Monday, March 27, 2017

Week #13: Buried Secrets by Rachel Good

Can God’s love erase the past?

Three years after the accident that almost claimed her life, Emma Esh has recovered physically but has no memory of the year before the accident. When she moves to a new community to help her sister Lydia and brother-in-law, Caleb, prepare for the birth of twins, she falls for their neighbor Samuel.

But the twins’ premature birth, a visit from the Englischer Emma once dated, and the sudden return of her memory threaten Emma’s romance. After the secrets of her past are revealed, will love be able to overcome all obstacles?


1st Chapter:

Bundled in her black wool cloak, Emma Esh knelt in the newly tilled garden, a flat of seedlings beside her. Once she would have danced with joy in the pale sunshine of early spring after being cooped indoors through the long, cold winter. But the past month had drained much of her exuberance. 
So had the past three years of her life. She had no lingering physical aftereffects from the accident that had almost taken her life, other than the loss of her memory about the months before and after it happened. But her spirit had never healed. So she’d been happy to move to the Gratz area, more than an hour from Lancaster, to help her sister Lydia.
Emma concentrated on the plants beside her. Gardening soothed her, made her feel whole again. The spring sunshine warmed the ground and sent comforting rays through her cloak as she bent over the soft, moist earth. She lifted a seedling from its pot and inhaled the savory tomato-y aroma. Then she pinched off the lower leaves, set it in the hole, and gently bent the stem before covering it with soil.
Whoosh. A heavy weight slammed her backwards, smashing her head against the ground. Gasping, desperate to suck some air into her crushed lungs, Emma opened her eyes to find a furry face inches from her own. A huge mouth opened, revealing pointy white teeth. Then a wet pink tongue scraped across her cheek.
“Bolt,” a deep male voice commanded. “Off.”
A handsome stranger, black bangs hanging in front of his eyes, bent over her, his hand outstretched. “Ach, I’m so sorry. She slipped out the door again.” He clamped his other hand on the Irish setter’s collar and pulled the dog off Emma, leaving muddy paw prints across her skirt.
Still dazed, Emma lay where she’d fallen, gazing up at him, unsure whether the rapid pattering of her pulse was from her recent fright or from looking into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Are you all right?” Worry crinkled his brow.
“I–I’ll be fine.” Ignoring the hand he’d extended, she tried to sit.
The stranger dropped to one knee beside her. “Don’t get up if you’re hurt. Is there someone I can fetch?”
“I don’t need help.” Heat flooded Emma’s cheeks when her words came out sharply. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Please forgive me.” Then pinching her lips together, she steeled herself to sit without assistance.
“There’s nothing to forgive. I’m the one who let my dog escape.” The words were barely out of his mouth when the Irish setter twisted free and bounded off, crushing the rows of seedlings Emma had just planted.
“Oh, no!” The stranger dashed off after the dog, swerving to avoid the tomato plants the setter had crushed. Gasping for air, he made a desperate tackle, landing a few feet beyond the garden, the dog wriggling under him. With a firm grip on the Irish setter’s collar, he stood, the front of his shirt, galluses, and black pants splattered with dog hair and dirt.
Emma suppressed the urge to giggle at his sheepish expression, the clod of mud clinging to his forehead, and the panting dog struggling to jerk free of his hold.
He pinched his lips together as he studied the mess. “I’m so sorry. Let me put Bolt in the house. Then I’ll help clean up.”
“Bolt?” Had he called the dog that earlier? Emma had been too distracted to pay attention. Now she couldn’t hold in her mirth.
Rather than taking offense, the stranger glanced down with a rueful expression, then joined in her laughter. “Jah,” he said between hearty chuckles. “Short for Lightning Bolt. She zigs and zags so fast I can’t catch her sometimes.” He waved a hand toward the disaster in the garden. “Like she did here. And now look at me.”
Emma did, and her laughter ended in a sharp intake of breath. And then his eyes met hers, and she stopped breathing altogether.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Week #12: Redempton's Whisper by Kathleen Friesen


Desperate to escape her past, Hayley Blankenship flies from Toronto to the Saskatoon home of Pastor Dave and Lydia Harris, the only people who may be able to help her. If she doesn’t find a reason to hope, she may give in to the temptation to end it all. If only someone could love her, in spite of what she’s done.
Trevor Hiebert aces the interview for his dream job in Toronto, but he’s torn. His beloved parents need him, and while he doesn’t want to let them down, he craves the affirmation he hopes to find in the big city. But on the flight home to Saskatoon, he meets an intriguing, gorgeous redhead with dark secrets of her own. Can these two troubled souls gain the peace they need—and in the process, find love?


1st Chapter:

A gust of wind shook the narrow, sloped jet bridge as Hayley Blankenship dragged her carry-on toward the jumbo jet. Fear lodged in her throat, and her footsteps faltered.
People surged past. “Excuse me.”
She swallowed hard and lifted her trembling chin. Not now. She would not give in to fear today. “You are strong,” she whispered. The floor trembled. Hayley stumbled as the moveable passageway adjusted itself. She clutched the handle of her bag, inhaled sharply, and trudged on. Almost there. She stalled at the entrance to the airplane. Her nerves vibrated. The narrow opening seemed to close around her. The air felt too thick to breathe. Her shoulders curled forward, and her head lowered. This was a mistake. She wasn’t ready, not yet. She turned. A long line of passengers stood behind her. Could she push past all those staring faces? Her knees threatened to buckle.
