Saturday, July 30, 2016

Week 53: A Boulder Creek Christmas (Mary Manners)

A mischievous Christmas angel is determined to have her way this holiday season... 
Alani O'Dwyer offered her heart to Ryan Connolly years ago, and he tossed it aside without so much as a backward glance. Though the town of Boulder Creek dubs him a hero, she vows she'll never again fall victim to his charms.
Ryan Connolly captains a raucous crew of firefighters at the Boulder Creek Fire Department, yet he's unprepared for the adventure of falling in love with beautiful and headstrong Alani O'Dwyer.
But when a meddling angel at the annual Fighters for Hire charity auction brings Ryan and Alani together, even regrets from the past can't thwart Ryan's plans to make her his own.

1st Chapter:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” 
~ James 2:14-17 ~

Alani O’Dwyer swept locks of trimmed hair into a pile on the tile floor as she hummed along to the melody of White Christmas that drifted from the salon’s surround-sound speakers. Outside the shop’s front window, snow flurries danced through the air as traffic eased along Main Street. With Thanksgiving a mere memory, December had pranced in and Christmas now perched nicely on the holiday horizon. The increase in clientele at Lani’s Styles and Smiles Salon over the past several days claimed proof of Boulder Creek’s excitement over the impending celebration.
“Here comes your five o’clock,” Chloe Connolly called from the wall-length front display window as she laced a strand of mini-lights around a showcase of upcoming advertised products. “And he looks like he can use a bit more than a trim and shave.”
“He?” Though it was not unusual for men to frequent the salon, Alani didn’t recall adding anyone of the male persuasion to the appointment register for this afternoon, nor did she remember penciling in any clients past the four-thirty slot. Friday evenings were usually light as far as customers went, and she could almost always count on closing up shop before dark. “Who booked him?”
“I did.” Chloe positioned the last of the lights around pair of jumbo-sized color-shield shampoo and conditioner pump bottles and then turned from the window to face Alani. Her dangly earrings caught the overhead light, enhancing wide set eyes the color of faded denim. Dark, choppy bangs slipped across her forehead to frame an oval face. “He called in a few minutes ago and I just couldn’t say no. He’s a hardship case.”
“A hardship…” Alani lifted her gaze to the glass and her breath caught at the sight of Ryan Connolly loping along the boulevard. Long limbs moved fluidly as he slanted his head slightly right, then left and right once more in a cursory check for oncoming traffic before he stepped from the curb and crossed over to the salon’s walkway. Midnight-black hair—a little too much on the longish side for Alani’s taste, peeked from beneath a toboggan that set off the electric-blue of his eyes. “Oh, no…you’ll have to take this one, Chloe. After all, he’s your brother.”
“No can do…not today.” She shook her head as she glanced toward the closest mirror, briefly studying her reflection. “I’m expected at the convention center in an hour to prep for the fundraiser tonight, and I still have to head home first to get glammed up.”
“But you can’t leave me in a lurch. I can’t…I won’t—”
“It’s a haircut and a shave, Lani.” Chloe shook her head as she lifted a hand to inspect the shimmery-red polish on her nails. “Good grief, I don’t know which one of you is more hard-headed than the next. You know Ryan has a thing for you. Why don’t you just give him a chance?”
“A thing?” Alani lowered her voice so as not to distract Mrs. Wexell, who was flipping through a magazine near the coffeemaker as her salty-gray hair adapted to the hairspray shield Lani had applied to ensure each strand remained in place until next week’s visit. Mrs. Wexell proved as steady as the morning sunrise; Lani could count on fixing her hair every Friday at 3:00 sharp. “I did give him a chance—once—and you know how far south that ship sailed.”
“That was years ago, Lani. People change.”
“I know, because I’ve changed, and I’m not going to fall for your brother—or any other guy—again. FYI…I’m not interested in a thing—or a fling—or anything of the sort. I’m…I’m…”
“Chloe…” Alani swept the tufts of clipped hair to the central vacuum panel as Mrs. Wexell glanced their way, grinning ruefully, as if drunk on every word of the conversation. Lani activated the vacuum motor with a tap of her foot, and the surge of a whirr sucked up the mess. As she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the wall-paneled mirror, she realized Chloe was right; a ribbon of crimson tinged both cheeks, rivaling the color of her hair. A slow-moving swath of heat merely punctuated her condition as, like a wave, it rolled up and crested the nape of her neck. She cleared her throat, searching for an even tone as the rush of her pulse betrayed her. She lowered her voice, turning her back to Mrs. Wexell’s prying eyes. “I wish you would give up your quest to play matchmaker—Ryan and I…well, it’s just not going to happen. Ever.”
“Ever is a very long time. And who said anything about matchmaking? It’s just a haircut, Lani…and it looks like my brother can use a bath, as well, but that will have to wait until later. Must have been a hard day at the office.”
Alani knew good and well Ryan’s office was the fire hall directly across the street. He’d volunteered there through high school, and had been hired on full-time the day he turned eighteen following graduation their senior year of high school. Now, nearly a decade later, he’d climbed the ranks to Captain of the Boulder Creek Fire Department, overseeing a raucous and hardy crew of a dozen full-time and twice-as-many volunteer firefighters.
A bell over the door chimed as Ryan strode through. The woodsy scent of smoke followed him like a halo. His face was smudged with soot, and when he tugged the hunter green wool toboggan from his head, heat-singed bangs fell across his forehead to frame eyes as blue as cobalt.
“What happened to you?” Mrs. Wexell called from her seat near the drink station before Ryan could get a word in. Her voice rang with the aged rasp of someone who’d seen the downhill side of seven decades and carried the wisdom to prove it. “You look like something the cat didn’t even bother to drag in.”
Chloe covered her mouth with the palm of her hand to stifle a snicker as Alani pursed her lips. Mrs. Wexell would sure have something to talk about when her daughter returned from Jenkins Five and Dime down the street to drive her home.
“Brush fire over on Twelfth and Magnolia got a little out of hand, Mrs. Wexell. No worries, though. We got it under control.” Ryan nodded as if to emphasize the point. “You’re looking rather lovely this afternoon. Who did your hair?”
“Alani, of course.” Mrs. Wexell lifted her hand to pat the lacquered ’do as a smile spread across her face, enhancing deep laugh-lines at the corners of her rheumy eyes. “Thank you for the compliment, son. I wanted to look dapper for the gala tonight. It’s a mighty generous thing you and your crew have been organizing to help bolster this town. A community garden is a fine idea. God will surely smile on your giving heart.”
“It’s nothing.” Ryan stuffed the toboggan into the side pocket of his jacket. “My crew and I enjoy giving back to the people of our community. You’re the real hero, Mrs. Wexell…funding the lion’s share of the library arboretum last year. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback concerning that project.”
“How did you find out about my funding?” She jabbed a finger his way. “It was supposed to be a secret.”
“Well, secrets don’t usually last long around here.” Ryan made a locking motion along his lips and then mimed tossing the key over his right shoulder. “But it won’t go any farther than me…and this room.”
“Fair enough. Now, I suppose Alani ought to get to work on you. It’s going to take an act of God to restore your singed hair to anything presentable and to scrape that…that sooty rug of fur from your face.” Mrs. Wexell nodded with one quick tip of her head and then made a flicking motion with her hand as if to brush off further conversation as she turned her attention back to the magazine. “Go on…get to it now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ryan’s soft laughter rumbled like the roll of a distant thunderstorm as he brushed snowflakes from the collar of his jacket. They swirled through the air before sinking and melting into the tile around his feet. His gaze drifted right, and a smile curved his full lips. “Hello, Lani. How’s business?”
