Saturday, April 30, 2016

Week 40: Warrior at Willow Lake (Mary Manners)

Forgiveness is a symphony of love.

Hunter Stone rides a bright future as an MLB star pitcher until a senseless accident steals his ability to throw a curve ball--as well as the life of an innocent child. Disgraced, he leaves Willow Lake in search of something to fill the void.

Maci Ferguson uses her gift of music to help children overcome trauma. Music is the balm that soothes her hurt and washes away memories with scars that refuse to fade. She fears she may never trust a man to love her...until Hunter returns to Willow Lake.

Can the two trust enough to allow God to work in their lives...and heal them both before it's too late?

1st Chapter:

Maci set her violin case beside the deck rail and turned her face to the breeze. She inhaled the sweet scent of the lilacs blooming along the river walk beyond the band shell. The day was unseasonably warm for early July, with temperatures soaring into the high nineties. The heat caused Maci’s senses to buzz as if she’d dipped her head into a beehive. From behind, she heard the clatter of fellow musicians as they began to pack up their instruments and clear the stage. What remained of the concert crowd quickly dispersed for cooler quarters. Red and white striped popcorn cartons littered the lawn along with crumpled soda cups. Already, the cleaning crew scurried to make quick work of the mess.

Maci leaned against the deck rail and blew a wisp of wavy red hair from her forehead as beads of perspiration dampened the nape of her neck. Summer was gearing up to be a real bear. This afternoon’s concert had zapped what was left of her energy after a full week spent counseling others, and she was thankful the sun had begun to sink low on the horizon, welcoming gentle hues of magenta and lavender. Even with cooling fans blowing into the orchestra’s pit, the temperature continued to lumber toward unbearable while humidity turned everything in its path to a limp dishrag. If it weren’t for the slight, gentle kiss of a breeze, she’d most likely melt. Thank goodness this was the last afternoon concert of Willow Lake’s outdoor series; the symphony was due to move indoors to the newly-renovated concert hall for next Saturday’s afternoon spotlight. Maci hoisted her violin case and glanced at the delicate silver watch on her wrist. She’d lost track of time; the sweeping second hand was proof as it inched toward a new hour. She’d best be on her way home. A generous stack of case files, the byproduct of what she considered her real job—music therapy—waited for her attention. Despite their beckon, restlessness caused her to pace the open deck that ran the length of the back stage. Though, between concerts and working, her schedule was so full she barely had time to breathe, lately she’d felt as if something was missing from her life, something—

“This heat is killing me.” Maci turned to find her friend Ali MacLaren— Hawkins, Maci corrected herself— approaching. She still thought of Ali as a MacLaren although she and Ryder had been married nearly a year. Blonde hair punctuated by strawberry highlights skimmed Ali’s shoulders as she swiped perspiration from her freckled nose. Her belly, round with pregnancy, made her labored walk more of a waddle.

“What are you doing out in this heat?” Maci quickly offered the bottle of water she clutched in one hand. Ali’s high-boned cheeks flared crimson. “You look like a teapot about to squeal.”

“With so much work at the inn, I’ve missed every one of your performances this season. I was determined to make this one—to cheer you on, Mace.” Ali splayed one hand across her belly while the other reached for the water. She uncapped the bottle, drew one greedy sip before continuing. “But, I didn’t bargain for this heat. Even the little guy feels it. He’s been awfully quiet today. I think he’s stretched out across my tailbone. It aches.”

“Maybe you’re in—”

“Bite your tongue.” Maci waggled a finger. “I can’t be in labor—not yet. I still have almost a month.” She forced a smile. “You sounded great out there, by the way. The best I’ve ever heard. It was…magical.”

“Thanks, but forget about the concert for now.” Maci took Ali’s arm and guided her toward a folding chair. “We have more pressing business to attend to. You should sit down.”

“I’ve tried.” Ali pushed hair back from her flushed face. “It only feels worse. And dizziness keeps coming and going like a tumbling wave, now joined by a nagging headache.”

“Dizziness…” Maci’s voice trailed off as Ali suddenly leaned against the back stage rail, the color draining from her face. Her breath came in short bursts. Maci rushed over to her side.

“Where’s Ryder?”

“He got delayed in Chattanooga while ordering landscaping materials for the inn—he won’t be back until later tonight.” Ali squeezed her eyes tight, and then opened them again as Maci placed a hand on her forearm. “I should have brought my sunglasses,” Ali said. “The light is killing me.”

“But it’s getting dark. The sun is barely above the horizon.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Worry spiked as Maci eased in closer to Ali, handing her a treasured pair of Ray-Bans propped on her head. “Here, take my glasses.”

“Funny…” Ali reached for the glasses and slipped them into place. “Oh, that’s a little better. Thanks, Mace.”

“Now, come sit down. I’m going to give Ryder a call and tell him to make tracks back this way. You shouldn’t be alone, Ali.”

“Please, don’t do that.” Ali lifted the water bottle for another sip. “I don’t want to worry him.”

“Nonsense.” Maci pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her long, black concert skirt. “He’d be furious if you didn’t, and most likely skin me alive for not calling. I’m not willing to come under the wrath of his fury. I’d rather be sunk into a pressure cooker.”

“Well, when you put it that way...” Ali tilted her head, sighing as one hand returned to her belly. Her jaw clenched as she swallowed hard. “Is there something wrong with the sound system?”

“No. Nothing’s playing now. All I hear is the scuffle of the orchestra packing up and the work crew gathering trash. And, amid the chaos, a few clarinetists are practicing a handful of measures from Sonata Number Five that the director asked them to tweak. Why? What do you hear?”

