Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Read and Excerpt From Diving for Pearls: The Complete Collection by Melissa Storm


Barnes & Noble

She saved her daughter’s life.
Now she must save her soul.

Although Elizabeth died giving birth to her daughter, her death wasn’t the end. She awakens to find her sacrifice has transformed her into a special kind of angel—a protector—and if she is able to help her charge through the Pearly Gates, she too will be welcomed into Heaven.

Elizabeth is both heartbroken and overjoyed when she finds she’ll be watching over Daisy, the daughter she never got to meet. She’d like nothing more than to live with her little girl in paradise, but being a guardian is hard work. Will Elizabeth be reunited with her daughter, or forced to suffer in silence as she watches Daisy make mistakes that place her just out of Heaven’s reach?

This special collection includes all ten parts of Elizabeth and Daisy’s journey along with exclusive bonus content, including:

* Peter’s Story, a glimpse into the history of the series’ most enigmatic character
* Angels in Our Lives, an angel story for animal lovers
* A reader’s guide to the Pearl Makers universe and mythology
* A foreword from the author discussing her personal connection to the story
* An extended ending with all-new scenes

Ultimately, Diving for Pearls weaves the tale of sacrifice, redemption, and unyielding love is for anyone who believes in angels—or is looking for a reason to believe.


A strange pressing sensation, that’s how it started. Elizabeth moved her hand away from her full, pregnant belly, but still the phantom pushing feeling continued, even stronger than before.
“Theo...” She shook her husband awake. “I think it may be time.”
Theo slung an arm across her torso and mumbled without even bothering to open his eyes.
Pain shot from her bellybutton down into her legs, twisting as it crawled toward her toes. She let out a gasp and wrapped her arms around herself to try to keep from screaming.
Theo shot upright, an expression of concern tugging at his worn features. “How can it be time? The due date is more than a month away. It’s too early.”
Elizabeth nodded. Tears fell onto her pajama bottoms, splashing the happy, pink clouds.
“Okay, okay. Let’s go. Everything is going to be okay, honey. It’s gotta be.”
She let him pull her to her feet and usher her to the car parked outside on the curb, but somehow Elizabeth couldn’t believe her husband’s promise, no matter how much she wanted to.
* * *
“Eclampsia,” the doctor said with a frown. He stood at the end of Elizabeth’s bed and studied her chart.
A million thoughts raced through Elizabeth’s mind, but the only one that mattered was will my baby be okay? She bit her lower lip to keep the tears at bay. If she was going to get through this, she’d need to be strong.
“We’ll take good care of you.” A nurse smiled as she pushed an IV into the back of Elizabeth’s hand. “Everything will be all right.”
“The baby has to come out now. The OR is just finishing up with the last cesarean. As soon as they’re done sanitizing the room, you’ll be headed in. I need to go help them get ready, but I will see you again soon.” The doctor dashed out, even though there was so much Elizabeth needed to ask. Everything was moving at the speed of light, too fast to contemplate. This definitely wasn’t the birth plan she’d envisioned.
“Smile. You’re going to meet your baby today.” The nurse squeezed Elizabeth’s hand.
Minutes later they wheeled her into a sterile room engulfed in white and metal. It looked more mental ward than maternity. Theo had been made to wait out in the hall. They’d pushed throw-away scrubs and a hospital mask his way, told him to change, said he could join her once they had begun. But she needed him now, needed him to whisper jokes in her ear as the anesthetist shoved a long needle into her spine, needed him as they moved her from the gurney to the operating table, as they put up the curtain and sliced into her abdomen.
And she knew even before the monitor beside her started beeping wildly out of control, even before someone shouted “BP’s 240 over 160 and climbing fast” and several other someones hovered above her, injecting things into her arms, pressing other things into her chest, speaking loudly and moving swiftly.
Please let my baby be okay, she prayed even though the words couldn’t find her lips. And the last thing she heard before it all faded to static was the sound of her newborn taking that precious first breath and crying into the chaos that surrounded them.
Everything went white.
* * *
The unyielding wall of white surrounded her like an embrace, absorbed her, became her. Nothing existed except for the vast blankness. She drifted through it, a mere ripple in the endless ocean. Time passed, but not in any discernible way. She didn’t know where she was or why, but she also didn’t think to question this new plane of existence. It, like she, just was.
The milky infinity at last separated to reveal the silhouette of an enormous city on the horizon. And this city was made of all the most spectacular colors in the sky’s repertoire—pinks, purples, oranges, yellows, blue—an impossibly beautiful structure built of sunrise. Flanking the ethereal village stood two soaring gates made of the finest yellow gold and dotted with pearls, each of which loomed larger than the distant moon.
