Monday, May 29, 2017

Week #22: Beyond the Storm by Mary Manners

Recreational Therapist Ava Kennedy is in charge of Valentine’s Day festivities for shut-in patients at Honeysuckle Cove Children’s Hospital. When a winter storm threatens to derail planned events and steal the children’s joy, Ava calls on longtime friend and firefighter Nick Jones for rescue. The two have been close, platonic friends since kindergarten, but Ava soon finds her heart whirling like the drifting snowflakes outside her office window.

Nick Jones is skilled at extinguishing fires, so he doesn’t count on kindling a flame with lifelong friend Ava Kennedy. But he’s got a sweet spot for kids and women…especially when one particular woman—Ava—possesses a soft heart and laughter that draws like an electron magnet. Despite Nick’s valiant efforts to resist, he finds himself caught up in the attraction.

Will these friends’ new feelings weather the shifting tempest…or is this simply a passing storm?


1st Chapter:

Ava Kennedy paced Honeysuckle Cove Children’s Hospital’s fifth floor break room as she watched Channel 12 News run down the week’s forecast. Snow and more snow was on its way.
She grimaced. Not now…please.
“The weather’s not looking good, is it?” Tami crossed the room and slipped a dollar into a drink machine nestled in the corner. The petite pediatric nurse often recharged her energy with an afternoon caffeinated soda.
“No. Not at all.” Ava frowned as she used a remote to lower the TV’s volume. “And the worst of it looks like it’s going to hit on Saturday—same day the Valentine’s party is scheduled for the kids.”
“Ouch. That smarts.” Tami snagged her drink from the dispenser, snatched her lunch box from the community fridge, and slipped into a plastic chair at a round table near the window. “All the work you’ve done…the months of planning…it’s all in jeopardy.”
“It’s not my work I’m concerned about.” Ava sank into a seat across from Tami and glanced through an expanse of window glass to study the sky. The temperature that morning had felt mild and even now the heavens appeared a peaceful, angelic blue without so much as the slightest hint of clouds. Perhaps the meteorologist had miscalculated his snow forecast and the storm would skirt right past Honeysuckle Cove. She sighed as she sent up a silent prayer and returned her gaze to Tami. “It’s the kids I’m worried about. They’ll be crushed if the party has to be cancelled. Mr. Aster has already phoned me half-a-dozen times to remind me that he refuses to drive in heavy rain—let alone through a raging snowstorm.”
Mr. Aster was a hugely successful sixty-something local business owner with ageless energy and widely-acknowledged eccentricities. He also proved one of the most generous benefactors of Honeysuckle Cove Children’s Hospital. He’d lost a granddaughter in a snowboarding accident several years ago, and had recently helped to fund a state-of-the-art physical therapy wing in her memory. He had backed Ava’s suggestion of a holiday party for the shut-in kids on one condition—he and his wife wanted to play the lead roles of Mr. and Mrs. Cupid, complete with matching red velvet, heart-shaped sacks of toys filled with gifts for the children.
The costumes had been specially hand-crafted and the Asters had brought them by to show off to Ava. The matching set now hung in the small closet in her office, waiting to be worn. Posters had been plastered along the hospital corridors and on elevator doors, and the entire hospital staff had talked up the party with the kids who were undergoing long-term treatments. Those children would call the therapy wing home during the holiday. Even the local newspapers and TV stations had done their part to spread the word. Ava couldn’t let the kids and their families down.
“Yes, I’ve heard about Mr. Aster’s odd driving quirks.” Tami scooped hummus onto a cracker and took a nibble. “He’s a bit of a nervous Nellie since he and his wife got T-boned by that snow plow during last winter’s ice storm.”
“Luckily, no one was seriously injured. I can’t say I blame him for being a bit over-cautious. Even so…” Ava pouted. “I suppose it’s a moot point since Mrs. Aster has the flu. She couldn’t come near the children anyway. During his last phone call, Mr. Aster finally admitted they wouldn’t make the event. He told me to find someone to take both their places. But I’m not left with much time. When it rains, it pours.”