The shortened version of her name slipped off his tongue like hot chocolate drizzled with rich fudge. Others called her Lani, but somehow, it never sounded quite as endearing as when Ryan employed the nickname.
“Good…fine.” Alani turned away as flames licked her cheeks. She placed the broom back in its spot along the wall at the corner of the station as she murmured, “Did you get hurt today?”
“By the brush fire?” She ventured a glance back over her right shoulder, chastising herself for even caring. She shouldn’t. Caring for Ryan would only lead to heartache. Oh, how she knew that firsthand. Even so, she continued. “Your hair…as Mrs. Wexell so aptly pointed out, is scorched.”
“Oh, that…” His hand went to the ragged strands. “No, I’m good…it’s nothing a long, hot shower won’t cure when I make it home. But, for now, I just need a trim and a shave, if you have the time.”
“Well…” Lani busied herself straightening product along the shelves that lined the wall. “As a matter of fact I was just about to—”
“Take care of you,” Chloe cut in, crossing the room to turn the faux-leather chair at Alani’s station to face Ryan. “Have a seat, big brother.” She used the endearment though Lani knew, as twins, Ryan stood merely twelve minutes Chloe’s senior. “Time’s not going to stand still for you. And it’s not going to stand still for me, either, so I’m out of here while you two do your thing. Catch you both on the flip side.”
“Bye, sis. Be safe.” Ryan settled into the chair with an exaggerated sigh. “This snow has the roads a little slick.”
“Of course.” She flashed a smile as she snatched her coat from a hook on the wall and slipped into it. Her purse, stashed in the bottom file cabinet drawer behind the check-out counter, came next. “Y’all have fun now. Play nice.” She positioned the purse strap over her shoulder as she nodded toward the drink station. “Keep an eye on them, Mrs. Wexell.”
“Oh…I am.” Mrs. Wexell glanced up from the magazine with a knowing smile. “And the Good Lord is, as well. No worries there. Trust me, dear.”
“Of course I do.” Chloe lifted the hood of her coat to shield her head from the snow as she made her way to the exit. The door closed softly behind her, bringing a jingle of the overhead bell to signal her parting.
“Well, all I have to say is that playing nice is no fun…no fun at all.” Ryan shrugged from his jacket, tossed it into the empty seat beside him, and stilled as Lani secured a towel around his neck. “Ahh…this is the ticket. Just take a little off the top, Lani, and trim it up. And the shave…”
She reached for the electric shears. “If you insist.”
“Oh, I do. I have to look my best tonight. The auction starts in a few hours.”
“You know…Fighters for Hire to raise money for the Boulder Creek Community Garden. It’s this year’s community service project.”
“Oh, right…of course. How could I forget?”
Her tone betrayed her, and Ryan’s slanted look told her he sensed the truth; the auction was all she had thought about for several days now…the better part of the week since the plans for the garden garnered final approval. It would be planted on the North end of the town center, midway between the fire hall and Styles and Smiles.
Since Ryan had become Captain of the fire department three years ago, he led his crew in an annual Christmas holiday service project aptly named Fighters for Hire. Each member of the crew volunteered to be auctioned out for a day’s worth of hours during the coming year, completing a list of honey-do projects for the highest bidder. The fundraiser proved wildly popular, and its success was renowned across a five-county radius. Copycat auctions sprang up across the region, and news reporters flocked to cover the event, headlining it on all four local channels during the nightly eleven o’clock slot.
Three years ago, funds went to Children’s Hospital, two years ago they were earmarked for the local animal shelter, and last year the Boulder Creek Senior Center benefitted. This year the community would benefit from a community garden and greenhouse meant to supply vegetables to town residents via the local food ministry…if the funds proved to be enough to carry the project.
“Really…how could you?” Ryan winked. “I’m sure Chloe’s mentioned it at least a hundred times. She was on the planning board.”
“I know, and yes.” Alani could almost feel Mrs. Wexell’s stare burning a hole through her back as she worked to tame Ryan’s unruly hair. She lowered her voice. “She has mentioned it a time or two…or ten.”
“So you’re coming?”
“No…not this year.”
“Why not?” He frowned as disappointment shadowed his eyes. “You’ve never missed the festivities.”
“I know but this year I have…other plans.” Alani reached for the spray bottle and, with a few quick pulls of the trigger, dampened his hair. The extensive media coverage assured that, despite her absence from the gala, she’d get her fill of Ryan in his tux, his rugged good looks groomed to perfection while the cobalt tie and cummerbund enhanced the blue of his eyes. The camera loved him, and women flocked to him, falling over themselves in their attempts to garner undivided attention. 
Face it—everyone loved Ryan Connolly. He rescued children and puppies from burning buildings on a weekly basis and had a smile that could melt ice off a snowman’s hat. Yet he’d stolen Alani’s heart, and then cast it aside without so much as a glance in the proverbial rearview mirror.
Even so, by all accounts Ryan remained the town sweetheart…an angel by popular decree.
But he wasn’t Lani’s angel...not by a longshot. And he’d never be, not as long as she had a breath in her. Once bitten, twice shy. And she remained a self-professed, virtual recluse when it came to Ryan Connolly.
So this year she’d put her foot down and stay far away from him on his night in the eye of the media storm. She didn’t want his attention. She’d had that sort of attention a handful of years ago, and it had brought only heartache.
“Other plans, huh? Well, is that so?” Ryan’s voice dipped and danced with the holiday music as he cocked an eyebrow and studied her reflection in the mirror. “What sort of plans…if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I do… mind, that is.” Alani took up a comb, tugged the close-set teeth through the thick waves of his Ryan’s hair with a little more force than necessary. Water dripped along the nape of his neck and his slight grimace brought a prickle of satisfaction. It was small compensation for the misery he’d caused her over the years. She’d trusted him once, with her heart and her future, and he’d shattered that trust; she wouldn’t again make the mistake of trusting him.
Even so, how could she begin to explain that for three years running at the Fighters for Hire auction her heart had faltered with waves of disappointment as she’d watched him go to the highest bidder? Last year the victor was some bleached-blonde in a low-cut sequined number who’d traveled from two towns over for the sole purpose of snagging Ryan’s handy-man services. Alani could blame no one but herself—pride kept her from bidding because, after all, when it came to Ryan Connolly good sense dictated she would be best-served by keeping her money—and her heart—tucked away deep in her pocket.
Nonetheless, Alani could use help with a few projects around the small, aging house that she’d inherited from her grandmother when Grandma Cora passed away a year ago; it was laden with character and warm memories, yet falling apart at the seams. But she’d have to figure out how to accomplish at least the most pressing projects on her own, because she’d never be able to pay Ryan—or anyone else, for that matter.
So, what was the point of going to the auction? She’d write a check for a modest donation to help support the community garden—an amount she could afford to part with—and call it a day. Spending the evening tucked away with a paperback and a cup of hot chocolate was the smartest move she could make…affording as much distance as possible between her and Ryan Connolly.
Leave a comment below for a chance to win this week's giveaway. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Week 52: A Splash of Christmas (Mary Manners)

This holiday season is filled with the perfect blend of heartwarming surprises splashed with a dose of sweet romance.

