than once, and now she turned her powers his way. “What troubles you, Robley?”
“There’s something I wish to ask. A favor.” His resolve firmed. The more he thought about it, the more powerfully the notion took hold. “Do you have a moment to walk about the bailey?” He offered his arm.
“Of course. I always have time for you.” She grinned and took his arm. “If it’s within my power to help, you know I will, but I sense whatever it is will be met with opposition from our family.”
“Aye, which is why we will keep it between ourselves.” He led her out the door. Deep into summer, the air was warm, and the sky held fat clouds to offer shade from the hot sun. “Do you recall the time I helped you secure weapons against Malcolm’s wishes?”
“Of course I do.” She laughed. “And now you plan to use that to leverage a payback?” “If it will help.” He drew a breath, gathering all of his courage and determination. “I wish to visit the future. Nay, that does no’ describe what I feel.” He shook his head. “It’s something I must do, and I canna free myself from the certainty that I’m meant to go there for some reason.” Her brow furrowed as she studied him once again. “It’s possible that what you feel is a form of manipulation.” Her expression filled with concern. “You know I don’t have the power to send you to the future, nor do I have the power to prevent you from trying to get there on your own.
“Madame Giselle sought me out because of the little bit of faerie blood running through my veins. You know how Giselle loves to meddle. Had it not been for her, I would still be living my life in the twenty-first century.” She squeezed his forearm. “I sense she might be stirring the pot here, and you can’t trust her. Be careful.”
“I ken well enough the fae canna be trusted, but . . .” Their clan had ties to the fae, especially Madame Giselle, because Hunter, True and Malcolm’s foster son, was her direct descendant. He raked his free hand through his hair, unsure how to put words to what stirred within him. “Giselle cares for you, Hunter and your daughter, aye? When she brought you to us, ’twas for good. Think of the lives you’ve saved, True. Mayhap her purpose now will also be for the good of our clan. Did you no’ tell us when we needed help, help would come to us? Was that no’ the vow Giselle made to you and Malcolm?”
“Hmm. ‘When you need help the most, help shall find you,’ is what she said. More like a benediction than a vow, and not necessarily directed at our clan as a whole.” She placed her hand protectively over the bairn growing inside her. “I might be all wrong about her having anything to do with your compulsion. Your desire may stem from your own curiosity about my time and nothing more.”
“I dinna ken, nor do I care. The future is all I’ve thought of since you shared with us the truth of your journey here. Are you no’ tired of my pestering you for more of your tales?” “I am, and your relentlessness is the reason I suspect Giselle is behind it. You’re not normally obsessive about anything.” She shook her head. “And you know when I sense the hidden truths in any given situation, it’s wise for all of us to listen—including me. My abilities have never led us astray, have they?”
“Nay, your abilities have saved lives, mine included. Whether ’tis compulsion or no’, if Giselle is still to be found in Inverness, I will see her. There’s naught you can say that will prevent me from doing what I must. The favor I ask is that you help me prepare.”
“There’s no guarantee Giselle will send you anywhere but out her door.” She brought her thumbnail to her mouth, a sure sign she gave serious consideration to his request. “Malcolm is going to kill me for sure this time.”
Triumph surged. “Do you still have the paper currency from your time? That and information are all I seek. My cousin canna be angered by a simple exchange of knowledge, can he?”
“Can’t he?” Her brow rose. “This is my husband we’re talking about. Overbearing, controlling and arrogant to the bone.”
He winked at her. “Dinna tell him.” Click Here to Purchase.
The Highlanders Folly
A Novel of Loch Moigh, Book 3
Chapter 1 excerpt
Five long years he’d been away, and were it not for the offal covering the shores of Port Leith, he’d drop to his knees and kiss the ground. Hunter covered his destrier’s eyes with a cloak and led him down the ship’s plank. His stallion snorted and bobbed its head in an attempt to free the reins from his grip. For certes Doireann scented the verdant, sprouting greenery of early spring beyond the borough. The stallion must be as glad as he to be off the malodorous vessel.
Once the others in his small band of traveling knights were gathered about him, Hunter began issuing orders. “Tieren, you and Nevan seek a stable near Haymarket Square. See to purchasing a wagon and a rouncy or two to pull it whilst you’re there. Nothing fancy, mind. ’Twill no’ do to draw attention.”
Tieren nodded. “I’ve heard the roads are overrun with brigands since the old king’s assassination.”
“I’ve heard the rumors as well.” Hunter placed his hand briefly upon his most trusted friend’s shoulder.
“Take care. No’ even the streets of edinburgh are safe.”
Tieren shot him a cocky grin. “You’ve naught to worry about on my account.”
A brine-tinged breeze blew in from the sea, carrying with it the odor of dead fish. Combined with the acrid stench of sewage from the city, the smells assaulted Hunter’s senses. The port was no better than the hull of the ship. “Gregory, Murray, stay with the lads to guard our belongings. Cecil, come with me.” Hunter removed the cloak from his mount’s head and swung up into the saddle. “We will secure lodging for the night.” He surveyed his men. “We depart at first light on the morrow.”
“Och, Hunter. We’ve just arrived. Can we no’ stay at least a se’nnight?” asked Nevan, the youngest in their party. “We’ve been at sea for nearly a month, and a month without a lass to warm my bed is far too long. I wish to sample all the pleasures edinburgh has tae offer.” He sent him a pleading look. “What was the purpose in winning all that gold and silver if I canna spend a bit of it on debauchery?”
“Wheesht, ye wee lummox!” Murray cuffed Nevan’s ears. “Would ye tell all and sundry what we carry? Ye put us needlessly at risk afore we even begin our journey,” he hissed beneath his breath.
“Oy! Leave off. The ship’s crew ken well enough what we carry. Think you they’ll keep it to themselves once they’re visiting their favorite haunts and downing one ale after another?” Nevan rubbed his ears and glowered at Murray before turning back to Hunter. “At the very least, we should make our way to the castle. ’Tis discourteous indeed no’ to take the time to pay court to our king, and the captain says young James is in residence.”
Hunter shook his head. ’Twas not that his rank as a knight was any higher than theirs. In fact, other than Tieren, the rest were of noble blood whilst he was not. Yet shortly after they’d banded together, by tacit agreement the group had begun looking to him to lead them. “James is but a lad of ten. He cares naught whether a group of lowly knights pay him court whilst passing through. Besides, since the murders of the sixth earl of Douglas and his younger brother, I’ve no wish to make any aware of our presence here. Old Archibald and his sons William and David were close allies and friends to the MacKintosh. Well, I recall them from their frequent visits to Moigh Hall.”
“Murdered, ye say? When?” Murray’s eyes widened. “I too recall the lads.”
“A year past.” Hunter lowered his voice, rested his forearm on the pommel of his saddle and leaned forward, glancing at the men who had circled closer. “Lords Crichton and Livingston along with William’s great-uncle James conspired to influence the young king and his advisors. The uncles manufactured charges of treason against the new earl and his next in line. William and David were beheaded right here in edinburgh while our young king looked on, and with the old earl only recently laid to rest. In exchange, the Annandale and Bothwell holdings went to the crown, and William’s great-uncle James took the earldom for himself.”
“’Twas a year past, you say? How come you by such news?” Nevan raised an eyebrow. “Were you no’ abroad and in the field at the time?”
“Aye.” Hunter nodded. “My kin sent word through my foster father’s aunt. Her husband holds a marquessate near Flanders. I was privy to the intimate details when we visited their donjon on our way to Calais. ’Twas before you rejoined us for the journey home, Nevan. I kept it close until this day.”
