Saturday, January 30, 2016

Week 27: Summer's Flame (Wendy Davy)

Proceeds from the sale of this book by Wendy Davy will be donated to Food for the Poor.

Summer Cassel plunged the paddle into the water, battling Shenandoah River’s powerful current. The recreational kayak sliced across the rippling surface, forging ahead as if it were as eager as Summer to reach the wild blackberry brambles. The plump, ripe fruit would make a delicious cobbler, and she could use the dessert as a catalyst to initiate conversation with the elusive neighbor who had moved into her apartment complex three weeks ago.

With only five units comprising the renovated historic hotel tucked in Virginia’s countryside, an official welcoming committee didn’t exist, so Summer had taken it upon herself to make Mr. Hawk feel at home at The Meadows, even though she had yet to properly introduce herself. Of course, that wasn’t her fault. He’d skirted around her each time they’d crossed paths as if she carried some kind of contagious disease. The only reason she knew the attractive, dark-haired man’s name was because of the engraved label her landlord had placed on Mr. Hawk’s mailbox. She was sure a fresh, warm blackberry cobbler would open the door to conversation.

But first, she had to harvest the main ingredient.

As she continued her steady strokes, nature invited her into its folds. Thick woodlands masked Summer from sparse homesteads located alongside the river, and blocked the view of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. She’d think herself alone in the wilderness, if not for the occasional group of adventure seekers passing by on inner tubes or canoes.

Although the early June temperatures rose to uncomfortable levels, sycamore, river birch, and silver maple trees stretched over the winding waterway, creating ample shade—a true blessing in the midafternoon heat. Scents of ripe fruit caught on the breeze. Summer scanned the shoreline and found her target, exactly where her landlord had described: after the second bend in the river, ten feet to the left of a towering cypress tree. The brambles stretched above overgrown grass, a mass of thorny tangles overflowing with nourishing fruit.

The river’s strong current and rocky terrain made maneuvering to the riverbank a concentrated effort. After avoiding numerous underwater obstacles, Summer managed to beach the kayak and secure a rope to a small tree. She climbed across exposed root systems and fallen branches, and by the time she reached the blackberries, beads of perspiration trickled down her chest and back, soaking her favorite tank top. But it didn’t matter. She was about to get her hands dirty, her arms scratched, and expose herself to ticks and various insects. A little sweat was the least of her worries.

She only hoped Aiden Hawk would appreciate her efforts.

Summer plucked a blackberry from the vine and sampled it. Sweet. Ripe. Perfect for her needs.
Anticipation fluttered in her belly. She could taste the cobbler already.

One hour and many thorn pricks later, Summer had an overflowing bucket. She returned to the kayak, secured the blackberries, and then shoved away from shore. Using the paddle to steer, she allowed the swift current to carry her toward home as she considered her plan.

Mr. Hawk kept odd hours. Sometimes he would disappear for days at a time, but she hoped he’d be in at some point this evening. She only knew of his unconventional routine, of course, because she’d been trying to speak with him and not because stirrings of attraction swamped her each time she caught a glimpse of his tall frame and athletic build. Not to mention his unruly dark hair, his square jaw, and his deep blue eyes…

So, she wasn’t immune to a good-looking guy. Big deal. She was human.

Regardless of his appeal, this upcoming meet and greet was strictly about making proper introductions and welcoming him to the building—same as she’d done in the past with other new tenants. He was her neighbor, after all. With his door directly across the hall from hers, they were bound to run into each other from time to time. And it would be awkward if they didn’t speak.

Summer made certain the bucket of berries remained steady, and then aimed the kayak toward the river’s center as she neared a set of Class II rapids. The fun stretch had her bobbing along for a few minutes until she reached calm waters again.

As snatches of The Meadows came into view, Summer marveled at how well her landlord, Frank Hamilton, had transformed the 1930s hotel into a sleek and modern apartment complex. From the outside, the two-story stone and wood structure looked like a charming cottage complete with a well-maintained wraparound porch. But it was the inside that had solidified Summer’s decision to sign the lease and move in last year. She loved the apartment’s open floor plan, the French doors leading to a private balcony overlooking the river, and the living room’s wood-beamed cathedral ceilings. The place felt like home the moment she’d stepped in the door.

The air conditioning worked great, too. Which reminded her…she was hot, thirsty, her scratches stung, and the perspiration she hadn’t minded a while ago had begun to make her skin itch. She swiped aside a rolling sweat bead and paddled toward shore.

It would’ve been nice if along with all the reconstruction, Frank could’ve put in a boat ramp beside the dock. When she’d suggested it, he had informed her it was a choice between having hot water heaters in the apartments or a ramp. She liked having hot water. He’d made the right decision.

So, here she was with a nine-foot kayak and a steep shoreline over which she had to haul it. She’d done so before, many times, but each time, she was sure she would pull a muscle. Oh well, steep bank or not, she would accomplish her mission.

The kayak bumped against the shore, and Summer stepped into the cool water. Carefully, she set the bucket of blackberries on land first, then grabbed the kayak and tugged it toward the crest of the hill where the beach met the grass. The boat slid several inches and teetered on the edge. One more pull should suffice.

Familiar rumblings of a truck pulling into the parking lot at The Meadows broke her concentration. Aiden Hawk drove a black, full-sized, double-cab pick-up, and the powerful engine liked to make an announcement each time it arrived.

Summer pictured herself from Mr. Hawk’s point of view. She must look a sight with her hair in disarray, her arms stretched to their limits, and her damp clothes plastered to her body. Maybe he would continue inside without giving her a second look, or even a first one.

