Saturday, November 21, 2015

Week 16: Dance with Me

Congratulations to Nellie, who won a copy of MARIA'S ANGEL in Week 15's 1st Chapter drawing!

I hope you've all enjoyed the last few weeks' Heart's Haven features! Don't miss the special reveal of our upcoming Heart's Haven Babies collection at the end of today's 1st Chapter.


Will a bit of secret moonlighting lead Kaci and Ryne to the ultimate dance?

1st Chapter:

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. ~Psalm 30:11

Kaci James blew a wisp of strawberry-blonde hair from her eyes and reached for her coffee mug, sipping as she puzzled over one of the letters she’d received for the “Love’s Lessons” column at the Angel Falls Trumpet. She frowned as the bitter brew nipped her throat then sighed and tossed the letter onto the table. What was she doing giving love-life advice to strangers when her own engagement had ended in such shambles less than a year ago? The very idea painted an irony of the worst sort.

A sharp rap at the front door startled her, and a bit of coffee splashed over the mug’s rim to dampen her cream-colored peasant blouse. She frowned and glanced at her watch as she swiped at the coffee stain. Ugh…she’d worked right through dinner again!

Another round of knocking. Quickly, Kaci gathered the letter and stuffed it into her tote bag. The note could only lead to trouble if others found out she moonlighted as the advice columnist. What would her neighbors here at Heart’s Haven—and the students she taught English to at Angel Falls High, for that matter—think of her if they knew what she did on the side? “Love’s Lessons” was one of the most popular advice columns in the greater East Texas area, and she’d like to keep it that way. That meant keeping her role anonymous. She nudged her reading glasses up the bridge of her nose and vaulted over Patches—her feisty calico cat—careful not to step on his tail as she rushed to the door.

“Coming.” Kaci scrambled toward the entrance, tripping over a pile of essays waiting to be graded. She grabbed the corner of the coffee table to regain her balance and frowned at the papers, ruing the long hours of critiquing that lay ahead. Oh, the day never seemed to be long enough to get everything done! “Just a minute.”

She peeked through the spy-hole and her heart lurched. Ryne Calvert waited on the porch, his close-cropped dark hair crowning captivating blue eyes. A pair of wide shoulders and a set of washboard abs tucked into faded Levis set Kaci’s heart skittering. Since she’d moved in to Heart’s Haven last August, he’d been coming over to check on her with greater and greater frequency. And Kaci had to admit, with his generous muscles and lopsided, mischievous grin he was easy on the eyes. Now, he held a casserole dish in one hand, neatly covered with foil. Kaci’s belly let loose the most unladylike growl, reminding her she’d skipped dinner, and she was thankful the door remained closed so Ryne wouldn’t hear.

“Kaci?” His voice, deep and smooth as a bass guitar, drifted through the door.

She brushed a hand over the cotton fabric of her blouse, frowning at the hideous brown coffee-splotch seeping across the front seam like the worst sort of modern art, and drew a quick breath before tugging the door wide. She plastered on a cheerful smile. “Hey, Ryne.”

“Hey, yourself.” He leaned against the doorjamb, his height nearly filling the doorway. A cool breeze ushered the crisp scent of winter as it scattered dried leaves across the small front yard. “I missed you at the cookout yesterday.”

“Oh, that, yeah…” Kaci nudged her glasses as they slipped down her nose again then gave up and took them off, tucking them into the pocket of her floral-print rayon skirt. “I guess I lost track of time. I have a mountain of work to catch up on.”

“Can you use a little help?” He eyed the stack of essays, now listing to the left like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Kaci did a little sidestep to block his view as his gaze hovered and then zeroed in on her tote. The “Love’s Lessons” letter peeked at them, the crumpled stationery an alluring shade of neon pink. Kaci figured the writer was young…possibly one of her students? She’d have to take extra care when answering it. Teens were so impressionable. Ryne’s voice drew her back. “I’m pretty good at English. I speak it…um…every day.”

Kaci laughed and ushered Ryne in. “What do you have there?” The aroma of tuna—her favorite—and vegetables wafted from the baking dish. “Smells yummy.”

Ryne waited patiently while Patches made a series of figure-eight’s around his ankles, and then he tossed Kaci a glance. “You skipped dinner again, didn’t you?”

“Uh-huh.” Kaci caught her lower lip between her teeth and nodded. “Guilty as charged.”

“Guilty…” Ryne shook his head. “No need for that. I’m off duty.” He brushed past her to set the casserole dish on the kitchen counter, and Kaci caught a whiff of his aftershave…crisp pine like the lush Angelina Forest that gathered beyond the Heart’s Haven complex. Though Ryne looked handsome in the regulation Angel Falls Police Department dress blues he wore to work each day, he was even more-so in a gray T-shirt and faded jeans that seemed to hug every inch of his well-defined muscles and brought out the color of his eyes. “And it’s tuna casserole—my specialty.”

“You cook?”

“How else am I going to survive?”

She lifted the corner of the foil and gave the casserole a quick peek as steam wafted to tickle her nose. “No girlfriend to bake for you?”

“You know the answer to that.” He winked, and the scar above his left eye danced, making her wonder once again just how he’d acquired it. She knew he had a second scar across the length of his left forearm and figured he’d suffered them at the same time—but how? Thus far, she hadn’t gathered the nerve to ask. “Not yet, but I hope to…soon. Except I think I’ll bake for her, instead. I don’t mind cooking.”

