TUESDAY TEASER GRACEY AND THE GAMBLER

Addison sat on a bench in the Maritime Park, unaware of the flotsam of people passing her by. Barking sea lions jostled and jockeyed for position on the nearby pier, much like the pedestrians around her. A young man sitting at the adjacent sidewalk café unbuckled his belt, pulled down his pants, and squeezed a hypodermic needle into his left buttock, but even this did little more than tickle her attention.

An elderly woman carrying a leather satchel with a large golden lock sat beside Addison. Kicking off her shoes, the woman let out a sigh, propped an ankle on her knee and massaged her toes.

“I can always tell when it’s about to rain,” she said. “Arthritis. I didn’t use to believe in achy joints predicting the weather, just like I used to think that people claimed to have motion sickness just so they could sit in the front seat.” The woman slid Addison a glance from under her lashes, probably to see if Addison was paying attention.

Addison thought about moving to another bench, but that would take energy and gumption—two things she currently lacked.

“You’re probably too young to have arthritis. How about motion sickness?”

Addison pulled herself out of her funk long enough to glance at the elderly woman. She wore a velvet patchwork skirt, a silk blouse, and a string of pearls around her neck. The sharp sea breeze toyed with her silver curls and had turned her pale cheeks pink. She exuded a friendly curiosity that made Addison want to crawl under the bench and roll into a ball. But because it would be rude to say nothing, she squeezed out a syllable. “No.”

“No what?”

Addison took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. “No, I don’t get motion sickness.”

“That’s good.” The woman smiled as if Addison had just informed her the Giants had won the World Series. “Then maybe you would like to go whale watching.” She fumbled in her satchel and pulled out two glossy blue and red tickets. “I bought them for myself and my grandson, but circumstances have changed and that’s no longer possible.” She paused. “He’s a lawyer,” she added with more exasperation than pride.

Addison opened her mouth to protest, but couldn’t find the words. The mid-spring sun, so often hidden behind clouds in Northern California, warmed her skin. Not even the weather could offer an excuse. After a moment, she came up with, “Isn’t there someone else you’d like to go with?”

“No. Landon is my only family, other than my sister Erma. No one likes her. And all my friends are dead,” she said this without a trace of sadness. “It’s nature’s way of punishing me for hanging around so long—I had to watch all my friends die.”

Addison’s lips twitched. An hour ago, she hadn’t thought she’d ever smile again, and here she was, chatting with a stranger. “Sure. I’ll go whale watching with you. When is it?”

The woman let out a long sigh. “You’re a lovely girl. I used to look like you once—willowy with long red hair. Now, of course, I’m gray and more Monterey pine than willow. I hope this won’t offend you, but I no longer wish to go.”

“But you look nothing like a Monterey pine. They’re all twisted and weather-beaten.”

“My point.”

“It’s silly to compare yourself to a tree. Why not a cat?”

“I’m allergic.” The woman winked at her. “Would you like to go whale watching or not?”

“Are you sure?” Addison took the proffered tickets and saw they were for tomorrow morning. She had thought to leave before then, but she’d already paid for the vacation rental for the weekend, so she might as well stay. “Would you like me to buy them off you?”

“Not with money.”

“Oh.” Addison’s suspicion hackles rose. She didn’t like making deals with strangers.

“You can tell me a story. I collect stories, you know.”

“Really? So do I!” Addison perked up, but then remembered her sadness. “Or at least I did.”

“Once a writer, always a writer.”

“No…I am a writer, just not a very good one.”

The woman quirked an eyebrow.

“Not a successful one,” Addison amended, thinking of her collection of rejection letters from agents and editors. “And I own a bookstore, so I collect stories there, too. Or I did.”

“What happened?”

“The economy,” a sick anger burned in her belly, “and the ugly tide of self-publishing. I leased out my bookstore last week. Soon it’ll be a massage parlor.”

The woman chuckled.

“I’m glad someone can laugh about it.” Addison tucked a loose curl behind her ear.

“Well, you have to admit, a bookstore and a massage parlor are both in the same business.”

“How’s that?”

“They’re both used to manipulate moods.” The woman gazed at her with watery blue eyes.

“I suppose.”

“Is that it?” the woman asked, her gaze growing more intense.

“Is what it?” Addison squirmed beneath the woman’s scrutiny.

“Is your failing bookstore the reason you look like someone drowned your cat and poisoned your dog?”

Addison thought about confessing her mistake to this woman, but she wasn’t ready to admit it, not even to herself.

The woman patted Addison’s cheek with a hand of bones and papery thin skin. “It’s okay to be sad. Here, I have something that will cheer you.” She pushed her satchel toward Addison.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a story. I’ve been carrying it around, wondering what to do with it. I didn’t feel I could leave until I found the right person to take care of it for me, but you are that person. I want you to have it.”

Addison opened up the satchel and peeked inside at the hundreds of typewritten pages. “You don’t think your grandson will want it?”

“No, he only reads nonfiction.” She wrinkled her nose as if she could smell fried liver and onions.

Addison smiled. “Thank you. This is…so kind.”

The woman slipped her feet back into her shoes. “No, thank you. It’s nice to see a story you love reach a happy ending. Now, how about you? You owe me a story.”

“You don’t want to hear my stories.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Well, why would you? No one else does…”

The woman contemplated her. “Perhaps you’re right. How’s this? In payment for those tickets, you need to make sure that this weekend has a happy ending.”

Addison thought about the disappointing beginning of her weekend and bit her lower lip. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I can promise that.”

The woman leaned forward to peer into Addison’s face. “Will you try?”

“Huh. Sure. I’ll try.”

The woman pulled herself to her feet. “Goodbye, my dear. Promise me you’ll take good care of my story and write a happy ending for this weekend.”

“I promise,” Addison said, although she had no idea how to do that, or what the woman was asking of her. As the woman tottered away, Addison glanced around and spotted a bookstore. Because she’d learned long ago that her only hope for a happy ending lay between the pages of a novel, she headed for the familiar warmth of a shop full of books.

After buying a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea at the counter, Addison found a plump upholstered chair near the window, pulled out the manuscript, and began to read.

Gracey and the Gambler

By Geneva Leigh

Wanted: A nice, plump, healthy, good-natured looking domestic and affectionate lady to correspond with. Object: matrimony. She must be a believer in God and immortality. She must not be a gadabout or given to scandal, but willing to endeavor to create a happy home.

The Arizona Sentinel, 1875

Poke was playing her song! White-hot anger, as mind-altering as any potion or aphrodisiac, flashed through Gracey. Clarisse, a virginal vision clothed in white lace, opened her mouth to sing, and Gracey grabbed the closest weapon she could find, an occupied wig stand, and headed for the stage.

Clarisse’s high C turned to a squeak and her blond curls bobbed when she saw Gracey flying up the stairs wielding the wooden head.

“That’s my song, you little strumpet!” Gracey took center stage and swung at Clarisse.

The wig hit Clarisse in the face, but she brushed it away as if it were a large, hairy spider. Clarisse straightened her dress and picked up her tune, leaving Poke, the pianist, a few stunned beats behind.

With the wig stand braced in front of her like a battering ram, Gracey charged. Clarisse jumped away, and Gracey landed in the curtains. Clarisse climbed onto the piano bench, jostling Poke, who lifted his hands from the keyboard and flashed Gracey a startled although amused look. Clarisse, balancing beside the pianist, nudged him with her tiny shoe. “Please continue, sir. This audition is not over.”

“Oh, yes it is!” Gracey dropped the wig stand, which bounced around her feet as she lunged for Clarisse.

“Now, Miss Clarisse, you know I can’t let you climb on the piano.” Poke, struggling not to laugh, reached for but missed Clarisse.

Clarisse inched across the lid of the upright piano as Gracey scrambled onto the bench and, using Poke’s shoulder as a toehold, tried to join the music-thieving Clarisse on the top. Poke grabbed Gracey and hauled her to center stage. She kicked Poke’s legs and tried to pry his grip from her waist.

“Can’t you see she’s a complete nutter, Ivan?” Clarisse said from her perch on top of the piano. “We simply cannot have her in the troupe.”

Gracey wriggled for a better look at Poke’s good-natured face. “I wrote that song. It’s mine. She stole it!”

“I didn’t steal it. Besides, how can one steal a song?” Clarisse asked. “I simply heard it, learned it—”

“Through the paper-thin walls while I wrote it. Do you want to know what I heard through the walls?” Gracey smacked her lips, making kissing noises. “If you get a spot in the troupe, we will all know why!”

Clarisse gasped in outrage, and Ivan, the director, laughed from his place in the dark auditorium.

“I got my position in the troupe because of my gifts and talent!” Clarisse said.

So, Clarisse already had a role. Little wonder. “And your willingness to share your…gifts and talents.” Gracey wiggled, but Poke wouldn’t let her go.

“Would you like to sing, Miss Ryan?” Ivan’s disembodied voice spoke from the theater seats. Because of the dark house and the flickering gas lights lining the stage, Gracey couldn’t see Ivan and wished she could. She longed to read his expression.

Poke didn’t seem in the least perturbed about holding her. Of course, he was built like an ox. He was not solely the troupe’s accompanist but also the “man at large” responsible for assembling and disassembling the heavy settings.

“Set her down,” Ivan said. “Let’s hear her.”

Clarisse put her balled fists on her hips. “I think we have heard quite enough from her!”

Poke chuckled and set Gracey down. Gracey flashed Clarisse a warning glance. Gracey worried that Clarisse might stomp the piano keys or kick at Poke, who was settling onto his bench, acting as if having a blond tart atop his piano was de rigueur.

“You wrote this song?” Ivan said. “Then let’s hear it.”

“Ivan,” Clarisse’s tone turned silky soft, reminding Gracey of Clarisse’s many “private auditions,” when Ivan had undoubtedly seen and heard more than a song…or two.

“I’ve heard you, Clarisse. I know what you can do,” Ivan said, confirming Gracey’s suspicions that Clarisse had only gone through the formality of the audition for the prime purpose of discouraging Gracey from joining the traveling troupe and escaping dreary Seattle.

Poke played the opening bars while Gracey stared into the lights. Blood pounded in her head and zinged through her veins. Every nerve tingled, and goosebumps rose on her arms. The Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe was her ticket back to New York City, and she wasn’t about to let a trollop like Clarisse steal it from her.

Gracey came in right on cue, her voice steelier than her spine and almost as strong as her resolve.

***

“Quite the show you put on tonight,” a voice sounded from the center of her dressing room and sent the sensation of crawling worms down Gracey’s back. She took a deep breath and threw a robe over her chemise. Boris Kidrick, a heavy drinker, tobacco chewer, and black licorice sucker, carried his own unique odor—a stink Gracey easily recognized and did her best to avoid. She wondered when he had come in        because she hadn’t heard the door over the clatter of the dancers and the tinkling piano rising through the floorboards. Gracey poked her head over the screen to see Boris leering at her.

“I try to entertain.” She kept her voice light. Her earlier outburst had left her tired and drained. She didn’t want another sparring match.

Her glance fell on the fire tools beside the mantel. She considered caning Boris and finishing him off. She’d be doing the world a favor, and then the world would be in her debt. She really would like to be in a position to call in favors, instead of the awkward, semi-clothed position in which she currently found herself.