The flight attendant reached out and touched Hayley’s arm, startling her. “Is there a problem, miss?”
Hayley shook her head and stiffened her resolve.  She’d made the decision to go to Saskatoon. This might be her last chance. She inhaled through her nose and forced her shoulders back, her head up.
The flight attendant said something as she entered the plane, but it didn’t register.
Hayley had to concentrate. She glanced at the boarding pass in her hand. Seat 20A. The rear of the plane, out of sight of most of the other passengers. A window seat, so she could watch her past disappear. She walked by people already seated, avoiding their eyes, until she came to her assigned spot. Hayley shrugged out of her coat and stuffed it in the overhead compartment. She slid into her allotted place, stored her carry-on under the seat in front of her, and leaned against the window.
Various workers on the ground hurried to load luggage, refuel the plane, and do whatever else was needed to prepare for another flight.
As Hayley watched their purposeful strides, a twinge of envy twisted her lips. Self-pity and self-loathing reared their ugly heads. She closed her eyes in a futile attempt to block the terrible images racing through her mind. Give up. You’re not going to make it. You may as well take the pills—all of them. She shook her head as though that would dislodge the negative thoughts. She sensed someone settle into the aisle seat but didn’t bother looking. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. Casual conversation was pointless. If only she could curl into a ball and block out the world, at least for a while.
Trevor Hiebert ran down the empty passageway to the plane’s doorway. As he ran, he muttered a rant against Toronto traffic and cabbies who seemed more interested in conversing on their radios than getting him to Pearson International on time. He couldn’t afford to miss this flight.
If only he’d pre-booked a seat. Now he was stuck with a center spot, and he knew from experience how uncomfortable it would be. Maybe the plane would be nearly empty so he could have a row to himself. He ducked around the smiling flight attendant and groaned. So much for that wish. He dragged his wheeled carry-on down the aisle as he scanned the numbers above the rows. Finally he spotted it: 20B. He glanced at his row mates, a young woman leaning against the cabin wall with her eyes closed and an older woman who looked like a sweet grandmotherly type in the aisle seat.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m in 20B.”
The old woman looked beside her at the narrow seat and back up at him. Her attention settled on his broad shoulders, and her mouth compressed into a flat line. “Good luck.”
Trevor shifted his weight and pulled his leather bag closer. “Would you mind trading spots with me? Then I won’t have to climb over you.” And he’d have a little more breathing room.
“I certainly would mind. I want this seat.” She jutted her chin and glared at him. “You young punks are used to getting your way, but you won’t bully me.”
The attendant moved to the front of the cabin, ready to begin her safety speech.
Temper surged, but Trevor clamped a lid on it. The woman wasn’t worth the regret he’d feel later. He shrugged out of his well-worn leather jacket, lifted it and his bag into the overhead compartment, and tried to maneuver over the woman’s legs in the cramped space to his assigned spot. Her leg jolted against the back of his knee, and he lost his balance. He caught himself against the window so he wouldn’t land in the young woman’s lap.
The girl’s eyes snapped open as he turned to apologize. She gave a sharp intake of breath and tried to ease away, but Trevor’s power to move deserted him. Her mesmerizing green eyes widened as shock turned to fear.
“What are you doing?” Her shrill voice broke the spell.
“So sorry,” he mumbled. He pushed off from the window and plunked into his chair. “I tripped.” He looked sideways at the old woman, who smirked as she smoothed her pant legs.
It was going to be a long flight.
He glanced back at the young woman and wondered at his desire to see her face again. But she had turned away and sat huddled against the wall. Her sharp-angled shoulder blades and the back of her spiky auburn hair made an effective barrier. Kind of looked like a hedgehog. Trevor snorted. He was stuck between a prickly old grouch and a hedgehog. For three and a half hours.
Hayley pressed against the wall of the aircraft as chills raced through her limbs. Her legs trembled and her heart raced. She’d made it onto the plane. Would she fall apart now? That man had nearly landed on top of her. It happened so fast, she hadn’t had time to react. There was no room to move, anyway. But he’d caught himself—and apologized. She wasn’t hurt, just scared. Her breathing evened out. She’d survived worse. She silently repeated her psychiatrist’s prescribed refrain. I am OK. I am strong. The past is gone. The future is God’s. Over and over, until her body began to relax. Just like in Dr. Freemont’s office.
She’d heard the brief exchange between her seatmates. The man’s voice would have excited her in the past. She would have smiled at him and flirted with him. But that was the old Hayley. She was dead.
When she’d looked up and stared into his rugged face, all her senses had sharpened. He smelled like pine forest mixed with motor oil, a strangely tantalizing combination. His tanned skin indicated time spent outdoors. And his dark-lashed grey eyes, like a stormy Lake Ontario, invited her to sink into them. For one brief moment, she had the strangest sensation she could see her future in those eyes. And that terrified her.
Trevor jerked when the woman he’d first pegged as a sweet grandmother jabbed his arm with her elbow. “Pardon me?”
She already had the aisle seat. Did he have to give up the shared armrest, too? She pushed against his arm. Apparently.
“I need the armrest.” She dug into her oversized purse and pulled out a paperback book with a suggestive picture on its cover. “Now leave me alone and let me read my story.”