The current carried her forward, but before she could pass through the gates, a figure materialized to bar her entrance.
“Elizabeth,” it said, and at once she remembered who she was and how she had come here.
I died—the acknowledgment flooded her awareness, but it did not make her sad. Her body now formed around her, but it felt clunky and foreign.
“I am Peter,” the man said as his body also materialized before her—a dimpled chin, wavy blond hair, and long limbs. The perfect likeness of someone she knew very well. Theo.
“You look exactly like my husband, but how?”
“I made myself familiar to give you comfort, for we have much to discuss.”
“Am I in Heaven?” she asked, already sure of the answer.
“Yes. Do you remember how you died?”
Elizabeth thought back to her last moments on Earth. A cry escaped before she could choke it back. “Please tell me, Peter—is my baby okay?”
“Yes, she is. Your sacrifice saved her.”
Her? I had a girl? Tears of joy sprang to her eyes. As magnificent as her new home had proven, she also couldn’t bear the thought of never knowing her daughter, of leaving her baby without a mother, leaving her husband without a partner.
Peter placed a hand on her shoulder, and although she couldn’t feel it, the gesture still brought comfort. He waited until her racing thoughts slowed, waited for her to work her situation out, and continue their conversation.
“So is this it? Do I cross through those gates, and never see my family again?” She raised both arms to motion toward the gates—so tall they appeared to carry on forever into the sky.
“Your life is over, yes, but this is not the end of your journey. You are not ready for Heaven, Elizabeth.”
Fear took hold as she murmured, “Are you sending me to that other place?”
Peter chortled. “No, no, not at all. But, you see, you aren’t yet ready to cross through those gates and become a Pearl. Your heart is still tied to the world. To live here, your heart must be free and ready for paradise.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“You’ve proven your capacity for great love by sacrificing yourself in order to save your daughter. You also miss her and need her in the same way she will need your protection as she goes through life. While I cannot undo what has already been done, I can send you back to Earth. You will be transformed into a special kind of angel, a protector.”
“You’re making me a guardian angel?”
“Yes, so you can watch over your daughter and know your sacrifice was not in vain, so you will complete your unfinished business, and so that you will be ready. Come with me. I will make everything clear.”
* * *
Elizabeth blinked, and when she opened her eyes again, she found herself in the hospital room from before. The scents of hand sanitizer and baby formula mingled in the air, saturating her consciousness. Across the room, a stooped figure hunched over in a chair crying softly.
Theo, the real Theo. She rushed to his side and reached for his hand to give it a squeeze. But her fingers passed right through his.
“Remember, you don’t have a body anymore. It will take some getting used to.” She turned to face the angel, taking in his tall, lanky frame and dark features. He no longer held Theo’s form.
“But I can see. I can hear. I can smell. How am I able to do all that without a body?” She tried once again to caress her husband. He was so close but so unattainable—pure torture.
“You have the senses you need to do your job. Nothing more.” Peter’s expression was solemn as if he had chosen to hold back something important. Elizabeth was just about to ask for clarification, when a petite nurse entered the room pushing a large cart in ahead of her.
“Somebody wants to see her daddy.” The nurse’s peppy voice did not match her worn expression.
Theo raised his head and wiped the backs of his hands across his face. “I don’t know if I’m ready…”
“Ready or not, this baby needs you. You’re all she’s got now.” The nurse gave him an apologetic tilt of the head and pressed the baby into his arms.
“But that’s not true,” Elizabeth argued. “I’m right here. She has me. Theo, you have me.”
Theo stared straight ahead, seemingly unable to glance down at the child who had so recently replaced his wife as the number one person in his life.
“Honey, it’s okay. You can love her. You need to love her. For me,” Elizabeth pleaded while Peter steepled his fingers in front of his chest.
Theo sniffled and ventured a glance toward the pink bundle that squirmed in his lap.
“That’s it,” Peter whispered. “Keep talking to him.”
She took a deep breath and then told Theo that she was here, that she loved them both so much, that everything was going to be all right. By the time she had finished what she needed to say, a smile had overtaken her husband’s sullen expression.
He bent down to kiss the baby’s forehead. “It’s just you and me now, baby. You and me against the world.”
The baby cooed and suckled on her receiving blanket, and Theo chuckled softly.
“But I can’t call you baby forever, can I? You need a name.”
Elizabeth bent over Theo’s shoulder to look her newborn in the face. “Please name her Daisy,” she whispered. “I always wanted a little girl named Daisy.”
Theo perked up as if he’d heard her simple plea. A moment later Elizabeth’s suspicion was confirmed when he lifted the baby toward his face and said, “You know what? I think I’ll call you Daisy.”