“You don’t?” Kaci was tongue-tied by his admission. He hoped to have a girlfriend soon? Did he have someone in mind? Her heart sank just a bit. She was in no way ready to plunge into the dating world again, yet the thought of Ryne sharing a meal—and possibly more—with another woman gave her belly an odd little tug. She reminded herself Ryne was her friend…nothing more. How could he respect a woman who was so unlovable, who’d failed at romance so miserably that her fiancĂ© left her stranded at the altar?

She took her time uncovering the creamy concoction, still bubbling from the heat of the oven, as Ryne propped a hip against the counter. One look—at Ryne, and then the casserole—and Kaci’s mouth watered. Again her belly grumbled, this time well within Ryne’s earshot. He burst into laughter.

“Sounds like you need a hit of that casserole—and quick.”

Kaci clasped a hand tight over her belly as heat seeped across her cheeks. “Only if you’ll join me.”

He nodded and reached into the cabinet above the sink where he knew she stored the dinner plates. “You don’t have to ask me twice.”


REVEAL! Heart's Haven Babies, the upcoming Heart's Haven collection, includes stories from Delia Latham, Marianne Evans, Tanya Stowe...and, of course, me - Mary Manners.


Sometimes letting go is the best way to hang on.

Crime-beat reporter Cade Magnusen never imagined a tragic accident would leave four-year-old niece Gracie in his care. Bitter over the loss of loved ones and nursing his wounded heart, Cade can no longer stomach chasing the true crime stories that elevated him to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. He grabs the chance to relocate to the quiet community of Heart’s Haven to raise precocious Gracie and reassemble his life.
Emmy Lassiter loves ice cream and children. She spends her days managing Babycakes, an ice cream and sweet shop whose vibrant atmosphere delights all who enter. The only mystery in Emmy’s life—beside the uncertainty over her ability to have children of her own—is what brought new Heart’s Haven neighbor Cade Magnusen and curly-haired, blue-eyed cherub Gracie to Angel Falls.

When Cade drops by Babycakes in search of a feature story for the Angel Falls Trumpet, he and Emmy feel a quick and powerful connection. The two soon begin to realize they must trust God if they are ever to move from the past into a sweet and fulfilling future.


Noah Talbert just lost his twin sister—his closest living relative—to a horrific automobile accident. Her death brings him straight to Angel Falls following years of rootless wandering when he claims guardianship of his five-year-old nephew Dylan.

 Elementary school counselor Charlotte Latherson is focused on Dylan’s case for reasons both personal and professional. His mother was Charlotte’s best friend, and her death has transformed the once joyful and engaging little boy into a reticent, downtrodden kindergartner.

 Charlotte is well aware of Noah’s history. Other than a close relationship with his sister, Noah’s life has been solitary; he keeps to himself and builds strong walls of protection around a heart she quickly discovers is authentic and true. But can he provide what’s best for Dylan?

At times they butt heads over the youngster’s life, but as they struggle God opens a loving pathway in their hearts. While Noah fights for a child he feels is nobody’s but his, Charlotte wonders if the feelings they share can’t create the bridge to a miracle.


Everyone thinks they can push Jaci Meadows around -- her family, her boss, even her full-grown Malamute. Baby reaches Jaci’s shoulders, weighs more than the petite event planner and has decided Jaci’s designer shoes are her favorite toys.

Justin Blakely understands dogs better than most people. It’s clear to him Jaci Meadows can’t handle her own life, let alone a two-hundred-pound Malamute ready to take on the world. 

Can one oversized Malamute and one very discerning dog whisperer help guide Jaci back to her true path? Can she learn to say no or is she just too addicted to the need to be needed?


Dawni Manors is looking for hope and a future when she leaves San Antonio behind and rents a cottage at Heart’s Haven. She's charmed by rumors about the place being a favorite hangout for angels. Her chaotic childhood as an orphan left her yearning for peace and tranquility. Maybe she'll find those things at the quaint rental complex.

Instead, she finds Pro Cowboy Gavin Sampson, an abandoned infant, and a whole lot of emotional chaos. If the Heart's Haven angels really are there, what in the world are they thinking?

Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of DANCE WITH ME!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Week 15: Maria's Angel (Marianne Evans)

Congratulations to Kathleen Friesen, winner of Week 14's featured book, Love in the WINGS!

A huge welcome to this week's guest -- my friend and fellow author, Marianne Evans. Marianne brings the first chapter of her Heart's Haven book, MARIA'S ANGEL. Enjoy!