Trevor bit back a retort. He exhaled slowly to cool his frustration. Maybe if he concentrated on work, he could ignore both seatmates, one a royal pain and the other too intriguing. He reached for his phone, leaning to the left so he wouldn’t incur the old woman’s wrath again. But the space allotted wasn’t enough for his wide shoulders. His left shoulder pressed against the young woman’s back and elicited a gasp.
She uncurled and seemed as though she was trying to merge with the wall of the plane. She looked sideways at him, eyes wide and lips clenched.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I don’t think the airplane designers made these seats for people my size.”
Shadows flitted over her pale face and disappeared. A tentative smile softened her lips. “You may be right.” She hesitated for several heartbeats, and then turned and held out a slender hand. “I’m Hayley. Hayley Blankenship.”
That little smile was like a rainbow during a storm, offering promises of spectacular beauty. Stunned by his reaction, he stared at her mouth until her smile disappeared and she started to pull her hand back. He took her hand in his. It felt fragile, cool, and…a zap of electricity shot up his arm, and she snatched her hand back.
Their eyes connected, and he was lost again until she blinked.
He gave himself a mental shake. “I’m…Trevor Hiebert. Nice to meet you.”
She lowered her long lashes. “You, too.”
“Are you from Saskatoon?” 
A shadow returned to her beautiful face. “No, I’m visiting friends there. I...I’ve been…sick, and my doctor suggested a change of scenery.”
That explained the pallor, shadows under the eyes, and fragile appearance. He’d never been good with sickness. He stumbled with what to say. “I hope it helps.” That was the best he could do.
She ducked her head, her hands clenched so tightly her knuckles turned white.
He waited, but she didn’t speak. Obviously his best wasn’t very good.
Hayley could hear Dr. Freemont’s voice. “You need to make new friends. Open yourself to positive relationships. Start living again.”  But she didn’t know how. She carried too many secrets, too much sorrow to ever be a party girl again. That life no longer appealed. She wished she could at least carry on a normal conversation, though.
Especially since this intriguing man would be crammed next to her for more than three hours. She studied him with sideways glances. He’d apparently given up on her and was frowning at the screen of his phone. The lines on his forehead invited her fingers to smooth them. Where had that thought come from? She tucked her hands under her thighs and turned enough to see him more clearly.
There was something familiar about his face. They’d never met before, she was certain. His nose looked like it had been broken more than once, but something about his face reminded her of…The name wouldn’t come.
The inflight movie started, one she’d seen many times, and a dashing, dark-haired cowboy appeared onscreen  . An older, smoother version of her companion. Not identical, but the resemblance was remarkable.
She couldn’t hold back a gasp, and he glanced at her. She looked at him, at the movie screen, and back at him with her eyebrows raised.
He sighed. “Yeah, it’s been mentioned a time or two.”
His rueful expression brought a long-lost grin to her face. Part of her mind registered wonder that her face didn’t crack. She gave herself a mental shake. She needed to concentrate on the here and now. She glanced at the screen again and murmured, “Well, it could be worse.”
He cocked his head as though deep in thought and then nodded. “I guess you’re right.” He didn’t break a smile. “I could have looked like his horse.”
Laughter bubbled up, surprising her. She touched her lips and watched as his gaze followed her fingers. She dropped her hands and clasped them in her lap, but his eyes didn’t move.
He seemed to be a gentleman in spite of his intimidating size and biker-rough appearance. Maybe Dr. Freemont was right. Maybe this was her chance to chip away at her shell of isolation. She should try, at least. Besides, Saskatoon—if it was his destination—was large enough, they would probably never see each other again. So if she messed up, it wouldn’t matter. She took a deep breath. “I’m glad I met you today, Trevor.”
His answering smile warmed her. “Likewise, Miss Hayley. I thought this flight was going to be miserable.” He tilted his head toward the old woman.
Hayley rolled her eyes and whispered, “She can’t be happy.”
“You’re probably right,” he whispered back.
An angry retort came from the aisle seat. “I can hear you two. Mind your own bleepin’ business and leave me out of it.”
Trevor winked at her, and Hayley covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a giggle.
She lowered her fingers. “Oops,” she mouthed. She sat up straighter and tilted her head. “So, Trevor, tell me about yourself. Do you live in Saskatoon, or are you continuing on? What kind of work do you do?” She paused, her chin lowered. “Or am I being too nosy?”
He angled his body toward her. “The answer to your last question is ‘no.’ I live and work in Saskatoon, for now, anyway. I work at motorcycle shop there, but I may be moving to Toronto to work at Lowrider Cycles. Ever heard of it?”
She shook her head more to tame her emotions than to answer. His mention of motorcycles swept her back to the year she’d dated a young biker wannabe. She hadn’t thought about that summer for years, couldn’t even remember his name. Matt? Mark? Didn’t matter. But she could feel the heat of the exhaust pipes by her legs, hear the wind shrieking past her helmet and the roar of the powerful engine. Such a long time ago, when she was still a teenager. Longing filled her—and shocked her. She hadn’t experienced such a rush of yearning for months. Even as she wondered, the feeling faded, leaving a familiar, heavy emptiness.
“You OK?”
 She felt her face warm. “Sorry, I got a little lost there.” She replayed his question. “Yes, I’ve heard of it. They specialize in custom bikes, right?”
His smile brightened. “Right. That’s what I do. When I can.” His smile dimmed. “But I haven’t accepted yet. My folks are getting on in years, and they still farm out near Langham. Do you know the area?”
Hayley shook her head. “I went to university in Saskatoon for one term a couple years ago, but I never got outside the city.”