When Faith O' Fallon's best friend ropes her into attending a popular reality show audition, the last thing she expects to find at the studio is the love of her life. Ben Ward resents his family for coercing him into holding auditions to snag a date for the holiday episode of their reality show, Poolside Oasis. But when a studio mishap accidentally matches him with the lovely, rambunctious Faith O'Fallon, he finds that sometimes family knows best. This holiday season is filled with the perfect blend of heartwarming surprises splashed with a dose of sweet romance.

1st Chapter:
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  ~ 1 Corinthians 13:2  
Faith O’Fallon flipped through a notebook on the cluttered desk of her office at the Mountain Light Children’s Home as beads of perspiration collected along the nape of her neck. A box fan set to high speed in the window chased a sticky note from the scribble-splattered blotter, and Faith fell to her knees to retrieve it as it flitted across scuffed tile toward the foot of the file cabinet.
Snatching the slip of paper, Faith sucked in a deep, ragged breath. This task she’d recently bulldozed into seemed beyond impossible to accomplish. Yes, indeed…that’s what planning Mountain Light’s Christmas party while knee-deep into the humidity-clad days of Indian summer, with the office air conditioning stubbornly on the fritz—again—seemed to be. But Faith stood determined to see this task through to the end despite all the good, the bad, and the ugly that it brought along.
The Bad: check—she’d been turned down now at least half-a-dozen times by supporters who’d opened their pockets during previous years without so much as a flinch. The Ugly: check—the heat and oppressive humidity which lurked around every corner did little to nudge her or others in the community into the Christmas spirit. 
The Good? Faith had nothing going in that area. That particular quality appeared to be AWOL at the moment. 
Faith lowered the speed of the box fan as she collected the last of the scattered sticky notes and settled back into the desk chair. The sound of voices drifted…laughter mingled with shouts of glee and the light spatter of an argument here and there as children played with water toys on the side lawn. One of the counselors had, to the boundless delight of the kids, set up a few sprinklers to combat the sweltering September heat since the kids were out of school due to a teacher in-service day. 
Faith couldn’t remember such a string of warm September days. The meager shower of water from the sprinklers wasn’t much in the way of recreational activities; a pool would certainly prove an all-around much better option. But said pool seemed a flight of fancy and stood purely out of the realm of financial possibility for the children’s home as Faith still struggled to procure so much as the tiniest bit of funding for the in-house holiday party and modest Christmas gifts for the kids. 
She needed to secure a few compassionate and willing donors with deep pockets, and quick. Christmas loomed just a little more than three months away and the shopping and planning would require every bit of those precious days.
Faith smoothed a wrinkle from her linen skirt and readjusted the strap of one sandal, wishing she’d thought to don more sensible footwear this morning.
The generous heels nipped and pinched with each step, and she longed to kick them off and join the carefree kids who ran through lush grass that beckoned from the yard beyond her office window.
No time for that. Focus, Faith, focus...
Faith was in her first year as the recreation director here at the children’s home, and she’d quickly come to love every one of the kids, aged five to seventeen, with whom she crossed paths on a daily basis. They’d grown to be the family she’d never belonged to and had always longed for. Having spent the better part of her childhood at Mountain Light herself, she knew good and well the importance of even the smallest gestures of kindness. Now, she refused to let the kids down when it came to hosting the Christmas party they eagerly looked forward to all year…even if it killed her.
And it might…heatstroke was an option, or she simply might just melt to death. The tune “Frosty the Snowman” suddenly danced through Faith’s head and a stab of sadness pierced her heart as she imagined Frosty slowly dissolving into a shadowy puddle.
Faith forced the image from her mind and pushed through to the happy ending when Frosty returned with hearty singing, gleeful dancing and hopes for what might come the following year. 
Yes, that’s what she needed to make it through to the other side of the Christmas party—a strong dose of hope.
Faith brushed a wavy wisp of long, cinnamon hair that had escaped its ponytail from her eyes. She wished for the umpteenth time that her hair was more controllable—a wave that fanned sleek and stylish much like the manes that models in the latest fashion magazines possessed instead of the mass of unruly curls that refused to cooperate whenever the humidity rose above forty percent. 
Faith gave up the fight. She tugged the elastic band from the tail, releasing her hair to spring free over her shoulders and tumble down to the middle of her back. She raked her fingers through the curls as she drew another deep breath, inhaling the scent of lilacs that bloomed outside the office window. The sweet and slightly musky scent wasn’t exactly the key to nudging her into the Christmas spirit either. 
She spun in the rolling chair and grabbed a small box filled with trinkets that sat atop the file cabinet. A quick turn back toward the desk, and she dumped the contents onto the blotter. Out spilled a half-burned jar candle she’d found at the bottom of her junk drawer at home. Next, a Bing Crosby CD, and a vintage ceramic light-up snowman with a snowflake belly that had once belonged to her great-grandmother followed suit.
Faith removed the CD from its case and inserted the disc into the player atop the file cabinet. Soon, the soft strains of Bing Crosby’s rich and throaty caramel voice filled the office with dreams of a white Christmas. The candle, once lit, sent aromatic whispers of pine drifting. Finally, the snowman found his place front and center atop Faith’s desk. The jolly, bright glow from his belly added the final touch of Christmas warmth.
I can do this…
Faith closed her eyes and breathed deeply, sending a quick but heartfelt prayer to the heavens above.
Lord, please help me find the funding to have a Christmas celebration for the kids. It will mean so much to them and they’re counting on me. They need me…and I need them.
The staccato click of heels signaled someone’s approach. A shadow crossed the doorway, momentarily blocking muted rays of sunlight that spilled into the hall from double-paned glass entrance doors across the way. “Faith, get a move on…we’re running late and we have to go—now.”
Faith’s head snapped up to find Avery Daniels, her best friend since the fifth grade, poised with one hip pressed against the door jamb. Avery worked a piece of gum between her jaws, snapping it smartly as was often her habit. “Oh, hi, Ave.” Faith sighed and raked a hand through hair that refused to cooperate. “Is it noon already?”