“More like when it flurries, it blizzards.” Tami giggled briefly at her own joke, until she realized from Ava’s daggered stare that she missed the humor in it. “I’m sorry, Ava.”
“Me, too. It’s too late to change our plans. And even if we could switch the event date, it would defeat the purpose of the party. It’s for the kids. On Valentine’s Day. While they’re shut in here. Away from family and friends.”
“Right. Well, that’s crummy.” Tami frowned. “You know I’d be more than happy to help with the festivities, but I drew the proverbial short straw this holiday so I’m pulling a double shift at the nurse’s station that day.”
“Oh, you’re sure to have your hands full doing that, especially with the storm bearing down.”
“Yes, but I’m settling in with double duty for a great cause.” She winked conspiratorially. “Fiona has a hot date. I think Isaac is going to pop The Big Question.”
Ava wasn’t surprised by this tidbit of news. Fiona, a pediatric nurse and Isaac, a fifth year resident had been dating for more than two years and proved the picture of love. Most of the hospital staff had been wagering on when the nuptials might occur.
“That’s exciting.” Ava was happy for them, yet she couldn’t help but feel a little pinprick of envy. Though she’d weathered her fair share of frogs, she had yet to find her prince charming. She feared she never would. “I hope their plans aren’t derailed by the storm.”
“Oh, I don’t think Old Man Winter himself could keep Isaac from sliding that engagement ring on Fiona’s finger. He’s been hinting about it for weeks now. She’s the one who’s been dragging her feet. She thinks he should finish his residency first.”
“Well, if they can manage to carry on through the storm then so can I.” Ava nodded with stiff determination. “Yes, it’s time to be proactive. I’m going to launch a backup plan.”
“Well, you are the planner extraordinaire so if anyone can pull it off, you can.” Tami’s laughter danced along the window glass. “But from the looks of that mess—” She motioned to the TV, where a snow-ridden 5-day forecast was plastered across the monitor “—you’re going to need to pull out every trick.”
“Right. So it’s imperative that I draft someone who has use of a four-wheel vehicle and exhibits mad driving skills in the snow.” Ava pulled a steno notepad and pen from her pocket. She flipped open the pad, quickly scrawled a few notes, and then paused to tap her chin with the pen as she considered further possibilities. “He’ll have to help me pick up toy donations the morning of the party—or possibly the evening before if the storm hits early. It would be a bonus if he’d also roll up his sleeves to help with last-minute decorations and lead a few of the activities. Mr. and Mrs. Aster had planned to spend the entire day here and I was really counting on their help.”
“That’s a tall order.” Tami polished off the last cracker and snapped shut the lid of the hummus. “Paul Bunyan sort of tall.”
“Perhaps…but not impossible.”
“Of course it’s not. Nothing’s impossible. But what about Cupid and his heart-shaped sack of toys? Will this Jack of all trades be able to take Mr. Aster’s place? And will you take Mrs. Aster’s place?”
“I can certainly fill in as far as Mrs. Aster goes, but Mr. Cupid…hmm, that’s the most important part.” Ava frowned thoughtfully. “Well, whoever agrees to help will just have to be a good sport when it comes to wearing the costume and handing out gifts. The kids have their hearts totally set on the visit, and I’m not going to let them down.”
“Speaking of Cupid, is that hunky firefighter friend of yours going to bring you lunch again today?”
“Hunky…firefighter?” Ava wracked her brain until a light finally dawned. “Oh, you mean Nick?”
“Yes…Mr. Tall, Dark and Blue-eyed. Emphasis on the blue eyes…and the hunky.” Tami popped the tab on her soda, drew a sip, and then fanned herself with dramatics worthy of an Oscar. “Yes, definitely hunky. He’s oh-so-easy on the eyes.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
Tami choked on the soda. “Are you blind?” She sputtered and reached for a napkin to swipe dribble from her mouth.
“Of course I’m not blind. Nick and I are just friends, that’s all.” Ava chuckled. “Since grade school, when he shared his lunch with me on the playground one afternoon.”
“She didn’t have one.” Nick strode into the room as he spoke the words. His rich, deep voice held a hint of playfulness. “Because her mom was in the hospital and her dad forgot to pack it. She looked so forlorn huddled there in the shade beneath the corkscrew slide that my heart melted into a big, sloppy puddle.”