Hunter cast a commanding look around the circle of knights. “We will no’ tarry here. I trow you will find willing lasses enough along the way to Loch Moigh. I propose we take the northerly route and stop in Aberdeenshire. Three days there to rest, purchase supplies and send word of our homecoming to Loch Moigh will suffice, aye?” A chorus of assent followed.
He glanced toward the crenellated wall surrounding the keep where it perched high upon the rock above them, and shuddered. “Though he went about it all wrong, the elder King James had it aright. Scotland must become a united kingdom if we are to survive and prosper. ’Tis been but four years, and already the king’s murder has torn Scotland asunder. Our clans do more harm from within than any enemy could from without.”
“’Tis the truth, and I for one have nae wish tae remain in edinburgh any longer than need be,” Gregory said, crossing himself. “When shall ye return tae port?”
Hunter glanced at the sun. “’Tis but midmorn. We’ll return when the bells chime for None.” He turned his horse toward the city’s busy roads and nudged him into a trot. Hunter’s thoughts roiled with the treachery that had occurred in this very place. These days, the MacKintosh stuck close to home and stayed out of the politics at court as much as possible. For a brief moment, gratitude that he was naught but a landless, untitled knight filled him. Hunter held no power or property to be taken by their greedy young liege— or his advisors.
Cecil brought his mount up to flank his. “’Twas the elder King James who knighted you, aye?”
He nodded. “Tieren and Murray as well. ’Twas a personal favor to the earl of Fife for taking part in King James’s ransom from the British. ’Tis hard to credit that nearly a score of years has passed since the year he returned to take his rightful place upon Scotland’s throne, aye?” He sent his friend a wry smile. “Were it no’ for my foster family, neither Tieren nor I would have dared hope to aspire to knighthood. I’m naught but an orphan and have ne’er even met my kin, and Tieren is the son of an alewife from our village at Loch Moigh.”
“Who might your clan be?”
“My sire was a MacConnell. He disappeared before I was born, and my mother, a MacKintosh, returned to Loch Moigh to live with my granddam.” Disappeared indeed! His poor father had perished when he’d been caught up in the wake of the time-traveling faerie who called herself Madame Giselle. A shudder racked him at the thought.
“Did you never seek out your father’s kin?”
“Nay, nor did they trouble themselves to find out what became of me.” The bitterness still galled him deeply. Why hadn’t his father’s clan searched for him when his mother and granddam had passed? Surely his granny had sent word to his kin when his mother passed. For certes he must have had uncles, aunts and grandparents on his father’s side.
Cecil barked out a laugh. “Mayhap no’ by lineage, but by skill and valor you’ve more right to knighthood than most.” He slapped Hunter’s back. “You are undefeated upon the field and in the tourneys, and I for one am much heartened to ride by your side, sir.”
“My thanks.” Heat suffused his face. He shifted in his saddle and studied their surroundings. Though Murray was also aware of their clan’s time-traveling secrets, only Tieren and his foster family kent the way of it with him. Hunter had a trace of Tuatha Dé Danann blood running through his veins. He had fae gifts, and one of them was the ability to anticipate the moves of his enemies. ’Twas why none could defeat him in battle or in contests of skill.
Like his foster mother, who had come to him from the future to save his life, he also sensed whether someone spoke truth or falsehood. Other people’s emotions were a physical force to him, and it had taken some time before he learned how to shut them out. He kept his abilities well hidden. In these times fraught with superstition and peril, ’twas prudent not to draw too much attention. Prowess in the lists was acceptable; fae abilities were not.
Hunter lowered his voice. “Once we’re settled, I want us out of chain mail and into our feileadh breacans or tunics and hose. I dinna wish to appear as if we are of noble rank or transporting anything of value through the countryside. Once we’re in Aberdeenshire, we’ll purchase sacks of grain, foodstuffs and wool to cover the casks and trophies in the wagon. Until then, a tarp will have to suffice.”
“’Tis wise, but what of our saddles and tack, not to mention our weapons, tournament tents and banners? None will mistake our gear for that of mere villeins.”
Hunter rubbed his hand over the stubble covering his chin. He wanted a bath, a shave and a decent meal this day. He longed for a good night’s rest on a pallet that did not heave and shift with the ocean waves. “We can arrange to have those items transported to Castle Inverness with the next merchant caravan heading in that direction. The earl of Fife holds that keep for our king, and once we have our wealth safely stowed at Moigh Hall, ’tis an easy enough journey to Inverness to retrieve them. We can bring a contingent of the earl’s men with us.”
He searched for a likely inn up one side of the cobbled road and down the other. “As for the weapons, I plan to wear my claymore and daggers hidden under my oldest cloak. I suggest the rest of you do likewise. Our other weapons shall remain out of sight upon the wagon, so they are close to hand should we need them.”
A short distance away he spied a sizeable inn that appeared well tended but not overly opulent. “There.” He nodded toward the place he had in his sights. “The Dancing Stag,” he read the sign aloud. “’Twill do nicely.” Click Here to Purchase.
Heart of the Druid Laird
Chapter 1 excerpt
Gairloch, Scotland, Present Day
The contents of Dermot MacKay’s coffee mug mirrored his mood—black, like the endless days stretching before him without surcease—and bitter, like his thoughts.
“Will you no’ eat something, Laird? You canna train on an empty stomach.”
“Nay, Lachlan. Have you forgotten?” Dermot surveyed the men around his table tucking into their hearty breakfasts. “I’ve been fasting since twilight last and will no’ join you in the gym today.”
“I’ve no’ forgotten.” Lachlan shrugged. “We’ve no reason to expect the outcome will be any different this year.”
“Where is Thomas?” Dermot watched the men’s furtive glances dart around the table like mice after crumbs. No one answered. They knew he wished to avoid his cousin. At this time of year Thomas’s antics grated, and running him through with a sword, though immensely satisfying, only incited Thomas to more mischief. Dermot’s frown deepened at the sound of footsteps. “Shite.”
Thomas sauntered into the dining hall and helped himself to a plate from the sideboard. He heaped it with fat sausages, scrambled eggs, warm currant scones with honey-butter, and fried tatties with onion, all Dermot’s favorites. His cousin faced him with an expression of smug anticipation. Swinging the loaded plate under Dermot’s nose, he took a seat.
“Have you done the deed yet, Druid?” Thomas raised an eyebrow and fixed him in his gaze.
Dermot inhaled the delicious scents wafting up from Thomas’s plate. His stomach rumbled. Another pointless fast, followed by an equally fruitless ritual, and for what? He didn’t expect the outcome to be any different either. He swallowed the saliva filling his mouth. “How many times have I told you no’ to call me Druid?”
“Let me see.” Thomas pulled the stub of a pencil and a tiny notebook from the rear pocket of his jeans and flipped it open with a flourish. “We’ve been together for sixteen hundred and fifty years, give or take a few decades. That’s three hundred sixty-five days per year, except leap years of course.” He tapped his chin with the pencil. “Let’s say you’ve told me three times per day, a conservative estimate.” He scribbled furiously, his brow furrowed in concentration. “It comes to one million eight hundred thousand times, or thereabouts.”
Laughter erupted around him. Dermot glared his men into silence.
“Well?” Thomas persisted. “Have you done the deed yet, Druid? Wait, that’s one more time you’ve told me today.” He solemnly added a tally to his notebook, eliciting choking sounds from the men at the table.
Launching himself from his chair, Dermot snapped, “I’ll do it now.” He stormed out of the dining hall and climbed the massive stone steps two at a time. Striding down the corridor on the second floor, he headed for the one place in his home he’d devoted to the Druidic arts.