“That high-pitched humming—sounds like mosquitos are swarming in my ears.” As if to emphasize, she cupped a hand over one lobe.

“There’s no humming, Ali.” Maci shook her head stiffly, her pulse racing just a bit faster as she switched on the cell phone, scanned her contacts and brought up Ryder’s number. She jabbed the call button and waited for the signal to engage, keeping one careful eye on Ali. Ali’s cheeks were suddenly white as the linens Maci had seen her use on Willow Inn’s guest beds. “I think you’re a little overheated, Al. I’ll get you to the car and crank the air conditioning so you can cool off. If you don’t feel better by then, we’ll head to the emergency room.” ‚

“I have an appointment with the obstetrician in the”—Ali paused, winced—“morning.”

Ryder’s voicemail engaged, and Maci spoke quickly. “This is Maci. Call me.” There was no need for more. She knew the urgency in her voice would relay the rest of the message. She set the phone to vibrate and slipped it back into her pocket.

“I’m so sorry, Mace.” Ali placed one hand beneath the mound of her belly and used the other to help steady herself as she staggered along the deck, leaning on the rail. “I didn’t come here to cause trouble—”

“Bite your tongue.” Maci grabbed her violin case in one hand and grasped Ali’s arm with her other. “Best friends are never trouble.”

“You’re right.” Ali’s breathing grew more labored with each step. “I think I’d better get home. I just need…a minute to rest.” The words rushed out in a gasp, punctuated by a groan as Ali stumbled forward.

“Ali! Oh, my goodness. Let me help you.” The violin case slipped from Maci’s hand as she rushed to throw an arm around Ali’s shoulders. Ali’s skin felt hot as smoldering embers when she pressed her forehead to Maci’s cheek.

“My legs are cramping.”

“Take it slow.”

“Everything’s spinning. I need to sit back down…” Ali slipped from Maci’s grasp and settled in a heap on the deck floor. “My head…” Her eyes rolled back, her cheeks white as a snowdrift.

“Easy. It’s going to be OK.” Barely able to breathe as alarm launched to full-on panic, Maci’s voice shuddered so her words came in a staggered rush. Her pulse hurtled and her hands trembled like autumn leaves as she dropped to her knees, cradling Ali’s head as it slipped back to thump the wood. Beneath the waning sunlight, Ali’s blonde hair fanned across the stained deck like a halo. “Stay with me.”

“I’m so dizzy. Something’s wrong…with the baby.” Ali’s eyes slipped close as her voice drifted. “Help me, Maci. Please…”


Hunter lifted a bottle of water to his lips and guzzled. The day was hot enough to melt the tar off a roof. He swiped a hand across his mouth as he drained the bottle and tossed it into a recycling bin along the river walk. A crowd had gathered in the grass surrounding the band shell, enjoying popcorn and sodas while they listened to the concert. The aroma of butter wafted, and a cacophony of sounds crowded the air as the symphony packed up their equipment and the grounds crew dug in to clear trash from the park. Around the perimeter of the concert quad, along the river walk, and across the parking lot floodlights kicked on, casting a milky glow over the grounds as dusk whispered. On stage, the male musicians were dressed in starched black tuxes while the women wore flowing, ankle-length black skirts coupled with long-sleeved white blouses. In Hunter’s opinion, the required concert attire was way too hot for a day such as this.

He tugged at the collar of his navy Willow Lake EMS shirt, thankful for the short sleeves as he meandered around toward the back of the stage. His gaze scanned the river walk as his emergency radio crackled with a spattering of messages. Nothing important—everything seemed to be in order. After managing the streets of Chicago, he’d welcomed the much quieter pace of Willow Lake. It was good to be home again. Sure, the town had grown since he’d hightailed to the concrete jungle nearly eight years ago; shops lined Magnolia Street, blending old and quaint with new and flashy. His favorite hang-out was Dom’s Deli, next door to the bookstore named Posts and Pages. Dom’s toasted pastrami on rye slathered with spicy Dijon mustard was to die for. But, despite the growth, Willow Lake’s atmosphere had the same mellow flavor, which almost made him wonder why he’d once been so eager to escape. Almost. All the changes made it easy to feel like the past was merely an illusion—that he hadn’t once lost a baseball scholarship as well as his dream of playing in the major leagues. And that Josh MacLaren hadn’t died.

Hunter forced the thought away as he rounded the band shell and made his way across the grass. Just like Willow Lake, he’d changed, too. He wasn’t that person anymore—the one who’d coasted through the summer following high school graduation without a care in the world, looking forward to a full ride to Tennessee State, compliments of his gifted pitching ability. Life had thrown him a curve ball, and he’d struck out.

But now he was back at the plate, and this time he’d hit the grand slam he’d always dreamed of—just not in a way he’d ever imagined. The breeze kicked up, drying a line of perspiration that trailed across the nape of his neck and disappeared down his back like fingers skimming over his spine as he reminded himself he was no longer Hunter Stone, Willow Creek Warrior’s star pitcher and switch-hitter. That person had died along with Josh. Now he was—

“Open your eyes. Talk to me, Ali.” The sudden urgent, high-pitched voice was a knife slashing through the air. Hunter’s senses launched to full alert as he turned toward the deck at the rear of the band shell. Beneath floodlights, a flurry of black and white flashed against the brown of deck wood, followed by the flutter of a golden-red wave, like flames whipping in the breeze.

“Somebody call 911!” The voice was frenzied.

Hair prickled down Hunter’s arms as he bolted toward the commotion. His pulse kicked into overdrive while his heart launched into a double-time cadence. Without missing a step, he radioed for the event’s on-call ambulance to pull around and stand ready. As he reached the deck, he found a woman splayed supine across the wood, her pregnant belly a mountain rising to the dusk-kissed sky. A second woman knelt over her, shaking her limp body.