She spared a glance over her shoulder. No such luck.

His blue-eyed gaze was trained on her. He took a step toward her, concern marring his brow.
Her stomach sank. If he got too close now, she’d scare him away for certain. She needed to get cleaned up before he came within a ten-foot radius. With renewed determination, Summer put every ounce of strength into one last yank. The boat gave way, plopping onto the grass as she fell backward.

Mr. Hawk stilled, waiting as if unsure what to do.

Summer gave a thumbs-up, hoping he’d do what he always did—disappear into The Meadows and make a beeline for his apartment. If he’d only waited a few more minutes to come home, she could’ve introduced herself properly.

Oh well. Nothing she could do about that now.

“I’m all right.” Summer climbed to her knees. “I’ve got everything under control.”
His concerned expression eased, and he ducked his head and busied himself with something inside his vehicle.

Summer relaxed. His touch of concern was nice, but she really would’ve been embarrassed to have him come too close.

Dottie Carlson emerged from the apartment complex with Patches, her beloved Chihuahua, tucked in her arms. She waved at Aiden Hawk and shuffled toward Summer, her white hair bouncing in the breeze. As Dottie crossed the well-manicured lawn, Patches grew anxious and wiggled out of her arms. He landed with legs already pumping, gaze zeroed in on Summer. Like a slingshot, he surged forward, leaving tufts of grass flying in his wake.

She’d been targeted.

Should’ve known better than to give him bits of her steak dinner the last time she’d watched him for Dottie. Now, Patches was forever her best friend, with all the rewards.

Summer braced herself, but one could only do so much in preparation for dog kisses.

With less than a yard to spare, Patches leapt into the air and landed on her chest. The eight-pound, rock-solid canine knocked her backward. This was no ordinary Chihuahua. Eager to please and full of affection, Patches licked Summer’s face.

“Patches. Mind your manners,” Dottie admonished, but a smile adorned her wrinkled features.

“It’s OK.” Summer wrapped her arms around him and accepted the greeting. In the condition she was in, what harm could a little dog spittle do? She laughed as Patches continued to welcome her home as if she’d been gone for weeks.

“You’ve been feeding him people food again, haven’t you?” Dottie’s hands found her ample hips. 

“Who, me?” She feigned innocence. “Maybe a little. Besides, you never said he couldn’t have leftovers.”

Dottie’s smile widened. “Well, he’s all I have left to spoil. Might as well do it right.”

Summer eased Patches from her lap and stood. She attempted to brush the fur off her tank top, but errant strands stuck to the damp material and added to her already unkempt appearance.

Self-conscious, Summer allowed her gaze to stray toward the parking lot.

Aiden Hawk stood alongside his truck, looking her way. His features relaxed with a grin.

Then, their gazes met.

He straightened, tucked hands into pockets, and then turned and hurried into the building. But not before she caught sight of the pink staining his cheeks. Or had she imagined his reaction? A strong, virile man like that wouldn’t blush. She must be seeing things.

Shaking her head, Summer took up the kayak’s rope, dragged the boat into the storage shed and secured the door. Dusting her hands, she returned her attention to Dottie. “I’m making a cobbler to welcome Mr. Hawk to The Meadows.”

“Oh, he will like that. He has a sweet tooth. Not that you could tell by looking at him.” Dottie kept an eye on Patches and when he got too close to the water, called the dog back.

“How do you know he likes sweets? He doesn’t talk.”

Dottie retrieved Patches. “Aiden talks plenty. Just not to you.”

“Hold on. Wait.” Summer wanted answers. “What do you mean?”

Dottie ran her fingers through her dog’s fur. “He’s quite friendly, actually. He helps me carry groceries from the car. Holds the door open for me. You know, all the stuff gentlemen do. And in town, most all the folks know and like him.”

“That’s…interesting.” What else could she say? Apparently, Aiden Hawk was a mystery only to her. But not for long. She scooped up the bucket of blackberries. “I’m going inside to get started on the cobbler. Did you need me to watch Patches for you tonight?” There had to be some reason Dottie had ventured into the afternoon heat.

“That would be wonderful. I’m going to Glade Springs Volunteer Fire Department for a couple rounds of bingo with Frank. You know how Patches gets lonely when I leave him for too long.” Dottie tucked him closer under her arm and nuzzled his fur. “Don’t you, sweetheart?”
Patches looked up with adoring eyes.

“I still say Patches isn’t a Chihuahua. He’s too relaxed. And loving.” And Patches had never tried to nip her heels like others of the breed.

“Oh, he is a purebred, dear. He’s got papers. He’s just one of a kind.” Dottie’s love for the animal shone through her eyes and her voice. “I’ll bring him to your apartment.” She checked her watch. “In about an hour. If that’s OK?”

“That’s fine. That’ll give me time to take a shower and make the cobbler.” Summer headed toward the building as a sense of urgency mounted. If she had any hopes of officially meeting Aiden Hawk, she had to do it quick before he disappeared again.


Aiden rushed into his apartment, turned, and placed both hands on the mahogany door, slamming it shut. Resting his forehead against the cool wood, he contemplated knocking some sense into his own brain. What was he thinking? He’d been presented with yet another opportunity—probably the best one yet—to meet the beautiful woman residing in apartment 2A, and he’d blown it.

He shouldn’t have hesitated. He’d known she could handle the kayak from seeing her use it before, but he’d been close enough to help her this time. Why hadn’t he stepped forward as he would’ve with any other woman wrestling a heavy load?