“And I could use a little entertainment.” He licked his lips. “How much for a private show?”

The door flew open, and Matilda breezed in, but she stopped short when she spotted Boris standing bull-like amid the overflowing costume trunks and crates of props. Matilda took a step toward the screen, as if to protect Gracey, and glared at Boris.

“Mr. Kidrick, you must know men aren’t allowed in the dressing room!” Matilda crossed her arms and drew herself up to her impressive full height, towering over the squatty man.

Boris chuckled. “I now own this room and that fancy stage you’re so fond of parading on.”

Surprise replaced Matilda’s haughty expression, and Boris rubbed his hands together. “Didn’t know that, did ya?” He chuckled at Matilda’s sagging shoulders. “Good things are coming my way,” he said, an unpleasant glint in his eye. “We will be having that show I mentioned. If not tonight—then soon. Maybe on this stage or maybe someplace quieter. You may not know it yet, but when I bought this theater, I bought you too.”

He winked at Gracey, who ducked behind the screen and tightened the belt on her robe. She waited for the sound of the door closing before she peeked out.

“He’s gone.” Matilda crossed the room, dropping clothing on her way to the dressing table. She sat before the mirror and rubbed her face with cream, leaving her stage makeup in runny smears. In the harsh light, she looked all of her forty years plus some.

“I didn’t know Mr. Taylor had sold the theater,” Gracey said, settling down on the bench beside the older woman.

Matilda shrugged and frowned. “I heard Kidrick came into some money.”

“Any chance he’ll lose it—and the theater?” Gracey’s glance met Matilda’s in the glass.

“It’s inevitable. But until then, we have to live with him.” Matilda scrubbed at her worn and tired face. Once she had been beautiful. Under the stage lights, she still moved like royalty. But here, in the quiet dressing room, after a long night of trying to carry a loveliness she could no longer claim, Matilda appeared faded beside Gracey’s pink skin and blue eyes. Gracey, feeling apologetic for her youth, twisted her hair into a long, thick braid.

Matilda patted Gracey’s hand. “Don’t worry, pet, you’ll be on your way to New York long before we get a new lock for the dressing room door.”

“Why do men like Boris consider actress synonymous with harlot?”

Matilda twitched a boney shoulder.

“King David liked to sing and dance. No one thought he was immoral.” Gracey’s voice faltered. “Until Bathsheba came out on the roof… Maybe he’s not the best example—but he did sing and dance.”

Matilda laughed. “There are plenty of noble and worthy performers.”

“Tell that to my father, my mother, my grandmother and my cousins.” Gracey swallowed. “Tell that to men like Boris.”

“Your father and mother—although they might not have meant to—have hurt you far worse than the likes of Boris Kidrick.”

Gracey had learned a lot from Matilda since she had joined the Rose Arbor troupe, but that particular lesson she had learned months earlier when her parents had shipped her to her grandmother’s ranch seven long, bumpy, jaw-jarring and teeth-rattling miles from Godforsaken Seattle. Had they really expected her to stay on a ranch surrounded by acres of pastures of horses, cattle and cow pies? Did they really think she would learn to behave like her hick grandmother and shovel out stables?

As if reading her mind, Matilda said, “I don’t know why you’re so anxious to return to their company.”

Gracey leaned against her friend. “I don’t want to go to New York to see my parents!”

Matilda’s lips curved into a smile. “You want to be on the New York stage.”

“Of course!”

“Do you imagine that you will sing and dance right beneath your family’s nose and they will never notice?”

“I am an actress—and a wizard with makeup and design. They will never recognize me.” She straightened her spine and pride tinged her voice. “I’ve been right under my grandmother’s nose for weeks, and she hasn’t found me!”

“Not for want of trying.” Matilda lifted an eyebrow. “Your family has already summoned a posse to look for you.”

“Here. But they won’t think to look in their own backyard!”

Skepticism clouded Matilda’s expression. “If they are as influential and prominent as you say—”

Gracey lifted her chin. “No one can stop a shooting star.”

Matilda smiled and wiped off her face cream. “Laws, child, have you no fear of heights?”

Addison

Addison put down the manuscript. It was silly…but compelling. The opening advertisement made her ill. So many women through so many generations saw marriage as the end-all. Her mother had taught her, “A man is not a financial plan.” And yet, Addison had still fallen for it. It was like she was programmed to see a man as an answer to her problems. When would she finally grasp that a man wasn’t the answer, but, in her case, the problem?

Addison braced her shoulders. She had to solve her own problems now. But a tricky little voice in the back of her head whispered that even after Paul’s death she still wasn’t standing on her own financial feet. The life insurance policy would always eclipse anything she could ever hope to earn at the bookshop. It had been tempting to continue on at the store, watching it lose money every month, but common sense and Mr. Patel had prevailed. She had tried to make a go of a business, and she’d failed. Just like she’d failed her marriage. Even if she hadn’t known it.

She glanced around the Books and Bun Bookshop. What made this place successful? Who says it is? the voice in her head asked. All the people? But how many are actually buying anything?

Addison sank back in the club chair and took note of her fellow bookstore patrons. The elderly man with his glasses perched on the end of his nose had a pile of historical novels on the ottoman in front of him. In the children’s section, a mother with a toddler on her lap flipped through a picture book. Two chairs over, a nail-biting woman sat lost in a romance. Dozens of people were parked at the tables, hiding behind laptops. She couldn’t see the checkout counter from where she sat and, of course, she had no way of knowing the store’s financials, but if no one was actually buying anything, the store had to be suffering.

It was just like the self-publishing tidal wave. If everyone was going to give away books, how would any book business survive?

“Addison? What are you doing here?”

James.

Too late to hide. She smiled up into his blue eyes. How could she have been so mistaken? Had she completely misread him? Had all those lunches and long conversations been nothing more than a pleasant way to spend the time?

“Checking out the competition?” he asked.

She swallowed. “A bookstore in Shell Falls could hardly compete with a shop in Frisco.” Especially if the Shell Falls shop closed its doors.

“That’s true.” He nodded. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find you in here. But why didn’t you tell me you were coming to San Francisco?”

Not knowing what to say, she gave him a weak shrug. She’d wanted to surprise him. But he’d been the one to surprise her when she’d spotted him kissing that blonde on the pier. The girl looked like a teenager with an incredibly poor sense of color coordination—bumble-bee stockings, a red and white striped mini-skirt, a purple hoodie.

“You’re a long way from home.” She heard the questions in his tone, but she didn’t feel the need to provide any answers.

Cary Grant handsome, James usually caused her to melt whenever he came into her shop, but now when she looked at him, she couldn’t help seeing the Barbie hanging on his arm. Even if the blonde wasn’t there physically, in Addison’s head, she was.

“Even bookstore owners need a vacation,” she told him.

“How long are you in town?”

She had thought about leaving as soon as she’d seen him and Barbie-Bimbo in action, but now she decided she wasn’t going to let him run her off like a dog with a tail between her legs. “I’m here for the weekend.”

Trying to mask his surprise, he glanced at his watch. “That’s great. I have a commitment tonight.”

I bet you do, she thought.

“But how about tomorrow? Are you available?”

“No. I have plans.” It gave her a little surge of power to say that, and like candy sprinkles on top of a cupcake, the disappointed look on his face only added to her pleasure.

“Sunday then?”

“I’m sorry, James,” Addison said, picking up the manuscript.

“Well, I can see you’re busy,” he said. “Maybe we can meet up next time I’m in Shell Falls?”

“Mmm,” she murmured. She started reading and refused to watch him walk away.

CHRISTIAN

Christian Roberts sat at the gaming table, coins on his left side and a flask on his right. A pair of kings, accompanied by a six, a four and a whatchamacallit, swam in and out of his vision. He tried holding the cards a little further away and willed his eyes to focus on the whatchamacallit. Was it a queen—or that other card that he couldn’t remember the name of—or was it another king? He hoped it was another king. He held his cards away from his chest but after half a second he slapped them face down on the table. He didn’t trust his friends not to look—not even his partner.

And he was pretty sure these men weren’t even friends. Not really. They tolerated him because he had a steady stream of gold…and whiskey…and he liked a good game. A game with kings. He didn’t mind the whatchamacallits, not when they came in pairs. One by its lonesome couldn’t do much. He picked up his hand and tried to steady his gaze while a mammoth man pounded on the piano.

Christian threw the musician a frustrated glance. Maybe he could focus on the game if that brute would stop filling the room with that awful sound. He looked at the men sharing his table, trying to read them. No one else seemed to mind the racket coming from the corner.

“You in?” Percy, on his left, asked.

He was definitely inside because the piano was inside. Never really ever seen a piano outside—unless it was on its way from one place to another. And yep, there were bottles lining shelves behind the bar. A wooden floor. A stamped brass ceiling. Four walls. Definitely inside. He nodded.

“Well?” Reynolds, on his right, prompted.

Aw. The game. He was supposed to ante up. What did that mean? Funny expression, sounded like “auntie up.” Christian tried to imagine how his Aunt Mable would respond if someone tried to ante up her. He snorted. His attention flicked over the men surrounding him, all looking so grim and serious. He doubted any of them even had an aunt.

“What’s so funny?” Kidrick demanded.

Percy and Reynolds were good chaps, if poor poker players, but he despised Kidrick. A pity Percy and Reynolds didn’t have Kidrick’s business sense and card savvy. Why should a louse like Kidrick own half the town and win at cards? Christian imagined Aunt Mable anteing up Kidrick with a wooden spoon. He chuckled low and deep.

“Idiotic French,” Kidrick muttered.

“I say now—” Bad form cussing his nationality. Well, his mother’s nationality. His eyes welled as he thought of his mother. He blinked away his tears because, while he wasn’t sure whether the brutes at his table had aunts, he was very sure they never cried. At least not over a pair of kings. Or a trio of kings. He still couldn’t tell, but he did push in his entire pile of coins.

“You sure, Roberts?” Percy lifted an eyebrow.

Christian shrugged. “What have I got to lose? Kidrick here has already won the theater.” He laid his cards down. From the reaction, he guessed it was a trio of kings. Percy stood so suddenly his chair fell over. Kidrick brought his fist down on the table, making all the coins jump.

Christian smiled as he scooped the pot into his bag, then stood and swagger-staggered toward the door.

“Hey! Roberts,” Reynolds called after him. “You can’t leave.”

“Get back here.” Kidrick pushed after Christian and grabbed him by the elbow.

Christian looked at Kidrick’s hand and then at his face. Kidrick cocked back his arm for a punch that would land in Christian’s gut if he didn’t block it. Christian grabbed Kidrick around the neck and held him in midair, considering what to do with him, before tossing him out into the street. Kidrick landed in the arms of a well-built man who also didn’t desire his company. Within seconds Kidrick and the well-built man were throwing punches.

Still inside the bar, Christian watched the fistfight and felt a smidgeon of remorse. He had started it, but dem if he’d back up Kidrick. His gaze went to the stars shining through the window. He had to get away from the tavern’s smoke and stench. He paused at the open door. But first—

Christian raised a hand, which stopped the calls of his poker-mates. He heard their collective sigh as he turned to face the room, followed by their groans as Christian sat at the piano, bumping hips with the brute at the keyboard.

“’Scuse me,” Christian mumbled.