“Ali.” The woman with long, copper hair gave another shake with no response. “Ali, wake up.”

“Easy there.” Hunter nudged the kneeling woman aside. She was the source of the flames—her hair was the most startling shade of red he’d ever seen. “Her name’s Ali?”

“Yes. Ali Hawkins.”

The name punched Hunter in the gut. So, she’d married…

His gaze flew to Ali’s face. The growing, purplish bruise above her right eye had thrown him off. She must have bumped her head when she passed out. Her hair was shorter—a lot shorter—than he remembered, too. And, the added pregnancy weight distorted her features. That last detail—her pregnancy—got his EMT gears moving and launched him into action.

“How far along?”


"When is the baby due?”

“About three and a half weeks.” The woman leaned in, bathing Ali’s face in water from a bottle another musician had handed her, mindless of the dirt that marred her sleek black skirt. “She shouldn’t have come here in this heat. This pregnancy’s been hard on her, and she’s been so busy at the inn. I don’t know what she was thinking.” The woman’s eyes, the color of stonewashed denim, glistened with tears. “She was talking and then, in the middle of a
sentence, she just went down. I tried to catch her, but she bumped her head on the deck rail pretty hard.”

“It’s going to be OK.” Hunter should be immune to tears by now. He’d seen enough of them in his years running emergency services on the streets of Chicago. But, somehow hers managed to do a number on him. He dropped to his knees beside her. “Let me take a look.”

“Are you a doctor?” Her gaze skimmed his navy EMS shirt, scanning his name badge as tears spilled over to streak clear, porcelain skin. “Mr. Stone, don’t you think we need an ambulance?”

“Hunter Stone, and we had one on call for the concert. It was on its way back to the station when I radioed, but it’s turned around. It should be here any minute.” As if to affirm his statement, sirens wailed. A moment later the ambulance turned the corner and rushed down the street, its blue lights flashing. It jumped a curb and crossed the lawn, making tracks to the band shell. Seeing the panic in the woman’s eyes, Hunter made an effort to distract her before he had two patients on his hands. “What’s your name?”

“Maci Ferguson.”

“Help me here, Maci.” Hunter skimmed his fingers along Ali’s wrist and felt for a pulse…found one steady but edging toward a sprint. “Tell me everything you remember. From the very start.”

“Like I said, we were talking.” Maci leaned in, hiking up her long black skirt to free her legs. Hunter tore his gaze away from calves he was sure had spent plenty of time in a gym and focused on the patient. “The heat was getting to her, and she said she was feeling a little dizzy.”

Hunter gulped as he smoothed a hand across Ali’s forehead, down one cheek. Her skin was clammy but not overly hot. “What else?”

“Humming…she thought something was wrong with the sound system because she heard a high-pitched humming.” Maci shook her hair away from her face and cupped one ear with long, delicate fingers. “But there’s nothing like that. I don’t hear it, though. Do you?”

“No.” Hunter’s danger radar spiked as he performed triage, and his heart pounded with each new piece of information. He delved further. “You two are friends?”

“Best friends.”

“Has Ali had any problems with her blood pressure throughout the pregnancy?”

“None that I’m aware of. She saw the obstetrician a week ago, and has another appointment tomorrow.”

A week…Hunter knew from his training what kind of dangers could pop up in late pregnancy during the course of a week. This had all the signs of a classic case of preeclampsia. If that was indeed the case, the baby—and Ali—were in serious danger.

“Here comes the stretcher. We’ll get her to the hospital now.” Hunter turned from Ali as his coworker, Jared, approached, though he continued his conversation with Maci. “Have you called her husband—Ryder?”

“How do you know they’re married?”

“It doesn’t take a genius.” Carefully, Hunter helped Jared stabilize Ali. “I used to live here.”

“You know Ali?”

“And Ryder, too.” Hunter and Jared carefully loaded Ali onto the stretcher. Hunter was thankful only a few stragglers remained from the enthusiastic concert crowd. Nothing stuck in his craw more than a mob of gawkers. He turned to Maci. “We all used to be friends.”

“Used to?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, Ryder’s—” Maci’s cell phone chimed and she checked caller ID. “This is him.” She answered in a flash. Hunter continued to work at the rear of the ambulance while she quickly relayed information. With Ali safely loaded and stabilized, they were ready to pull out. The quicker Ali got to the hospital, the better the chances for her and the baby.

“Wait. I’m coming with.‛” Maci grabbed her violin case and rushed to the rear of the ambulance as Ryder began to climb in. “I won’t leave her alone.”

“We don’t allow passengers in rescue vehicles.” Hunter eyed her performance attire. “Only patients.”

“You do today.” Maci marched past him, her chin tilted toward the sky and her blue eyes shimmering with tears. Hunter’s resolve turned to mashed potatoes when her lips began to tremble. “Like I said, she’s not going alone.”

“She won’t be alone.” He crossed his arms, struggling to maintain authority. “I’ll see she’s taken care of.”

“And so will I. Ryder’s coming from Chattanooga, and even speeding he’s going to be at least another hour. If Ali’s in labor she’ll need me there.” Maci’s teeth tugged at her trembling bottom lip. She clutched her violin case to her chest as the tears spilled over. “You look like a reasonable guy, Hunter. Give me a break and bend the rules a bit…just this time.”

The tears did him in. “Well, I guess it’s OK…just this once, though.” Ryder reminded himself it was Ali in the ambulance—not just a stranger from the street. He’d hurt her once, and he wouldn’t let that happen again. Maci was right—Ali would need a friend at her side if the doctors decided to take the baby—or worse. He sighed and nodded slightly toward the ambulance. “You ride shotgun. I’ll take up the rear.”