“Just one term? Why? What were you studying?”
“Um…yeah. I’d planned to go into accounting, but things didn’t work out.” She couldn’t go there. Would she ever be allowed to forget? She fought tears as she glanced at her seat-mate. His expression held curiosity mixed with kindness, and Hayley lowered her head. Dr. Freemont was wrong. She couldn’t socialize. That part of her was dead, or at least damaged beyond repair. Her shoulders hunched, and she turned toward the window, seeing only her failures.
It was none of his business. He didn’t know this woman and would probably never see her again. But Hayley Blankenship’s reaction troubled him, stirred his protectiveness. He’d seen it too many times, that tentative connection so easily broken.
Trevor glanced at his watch. It was almost three hours until they’d land in Saskatoon. He would give her some time and space to work through whatever had triggered her withdrawal. His mouth twisted as he touched the screen on his phone. He was no superhero. He couldn’t protect everyone, no matter how much he wanted to. 
He turned his attention to the notes he’d jotted yesterday, and his gut churned at the questions he’d written to himself. He had a decision to make, and no matter which option he chose, people’s lives would change. People he cared about.
List the pros and cons. Trevor began with his first option, the one he’d gone to Toronto to investigate, and listed everything positive and negative he could imagine from its outcome. Including the faint unease he’d felt during his interview. Too bad he couldn’t have stayed longer, checked it out more thoroughly. But it seemed to be the job of his dreams. He listed several impressions of Lowrider Cycles and the positives and negatives of moving. Then the second scenario, the one involving his parents. That took longer, and he soon lost awareness of everything around him. Sometime later, movement from the left alerted him.
Hayley was trying to stand in the cramped space. “Excuse me, please. My leg…I need to get out.”
What little color she’d had was gone. Her shadowed eyes appeared even brighter against the whiteness of her face. Lines had appeared beside her mouth.
“Sure. Of course. Let me get out of your way.”
The old woman was snoring, her racy novel open on her chest, but when Trevor tried to step over her, she jerked awake.
“What do you think you’re doing? Get off of me!”
He ignored her outburst and moved into the aisle. He offered his hand to Hayley, and she grasped it without hesitation. She seemed to stumble a bit as she joined him in the aisle. She grabbed the back of the old woman’s seat with her other hand, and the woman glared at her.
“You two want to play games, go do it somewhere else.”
“Just give me a minute, please.” Hayley’s voice quavered.
The other woman’s fierceness dissipated. “You hurtin’, girl?” The gruff voice was much softer now.
“I’ll be fine. Thank you.” Hayley offered a shaky smile.
A glimmer of compassion softened the old woman’s face.
“I know about pain. What happened to you?”
Hayley shook her head and closed her eyes. The plane shifted, and she wobbled.
Acting on instinct, Trevor snagged her around the waist and pulled her closer. She clung to him for a moment, long enough for him to inhale the scent of her hair. Peaches, or maybe strawberries. Something fruity. His arm tightened around her.
At that moment the flight attendant’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “May I have your attention? We are flying into some turbulence, so please be seated and fasten your seatbelts. Thank you.”
Hayley gasped and pulled away from him. “Excuse me again,” she said breathlessly as she stepped over the older woman and back to her seat.
The old woman patted Hayley’s back as she passed.
Trevor’s eyebrows lifted. People certainly were complicated. He nodded to the woman as he carefully moved back to his seat and fastened his seatbelt. He glanced to his left. Hayley’s belt was snugged tight, almost as tight as the lines around her mouth. He leaned closer to her and kept his voice low. “Do you have something you can take for the pain?”
She didn’t look at him. “I’m trying to stay away from them. Too easy to get hooked.”
Sounded like narcotics. It must have been bad, then. “Would ibuprofen help? I have some in my bag.”
“I took some just before boarding, but it doesn’t do much.” She gripped the armrest as the plane bucked.
“How about a distraction? Give me your hand.” He’d asked without thinking and felt pleasantly surprised when Hayley held out her hand, palm up. He turned it over, found the spot above her wrist bone, and pressed his thumb against it, gently and then more deeply.
At first she watched his fingers on her hand as though hypnotized. After several moments her wide, green eyes lifted and connected with his. “Where did you learn to do that? It’s actually helping.”
“Something my mom taught me.”
When she leaned back and closed her eyes, Trevor eased the pressure of his thumb and began slow, gentle circles on the palm of her hand. He watched as her lips lifted. Nice. He’d only tried acupressure on himself before, and it certainly hadn’t been this pleasurable. Her slender hand had been cold when she’d offered it to him, but now its warmth radiated up his arm. It fit in his as though it had been designed for him. Shock halted his movements. What was he thinking?



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Monday, March 13, 2017

Week #11: Voice of Truth by Dana Pratola



Sophia knew something wasn’t right the instant she opened her mouth to sing and the first note hit the air. It actually sounded like one. It was only one word—part of a word really, more of a syllable—but it was good.
Her brows lifted in mild curiosity and she cleared her throat before trying it again. When the next note came out as clear and pleasant as the first, her hands tightened around the steering wheel.
She glanced down at the chai latte in the cup holder. No, it wasn’t some kind of reaction, and she hadn’t scorched her throat—it remained untouched. But something had happened to change her voice so drastically.
Her eyes darted to the rearview mirror, but her reflection seemed the same, nothing out of the ordinary. She looked back to the road just in time to avoid rear-ending a Mercedes.