The pianist reluctantly relinquished his seat as Christian poised his fingers over the keyboard and began Dickson’s “Land of Long Ago.”

For a moment the laughter hushed and it seemed as if only music filled the night as the piano cast a spell over the crowded, smoke-filled room.

Christian stopped playing as abruptly as he had begun and pushed away from the instrument and out the door, stepping over the inert Kidrick on his way to anywhere else.

***

Gracey literally danced when she heard the news. Her feet skipped, her toes pointed, and her knees wanted to drop to the ground in worshipful thanksgiving.

“You won’t regret this!” she promised Ivan, stopping mid-dance to hug him.

The craggy-faced man smiled while the blond beauty behind him mouthed, “Oh, yes, he will.”

Gracey wasn’t about to let Clarisse piddle in her pot of pure happiness. She had an all-expense paid ticket out of Seattle. Her family would never think to follow the Rose Arbor troupe across the country. Think of all the cities she would see! On her way here, she had traveled by rail accompanied by the stiff, self-righteous cousin who never let her leave the confines of the sleeper car. But the troupe would go from city to city and perform on the very best stages!

“Not so fast!” Ivan warned. “You have to prove you can do this.” He handed her a sheaf of music. “Come up with a dance.”

Gracey studied the music, noting the eighth notes and basic time signature. Because she was familiar with the popular ballad and its message, she knew choreographing a dance would be fairly simple. Behind Ivan, Clarisse smirked, making Gracey wonder what sort of dance Clarisse had used for her audition.

“I want to see it tomorrow morning,” Ivan warned.

“I’ll be ready.” Gracey wasn’t worried, but she would need to practice, preferably with Poke, and absolutely far from Clarisse’s spying eyes. Gracey couldn’t let that woman sabotage this opportunity. She would need to come up with the dance on her own and then practice with Poke’s accompaniment once…or maybe twice.

“We leave in a couple of days,” Ivan told her. “You can bring one trunk.”

“I wouldn’t care if I could only bring dancing shoes!”

“That would be interesting,” Ivan said.

“We’re not that kind of show,” Clarisse said, coming behind Ivan and laying a hand on his shoulder. “I told you—she’s not star material.”

“We’re taking a chance on you,” Ivan told Gracey, ignoring Clarisse. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of travel. You will, no doubt, find the troupe demanding and challenging. That’s why I want to see if you can come up with an original dance overnight.”

“I love challenges!” Gracey flashed Ivan a smile. She pushed through the backstage door and found herself in an alley. She needed to practice far from Clarisse…some spacious, private place where Clarisse would never look. Her gaze landed on the outhouses and the clearing beyond them. She wrinkled her nose as she drew closer to the small but smelly clearing, far from windows and prying eyes.

***

Christian exited the outhouse and caught a sudden chill. A skin-pricking sensation said he wasn’t alone. Animals. Possibly a red fox, raccoon, skunk, opossum. He tightened his grip on his bag of gold, wondering if Kidrick had followed.

“Hey-ho?” he called out. Night birds answered. Something skittered in a nearby thicket, and a twig snapped. He watched moonlight flicker through the boughs of a pine tree then heard footfalls.

What was dancing in the moonlight? A fairy? Her dark hair had come loose and swirled around her spinning shoulders. Such a creature belonged deep in the woods, or in a valley of wildflowers, or on a gilded throne—she did not belong in a dusty clearing behind the privy with alley cats for an audience. Her dance-warmed skin glowed beneath the stars, and her body moved to no music that he could hear. Unable to stop himself, he stepped closer, as if drawn by a magnet.

“Mon dieu. Qu’est-ce que tu es?”

Startled, she stopped and stared at him. “You’re French.”

Christian shook his head. “No, I am drunk.”

She studied him as if assessing his potential danger.

Christian tried to look harmless, which wasn’t difficult, because he was basically harmless.

Except when he was angry.

And he had left Kidrick for dead in the street. Christian twisted his lips and decided Kidrick didn’t count.

“Do you always speak French when drunk?”

Christian shrugged. He was better with questions when he was sober. “I asked my question first.”

“Well, it was a silly question—anyone can see what I am.”

He stepped closer and peered at her. With all that dark hair and her dark red lips, she looked like his mother. “Are you French?”

“No. Are you?”

“Partly.” He paused. “Don’t let me stop you.” He waved a hand at her. “Carry on.”

She scowled. “I’m not going to dance if you’re going to watch.”

“Why not?” He motioned toward the theater. “I assume you came from the playhouse, where you presumably dance for hundreds on the stage, so why would you not dance for one, here?”

Her arms dangled. “I no longer feel like dancing. You killed my mood.” She jabbed a finger in his face. “But I’m not going to let you spoil my happiness!”

“I would be devastated if you did.” He tilted his head to one side, smiling. “Do you always dance when you are happy?”

“Of course not. Although I haven’t been this happy for a long time, so it’s hard to know.”

“Why are you so happy?” An unpleasant thought occurred to him. “Are you in love?”

She shook her head.

“Good. I’m glad. Love can make you do regrettable things.”

“Have you been in love?”

Christian didn’t want to talk about love. He wanted to watch this girl dance. “Will you dance for me?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Will you dance with me?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m very rich.”

She laughed, and the noise delighted him. He didn’t want her to stop, but after a few moments, she did.

“Why should that matter?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Demmed if I know, but it usually seems to. Will you dance with me?” he asked again.

She shook her head.

“Can I walk you home?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling up at him. She took his hand and led him the ten yards to the theater’s back door.

“You live here?”

She dropped his hand and pointed to the sky. “On the third floor.”

“Why are you so happy?”

She took a deep breath and told him of her plans to join the Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe.

“That’s not happy; that’s sad.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because this might be the only chance I’ll ever have to do this,” he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her.

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Using Your Fears For Good

No one really likes fear. It clenches your stomach, makes you break out in a sweat, moves your bowels. In its worst forms, it can make you say and do things you would never say and do if you were thinking rationally. But fear has its uses, too.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about inviting fear as a passenger on a road trip to success. It should never be allowed to take the wheel and drive, or navigate, it doesn’t even get to bring the snacks. But it can sit in the backseat.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert would take fear along, but silence and maybe handcuff it. But what if you could use it as a stepping stone? What if you could look at your fears as a rung on a ladder? What if you said, I want to climb higher, but first I need to reach this next step and fear is in my way, and I know I can’t take this step on my own, but I know someone who can help me?

Sometimes the person who can help can be accessed through a telephone call, or an enrollment in a class, or a Craig’s List advertisement. But sometimes, it’s just you and God.

And that’s all you need.

I hope you come to that place–that scary, terrifying place–because once you do, you’ll never be afraid again. Not really.

Terrifying things may happen. Your world may be turned upside down, shaken up, and burned to a crisp. But even in devastation, you’ll find peace. As Paul the Apostle said,

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed. 2 Corinthians 4:8

So, the very best way to use your fear for good, is to turn to God. He can use your fears in ways you can never imagine.

Here’s my own experience with true terror and how it blessed my life.

I was fourteen. My mother was dying of cancer. Her doctors had said there was nothing more to be done. In a last-ditch effort, my parents traveled to Mexico for laetrile treatments. I’d been left at home with my twenty-four- year-old brother, who decided sometime around my bedtime, to go to Canada for the weekend. 

I spent that night alone. Or did I? I woke around 3 a.m., the stereo in the room down the hall blaring, the volume turned up as high as it could go. The house was dark. At first, I thought my brother had returned. But, no, he and his car were gone. The doors and windows were all locked. The stereo, an old fashioned turntable, was broken, and putting on a record required not just a push of button, but slipping the record into place, turning on the stereo, and placing the needle on the spinning record. I suppose It’s possible I did all of this while sleepwalking and then returned to my bed only to be woken later… 

And so, for the first time in my life, I prayed to God. Fervently. Words can’t describe the peace that found me. I would need that peace in the upcoming months. It sat beside me through my mother’s funeral, my father’s wedding, and it’s been beside me all through many terrifying moments since.

And because of that one experience, any time I begin to doubt my faith, I remember that night, I wrap it around me. It feels like love. It’s there whenever I need it. God’s there whenever I need Him.

+

But as big and inexplicably terrifying and wonderful as that God-moment was, it gave me more than peace. It also gave me a scene in a story I love. Because I’m a writer, all these terrifying moments have a place and a use. God is good. His grace is endless.

Here’s a scene from Beyond the Hollow.

Petra Baron couldn’t sleep.

The Santa Ana winds whistled through the canyon, spat dust and tossed the branches of trees. The wind seemed to be laughing at her. Not a hahaha aren’t we clever laughter, nor a teehee jokes on you giggle, but a cruel, moaning laughter that whistled through the stable, toyed at the window jambs and rattled the doors.

Petra fluffed her pillow, adjusted it so that she could see through the French doors without lifting her head. Out of the suburbs, away from streetlights, cars and the blue glare of neighboring TVs, the moon and stars carried more light. The late autumn moon, as big and as round as the pumpkins in the field, shone through the window and cast the room in a silver glow. Sleeping at the Jenson’s farm didn’t frighten her, even though she could see the golden eyes of the mountain lion pacing at the fringe of the property, looking for a hole in the fence, access to the animals safely tucked in the barn.

Since her return from England, she’d been training at the rifle range. She could shoot pistols as well as rifles. Determined to never again feel at any one’s mercy, she’d also enrolled in a martial arts program at the gym. Not that she’d try to Ninja kick a mountain lion, but should a horse scream or a sheep bleat she’d shoulder the shot gun and scare away the big cat. 

Little cats, however, required another line of defense. 

Petra shifted and tried to pull the quilt around her shoulders, but Magpie wouldn’t budge. Large, heavy, a glob of fur and drool, Magpie was a bed-hog. Magpie’s counterpart, Hector, preferred to sleep under the slipper chair. As was the case with so many couples, Magpie was emotionally needy and Hector was emotionally distant. Petra had tried locking the cats out of the bedroom. After all, they had a five thousand square foot hacienda at their disposal. Six unoccupied bedrooms, a den, a living room, a billiard room, they had free range. Petra only asked for one room, in fact, she’d have settle for one bed, but Magpie, as noisy as her name implied, refused to be shut out. And it didn’t really make sense to allow Magpie to share her space and not Hector. Who, by the way, snored. A malady typical of Persians. 

Persians or mountain lions, which cat species did she prefer? Given a choice, she’d choose to be at home in her own bed, Frosty, her standard poodle asleep, sans snoring, at the foot of her bed, but the house-sitting gig at the Jensen’s paid well. She needed all the money she could lay her hands on if she wanted to attend Hudson River Academy, a small liberal arts college where Dr. Finch, the world’s leading professor of Elizabethan literature. Her dad would pony up for a state university, but he wasn’t interested in paying for ‘liberal farts.’ Petra began to mentally recalculate her finances and because money bored her she fell asleep listening to the wind’s laughter and Hector’s snore.

#

The wind whispers the prayers 
Of all who live there 
And carries them to heaven. 
And the rain beats a time, 
For those caught in rhyme, 
For any who’ve lost life’s reason.

Petra bolted up and Magpie flew off the bed with a meow, her cry barely audible above the music. Pushing hair off her forehead, Petra tried to wake from the deafening dream. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, felt the cold tile floor beneath her feet. The music still played. Electric guitars. A keyboard. Drums. Seventies sound.