Too Much Too Soon Internet Dating Blues by Nicholl McGuire



You have dated online and are still doing it. You might have met your current partner online. However, what some of your closest friends don't know is that you have your share of doubts. You also have some troubling stories too. The Internet blues seems to be setting in, but you can't really talk with too many people since the person that you are with is a product of your surfing. In this book, "Too Much Too Soon Internet Dating Blues," inspirational speaker and author Nicholl McGuire provides advice on making better connections, being more discerning when online, dealing with offline issues, and anticipating what might lie ahead when things go terribly wrong. Having dated in the past online and offline, McGuire shares some lessons learned and reminds readers often why it is so important to take your time when dating. She is detailed in sharing what exactly it means to slow down a bit on the information superhighway in this work.

If you are tired of the disappointments that follow after meeting someone via the Internet, you need to get this book. If you noticed that you are not making quality connections online, do consider reading this work. If you are simply curious and just want to see what you are missing out on, then you too are welcome to purchase this book.

Those suffering with any form of Internet blues from headache to heartache, you are not alone! Many people who have met on the Internet are quietly regretting their online decisions offline. McGuire admits that in her own life, she moved way too fast. It is very easy to get so caught up in the fun of meeting someone new that you can temporarily lose your common sense. If you made some mistakes, don't beat yourself up, you can and will make a positive difference and experience the joy of Internet dating once again if you can learn to pace yourself, exercise self control and be more discerning. The Internet is really not the issue, according to the author, but the people using it.

Get this informative guide today and start enhancing your dating experiences! McGuire has written over 12 books, lives in Southern California with her husband (she met online) and has four children. She speaks about spiritual related topics on YouTube channel: nmenterprise7, provides virtual assistance, and blogs. To learn more about this author and her latest projects, subscribe to her blog: http://nichollmcguire.blogspot.com and also check out http://lovedatingadvice.blogspot.com

Monday, February 27, 2017

An Interview with Suzanne Stengl

Hello everyone. I’m Carla Roma and I’m here with Suzanne Stengl, the author of THE GHOST AND CHRISTIE McFEE.

I found Suzanne in the little village of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal in the Galapagos Islands. Or as they say here, Las Islas Galápagos.

We’re enjoying some ice tea in an open air restaurant beside the ocean and watching the sea lions lazing on the beach.

Carla: I’m glad to finally meet you, Suzanne. Do you have time for a few questions about your book, THE GHOST AND CHRISTIE McFEE?

Suzanne: (pouring a pitcher of water over her head…) I have all the time in the world.

Carla: It’s really hot here, isn’t it?

Suzanne: It sure is. Forty-five degrees Celsius. In the shade.

Carla: Whoa. (fanning herself) What’s that in Fahrenheit?

Suzanne: You don’t want to know.

Carla: I understand you have some pretty authentic details about scuba diving in your book?

Suzanne: Yes, authentic. I’ve experienced every one of them.

Carla: I’m beginning to understand how hot it would be wearing a 7 mil neoprene wet suit in this heat. Do you really need a wet suit? The water doesn’t look that cold.

Suzanne: The water temperature here ranges from 64 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface, depending on the season. Of course it gets colder as you go deeper. So you need a wet suit.

Carla: If it’s as low as 64 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s similar to the temperature of Lost Lake, isn’t that right?

Suzanne: Yes, it’s similar. And in both places, in a wet suit, the temperature is perfect – once you’re underwater. It’s beautiful. (She looks out at the ocean.) There’s a wreck right here, in the harbor.