1st Chapter

An ominous thump and flap stirred a shimmy that cut straight through the steering column of Maria Wilde’s old model minivan. She sucked in a breath, clutching the wheel tight when her tires bumped over something unexpected. A fast check of the rearview mirror revealed the mangled remains of a thick, black band of rubber. All at once, the steering wheel seized tight, making even the slightest navigational adjustments next to impossible to execute. She couldn’t steer.
Didn’t that just figure?
Angling her vehicle slowly out of traffic and onto the right shoulder of the road became the equivalent of dragging a stubborn elephant single-handed because the vehicle didn’t want to cooperate whatsoever from a steering perspective. The process of stopping and throwing the car into park took a wrecking ball to the already weak walls of her composure. Maria crumbled against the steering wheel, resting her head against her tightly clenched hands. Tears stung, and her breath hitched.
God—really—how much more can I possibly take? Please…please give me the strength to survive this.
The cobalt bowl of a sky above her didn’t part. The huge, puffy white clouds that stretched and moved didn’t dissolve to reveal the instantaneous miracle for which she physically ached. Nope. Life was a lot tougher than that; a lot more complicated. What she needed to do, what she had to do, was find the way to keep marching on.
Maria steeled her spine and blinked tears into remission. What was the use of crying? Crying wouldn’t solve the problems she faced nor would it help her move forward. Through the somewhat grimy windshield, she surveyed her surroundings. A flat, ambling stretch of brick buildings, canopied awnings, and quaint shops dotted each side of the two lane road. Occasional passersby wandered in and out of view, wrapped up in conversations, or strolling with kids. Where was she, anyway? Mere hours ago she had left Dallas, headed due south. She had passed through Lufkin a few minutes ago. Shortly after that, she recalled passing a wooden sign laden by civic insignia that welcomed her to Angel Falls, Texas. Evidently she had hit the mechanical crisis point at the start of the town’s peaceful little main street.
Great. Where was she going to find help in the middle of nowhere? Additionally, if she didn’t find a gas station soon—the blasted low fuel light had been on for at least twenty miles—she was going to be planted here for a good long while regardless of mechanical issues. She had ignored the indicator for as long as possible, hoping to coast to her destination on fumes if possible.
A long glance into the rearview mirror stilled Maria’s spirit at once and reinforced the steel of her determination.
In the rear passenger seat, Lilly slumbered. Precious, beautiful Lilly. A powerful sweep of warmth cascaded through Maria’s chest. Her six-month old baby girl was tucked safe and tight into a car seat, further insulated by a snuggly soft blanket of pale green. Surrounding the innocent babe was every last possession Maria owned. The material items didn’t amount to much, yet they managed to fill the van in its entirety.
Maria forced herself free of oppressive anxiety, reverting instead to survival mode. She began to coach herself.
C’mon, Maria—don’t surrender, solve the problem. You have to keep moving. You need to make it to Mom and Dad’s new place in Huntington before Lilly wakes up wanting a lunch you can’t afford to buy.
Expelling a breath, Maria drummed fingertips against the narrow circle of leather. Not far away she spied a sign. Lang’s Gas & Collision. At least the van was still running. She could probably gimp her way to the facility and see if there was anyone on duty who might be able to lend an assist. Angel Falls was picturesque, small-town personified; Lang’s seemed to be her only option.
Fighting her steering wheel every bit of the way, inching into a turn that made her muscles scream, Maria made it to a gas pump and pulled to a stop. She sifted through the depths of her purse, grabbing her wallet. She already knew what she would find inside: a five dollar bill, a handful of change, and not much else. There were no credit cards that would be accepted and no checks she could write. Her bank account back in Fort Worth was closed.
She clenched the simple cloth case, squeezing tight. Lilly would need formula soon, along with a serving of jarred baby food. Maria had nothing with her in the way of grocery items; she hadn’t planned on an automotive breakdown that would keep her from arriving at her parent’s new house before lunch. A five-spot and a few spare coins would have to see her through, and first things first, she needed to get some gas in the tank. Five bucks would get her just over a gallon of fuel. That allotment would get her to her folks’ house, but what would she do about repairs? Her car was far from drivable.
A laden sigh rose from the depths of her body; her empty heart ached. For now, the only thing she could do was dash inside, find the attendant for some repair advice then call her folks and see if they could help with a repair loan.
Plans in place, she left a slumbering Lilly secure in the car seat. After locking the car, she trotted toward the convenience area of the gas station, taking note of the three service bays attached to the store. Two of the available spots were filled, and one of the cars under repair was hoisted on a hydraulic lift, but no one seemed to be nearby. Not a good sign. She frowned and walked inside, weaving through a narrow food aisle, trying to ignore the instant gnaw of hunger that prickled through her belly. Who knew how long she’d be stranded, and she certainly needed an energy boost. Heaving a reluctant sight, she grabbed a couple packets of crackers and cheese and silently kissed her last remaining funds goodbye.
At the cashier’s space, an attendant tracked her approach, offering a warm, welcoming smile. He was about her age, sporting wavy brown hair. Judging by the uniform shirt and faded jeans he wore, he seemed to be the on-duty mechanic as well. While she drew near, he used an oil-spotted rag to mop his hands. Maria studied him for a moment. So, that’s why the service area was empty. Apparently the mechanic who stood before her ran the shop as well. He was tall and lean, tan. The name Brody was stitched above the breast pocket of his Lang’s emblazoned shirt.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” Smooth and silky, the cadence of his voice was soothing and appealingly musical.
“I…I…” She cleared her throat and stood straighter, depositing her meager purchase on the counter between them. “I need these, please, along withthe name of a good mechanic if possible.”
Brown eyes touched by hints of amber tracked to her car for an instant. Maria slid the cash across the counter. He captured the bill and gave her a nod. “My name’s Brody Lang. You might call me the Jack-of-all-trades for this place. Is there a problem with your vehicle?”
Maria nodded then looked over her shoulder. “The steering went out and I can hardly make a turn, or navigate. I think I dropped a rubber belt of some sort, because I drove over it and it’s not much more than a tangled mess on the road at the edge of town. Would you mind taking a look and letting me know what’s wrong? Maybe you could give me a price quote.”
Brody Lang stepped from behind the black-topped, scarred service counter of his shop. “I’d be happy to. Let’s check it out.”