Sophia clamped her mouth shut and glared at the radio. Bryan Adams seemed unaffected by her present condition. Well good for him. She remained silent for several blocks; time enough to reason it had never happened at all. It was doubtless just one of those things, where you drive under a power line and it messes with the radio reception. Yes, that was it.
With her bravery renewed, she changed the station. A new release aired, one she didn’t know the words to, so she jabbed buttons until she heard the familiar strains of an old James Taylor song. She was being silly. She opened her mouth once more.
The notes came out in a clean, effortless flow that scared the hell out of her. “Am I losing my mind?” she asked James.
Maybe it was her hearing. No, she could still hear the swish of wipers across freshly sprinkled glass, the suck of rubber tire treads on wet pavement, and JT’s voice, satin smooth as always. Of course people didn’t always hear themselves the way they really sounded, right? She was probably just as bad as ever, but maybe she had wax build up or something.
Then again, she was under more stress than usual, with parent-teacher conferences and Principal O’Malley dogging her about spending too much time playing games with the children and not enough on curriculum. It didn’t seem to matter that Sophia’s class was ranked at the top of the school in reading and comprehension, and in math, second only to the fifth grade Mighty Math Majors. She didn’t feel the sting of that loss; those kids were abnormally attracted to numbers.
She pulled into her space in the school parking lot, turned off the ignition and went over the general things she should know: name, address, phone number, days of the week, mother’s maiden name. Everything seemed to check out. People having breakdowns didn’t know these things off the tops of their heads, did they? Then again, how could she be sure she wasn’t twisting the answers in some way, or—
She forced her mind to a grinding halt before it could carry her over the edge. All of her saliva had dried up and her heart was racing at a rate she was certain couldn’t be healthy. What she needed was a witness; a second party to deny or confirm that she could sing, or needed psychological treatment.
Sophia flipped open the cup lid, took the cup with both hands and sipped. The liquid was blazing hot, but she sipped steadily.
Lord, if she wasn’t already over the edge, she was close. How was she going to pull off a calm facade in a classroom full of first-graders, whose job it seemed, was to notice every minute detail?
Just as Sophia got out of the car the sporadic drizzle became a steady rain. Though she held her briefcase over her head, she was damp by the time she got inside and not in the mood to keep up with the morning gossip in the teachers’ lounge, so she went directly to her class. In bad weather the children were brought inside to await the first bell, so she figured she had about ten minutes before she would collect her fifteen children from the gym.
She fumbled for her cell phone and had her brother on the line almost before she realized she’d dialed him. If anyone could talk her down, Anthony could.
“What,” Anthony barked into the phone.
“It’s me. Just getting up?”
“Unfortunately. What’s wrong?”
Over the phone, Sophia could hear the scrape of match to striker, the sifting of air through the end of a cigarette. She was still praying he would quit. “Nothing.”
“You didn’t call me first thing in the morning for nothing.”
Sophia twisted a lock of black hair around her finger. “Nothing, exactly.”
“So tell me what’s not exactly wrong,” Anthony said.
Growing up she had often wished her two brothers didn’t know her so well, but found it an enormous comfort right now.
“I can sing,” she said finally.
“No, you can’t,” Anthony stated as a blunt fact.
“I couldn’t,” she agreed, excited as her hands flailed in every direction. “But now I can. I don’t know how or why, but I can. At least I think I can.”
“I’m not following.”
“Neither am I.”
She started at the beginning as best she could pinpoint it. When she finished and he said nothing, she went to the portable stereo in the corner of the room, popped out the Raffi sing-along CD, and popped in one of the CDs she listened to during free period. 
“Hold on, listen.” She put the phone where he could hear and waited for Mariah Carey to complete one of her trademark vocal summersaults before turning down the stereo and following with one of her own.
“Who was that?” Anthony asked when she picked the phone up again.
“No way.”
“You see? That’s what I thought when I first heard it.” He might not believe her yet, but at least he was hearing the same thing. “It sounds like me, but…not. I mean, it sounds like I would sound if I could sing, right?”
“I just woke up, Sophia,” he said impatiently. “I’m not in the mood for games.”
“It’s not, wait. Listen again.”
It was easy enough to silence him when she sang a song they had made up as kids. It was a gruesome ditty about food poisoning, intended as some kind of childish revenge when Uncle Victor had made them sit at the children’s table at Easter. Since they’d never disclosed the lyrics to another soul, Anthony would have no question it was her voice.
Sophia heard his fridge door open and the seal break on a bottle of water. “That was you,” he said, surprised.
“You must be leaving something out. Think. Did you hit your head or get accidentally hypnotized or something?”
She had to laugh. “How do you get accidentally hypnotized?”
“How should I know? I don’t hear you coming up with anything better.”
He was right; she had nothing more rational to offer. Noise in the hall caught her ear and she looked up to see Mrs. Falk marching by with her third graders.
“I have to run. Thanks for listening. Love you.” She hung up and ran to gather her class, feeling a little lighter now that she had spoken to someone. He was probably right. She must be missing something.
Throughout the day she rewound and replayed every moment she could remember, working backward from the time she turned on the radio in the car that morning. Before that there was the coffee shop, dressing for work, the shower… The shower. No, she’d sounded as bad as usual.