Carla: A wreck?

Suzanne: A sunken ship. It makes an artificial reef. A place for algae to grow and invertebrates like barnacles and corals and oysters. They provide food for the smaller fish, and then the smaller fish in turn provide food for the larger fish.

Carla: (fanning herself) I don’t know how the tourists can stand wearing a wet suit until they get in the water.

Suzanne: Most tourists live aboard boats and dive from them. Their sleeping quarters are air-conditioned. (She dumps another pitcher of water over her head.)

Carla: Do the staff care about you doing that?

Suzanne: No, they’re used to me.

(The waitress brings another pitcher of water, and another pitcher of ice tea, and sets them on the table.)

Suzanne: Muchas gracias.

Carla: OK, let’s talk about your book. The opening scene in GHOST has your heroine on a dive boat. And she’s seasick. Have you personally experienced that?

Suzanne: I sure have. We did an 8-day tour aboard the Yolita here, in the inner islands, with a group of 16 passengers and 5 crew. Every one of the passengers got sick on the first day. Including Rolf.

Carla: Rolf is your husband?

Suzanne: Yes, he is. He’s a traveler.

Carla: You’re quite the traveler too, I must say.

Suzanne: No, I’m not. I’m a tourist. There’s a difference.

Carla: Then, you’re quite the tourist.

Suzanne: I’m the tourist from hell. (She dumps more water over her head.) I should have known I’d get seasick, since I also get carsick, and bus sick, and avoid roller coasters. And like I said, everyone got sick for a day. But since I’m so good at being seasick, I did it for the full eight days.

Carla: That must have been horrible!

Suzanne: Parts of it. Parts of it were great. The food was excellent. Although it would have been even better if I hadn’t been so nauseous. And the passengers aboard the Yolita were incredible. Mostly young travelers, all interesting people. The sixteen of us would sit around the big table for meals. For the first few days, French was the default language and then we changed out a few passengers and the default language became English. We had Italian, Swiss, British, Swedes, one guy from California, and the French.

Every day we walked different trails on different islands and saw the endemic plants and animals.

It was a mixed blessing, being on shore. No seasickness, but the heat was extreme. For me, anyway. Before I left the boat, I’d soak my shirt so I could be cool for a time. At the end of the hike, I’d walk into the ocean. I love my Tilley hat . . . because I can dip it in the water and douse my head, when it isn’t possible to jump in completely.

Carla: When would it not be possible to jump in completely?

Suzanne: If it was a beach that the sea lions had claimed. They can be territorial.

Carla: (glances uneasily at the sea lion occupying the bench in front of her.)

Suzanne: I don’t know why they love those benches, but they do.

Carla: Okaaay . . . So, you slept aboard the boat? Weren’t you seasick while you were trying to sleep?

Suzanne: Yes. Some nights, when we were making a long open water crossing between islands, it was especially rough. Many of us would lie on the sundeck and watch the stars.

Carla: And that helped the seasickness?

Suzanne: Yes. The stars don’t move so they are a reference point. It’s like focusing on the horizon in the daylight. And it was fun, lying there with everyone. Kind of like a pajama party.

Carla: Hmmm. But with being so seasick, weren’t you afraid you’d be sick while you were diving? That couldn’t be good.

Suzanne: It’s a real leap of faith, for someone like me – a non-adventurous tourist – to sit in a zodiac fully loaded with dive tank, 7 mil neoprene and 13 pounds of weights. And feeling nauseous. If you throw up underwater, it’s important to keep the regulator in your mouth.

Carla: ewww.

Suzanne: Otherwise, you’ll drown. But I learned to deep breathe until we tipped over the side. And then all of a sudden, I was underwater and no longer rocking and I was out of the heat. My head was instantly clear and, for about 30 to 40 minutes, life was normal. At least, it was normal for my head and my stomach. The rest of the world was not normal.

Carla: Not normal?

Suzanne: No, it was amazing. Sea turtles, sea lions, penguins, sharks, rainbows of fish. And when we weren’t diving, we were snorkeling. Snorkeling with the little penguins is something I will remember forever.

Carla: Too bad you can’t forget about this heat. Can you pass me that water jug?