The moment he opened the door to his stillroom, the earthy scent of dried herbs and beeswax soothed him. Early morning light poured through the tall beveled windows, lighting the patina of the polished oak bookshelves to a warm gold. He ran his hand along the leather spines of his ancient tomes and rare first editions and pulled one of the books from the shelf. Taking a seat in his favorite chair, he let the book fall open in his lap. How many times during the span of his life had he held this book in his lap? He glanced at the dried medicinal herbs hanging from the rack, and on to the rare works of art gracing the walls.
Shite. He’d miss this refuge, but if Mairéad didn’t show again this year, they’d have to think about relocating soon. They’d been in Gairloch over a decade, and it wouldn’t be long before the locals noticed he and his men weren’t aging.
Gods, he longed for an end. If he had any say in the matter, once the damned curse was lifted he’d refuse another incarnation for at least a millennium. Surely he’d earned the rest.
Procrastination isn’t going to change the outcome. Best get the deed done.
He rose from the chair to put the book back in its place and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. With a wave of his hand, sacred herbs and beeswax candles took flame. Fragrant spirals of smoke drifted throughout the room as he mentally prepared himself for the task ahead. A map of the world lay flat on the large granite-topped work table, and the scrying crystal nested in its velvet-lined box awaited his magic. He cleared his mind and meditated upon the soul he sought.
Turning his focus inward, he reached deep into his soul to call forth the magic lying dormant within all sentient beings. Speaking the words of the chant, he slipped between this realm and the realm of shadow, where all souls were connected. Only on Samhain, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, was he allowed to breach the veil between the worlds to search for Mairéad’s return.
Inured to the cold-feather touch of spirits brushing against him, Dermot closed his mind against the onslaught of random consciousness. Nothing could distract him from his purpose. He lifted the silken cord fastened to the scrying crystal, the unique image of Mairéad’s spirit fixed in his mind’s eye. With a slight motion of his wrist, the crystal circled above the map in a wide arc, narrowing with each swing.
The cord tightened and strained in his hand. His concentration faltered and his heart raced. Nay. It couldn’t be…not after all this time. Taking a deep breath, he eased the slack and continued the spin in smaller turns. The crystal affixed itself to a single spot in the center of North America. Shock reverberated through his body as powerful magic exploded from the scrying crystal through the astral plane. The signal had been sent. Àine and the high king of the Tuatha Dé Danann would know he’d found her. The race had begun, and he had only this one chance to end the curse, or he and his men would remain as they were for all eternity.
He’d waited so long for this moment he could scarce believe what his senses told him. He’d found her. Memories dragged him back through the ages. The heat of his burning keep. The image of Mairéad lying in a pool of her own blood. He choked, remembering the thick, black smoke and the smell of burning flesh. The battle sounds and the cries of the dying echoed inside his skull until he feared it would explode.
Sixteen hundred years’ worth of frustration and rage welled up with his bile, scalding his throat and filling him with bitterness. If mankind ever needed proof romantic love was nothing but folly, he had it to give. Mairéad swore she loved him, and the foolish notion led to her murder and the death of their precious unborn child.
He threw his head back and shouted a call to battle loud enough to wake the dead.
He swiped the world map off the table and snatched another—the United States—spreading it out on the table. Again he scried, and again the prism stopped. He leaned close. Saint Paul, Minnesota, an ocean and half a continent away.
A dozen pairs of boots thudding in the corridor brought Dermot back fully into the material realm. He moved to intercept his men at the door. “Niall, I need a large, detailed street map of Saint Paul, Minnesota in the U.S. Thomas, you’ll make the travel arrangements. I’ll take four of you with me. We’ll stay no more than a fortnight.” Dermot looked into the stunned faces of his men. “She is reborn. At long last Mairéad has returned.”
“Um…Druid—” Thomas stepped forward, “—you scry every year, aye?”
Dermot rubbed his temples. His head throbbed as it always did after he’d used magic. “What now, Thomas?”
“She canna be even a year old. How do you plan to get the bairn back to Scotland? We’ve only three weeks until the anniversary of Mairéad’s murder, and Áine—”
“Then we have no time to waste, do we?” He scowled at his cousin. “I’ll offer the family a vacation to a bonny Scottish castle, or throw an ungodly sum of money their way. I’ll do whatever it takes. You have my word.” Click Here to Purchase.
Close to Perfect
A Love from the Heartland Novel
Chapter 1 excerpt
Spring of 1865, Atlanta, Georgia
RAGE DUG ITS SPURS INTO Tobias, propelling him forward and lending him strength he did not own. He shoved the barrel of his carbine behind one of the slats nailed across the frame of the charred remains of the door. Putting all his weight into the task, he pried until the plank loosened. He’d known Sherman had burned Atlanta, but knowing had not prepared him for the devastation confronting him. All that remained of his family’s mercantile, his home, was a burned-out shell of brick.
Starved, thirsty, and sweating beneath the hot Georgia sun, he leaned against the crumbling brick wall to recover from his efforts and pulled in a long, deep breath. Damn, he reeked—and itched. He’d been host to every kind of vermin imaginable for so long, he’d accepted the discomfort as normal. Hell, he couldn’t even remember a time when he wasn’t covered in bites, scabs, and crawling things.
What was today’s date? He had no idea, but judging by the sun and the heat, he’d guess late May, and it had been mid-April when he’d been turned loose from Fort Sumter. God almighty, it had been one hell of a long walk from South Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia.
Tobias pushed himself off the wall and once again levered the rifle barrel behind the plank and pulled. The screeeech of nails loosening from their moorings set him on edge, but he couldn’t let up. He needed to get to one of the caches of coin he’d buried in the cellar. Then he’d see about food, a bath, clean clothes, and a place to rest. By tomorrow he’d have a bit of strength back, and then he’d set out in search of his mother and sisters. He swallowed against the tightness in his throat. He’d had no word from his family nor they from him in over a year. Were they safe? Had they survived the war?
He went back to pushing and pulling. Finally the board dropped to the ground, and a flare of triumph lent him another burst of energy. Positioning the barrel under the next slat, Tobias set to work. The effort took what little strength he had left, and the world around him began to spin. He stopped to regain his breath, only to be tortured by the scent of bread baking somewhere down the road. His gut roiled. Sweat burned his eyes and stung the bites on his face.
Swiping his sleeve across his brow, Tobias spat into the dirt between his worn-to-almost-nothing two left boots. He blinked against the sting in his eyes, marshaled his last reserves, and wrapped his hands around the carbine again.
“Here now,” a familiar voice said gruffly behind him. “That’s private property. You’d best drop that rifle and turn around real slow. Both hands in the air if you please.”
His old neighbor didn’t recognize him, and why would he? Tobias hardly recognized himself. What if Offermeyer shot first and asked questions later? Terror gripped him, and bile rose to scald the back of his throat.
“Don’t shoot. The rifle’s not loaded.” Tobias turned slowly, hands and rifle held aloft. The muscles in his arms quivered with the effort. He peered through his matted hair at the older man aiming a revolver at his chest. “Don’t you recognize me, Ambrose?”
Hunger and fatigue conspired against him then, and spots danced before his eyes. Dizziness took hold. Tobias tried to fight the weakness, tried to remain upright, but then he got the shakes. His knees buckled, and he folded, ending up facedown in the dirt.
“By God, is that you, Lovejoy?”
Tobias nodded, not even attempting to raise himself. Ambrose’s shout for help filled the air, and Tobias flinched. Echoes of the battles he’d endured flooded his mind—one brutal skirmish after another, cannons firing, rifles and muskets discharging, smoke
. . . and the constant, sickening stench of blood, unwashed bodies, dysentery, and death.
The horrors of war lived like a glowing ember deep inside him, set to burst into flame at the slightest provocation. Too many men—Confederate and Union alike—had survived the bloody battles only to perish in the deplorable prisons, where disease, filth, and starvation ran rampant. His empty stomach turned as the stink of putrefying wounds and human waste inundated his senses.