Because she wasn’t any other woman. She was Summer Cassel.

The sweet-looking, doe-eyed brunette had flustered him from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her. If only he could approach her as he did a burning building—with confidence and unyielding determination. But no, a sudden shy streak had blindsided him, claiming his common sense. He should’ve introduced himself from the beginning. Now their chance encounters were becoming awkward.

Today, with Dottie standing alongside Summer as a buffer, he could’ve come up with any number of things to say to either or both of them. The weather had been great. He could’ve talked about that. Then again, talking about the weather in summer—to Summer—would’ve been a disaster. It was probably better that his face had heated with a blush, making him turn away and saving him from an even more embarrassing encounter.

The guys at the station would get such a kick out of this if they ever found out about it. He’d told only one person about his interest in his neighbor. Captain Warren knew all the specifics. Aiden trusted the man with his life. Of course, he trusted the other firefighters with his life, too.

But Captain Warren was the only one Aiden trusted with his secrets.

He shook his head and ran a hand down his face as his thoughts continued to wander. Most of the men and women he worked alongside had families. Children. Spouses. Summer’s image came to mind.

“Yeah, keep dreaming,” he chastised himself, his musings echoing across the hardwood floor. He’d have to get an area rug. He was tired of the empty sounds. Although he’d fully furnished the place, it still seemed too big for one person. Spending his time helping others in need had once been enough, but lately…nothing filled the growing ache in his soul.

Aiden sighed, strode across the room, and opened the French doors leading onto the balcony. Fresh air was what he needed. And if Summer was still outside, maybe he could work up the courage to offer a hello. An initial greeting from the second story wasn’t ideal, but at least it was something. Each day that passed without speaking to her became a missed opportunity. He stepped onto the wide balcony, scanned the yard below. She was gone.

Disappointment and a little bit of relief flowed. The mixed emotions wore on him. He really needed to get this over with or risk forming a stomach ulcer.

Before he could think it through and change his mind, he re-entered his apartment, yanked open his front door, and forced his legs to carry him across the hall to apartment 2A. Fisting his hand, he knocked three times.

The resounding thumps mirrored his thundering heart. Seconds passed as he stared at the solid wood door. No noises of any kind seeped through. No shadow passed on the other side of the peephole. The paneled door stayed shut.

Summer might have gone out. But her small blue SUV was still parked in the driveway.
Most likely, she was avoiding him. At this point, he wouldn’t blame her. More than once, he’d treated her like she had cooties. And the time he’d ducked back into his apartment as she’d come out of her door, well, that was just sad. He hadn’t meant to be unfriendly. He’d panicked.
But he wouldn’t this time. He gathered his courage, knocked on the door again, and waited.

Nothing happened.

Great. Now he’d have to work up the nerve again some other time. Raking fingers through his hair, he once again sought the solace of his apartment.

Leave a comment below for entry into this week's giveaway.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Week 26: Christmas Rescue Route (LoRee Peer)

1st Chapter
He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.   Daniel 6:27