“Oh, be still my heart.” Tami splayed a hand to her chest and pretended to swoon as she flopped against the chair back. “That is just the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It was sweet.” Maggie remembered the way Nick had scrambled beneath the slide to join her. Mulch clung to both of them, and even now the sweet, musky scent of woodchips and damp earth conjured warm memories of that day. For a few moments, he’d simply gazed at her. Then, as if he completely understood without her voicing a single word, he drew a sandwich from its plastic wrapper, divided it, and handed her the larger half. Maggie imagined she’d never tasted anything quite so delicious. “I was crying.”
“Huge crocodile tears.” Nick nodded as a he pressed a finger to Ava’s left cheek. “Like a waterfall.”
He stroked her cheek to mime falling tears and the gentle touch wove flickers of heat up Ava’s spine. She gasped softly and stilled in the seat, suddenly unable to move even the smallest muscle as her pulse hummed.
“Wow.” Tami watched with wide, dewy eyes. “I forgot my lunch once and all I got was…nothing.”
“Dad had a lot on his mind.” Ava’s breath returned as Nick broke contact. The room felt suddenly warm, as if maintenance had adjusted the break room’s thermostat. And due to budget constraints, that never happened, so it had to be some sort of internal combustion. She tugged the collar of her turtleneck and wished she’d opted that morning for a cotton blouse instead. “He didn’t mean to leave my lunchbox sitting on the counter.”
“Of course he didn’t.” Nick snagged two bottled waters from the drink machine and handed one to her.
“He was distracted.” Ava scooted over to make room while he folded himself into a chair beside her. “Because he was called to a—”
“Rescue.” Nick finished as he set a brown paper sack on the table and shifted closer to her. “Yes, that’s how the story goes. Cat stranded in a tree, of all things.”
“It was a kitten,” Ava added, breathing in the familiar, subtle scent of Nick’s aftershave as he leaned toward her. “A very cute kitten that belonged to our neighbor down the street.”
“Princess Cuddles.” Nick grinned and the dimple at the center of his chin deepened, adding a playful and slightly mischievous depth to his face. “She was a princess, all right. That cat had the whole block wrapped around her little front paw, didn’t she Av?”
Ava barely heard the question as she drank in Nick’s features while Tami’s earlier assessment of him swam through her head. Midnight-black hair framed deep blue eyes while his smile warmed like the soft breeze of a summer day. Stonewashed jeans and a flannel shirt layered over a snug navy T-shirt accentuated broad shoulders that tapered to a lean waist and long, muscular legs. Tami’s appraisal proved spot on. Nick was certainly handsome, no doubt about that. But Ava had never really considered his looks in the amorous sense of the word. After all, they were merely good friends…nothing more. It had been that way forever and nothing would bring about change…right?
“That’s right,” Ava said, not quite sure whether the words were meant as a response to Nick’s comment or as an answer to her internal question.
Nick lifted one hand to form a cup with his palm. “She was a tiny ball of fur that fit right here.”
Ava was astounded that he remembered such vague details. Even she had forgotten the part about the kitten’s diminutive size at the time of its rescue. But Nick had taken a particular liking to the helpless animal, and had even run to the grocery store for kitten food when their neighbor, Mrs. Steinweiler, took ill and couldn’t make the trip.
“Mrs. Steinweiler was beside herself, thinking the poor little thing was going to meet with a horrible demise.” Ava did remember that part…the manner in which the elderly widow had leaned on her cane to painstakingly pace the length of sidewalk in front of her house while she made feeble attempts to call for help.
“Yep. Your dad had no choice but to grab his extension ladder and rush to the rescue.” Nick’s soft laughter proved infectious. “So I paid forward the good deed by rescuing his daughter from hunger pangs with half a ham and cheese on wheat and a pair of chocolate chip cookies.”
“They were very good cookies.” Ava still tasted the delicious, bittersweet flavor of dark chocolate, warmed from the sun, which had melted on her tongue.