Suzanne: Sure. Help yourself.

Carla: (dumping water over her head) I’m glad it’s not this hot in Bandit Creek.

Suzanne: ¡Yo también!

Carla: Does your heroine Christie McFee get over her nausea and learn to love diving?

Suzanne: You’ve just read the first chapter so far, right?

Carla: Yes.

Suzanne: Then you’ll find out in chapter two. More ice tea?

Carla: Please!

Author Bio:

I’ve been telling stories since I was a child. Then, it was stories about fairies and mermaids, told to my sisters when we were supposed to be sleeping. As a teenager, I wrote long diary entries and I wrote short pieces of fiction—that no one but me ever read.

Don’t get me wrong, I was not a total recluse. I did lots of “real world” things too. I became a nurse, I spent time with friends, I traveled a lot. And I always wrote.

Sometimes after a difficult day at work, I would re-create the day in a story that had a better ending. That’s still what I do—I create stories with happy, hopeful endings.

“Suzanne Stengl has a lovely voice with a subtle hint of humor.” A.M. Westerling, author of A KNIGHT FOR LOVE

“Suzanne Stengl’s descriptions and characters are really memorable.” Amy Jo Fleming, author of DEATH AT BANDIT CREEK

The Ghost and Christie McFee (Bandit Creek Sweet)
$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

A new diver, an underwater ghost town, two ghosts—

Even though Lost Lake is renowned for claiming the lives of divers searching for the legendary gold buried in its depths, Christie McFee is determined to explore the Lake’s underwater ghost town. And when a ghost from the past convinces her to join the treasure hunt, she throws her usual caution overboard.

Sure that the talk of ghosts is strictly for tourists, Gaven St. Michel, local Divemaster, is confident he can keep Christie’s lovely body from being added to the Lake’s count—until another ghost appears amid the watery graves in Bandit Creek.

Will Gaven be able to protect Christie as she drifts deeper into the murkiness of this unsolved mystery from long ago?
(A novella – Cozy Mystery, Light Paranormal)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Get Silk and Shadows by Mary Jo Putney for FREE!



He called himself Peregrine, the wanderer, and he came to London for revenge...

Like the falcon he named himself for, Peregrine is wild and free, an exotic prince who fascinates 1839 London with his wealth, mystery, and dangerous allure. He emerged from his mysterious Asiatic past to exact retribution for an appalling crime. Nothing and no one can stop him—except perhaps Lady Sara St. James, whose fragile beauty conceals a gentle heart, genuine goodness, and a soul of steel.

Unable to resist his seductive charm, Lady Sara turns away from her ordered life to embrace a man she loves, but cannot fully trust. In Sara, Peregrine sees a chance for a life beyond revenge. But can he keep her without revealing his devastating secrets? Or protect her from the enemy he has vowed to destroy?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fur, Fangs and All by Meredith Allen Conner Excerpt


Barnes and Noble

A desperate werewolf

Beaten down and exhausted from a life on the run, Livie takes refuge with her sister while recovering from a bullet wound. The only problem is she can’t relax. How can she when she is surrounded by werewolves? Big and powerful with the ability to grow fur and lethal fangs, the creatures horrify her. Especially him.

A frightened woman with an amazing power

All he has ever wanted is to find his mate. The moment he smells her, Roc knows he has finally found his mate. And she is terrified of him. He never expected to have this problem with his mate. But he will do anything to keep her and make her his. If that means chaining her to his bed . . . so be it.

Alone they have nothing, but together they can have it all.


The werewolf crouched in front of her. His long hair curled over his shoulders, hiding most of his face. From between the dark, silky strands his eyes glowed, chocolate brown with swirls of amber so deep and dark red it reminded her of a pool of blood caught in moonlight. His mouth parted as he drew in her scent and she eyed the sharp edges of his elongated fangs between his firm lips.

A thin trail of blood slashed across a gap in his denim shirt, oozing in tiny rivulets down his chest. Even as she watched the blood stopped and the welt sealed shut.

Livie pressed up on her elbows, eased cautiously back a few inches. He lunged forward. She froze, but he didn’t attack her. He crouched over her, knees planted on either side of her legs, arms thrust out next to her shoulders, caging her with his body, but not quite touching her, not hurting her. Not yet.