“Five past—no, ten now.” Avery’s brow furrowed as she tapped the screen of the cellphone clutched in one fist. “And I’m parked in a tow-away zone. I’ve texted you at least half-a-dozen times. Don’t you check your messages?”
“Not when I’m neck-deep into work.” Faith tossed the crumpled sticky note onto the blotter as her belly did a convoluted little dance. She hated to let Avery down, but duty called. She snatched a curl that obscured her vision and twisted it around her index finger as she spoke. “Look, um…I really should stick around here and work through lunch instead of heading to that audition with you. There’s so much on my plate right now.”
“Oh no you don’t.” Avery waggled a finger capped by a scarlet-tipped nail. “We’ve had this gig set for a month now and you promised, Faith. You can’t back out on me this late in the game. I can’t do this alone.” She slipped one hand into the pocket of crisp, white jeans coupled with a V-necked black T-shirt that accentuated every ample curve. “Besides, there’s ten thousand dollars on the line.”
“Ten thousand?” Faith grabbed a pen and tapped it along the desktop. “I thought it was five.”
“I thought the same until I read the small print in the audition instructions.” Avery stepped through the doorway and her perfume did battle with the pine-scented candle and a glimmer of lilac that wisped through the window. “If I’m selected to co-star alongside Ben Ward in today’s first round of auditions—which I thoroughly plan to be—I’ll be awarded a cool ten-grand for my efforts. It’s a win-win situation, since Ben is a hearty slice of heaven in steel-toed boots. It’s no secret that he carries the bulk of the ratings for the Poolside Oasis show virtually singlehandedly. And the thought of filming a show with him—of sharing a romantic date with him—”
“It’s not a date, Avery—and there’s absolutely nothing romantic about this circus he and the producers are bent on staging. What’s being offered is simply the opportunity to sit beside Ben Ward in a trumped-up, made-for-TV episode at the poolside of one of his backyard creations.”
“Is that so?” Avery’s gaze darkened to storm status as she plucked the gum from her mouth and wrapped it in a tissue before tossing it into the trash can. “Well, aren’t you a dark cloud raining on my parade today?”
“I’m simply attempting to keep it real. This audition nonsense that’s stuck in your craw is nothing more than a far-reaching ploy to increase the show’s ratings.”
“Well, I can certainly help with that.” Avery flashed the smile that drew men to her like a magnet draws coins. She knew the power of her self-confidence coupled with a personality more effervescent than soda-pop. “Besides, a girl can dream, can’t she?”
“I suppose so, but this girl”—Faith crooked her index finger and poked herself in the chest, wishing that she might, for once, live as care-free and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants as Avery managed to do on a daily basis—“plans to keep both her feet planted firmly on the ground.”
“All work and no play can make a girl grumpy.” Avery slipped her cellphone back into the purse slung over one shoulder. “You, my friend, are living proof.”
“I’m sorry.” Faith reached for a list of potential donors for the party. Time was wasting and she had so much to do. Surely, Avery would understand. “But I have this Christmas party to plan. The kids—”
“I know…they’re counting on you.” Avery crossed the room and propped one hip on the corner of the desk. “Everyone is always counting on you, Faith, because you are steady as the thrum of April showers.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“It’s not a bad thing, but sometimes you have to let loose…let go. The work will still be here, waiting on you when you return.”
“That’s exactly my point.”
“Stubborn…analytical…” Avery shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. “Sheesh—you’re nearly impossible to bargain with, but I’ll give it one more shot. I’ll tell you what…you come and support me at this audition, and I’ll help you the rest of the afternoon—and tomorrow, too, since it’s my day off from the restaurant—to plan this holiday shindig for the kids. Plus, if I win Ben Ward over to my side, you can pencil me into your donor’s list with a cool thousand dollars—that’s a ten percent tithe by my estimation…the going rate, right?”
“That’s right. But—”
“Nope…” Avery held up a hand traffic cop style as she shook her head. “No but’s to be had here, Faith. Just tell me…how does my compromise sound?”
“It sounds doable.” Faith dropped the pen onto the blotter and smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt as she stood. Her feet wailed in pain as she found her balance, but she ignored the pinched cries of her polished toes. “But I’m not getting within ten feet of Ben Ward—or any of his brothers.”
“You can’t hold a grudge forever, Faith.”
“Watch me.” Faith nodded fiercely. “Ben promised to be the keynote speaker at our Mountain Light Spring Kickoff fundraiser this past March and then backed out just as tickets were going on sale. We—I mean, I—was left holding the bag because I couldn’t find a replacement on such short notice. I’d only been employed here a few months, and I was placed on probation when the dinner tanked and funding took an anemic nosedive. As a matter of fact, I’m still on probation, and it’s a miracle I didn’t lose my job. I’m not fond of sitting in the hot seat because someone else dropped the ball and, let me tell you, this seat is growing hotter by the moment.”
Avery pinched a strand of spiky black hair between two fingers. Her lips, outlined in a shade of red that might be used to perform a transfusion, pursed into a round little oh. On anyone else, the combination of colors might seem gaudy. But somehow, Avery managed to make the look work. She’d always been the bold one of the pair, outgoing and adventurous and oftentimes outspoken to a fault while Faith tended to be more selective with the thoughts she shared…more cautious and reserved. Through the years, their opposite personalities proved to forge a bond that, despite their differences, mirrored the strength of titanium. “I’m sure there was a good reason for the last-minute bailout, Faith. Give the guy a break.”
“Even if there is, by some stretch of the imagination, a valid reason, Ben Ward didn’t bother to share it with me. Obviously, the fame and wealth of his family’s wildly successful business has gone straight to his head—completely bypassing that steel-clad heart of his.” Faith leaned in to blow out the flickering candle. Even the cheerful scent of pine failed to chase away the chill that had suddenly swept into her heart. “I’ll attend today’s audition with you as I promised, Ave, and I truly hope you earn the chance to share an episode in his family’s crazy quest to find a readymade companion”—Faith emphasized with air quotes—“for Ben Ward. But allow me to make one thing perfectly clear—I will never, ever forgive that heartless, uncompassionate, excuse for a man for letting me—as well as the kids who live here at Mountain Light Children’s Home—down.”

Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of A SPLASH OF CHRISTMAS. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Week 51: Angel Song (Mary Manners)

Find love as sweet as the song of an angel…

1st Chapter:

Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth. ~1 John 3:18~  

Quinn Sanders juggled a full tray of breakfast platters in one hand and a coffee carafe in the other as she bustled along the crowded booths at Gus’s Diner. Outside, dark clouds lowered over the horizon like a blanket of lamb’s wool. Snow was imminent. Quinn thought of the bald tires on her weather-beaten sedan and cringed. She’d meant to have them replaced with last month’s tips, but then Linsey came down with bronchitis, and the doctor bills had drained just about every cent she’d earned. Maybe she’d win the lottery…if only she had the cash—and the time—to play.
“Miss, can I get a refill over here?”
Quinn turned to find Mr. Siefert rapping his coffee cup with the tines of a fork. He arrived at the diner like clockwork, the same time every afternoon, and Quinn was sure his purpose in life was to make her miserable. Despite her irritation, she plastered on a smile and nodded. “Decaf, right?”
“That’s right.” His watery gaze narrowed as he removed a battered leather hat from his head and set it on the seat beside him. “And, if it’s not too much trouble, sometime in this decade would be nice.”
“Of course.” Ugh. There was always one yahoo who pushed to make her day miserable. Quinn struggled to keep a pleasant tone of voice. “Coming right up.” 
“I’m not getting any younger.” No, he wasn’t. The thinning, grizzled hair, complete with comb-over, was proof. Quinn huffed out a breath and gritted her teeth as she turned away. How many more hours ’til she could go home to Linsey? She glanced at the clock on the wall above the cash register as she blew a stray wisp of hair from her eyes…still another two hours—two long hours.
Her feet screamed, her lower back wailed, and she felt the kink in her neck creeping up to invade her brain. It was barely noon, and already she’d put in half-a-dozen non-stop hours. The diner’s door flew open, ushering in a frigid gust of wind along with a trio of women carting shopping bags.
Black Friday. Ugh and double ugh! Didn’t all these people have anything better to do than rush through crowded stores and throw their money at overworked cashiers?
But then Quinn felt the heaviness that filled the pockets of her grease-splattered apron…cash tips— enough to replace the sedan’s tires and pay off the rest of Linsey’s doctor bill, with perhaps a bit left for a special treat for Linsey. She thought of the Christmas list she’d helped her daughter write just last night. There were only a few things Linsey wanted, but even those were more than Quinn could afford on her meager salary and tips from the diner. If only she hadn’t deviated from Mama Cantori’s teachings during college.
If only she’d stayed closer to home and been a bit less foolish.
If only…
Coins jangled in Quinn’s pockets, drawing her back to the crowded diner. Maybe the day wasn’t such a waste after all. A bell in the order window chimed, signaling another round of meals ready for pick-up. She nodded to Gus, the rotund owner and head cook, and held up a finger to let him know she was on her way. He offered his signature wink, coupled with a gap-toothed smile, in reply.
She delivered the platters in her hands and filled half-a-dozen coffee mugs as she made her way back to the service counter, thanking God along the way for Gus’s generosity. The kindly man had offered her a job when she needed it most.
“Busy day, huh?” Gus spoke in a thick, southern accent distinctive of someone who’d spent his entire life in the Appalachian area. He’d run the diner for nearly a decade, and could have retired as head cook years ago, but he loved keeping his hands busy. So he still manned the grill several times a week. Now, he smiled as he took the order receipt Quinn offered and clipped it along the wall above the serving line.
“Crazy busy.” Quinn grabbed the tray of meals and a carafe of decaf coffee. “And some people seriously lack the Christmas spirit.”
“Oh, don’t let Joe Seifert get the best of you. His bark is worse than his bite.”
“If you say so.” Quinn nodded and flashed Gus a weary smile before doubling back to fill the cantankerous old gentleman’s mug. She leaned into the booth, careful not to splatter coffee on the table as it splashed into the ceramic mug. “Can I get you anything else, sir?”
“No, but I think Jason’s trying to get your attention.”
“Jason?” Quinn turned toward the windows, where snow had indeed begun to fall in fat, sloppy flakes that blanketed the parking lot. A guy, tucked into the last booth in the corner, motioned with a single finger raised into the air. He offered a slight grin as if apologizing for interrupting her rhythm, and slipped from his jacket, setting it on the seat beside him. She tried not to notice the way his navy polo shirt hugged a terrain of muscles across the wide breadth of his shoulders. He sported disheveled dark hair, just long enough to make him look a bit dangerous, and eyes the color of blue topaz. 
“Oh, I don’t know how I missed him.” Quinn padded in his direction, her tennis shoes squeaking across the polished tile. As she approached his booth, she grimaced. “I’m so sorry—”
“Don’t be.” He brushed her off with a wave of his hand. “I see you’re packed to the proverbial gills in here. Just coffee, please. Make it strong and black.”
“Decaf OK?”
“For this round, if that’s all you’ve got. But I’d be beyond appreciative if the next round is fully loaded.”
“Sure.” She splashed a hit of coffee into his cup. For some reason her hands trembled as his eyes studied her, and her pulse raced like she was the one downing gallons of caffeine. She chastised herself as she bumped the creamer, splattering the table. She sopped up the mess as she distracted him with small talk. “Been shopping?”
“No.” He lifted the cup to his lips, drew a long gulp, then tilted his head and offered her a sidelong glance. “I wouldn’t be caught dead out there with all those bargain-hungry vultures.”
“Sorry for assuming.” Quinn’s mouth curled into a slight smile at his offhanded remark. Until now, she’d felt as though she was the only one who avoided the annual sale-hungry mobs. “You just look…”
“What?” He leaned back in the booth, his gaze slipping over her as he waited for her to finish.
“I mean, you seem a bit tired and…frazzled.”
“That so?” He scratched a spatter of stubble across the length of his jaw. His fingers, Quinn noticed, were long and strong. “So, now the coffee comes with a therapy session?”
“No.” Quinn backpedaled, stumbling over a chair. The coffee carafe bobbled in her hand, and she was glad she had a tight grip on the handle or the guy— Jason—may have been gifted with a scalding coffee shower. The song on the radio segued into a festive Christmas tune as she stuttered, “I’ll, um…refill your cup. Would you like anything else?”
“Nothing I can find in here.” He drew another gulp of coffee, his gaze drifting to the snow that began to engulf the parking lot and the two-lane road beyond. “So, no, thank you.” 
The aroma of french fries mingled with coffee and grilled chicken, making Jason Graves’s stomach lurch as he watched the woman juggle a tray filled with lunch plates. She wove her way along the string of booths, her cheeks flushed from the exertion. He hadn’t been by the diner in a while, but he knew Gus always scheduled at least three hostesses on a busy day such as this. Where had the others gone?
The woman was smaller than average, her hands petite and delicate. But she seemed to have no trouble juggling a quartet of plates. Steam drifted from a meatloaf dinner, filling the diner with the aroma of rich ground beef and brown sugar. Usually the meatloaf was Jason’s favorite. But not today—no, he couldn’t imagine trying to eat anything with his gut wound so tight.
Something about the woman seemed incongruous to their surroundings. She was too polished for the greasy diner, with a sassy blunt cut that skimmed her shoulders when she crossed by the wall of windows overlooking the snow-covered parking lot. Her eyes were a rich mahogany—a near reflection of her hair color—and he imagined she had a bite of temper to match the dark red hair; he’d noticed the look she’d given Joe Siefert, the old codger, when he clinked his mug and demanded more coffee. Yes, Miss Hostess could surely hold her own.
Jason hadn’t seen her here—or anywhere else in Landers Hollow, for that matter—before. She must be new in town. He watched her rush back to Mr. Jeffers’s table for the third time in less than a dozen minutes. Why didn’t she just leave the old guy his own personal coffee carafe and let him serve himself?
Coffee…ahh. The muddy liquid warmed Jason’s belly, chasing away nausea. This morning had been less than smooth, and the afternoon didn’t look much better. Now, the snow falling like a burst of confetti from a dark, ominous sky just further complicated things.
Mrs. Donaldson, his volunteer to help coordinate the church’s Christmas pageant, had been rushed to the hospital with a gall bladder attack just after midnight. He’d been to visit her, and though the surgery was successful, she’d be off her feet for the next few weeks. And there wasn’t another volunteer on the docket. It had taken Jason a full week to persuade Mrs. Donaldson to take the job in the first place. She was an expert at set design and had a way with the kids, too. The prospect of finding someone to replace her was less than bleak.
“Here you go.” 
Jason glanced up to see the hostess staring at him with voluminous eyes. She slipped a slice of warm apple pie, buried in a mound of vanilla ice cream, onto the table. Steam curled, carrying the rich aroma of cinnamon. The knot in his belly eased slightly as his gaze held hers.
“But I didn’t order that.” 
“On the house.” She smiled. “You look like you can use a little pick-me-up.”
Apples mingled with vanilla and Jason breathed deeply, feeling his blood pressure slack just a bit. Maybe the day would be OK after all. Maybe…
“That’s really nice of you.” He nodded, splaying a hand across his belly as it rumbled. Mortified, he glanced up to see her staring at him. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem.” She laughed and dimples deepened at the corners of her mouth. Jason noticed a cute little smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, too. Suddenly his pulse kicked up a notch.
What the heck…
“You’ll need this.”
As she handed him a spoon, he caught the scent of her perfume…something subtle and floral. 
“And I think you’ll need more than coffee, too.”
 “I guess so.” Five minutes earlier, his stomach had balked at the idea of food. Now, he found himself ravenous. He struggled to draw his gaze from her, and failed miserably. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She nodded, and a few strands of hair skimmed her cheek. “It just came out of the oven. Enjoy.” 
Jason watched her retreat as he dug in, her hair swishing along her shoulders in time to the music that sang overhead. He didn’t know which was more appealing…her or the pie. Of course, the pie was delicious with warm apples and a perfect blend of the sweet, vanilla bean ice cream. But she was an appealing mystery, as well.
Jason shook the thought from his head as he washed down apples with a sip of coffee. What had gotten into him? He refocused on the task at hand— finding a replacement for Mrs. Donaldson. He took out his day planner and went through the list of contacts once more. There had to be someone who could help him out…someone who enjoyed being around kids and was willing to carry an extra load for the next month.
Someone who knew that the true meaning of Christmas held more than the thrill of hunting for the best deal on Black Friday.