She oriented herself. Who’s here? Could the Jenson’s have returned? No, they had just posted pictures of the Vatican online less than two hours ago. Their son, Garth? He attended UCSB. A three hour drive. It must be Garth, she thought. She looked out the window for a car in the drive. No car. He would have put it in the garage. He’d have the remote. The wind had quieted, the trees had stopped dancing. Steam from the horse’s warm breath rose from the stable. On the side of the hill, on the far side of the fence, gold eyes watched her window. The mountain lion, threatening, but incapable of manning sound systems. 

She took a deep calming breath. It had to be Garth. She waited for the music to die. She’d learned the hard way years ago that you just couldn’t wait for the hero to ride in on his stallion. 

If there are stories in your stream, 
Don’t let them stop you mid- dream, 
They’re just pebbles for the tossing. 
They’re just mountains for the climbing. 

She caught sight of herself in the mirror. Wild hair, smeared mascara, long arms and legs poking out of her Domo-Kun pajamas. She considered slipping into her clothes, but she didn’t want to fumble in the dark to find them, making noise, alerting the intruder. If there was an intruder. No, it had to be Garth, returning home, unexpectedly for the weekend. Why would anyone else break into a house and turn on a stereo? Who would do that? 

Petra shuffled to the door, and plucked the shotgun off the wall, just in case it wasn’t Garth. She slipped a cartridge in the barrel and cocked the gun, just in case it was a Seventies-sounds-loving-lunatic.

She felt awkward shouldering the gun and opening the door. Hector squalled when she stepped on him. So much for not alerting the intruder, she thought as she righted herself and returned the rifle to ready position. Pushing through the door, Petra crept through the dark house until she found the source of the noise.

Your head is singing with the whispering,
So many voices, so many choices,
Which roads to take.

The stereo, an old fashioned tape player, six feet tall, flashing lights and thrumming bass, boomed in the billiards room. Petra stared at it and then shouted above the music, “Garth?” When no one answered, she called, “Who’s there?”
Only the music replied. Magpie curled around her ankles. Her pajama topped slipped off her shoulder as she slowly circled the room, gun raised. Outside, beyond the fence, the mountain lion blinked at her. 

Petra turned on the light just as the music ended. The tape sputtered at the end and clicked. She walked to the elaborate sound system, a relic of some distant time, and stared at it. Tiny flashing lights, a series of buttons and switches, it looked as complicated as an airplane cockpit. She didn’t even know how it worked. Maybe she’d walked in her sleep, but turning on the stereo?

The tape clicked out its questions, spinning round and round. Click. Click. Click. She found a switch, flipped it, and the system died. In the sudden quiet, she could her heart’s rapid beats and her accelerated breath.

“Not exactly a lullaby,” she said to Magpie, her voice nearly as loud as her thrumming blood. 

“Garth?” she called out again. Maybe he was in the shower, or in the garage, or asleep.

She shouldered the gun, just in case. Every bathroom and bed empty. The garage dark, the cars vacant. She checked the windows and doors of each room. Securely locked. All of them. She flung open closet doors, used her shotgun to poke through the wardrobes. The alarm system in the front hall blinked its tiny red light. No one had broken in, at least, no one who didn’t know their way around the security system.
Petra sat down on the sofa in the living room and laid the gun across her lap. Magpie jumped up beside her, while Hector watched from underneath the grand piano. She absently stroked the cat and felt a smidge less panicked, telling herself she was alone. What should she do? Her cell didn’t get reception in the canyon, so she padded to the phone in the office and picked up the line.

Nothing. She looked at the receiver. The wind could have knocked down the line. Maybe she’d walked in her sleep and turned on the stereo. Since her return from Elizabethan England five months ago, she’d realized that life doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes random, inexplicable, even crazy things happened. And crazy things don’t have to make sense. Maybe the craziness makes sense to someone else, because everyone has a skewed sense of reason, and as mortals, mere humans, we can’t know everything. Sometimes, really truly, only heaven knows. Or hell.

Beyond the Hollow is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Hollow-time-travel-romance-ebook/dp/B00HYLT34W

Working With a Writer’s Group

I won’t be writing today, per se, but I will tidy up the ten pages I’ll be reading tonight at my writers’ group. Here’s what I’ll read.

Zoe grabbed her purse off the shelf and slid her feet into her ugly but comfortable Sketchers. “Let’s go, Lori!”

Laurel snatched up her backpack, checked her reflection in the hall mirror and tidied up her pristine ponytail. Her posing reminded Zoe so much of her mother—Laurel’s grandmother—that her heart twisted just a little.

But since she didn’t have time for sentimentality, Zoe bustled her niece down the stairs. Together, they propelled out of the house, passing the door that led to Ethan and Hannah’s apartment.

Zoe wrinkled her nose at the bacony odor and the sound of the Beatles floating through the window.

“Meat-eaters,” Laurel said in the same tone she’d use to say dog poop.

Zoe didn’t comment, but placed her hand on Laurel’s small bony shoulder and guided her to the Bonny Baker Van standing in the driveway beside Ethan’s old Thunderbird convertible.

The van still carried the scents of yesterday’s deliveries—yeasty loaves of breads, cinnamony cookies, tart pies. Zoe placed her purse in the center console where she always kept it, slid on her sunglasses, and snapped into her seat belt. Once she was sure Hannah’s seatbelt was also secure, Zoe checked the rearview mirror and spotted Ethan and Hannah climbing into the T-bird.

Their open car doors blocked the driveway. Zoe blew a breath out her nose and tightened her grip on the wheel.

Laurel rolled down the window and waved to Hannah. “Hi Hannah! Hi Ethan!”

Secretly, Zoe hated that Laurel called Ethan by his first name. She didn’t think adults and children should be on first-name basis, but since Ethan insisted, there was little she could do. She tried not to flinch every time Laurel addressed her as Zoe.

Hannah returned Laurel’s wave and smile.

Zoe tamped down her impatience and rolled down her own window. “Good morning! Would Hannah like to ride to school with us today?”

“You’re going to school?” A wrinkle appeared between Ethan’s brows.

“Ancestor day,” Zoe told him.

Ethan barked out a laugh and climbed into his car. “You don’t look old enough to be a grandparent,” he said through the open window.

Zoe bristled. “I’m not, but I can talk about our ancestors.”

“Well, I guess I’ll see you there.”

She was trying to be nice—and punctual. “There’s no need for us both to go.”

Ethan’s back straightened. “I work there, you know.”

“Oh! I didn’t know. When did that happen?” Not that she had time for this conversation. If he worked there, neither of them did.

“At the beginning of the school year.” With his thick dark hair and large brown eyes, he was dangerously handsome. He was probably driving all of the Canterbury girls—and a few of the teachers—mad and man-hungry. That could happen at an all-girls’ school.

“What are you teaching?”

“Art.”

“Oh, of course.”

Ethan’s convertible roared to life and he gave her a dismissive smile. “I’ll see you there,” he repeated.

Zoe mentally ticked off her daily agenda as she followed Ethan down the drive. She’d been up since four a.m. making bread, cookies, and pies. Her assistant, Claire, was now manning the bakery, but Zoe needed to be back in time for the lunch rush.

At the stop sign leading to Main Street, Ethan surprised her by turning right while she and Laurel took a left.

This seemed symbolic of their relationship.

*

Ethan took note of his daughter’s mismatched socks. One was a crisp white and matched the school’s navy and red tartan uniform. The other had a pink tinge to it—like it gone through the wash with a red sweater. Which it probably had. Ethan thought about saying something, knowing the stringent adherence some of the girls liked to pay to the school’s uniform policy. When it came to the rules, the students were often bigger sticklers than the faculty.

He glanced at his daughter with her sweet rosebud lips, pinky-cheeks, and clear blue eyes—a surprise gift from his wife. She clutched the family Bible in her hands and stared straight ahead.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry Gram or Gramps couldn’t be here today.”

“It’s okay,” she said in a tight voice without looking at him, letting him know that it was definitely not okay. “I understand.”

Ethan blew out a breath. “It’s so far for them to come.”

Hannah nodded. “I know. And they have so many grandkids that live in Rose Arbor, they probably have to go to ancestor day once a week.”

A ripple of guilt traveled down Ethan’s spine. If he lived closer to his family, Hannah would be surrounded by cousins, aunts, and uncles, and not to mention his parents. He could have just as easily gotten a teaching job in Washington.

His phone buzzed and he clicked the button.

“Ethan!” Desmond’s voice floated into the car.

The fussy gallery owner always sounded on the verge of a breakdown, but today the panic sounded real.

“Good morning, Desmond what can I do for you?”

“Hi, Dezi!” Hannah called out.

“Ah. Pumpkin. What are you doing in the car with your father?”

“We’re going to school, Dezi,” Laurel told him.

“Oh! Are you still doing that?” His voice carried an equal helping of scorn and surprise.

Laurel giggled. “Of course.”

“I think he was talking to me, Button.” Ethan cleared his throat. “I like teaching.” And he needed the money if he was ever going to get his own gallery, but he couldn’t tell that to Desmond.

“We had a break-in,” Desmond told him.

Ethan braked too hard at the stop-light, sending Laurel forward in a lurch. Instinctively, he shot out his hand to protect his daughter. “Was anything taken?”

“Small stuff, cash from the till.”

Ethan glanced at Laurel, bit back a curse, and pulled into the intersection. “Do you need me to come by?”

“Your paintings are all insured, of course,” Desmond said, trying to sound calm.

“I thought you said small stuff…” No one would consider his paintings small. It took at least two buff and burly men to carry most of his paintings. But then his heart sank. “Harold?”

“I’m sorry,” Desmond said in a strangled voice.

“Daddy?” Laurel asked.

“I’ll be there in a second,” Ethan said, thinking up the next place to make a U-turn.

 “But Daddy…” Hannah whined.

“I’m sorry, Button. This should only take a minute,” he lied.

Hannah tightened her lips and glanced out the window at the town flashing past. A thick marine layer had settled during the night and had yet to burn away under the southern California sun, leaving the town in a shadowy gray mist. Ethan pulled the car along the curb beside the Oak Hollow Gallery.

Desmond, one of his first fans, had started showcasing Ethan’s work even before his graduation from Pasadena’s Art Institute. Ethan’s early career began at Warner Brother Studios where he worked in set design. That’s where he’d met Allison. At first, their friendship was about sharing paints and brushes—Ethan had a tendency to lose pencils and Allie had always carried extra. He’d soon learned to depend on her for not only his drawing instruments, but for everything. She’d been his world.

He shut down the painful memories and slammed out of the car. Hannah trotted after him.

Inside the gallery, Desmond fluttered like a small trapped bird not knowing where to land. A tiny man, he spoke with a slight French accent, despite the fact he was originally from Oxnard. He wore a meticulously trimmed goatee and a matching set of plucked, highly arched eyebrows.

A buff and burly police man stood between a bust of a gleaming bald head and a glass sculpture. He looked as out of place as a Michael Angelo painting in the Musee d’Orsay.

While Desmond talked with the officer, Ethan patrolled the gallery, looking for missing objects. Hannah stared up at the policeman, entranced and awed by the man’s size. She clearly found him more interesting than the Darling the Detective shows she liked to watch.