Where am I? What is that pounding? What’s that weight on my chest? Why can’t I move? Paralyzing panic rose from Izzy’s chest into her throat. Icy moisture slapped her hand and chased away dire thoughts. She refused to let the anxiety choke her. Do not let your mind acknowledge the memory of that tight, dark place.
A heavy weight on her chest stifled a breath.
A nightmare?
What was the stench?
Her eyes flew open but she struggled with wakefulness and the dregs of a dream, so she closed them again. The sounds, or lack thereof, along with the cold air and stinging wet told her she lay somewhere far different than her bed.
Falling snow struck her with awareness.
The world was white outside the car except for dark tree shapes.
An accident. Flashes of memory rolled through her mind. She’d been driving in white-out conditions on I-80. Dimly discernible taillights trailed in front of her. So much snow the wipers couldn’t keep up. So much snow the white line dividing lanes became next-to-invisible.
Red and blue lights, orange cones, a trooper’s yellow flashlight beam arcing to direct traffic to an off-ramp.
Dark country roads.
A ridge of barely visible, frozen gravel, thumps.
All followed by nothing beneath the car tires. She’d experienced a wrenching, jarring crunch, an explosion, a suffocating weight. Now the murky sky was far beyond the broken windshield of her car. It was dark and it was cold.
No green dashboard lights oriented her.
Airbag gas explained the chemical smell.
She lay curled in a swirling white world, listening to silence. Not silent. Tortuous howling wind blew snow through broken car windows.
Breathe. Focus. Orient. Can I move?
Images flashed again. Trapped in the dark. No. That’s an old memory. Air surrounding her now carried the cold freshness of night. Again, she experienced the sense of flying, felt the huge thud and jolt from hitting a sudden towering dark tree trunk. The car tipped upside down, crunching in horrid thuds.
Everything mixed up in her memory. Home. I’m going home for Christmas.
Home revived her. Izzy turned her head. Thank You, God, my neck seems fine.
She stretched out her arms and touched cold hard surfaces. She wiggled her shoulders, which didn’t rest flat against the back of the driver’s seat. She searched her mind for pain. All that registered was numbing cold.
What bound her legs? Huddled in her seat, she couldn’t move. Something weighted her side. She fumbled with the seat belt latch. The hook didn’t retract. Trying to wiggle, she realized the side of the car was pushing against her, forcing her into the console. Not one thing felt right. She detected no swaying or sense of upside-down; the car must be on its wheels.
She reached to find anything of use. She needed a lifeline. Dad said something about the locator warranty on her car having expired, which meant nothing beeped or blinked into a call center.
Call! Her cellphone. She groped again, to no avail. She attempted to unhook her seat belt, but it remained rigid. Get a grip on your mind. ‚Lord, chase away the terror, please. I can’t escape what’s happening if I can’t get a grip on my mind. Help me think about breathing, and not being alone. Please help me figure out what to do to get out of this mess.‛
I Am with you always. The comfort of the Spirit worked for seconds that dragged like minutes.
She reminded herself the Lord was with her and she wasn’t alone, terrorized by a madman in the backseat of a car. That time was all heat as she fought for her life.
Now she fought the cold. She’d never longed for the warmth of home as she did on this December night.
Could she flip up the hood on her sweatshirt? Without realizing she’d done it, drawn her hands into her sleeves. She straightened her fingers a knuckle at a time, flexed her joints, and reached for the hood. At least the seat belt gave enough to enable her to squirm forward a smidgen. She managed to squiggle the hood halfway up the back of her head to cover most of her ears.
She warmed her fingertips against her palms and tucked them back into her sleeves. What should she think about other than the cold? Christmas carols? Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Were any of those beloved carols written during a snowstorm? If she survived this one, Izzy determined to do an online search. She may even discover the roots of ‚Good King Wenceslaus.‛ Hey, that song mentioned snow.
Had she imagined sounds aside from traffic above the ditch, or creek bank, or wherever she was trapped?
Trapped. She hated that word. And refused to give in to the panic of long ago. Think of something else.
She’d never known a world without computers. She would have been badly hurt without an airbag. Had the car engine shut off at impact when the air bag deployed?
Izzy shivered. She sought to see anything of substance, but was disoriented by the wet, white flurries swirling in through the open window. She licked her lips. She imagined the heat of Mom’s homemade cocoa on her tongue, and tasted a tear. She reached again for anything, maybe the scarf and gloves stuffed into the top of her backpack. She leaned forward, grasped nothing but air where her backpack should have been in the foot well.
In older model automobiles, lights would have shone ahead of the car until the battery wore out. Dash lights would have relieved the blackness. But if she could see, would she want to know what the expanse revealed? Probably nothing but a deeper hole and worsening storm.
Oh, where had her heavy coat and blanket landed? God only knew where anything loose had ended up.
“God? You’ve got my attention. But really, in a small space where I’m unable to move? Haven’t I already worked through those girlhood night terrors?”
This bitter cold proved more real than the fear it took years to overcome.
Thoughts circled back to the crushed car. If the engine still hummed, she’d have heat. Maybe.
And maybe the gas line would’ve been punctured and she’d have been burned up by now. At least she’d be warm.
Stop. Pray. Don’t give in to the fear.
Izzy had been there. Done that. Panicked in the dark. Stop.
I AM with you.
A distant twang sounded in the stillness. Mom calling? She’d told Izzy how excited she was for the family to be together, and promised to call every hour if Izzy hadn’t kept in touch with her whereabouts. Mom and Dad had to be watching the weather report. How long before they became concerned for their little girl coming home from college?
How long indeed? How long turned into a sing-song voice in her head.
She closed her eyes against the intrusion, thought back. She’d been driving at a snail’s pace on I-80. Her lights had shone on the maelstrom of snow, obliterating the white guiding lines.
Lights. She’d love to have light right now. Who needed a flashlight if the cellphone was charged?