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Week 39: Whispers at Willow Lake (Mary Manners)

Book 1, The Willow Lake Series

Whispers reveal a single act of recklessness…and a lifetime of forgiveness.

With a father known as the town drunk and a mother who fled when he was only six, Ryder learned early on that the world can be a cold, unforgiving place. Only two people in his life have ever understood him: "Mama" Stallings and sweet Ali Maclaren. But after a tragic accident, guilt chases Ryder from the town that's labeled him trouble, and from Ali.

Seven years later Ryder returns after Mama Stallings's death and finds that Ali is considering marriage to a man with a mean streak he masterfully hides from all but Ryder, a man who'll do whatever's necessary to remove Ryder from Willow Lake, and Ali's life, forever.

Can Ali find a way to forgive Ryder and can Ryder forgive himself before another tragedy occurs?

1st Chapter:

Sirens shrieked over the roar of Ryder’s Honda ST1300 as he leaned hard to the right, taking a switchback curve with a tilt that kicked his pulse into overdrive. Ice-blue warning lights slashed from behind, slicing across pavement as dusk settled along the foothills of the Smokies. Exhaust fumes battled with the crisp scent of pine and sweet, impending rain.

“Pull that piece of junk over,” a voice commanded through the PA of the cruiser in pursuit. “You have ten seconds. Don’t make me shoot you.”

Shoot me? Ryder bristled as he recognized the owner of said voice—John Larder. So the idiot had finally been graced with the keys to a police cruiser. Miracles did happen. But Larder certainly wouldn’t keep those keys long if he spoke this way to everyone he pulled over, even if his family did own half of Willow Lake.

The high-pitched wail grated. “I mean it. Pull over—now.”

Ryder could easily outrun the cruiser. The lights of Willow Lake beckoned in the distance, casting a hazy glow along the cloud-ravaged sky. Home waited…and he knew he’d find Ali nestled somewhere along the lake. She, like him, had always been drawn to the water.

At least until the accident that had claimed her brother’s life. Now, Ryder wasn’t so sure. It had been years since he’d seen her, months since they’d exchanged so much as a quick text message. He’d tried his best to maintain distance…for her sake, more than his.

Sweet Ali. The thought of her nudged Ryder’s pulse to short, explosive bursts. Time melted away, and he was back at her side, soaking up summer sun along the lake shore as if it would never fade away.

But it had faded…painfully. They’d once been friends…much more than friends. Yet, in the end he’d hurt her badly. Now Ryder aimed to make things right, no matter the cost.

Blue lights continued to flash. The shriek of the siren shredded what was left of his patience.

Ryder swallowed an oath as he eased the cycle down one gear, then another, until it came to rest along a jutted outcropping of the slick, silver-gray mountain face. Against his better judgment, he killed the engine; this section of road offered a dangerous curve not meant for loitering. But with the blues flashing and the siren tearing up the impending darkness, Ryder supposed they’d be hard to miss. He also assumed Larder had planned it this way in hopes the whole town cruised by for a look-see. The thug had been a cocky know-it-all in high school, confident in the fact that his father—then acting police chief—turned the cogs that made the small town hum. Appeared not much had changed in that department, except a few years ago, Larder senior had suffered a massive heart attack, leaving the reins to his reportedly inept son.

Ryder removed his helmet and set it on the cycle’s seat. He braced himself as the cruiser door clicked open. A quick glance in the rear view mirror coupled by the staccato tap of boot heals along the pavement told him Larder approached with a cocky swagger.

“Well, well, well…if it isn’t Ryder Hawkins. Where’s the fire?” Larder’s hand held steady at his hip, cradling the holstered gun, and as Ryder turned to face him the badge pinned to Larder’s chest flashed in the cruiser’s blues.

“That’s the best you can do?” Ryder slouched against the cycle and raised his voice to be heard over the siren. “Wanna play tough guy? Go right ahead. Just kill that siren, first. It’s offensive to my ears.”

“Thought you’d be used to the sound by now, with your history.” Larder made no move to silence the screech as he unlatched the holster, his fingers clenching. His bony Adam’s apple bobbed as he struggled for a menacing tone. He’d always been on the scrappy side and used his family ties as muscle instead of his anemic biceps. “Don’t tempt me, hotshot.”

A decade ago, the words might have incited a wildfire of temper. But the years—and a plethora of humbling experiences—had taught Ryder restraint. He drew a deep breath and lifted his hands in surrender, easing into the conversation from a different angle. He lowered his voice, softened the tone a bit. “Look, I don’t want any trouble, John. I just want to get to town.” He thought of Mama Stallings, the kind-

hearted grandmother of a woman who’d saved his life so many years ago. “I have someone waiting on me. It’s urgent.”

He’d received a call from her two days ago, a simple message on his voicemail. “Come home Ryder; it’s time.” So, he’d tied up loose ends on the naval base in Virginia, packed a bag, and come.

“Business, first.” Larder removed wire-rimmed Ray-Bans, revealing sludge-brown eyes. His nose, once broken by Ryder, sloped like an alpine ski course. His cheeks were slightly sunken, his skin a bit sallow beneath the veil of blue light. “Hand over your license and registration.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Despite his attempt to hold his temper in check, Ryder’s resolve to remain sensible crumbled. He took a step forward, flexing his fingers. “What’s the charge?”

“You zipped that straightaway at the mile-marker going fifty-five.” Larder jabbed a finger down the road to the east. “That’s ten over the limit.”