“Who are you?” The policeman pointed his pencil in Ethan’s direction.

Ethan stepped forward. “Ethan Lawrence.”

“He’s my dad,” Hannah piped in. “He’s an artist. A very famous one.”

Ethan rubbed the back of his neck.

“I’m Officer Mack.” The policeman took note of Hannah’s uniform and Ethan’s matching tie and shook Ethan’s hand.

Ethan wondered if Mack was the officer’s first or last name, but didn’t have time to question it. Mack, though, had questions enough for both of them.

“Looks like you two belong at that fancy school up the hill,” Officer Mack said.

“I go to school at Canterbury Academy,” Hannah said. “My mom used to teach domestic arts there and now my dad teaches just plain old art.” She froze and her hand flew to her mouth as if she could capture her words. “Sorry, Daddy! Your art isn’t plain or old…although, you haven’t made anything new in a really long time.”

Ethan stopped himself from rolling his eyes. He loved his daughter, but sometimes he found her eleven-year-old honesty brutal.

Officer Mack glanced at his watch. “You’re not supposed to be at school now?”

“Are you a truant officer?” Desmond asked with a sneer.

Ethan shot the gallery owner a quick glance, hoping to convince him to play nice with the police. They would need their help if they wanted to recover Harold as well as the other missing work.

“One of my statues was stolen. It’s—” His voice cracked.

“Priceless!” Desmond interjected.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Ethan said, “but it was an original.”

Officer Mack scribbled something on his notepad. “We’ll need to get an appraiser out here as well as an insurance adjuster. Any idea how the perps might have gotten in?”

While Desmond led Officer Mack to the back office, Ethan motioned for Hannah to follow him to the car. Rage and frustration thrummed through him. If he owned the gallery, something he desperately wanted to do, beefing up the security system would be high on his to-do list. This never would have happened if Desmond had taken the needed precautions.

Outside, the marine layer hung in the air and the cold and damp air nothing to lighten his mood.

“So, when is Desmond going to sell you the gallery?” Hannah asked him, echoing his thoughts.

“I don’t know, sweetie.” Ethan hoped Desmond hadn’t heard her and pulled open the convertible’s door so she could climb in.

After slamming inside, he ruminated over her question.

“He should let you buy it, since everything he sells in there is yours,” Hannah said after he’d settled behind the wheel.

A sad smile lifted his lips. “Not everything, sweetie.” He turned the key and the convertible roared to life.

Hannah huffed and folded her arms across her chest. “Most everything. I mean, who else is going to buy it? That Misty lady?”

“Maybe. She’s a good artist.” Ethan steered the car onto Oak Hollow’s main drag.

“Her name sounds like fog.”

Ethan shot his daughter a quick glance.

“How much is Harold worth?” Hannah asked.

“A lot.”

Hannah considered this and Ethan could practically see the thoughts churning in her head. Had she guessed the real reason Ethan had taken the teaching position at the school? He could, of course, go back to Warner Brothers, but the thought made him ill. They’d have to leave Oak Hollow. He’d have to hire a new nanny—one who could cover the long hours the studio would demand.

Or he could go back to Rose Arbor. Live in his parents’ basement. Find a job teaching at a public school. Churn out hotel room art in the evenings and on the weekends. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the wheel.

But he didn’t want to leave Hannah with a babysitter for sixty hours a week, nor did he relish the thought of living in his parents’ basement in dreary Washington. “You want to stay here, right?” Ethan asked. “With Mrs. Hancock and all your friends?”

“Hmmhmm,” Hannah murmured. “That’s why I’m going to say a prayer that you’ll get enough money to the gallery!” Last week, she’d heard a sermon about answered prayers and since then she’d started praying over nearly everything.

“That’s sweet, Button, and noble, but not very useful.”

“What do you mean? Pastor Lynn said we should pray over everything, including our flocks and pastures. Your paintings are like flocks, but they smell better, and a gallery is like a pasture without ticks.”

Despite his worry and concern, a small chuckled escaped.

“It’s not funny. It’s true. Pastor Lynn would want you to pray.” She jutted out her chin. “I bet God wants to find the bad guys who stole Harold. And if He wants to punish them, we should let Him.”

“Sweetie, let’s not bug God. I bet he has a lot of really important things to do.”

“What could be more important than bringing Harold home.” She gasped and her eyes went wide. “I bet he’s scared!”

Ethan thought about pointing out that Harold was a one-foot-high sculpture incapable of having feelings.

Hannah folded her hands in her lap and refused to look at him. After closing her eyes, she began a simple and yet sincere prayer that Desmond would sell the gallery to Ethan and that the police would find Harold and bring him safely home.

CHAPTER 2

Zoe stood in front of the classroom. Dozens of little girls dressed in their tartan uniforms stared back at her, expectantly. They looked sweet, but Zoe knew better. At this age, she had attended Canterbury herself, so she knew sweetness might only on be the surface like ganache on an eclair. Something ugly could lurk behind the pig-tails and shiny lip-gloss. But still, because she loved Laurel, she held out one of her prize possessions for the girls to see.

“This small wooden box holds something very precious to me,” Zoe told the girls. She unlatched the leather strap to open the lid and extract the small gold coins. “These were collected by my ancestors. When John Lewis first came to this country from Wales in 1849, he was a poor man. He’d been a miner in Great Britain, but somehow, he’d managed to put together enough funds to travel to the United States and take the train as far west as it would take him, and in those days, that was to Iowa City. From there, he hitched up with a wagon train that would take him to California where he hoped to strike it rich in the Gold Rush.”

“Are those coins from the Gold Rush?” a little girl in the front row asked.

“Sadly, no.” Zoe closed her hands around the coins for just a second. “He didn’t find gold, but I think he found something better.”

Another girl wrinkled her nose. “What was that?”

“He found my great-great grandmother! And together they started a farm in Twain.”

“Where they found gold?” a red-head quipped.

“No. They never found gold,” Zoe told them.

“Then where did the coins come from?” another girl asked.

“When John was still a young man, he placed a gold coin in this box and he wrote a note.” She pulled out a piece of paper. Of course, the ink on John’s original note had long ago faded and the paper crumbled, but one of John’s descendants had transcribed the note. She didn’t think she needed to tell the girls this. “John wrote, to my children and my children’s children, I leave you this coin as a remembrance of me. May it bless your lives.” Zoe picked out the oldest coin and handed it to Laurel who held it in the palm of her hand and paraded it past all the girls seated at their desks.

“The real cool thing is,” Zoe continued, “Ever since John, all of my ancestors have purchased a gold coin and left it in this box for their children and their children’s children.” She poured the other gold coins into her hand for the girls to see. She wrinkled her nose. “These probably aren’t worth a whole lot of money, but it’s definitely worth something, and when I think of my ancestors—many of them poor and facing economic hardships, especially during the great depression and the world wars—they didn’t spend the coins. Instead, they followed John’s example and kept them safe. They held them sacred.”

Maybe sacred was too strong of a word, but it came to her lips and she went with it.

“Who will you give the coins to?” a girl asked.

Zoe opened her mouth, but a for a moment, no words came. Finally, “My child, of course.”

“Does that mean you’ll have to have a boy?”

“No,” Zoe said. But it did mean she’d have to have a child, and that was looking as unlikely as John himself personally handing her a coin from the grave. “I’m not a boy and the coins came to me.”

“Maybe they’ll be mine someday,” Laurel said.

“Probably,” Zoe said. “Here, do you want to show the girls the rest of the coins?”

Laurel skipped to the front to gather the other nine coins.

Mrs. Lacombe, a retired history professor, bought her clothes from a local consignment shop. Today, she wore a sailor suit–minus the hat–and she strode around the classroom like she had a deck to swab. “Let’s all give Ms. Hart a big Canterbury thank you.” She clapped her hands and all the girls joined in.

Zoe dipped her head and took her place at the back of the classroom with the other visiting ancestors while Doctor Edwards, an elderly man wearing physicians’ scrubs and carrying a stethoscope took center stage beside Mrs. Lacombe.

During Dr. Edward’s talk on his family’s role in medical research, Zoe collected the coins and placed them back into the box. Someday, they’d need a bigger box. Who would make that decision and what would the world be like then?

She only lived a few hundreds of miles away from where John and Emily had settled in Twain all those years ago, but her life was radically different from John and Emily’s. She didn’t depend on a garden or livestock for food. But the one thing she’d be sure to do, like John and the others, she planned on purchasing a gold coin and adding it to this collection.

Tomorrow, I’ll post the feed back I got from the group. You might also enjoy these posts.

https://kristystories.blogspot.com/2014/09/finding-right-writers-group.html

https://kristystories.blogspot.com/2013/10/fail-proof-your-plans.html

TUESDAY TEASER

AN EXCERPT FROM THE BILLIONAIRE’S BEAGLE, AVAILABLE NOW ON AMAZON. FREE IN KINDLE UNLIMITED AND ONLY .99

During the reception, Letty kept an eye on her mom and wondered if anyone else could read the tension running just below her mom’s courteous and lovely façade. From the guests, Letty thought she caught pitying stares, curious fascination, and whispered undertones. When a few people came right out and asked about her father, Letty tried not to bristle. She wanted to mimic her mom’s breezy grace, but she felt wooden or mechanical, as if she were a mannequin or a wind-up toy programmed to act a certain way and repeat a memorized script.

Then she spotted Leo with a beautiful blonde clinging to his arm. Had Harper or Chet invited him? She hadn’t noticed him at the wedding. Could he have accidentally stumbled into the party? Unlikely.

She watched him, wondering what she had ever seen in him. Sure, he was handsome in a Ryan Gosling sort of way and could be charming. It embarrassed her that it had taken her so long to see beneath his swanky façade.

And who was the Barbie on his arm? With her too-perky boobs and centipede eyelashes, she looked as manufactured as artificial turf.

Letty rubbed her forehead, willing her brewing headache to go away, and turned away before Leo could catch her spying on him.

“Letty!” Leo called out.

“Leo!” Letty feigned surprise and shot Harper a nasty glance.

Harper, who was mingling with the guests, responded with an apologetic smile and slight shrug.

Leo navigated through the crowd and weaved between the tables and chairs so he could wrap his arms around Letty. She inhaled his familiar scent and broke free as soon as she could.

“Letty, this is Jerry.” He put his hand on the blonde’s shoulder. “She’s Chet’s cousin.” He lifted his eyebrow. “Small world, huh?”

Jerry captured Letty’s hand. “Wasn’t this just the most beautiful ceremony? And the setting! Of course, an outdoor wedding is always risky! I’m a wedding planner, you know.” She waved her hand. “But I wasn’t offended in the least when Harper went with Donald. I was relieved, actually. Working with family can be so tricky. And then I heard about your family’s financial hiccups. And well,” she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand as if wiping a sweaty brow, “Whew! I knew I had dodged a bullet.”

Leo had the grace to look embarrassed. “How is your dad?”

Letty planted her shoes into the lawn to keep herself from kicking both of them in the shins. “He’s doing well,” she said in a falsely bright voice. “And how’s your mom?”

He shifted from foot to foot and ran a finger around his collar. “She’s doing better,” he said. “She’s hoping to come home soon.”

Jerry shot him a questioning glance, but Leo refused to meet her gaze.