There didn’t seem to be much point, but she went back to the night before that. It had been a quiet evening alone at home. Ben had tried to talk her into joining him and another couple for dinner and a movie, but she knew that when they were alone later, he would try to talk her into other things. He was a nice enough guy, but much too preoccupied with pursuing a physical relationship. But not to dwell on him.
Apart from a Charlie Chaplin movie on AMC, she could remember nothing to distinguish that night from any other. Nothing remarkable, nothing disturbing or riveting. 
“Miss Gallo.”
Sophia looked down as small persistent hands tugged on her sleeve. “What’s the matter, Lily?”
The teary eyed child sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I drew a picture for you. Now it’s gone. Bentley ate it last night.”
Sophia had seen Lily’s monster dog on occasion, dragging its owners around the neighborhood, and had no doubt the girl spoke the truth.
She crouched to eye level with Lily and smoothed a hand over her silken hair. “That’s alright, you can draw me another one.”
“I wanted to give it to you today,” she whined, though Sophia imagined she had intended the assertion to sound urgent.
Even after all the schooling and working with children Sophia realized there were some questions that could never be answered. Like why, when asked if they had to use the bathroom, children would refuse, but two minutes later on the way to the bus, would be bursting at the seams. Moreover, why, when school was almost over, would a little girl all at once remember that a ravenous mutt had eaten her drawing the night before? Kids.
“We’ll be singing the goodbye song in a few minutes,” Sophia told her gently. She took a sheet of white paper from her desk and handed it to her. “Go back to your seat and you can draw until then.”
Sophia went back to the boom box, removed Mariah, and put in the disc of the Friendship Song they sang every afternoon before leaving for the day. When the children gathered in a circle by the door, she took a deep breath and pushed play. It was her first audience.
Three years later
So much had changed in such a short period of time, Sophia thought, looking down on rain-slicked Fifth Ave. Just a few years ago, April would mean saving pennies and stretching her budget to allow for a Spring break vacation. And probably using most of that free time fine tuning her curriculum for when she returned to school.
She dropped her head against the window frame. The children she’d taught were in fourth grade now. In fourth grade there was no more marching around the classroom shaking tambourines fashioned from paper plates and dried navy beans. No more cutting out pictures that started with the letter of the day. All of them had probably forgotten the words to the Friendship Song. She could not help but wonder what had become of Miss Gallo in their minds.
Her winsome smile faded. The amount of airplay her songs received made even her sick, so it wasn’t likely any of them had forgotten her name, but would they recognize the real Miss Gallo under the image that had been pasted over her? And was it fair for her to wish them to remember a woman she barely remembered herself?
She couldn’t pretend she was the same person. Even trying to distance herself, it was hard to remain untainted by the world she now lived in. Sometimes just seeing what others were willing to sacrifice for fame and fortune was enough to change someone.
What amazed Sophia was that the less she recognized herself, the more strangers not only identified her on the street, but seemed to feel a connection to her. She had the media to thank for that, reporters who baited lines and dangled bits of her life over the murky waters of gossip for greedy, empty minds to snatch up. And what reporters couldn’t find, they manufactured. The stream had to keep moving at all costs, no matter who paid.
Resentment stretched restlessly inside her. The gossip stream had carried her out of a life she’d been contented to live, into a world of tinted windows, endless commitments and security I.D. tags. It was what prevented her from developing close relationships, and in some cases, destroyed relationships she’d already had.
Not that it was all negative. Seeing and meeting so many talented artists at awards shows never got old. Above that, it created circumstances in which it was possible to influence people, to make a fan’s wish come true, or bring life to a starving Ethiopian village. But, she must never forget how easily life could be taken away.
Her movements slow and languid, Sophia went to the cherry wood bar to pour a glass of wine, something she’d only recently begun to do to help her unwind. With the glass in one hand, she undid the clips in her hair with the other, releasing a fall of black silk down her back. She yearned to take her make-up off, but needed to relax for just a moment.
Maybe she could catch a nap before her sound check at the Garden. If not for the Today appearance this morning, she would still be in bed. How people expected her to perform first thing in the morning, when her day didn’t usually begin until it was half over, was just…  She sighed. She used to be a morning person.
Crossing the room she caught a glimpse of her own face staring back at her from the front page of Personality on a side table. She always requested these publications be banned from her suite, but it must have been an oversight. Maybe an overzealous waiter who thought it would be a form of adulation….
Taking a closer look, there was no sign of weariness in the photo, no clue that she’d only gotten four and a half hours sleep the night before. The wonders of cosmetics. She gave her image a wry smile and turned away.
People saw what they wanted to see. Not long ago, people described her smile as friendly, her heavy-lidded, long-lashed eyes as dreamy, even contemplative. But squeeze that same face through a camera lens, add a little rumor, and viola! A temptress is born. An item she’d made the mistake of reading recently, now described her mouth as seductive, her eyes suggestive.
Sophia sank onto the sumptuous damask couch. It would be ungrateful to say her life was bad. She had numerous properties, piles of money and more advantages than she could count. But she would give no thanks to the media for any of it. God and her fans got all the thanks, in that order. Without God and this peculiar gift He’d given her, it wouldn’t be possible to help so many.
Yet there were still nagging questions. How had it happened? Why? Why at that time? Questions she would never have an answer to.
She washed them down in a swallow of crisp, white wine. It must be the rain making her feel low. Why else would she feel so edgy and dissatisfied? Certainly not that it was her birthday and neither of her parents had called.