He’d nearly died more than once, but somehow, by some miracle, he’d made it home. He heard someone approach, and the next thing Tobias knew, he was being hefted by more than one pair of hands.
“Lord almighty, you smell worse’n a privy,” Ambrose Offermeyer remarked. “Let’s get some food into your belly. There’s nothing to you but skin and bones, son. While you’re eating, I’ll have the missus fix a nice warm salt bath to get rid of the vermin crawling all over you.”
“I can see things moving around in his hair, Pa.” The younger Offermeyer grunted. “A salt bath will do for the chiggers and biters, but shaving’s the only way to rid him of the nits.”
“That too,” Ambrose agreed. “Food, a bath, shaving, clean clothes, and you might just feel close to human again. And after a good rest, you can tell us where the hell you been since last we heard. We’d all but given you up for lost.”
“Where are my mother and sisters?” he croaked between his cracked lips. “Are . . . are they safe?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your uncle passed a month ago. Your mama and sisters are still holed up on his farm and doing about as well as can be expected during these trying times. We’ll take you to them tomorrow.”
Another blow to the gut. He couldn’t even thank his uncle for sheltering his family. “I’m much obliged.”
“You were smart to send your kin off when you did, Tobias.
Atlanta weren’t no place for womenfolk under Sherman’s siege.”
All he could manage was another nod as Ambrose and Gus supported Tobias as he shuffled across the street.
“After the city burnt, your ma and uncle came back to town to see what was left of the mercantile,” Ambrose continued. “We helped salvage what we could and boarded up the doors and windows. My boy and I have been watching over your property ever since. Figured you might want to rebuild. That is, if you made it home at all.”
“I owe you, Ambrose.”
“Hell, you don’t owe me a thing. Your mama shared what she could with us—food, blankets, and such. We’re good.” He huffed out a wry laugh. “Not so much good as surviving.”
Ambrose and his son set Tobias down on the makeshift boardwalk in front of the butcher shop the Offermeyers had owned and operated since before Tobias was born. Squinting against the brightness of the afternoon sun, he surveyed the building. It appeared his neighbors had already rebuilt, which didn’t surprise him.
“You wait right here,” Ambrose commanded. “I’ll tell the missus to get that bath ready, and we’ll come back for you with the wagon.”
“I’ve nowhere else to go,” Tobias muttered. Leaning his head against the building, he closed his eyes. The Offermeyers had always been a resourceful, industrious family. Ambrose’s and Tobias’s fathers had been close friends. Tobias had also been close to Ambrose’s older son, Andrew. Because of the history between their two families, he trusted the older man. He’d ask Ambrose for help digging up one of the jars Tobias and his pa had buried in the cellar over the years. Only silver and gold, son. No paper promises. No banks. Only silver and gold. That’s what Papa used to say, and thank God he’d listened. Confederate paper wasn’t worth a damn. May as well keep it on hand in the privies as far as he was concerned. At least then the paper would be useful.
The Offermeyers left him. Tobias sagged against the storefront wall and sighed. He could sleep for a week, and it still wouldn’t be enough. His stomach was so empty, he swore his navel pressed against his backbone. Food. Ambrose had promised food. His mouth watered at the mere thought. He’d gone far beyond hunger and into starvation long ago. He cringed at the thought of what he’d eaten along the way home just to keep body and soul together.
What would it be like to feel safe again, to sleep in a bed between clean sheets, eat regular meals, and bathe whenever
he had a mind to? He’d been deprived for so long, he couldn’t recall what it was like to live with the comforts he once took for granted. That had been a lifetime ago, and he wasn’t that man any longer. Click Here to Purchase.
The Highlanders Vow
A Novel of Loch Moigh, Book 4
Chapter 1 excerpt
Weary of travel and sore from sitting upon her palfrey’s saddle-clad back, Sky Elizabeth shifted yet again, trying to ease her discomfort. She shivered against the damp chill, and her gaze strayed to the keep looming against the distant horizon. The sight of Kildrummy Castle, soon to be her home, brought her no joy, and her heart grew heavy at the thought of her betrothed.
Sir Oliver of clan Erskine did not want her any more than she wanted him, and thanks to her accursed fae gifts, Sky could not pretend otherwise. He could not hide his true feelings behind good manners or honeyed words. Faced with naught but a life of loneliness amidst strangers, ’twas duty alone that compelled her forward.
“Just think, Sky.” Helen, her younger sister, nudged her mount ahead so the two of them rode abreast.
“You’ll be a bride within a fortnight. I envy you. Your betrothed is young and quite pleasing to look upon.”
Her sister’s dreamy-eyed expression served only to deepen Sky’s misery. “I’ll gladly trade places with you, Helen. You may marry the earl of Mar’s grandson, and I shall remain at Loch Moigh.” For the rest of my days.
A lump rose to her throat. Indeed, had it not been for the passing of her grandsire, the old earl of Fife, following so closely upon the loss of her great-uncle, she would already be Oliver’s wife. She’d been granted a reprieve, and now ’twas at an end. “I am nearly one and twenty, well past the age most ladies of noble birth marry. ’Twould please me well enough to remain unwed.”
“Nay, you dinna . . .” Helen studied her for an instant and frowned. “Och, you do mean it. Do you no’ yearn for bairns of your own?”
Like her, Helen had a trace of fae blood running through her veins, and she too could discern truth from lie. With the exception of her younger brother Thomas, all of Sky’s siblings, including her foster brother, Hunter, were “gifted,” as her mother would say.
“Nay.” Sky shook her head. “I want to become a healer and a midwife like cousin Erin and
Ma, only without the additional burdens of a husband and bairns.”
Quick and sharp, a yearning cut through Sky’s heart, and just as quickly she closed herself off from the unwanted emotion. She could not hope for bairns, not if it meant they’d be burdened with the same fae traits she carried. Hiding her gifts took a heavy toll. ’Twas exhausting, and the price of being such an oddity carried far too great a risk.
Only ensconced within the bosom of her clan and kin did she feel safe. At Loch Moigh she could be her true self, and that was where she wished to remain.
“Hmm.” Helen frowned. “Mayhap you and Oliver will come to care for one another with time, aye? And you can practice your healing arts with the Erskine clan as well as you can with ours.”
“Mayhap.” She doubted time would have any effect on how she and Oliver felt for one another, and she kent well enough she could only practice her healing arts if her husband granted his permission for her to do so. She would soon become the future countess of Mar, and ’twas not considered seemly for a countess to attend the births of commoners, or to act as a village wisewoman, setting broken bones and tending the sick.
Sky turned her attention to the surrounding hills, already showing hints of green from the early spring rains. This late in the afternoon, and with the sun hidden behind heavy clouds, the Grampian Mountains appeared a dark bluish-gray. How fitting. The day she arrived at her new home should be dull, gray and dismal.
Blinking against the sting in her eyes, she looked to her da and ma, who rode at the head of their party. David, the elder of her twin brothers and heir to the earldom, took his place behind their parents. Sky’s sister rode beside her, and their entire party was flanked by a score of MacKintosh guards.
“We shall arrive before nightfall,” Helen said. “’Tis certain Owain regrets ’twas he Da entrusted with the clan’s well-being whilst we are away. He so loves travel and adventure.”
“Aye, that he does, and when he canna find adventure, he’s sure to stir up mischief for his own amusement.” Sky shook her head, remembering some of her brother’s antics from the past. “For certes, ’tis why Da chose to leave him behind to look after things at home. Owain needs to settle down and take his responsibilities more seriously, and with no one else at Moigh Hall but him, he’ll be forced to shoulder the burden of looking after the clan. I trow he’ll have no time for aught else.”