Letty thought about mentioning the rehab center, Leo’s mom’s second home, but decided not to stoop to his level. “It was nice to see you, again Leo, and to meet you, Jerry.”

Jerry brightened. “If you’re in need of an event planner, call me.” She slapped her forehead. “But—won’t you be planning a broker’s open house soon?”

“You would need to talk to my mom about that,” Letty said. “Excuse me.” Knowing she couldn’t take one more minute of feigning sweetness and light, she slipped away.

The reception had been held on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Now that the sun was fading into a pink puddle on the horizon and strings of outdoor lights were flickering on, Letty hoped to find a place where she could slip out of her awful shoes and enjoy the gathering dark.

She wandered down the path until she spotted a bench overlooking the ocean. The sky and sea had turned to the same steely gray, making it impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

Gloaming, her grandmother’s word for twilight—that brief between time after the sun had set but the moon had yet to rise. Her grandmother had a song about it. Something about two lovers “lovely roamin’ in the gloaming.’”

“You okay?” Claris’s voice startled Letty.

She jumped to her feet and turned to her best friend for a hug. “Did you see Leo?”

“And his latest flavor of the month.” Claris pulled away and swept a searching glance over Letty.

“What did I ever see in him?” Letty sank back onto the bench and pulled Claris down beside her. They were similar in size but different in almost every other way. Letty had her dad’s dark hair and eyes while Claris was a classic beach Barbie. In high school, they used to call themselves the Oreo team.

“He’s not so bad,” Claris said.

“Yes, he is. All men are bad,” Letty pronounced.

Claris elbowed her. “You don’t mean that.”

“I hate men almost as much as I hate these shoes.” Letty lifted her feet to show Claris the pink satin strappy heels Harper had made her wear.

“They’re not as bad as my dress.” Claris plucked at her skirt.

“No one made you wear it.”

“I know, but what with UCS’s tuition hike, I couldn’t ask my parents for one more penny, and this dress was free.”

“Free?”

“Anything left in Courtney’s closet is fair game. Her rules, not mine.”

“Do we need to get back? I don’t want to miss the sendoff.”

“I think we still have a minute.”

“Good.” Letty wiggled her toes and followed Claris’s glance over her shoulder at the Montlake monstrosity. The hotel’s lights shimmered in the fading dusk. Music from the reception floated over the rise. Out on the water, a few boats bobbed along the horizon.

“For most people, this is the stuff of fairytales,” Claris said.

“I feel like my mom and I are being booted out of paradise and the only home I’ve ever known.”

“Because of your dad?”

Letty nodded. “Mom’s talking of going to Arizona to live with Marmmy. Harper and Chet are moving to New York. Leaving just me in my tiny Irvine apartment.”

“I love your place. It’s cozy.”

“Cozy is just another word for small.” But Letty also loved her place. It was a two-story, twenty-unit complex with gray and white siding and bright red doors. “I love nursing, but the pay barely covers my rent. Now that Harper’s moving out, I’ll have to pick up another shift if I want to buy food.” She clenched her jaws to keep the tears at bay and struggled to regain control of her anger to keep from dissolving into tears. But the sound of clattering roused her from her funk.

“Wh-What’s that about?” Claris stammered.

Standing, Letty tried to ignore her aching feet. When she realized the shouting and cursing seemed to be coming from the wedding reception, she took off running as best she could in her high-heeled satin shoes. Claris jogged beside her down the path and over the bluff.

A beagle stood on the table, wolfing down the wedding cake while the guests tried to fight their giggles and Donald and his team flapped their arms and screamed expletives.

A man in dripping wet swimming trunks and not much else dashed through the party, knocking over chairs and bumping off guests as he scrambled toward the dog. “Sorry! Sorry! Excuse me!” He lunged for the table and pulled the beagle to the ground. A floral garland caught around the dog’s paws and soon the man and beagle were tangled in the string of flowers. With his naked chest and garland, the man looked like he could pose as a statue of a Greek god.

“Who is that?” Claris breathed.

Letty bit back a curse. “I don’t know, but he and that mutt just ruined my sister’s wedding.”

“You’re right,” Claris whispered. “We should be outraged, but holy crow, he’s beautiful.”

“And I bet he knows it.” Letty marched over to the man, planted herself in front of him, and released the anger she’d been storing up for the past two months. “Get that creature out of here!”

“I’m trying.” He juggled the dog, who made another leap for the table. “That must be some amazing cake.”

“Yeah. My mom stayed up all night making it and now look at it! It’s dog chow.”

“No, it’s gorgeous. At least that part is.” He waved at the untouched-by-dog-lips side of the cake.

Tears gathered in Letty’s eyes as she remembered all her mom’s hard work. But then she heard laughter. Stunned, she turned to watch her mom melt into tears and giggles and fall onto a nearby chair. Mom hiccoughed, spread her legs, grabbed her belly, and laughed some more.

Was she drunk? Oh please, don’t let her be drunk. Letty didn’t think she could handle one more ounce of humiliation.

Many of the guests followed Mom’s example. Sniggers, guffaws, and laughter floated around Letty. Jerry didn’t even try to control her giggling. Leo, at least, looked embarrassed for her.

The man with the dog grinned, but his smile only fueled Letty’s rising anger. She stepped in so the tips of her satin shoes were perfectly aligned with his bare toes, peered into his eyes, and pushed his chest.

Obviously stunned, he dropped the dog, stumbled back as if Letty had zapped him, and stared at her. Their brief physical contact had sent an electrical current sizzling between them. Did he feel it, too?

“Oh no you don’t!” Claris sprang for the cake-lusting dog and caught it by the collar.

“Claris! Your dress!” Letty called out.

Claris sank to the grass, her legs splayed out in front of her, the dog with its frosting-smeared fur wriggling in her lap. “It’s okay. It’s an off-the-rack.”

The man unwrapped himself from the garland and grinned at Claris. “Here, give her to me.” He glanced around. “I wonder what happened to her leash.”

A college friend of Harper’s came running up, holding the leash in her extended hand like a banner. “I found it!”

A distinguished-looking older gentleman carrying a briefcase and wearing a bowtie appeared. “She must have slipped out of it.” The man took the proffered leash and clipped it onto the dog’s collar. “Hey, it’s a chocolate cake. Do you think it will make her sick?”

As if to answer the question, the dog hunched over and vomited all over Letty’s feet. A warm dampness seeped through the thin satin shoes. Frozen in horror, Letty could only stare at the mess.

“Oh look, here come Harper and Chet!” Mom pointed a wavering finger at the couple emerging from the side of the hotel. “Nobody say anything to them about the cake! Grab the sparklers!”

Claris jumped to her feet to help Mom distribute the sparklers and matches while Letty shook herself from her stupor, stepped out of the vomit, and slipped off her shoes. She wrinkled her nose as she picked up the dripping shoes and carried them to a trashcan. After dropping them in, she tried to collect her thoughts and wrap her anger around her like a protective cloak. It had momentarily slipped when she’d laid her hands on that man’s naked chest, but she could and would muster it back.

The man and dog trailed after her. “Again, I’m really sorry.”

“Yeah, well, so am I.” She glanced over her shoulder at the line forming for her sister’s sendoff. “This was supposed to be the happiest day of my sister’s life and your dog just made it disgusting.”

“How can I make it up to you, and your sister, of course?”

“Good question.” She waved her arm at the destroyed table where half the cake had been turned into a mountain of mush. The bulk of the flowers had been cast to the ground, but shredded petals and leaves scattered the once-pristine white tablecloth like dying corpses on a battlefield.

“Can I pay for a new cake?”

“Oh yeah, good idea.” She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Because we’ll need a new wedding cake tomorrow.” Sarcasm in her voice dripped like vomit from silky shoes.

“You don’t need to be bitchy.”

She planted her fists on her hips, even though she longed to touch him again. As an experiment. Just to see if that sizzle would return. “And you don’t need to be here.”

He bit his lip. “Right. I don’t.” And he stalked away while the dog limped after him.

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#Monday Motivation/ Taking a Book-Business Breather

I’m taking a book-business breather for the month of August and focusing some much-needed attention on my house. This is counter to the whole rapid-release strategy and my basic nature as I would much rather write a story than clean my garage.

But clean my garage I did. My daughter, who made me this sign a few years ago when I said I wanted a clean garage, helped me. She must have had a change of heart, because she helped me get to corner and crannies that probably hadn’t seen daylight in 24+ years. Today, I’m tackling my bookshelves. A friend once told me she liked my bookshelves because you could tell they’re used. Which was just a kind way of saying they’re in a constant state of messy flux. (I should also say that my bookshelves aren’t a good reflection of my reading habits since I’m like that guy in the parables who builds bigger barns to keep his stuff. I have not only my house, but two vacation rentals where I keep the books I love.) I’ll post pictures.

Why am I taking a book-business breather when it’s in direct opposition to the marketing guru’s advice? This quote might explain it best.

“The proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not. Their self-esteem is determined by where they are judged to be on the ladders of worldly success. They feel worthwhile as individuals if the numbers beneath them in achievement, talent, beauty, or intellect are large enough.” Ezra Taft Benson

You can read the entire address here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1989/04/beware-of-pride?lang=eng

I’ve never liked numbers, but recently I’ve felt like the numbers and I were at war, and yes, I took Chris Fox’s course for Authors Who Hate Math. I still hate math. Maybe someday I’ll win the marketing war, but for a moment–or a month–I’m taking a breather. I want to enjoy writing again. I’m not sure attacking the cobwebs in the corners of my house will help, but it can’t hurt…unless you’re a spider.

Rewriting Stealing Mercy

I’m rewriting my first published novel, Stealing Mercy. Next month, it will be published as Verity and the Villain. I just got my new cover, and I’m pretty much in love with it.

CHAPTER 1

Some herbs, like eucalyptus and wormwood, can be used to repel animals and insects.

From The Recipes of Verity Faye

#

New York, New York

December, 1888

New York City’s night noises seeped through the wall chinks and window: the jingle of horse harnesses, the stomping of hooves, the mournful howl of a dog, but one noise, a noise that didn’t belong, jarred Verity awake.

A creak on the stairs that led to her apartment. The third from the top, five steps past Mr. Bidwell’s door. Only those wishing to reach her home crossed that step. She never entertained visitors in the tiny attic; she wasn’t expecting company.

Lying in bed, she held her breath while the unwelcome guest paused. The walls were thin, the door as substantial as paper, the lock inconsequential. Her thoughts raced and her body shook. A shock of cold hit when she slipped from the bedding. The wooden floor felt like ice beneath her feet. The embers in the grate had burnt to a smolder and her shivering had as much to do with cold as with fear.

Verity padded through the doorway to the sitting room. Dying coals in the potbelly stove cast an orange glow and shadows loomed large. Grabbing a fire poker from the hearth, she waited for a knock on the door. She tried to think of an innocent reason for a neighbor to call, an emergency or crisis in which she could assist, but when no knock came, she crept behind the pie safe stocked with the previous day’s unsold pies and pastries. Stars winked through the window and Verity wondered if their pale light could penetrate her chiffon shift. She felt naked, alone, and friendless.

She could call out. Let the visitor know she was awake, alert, and fire poker armed. Perhaps someone on the street below would hear, but would they come to her aid? Her only neighbor, Mr. Bidwell, as old as Satan and twice as mean, would never stir from his bed for her. As she so often did, Verity missed her father and longed for family.