“You’ve lost your mind. We raced this stretch of road back in high school, Larder—”

“That’s Sergeant Larder, to you.”

“Sergeant Larder, if I remember correctly, I kicked your—”

“We’re not in high school anymore, Hawkins.” He flipped open a citation pad and reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve a pen, clicking it with a flourish. “And, if I remember correctly, you’re not a deputy, and definitely not the one in line to be the next police chief.”

“You’re only in line because your old man bought off half the town.”

“That kind of talk won’t earn you any favors. At least my old man didn’t waste his days saddled in some two-bit bar trying to drown the memory of my cheating mother.” Larder extended the hand with the pen. “Now, hand over your license and registration.”

“So this is how it’s going to be?”

“Just upholding my sworn duty to keep Willow Lake safe from riffraff.”

“I see.” Even with the passage of time, with all he’d accomplished, Ryder would not be allowed to forget how his father had spent a good chunk of days tipping back mountain lightning after his mother hightailed it. Her departure was one of Ryder’s earliest memories—the scent of her perfume as she rushed by him carrying an overstuffed suitcase, tears and shrieks of blame aimed at his father, the door slamming behind her. The look in her eyes—dark and wild—had haunted Ryder’s dreams for years afterwards. His father marked her exit with his first week-long bender, leaving Ryder to fend for himself.

“I’m waiting, Hawkins.” Larder tapped one polished black boot as thunder rumbled in the distance.

“You’re lucky I’m in an amicable mood.” Ryder delved into his back jeans pocket to retrieve his wallet and hand over what was requested. He needed to move on before the storm hit and the road turned treacherous for his bike. “Here you go, Sergeant Larder.”

“This is expired.” Larder examined the front and then flipped the card over to give the back a cursory glance. “Nearly a month.” His gaze swept to the plate mounted to the back of the cycle. “Tags are expired, too. You’re in violation.”

“It couldn’t be helped. I’ve been out of the country.” Ryder scratched his stubbled jaw as he studied the backdrop of the Smokies in the distance. The reflection of Willow Lake snaked lazily along the foothills while the sun, battling storm clouds, gave a final goodnight kiss to the horizon. He wondered if the inn was still in operation. And, if it was, would he find Ali tucked safely inside? “I haven’t gotten around to renewing, but it’s at the top of my to-do list now that I’m back.”

“Running from the law?”

“Hardly.” Ryder’s stance remained nonchalant, though his gut clenched with the realization that Larder had lost none of his arrogance, and even seemed to have acquired more—in spades. The guy remained as annoying as the screech of fingernails across a chalkboard. “Been taking care of business.”

“What kind of business?”

Ryder winked and reached for his license. “Top secret.”

“Is that so?” Larder jerked the license away from his grasp. The smirk that settled over his lips threatened to split his face wide open. “In that case, I’m going to have to take you in to the station. Hike toward the cruiser, Hawkins. We’re going for a ride.”

Ryder’s temper boiled to a flashpoint. “OK, the party’s over. I don’t have time for this nonsense.” He took two large steps toward Larder, easily boxing him in against an outcropping of rocks. “I have a good reason for the expired license and tags.”

“Too late, Hawkins. You had your chance to explain and now I’m not interested in your flimsy excuses.”

“Be reasonable, Larder.” He approached another step, careful to keep his hands at his sides and his voice steady. “I told you I have somewhere to be. You know Mama Stallings—”

“Mama?” Laughter erupted. “That old hag? She always did have a soft spot for you, though her reasons are beyond my comprehension.”

“You’re on dangerous territory, Larder.”

“Well, Mama Stallings is going to have to wait.” Larder scooted to the side, but not before Ryder glimpsed a flash of fear in his eyes. “Because this is hardly nonsense.” He tapped his badge with an index finger before he reached for the pair of cuffs hanging from his utility belt. “You’re dealing with the law now, Hawkins.”

“Then, the law better get out of my way.” Ryder’s gaze narrowed as his voice lowered to a growl. “There’s no reason to cuff me, you idiot.”

“Are you resisting arrest?” Larder’s hand slipped back to the holster. “Because it would give me a tidy reason to shoot you.”

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” Ryder weighed his options as lightning ripped the sky. Rain pelted in fat, sloppy plops, slipping beneath the collar of Ryder’s jacket in an icy drizzle. “I’m just trying to get to town.”

“Oh, you’ll get there all right.” Larder’s eyes glittered and his lips stretched into a thin, white line. “But, when you do, I have a holding cell with your name on it until we get this little mess straightened out.”

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Week 36: Simple Blessings (Mary Manners)

1st Chapter:

“I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  ~Jeremiah 29:11

Charlene Cammon gazed through the cabin’s wall of palladium windows to an expanse of dew-kissed Smoky Mountains beyond. Lush evergreens danced in a perfectly-synchronized ballet as a summer breeze sang through arms outstretched to the cerulean sky. After days of rain, not a single cloud hinted. Through the window, the scent of pine swirled to nibble her nose. Beyond the open pasture, like a fragrant green carpet rolled open, the gentle serenade of a lazy river soothed as rivulets turned to diamonds beneath fingers of light.

If Charlene trained her line of vision hard enough through a small grove of trees flanked by a splash of wildflowers, and then continued on down along the river’s edge for a quarter mile or so, she could barely glimpse the outline of another cabin. But that was the extent of the population around here—well, that and the squirrels and an occasional possum she’d noticed on her drive in late last night—that surrounded her. No traffic, no crowds, and no Internet, except for what she was able to access on her iPhone. And that, thankfully, proved to be iffy, at best. If she stood on the front porch with her arm stretched toward the sky, facing slightly east, and the air was clear…

Anyway, there was nobody bombarding her day and night for interviews, book-signings or battles over edits. Just coffee and the plethora of thoughts scrambled in her brain like a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.