Their youngest sibling, Sarah, had also remained at home, so their granddam would have company. And Thomas, her youngest brother, was fostering with Hunter, who was now the baron DúnConnell. ’Twas too close to the birth of their second bairn for Lady Meghan to travel, and they’d not be attending the wedding.
A wave of sadness engulfed her. Of all her siblings, ’twas the twins she’d miss most, for they embodied all the qualities she lacked. Her brothers were bold and fearless, whilst she lurked in the periphery, watching their antics and longing to have but a small portion of their audacity.
Nay. ’Twas not in her nature to be adventurous or daring. She was the dutiful daughter, the proper lady, demure and acquiescent. Safety and security meant far more to her than adventure. Glancing once again toward Kildrummy, the keep’s Snow Tower growing ever larger, she contemplated the merits of a sudden declaration to take vows and don the veil at the nearest abbey.
All too quickly the distance between her kin and the portcullis of Kildrummy Castle disappeared. Once through the barbican, they were met by a festive gathering, led by Lord Robert, the earl of Mar, his lady wife and Oliver, Sky’s betrothed.
Several guests in residence for the wedding filled the inner bailey, and Sky’s senses were assaulted by a myriad of emotions: curiosity, excitement, resentment and . . . jealousy? Searching the faces around her, she sought the source of the resentment and envy, for those powerful emotions emanated from a single individual.
“My lady.” Oliver reached up to help her from her mount as a stable lad took the reins.
“Welcome to Kildrummy Castle.”
Placing her hands on his shoulders, she slid off her mare’s back and into his arms. This is when my heart should flutter, yet I feel naught. And from Oliver? Resignation. Peering into his blue eyes, she searched for the merest ember of warmth and found only indifference. “My thanks, Sir Oliver.”
“How was your journey, my lady?” He took her hand and placed it within the crook of his elbow. “Did you encounter any difficulties along the way?”
“Nay. Our journey was quite uneventful.” Her parents were busy exchanging pleasantries with the earl, and her brother and sister stayed close beside them. Having similar fae abilities as she, her siblings must also be suffering the onslaught of feelings swirling through the air.
She and Oliver were alone at the outer edge of the throng. Now was the time to beg him to release her from a bleak future devoid of love—or even the slightest wisp of affection. Sky cast a glance his way, racking her brain for some legitimate reason why they should not wed—and failed. Not for the first time she cursed her rank. Duty and obligation to her kin and clan weighed heavily upon her, a burden she could not be free of without causing an outright feud between the Erskines and MacKintosh.
Once again a surge of jealousy reached her. Sky surveyed the people milling about and met the glare of a young woman. “Who might that lady be, my lord?” She tilted her head in the direction of the flaxen-haired lass standing by a portly older man. By the look of the two, they were kin to one another.
“Hmm?” Oliver followed her line of sight. “Ah, that is Lady Alice, the daughter of baron Lumsden, who stands beside her. They are our nearest neighbors to the east.”
Sky sensed Oliver’s pulse quickening as his gaze lingered upon the lass. He couldn’t hide his desire for Alice, nor could he mask the warmth filling his eyes. No wonder Lady Alice suffered envy and resentment toward her. The two are in love.
Sky gasped at the revelation. She now had a way out of her unwanted marriage. All she need do was arrange time alone with Oliver, and she could talk him into approaching their parents together. Once they convinced all involved that there would be no animosity over yet another broken betrothal between their clans—her father and the earl of Mar’s daughter being the first more than a score of years past—Oliver would be free to marry Alice.
She’d be free to return to Moigh Hall, her true home. Her heart’s desire to continue learning the healing arts could finally be realized. She’d remain in the service of her beloved kin and clan. Aye, ’twas the perfect solution. Surely her betrothed would be as relieved as she to find himself free of the unwanted union. Click Here to Purchase.
Hidden in Time
The MacCarthy Sisters Series
Chapter 1 excerpt
Present day, County Waterford, Ireland
The very air within the ceremonial grove rippled with tension. For their head druid to call a gathering when it was not a holy day was cause enough for alarm. That Ceann Carraig had called the council of elders and the chieftains from the other two villages only added to everyone’s anxiety. Brían found an empty spot at the end of a bench and sat down.
The sacred fire at the center of the circle popped and hissed just as their head druid stopped pacing. Ceann Carraig’s expression grim, he stood in front of the glowing embers drifting into the gathering twilight. Everyone quieted and turned their attention expectantly upon the old man. Even the youngest boys stilled, their expressions turning to awe-filled curiosity.
Ceann Carraig gazed out at those who had gathered. “My fellow druids and I have called this gathering to discuss a matter of grave concern. Long have we druids been aware of the signs of change.” He paused, glancing at his fellow priests and priestesses before continuing.
“Animals from the outside have made their way into our hidden valleys when it is not the proper time to do so. One of our hunters found a strange item upon the ground near the boundary between the realms, an item that does not belong here.”
He began pacing again. “The very air carries the taint of the outer world, and our sacred oaks cry out to us in distress. The magic hiding us within the weft and weave of time is unraveling.”
Brían’s heart leaped to his throat, and his ears rang with the collective gasp filling the clearing. As if commiserating, the fire once again hissed and popped, sending another shower of glowing sparks into the air.
“What shall we do, Ceann Carraig?” Kilian, one of the upper village’s elders, rose to his feet. “Tell us what sacrifices must be made to restore the magic protecting our borders. Are there not druidic spells that can be cast?”
Murmurs and nods raced through the assemblage. Brían tensed. Now more than ever they needed strong leadership, and their village chieftain’s health was failing. Blaine was not even present to hear this dire news. He glanced at Aiden, Blaine’s ambitious son. Was there anything to the rumors that their chieftain’s decline was being helped along by his own wife and son?
“We do not yet know what can be done,” Ceann Carraig called over the din. “In the next several days, our elders, chieftains and druids will deliberate upon the matter. We will gather again a fortnight hence. Here beneath the auspices of a new moon we shall discuss the matter further.”
The druid paused. “Each village should set up a schedule of guards to patrol the perimeter until a solution is found. I ask that the council of elders and the chieftains remain here, so we can decide how to proceed with our deliberations. The rest of ye, go to your homes.” Ceann Carraig issued a benediction, and the meeting ended.
Trepidation hovered like thick smoke over those making their way out of the clearing. Never in their long history had they faced the possibility—nay, ’twas more a certainty—that the magic hiding their valleys for more than seventeen hundred years might fail. Had Fionn MacCumhaill, the legendary commander of the elite army of Fianna, and his fae kin abandoned them?
A hand came to rest upon Brían’s shoulder. “Sup with us this eve, laddie. Your ma and I want ye close after this disturbing news, and we’ve a guest.”
“Aye, I will. Who might your guest be?”
“Monroe. He’ll be staying in the village for a few days while the council deliberates.” His da kept his hand upon Brían’s shoulder as they walked. “He’ll join us for supper once he’s finished conferring with the druids and the elders.”
Brían shook his head. “The other village chieftains do their part while ours lies abed.” Monroe, his da’s closest friend and a staunch ally, was chieftain to the uppermost village. “If only ye were still our chieftain, Da. This is no time to be without leadership.”
“Do not wish that role upon me again. Being chieftain is a heavy burden to carry, no matter how broad a man’s shoulders. As ye well know, chieftains are oft the target of envy and resentment by those believing themselves better qualified, or those wanting power over others. And what of individuals who’ve received judgement against them in a dispute? If there is no scandal attached to a chieftain, the envious will conjure one of their own making,” he said, his tone tinged with bitterness. “Your mother and I are content. I’ve no wish to place either of us in that position again.”