The splintering wood shattered the air as the lock gave way.

Across the room, a mirror, tarnished and misty, gave a wavy reflection of the opening door. Verity slid a fraction lower behind the pie safe. The odors of the pies mingled with her own smell of fear.

In the mirror, she saw first a boot and then a thigh. Then all of Mr. Steele came into view, his face a study of lust and cruelty. He stood in the semi-darkness where a shaft of moonlight glistened on the six-inch knife in his gloved hand. Verity choked on a sour tasting sob.

Suitors don’t carry knives.

Mr. Steele pushed the door open wider, inviting in a breeze that circulated through the room. She knew why she’d been attracted to him. He looked and moved like royalty. His dark hair curled away from his forehead and his lean muscles rippled beneath his breeches. She thought of his laughter, the lilt of his voice when he asked if he could call, the gleam in his eye when she’d accepted his gift. Verity fingered the silver charm, a four-leaf clover, he’d given her. She’d tied it with a ribbon and wore it around her neck. Why hadn’t she taken it off when she’d denied his suit? When had she become suspicious of his flattery? Why was she not surprised to find him in her room past midnight wielding a knife?

Of course, he’d been angry and insulted that a mere shop girl would reject his favors. Impoverished girls without families and connections should fawn over a handsome, wealthy, and prominent man such as Steele, but Verity wasn’t typical, and she wasn’t as impoverished as she pretended to be. And so, when Mr. Steele had invited her on a voyage to South America without proposing marriage, she’d turned him down.

Rumors whispered Mr. Steele had also invited her friend Belle on such a voyage. Then Belle had disappeared.

Verity held her breath. Steele passed the pie safe and paused as if thinking. Mustering strength from the muscles that spent long hours kneading dough and beating eggs, gathering courage grown from burying first her mother and then her father, Verity shoved the pie safe and it gave way with a creak and shudder. The safe caught Mr. Steele on the shoulder and he stumbled under the assault of the swinging doors and sailing pies. Apple, cherries, peaches, the sweet cinnamony odors of Faye’s wares pelted Mr. Steele. He danced in the pastry goop and landed hard on one knee. In a different circumstance, she’d have laughed at his abandoned dignity and awkward bobbling, but now she stepped into the fallen pastries with her mouth in a stern line, her anger as hot as fire.

One blow from the poker sent him to the floor. A second blow brought his arms over his head. With the third, he winced, fell face first into the smashed pastries.

When she stopped beating him, her arms were shaking and her breath ragged. Blood oozed from behind his ear. His body sprawled in the spilled pies; his face pressed against the floorboards. She nudged him with the poker, but he didn’t stir. For a long moment, she stood above him, waiting for a sign of life.

Her heart raced as she considered her options. The police? Would they believe her plea of self-defense? She tried to imagine herself in a court of law, pitted against a courtroom of men.

On his side with his limbs at awkward angles and his eyes half shut, Steele lay motionless in a mess of stewed fruit and crust. A smashed, oozing cherry clung to his eyebrow. And then she noticed papers protruding from his jacket pocket. It looked like passage fare, and she considered it with a hammering heart.

Squatting beside him, she drew the papers loose, her fingers shaking so badly the papers caused a noisy breeze. A silver key slipped from the packet to the floor and landed with a ping. The skeleton key had a curlicue top with embossed leaves swirling around the words Lucky Island. The papers were first-class passage to Seattle. It seemed Mr. Steele had been undeterred from the voyage he’d proposed. The boat left at first light.

Seattle.

She couldn’t.

She had an aunt in Seattle.

She mustn’t.

Silly Tilly, her father had called his sister. Verity hadn’t met her aunt, but Silly Tilly always remembered Verity’s birthday.

Why not go? Verity turned her head away from the tiny sitting room and looked out the window to the river. Hastily drawn plans formed in her mind. Perhaps Lucky Island was in the Puget Sound. It sounded more fortuitous than Faye’s Bakery off Elm. Would her aunt take her in? Verity had written Tilly of her father’s death, but hadn’t, as yet, heard a reply. Perhaps an invitation was already in the mail.

Verity went to the wardrobe and tossed through her dresses, nothing seemed practical. What did one wear for flight? She caught sight of her father’s trunk and nursed an idea as she drew out her father’s clothes.

Pants, well-worn and loose, she slipped on and tucked the hems into her boots. She rolled the sleeves of the cotton work shirt and shrugged into a boiled wool coat. She tugged at the belt holding up her father’s pants and took a deep breath in an effort to restore the calm she’d lost the moment she heard the boot on the stairs. The jacket made her warm and the faint smell of leather and shoeshine she always associated with her father gave her courage. It felt odd and freeing to move without the encumbrance of skirts and petticoats. She kept one eye on Mr. Steele as she packed the knapsack: her father’s watch, her mother’s bible, a bag of gold coins, a loaf of barley bread.

She sat down at the table where she’d taken her solitary meals and struggled to control her shaking hands. Her handwriting looked spidery, the ink blotchy. A splash of ink stained her father’s denim work shirt, but Verity didn’t care.

To whom it may concern, I, Verity Faye, have taken my life on the night of December 15, 1888, she wrote, but she mentally added, to Seattle. She left the note on her unmade bed.

Verity snuck a glance at the blood still seeping from the man’s temple and fought the bile rising in her throat. She squatted and pulled out a locked trunk from under her bed. Her shivering increased, making it difficult for her fingers to work the key. Quickly, she rifled through her mother’s things which smelled of must, neglect and a lingering hint of lavender. Forgive me, Mama, she thought, when she found the velvet bag containing the Bren jewels.

Not trusting the sapphires in the knapsack, she tucked the bag next to her heart beneath the ink-stained shirt. Then, she went to the safe where she kept the shop’s proceeds. Perhaps someone, most likely her landlord, would wonder, but who would question the scant means she left behind? The coins seemed to weigh a hundred pounds and they jingled like a tambourine in her father’s pockets.

Since her father’s death four months prior, there’d been times when Verity contemplated selling the jewels, but the bakery had become increasingly successful. Verity took a deep breath, inhaling the warm pastry smells that permeated her life. She would miss the shop, and it would only be a few hours until her customers would miss her. Eventually, her landlord would bang on the door, demanding rent, fair compensation. Would he find Mr. Steele?

Two hats hung on the hook by the door, a simple straw affair and a summer bonnet she wore walking. Verity tucked the bonnet beneath her arm, shouldered the knapsack and then bade a silent goodbye to the only home she’d ever known.

Then she felt it. A shift in the air. She stopped, listened, but heard only her racing heart.

Every noise seemed amplified as Verity wrenched open what remained of the door and plunged down the squeaky steps. Outside, she sucked in the cold night air and let it fill her lungs. She stole through an alley, relying on memory and moonlight to guide her through the towering rows of dark shops. When she reached the avenue, light from the street lamps twinkled on the dew-covered sidewalk. Her flat leather boots made no sound on the cobblestone street. An alley cat kept watch on a window sill and a rat scurried beneath a trash bin. Verity lowered her father’s felt cap and hunched her chin into his scarf when she passed a pair of streetwalkers. The women, bruised and blue with cold called out to her, but she fled down the avenue to where the Brooklyn Bridge crossed the East River.

Verity stopped on the bridge, the same bridge from which Mrs. Steele had thrown herself in a fit of melancholy a little more than a year ago. Verity felt the wind pull at her clothes and tease tendrils of hair from the cap. She sent Claris Steele a silent prayer of gratitude for the inspiration. After a glance over her shoulder to ensure her solitude, Verity tossed the feathered bonnet into the swirling dark water and watched it disappear.

Los Angeles, California

1888

Dust filled Trent Michael’s eyes, nose, and throat and the sun beat upon his neck, but he didn’t mind. Leaning against the railing, he watched the beauty in the ring. A silky midnight mane, a shivering amber coat, intelligent eyes, and long, lean legs. Perfection. He shifted and squinted into the sun and let his gaze rest on the distant mountains. It’d be a long hard ride leading the untamed stallion through Southern California’s brown hills, the central valley and Oregon’s mountain passes, but by the time they’d reach Seattle, Sysonby would be eating out of his hand and nickering his name.

“I’d be begging your pardon, sir,” Mugs said behind him.

Trent didn’t take his eyes off the horse. Syonsby threw his head back and thrashed the air with lightning speed hooves while a stable hand scrambled from the ring. He’d enjoying breaking this one. “Yes, Mugs, what is it?” he asked over his shoulder. If they left at tomorrow’s first light, they could reach the mountains within a week.

“This just arrived.”

Trent turned and saw his driver holding a telegram and wearing a happy, no, exultant, expression upon his typically hang-dog face. Trent placed his hat on his head and fingered the brim, suspicious.

Mugs pushed back his curly hair and tried to steady his twitching lips. “It’s from your gram.”

Trent had guessed that. If he refused the telegram, he could say with a certain degree of honesty that he’d never seen it. He’d be on the trail by morning and his grandmother’s message would be roasting in a campfire by nightfall. Trent studied Mugs. The man who typically had the demeanor and appearance of a troll practically shimmied with anticipation. Trent trusted him implicitly, but he knew Mugs could never match wits with Hester Michaels. Mugs, like most people or animals, hadn’t a prayer of success if pitched against his grandmother. He’d never be able to keep a secret from her himself.

Trent inhaled the mixed odors of hay, dung and sweat and took off his hat to shoo away the flies. If he tried to deny knowledge of the telegram, Hester would wring the truth from Mugs within minutes and then Trent would be mucking out stables, waiting for the day when she deeded him the ranch. On her deathbed.

Twenty odd years of shed shoveling.

Trent frowned at Mugs and held out his hand for the telegram.

“GRACEY MISSING STOP RETURN IMMEDIATELY STOP”

#

Hunger drove Verity to the galley. She’d been able to keep to her room for several weeks, only emerging for solitary meals and midnight strolls on the deck, but by the time the ship had landed in Los Angeles, her stomach cried for food, real food. The weeks of tinned beans she’d endured were about to end. During her last few jaunts from her berth, she’d heard the rumors of tangy oranges, bite-size grapes, and juicy plums. Just thinking of fresh produce made her head swim and stomach ache. She stopped in the doorway and watched the men seated at the tables.

Out of a sense of self-preservation, she’d kept to herself, but loneliness and boredom had driven her to excessive eavesdropping and she’d learned more than just the passenger’s names and faces. Curly, Captain Kane, de la Mar and a man she didn’t recognize sat at a card table. The newcomer must have boarded in Los Angeles. Cards, poker chips, and beverages sat on the tables. No food. Her stomach groaned a complaint.

Curly, a bald stocky man, must have heard her belly growl. He caught her expression and grunted in her direction. “No vittles yet, lad.”

She felt tears rising and blinked hard, cursing her weakness. The room smelled of ale and fish and the ship rose and fell with the tide, making her empty belly cramp. Occasionally, the ship bumped against the dock with a smack and a shudder and while the ropes as thick as her thigh that held the ship to the dock, groaned at the restraint.

“You can always go on shore, there’s sure to be hawkers in the port,” wizened Captain Kane told her. She glanced out the window. A breeze blew in and she both smelled and heard the temptations of dry land. She sat down hard in a chair at a table close enough to watch the men and practice patience.