LEAVE YOUR COMMENT below for a chance to win this week's giveaway.

Purchase ANGEL SONG:
Pelican Book Group (ePub or Adobe PDF)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Week 50: Christmas Wishes...Special Delivery (Mary Manners)

Love comes full circle when a child’s Christmas wish arrives special delivery.

When attorney Riley Harper comes home to Maple Ridge following the death of his grandfather, the last thing he expects to find is Kaylee McKenna living in his grandparents’ guesthouse. Though they were once best friends—even more—Riley cannot find it in his heart to forgive Kaylee for the death of his mother ten years ago as a result of her father’s reckless actions. His heart, full of bitterness and resentment, has room for little else.

Kaylee has no time to dwell on events of the past—or all she’s lost; she’s too busy raising her six-year-old niece, Rosie, and working as an ER nurse. With Christmas quickly approaching, her days are spent helping with charity events and filling the wishes on Rosie’s Christmas list. But when Rosie’s father makes an unexpected visit, Kaylee must call on Riley’s legal expertise to ensure Rosie of a safe and secure future.

Will Rosie’s special Christmas wish heal Riley’s damaged heart and bind the trio together as a forever-family?

1st Chapter:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work; if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up.  ~ Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Gravel chomped and spat beneath the wheels of Riley Harper’s Escalade as he swung into the long, winding drive off Cardwell Lane. Majestic white oaks, their leafless branches like gnarled fingers, formed a canopy, blocking a sky ripe with angry gray snow clouds. A gust of wind howled as it whipped dried leaves into a frenzied dance along a blanket of brown grass stunted with frost. Thankful he’d beaten the storm, Riley drew close to Gran’s stately white-frame house that sat like a sentinel on a gentle knoll at the top of the drive. Its massive porch invited guests to linger and, even now, a quartet of rocking chairs swayed in a slow, even cadence against the wind as if ghosts from the past communed together sharing a late-afternoon story while the storm prowled over the mountains. 

Riley rounded a curve and pulled alongside the detached garage that had, back in the day, doubled as Gramps’s workshop. He killed the SUV’s engine and leaned back in the seat, and sighed. He’d made it—he was back in Maple Ridge for the first time in nearly a year. This time, he planned to stay for more than a few nights. How much longer, though, he wasn’t sure. He stretched his legs and the knots of tension from his spine, as the wind whispered and tree limbs sang a mournful melody, mirroring the state of his heart. 

Gramps was gone for good. It was hard to believe, nearly impossible to grasp. Riley still pictured him, strong and tanned, with a subtle blend of gray through his jet-black hair, ambling toward the woods with a fishing pole in one hand and the lunch Gran had packed in his other. Where had the days, the months—the years gone? 

Riley sighed once more, deep and full, and then grabbed his duffel bag and slipped from the car. The sweet scent of pine caressed as the first snowflake of what promised to be a monster of a storm splatted the bridge of his nose. He brushed it away and pulled the collar of his wool jacket tight against the bite of a frigid gust. He wound his way over frozen earth toward the wide front stairs, flanked on each side by pillars thick as century-old oaks, and paused at the welcome mat to brush dirt from his shoes. Music drifted through the door, mingling with laughter and a child’s high-pitched giggles. Gran must have the TV on; it was the only explanation for laughter so close on the heels of Gramps’s death. Gran, who’d filled her days with caring for Gramps during his extended and heart-wrenching battle with Alzheimer’s, must miss him terribly.

Riley sucked a single deep breath, tamping back a stab of regret that he’d missed the funeral nearly a month ago, and had only now been able to break away from his responsibilities as a prosecution attorney in Jacksonville to pay his condolences to Gran. He raised his fist to knock on the weathered wooden door, but stopped just short of contact. No need to ask for permission to enter. This was his home.

Home—the single word hit Riley like a sucker punch. Even now, nearly a decade after he’d left, he thought of this old place and the acres of sprawling meadow that surrounded it as home. 