A tight squeeze of pressure eased away from Maria’s heart and she breathed out, giving him a large, grateful smile. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
The woman’s relief was palpable. Odd, Brody thought. Something about her spoke of uncertainty—or displacement. He followed his customer outside, evening his typically long-legged stride to her smaller steps. She wore blue jeans like a dream and a simple layered t-shirt combo that provided some nice pops of red and blue color. Her unbound hair bounced as she walked. Soft curls of red caught the late morning sun. A crisp autumn breeze flavored by the smoke from a leaf fire lifted the waves, tossing them against her neck and shoulders. He looked forward to helping her. She struck him as a sweet thing, and beautiful in an innocent, pure way that he found instantly attractive.
Once he got a close look at the inside of her vehicle, his instincts about some form of displacement were confirmed. It looked like she hauled everything she owned. Was there even an inch of room left for air, or…
His brief survey of the van came to an abrupt stop when his gaze came to rest on a baby’s car seat, complete with a baby. Ah. So, she was married; probably stranded between cities as she travelled.
“Are you moving?” he asked.
She nodded. “To Huntington. According to the map it’s not too far from here.”
“It’s just a few miles away. I have friends there. It’s a nice town.”
“That’s where my parents live.”
Brody was intrigued. Parents. A baby. A solitary lady who hadn’t yet mentioned a husband. The numbers didn’t quite jive. There wasn’t a wedding ring on her finger, either.
“There are two things I’ve found I hate dealing with as a woman alone. The first thing would be home repairs and maintenance. The second would be automotive issues.”
The admission caused Brody’s protective instincts to kick into high gear. “Well I promise to take good care of you, ma’am. No worries. Let’s see what’s going on.”
Her features went soft and shy. “You don’t have to call me ma’am. My name is Maria. Maria Wilde.”
She extended her hand and he took hold in a firm, but gentle way. “It’s nice to meet you, Maria Wilde. Let’s see if we can’t get you back on the road.”
“I’d appreciate your help. Lilly is going to wake up pretty soon, and once she does, she’s going to be hungry.”
Brody tried without success to tune out the way a look into her faultless, deep green eyes slipped straight into the cushion of his heart. She was a stranger in need of help, so he focused instead on the job at hand. She had mentioned a piece of rubber—a belt of some sort that had ended up on Main Street. Likely the vehicle had thrown a serpentine belt, causing the steering to lock.
Maria leaned against the side of the van then seemed to think the better of that option, which made him grin as she swiped dust from her hip. “How old is your daughter?”
“Six months and feisty as can be.”
Brody grinned at that. “Can you pop the hood for me?” While she complied, he retrieved a rolling back board and parked it at the front end of the vehicle. He stretched out then slid beneath to conduct a brief diagnosis. Yep, his initial assumption was correct. He slipped from beneath the van and lifted smoothly to a stand. “It looks like the belt slipped off the tension pulleys that drive your power steering. Did your air conditioning go out, too?”
She lowered her lashes. “Yeah.”
Brody nodded, beginning a cross-check of the top of the engine; he didn’t want to add to the burdens she seemed to carry. “The belt you lost drives the water pump and compressor as well, so when it slipped out of commission, it affected a few other mechanisms. In a way, you can be glad you lost it here and now. I’ll get it repaired and the vehicle will run just fine.”
An uncomfortable silence stretched. She shuffled from foot to foot. “The belt thing I need. Umm…will it take long to fix? Is it expensive?”
Brody studied her. Fair skin was sprinkled by a handful of subtle freckles. She was so earnest; tiny lines marked a furrow of concern between her brows. He longed to take away whatever weight pressed down on her slender shoulders.
He shook his head and blinked, stunned once more by the lightning-strike pattern of his thoughts. “Let me check my stock and make sure I have one on hand for your model.” He moved toward the service bay and she followed.
“How much do you think this will cost?”
“The belt itself is around fifty bucks.” She winced. “I can replace it for you in about an hour. It shouldn’t be more than a hundred bucks all together.” Registering her reaction to the price tag on the replacement piece, Brody had shaved his labor fees by a solid thirty-percent. Now, he wished he had reduced the charge even more; there was no mistaking the panic that lit her features.
He caught a glimpse of the moisture that sheened those luminous eyes. Although she braced hard, although she stilled a quavering chin by pressing her lips together, Maria Wilde couldn’t disguise being overwrought. She executed a hasty spin, stalking straight to her van.
There, with her back to the shop, she crumpled against the side of the vehicle and wept.
She couldn’t take anymore. Not for one second longer could she hold her head up, take the punches, and keep struggling forward. Sure, it was only money. Sure, it was only a stinking van, but both were necessities. She needed money in order to maintain her vehicle, but she had nothing left—materially or emotionally.
Forlorn, she swept tears away, and her gaze happened to take in the remnants of her life, tucked inside a busted down vehicle. What would Jacob think of the mess she had made of her life without him? What had his sacrifice been for, really?
At that moment, Lilly began to squiggle and kick…and coo.
Maria had two to three minutes, tops, before that coo of rousing would escalate into a full-blown hunger cry. She didn’t mind. In that instant of her daughter’s movement, she received the clearly defined answer to her question. Lilly. Their precious baby girl. Lilly was the reason for his sacrifice. Lilly, and the love they had shared.
Trouble was a future without Jacob held nothing for Maria except soul-draining circumstances and a level of mourning that that ebbed and flowed, but never relinquished its hold.
Opening the sliding door of the van, she unfastened the restraints of the car seat, scooping Lilly into her arms. Focused exclusively on her daughter, she swayed and whispered soothingly against a silky soft neck perfumed by baby powder. She’d been forced to skimp on a lot lately, but refused to compromise on anything having to do with Lilly’s well-being.
How was she going to get out of this jam? Go running to mom and dad? Again? She needed to handle this situation without their help. She was intelligent, capable. Crippling grief or not, she needed to reassert her self-sufficiency.
“Excuse me, Maria?”
The tender summons made her jump, which caused Lilly to squawk and squirm. Oh, fabulous. She was having a meltdown in front of the man who was trying to help her. Talk about displaying a lack of grace under fire.
He touched her arm, offering stillness, and a brief swell of comfort. “I’m sorry for upsetting you.”
“You didn’t. I’m just…I’m…I’m a mess right now. This has nothing to do with you.”
“Are you OK?”
Why lie? Why hide? What did she have to lose, really? “No. No, I’m not.”
Brody Lang didn’t flinch. He didn’t shrink away. “May I offer a prayer? For you and your daughter?”