“Lord, I’m sorry I haven’t been listening for Your Voice much lately. I thank You for being the reason we celebrate Christmas.” Don’t cry. The tears will freeze your face. How long will I be in this car? She refused to contemplate not seeing her family for Christmas. How long before I freeze to death?
And why, oh, why hadn’t she eaten a decent meal? She’d grabbed snacks and gone through a drive-up for a burger around suppertime. Food. Would she be here so long she’d miss Mom’s tortilla soup and Dad’s spicy cheese dip? Their Christmas Eve tradition was Mexican food after church service.
Christmas Eve. Tomorrow. Unless she somehow got out of this mess, she’d have no gooey cinnamon rolls for breakfast in the morning.
Soft thud. A voice? A light beam bobbled in the distance.
Stranger danger or safe rescue?
At this freezing point in her life, she did not care. “Here! Help.”
Brock fought to keep his truck out of the ditch. He felt sorry for any driver who had trouble on country roads, especially during a blizzard. The lights picked out a darker shadow to the right where prior snow had been pushed—about the only hint keeping him on the road covered in white. Too many travelers seeking the call of home hadn’t heeded the good sense to stay off the roads until the storm passed.
Who was he to talk? He could have stayed overnight with his grandparents in Grand Island. He patted the decorated box of Grandma’s sugar cookies, recalling the words he’d heard her say since he was a kid. He loved that woman and couldn’t fight smiling whenever he thought of her. “No boy should go without Christmas cookies, no matter how old he is.”
Brock hit his bright lights, making visibility worse in the wind-driven snow. He dimmed them again, ever watchful for the edge of the road on his right. He searched, anticipating intersections ahead, some without visible STOP signs. He hoped to get back on I-80 soon. At least it was somewhat brighter there, where he could keep his eyes on taillights in front and the narrow band of white on the road. A bad accident had diverted eastbound traffic a mile south.
Vehicles had come to a stop and were being guided to crawl off an icy ramp, all aided by flashing police vehicle lights and bundled-up troopers with mega-volt flashlights. If Dad was with him, the family would all be praying aloud.
Not a bad idea. “Lord, be with all of us crazy enough to keep moving out here tonight. I have no idea who was involved in the crash on I-80, but please reveal Yourself to them and keep rescue workers and law enforcement safe.”
Taillights in front drew closer, and he slowed to a stop. He and the other driver waited for a speeding truck with bar lights atop the cab to cross the intersection—probably a volunteer firefighter.
Brock waited for the car to advance through the intersection. The driving snow had paused enough to reveal broken young trees free of mounded snow and a broken metal post.
He imagined a driver surprised by the approaching intersection, braking too fast, and sliding off the embankment. Lights behind him were faint. He grabbed his stocking cap and reached for the flashlight behind his seat and then rolled down the window. Moisture stung his exposed face. He tucked the light under an arm and patted his pockets for the bulge of his gloves.
He scanned the area until he found a field entrance, a safe place to park without getting stuck in a deep ditch or hit from behind. He set his flashers, and tied the strings on his hood. Not much exposed skin but for cheekbones, eyes, and nose. Thanks to the powerful flashlight, he determined faint tire tracks past the disturbed trees and what used to be a road sign.
Who was down there? One person or a family? How badly hurt?
OK, God, it’s You and me out here. Please help us all. You know I’m not good with blood and guts.
Adrenaline kicked in, and he side-stepped as he scurried down, somehow keeping his balance amongst the perils of nature. Along the way, he encountered broken glass and plastic car pieces. Soon, a mangled car came into the light’s beam. It rested sixty feet below.
“Anyone there?”
The driver’s side looked as though a giant fist had crushed a soda can.
He sidestepped down the incline, the snow knee-deep in places, and discovered the driver curved in an unnatural position between the mangled metal and console. He didn’t see blood.
“You OK in there?” The passenger door wouldn’t give. Maybe his fingers were too cold. Gloves did a lot of good if they stayed in coat pockets.
The driver had to be frozen. How long had it been since the car went off the road?
A moan. Female.
“Hi there. My name is Brock Winston.” He used his elbow to clear the broken glass from the window casing.
“You’re dizzy?”
She made a sound almost like a giggle, always a good sign. “Kind of dizzy. Mostly cold. Izrael is my name. Izzy.’
“Sweet name. I’m here to help.” He climbed through the passenger window—not an easy feat, but he’d been inside ductwork and crawl spaces. He settled his light near his feet and picked up a heavily padded coat caught between the seat and door.
“Your coat’s here. I don’t want to shine the light in your eyes, but could you look at me please?”
Oh, what beautiful eyes. Clear and focused. He read relief and trust, with maybe a hint of reserve. Thick lashes, no makeup. He lowered his gaze.
“I’m going to feel for your pulse. Your hands are like ice, girl. Sorry, mine are, too. Do you have gloves?” He skimmed her body. Thank You, Lord. No blood, no exposed bones poking through skin.
“Scarf and gloves in the top of my backpack.”
“I don’t see it. Maybe it flew out a window. Your pulse is steady and slow, so I guess that’s a good sign. Not that I really know what signs would mean trouble.”
She answered his smile.
He would have reared back if there was room.
She had a deep, pretty dimple in her left cheek. Cute as all get out.
Did he have a surprise for her. Later, when they had light. “I’ve got your coat here, but before I cover you, do you feel like you’re bleeding anywhere?”
“I don’t think so. I’m in a funny position. Feel kind of crunched. But I can move my neck. I was almost afraid to try at first. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough room to breathe. Maybe it’s the cold, but my left leg is numb. I can’t move it.”
“Thanks for answering my next question. As long as nothing is killing you with pain, I’ll try to get you warm. Do you have anything besides your coat?”
“I’ve traveled to and from Denver for four and a half years. I know how to pack in winter. Thanks for finding my coat. It was in the backseat. I tried, but I couldn’t reach a thing.”
“What else do you have?” He figured it would be good to keep her talking.
“Foggy memory. A blanket. Another hoody. Water’s probably frozen. My phone.”
“I’ll take a look.” He reached for his light and scanned the back. The blanket had snagged on broken framework pushed forward from the trunk. He yanked. The fabric ripped, but it came free. Nothing else.
“Look what I found. I’ll cover you up and then call nine-one-one.”