Anger churned deep within him for his parents’ sake. “Still, I wish we might find a way to—”
“Stir up old wounds? Foment animosity?” His da gave Brían’s shoulder a squeeze. “Nay, laddie. Let it go. Your mother and I have.”
Golden candlelight glowed from the window of his parents’ cottage, and the delicious aromas of his mother’s stew and freshly baked bread beckoned. Their two dogs shot out of their shelter, barking a greeting and wagging their tails furiously. Brían leaned down to scratch the two behind their ears. “What do ye think would become of us should the magic hiding our valleys cease to exist?”
“Who can say? We have the stories told by our women about how things are in the outer realm. Mayhap we’d be allowed to remain where we are as we are. Mayhap we’d be forced to relocate and adapt.”
“I swear to do everything within my power to see that our world remains hidden. That is what Fionn MacCumhaill and his fae kin promised. If need be, we should try to summon the Tuatha dé Danann and force them to keep their promise.”
“Force the fae?” His da’s brow rose. “And how exactly do ye suggest we go about summoning them? Mayhap they no longer concern themselves with na Baiscne. Ye can no more force the fae to do anything than ye can prevent the sun from rising.”
Could their druids find a way to reach the Tuatha dé Danann? Brían couldn’t bear the thought of leaving their mountains and valleys. His entire being rebelled at the notion of adapting to a world he knew not at all. His own mother had shared horrifying tales of how the outer world was being choked with poisons. She and others from that place told how the air and water, necessary for life itself, were becoming contaminated. The women explained how wars were fought with unimaginable weapons able to wipe out entire villages in a trice.
Nay. He could not adapt to a place prone to such folly. He’d dedicate the rest of his life to maintaining and protecting their hidden vales. Whatever it took, he would give, even if it meant his very life.
Grayce stood in the midst of her family, along with her sister Regan’s in-laws, as the minister droned on and on about the responsibilities of being a godparent. Her nephew’s christening was being held in the same ancient church where Regan and Fáelán were married less than a year ago. Their son, indifferent to the proceedings, slept peacefully in his father’s arms. He even slept through being passed to his godfather’s arms, one of Fáelán’s many relatives.
Conan Breck O’Boyle slept soundly until the water from the baptismal font was poured over the soft tufts of bright red hair sprouting from his mostly bald head. Then the adorable little bundle of eat-sleep-pee-poo let loose a wail worthy of a banshee. Grayce knew exactly how her nephew felt—uncomfortable and unhappy about the sudden way in which he’d been awakened.
Except for the indignant part, she too had been suffering discomfort and unhappiness, which made no sense. For years she’d wished like hell her ability to see the future would somehow disappear. She hadn’t had a vision since visiting Regan in Ireland a year ago last June. She ought to be ecstatic, yet disconcerted would be a more apt description of her state of mind. Anxiety factored in as well, and of course loneliness chose that moment to raise its hand in a me too gesture. She feared the visions would return with a vengeance at any moment, and she spent her days metaphorically peeking around corners, waiting for the inevitable ambush.
Conan’s baptism over, Grayce followed her family out of the old stone church and into the drizzly June morning. Guests stood around under umbrellas and the eaves of the church, giving the O’Boyles a head start home where they’d host the celebratory brunch.
“I’m glad Conan has a touch of something special,” Meredith, Grayce’s identical twin, whispered beside her.
Grayce snorted. Something special was Meredith’s code for giftedness. The MacCarthy family carried a bit of Tuatha dé Danann DNA. They had their many times great-grandmother to thank for the affliction. That ancestor had not been able to keep her weak knees together when it came to a certain promiscuous fae seducer of mortal women. “Can you tell what his gift involves?” she asked.
“More than one, I think.” Meredith canted her head as she always did when concentrating. “He’s an empath, and I sense the gift of foresight.”
“Poor little guy,” Grayce murmured. “At least he won’t see ghosts.”
“They are called gifts for a reason, Grayce.” Meredith let loose an exasperation-laced sigh. “Let’s not have this argument today.”
“Fine. I’m right, and you’re wrong. We’ll leave it at that.” She and her family left the shelter of the eaves and set out for the rental car they shared. “Do you want me to drive, Dad?” she asked. Both her parents found driving on the left side of the road challenging, especially at intersections where force of habit had them looking in the wrong direction
“Sure. Your mother and I could both do without your squeals of alarm and imaginary braking.” Grinning, he handed Grayce the keys.
She slid behind the wheel, buckled up and turned the ignition key while the other three settled into their seats. Still unfamiliar with the area, she set the GPS mounted on the dashboard for Fáelán and Regan’s address before taking her place in the slow-moving line of cars leaving the lot.
Fáelán and her sister owned an amazing nineteenth-century manor house overlooking bluffs and the ocean. Grayce was happy for her older sister, really happy, yet sadness permeated her entire being. The older sister she adored, the only soul who truly understood her, now lived an ocean away. Her eyes stung for the merest instant, and an uncomfortable tightness gripped her chest.
Self-pity could launch a bout of self-loathing, and she wrestled the unwanted emotions back to the far reaches of her mind. Once upon a time, those same feelings had led her down a very dark and dangerous path to a place where she attempted to obliterate her feelings and her visions with drugs and alcohol. It hadn’t worked. She would not go there again.
“So,” her dad began. “I’m curious, Graycie. How long do you plan to keep your hair neon blue?”
“Why? Would you prefer chartreuse?”
“I’d prefer your own naturally beautiful hair color,” he said, eyeing her neon-blue spiked hair.
“Gene,” her mother warned.
“Angela,” he replied. “I’m allowed to state my opinion on the matter.”
“Just as Grayce is allowed self-expression where the color of her hair is concerned.”
Her mother reinforced her support by patting Grayce’s shoulder from her place behind her.
“You’re welcome. I’m not crazy about all the piercings though. Someday you might change your mind, and then what? The hair color is temporary; piercings leave scars.”
“So much for the maternal support for self-expression,” Meredith added, huffing out a laugh.
Grayce flashed her twin a smile through the rearview mirror. Of course, little miss parent-pleaser wore her unenhanced, honey-colored hair to her shoulders, and only Mere’s ears were pierced, each with a single spot for tastefully conservative earrings.
“Maybe I’ll let my hair go natural,” she announced, placating her father. “This color will eventually wash out.”
“And the piercings?” her mother asked, her tone hopeful.
“Baby steps, Mom. Baby steps.”
By the time she pulled into the O’Boyle’s circular driveway—she still had trouble thinking of Regan as an O’Boyle—a large number of cars were already parked along the edge of the drive. The entire clan had been invited to the celebration, including Fáelán’s half-fae daughter, Boann.
She parked and climbed out. Sliding her sweaty palms over her denim skirt, she stared at the house. What if this was the day her visions returned, and she suddenly foresaw one of Fáelán’s relatives’ impending death? Why were her visions never about good stuff, like winning the lottery or landing that perfect job?
This is Regan and Fáelán’s big day. Don’t make this about you. Right. Concentrating on that, and on the odds that she’d get to hold her tiny nephew, who generally smelled really
good … until he didn’t, she walked with her family to the front door.
They were greeted by Dr. James Ahearn, another of her brother-in-law’s many-times-removed nephews. James had managed Fáelán’s affairs while the cursed Fiann had still been trapped in the void realm. Jim’s wife Kathryn stood by his side. Both held a Bloody Mary in their hands, complete with celery and olive garnishes.
“Hello,” James said, holding out his hand to Grayce’s dad. “Such a joyous occasion bringing us together again, aye?”
“Indeed,” her dad agreed, a huge smile brightening his features as they shook hands.
“The food is set up in the dining room, and you know where the bar is,” James said, lifting his drink as they entered. “Help yourselves.”