An emotional dam burst all over again; this time she swallowed back the cry of sorrow that pushed through her spirit. Still, tears tracked down her cheeks. Maria squeezed her eyes closed and nodded, her knees weak to a degree that she sank against the side of the van.
He took hold of her free hand and rested a large, work-roughened palm lightly against Lilly’s back. “Lord, please make Yourself known in this moment. Grant Your comfort, protection, peace and provision upon Maria and Lilly. Bless and guide them on the road You mean for them to travel. Hold them close. In Your holy name we pray. Amen.”
The words didn’t dissipate into silence. Instead, they formed a shield Maria could feel, a Godly presence she had always embraced until…well…until.
For Brody Lang spoke just the kind of prayer Jacob would have offered.
Brody crossed to the side of his shop, where a line of metal cabinets was topped by a wall-mounted peg board from which hung a number of tools. He opened a deep storage drawer that held a batch of well-organized belts grouped by size and model type. In a matter of seconds, he extracted the replacement he would need for Maria’s van. From the corner of his eye he saw her dip her fingertips into the front pockets of her jeans and rock back on her heels. Her eyes were downcast.
“I, ah…I need to set up some form of payment plan.”
No way would he further wound her pride. He hefted a shoulder into a casual shrug. “If money is an issue, don’t let that worry you. You can get it to me when you have a chance. Huntington’s not far away. Pay me back when you can.” He paused long enough to draw her gaze. “I trust you, Maria. For now, let’s get you home.”
She chewed lightly on the corner of her lip, her brows furrowing once again over those large, deep brown eyes. Her somber expression piqued Brody’s alert system all over again. Man, was she hurting. Why?
Brody didn’t waste time speculating. Instead, he opted to problem-solve. “I’m going to get to work on your car. Feel free to grab some more food from inside. There’s also a fresh pot of coffee on if you’re interested.”
“Mr. Lang—”
“Brody. I’m…I’m completely broke right now. I had just enough food and gas to make it to my parent’s place, and obviously that plan went haywire. I can’t pay for anything else beyond the couple of snacks I just bought. It might be a while…for the money and payback. I don’t imagine I’ll be settled for a while.”
Desperation shimmered through her eyes, making them sparkle, but beneath that reaction, he sensed resolve—a mother’s resolve—coupled with tender heartedness.
“Take care of Lilly, and yourself. Make a list of whatever you need to take, and I’ll set up a bill that you can pay when you’re able. I’ve got a few jars of baby food on the shelves. There’s powdered formula nearby, too. Pick up some food for you, too.”
“I can’t.”
“I insist.” He stepped close. “What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving? Please. Let me help.”
“No…really…that’s OK. I don’t want to take advantage of your kindness.”
“It’s not taking advantage of my kindness if I offer, right?” He smiled into her eyes.
“Wish I could argue the point.”
“You can’t, so go inside and stock up.”
         With Lilly tucked in her arms, Maria plopped her rainbow hued diaper bag on the cashier’s counter. Brody had said to make herself at home, and really, she had no choice but to follow his instructions. Lilly’s fussing intensified, so Maria pulled a can of powdered formula from the grocery shelf. Next, she searched for a sink where she could scour and clean a used bottle then mix Lilly’s food.
“What’s our best option, baby girl?” Maria murmured to her daughter, scanning the shop. There was a directional sign for the restrooms, so she pushed her way inside the women’s stall, grateful to find a baby-care station where she could settle Lilly. Following a diaper change full of kicks and urgent squawks from her daughter, Maria prepped a fresh bottle of formula. She returned to the shop, wandering slowly and humming while Lilly happily—and greedily—ate.
It occurred to Maria that she needed to make a list of the goods she used. She could easily wait to eat; Huntington wasn’t far away. But if she was going to be here for an hour or so, maybe one of those apples stacked near the coffee and tea display would tide her over. And the coffee did smell awfully good. That wouldn’t cost much, right?
A receipt pad and a batch of pens rested at a tilt near the cash register. Maria did a one-handed job of tearing off the top sheet and scribbling a tally of her items.
Only then did she allow herself to grab a granola bar, bite into a red delicious and fill a small foam cup with the fragrant brew she intended to enjoy once Lilly was fed. Between that and the baby food, she figured she was out about eights bucks in groceries.
At loose ends, not quite knowing what to do while Lilly relaxed in her arms and continued to eat, Maria began to automatically sway a bit and then wander. The shop was sparkling clean. The building was older, a two-story brick number that had most likely graced Main Street for a good long while, but the facility was well cared for, and she could tell at a sweeping glance that close attention was paid to details.
Her visual inspection came to a stop when she spied a number of wall-mounted plaques behind the main counter. She stepped forward to investigate. There was an honorarium from the Better Business Bureau—no surprise there, considering Brody Lang's genial manner of service. And evidently, Lang's Gas and Collision had sponsored an under-eight little league team that earned second place honors this past summer. She studied that award, considering the idea of a guy as kind spirited as Brody heading up a youth squad and Maria smiled.
Her brows puckered when her curious gaze came to rest on a framed citation from the Angel Falls Chamber of Commerce recognizing the efforts of one Brody T. Lang with respect to a charity called Car Angels. What was that about?
Maria shifted Lilly against her shoulder. A few gentle back pats and a none-too-delicate burp soothed her gradually dozing baby. Nuzzling Lilly's cheek, Maria wandered to the side of the store that adjoined the service area. She continued to hum a rendition of Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star and peered into the repair stall where Brody worked.
Folded over the open hood of her vehicle, his tall, muscular frame drew Maria’s focus and tempered her anxieties. She was in good hands. She had no idea what he was doing, really, but deft, confident motions held her attention while he worked a slip of black rubber into place and executed whatever magic mechanics possessed to resuscitate her vehicle.
All at once, Maria realized she was staring.
Her heart rate jumped and the soft tingles that danced against her arms and legs prompted her to turn her back and make fast tracks to Lilly’s car seat where she promptly secured her sleeping daughter. Guilt and shame transformed into dual shadows.
Really. Attraction? Here? Now? What was she thinking? She rustled unnecessarily with food supplies; nervous tingles worked against her fingertips. Her reaction stemmed from simple gratitude. The sensory awakening centered on her appreciation of Brody’s kindness and skill.
That’s all there was to it.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of MARIA'S ANGEL.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Week 14: (Delia Latham) Love in the WINGS