He’d been asking himself why he wasn’t more excited about Christmas. This emergency must be God’s way of shaking things up.

Leave a comment below to be entered in the weekly drawing.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Week 24: Designed by Love (Mary Manners)

Their mission is designed by love…
God gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who have hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
~ Isaiah 40:29-31 (NIV)

The mellow blend of Vivaldi’s violin concerto flowed from an under-the-cabinet radio to soothe Traci Stanton’s senses. Through the cottage’s open patio doors a gentle breeze carried the scent of pine from the majestic Angelina Forest while birds chattered beneath a golden halo of evening sun. The Easter holiday was behind her and summer closed in with its promise to bloom to full glory. Grape hyacinth drifted from the grounds along Heart’s Haven where it had been planted in preparation for Kaci and Ryne’s wedding, scheduled to take place on the lawn of the Big House in only a few weeks.
 But, for now, Traci was elbow deep in preparations for more imminent nuptials—a wedding scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. And the cake she’d promised the lovely couple could be no less than perfect. Her reputation depended on the creation of an amazing confection. She eased into the table ledge, gnawing her lower lip with concentration as she began to slice the final curve of a rose petal from gold-dusted fondant. Humming along to the music, she took great care in this final step, already imagining the beauty of the finished product.
 And not just a product that stood perfect in appearance, but in flavor, as well. The rich, sweet aroma of buttercream mingled with nature scents from the rain-kissed forest beyond the Heart’s Haven complex, causing her belly to rumble with need. Once again she’d worked straight through dinner, but the one-of-a-kind creation on the table was worth it. The wedding cake was breathtaking as it rose toward the ceiling in three generous tiers.
 Traci had a good idea now of how she’d tackle a cake for Ryne and Kaci. The flavor they’d selected was different from the cake here, but the design Kaci had requested was quite similar. As soon as she finished, Traci planned to snap a few photos to share with Kaci the next time she saw her. The cake, in all its glory, was a perfect example of the work for which Traci had a passion. Her most elaborate creation to date, the masterful confection was sure to be the hit of the sweets table at tomorrow’s wedding reception, as well as its twin at Ryne and Kaci’s in just a few weeks.
 If only she could complete the finishing touches, box the cake, and stand ready to deliver the goods first thing in the morning. One final petal waited to be placed along the whipped buttercream frosting and then she’d take photos and package the cake. She was almost there, almost…
A screech shattered the calm like a freight train bearing down on the cottage. The walls of the modest structure shook and seemed to close in on Traci as the tile beneath her feet shuddered. She released a squeal of surprise and leaped back from the chaos, raising both hands to shield herself from an impending impact as the sound intensified.
 One second…two…three…
No crash came as the roar continued to rush over her in a cacophonous tsunami of waves. She clapped her hands over her ears to muffle the sound and doubled over, trying to make sense of the noise as her heart pounded its way back into her chest.
 Then a sickening sense of dread swept through. The cake. Oh, no…the cake.
 Her hands were empty, save for the ear each clasped. Which meant the fondant tool was now…
Skewered in the cake’s second tier like a launched harpoon. But, peering through pried-open eyes, Traci saw that wasn’t the worst of it. Oh, no siree.
 The once-beautiful cake had shifted from the center of the table. It listed like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, while a hideous, dart-shaped appendage gaped from the middle tier. Spring foam seemed to pulsate in time to the roar that she now recognized as the distorted thumping of music with way too much base overflowing from the cottage next door. She sucked in a breath and rushed through the back doors and onto the patio, gaping at the cottage as the rush of music grew like an angry tempest.
 Traci stifled a screech of fury while the offensive downbeat continued its assault on her senses, crushing the mellow strains of Vivaldi. She gaped through the living room window at the dark-haired guy whose head bobbed in time to the backbeat as music raged from doors along his patio thrown wide open to the evening. His hair cascaded across piercing blue eyes as he glanced up through the window, noticed her watching, and flashed a smile as if all was just perfect with the world.
 He obviously didn’t have a clue as to the havoc he wreaked. Traci started to shout, but her voice was drowned by the shattering base. She fisted her hands as her blood pressure took on the qualities of a sputtering pressure cooker. Marching back to her kitchen, she surveyed the impaled tool, the ruined fondant leaf, and the leaning tower of buttercream. Her vision fogged as her temper exploded to a flash fire, and for the slightest moment, she understood the term temporary insanity. 
 The cake was beyond ruined. It was…an eruption of sugar and fondant. She’d have to start from scratch, and it was already closing in on six-thirty. Tears of fury burned Traci’s eyes as a profound sense of defeat set in. She began to calculate the cost of new supplies, to take a mental inventory of what she had on hand and what she’d need to run out and purchase.
 Tears spilled over. The cost would set her back in the red tonight; she wouldn’t make a penny on this project. And she’d been counting on the money to add to her buy-a-shop coffers. Every little bit helped as she inched closer to the goal line of owning her own cake and pastry shop.
 Add to that the cost of headache-relief medication, and she was completely done in.
 A rose leaf crafted of summer-green fondant slipped from the cake to plop onto the flour-dusted table. Others followed, one after the other, like a slow-moving rain shower…plop, plop, plop.
 Then, as Traci gaped in horror, the cake’s top tier slipped and splatted along the floor as if it waved a final white flag of surrender.
 Her internal pressure cooker exploded. Now, look what that idiot has done.
 The outrageous downbeat mocked her, punctuating each heated thought.
 Every evening, like clockwork, it’s the same thing…an excuse for music played way too loud. It was just a matter of time until that goon plowed head-on into a disaster. Someone’s got to put a stop to it. If only Mr. Hart was still here. If only the heart attack hadn’t claimed him…