He grabbed the knob, gave it a quick turn before pushing the door open. A gust of wind followed him into the living room, rustling the pages of a newspaper splayed across the coffee table beside one of Gran’s dog-eared word search magazines. She devoured puzzles, so he sent her a subscription to the large-print edition every year for her birthday. 

The scent of cinnamon drifted from the kitchen’s doorway, making his belly yowl in protest to the fact that he’d filled it with nothing but tepid gas-station coffee since the pre-dawn hours of that morning. He’d worked late the night before, tying up the loose ends of a case, and today’s drive had been brutal, with gusts of wind tossing even the powerful Escalade while he motored down the interstate as a cold-front swept in. He shrugged from his jacket, tossed it across the arm of the couch. The TV screen stood dark, the living room a sprawling menagerie of colorfully embroidered throw pillows, hand-sewn quilts draped along the back of the couch, and collages of black and white snapshots. Warmth embraced as flames flickered from a fireplace framed in a sweep of river rock while light spilled from a bay window that covered the wall overlooking a ridge of woods beyond the meadow. How many afternoons had he spent exploring the grounds beyond, playing straight through lunch and sometimes, much to the chagrin of his mother and grandparents, even dinner and on into the twilight? An array of framed photographs nestled together along the fireplace mantel stood as a testament to his childhood years here.

Riley dropped his duffel bag and stepped over to the hearth to toss a log on the fire and stoke the flames. The tinderbox was full, and he wondered how Gran managed to stock it on her own, with her ever increasing flare-ups of arthritis. Guilt tugged again that he’d stayed so absent, for so long, as he wound his way toward the kitchen, where laughter mingled with Christmas music and that little girl’s chatter once again. His curiosity piqued, he wondered who Gran had for company. Most likely someone from church. As he neared the doorway, Moose sauntered out, blocking his path. The mild-tempered golden Saint Bernard had always been a better lug nut than a guard dog…so much for home security.

“Hey, buddy.” Riley dropped to his knees, wrapping his arms around the loveable mutt. His muzzle was sprinkled with a touch of salt-white, marking his advancing age, and he moved just a bit slower than Riley remembered. “How’ve you been?”

Moose nestled against him as if it had been decades instead of months—now closing in on a year— since the last time they’d seen each other, pushing his meaty jowls into Riley’s chest. The burly mutt wore a generous red velvet ribbon, tied into a large bow at the top, around his neck. It was adorned with an oversized jingle bell that chimed as Riley gave him a good rub. “Yeah, it’s great to see you, too. Have you been taking good care of Gran?” Riley smoothed a hand down Moose’s massive back, burying his fingers in the bristly fur. “You look ready for Christmas. It smells like Christmas around here, too. What’s Gran got baking in the kitchen?” Moose turned back toward the doorway, his tail thumping against the floor as his head cocked to the side as if to say, “Follow me.”

“I’m on it.” Riley stood to flank him as the dog lumbered forward. "Smells like something good to eat. Maybe Gran made enough for all of us. Let’s go see what’s up.”
“Can I help you put them into the boxes, Mom?” Rosie asked as she scrambled onto her knees in the chair at Kaylee McKenna’s side. She propped her elbows on the wooden table. “I’ll be careful.”

“That sounds like a good plan.” Kaylee thought about correcting the child, reminding her that she should be addressed as Aunt Kaylee, not Mom, as Rosie had taken to calling her lately. But, what would it hurt for Rosie to use that particular term of endearment? After all, she had been under Kaylee’s care for nearly a year now. “Here you go.”

Kaylee handed Rosie a stack of small boxes from the Chinese take-out place. The owner had been gracious enough to donate a hundred—more than enough for the animal shelter project—and Rosie had spent several afternoons during the course of the past week decorating them with colorful drawings of candy canes, bells and ornaments. Kaylee smiled. Rosie had done a pretty good job for just turning six, and the pictures were colored with a fairly steady hand. Sometimes she thought of Rosie as a little professor— serious and wise beyond her years. She guessed it was to be expected with all the heartache and upheaval the child had been through at such a tender age.

“Here’s another batch.” Ruth Harper turned from the oven, holding a baking pan filled with canine cinnamon bun bites. Her salted hair was brushed back into a bun and wisps curled around a heat-reddened face. “Oh, they smell heavenly!”

“Let me take those.” Kaylee grabbed a pot holder and took the pan from her, setting it onto a trivet on the counter. “You’ve done way too much already.”

“Nonsense.” Ruth removed an oven mitt and wiped her hands on her flowered apron. “I’m only getting started. We’re sure to have a huge crowd tomorrow.”

“I pray it’s so. But no one will make it out if this storm lingers like the meteorologists are predicting. No one will be able to get out of their driveway.”

“Don’t fret, Kaylee,” Ruth soothed. “The road crews will plow. It will be fine.”

“Will Santa still be able to fly his sleigh through the air, Mom?”

That word again. The single syllable tugged at Kaylee’s heart. “Christmas is still two weeks away.” She tweaked Rose’s nose, leaving behind a smudge of flour. “So, no worries in that department, honey.”

“But what about all the puppies, and old Sammy and Digger and Scout?” Rosie peered up, her blue eyes huge and rounded. The fact that she’d named the mutts at the no-kill shelter was a telling sign. How long would Kaylee garner the strength to resist her niece’s pleas for a puppy of her own? “Does Santa visit them, too? Will he give them a new home for Christmas?”

Questions…Kaylee remained continually amazed by the relentless stream of queries Rosie posed and her own, nearly constant inability to answer them. “It’s hard for Santa to be everywhere, honey, so he’s asked Miss Ruth and us to stand in for him.” She glanced at Ruth, breathed a sigh of relief when the dear woman nodded slightly, signaling her agreement with Kaylee’s line of thinking. “Hopefully, some of the people who come to the party tomorrow will want to take a puppy—or, better yet, one of the older dogs or maybe even a kitten or two—home with them.”

“That’s right, sweetheart.” Ruth patted Rosie’s head. “So, we’re Santa’s helpers. That’s pretty special, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.” Rosie gathered a handful of dog treats in her tiny fist. “But, how will we have the party at the shelter if it snows so hard?”

Kaylee sighed. She wished there was no need for animal shelters and that every dog and cat had a home where they were loved. She wished the same for people—that everyone had a safe place to call home and a family who loved them. No one should be alone in the world. Even so, sometimes she feared that, at twenty-eight and having gone years without so much as a single attraction to any of the eligible men in town, she was destined to become the eccentric spinster on the hill who lived by her lonesome and owned a million cats. She certainly wasn’t on the path to marriage. That path required dating, and she hadn’t cared for any man since Riley—he’d ruined her for that.

Anyway, she’d take all the abandoned animals in a heartbeat, if she could. But the fact that she and Rosie resided in the modest guest house at the far side of the meadow meant there was little room for the addition of animals in their close quarters. They barely had room themselves, yet Kaylee was thankful for the space she and Rosie called home. If it weren’t for Ruth’s kindness, they may very well be out on the street.