Grayce surveyed the crowd milling about on the first floor. She couldn’t eat, not while her insides were a tangle of nerves, anyway. Worse, the siren’s voice of temptation urged her to seek out the bar. “Alcohol,” said the siren, “will soothe your nerves and mask all the unwanted emotions. Only then you can relax.” Grayce glared the siren into submission. “Where’s Regan?”
“Upstairs,” James told her. “Young Conan needed a nappy change by the time they arrived home, and I believe this might be his lunchtime.”
“Thanks.” Grayce took the stairs and headed for the suite of rooms Regan and her husband shared. She knocked on the door.
“Who’s there?” Regan called.
Grayce’s heart melted at the sight before her. Regan sat in a rocking chair by the window with baby Conan at her breast, suckling contentedly. “Wow, Regan,” she said, her voice hitching. “Just … wow.”
“I know.” Regan smiled at her. “Have a seat.”
The new parents had added a temporary nursery to one corner of their family room, complete with a basinet, a dresser with a changing area on top, and the all-important rocking chair. Once Conan slept through the night, he’d be moved into his own room next to their suite. Grayce dropped into the upholstered chair facing her sister. “Can I burp him when he’s done?”
“Be my guest.” Regan took the burp-cloth from her shoulder and set the soft square of flannel on Grayce’s lap.
Grayce reached out and touched Conan’s chubby hand, and his tiny fingers closed instinctively around hers. “He’s amazing, Regan.”
“We think so.”
“You look great, by the way.”
“Thank you for lying. I’m exhausted, and I haven’t lost much of the baby weight yet. Conan is still waking every three or four hours at night. All the baby books say he should settle at around three months, so we have a few weeks to go before we get a decent night’s sleep.” She yawned. “We hope he settles into a routine then.”
Grayce placed the burp cloth over her shoulder and accepted her darling nephew from his mother. Draping the sleepy little guy over the cloth, she patted his tiny back. Leaning back with Conan’s soft, warm weight against her, Grayce closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against his sweet, downy head.
“You’re having a tough time,” Regan said, her tone gentle.
Grayce sighed. “Never could hide anything from you.”
“The crowd downstairs?”
She nodded. “That and perpetual anxiety.”
“Still worried about the lack of visions?”
“Yes, and I’m struggling with jealousy,” she admitted. “You and Fáelán are so obviously happy and in love, and now you’re a family of three.” Conan chose that moment to burp and spit up a dribble of curdled milk onto the cloth. She dabbed at his rosebud mouth with a corner of the flannel. “I’ll never have what you have.” Self-pity once again clogged her throat, and that spiraled into self-loathing.
“Don’t say never, Grayce. You don’t know what the future holds for you.”
“You don’t know what the future holds for me either. What I do know is that I need some me time. Traveling with Mom, Dad and Meredith wears on my nerves. You know how they are, all into ‘our specialness, and the our-gifts-are-meant-to-be-shared’ bullshit. God, I love them, but sometimes they suck the happy right out of me.”
“You’re welcome to take one of our cars. Hike along the bluffs, pack a lunch and spend an entire day doing whatever you want.”
“I’m sold. Thanks,” Grayce said. I think I’ll hike in the Comeragh Mountains. I hear the views are fantastic. Or maybe I’ll take a drive to River Blackwater and hike the trails there.”
“Somebody has been reading their tourism guide books,” Regan teased.
Grayce moved the now sleeping Conan to the crook of her arm and ran a fingertip over his velvety cheek. He smiled in his sleep, and she couldn’t help but smile in response. “See? I knew if I spent a little time with my favorite older sister and my nephew, I’d feel better.”
“As your only older sister, I’m glad I could help.”
“Hey, I didn’t see Boann at the christening. Isn’t she here?”
“No, and don’t bring her up with Fáelán. He’s upset. Boann’s grandfather, King Lir Beneath the Sea, is putting the thumb screws to her regarding her involvement with mortals. She’s only allowed to visit us when no one else is around.”
“That’s too bad. I really like her.” Plus, the half-fae princess might know whether or not Grayce’s visions were gone for good. If not, Boann might know how to make them go away once and for all.
“It’s been difficult on all of us. After all the centuries Morrigan kept Boann from Fáelán, she finally has a family, and she’s become attached. She adores Conan. I know she wanted to be at his christening.” Regan rose from the rocking chair and grabbed the baby monitor. “Let’s put him down for his nap, so we can get something to eat. I’m starving.”
Now that her insides were no longer so tightly knotted, Grayce could definitely eat. “Let’s. I do love listening to your in-laws talk. That wonderful Irish lilt, you know?”
“I do know.” She grinned. “If we’re lucky, Fáelán will tell us a story today. Just wait. You’re going to be spellbound.”
“Will his story involve boasting?”
“Probably. Once a member of Fionn MacCumhaill’s elite Fianna, always a Fiann.”
“Great. I’ll have a reason to bust his chops.” Grayce placed little Conan in his basinet. She followed her sister downstairs, feeling more settled than she had since arriving in Ireland. Tomorrow she’d pack a lunch, a few bottles of water and hike in the Comeragh Mountains. Surely that would lift her spirits, and her spirits surely needed lifting.
It took two hours of uphill trekking to reach Mahon Falls, situated in the Comeragh Mountains of County Waterford, and by then sweat beaded Grayce’s brow and dampened her shirt. The river cascaded over massive steps of rock from a distant peak above. The power and the roar of the swiftly moving water held her spellbound, and she stilled for several moments to watch.
She took a deep breath as her heartbeat and breathing slowed to normal. Mist from the falls drifted over her, cooling her overheated face as she took in the grandeur. Her empty stomach grumbled, and her muscles ached from exertion.
Grayce scanned the area and found a grassy patch in front of a flat-sided boulder where she could sit in the sun and eat the brunch leftovers she’d packed. Here by the falls she could just be for a while. She had nowhere she had to go and nothing she had to do.
Picking her way carefully through the rocky terrain, she made her way to her chosen spot. There she dropped her backpack to the ground and sat on the grass. Her stomach rumbled again as she unzipped her pack and fished around for the plastic container holding her lunch.
She leaned back against the sun-warmed boulder, and listened to the hypnotic roar of the falls. She’d just finished a goat-cheese and fig tart, when the hard surface supporting her back disappeared.
“Ack!” she yelped, tossing the plastic container in her hands. She tried to grab onto something as she tumbled backwards into darkness. Half-slipping, half-tumbling, she hurtled down a wet, muddy tunnel, scrabbling blindly for anything she could grip to stop her bone-jarring descent.
Fear and confusion choked her. The light-filled opening at the end grew larger the closer she got. A fingernail tore painfully as she tried to grasp hold of something, anything to stop her descent. Oh, God. What if she flew out over a cliff?
The tunnel spit her out, and she landed face down in a patch of long, scratchy grass. She groaned as shock and pain throbbed through her entire body. Had she fallen asleep and this was a nightmare, or was she caught in a vision unlike any she’d ever experienced before? Damn, but the burning sting from her scrapes was all too real.
Dogs barked nearby, and she flinched, too beat up to move away. The next instant, cold noses snuffled and nudged at her. A deep masculine voice spoke firmly in Irish, and the dogs whined and backed off.
A pair of leather moccasin-style footwear and suede leggings came into view, that and two sets of border collie brown eyes fixed upon her. She also glimpsed the bottom half of a long- sword in its scabbard. Her heart pounded, and disbelief reverberated throughout her entire being. No one walked around with a longsword strapped to their waists. A rifle while out hunting, maybe, but not a sword. What the hell just happened, and where the hell am I?
“Are ye hurt, lassie?”
Dumbest question ever uttered in the history of mankind. Hell, yes, she was hurt. She nodded slightly.