She tucked her bare feet under her, tilted her head back against the cushions and stared up at the ceiling. The truth was, it was none of those things. It was Kira Quinn. Even the reason Sophia was thinking about her class today was due to Kira. Because they would be her age soon. And before long would catch up and pass her. Because Kira was dead and buried in a tiny cemetery in San Antonio.
Sophia closed her eyes tight and willed the tears away. Her head felt too heavy to lift from the thick fabric, so she closed her eyes and listened to the silence, and the steady thump, thump of a heart feeling sorry for itself. It was better than replaying the voice of Kira’s mother in her head, telling Sophia she wasn’t to blame, it was just a terrible tragedy.
Sophia couldn’t totally agree. Six months ago today, Kira had been crushed to death at one of her shows; certainly she held some responsibility. And worse, she hadn’t even faced Kira’s parents personally. Even if they had requested her attendance, the public would have made a sick festival of the funeral, waving pictures and snapping new ones. She had, of course, spoken to them, insisted on paying for the services, etc., but….
The knock on the door made her heart ricochet in her chest and she set the glass on the rosewood table as she leapt up, almost tipping both over.
A luscious redhead spiraled in, a burst of vivacious color in a light blue suit with lime green lapels and cuffs. The matching rain slicker she carried over her arm was cast aside as she leaned in to kiss Sophia’s cheek.
“Kitty,” Sophia sighed, wearily.
“How many times have I told you not to leave the door unlocked?” the redhead asked.
Whenever Kitty was in a room people seldom noticed anything else, but when Sophia turned back to the doorway, there was no way to miss the man who filled it. He was at least six feet, with wide shoulders and a broad chest.
“Didn’t I tell you she never locks the door?” Kitty slapped him on the arm. “She needs another bodyguard. Can’t seem to keep one, but that’s another story. This is Cade Fioretti. He’s for you,” she told Sophia.
Sophia closed the door. “Excuse me?”
Kitty giggled and tossed her purse on the couch. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing kinky, Darling. Cade’s the writer I was telling you about.”
Sophia released a long, exasperated breath. “We talked about this, Kit.”
Kitty swept a handful of auburn locks away from her heart shaped face. “It can only benefit you.”
“I don’t want my life story written,” Sophia told Cade definitely. His crystal green eyes bore into hers, clashing in a brief battle of wills with her dark, depthless brown ones. She looked away. “I’m too young for a biography anyway. Shouldn’t that wait until I’m dead?”
“Really, biography has such a scholastic sound to it. Cade’s thinking of something more intimate, but not intrusive,” Kitty assured Sophia. “We really should remain open-minded, don’t you think?”
“I don’t care what you call it,” Sophia returned. “I don’t want it.”
Kitty tugged on the collar of Cade’s leather jacket, striped with darker shades of brown where the rain had lashed at it. “Would you like me to take that for you?”
Cade remained silent, his eyes fixed on Sophia.
“Cade?” Kitty prompted.
When he looked away long enough to shrug out of his jacket, Sophia went to the table and picked up her drink. She no longer wanted the wine but handling the glass gave her something to do with her hands. She would rather be watched by thousands of people, than scrutinized by one.
“You look better in person,” Cade said.
She wasn’t surprised that his voice was deep. “Thank you,” she answered, assuming it was a compliment. He was staring again. “I’m sorry, would you like to sit down, Mr.—”
It was only one word, but the force of it brought her up short. She knew it was petty, but because of his arrogance and the way he was watching her expectantly, she deliberately resisted saying his name. “Would you like to sit?”
“I saw you on Today,” he said.
He circled her once, examining her from all angles like a patron at an art exhibit. The nerve. “Oh?”
“You don’t give much away, do you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Of course she did, and when he quirked one eyebrow she knew he knew she did.
“The interview,” he said.
Sophia set her glass down with a snap and placed her hands on what there were of her hips. “I answered every question directly and completely.”
“Without giving anything away. That’s quite a skill.”
He seemed to be deliberately provoking her. “Look, Mr.—”
Mr. Fioretti,” she emphasized. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have no intention of spilling my guts to you so a bunch of empty-headed puppets without lives of their own can use your words as ammunition to pick me apart.”
“Is that what you think of your fans?” he asked, slyly.
“I’m not talking about my fans,” she snapped. “I’m talking about people like you. The press.”
“And what is it you’re afraid they’ll learn and use against you?”
Heat rose to Sophia’s cheeks as she glared at him. She felt crowded even though he’d taken several steps back. “You see? You’re turning my words around. You’re proving my point.”
He smiled then and the air backed up into her lungs. Until this very moment, Sophia never believed a smile could cause physical damage to another person. Well, not damage exactly, more a malfunction of normal response.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked after seeing his mouth move.
“Prove me wrong,” he repeated.
“Now you’re baiting me.”
He nodded in acknowledgement, sending a lock of damp, overly long hair into his eyes.
His hair was only a few shades lighter than hers, Sophia noticed, but with dark auburn threads, that caught the light when he moved. He could use a haircut. And an attitude adjustment.
“Children, stop your bickering,” Kitty ordered.
“I’ll come back when you’re in a better mood,” he told Sophia, and reached for his jacket but Kitty yanked it out of his reach.
“Wait!” Kitty looked helplessly to Sophia. “At least hear him out.”
Sophia was exhausted and needed to rest up for the show that night, but Cade’s challenging grin told her that to do anything other than listen at this point would only make her look childish. She had no doubt he would enjoy seeing her make a fool of herself. And write about it.