Captain Kane grumbled into his hand of cards, although Verity saw he held a pair of kings. Curly leaned back and rubbed his hand over his gleaming bald head. The captain sighed as if he’d soon regret his wager and pulled a jangle of coins from his pocket. A wild glint lit his eyes when Curly laid an unusual token on the table.

“Lofty stakes,” de la Mar murmured, sitting forward, his lean frame angling toward the new wager.

“Now how’d the likes of you get hold of something like that?” asked the newcomer with the sort of jaw that looked like it’d been chiseled in stone. Verity hadn’t remembered seeing him before, and she would have. He had a cleft chin and his defined muscles bore a resemblance to the Greek statues she’d seen on display in the traveling artifact show. He turned toward her and his gaze lingered on her lips. A slow smile curved his mouth and he took a long drink of ale before returning to his pair of fives.

“Hey, I got my charms,” Curly laughed and looked smug.

“I wouldn’t be trading that away so lightly,” de la Mar said, studying his cards as if trying to conjure a flush.

Verity leaned forward and caught sight of the token. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Now that’s worth playing for, hey lad?” Curly threw her a bawdy grin. Verity blinked at him. She wanted to touch the token, to feel its heft and size, to study it and see if it could be as similar to the key in her pocket as it appeared.

Captain Kane threw the man with a cleft chin a hostile glance. “You acquainted with that particular coin, Wallace?”

Wallace, the man with the cleft chin, said, “I’m not.”

But Verity was. Her fingers sought the key in her pocket. They matched. She was sure of it. The key she’d taken from Mr. Steele matched the token on the table.

“That there token can buy you one of the finest wenches in the country,” Curly grinned.

“They don’t just let any Joe into their club,” de la Mar said. “How you get that, Curly? Don’t tell me it was on account of your beauty.”

“Or your smell,” Wallace said, smirking.

“Ah, the smell of money,” Captain Kane, said, laying down his cards, the kings staring up at him. He beamed as his companions threw down their hands with oaths and curses.

“What exactly do you get with that token?” Verity asked the men in her practiced baritone voice.

Captain Kane smiled. “I just won me a trip to Lucky Island.”

Verity fidgeted. “And Lucky Island is–”

“One of the finest brothels in the country,” the captain finished for her.

“And that token gains you entrance for a night?” This was the longest conversation she’d had since leaving New York and it made her nervous. Any moment she expected her voice to crack, and yet she had to ask.

“A whole night?” de la Mar scoffed and Curly, who’d been taking a swig of ale, snorted.

Warmth flushed Verity’s cheeks, and she looked out the window again. She caught sight of a broad shoulder man pushing up the gangplank. He had blond hair tied back in a short queue. He walked with athletic grace, but something about the way he moved said he didn’t want to get on the boat. It was almost as if he was fighting an invisible string that tried to keep him on land.

“Can you imagine having a key to Lucky Island?” de la Mar asked.

“I demand a rematch,” Curly said, watching his prize token slip away.

Verity turned her back on the man climbing the gangplank and asked, “This Lucky Island, is it here in California?”

“Naw, the finest wenches are in Seattle,” Captain Kane said, smiling and pushing away from the table. He flipped the coin into the air and caught it mid-air. “Gentlemen, I believe it’s time to set sail.”

#

Trent stood on the deck of the ship, his stomach matching the ocean’s churning. A light spray fell over him, but he didn’t flinch. He tried to focus on the emerging moon and the star’s glinty light and not the dark, rolling tide pitching both the ship and the contents of his stomach. Gazing out over the hills where the mountains met the purpling sky, he could imagine Mugs, Sysonby and the other horses cresting the mountains before making camp. Transporting a team of horses single-handedly wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worthwhile. Mugs would first break and then train Sysonby, and no matter how often Trent rode or fed him, Sysonby would always belong to Mugs. Despite the paperwork.

Paperwork, documentation. It said so much and did so little. He felt the weight of the ranch settle across his shoulders. He told himself it’d soon be his, but he was beginning to suspect that even if his gram deeded him the ranch, as she’d promised, as long as she had spurs on her boots, it would always be hers. And his. They both loved it, but sometimes, no, most of the time, they wanted to run it differently.

The moon, a slip of silver, peeked through a haze of clouds. A star emerged. The ship rose on a swell and fell. Trent tightened his fingers around the rail, cursing his gram and his weak stomach. Maybe if he just didn’t eat he could make it to Seattle with the majority of his insides intact. Sailing turned him inside out.

A mean wind blew the clouds shrouding the moon and a beam of light landed on a lone figure near the bow. She fought the wind for her hat, and her hair, a tangle of dark honey, swirled around her head. The hat, once pinched between her fingers, caught another gust, set sail and skittered across the deck.

The woman managed to capture her hair into a twist, and she looked over the deck in his direction. Her eyes widened when she saw him, and she backed up against the rail.

Trent bent and retrieved the hat nestled against his boot. He held it out to her, and she stood, like a wild colt being offered an apple, unsure of whether to bolt or indulge. His eyes swept over her and he noticed for the first time her breeches. At the ranch, his gram and sister often wore pants, but he knew it wasn’t typical female attire. The hat, Trent realized, completed the woman’s disguise. She probably didn’t realize her breeches did little to hide her curves. He couldn’t tell in the moonlight, but he guessed she’d bound her breasts. Without taking her eyes off his face, she twisted her hair into a knot at the top of her head. She’d travel in disguise, but wouldn’t sacrifice her hair for her rouse. Devious, yet vain.

He held the hat out to her, chuckling, his seasickness forgotten. Would she hold character? Pretend that most young men had hair that fell to their waist when loose?

She walked toward him and he noted she moved with grace and poise despite the rollicking waves. He gripped the rail with one hand and held the hat with the other.

“I thank ye, sir,” she said in a deep modulated tone that she’d probably spent weeks perfecting. How long had she been at the masquerade and why? Was he the only one who knew? “You’re welcome, lad.” He emphasized the last word.

She moved for the hat, but he held it tight. “Hold on. What’s your name?”

She didn’t answer.

“No need to be nervous, I’m just making conversation. Where you from?”

“Seattle.”

His grinned deepened despite the rolling and tossing waves. Seattle was still a small town with an even smaller population of women. Although the city was rapidly growing, he felt confident he would have recognized her. “So, this is a homebound trip for you.”

She stuck out her tell-tale clean-shaven chin. “Yes, sir.”

“I suppose I’ll be seeing you, then, in town, perhaps at the Lone Stag.”

Her face was as blank as a seasoned poker player. He could tell she wanted to ask why anyone would meet at a lonely deer. “It’s a tavern,” he whispered moving closer, inhaling her warm scent. “When lying, it’s always best to stay as near the truth as possible.”

The ship rocked with a strong wave, the girl grabbed her hat and said in a soft soprano voice, “I wouldn’t know.”

Ocean spray hit him in the face and when he finished blinking, she had gone. He looked across the deck; all was still and dark. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve and moved away from the rail. The slick deck made any movement precarious. Walking took nearly all his concentration, but then he saw a flash of movement in the moonlight. He hurried after her, as best he could.

#

Verity tripped down the stairs leading to her berth, her heart thrashing and her breath ragged. She’d been on the ship for weeks and no one had guessed or suspected her disguise. Or so she supposed. She blamed the hair. She should have cut it. He never would have guessed if she’d cut her hair. Momentarily bracing herself against the wall as a wave tilted the ship, she considered her options. She’d have to stay in her room and have food delivered by the revolting little man, whom, she was quite sure, pilfered off her tray. Her stomach clenched when she thought of all the lovely produce that had been loaded onto the ship in Los Angeles. Oranges, grapes, and cucumbers. She glanced over her shoulder, looking for the man from the deck, but saw no one, just a long corridor lit by flickering lamps. Perhaps he would keep her secret.

No. She couldn’t trust him or anyone. Steele had taught her well.

The ship tossed on a wave and the lights wavered. In the hall, all of the berths were closed and only a few had candlelight peeking beneath the doors. When a man spoke in her ear, she jumped.

“Mr. Steele,” a voice drawled. “Why I do believe you’ve lost a hundred pounds since we last met.”

Verity’s heart stopped. Had she fooled no one? Had she’d only hoodwinked herself? She whirled to see the man named Wallace from the card-table standing in a doorway. He had his shirt undone revealing his ripped chest muscles.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said in her best baritone.

“Mr. Steele, I’m offended. We’ve shared countless business ventures.” He held the door to his room open, exposing a berth with gray tumbled sheets. “Presently, I think we have something to…discuss, payment for my discretion?”

Verity stepped backward. “I think not.”

How to Shake Off a Funk

Is there something in your life slowing you down? Is there someone whose conversation fills your mind with dark thoughts? Is there an addiction that trips you up? Is there a compulsion eating up your time and energy? Who, or what, is sucking your mojo?

Nothing? Really? Be honest.

Try this exercise. Set aside ten minutes where you know you won’t be interrupted. Lay flat on your back and take six deep breaths—releasing each one slowly. For the six breaths, think about nothing but your breathing. Then let your mind wander. For ten minutes you are absolutely free of your frustrations.

Now, imagine your life without that frustration. Maybe your frustration is so huge, so overwhelming, you think you can’t let it go. But you can. And what if you did? Imagine your life without that devil on your back. Imagine a day—from the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to bed—without that frustration. What would your day look like? How different would it be? How would it change you? Your behavior? Your happiness? Your thoughts?

Often the problem is not really a problem unless we make it one. We assign the power. We allow another person to constantly hurt us. We pick up the cookie, cigarette, bottle, or phone. “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” William Shakespeare wrote. And that’s the worst sort of fault—the one we can root out, but don’t. The fault that eats at our self-image and kills all our hopes.

Another exercise: take any object, even one as small as an iPod, and hold it in front of your eyes. It’s all you can see. But if you move it away, you can see all sorts of things. Consider all those other things that fill your life and be grateful for the good. If you can, shake off the bad. If you can’t set it down and walk away from it, try moving it out of the forefront of your thoughts and sight.

So much easier said than done. But is it really? Sometimes we think it takes eons to change, but history tells us otherwise. The Apostle Paul went from an antagonizer (I know that’s not a word, but I can’t think of a better one) to a disciple in a few short days.

So, what can you shake off? What can you cut out of your life? How can you restart?

What if you stopped obsessing about your weight? Can you throw out your bathroom scale? Treat yourself to nourishing food? Take a walk outside? Look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are a beautiful child of God?

Are there gossips or Negative-Nellys in your life? Can you find someone else to chat with? Or when you are forced into their conversation, can you steer it in a better direction? Maybe you have to say—“I’m feeling a little down, can we talk about something happy?”

Is your car a clunker? Can you replace it with a bike?

If you need some money, is there something you can sell?

If you’re lonely and bored, is there someone you can serve?

Find one thing in your life that you can absolutely live without and get rid of it. Set it down and walk away. When my friend’s husband left, she took all of his things that he left behind to the beach and built a bonfire. In the Book of Mormon when the Anti-Lehi-Nephites resolved to be a peace-loving people they buried their weapons. Is there something you can burn? Do you have weapons to bury?

I do. I’m doing it today, because it’s hard to dance with the devil on my back.