The setting here in the Smokies of East Tennessee proved to be beautiful, pristine…all but perfect. So, why did she suffer from an oddly uncomfortable churning in her belly? What was the problem that seemed to follow her wherever she went lately?

Charlene tore her gaze from a flock of birds that swooped in on a cacophonous symphony of chatter to alight in the grove of trees. She turned back to the laptop she’d opened and queued on the desk in front of her. The screen stared back at her, filled with a single page as empty and white as a Siberian crevasse. Things were not exactly going as planned. She’d expected to awaken this morning to ideas that had somehow magically been infused into her brain while she dreamed. She’d write the next great American novel—or at least the inspirational romance she’d been contracted to crank out—in record time and then head back to the city. The book would prove to be another bestseller, right?

Wrong. Forget the bestseller status. As things now stood, it failed to be even a glimmer on the radar. Instead, Charlene struggled to type a single word onto the page. This morning she woke to find there was no magic—nothing—waiting for her to discover. Not even a shard of coal in the proverbial stocking.

Absolutely, positively nothing had come to mind as she slept—nor did it now, three long and painful hours later. Not a single creative thought—not one fleeting idea. The story Charlene had so painstakingly mentally plotted and planned months ago when she’d pitched the anemic synopsis to her editor was now dead before it even hit the hard drive. The intention to finish (actually, to get started) was there but the words Charlene was looking for…well, they just refused to cooperate.

Charlene figured it was sort of like craving the most scrumptious chocolate layer cake complete with indulgent fudge filling, a light buttercream frosting adorned with slivers of chocolate, and perhaps a handful of ripened cherries nestled on top. With an award-winning recipe located and the go-ahead given, production soon commenced. But, upon further inspection of the necessary supplies, no vanilla extract could be found in the pantry, no cocoa powder and only one egg instead of three. And the chocolate shavings...well, they would be AWOL, as well. Forget the cherries.

And, to top things off, in this baking scenario all the stores are suddenly and inexplicably closed—no, they’ve gone out of business—so there’ll be no blue-ribbon chocolate layer cake unless things get very creative in the kitchen.

Creative…not happening in this kitchen and not in the office—well, technically Charlene assumed it was not an office but actually a loft because of the sofa-sleeper tucked into one corner—either. Not here and not today, at least as far as she could tell.

So, instead of the story waiting to be written, Charlene’s thoughts drifted back to the city—and to Tom. What a heel he’d turned out to be. With thoughts of the man she’d dated for nearly a year came a sharp jab of pain. She knew now what it felt like to be dumped. For nearly half-a-decade she’d sprinkled the heart-tugging heroine-gets-jilted storyline into her romances here and there, but she’d never experienced such a heartbreaking debacle firsthand.

Until Tom.

The clipped, stabbing words he’d so carelessly slung at Charlene crashed through her mind…

“You’re busy all the time now, Charlene. Your nose is always buried in a notebook, and even when it’s not, that faraway look…well, I can practically hear the story wheels spinning. Your deadlines have trumped our relationship and you have, in effect, sliced me right out of the picture. And now you have a string of book-signings coming up.” He’d shaken his head at her, his gaze cold and condescending. “It’s just not working for me anymore. You’ve changed…”

He didn’t want her to do the book-signings? Charlene had been blind-sided by the realization. In the beginning, at the onset of their relationship, he’d been loving and supportive. But slowly he had begun to resent her writing and all that it brought.

It had been a lot of work to get where she now stood—to climb the mountain, so to speak. Had the success changed her?

Since the night Tom walked out on her six months ago, Charlene’s muse had gone dry as the Sahara Desert, which wasn’t working for her at all. Writing was her lifeblood, her job for goodness sake. She’d taken a leap of faith and quit her day job as kindergarten teacher to make it happen. She had no intention of returning to the classroom, yet a lack of written words equaled no book releases and thus, no income.

Hello runny noses and untied shoelaces. Bring on story time and the scissors and glue.

No, though she’d loved the time she’d spent in the classroom and there were days she missed sharing stories and instilling a love of learning in the children who crossed the threshold into her room, she couldn’t go back. Because even more meaningful than the income, writing made her feel alive. Why couldn’t Tom understand that—any of that? Why hadn’t he tried just a little bit harder to figure her out?

Because he didn’t fully love her, that was why. At least that was her best friend Brynn’s take on things when Charlene stumbled onto the doorstep of the apartment they shared downtown, sobbing, to pour out the story. As the shock cleared, Charlene realized Brynn was right and Tom’s jilting didn’t really come as a surprise at all. The signs had been revealing his lack of commitment for weeks, maybe even months. Charlene had just been avoiding the obvious. Now she saw through new eyes and she was thankful to have learned the lesson earlier rather than later.

Once her tears had dried, a thin veil of anger set in. As the CEO of an investment company, Tom hadn’t had any trouble leaving Charlene behind as he jetted to the corners of the country on business trips several times a month. Yet Charlene always managed to welcome him back with open arms and a hot meal. She’d supported him at every turn, looking toward what she hoped would be a bright future together. She had offered him her heart and her love but, in the end, he had failed to do the same for her.

No point in mulling it over now. The relationship had fizzled and died…end of story. Not exactly the happy ending had expected.

Yes, the implosion of her and Tom’s dating life would make a neat little twist to the plot. But the twists and turns made up Charlene’s real-life story—not the one waiting to be written.

An impending deadline loomed and Charlene needed to hustle. At the rate she was going, she’d never finish another book ever again.