“We’ll find a way, even if I have to cross-country ski into town with you on my shoulders.”

“That’s funny, Mom. And when did you start skiing?”

“I haven’t—ever. But I’ll give it a go tomorrow if I have to.”

Rosie giggled. “Where would you get the skis?”

“I…um…I’ll fashion them out of those cardboard boxes.” She motioned to the cartons the Chinese takeout containers had come in. “They’ll work.”

“They’d get all wet.” Rosie’s blonde hair bobbed as she shook her head. “That’s silly, Mom.”

“Not as silly as having a Christmas tea party for homeless canines and kittens, but it works for us, right?”

“And for the shelter,” Ruth added. “It needs the donations to keep things operating for those poor little guys, and to hopefully heighten awareness and find the animals homes.”

“’Cause the animals are counting on us, right?” Rosie nestled the handful of the canine cinnamon buns into a container before closing the flap and reaching for one of the ruched satin bows Kaylee had fashioned.

“That’s right.” Kaylee took the bow, fastened it to the container’s thin metal handle. “All of Moose’s friends.”

“Is that where Moose came from, Miss Ruth?”

“It certainly is…” Ruth’s rheumy-green eyes glazed over with memories, her look listing faraway for the slightest moment. “Jacob and I adopted him more than a decade ago.”

“How long is a decade?” Rosie’s lips bowed with the question.

“Ten years.”

“Tell me the story again, Miss Ruth, about how you and Gramps found Moose.” Rosie glanced up from the box she filled, her blue eyes wide with wonder. “And then you brought him home to Mr. Riley, who became his bestest friend in the whole, wide world. I love that story.”

“I love that story, too,” a deep, male voice murmured from the hallway, like a low, murky whisper from the past.

Kaylee’s head snapped up at the unexpected sound. One palm splayed across her chest as she drew in Riley Harper’s dark hair and even darker, russet eyes as he leaned against the door jamb. His jaw, shadowed with a hint of beard, clenched into a tight, powerful line as the breath rushed out of her. Barely able to speak, she murmured, “Oh my…Riley!”

“Kaylee.” A veil covered his eyes, guarded and careful, which brought a wave of horrible memories rushing back. Her father—Riley’s mother—the horrible accident that altered the course of everything. “This is certainly unexpected. I need a minute here, to catch up.”

“I suppose I do, as well.” Kaylee’s heart stammered while the satin bow slipped from her clammy fingers. She remembered Riley’s mom…her laughing blue eyes and quick smile and wondered once again what it was like for her in her final moments, as river water swirled into her submerged car and she struggled to cry out for help, to even breathe. And Kaylee thought of her father—how could he be the cause of such a travesty and then simply drive off? The questions, buried for years now, resurfaced to strangle her like a noose. 

Suddenly she felt like a stranger to Riley, an intruder in the house where she’d been welcomed as family for the past year—for nearly her entire life, truth be known. She shifted feet, crossing her arms over her chest as the doorway filled with the height and breadth of him. Riley had always been strong, powerful, but the years had chiseled his features similar to one of the bronze statues she’d observed in museums.

“I never imagined...” Riley stepped into the kitchen, confusion riddling his dark, brooding features. That’s how Kaylee had thought of him in the months before he left Maple Ridge—dark and brooding, as if the light inside him had dimmed to a nearly nondescript ember. He turned to Ruth, nodded, and with the next word, his voice melted to butter. “Gran…”

“Is it really you?” Ruth rushed around the table to gather him in. Riley dwarfed her by a full foot and as she hugged him, he rested his chin on the crown of her head. For the slightest moment, Kaylee watched light flicker through him, like a brilliant power surge. Her heart pitched as she wondered if maybe, somehow, they might find their way through the murky, painful past and move forward into the future—together. Then, just as quickly, the radiance faded, and Kaylee feared he’d never forgive her, though what had happened was hardly her fault. It had hurt both of them deeply, and forged a fortress between them that had only seemed to fortify itself over the years. Yet she missed him—missed the friendship they’d once shared.  “You said you couldn’t come until summer— spring at the earliest. That’s still months away.”

“I was able to tie up the loose ends on my case, so I thought I’d head this way before the next round snares me.” He nodded toward the window over the sink, and Kaylee watched the sky begin to spit huge, sloppy flakes. “Storm’s moving in and I wanted to beat it. I hope it’s OK that I surprised you.”

“Oh, it’s more than OK.” Ruth pressed a hand to his face and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Oh, how I’ve missed you. This is the most wonderful surprise yet!”

“I never expected to walk in on this.” The softness fled from Riley’s voice as he disentangled himself from Ruth and turned to Kaylee. He reached for one of the canine treats while his gaze narrowed at her in what could only be described as raw scrutiny. “What’s going on here? What are you doing here? I didn’t see a car.”

“We’re renting the guesthouse.” Kaylee’s lips quivered as she motioned to Rosie. The shock of seeing Riley again, the way his eyes, like two dark stones, swept over her as his mouth bowed into a frown, turned her pulse to a pounding base drum. “Well, sort of renting it.” Since Jacob had passed on, she wasn’t sure what would happen as far as her living arrangements went. Neither she nor Ruth had broached the subject—yet. Just the thought of having to vacate the guesthouse sent little shivers of dread up Kaylee’s spine. She cleared the painful knot from her throat to continue. “And, today we’re helping Ruth with a holiday project—a fundraiser for the animal shelter.”

Rosie wiggled along the chair’s seat, sidling close in at Kaylee’s hip. She tugged at the hem of Kaylee’s blouse. “Mom, is this the Riley who’s friends with Moose?”

“It…it is.” 

“The one who gave you those yellow flowers when you were younger, the ones you stuck between the pages of that Bible on your dresser?”

“Rosie, hush!” Kaylee spun, shook a finger sharply at her niece as a vision of the marigolds, once brilliant as summer sun, rushed to mind. “That’s private.”

“Just askin’.” Rosie’s lips dipped into a pout as her eyes clouded with tears, and a stab of guilt pierced Kaylee. She had no right to take such a sharp tone over the child’s innocent question. 

“I’m sorry, honey.” She gathered Rosie close, stroked her cheek. “Yes, Riley gave me those marigolds.”

“Is that what they were called…marigolds?” Riley’s voice drifted while his gaze brightened with a flicker of recognition. “You kept them?”

Kaylee shrugged. Her cheeks flamed as Riley snatched a second warm treat from the table. “I—”

“Don’t eat that!” Rosie turned and pushed back from Kaylee, her startled gaze drinking in Riley as he bit off a piece of the canine cinnamon bun and began to chew. “It’s—” She burst into giggles, pressing a palm to her tiny mouth as he swallowed. “—a doggie treat.”

Leave a comment below for a chance to win this week's giveaway!