“OK, you win.” She sat in a gold wingback chair, gestured him to the couch and fixed a pre-fab smile on her painted lips, determined to keep it there for the duration of his visit. Because it was a thin line to baring her teeth, she made a conscious effort to relax her face.
Fourteen minutes later, Cade was about to jump out of his skin. He knew the value of being patient, but didn’t have time to waste listening to Kitty push his project. Yes, it was a chance for Sophia’s fans to get to know the real woman behind all the glitz and album signings. Yes, it was true that it wouldn’t hurt sales, but Cade disagreed when Kitty said it could only be positive. Really, one never knew how these things could turn out, and it wasn’t fair to try and convince Sophia otherwise. 
Kitty’s legs brushed past his several times as she walked around the room, griping about Sophia’s public image which, she mentioned, had suffered in the wake of Sophia’s refusal to sing in the gay pride parade. Cade stretched his long legs out in front of him so that Kitty would have to reroute her steps.
Patience seemed to be one of Sophia’s strong points, he observed, watching her unreadable expression as she listened politely, agreed to obvious points then ultimately, but skillfully withdrew before consenting to a biography.
Frustrated, Kitty sat down beside Cade and crossed her smooth, shapely legs. She wore some exotic female scent designed to bring a man to his knees. Cade tried not to breathe more than necessary.
“How about a drink?” Kitty asked him. “Or we can order up something to eat.”
Cade shook his head.
“They serve an excellent—“
“Nothing. Thanks,” he added stiffly. He didn’t like aggressive women, even if Kitty was good-looking, with a curvy body and enough sex appeal to melt his fillings. If any pursuing was to be done, he’d be the one to do it. First, he wanted the option to decide whether or not there would be a pursuit. An aggressive woman took away that option.
Not that either of the ladies in the room were physically his type.  He preferred the long and lean variety. Both had the lean all right, but were a little short on the long. And each posed another problem. While Cade had no question that either would provide him with hours of pleasure, he’d never been particularly attracted to older women, and Kitty had to be almost his mother’s age. Sophia was young, but she was also subject material, and he never, ever messed with subject material. Plus, the fact that she’d probably been wishing him dead didn’t bode well for getting her into bed.
Cade leaned back into the generous cushions and watched her. Despite her calm facade, her hands never ceased in their movement, whether it was flexing her fingers, or twisting the gold necklace she wore. She repeatedly swept a long length of hair back behind her ear when it had barely broken free. And she’d licked her lips several times in a few minutes. It wasn’t an intentionally seductive act, but her being unaware of it made it all the more so.
He’d heard a lot about Ms. Sophia Gallo—that she yelled at reporters and stormed off stage when the mood struck her—yet she didn’t seem to fit the diva mold. So far, he would surmise that her purported aloofness spoke more of shyness than conceit, and her body language in no way indicated the wanton sex kitten the media portrayed. But, not everything was immediately obvious. If he had learned anything in dealing with people, especially women, it was that they could be very clever about hiding things.
He had to admit seeing her nervous was as alluring as it was surprising. He wondered if it was due to him or the fact that she probably felt trapped right now.
He checked his watch. “So, what do you say?” he asked Sophia directly, when he couldn’t wait any longer.
“What does your book entail? Exactly,” she asked.
 “That depends on you.” He could see her bristle. “Look, I’m going to write the book anyway,” he told her clearly, when she arched one perfectly sculpted brow. “We can do it my way, where you let me in your life for a while, give me exclusive insight into your mind, your past, your dreams.” He paused. When she did no more than quietly stare at him, he continued. “Or we do it your way, where you resist me, I tail you, probably misinterpret some things, get half-truths from jealous no talents, and draw my own conclusions. My way’s best for both of us.”
Sophia stopped twisting the chain on her neck and eyed him evenly. “Can’t you just tell me what you want so we can discuss it, and find mutually acceptable ground?”
He couldn’t stop the laugh any more than he could stop reaching for her hand and pulling her to her feet along with him. She was absolutely charming, in a quietly indignant, difficult sort of way.
“That’s funny. Really.” He kept her hand in his as he walked with her to the door, taking his jacket as he went.
God, she was something, even when she used her eyes as daggers as she did now. Despite being glossed over with a palate of makeup, her face had only come by way of genetics. She shared some traits with another famous Sophia of Italian movie prominence, with the almost overly large mouth and dark, sultry glare that could skewer a man at thirty paces.
But, it was there the resemblance ended; for her body was tight and compact, narrow in the hips with smaller breasts, but that was another matter, and one he wouldn’t dwell on.
“I know you don’t trust me,” he told her, unperturbed by the way she tried to tug free. “I can respect that. I don’t trust anyone either. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to argue with you. I have a meeting with my publisher in less than an hour.”
Her brow raised again, a trait of breeding rather than fame and privilege. It gave him the impression of a queen, pronouncing sentence on a lowly peasant. Now that he thought of it, there might be some imperial affiliation in her lineage, maybe a monarch or two. He would add that to his research.
“Well,” Sophia said, dislodging her hand at last. “I won’t keep you “
“Sophia—” Kitty began.
“I’ll think it over and get back to you,” Sophia said, making no effort to disguise her annoyance.
            Cade had to admire her spirit, even as she opened the door and backed him into the hall. “I need an answer by Wednesday.” He still admired it when the door closed in his face. He grinned when he heard the snap of the lock.

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