The thought sent chills through her, and she reached for her coffee mug. More java…she needed more. That was it, the caffeine would help. Perhaps another cup of coffee and a brisk walk along the river would get her creative juices flowing. The mountains…the river seemed to call to her. Why not take a break and clear her head. Sitting here was doing no good at all.

She closed the laptop and pushed back from the desk, stretching kinks from her back and neck as she rose. Both maladies came with the writing territory and usually she didn’t mind suffering through them because a sore neck equated to a higher word count. But today there was nothing to show for the stiffness along her spine—or the soreness in her backside—so she merely grimaced and sighed.

As she turned from the window a flash of red caught her eye through the glass. Near a grove of trees along the river’s edge she saw something skitter across an outcropping of rocks. She watched, holding her breath. Was it a bear? Brynn had cautioned that black bears made their home here, and deer as well, but Charlene had yet to see either.

Of course, she’d arrived merely a dozen hours ago following her final book signing of the most recent tour, and had pulled into the drive in the dark of night.

She expelled her breath, laughing out loud. Of course whatever she’d caught a glimpse of—if indeed her eyes weren’t playing tricks with her—wasn’t a bear. After all, bears didn’t dress in red—or anything else, for that matter. There was nothing to be afraid of. A walk would do her good.

Charlene padded down the stairs and into the kitchen. She found her hiking boots strewn at the back door where she’d kicked them to the side last night. One small suitcase sat on the kitchen table and she knew two more waited in the living room while a fourth rested at the foot of the bed she’d slept in last night. She’d packed with plans to spend the summer here—or at least as long as it took for her to finish the book she was working on.

Sort of working on…right? And at this rate it might take a year.

Thank goodness for Brynn and her gentle—OK, not so gentle—nudge to get away from the city for a while. She’d found this cabin for Charlene and had even worked out the details of the booking. Apparently she had connections with the owner through her work as an ER nurse at County General. Merely one day ago she’d handed Charlene the keys and paperwork for a two-month lease with the option to remain for a third month, and said good bye to her with a not-so-gentle shove through the apartment door.

The rest was history. Well, not yet, but it would be soon enough.

Charlene tugged on the boots, laced them and then took a moment to run her fingers through her unruly mass of hair. She’d slept hard on it and now the curls that spilled nearly to her waist were a bit tangled and matted. Not that it mattered…chances of running into anyone on her walk were about one in a million.

She filled her coffee mug with what remained in the coffeemaker’s glass carafe and carried the ceramic with her as she went. Thank God for the homey accommodations of a full kitchen and a small but sufficient laundry closet set off to the side. Perhaps later she’d indulge in the garden tub, complete with jets, she’d discovered in the master bath.

The cabin was a winner, and the price was more than reasonable. Given the cost, Charlene had half-expected to find a dump. But Brynn had hit a grand slam when she booked this place. Charlene checked the counter where her cell phone sat, charging. She’d have to give Brynn a call later and thank her.

But, for now, Charlene locked the cabin’s front door and tucked the key into her pocket. She did a perfunctory sweep of the pasture-like yard—just in case a bear decided to say a morning hello—before setting off toward the river.


Gage Kenner tossed fishing tackle to the side as he searched for the perfect materials for today’s fishing jaunt. Catching flathead catfish could be tricky, especially this time of year, and it took a strong line and a sturdy hook to do the job. Today, Jenna wanted to join him. Maybe sitting along the river together—if Gage could get the kid to sit still long enough—would give her the chance to open up to him a little. She said she wanted to come along, and she’d spent the morning digging up night crawlers and then dumping them into a plastic container that had holes poked into the lid. He’d see what she was made of when it came time to bait the hook.

When it came right down to it, since Jenna had mentioned she’d like to cast a line, fishing was just about the only thing Gage figured he had in common with his eight-year-old niece. So he was doing his best to gather the tackle together and get going. But the last guest who’d stayed here in this cabin had made a mess of things in the equipment room, so it was taking a bit longer than he expected. Usually he and Scott made rounds once a month or so to check on things at the pair of cabins they owned together, though the drive was quite a haul from the city, but a lot had changed over the past several months—too much—and Gage had neglected the inspections. He’d been,
to put it mildly, too otherwise occupied to keep tabs on things around here. He and Scott both liked to keep the cabins in order, but Scott was gone now—the realization brought a stab of pain—and life had gotten in the way.

Boy had it. In Gage’s wildest dreams—scratch that, nightmares—he could have never imagined the turn of events his life would take. Who knew a trip to the obstetrician would send his brother and sister-in-law to their early graves and his niece to live with…him? Three years ago, when Scott and Sarah had mentioned they’d drawn up a will, making him Jenna’s guardian in the event of their demise, it had seemed an unnecessary formality—not something that might actually ever come to fruition. But indeed that was exactly what had happened—nearly four months ago.

A lifetime ago.

Jenna still cried herself to sleep without fail every night, and when she wasn’t crying lately a sullen look usually masked her freckle-dusted face. Gage just couldn’t seem to connect with her and at every turn he felt like a failure. The grief counselor said to give it time; there’s no handbook for uncles who become built-in daddies overnight.

Daddies…he was now a daddy. It was sort of like living in an alternate dimension. Daddy was a word that had been banned from Gage’s vocabulary up until the fourteenth of February—Valentine’s Day. Now it had morphed to a living, breathing reality. Gage oscillated between being furious with his older brother for dying and leaving him here alone to sort out the pieces of this mess—and heartbroken because he missed Scott so terribly that at times it seemed nearly impossible to breathe.