Traci’s heart ached with the loss of crusty but loveable Andrew Hart, adding to her angst. The heart attack that had claimed him was sudden and unexpected and had left everyone in the complex reeling. The mood had been somber along the cottages until a week ago.
 A week ago to the day—she’d noted it in her journal—was when Mr. Ear-splitter-Dylan Jones had shattered Heart’s Haven’s peace and quiet with his infernal hip-hop jams. Traci wondered that no one seemed to mind his music besides her. Had they all gone deaf? Of course, she lived closest—right next door. Ugh, at least Dylan could blast some decent tunes like the strains of her Vivaldi or Beethoven—something not quite so offensive to the ears even when it was played at maximum volume. She’d tried to be patient but enough was enough!
 Traci swiped her hands on the bib of her apron and blew a strand of blonde hair from her smoldering eyes. She slammed the patio doors to garner some relief from the discordant pandemonium but the kitchen yawned with unbearable heat from an oven that had worked overtime through the day.
 She’d worked overtime, as well. The cake business that she’d embarked on as a little on-the-side venture had quickly exploded into something way beyond her wildest imagination. People who tasted her wares insisted she had the golden touch when it came to designing, baking, and decorating cakes, and customers traveled from all points in and around the greater Angel Falls area to place their orders. If business kept pace, Traci would soon have enough money saved to open a real, bona fide bake shop, making the work from her severely undersized kitchen in the modest Heart’s Haven cottage—and the infernal cacophony of sounds that blasted from next door—a thing of the past. But, until that day arrived, Dylan Jones would just have to tone it down to a low roar. Traci refused to work under such conditions and this was, after all, the quiet little community of Heart’s Haven.
 Correction—it used to be a quiet little community until Blast-it Jones arrived.
 It was about time she put a stop to the insanity. Yes, her new yahoo of a neighbor had earned a piece of her mind and if no one else would take the bull by the horns then she’d personally deliver it up on a platter with all the trimmings.
 She’d make Dylan Jones see things her way, like it or not. This was the last time he’d infringe on her peace and quiet, not to mention destroy more of her painstakingly constructed cakes. The music—if it could even be called that—freight train was about to be derailed.
 Dylan Jones grimaced as violin music drifted through the open door of his cottage. It wasn’t the tune that bothered him as much as the accompanying melodic hum of an angel.
 That’s how he thought of Traci Stanton since he’d met her coming up the walk last week while moving his stuff into the cottage next to hers—a snooty angel.
 And darned cute…way too cute for his own good. Which he supposed was sort of a paradox, to be so beautifully angelic in appearance yet harbor a vicious bite of attitude that seemed to be directed, for no reason he could fathom, at Dylan himself.
 He’d wanted to get away from people…from memories that seemed to haunt him since he’d returned from his tour overseas. No longer on active duty, he wanted nothing more than to drown out the destruction he’d witnessed, including the death of his best friend, Joe, who’d gone on tour alongside him. Thoughts tumbled over each other as he forced memories from the forefront of his mind. He didn’t want to think, didn’t want to feel.
 Hard to manage when the alluring woman next store, with the voice of an angel, nudged something awake inside of him. Only the music could take him away, make him mindless.
 Dylan switched on his laptop, launched the sound mixer and cranked up the speaker volume to drown out the angel’s voice as, despite his best efforts, his first prickly encounter with Traci Stanton came rushing back to fill his mind.
“Hi there, neighbor,” he’d called, figuring it was as good an ice-breaker as anything.
 Traci turned from where she was busy watering a flurry of potted wave petunias near the walk. Her eyes, an alluring shade of blue-green ocean water, were a welcome distraction from moving day as she rose to step in front of Dylan, blocking his path up the walk. “What’s that?” 
“Nice to meet you, too.” He jostled the sound equipment on his shoulder, shifting to distribute the heavy weight. “I’m Dylan Jones and let me guess; you are…the welcoming committee?”
 “Traci…Traci Stanton. And again I’ll ask, what’s that?” She jabbed a finger at the thin, rectangular box on his shoulder as the blonde hair she’d fashioned into a ponytail bobbed to sweep over her shoulders.
“This is one of my speakers.”
 “It looks, well…” Her pert little nose scrunched with dissatisfaction, accentuating a light smatter of freckles along the bridge. “I hope you’re not planning on blasting your music. I like things quiet around here while I’m working.”
 “I guess I’d need to know your definition of blasting to answer that. But it’s accurate to say that I like a little company in the form of tunes while I’m working.”
 “Then I have just one word for you…headphones.”
 “That’s two words.”
 “One—it’s compound. Look it up.” Traci had stepped aside then, revealing the sign over the entrance to his cottage. Emblazoned in the wood was the message, May love find all who enter here. The same sign and message, he noticed, adorned the entrance to Traci’s cottage, as well. He’d heard through the grapevine that she’d lived here at Heart’s Haven going on a year and had yet to find her Romeo. With such a charming attitude—not—it was no wonder the guys hadn’t come flocking.
 Not that Dylan believed in any of the legends or stories about love that seemed to flit around the Angel Falls area about this particular rental complex. If he had, he would have never put his John Hancock on a lease. There was no room in his life for a serious relationship—or any kind of relationship, for that matter. And even if there was, he understood that for those who were fortunate enough to find romantic love, hanging onto that love happened merely half of the time—if one was remotely lucky. And if not, well…
Crash and burn…heartache and broken dreams. In the military, he’d seen it time and time again. Deployment, months away from a wife and kids, took its toll on a marriage. Some survived intact; many didn’t. Daunting statistics, to say the least.
 Similar to the statistics for coming home in one piece following a pair of tours deployed as a Navy SEAL. Not good either. But Dylan had been fortunate enough to beat the odds there. So maybe there was hope for the other, as well…
Nope. Not here, with this uptight blonde dynamo for a neighbor. She was well on her way to crushing the Heart’s Haven batting average, and he was sure to follow in her footsteps to trounce the legend.