My guest this week is Delia Latham, with LOVE IN THE WINGS, from the Heart's Haven Easter collection. Enjoy!

Something dark and unspeakable crept and coiled its way toward Angel Falls, Texas. Invisible to the human eye, it spread itself over the area, twined oily arms around the small town and wrapped it in a suffocating, unholy embrace.
The quaint location looked the same as always. Clean streets fronted well-maintained homes and businesses. In the town square, brightly colored flowers exploded from large planters hanging on each of at least a dozen old-fashioned street lamps. People went about their lives as if nothing had changed. They opened their shops and offices, greeted friends and customers, played their games and made their deals.
Above their heads, the brooding presence hung like a pregnant cloud, from which an occasional tentacle of darkness spiraled downward into specific groups of people.
Near its center, the darkness whirled and pulsed with chaotic energy. This portion of the town’s unknown visitor hung directly over a large building topped by a tall steeple. A gold cross towered at the apex of the steeple’s point, and the angry cloud seemed unable to hold its shape and density over that gleaming symbol. It tried. Tendrils of darkness twined toward each other, reaching, straining for a grip. But a constant flow of pure, white, bright power foiled every attempt to mend that one weak spot in the roiling entity.
A large sign at the intersection of Halo Street and Harp Avenue identified the steepled building as The Falls Tabernacle. On a large marquee at the front of the property, scrolling letters spelled out a verse of Scripture: Psalm 91:11—For He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
If any seed of truth lies within those words, there might yet be hope for Angel Falls….