Yet Gage had to be strong for Jenna. Tears might be shed, but, barring the funeral, Gage chose to mourn privately. Public bouts of sobbing were Jenna’s alone—at least as far as the kid knew. Seeing Gage’s tears would do nothing but set her back, and that was the last thing either of them needed.

Gage craned his ear toward the yard. Was the kid crying now? She’d woken up with wet streaks running along her cheeks, but had still somehow managed to devour the bread he’d toasted and slathered with strawberry jam. Then, without so much as changing out of her pajamas or combing her hair she’d dashed off through the yard with Bandit barking at her heels. What a contrast the two made…Jenna small, slim, and delicate for her age, while the hulking tan and black Mastiff lumbered behind, herding her like a stray calf. Gage was thankful for the intelligent and kid-friendly beast who’d come to live with him nearly two years ago. Even if Gage himself had failed to make a connection with Jenna, Bandit had somehow managed the next-to-impossible in merely an instant.

“Jenna!” Gage called toward the doorway. She’d been quiet for a while, and Bandit was nowhere to be seen, either. That usually signaled both were into something they shouldn’t be. He just prayed this time it didn’t include chasing and corralling skunks. Gage could understand Bandit’s curiosity concerning the wildlife found here in the cove. But little girls were supposed to be preoccupied with dolls and tea parties and princess movies, weren’t they? Not Jenna…no, his niece was a whirling dervish—full-speed-ahead and into everything, twenty-four seven with no slowing down in sight.

Gage was in serious need of a vacation—a grown-up vacation, not one with an eight-year-old tagging along. His niece should have come with a homing device and a beacon. That would certainly make it easier to keep tabs on her. Each day he respected—and missed—Scott even more. How had his brother managed to keep his wife happy, work, and raise a child without losing his mind?

Gage had no wife, he was on leave from his job, and as far as raising a kid, well, he still hadn’t found his rhythm in that department.

“Jenna…Bandit!” Gage dropped the tackle onto the workbench and side-stepped toward the doorway. He peered out, scanning the yard and then veering off toward the tree line that skirted a section of the river. About half-a-mile down he glimpsed the second guest cabin that he’d owned with Scott—and now managed on his own—nestled into a ridge at the foot of a grove of pines that opened to crisp, summer-green pasture. He’d meant to run by there this morning and check on the guest who had arrived late last night. Most of the people who came to stay were couples who wanted a weekend getaway. But word had it this one had arrived alone and the contract Gage had issued was good for up to three months. Odd…but Brynn Rodale, the ER nurse he’d spent some time working with at County General, had mentioned the friend she’d requested the rental for was some kind of writer named Charlie something-or-other. Cammon, that was it—Charlie Cammon.

Go figure…this Charlie guy was probably one of those weird artsy-fartsy types—a loner who had difficulty making face-to-face conversation and didn’t know the first thing about fishing or sports or…well, fill in the blank. He’d probably keep to himself, which was perfectly fine with Gage. Anyone who spent their life making up stories had to be an odd sort, for sure. Gage, well, he had a hard enough time keeping up with the details of his own life without making them up for someone else’s…especially someone fictional.

Yep, getting over to the cabin wasn’t ranking too high on his list of priorities at the moment. He’d check on Mr. Spin-a-Story later.

Way later…after he located Jenna and Bandit. Now that was quickly shaping up to be a priority.

Where had the kid and the wayward beast-of-a-mutt wandered off to? It wasn’t as if they’d get abducted out here in this stretch of wilderness—beside the second guest cabin down the road there wasn’t another rental place or even a residence, for that matter, for miles.

But the outdoors might prove to be an enemy, Gage realized as a ripple of fear coursed up his spine. Hadn’t he warned Jenna time and again to stay far away from the river while she was playing outside alone? The water level was high right now from a recent deluge of rain and small areas of rapids could be dangerous—especially since Jenna liked to climb the rocks. And, Gage remembered, he’d spotted a black bear while hiking through the backwoods yesterday. Mostly the creatures avoided people unless food was involved—or unless they were provoked by a curious eight-year-old.

Not to mention the snakes and wasps and whatever else might be skulking about. Was Jenna allergic to bee stings? Gage had no idea. He’d learned about her allergy to shellfish when he’d introduced her to shrimp one evening a few weeks ago. That had resulted in difficulty breathing and a harrowing trip to the County General ER.

Good grief. What had Gage been thinking to bring a child—a little girl—out here to the cabin for the entire summer?

Gage jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and drew a deep breath. As an emergency medical pilot and paramedic he’d learned long ago not to panic over anything. He reminded himself that he’d come here with Jenna because she needed time away with him—and his attention—in order to find a path through whatever emotional damage had been wrought by losing not just one but both of her parents in a single, senseless accident. And Gage needed the time to get his head on straight and figure things out. Like it or not, both his and Jenna’s future had been irrevocably detoured to new and unexpected destinations. Somehow, some way, Gage had to unravel a trail that joined the two back together—and he prayed he’d find one sooner rather than later.

Yes, he’d prayed…over and over again. God seemed to be unavailable to his calling. He’d try again later and hope for a different result.

But the praying had to wait. First he needed to locate Jenna. Temper flaring, Gage told himself when he found her he’d shelf the gentle talking-to meant to remind her that it was wrong to wander off. That manner of discipline, for all intents and purposes, had proved to be woefully ineffective. No, this time he’d give her something that would insure she’d remember to keep her feet firmly planted in the vicinity of his vision—where she’d be safe.

Because if anything happened to Jenna, Gage could never forgive himself. He’d given his word to Scott and Sarah that he’d watch over her. He’d promised…

“Bandit, come back here!” Gage took off toward the river, yanking his hands from his pockets to cup them around his mouth as he bellowed once more, much louder, “Jenna!”

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