“Can ye stand? Have ye any broken bones?” the smooth, baritone voice asked.
The bright sun prevented her from looking up at the man looming over her. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost her sunglasses and her cap. Shit. Her backpack holding the dessert bars and her water bottle were lost to her too. She really wanted that lemon bar right now. Funny how shock affected one’s thinking.
Every inch of her throbbed like a thumb pounded by a sledge hammer. Her skinned knees and elbows, scraped palms, and torn fingernail burned like hell. She went slack and closed her eyes against the shock, against the unreality of whatever she’d fallen into. If she kept her eyes closed long enough, she’d wake up from this vision-nightmare. She’d trek— downhill this time—to her brother-in-law’s Mini Cooper, eating all the yummy dessert bars along the way.
Once she reached Regan’s house, she’d treat herself to a nice, long, hot soak. Later she’d sit down to dinner with her family and tell them all about her bizarre, painful, very bad dream.
Gentle poking and prodding of her legs and arms commenced. She tried to move away, but then the figment of her imagination slid his hands under her armpits and lifted her to standing. Why wasn’t this man as stunned to find her face down on the ground as she was to find him standing over her?
“’Tis sorry I am for what has befallen ye.” He held her hands, palms up. “Your scrapes are not so bad.”
“Not so bad?” She snorted.
“Will ye not open your eyes, lassie?”
Grayce shook her head emphatically. To open her eyes meant acknowledging her surreal situation. Not ready. A deep, masculine chuckle resonated through her.
“Ah, well, I’ll lead ye then. My ma will have a salve to soothe these scrapes.”
“What the hell just happened?” she demanded, not at all pleased he found her amusing. “Where the hell am I?”
“Ye are in na Gleannta Bhfolach, The Hidden Vales. I am called Brían MacSloan of na Baiscne clan. What might ye be called?”
BREE-uhn of nuh Bask-nuh? Her pulse pounded hard enough to echo inside her skull. She swallowed, although her mouth had gone so dry there really wasn’t anything there worth the effort. Hadn’t Regan told her Fáelán came from an ancient clan … the Baiscne, which no longer existed?
Grayce tried to breathe through a new wave of panic. She opened her eyes and gasped. The man before her had to be a dream, because men like him only existed in movies and on magazine covers where they were photoshopped and airbrushed to perfection.
Thick chestnut hair shot through with threads of polished copper, fell to his shoulders in shiny waves. His face—oh, man—his finely sculpted handsome face was the stuff of lonely-girl fantasies everywhere. Deep brown eyes shining with keen intelligence assessed her.
His broad shoulders and chest were adorned in an embroidered sleeveless woolen tunic reaching mid-thigh, worn over a long-sleeved linen shirt that tied at the throat. The wool had been dyed an earthy green, and the embroidery formed russet and dark brown Celtic knots around the hem and neck opening. Beside the sword hanging from his hips, he carried a leather quiver strapped to his back, filled with an unstrung bow and at least a dozen arrows.
Regan had described what Fáelán had been wearing when she’d first met the third-century warrior at Newgrange. Moccasin-like shoes. Check. Suede leggings. Check. Tunic and cloak. Check on the tunic, but no cloak. But then, the air carried only a slight chill today, and the sun was warm.
Her sister Regan had traveled back through time to the third century to prevent Fáelán from being cursed by Morrigan, an evil faerie princess. Third century. Denial shrieked through Grayce’s brain. She knew time travel could happen, but not to her.
She eyed his weapons. “Have I …” Her voice came out a raspy squeak. She cleared her throat. She couldn’t ask if she’d fallen through time, could she? He’d think she’d gone off her rails. Oh, Lord. What if this wasn’t a dream, and she was in the middle of a psychotic break with reality? Visions gone, replaced by insanity?
He studied her blue, spikey hair and the piercings along her ears, moving to the stud through her eyebrow. In fact, he seemed to be taking inventory from the top of the her pounding head to her sturdy hiking boots and back to her face again. There his gaze lingered on her mouth.
“What might ye be called, fair one?”
Fair one? He didn’t seem at all surprised to find her lying on the ground. Was he responsible for her fall through that hellish tunnel? He still held her hands in his. She snatched them back and swiveled around to look for the tunnel she’d fallen through. She’d climb back up to her own time—or back to sanity—even if it took the rest of the day. She sucked in a sharp breath, and her stomach dropped. “Where did it go?”
“Where did what go?”
“The tunnel I fell through.” On unsteady, aching legs she approached the cliff of solid rock and kicked the wall. “Shit.” Tears spilled from her eyes. Every inch of her hurt, and to top it all off, she was covered in mud and her clothes had torn. Misery sapped her will to stand. She sank to the ground and hugged her knees to her chest. Dropping her forehead to her arms, Grayce rocked herself back and forth. “This can’t be happening,” she sobbed.
The next thing she knew, she was being hoisted into the powerful arms of the stranger. “Put me down,” she wailed and squirmed.
“I wish only to offer aid and to bring ye to safety.” He tightened his hold. “Ye’ve suffered a great shock and cannot even stand on your own two feet, lassie.”
“No shit.” She sniffed and swiped the backs of her hands over her cheeks. Sensing his sincerity, his lack of threat to her, she gave in to the relief of being held. “I don’t know where or when this is, and I don’t understand what just happened.”
The dogs barked again, and Grayce peered down at them. The pair ran around the feet of the man carrying her, tails wagging like crazy, as if they’d just found their long-lost best friend. The border collies put their paws on the man’s thighs, stretching to sniff at her again. Her rescuer—or was he her captor?—whistled sharply, and the dogs took off. He set out after them with her still in his arms. The mud from her clothes smeared his tunic. “Sorry about the mess I’m making of your clothing.”
“The mud will shake out easily enough once it has dried.” His warm brown eyes met hers.
“Where are you taking me?” Her voice quavered, and she’d begun to tremble uncontrollably from the aftereffects of shock. She should insist he put her down, but being carried felt so damn good. She bit her lip, the only part of her that didn’t hurt.
“To my parents’ cottage.”
“How do I get back to where I was? Will you help me get home?” Oh, God, her voice sounded whiny.
“All will be explained soon.”
“Well, thanks. That is so not helpful. I feel much better now that I know all will be explained soon.” Again, her whatever-he-was chuckled. Frustration and fear roiled through her, and her poor heart bounced erratically around her ribcage. Where the hell was she, and how the hell had she gotten here? Even more important, how would she get home?
Hold on. Her backpack still sat on the ground next to where she’d sat against the rock surface that had been solid one minute and gone the next. Meredith knew which trail Grayce had taken. Her twin and her mother would sense something had happened to her, and her family would know where to look. They’d find her backpack, and they’d sense she was alive.
For the first time in her short life, gratitude for her family’s giftedness stormed to the forefront. Fáelán would reach out to his half-fae daughter, and with Boann’s help, her family would find a way to bring Grayce home. The tightness in her chest eased a degree or two.
“I’d prefer to walk,” she said. “If I don’t, I’ll get even more stiff and sore than I am now.”
The man called BREE-uhn stopped and set her on her feet. “Are ye a healer then?”
“No.” She wrapped her arms around her midriff, careful not to touch her palms against anything. “I’m an assistant manager at an office supply store in Knoxville, Tennessee in the states. It’s one of a large chain of stores located all across the country. Lots of opportunities for advancement.” The impossibly gorgeous man’s brow furrowed. He had no idea what she was babbling on about. Why would he care about her chances of being promoted in a job she didn’t even like all that much?
Grayce gestured forward. “Lead on.” Soon. Very soon, a day or two at the max, Boann would come for her. The fae princess would whisk Grayce back to her family, and everything would return to normal. She hoped.