Chapter 1
Aria Robbins stepped outside the door of her little cottage in the popular Heart’s Haven rental complex, and immediately gasped for breath. The air felt weighty, pushing against her with an almost palpable force as she plodded through it to the cheery red pony car waiting in the driveway. She paused, one hand on top of the classic vehicle she babied with quiet pride, the other shading her eyes as she ran a quick visual scan of the complex.
Nothing looked out of place. Hers was the only cottage with a car out front, so the other tenants had gone off to work or play…whatever they did while she worked her two part-time jobs every day. Across the lot, her landlord, eccentric octogenarian Andrew Hart, knelt in one of his treasured flowerbeds, a trowel in one hand. But he wasn’t working. Head cocked to the side in a curious, attentive posture, he gazed up into the sky as if studying something in the clouds—except that there were no clouds.
Aria shrugged and climbed behind the wheel. Who knew what Hart was thinking?
Rumor had it the old guy carried on conversations with angels—who actually made themselves visible to him. Well, why not? Angels were real. She couldn’t claim to believe the Bible and not believe in God’s special messengers. She’d never seen one, but that didn’t mean they weren’t out there.
As for Hart…well, the old fellow kept mostly to himself, didn’t have a lot to say to anyone other than his wife Viv—an outgoing, friendly, utterly sweet woman about as unlike her husband as a wife could possibly be. But they seemed happy, and Aria loved seeing them together. Strange he might be, but old Hart had made Heart’s Haven one of the most sought-after rental-cottage complexes in the state. Aria had considered herself blessed when her application was accepted, and she’d moved into the friendly community last month.
She flipped on the air conditioning and turned the dial to high. Little trickles of perspiration slid down the back of her neck, and she shook her head. May was brand new. Her dad would say spring had barely sprung, and yet this heavy heat felt more like late July. Something The unseasonal humidity was unlike any she’d ever felt—and Aria was East Texas born and bred. She knew humidity.
Well, heat or not, humidity or whatever, she had a job to get to. Two of them. She loved the work she did at both places of employment, but it had been a tough week, and Aria was firmly on board with the whole TGIF thing today.
Arriving at The Falls Tabernacle, she entered the church office, tossed her purse under the desk and switched on the computer before she even sat down. When her screen opened up, the weird weather and the day of the week became the furthest things from her mind. All she could see, hear, feel or think was focused on the e-mail message plastered in easy-to-read, eighteen-point Helvetica font all the way across the twenty-inch monitor she’d absolutely love-love-loved…until this very moment.
Good morning, Aria! I heard this amazing song yesterday. It’s phenomenal! Went ahead and picked up the sheet music…which you’ve already seen right there on your desk, right?
At this point in the unwelcome message, one of those ridiculous, animated smiley faces—moronicons, in Aria-speak—grinned at her like some kind of evil joker.
Her gaze swung from the computer screen to the sheet music centered squarely on her desk blotter. Without meaning to, she took in the song’s title: “He is Risen! Risen Indeed.”
She clamped her lip between her teeth and returned her attention to the message.
“So—now that you’ve checked out the sheet music (because of course that’s what you did the moment I mentioned it), have you heard the song? Let me know what you think. Can’t wait to hear what the Praise Team does with this one. CB”
Aria snorted. “You have got some nerve, Corbin Bishop!”
Acidity soured her voice, and she cast a quick glance around the office, relieved to find herself still alone. She hadn’t meant to say anything out loud, and wished she’d kept her lip zipped. The snarky words had dripped outrage, resulting in an unpleasant sibilance that seemed to echo in the large room. She shuddered as an unwelcome thought made her cringe. Had the serpent sounded something like that when he spat his disastrous lies at Eve in the Garden of Eden?
With a frustrated sigh, she sat and lowered her head into her hands. “God, I don’t want to have this kind of attitude. I’ve always welcomed input about the music ministry. So why do my hackles rise every time he gets within a hundred yards of me?” She sighed. “I’m going to need a little help here, Lord.”
She waited, hoping…what? That the Almighty would respond to her petty whining in an audible voice?
“Aria? Is that you?” From the pastor’s office, a deep male baritone broke the silence.
Aria bounced two inches off her chair, and then dropped back down, one hand over her pounding heart. Not the voice of God, but it delivered one message quite well: She was not alone in the office, as she’d thought.
“Yes, Pastor David.” Her voice cracked, and she rolled her eyes. “Sorry I’m late.”
The office door swung open and David Myers stepped out of what Aria referred to as the “inner sanctum.”
“No problem. I came in for an early counseling session. You’ll be happy to know I’ve already made coffee.” He grinned. “Sounds like you could use some.”
While Aria silently wished for a hole to drop into and a handy pile of earth to pull over her mortified body, the pastor stepped into a small alcove where all things coffee-related had their home within this office. He took her favorite mug from a cabinet, filled it with the hot brew and carried it to her desk.
“Starting the day off with prayer is a commendable practice. I’m impressed.”
Aria’s cheeks warmed under his knowing grin. Pastor David never missed a trick. She nodded miserably. “I need a little spiritual attitude adjustment.”
He dipped his head toward the offensive sheet music still acting as centerpiece for her blotter. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would it?”
With a wry twist of her lips, she gave him a sideways roll of the eyes. “Why ask, when you already know the answer?”
Sipping at the hot coffee, she fixed her gaze on a bookshelf across the room, waiting for the quiet censure that would surely come. But the pastor just stood there leaning against an ancient metal file cabinet. Arms crossed, a little shadow-smile dancing on his lips, he watched her through eyes she had long since deemed “all seeing.”
Finally, she set her cup on a cloth coaster—or “mug rug,” as her landlord’s wife, Vivian Hart, called the brightly colored, handmade creations she was fond of gifting to anyone and everyone for any good reason…or no reason at all. With the hot liquid safely settled, Aria forced herself to make eye contact.
The minister had a green eye and a blue one. Aria had never seen that type of optical anomaly until she met David, and it looked great on him. His wife thought so too…Aria knew, because she spent half of every work day as Pia Myers’s assistant—either in her jewelry design studio, or with the thousand and one other things that fell to a pastor’s wife to handle. Married only a couple of years, Pia and the pastor still existed under a bit of a newlywed glow. So David’s eyes had been the subject of more than one conversation between Aria and his pretty, vivacious bride.