“Homemade—my mom’s secret recipe.” Nick smacked his lips as he began to pull lunch items from the brown bag he’d set on the table. A pair of turkey sandwiches, barbecue flavored chips, a couple of dill pickle spears. “To this day, they’re my favorites, and I just happen to have a few packed in here, still warm from the oven.”
Ava never ceased to be amazed by the way he managed to fit a buffet of sorts into the sacks. These weekly lunches had become a tradition for them. Ever since that day in kindergarten, Nick had managed to make Wednesdays their share-a-lunch days. All through elementary school, into middle and high school, and even later on, when jobs had taken them their separate ways, Nick had never missed a Wednesday lunch with her. There were times Ava had been in meetings and she’d exit to find Nick had left her lunch with the receptionist. If he happened to get called to an emergency, the lunch would find its way to Ava via his mom or a co-worker. The calendar could be set by the arrival of Wednesday lunches.
As Ava studied today’s sandwich selection—one of her favorites—she found it impossible to resist the rich aroma of chocolate that caused her belly to grumble. She slipped a cookie from its foil wrapper and took a nibble. There was nothing wrong with having a little dessert before the meal—especially when Loretta Jones’s cookies were the dessert. The taste conjured affectionate memories.
“You told your mom what happened,” Ava voiced a conclusion to the missing lunch anecdote. “And she fretted so much that she made a lunch for me and sent it to school every day after that—at least until my mom came home from the hospital.”
Ava smiled at the thought. She loved Nick’s mom as her own. And since both her parents had passed—her mom during high school and her dad just last year—she considered Loretta her family.
“Yep. Mom loves you, Ava.” Nick leaned close and used the pad of his thumb to brush a crumb from her lips. His breath tickled her cheek. “There, got it. You look beautiful even with a smudge on your face, Av.”
Ava’s breath caught at the tender look in Nick’s eyes. Her belly did a weird little tumble at the shortened version of her name that only he used.
Time out…reality check.
Ava shifted in her seat. What was going on here? This was Nick, after all, and it was just another share-a-lunch Wednesday. They’d eat their sandwiches, exchange tidbits about their week, and afterward part ways to go on about their business. Nothing was different…
Or was it?
Nick handed her a bag of chips with a smile that raised the temperature of the room a few more degrees. Ava pushed up the sleeves of her turtleneck and tugged at the collar again. She thought she might melt. It was entirely possible.
Tami grinned and rolled her eyes as she gathered the wrapper from her crackers. Chair legs scraped over tile when she stood. She drew her gaze from Nick to slice Ava a sly, knowing look.
“Um…unless I’m seriously mistaken, Ava, you just found the answer to your snowstorm dilemma.” She leaned into the table, a grin of pure mischief on her face. “And from the looks of things, he comes with an added bonus.”
Ava felt a flush of heat bloom across her cheeks. “A bonus?” She prayed that Nick was oblivious to the tremor in her voice.
“Uh huh.” Tami’s smile widened as she offered a saucy wink. “I’m talking Valentine magic. Lucky you.”
Air rushed out of the room, leaving the vacuum of a black hole in its wake. Ava felt Nick’s gaze zero in on her, and her pulse danced an odd little tango that had fingers of heat stroking her belly.
“You’re delusional,” was all Ava could think to say. She drew a deep breath and nibbled her sandwich, though her hunger had suddenly fled.
            I’m delusional?” Tami chortled. “I think you’re just a bit confused, Ava, but you’ll figure things out soon enough. See you later, Nick. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
As Ava watched Tami go, she imagined her universe spinning out of control, sweeping her into a tumult. She fought against the current.
She didn’t have time for this confusing turn of events. After all, she had a list full of much more important things to tackle—like making sure the Valentine’s Day bash went off without a hitch.

Thanks for joining in the fun with this sneak peek at Beyond the Storm (Honeysuckle Cove #2). Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a free copy. The winner will be announced on Monday, June 5. Good luck!


1 comment:

  1. Mary, love your books! This sounds great! Share-a-lunch day, what a great idea!
    sallyshupe1 at gmail dot com


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