 But the memory of that moving day encounter on the walk still brought a tingle of a smile to Dylan’s lips. If Traci had continued her tirade, he might have had no choice but to quiet her scathing mouth with a kiss. And then—
A sharp rap on the front door followed by a heated shout drew Dylan back to the present. His right hand went to his hip while his senses launched into full alert as a shadow crossed the window.
“Open up, you moron.”
One heartbeat, two, while he gathered his wits. His pulse pounded like a string of gunshots.
 It’s OK…holster the weapon, Dylan. You’re back on American soil, and it’s not the enemy. It’s just…
Strike that. A closer look through the window glass told Dylan maybe it was the enemy…clad in faded jeans and a flour-dusted T-shirt with a mass of blonde hair gathered atop her head. He strode to the door, switched on the porch light against the waning sun and there she stood—Traci Stanton.
 He willed his pulse down a notch as he yanked open the door. He shouted to be heard over the music. “I hope it’s not me you’re referring to as a moron.”
 “It’s exactly you.” Traci’s words struck like bullets as she marched over the threshold, crossed the living room, and with one swift motion yanked the sound-mixer’s power cord from the outlet. The room plunged into stark quiet. “There, that’s better.”
Dylan swore he could hear his heart thumping. Or, was that Traci’s heart galloping across the room? He gaped at the power cord as she tossed it on the floor and gave it a single swift kick with the toe of her pink tennis shoe.
 His voice sounded far away as his ears began to roar from a heightened blood pressure. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Traci turned to face him, her cheeks flushed with fury. “I’m restoring sanity to the complex.” Both hands fisted along her sides,  she reminded him of a tea kettle about to shriek…a very lovely tea kettle.
“Sanity?” It was hard to take her seriously with the white smudge painted across one cheek, a mass of blonde hair twisted into a bird’s nest atop her head, and an apron emblazoned with a huge, delectable chocolate kiss along the front. Dylan stifled a laugh as his gaze captured hers. “You might want to take a look in the mirror first. I think you’re molding.”
 “Your jaw here…” He ran a finger along the line of soft porcelain skin. “It’s speckled with green.”
Traci’s cheeks flamed as she nudged his hand aside. “That’s fondant, for your information.”
Dylan tried not to think about the smooth, creamy texture of her skin, but she had him tongue-tied. “Fon-what?”
 “Fondant. It’s used for decorating cakes. Which I was in the process of—nearly finished with, I might add—when your music—and I use that term loosely—shocked the breath right out of me. The kitchen convulsed, and the fondant tool flew from my hand like a launched missile. It plunged through the cake’s buttercream icing and impaled itself in a fondant rose. And then—”
 “Whoa there. Take a breath.” Dylan placed a calming hand on her shoulder. “It can’t be that bad.”
 “Then,” she shrugged his hand away, “the middle tier listed, and the top slid, and then plop, plop, plop.” She paced a tight circle, slapping her hands against the thighs of her jeans. “Now the work of art I so painstakingly created is sitting like a beautiful building that’s been heartlessly bulldozed—completely and utterly ruined.”
Dylan jammed his hands in his pockets and wished for the music again. The rhythm had a way of drowning out the chaos…restored sanity. But Traci stood between him and the power cord. So he went to plan B…humor. “Completely…utterly?”
 “That’s right, mister.” Traci stood like a concrete pillar, impossible to crack. She deflected his humor as she turned back to jab a finger into his chest, punctuating each of her words. “And-I-want-to-know-just-what-you-are-planning-to-do-about-it.”
 “Me?” Dylan stepped back and splayed his hands in the universal sign of surrender. “Well, if you’re asking my opinion, then I vote we eat the cake.”
 “What?” The flames in her cheeks ignited to an inferno. She sputtered and grabbed her throat as if his suggestion had choked her. “Seriously, that’s—good grief, that’s all you have to say?”
 “Well, by your account the cake might not look so great anymore, but I’m sure it still tastes incredible.” Dylan started toward the door. If he couldn’t enjoy his music, he’d at least garner some pleasure from her cake. “Everyone says your cakes are the best in all of Texas. So I say we eat it.”
 “You’ve heard people say that…all of Texas?” Her tone mellowed just a bit. “It’s a big state.”
“That’s right.” Dylan shrugged as he ambled toward the front door.
 Traci grabbed his wrist, held tight. “Wait. Where are you going?”
 “To your place.” Dylan glanced down at her whitened knuckles nestled along his wrist. She had no idea he could pin her in less than a second flat if he wanted to. Military training came in handy. Instead, he played along, moving toward the door as she clung to him. “You’ve tortured me all afternoon with that sweet, delectable aroma, not to mention your angelic humming. So the least you can do is let me have a sample of your wares.”
 “The least I can do is…what?” She followed after him, her tennis shoes slapping the hardwood. “What did you say?”
 “You heard me.” He flashed a grin as he wondered how long she planned to keep hold of his wrist and figured he didn’t much mind the touch. “Today it was just the humming. Yesterday torture came in the form of your full-blown singing of a melody to Garth Brooks’ throaty sound, no less.”
“You were eavesdropping on me?”
 “Not any more than you were me.”
 “I wasn’t eavesdropping tonight. Who could miss your infernal cacophony of sound? I’ll bet people heard your—that junk you call music—two counties away.”
 “Do you make it a habit to overexaggerate?”
 “That’s not exaggeration. I’m simply stating the obvious. And, for the record, I don’t think the client who ordered the cake I was working on will share your sentiment about looks not mattering. Looks are everything when it comes to cakes—especially wedding cakes. Well, looks and flavor. And the cake’s due to be delivered in…” she glanced at her flour-dusted wristwatch. “Exactly nineteen hours.”
 “Then I suppose you’d better let go of my hand and get started on the reconstruction project.” Dylan glanced down to where their hands were now joined, and winked. “I’m willing to help with this adventure in exchange for a slice of your so-called demolished masterpiece and only if I can play my choice of music while we tackle the re-creation. You do own a radio with more than one station, don’t you?”
 “You…you…” Traci dropped his hand as if she’d been burned and swiped her palm along the front of her apron.
 Dylan laughed. “It appears I’ve left you speechless. Good. Rebuilding this grand confection of yours ought to go faster that way.”

Leave a comment below for entry into the week's giveaway drawing!