But she was putting off the inevitable. David’s eyes had nothing to do with her snippy attitude—or Corbin Bishop’s arrogant one, for that matter.
“Does he think I don’t know what I’m doing with the praise team?”
Why not just lay it out there and be honest about what was bothering her? The pastor would try to help, even if her attitude disappointed him. But even the charismatic David Myers would never be able to make her actually like the new youth minister.
Corbin had swept into Angel Falls a month ago, fresh out of a big, fancy church in Austin and full of big, fancy ideas to improve this one. Aria suspected he’d like nothing better than to make The Falls Tabernacle a miniature duplicate of the famous super church he’d left behind.
From day one, most of the unattached females in the congregation made utter fools of themselves every time the much-too-handsome youth minister walked into a room. Aria would never be one of those pathetic giggle-boxes. Fall all over herself to ensure she caught the eye of the self-assured newcomer? Yeah, sure—on the first frigid day in an East Texas July.
Besides, shouldn’t there be some kind of rule about people in the ministry not being overtly attractive? Who needed that type of distraction when a poor, single soul might already be floundering?
Maybe Pastor David could, at the very least, help her find a way to tolerate this newcomer from the big city. The good Lord knew she could use a little help…she wasn’t exactly feeling the love, so far.
If only he’d stayed in Austin. We were doing just fine without him. Lord, can’t You just send him back where he came from?
She jumped, and raised her guilty gaze to the minister’s mischievous one. How long had she been staring into space?
“Sorry…did you say something?”
“Sure did, but you probably didn’t want to hear it anyway.” The twinkle in his eyes became a sober, questioning gleam. “I asked if you’ve tried praying for Corbin?”
Corbin Bishop stopped, frozen, in the hallway outside the church office. One hand gripped the handle of the door he’d been about to push open.
“I asked if you’ve tried praying for Corbin.” Pastor David’s voice carried through the closed door, plenty loud enough for him to hear every word. What was it with anointed preachers? He’d never heard a one of them who had a hard time being heard.
He couldn’t make out the reply, but he knew the voice. Always soft-spoken, Aria Robbins’s soft, husky tones sounded downright subdued today.
What was going on in there? And why was he a part of the conversation?
He scowled. Oh, come on. Do you really have to ask?
From the day he’d arrived in Angel Falls, the minister’s secretary made it ab-so-lutely clear that she had no desire to know the new youth pastor.
Despite his curiosity and concern about the conversation on the other side of the door, Corbin smiled a little. He couldn’t help it. The prim, auburn-haired secretary—who also possessed an impressive anointing and incredible talent for leading the praise team—had that effect on his lips. Aria Robbins made him smile, but God only knew why, since she’d probably throw something right smack at his head if she figured it out.
And the really weird thing was, he didn’t particularly like her either. Why would he, given the slightly cooler-than-frigid welcome she’d extended toward him? Maybe God tossed the two of them in the pot together so Aria could be the thorn in Corbin’s side to keep him humble. He’d certainly dealt out a double scoop of possibility, since they not only had to work together here at the church, but lived in neighboring cottages at Heart’s Haven.
He loved Angel Falls. The church was amazing—yeah, it could use a bit of modernization, a little nudge into the twenty-first century, but he liked the people. Pastor David and his wife were the salt of the earth. And his little cottage next door to Aria’s had become the closest thing to a home he’d ever known.
Now if he could only find something to like about his neighbor. He’d have to add that to his prayer list.
But all that aside, the truth might as well be faced. “Pretty” didn’t even begin to define the songbird secretary with a mass of curls the color of deep mahogany under a particularly vivid sunset. She wasn’t big as a minute, but that little gal packed enough gorgeous in her little finger to make a man’s head spin. Not that it mattered. Even if he’d had any interest—which he did not—Pastor David’s brown-eyed Girl Friday made it clear without saying a word that she’d be perfectly happy if Corbin Bishop turned right around and hauled his lanky frame back home. And that was before he even had time to do anything wrong.
Her prickly attitude effectively punched a hole in his overblown one. Corbin had come to the small town full of plans and ideas, never doubting that he’d be well-liked and respected, just as he had been in Austin. He’d help make the small-town church a nationally known powerhouse, like the one he’d attended in the big city.
Aria had managed to undermine his self-confidence within thirty seconds of raising her humongous chocolate-brown gaze up and away from whatever task she’d been attending to when Pastor David led Corbin into the office that first day. No bright, welcoming smile. No rush to stand up and shake his hand. Just a cool nod that set silky strands of that deep reddish brown hair swinging around her chin. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Bishop.”
Corbin managed something that was meant to be a light laugh, even though he suddenly felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. “Corbin. Please.”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
Then she returned her attention to her work.
Thank God the minister had been with him; otherwise, Corbin might have stood rooted to the spot for the rest of the day. But David slapped a heavy hand onto his shoulder and guided him across the public office space and into his own private domain.
With the door closed between them and the secretary, the minister grinned and pounded him on the back again. “Well, you survived Aria. You’re off to a great start.”
And now the pastor stood on the other side of this door asking that little spitfire whether she’d prayed for Corbin. Prayed for him? What was the man thinking? If Aria prayed for him at all, she’d ask the Almighty to dump a bucket of something nasty over his head.
He lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders. He’d been taught to confront any sticky issue head-on. That kind of approach put the brakes on a whole lot of unpleasant possibilities by hauling them out into the open and dealing with them right up front.
He turned the knob and shoved the door open. “Did I hear something about somebody praying for me?”
Behind him, the quiet click of the closing door boomed like a gunshot in the answering silence. Corbin took in David’s amused grin and Aria’s horrified grimace and realized he had no idea what to say next.

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