She drew in a sharp breath at a scratching sound. A quick sideways glance confirmed that deadly claws tipped his fingers. She tried to contain another whimper, but part of it still escaped. He tensed above her and his husky growl turned softer and lower, almost as if he was trying to . . . to comfort me?

She stiffened her arms, scooted her butt up a hesitant inch and moved her right elbow back. His soft growl deepened, no longer soothing, now threatening. He lowered his head, halting mere inches from her face, the warmth of his breath brushed over her face. She froze. She didn’t dare to breathe. She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t. She didn’t want to see his fangs before they bit her.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Three River Ranch by Roxanne Snopek


Barnes & Noble

USA TODAY Bestseller!

Marriage of inconvenience?
Needing a fresh start from her two-timing fiancé, Aurora McAllister answers a realtor's ad for a guesthouse on the beautiful, serene Three River Ranch. She shows up at Three River tired, heartbroken, and with no one but her trusty Labradoodle as a companion.

Cowboy Carson Granger has enough trouble in his life without adding a woman and her dog to the mix. There's the untamed mustang he's prepping to release into the wild, not to mention his father's crazy will, which stipulates that if Carson wants to fully inherit Three River, he'll need to find a bride. Carson wants nothing to do with love and especially not a marriage of convenience. But he soon realizes Rory, and everything she represents, might just be exactly what he needs.

Sometimes love arrives on your doorstep when you least expect it...
Read the complete THREE RIVER RANCH series:
Book 1: Three River Ranch
Book 2: His Reluctant Rancher
Book 3: Fake Fiance, Real Revenge
Book 3.5: Saving the Sheriff (novella)
Book 4: Resisting the Rancher

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sweet Somethings by Eve Summers



Love can be found anywhere: at a school reunion, on a yacht, in the library, even in your own marriage. Filled with gentle humor, champagne and an occasional dachshund puppy, these 11 love stories will make you smile and remember what Romance with a capital R is all about.


This is my To–Do–Before–I–Turn–30 list:
·        Eat an ostrich egg. Check.
·        Play with a cheetah cub. Check.
·        Swim with a dolphin. Check.
·        Scuba dive in a foreign country. Double check for doing it at night.
·        Skydive. Check, bonus points because I wasn’t scared.
·        Dare to love again. Nah, cross it out. So not going to happen. I’ve learned
        my lesson.
·        Make love on a yacht.
·        ... With a stranger for extra points.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into one–night stands. The idea of getting close and intimate with someone I’m not emotionally involved with gives me the creeps. I only included it in my to–do list because I was hurt and devastated and not thinking straight.
Getting dumped wasn’t on my to–do list.
Neither was an impromptu trip to Africa.
When my now–ex–boyfriend broke up with me, I simply sold my engagement ring and booked the first holiday package I found. My Before–I–Turn–30 list was born on the long flight towards the Dark Continent.
And now I’m in Africa. The sun is hot. The air is hot. My energy levels are up there with over–boiling. In just two short weeks, I managed to put a big fat checkmark next to five items on my bucket list.

Beats choosing the wedding cake, that’s for damned sure.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

You Belong with Me by Melissa Storm


Amazon Kindle
Apple iBooks
Barnes & Noble

Opposites may attract … but can they ever make love last?

It's true Charlie Rockwell has a history of rash decisions that have left her wary of attachments. But when she sees the sad-eyed Rottie on TV, her heart kind of melts. Of course, she realizes too late she's adopted a huge dog with no manners and even less training. When a simple trip to the dog park turns into a disaster of epic proportions, she finds herself thrust into the path of a handsome stranger, Will.

Will Porter believes in order and routine. He's quiet and well-behaved, just like his model canine, a golden retriever named Tuck. Will can hardly control his anger when a savage Rottweiler picks a fight with poor Tuck at the dog park… Until he gazes into the lovely owner's tearful eyes and finds himself offering to help tame her dog's beastly behavior. A mistake, as he soon realizes she bears an uncanny likeness to his ex.

Can Will get past her resemblance to his past, and learn to love—and trust—again? And can Charlie find the joy in a simpler, more settled existence? Who knows, maybe opposites can not only attract, but also stick together.

Don't miss this pet-friendly romp with romance--get your copy of You Belong with Me today!


The scrawny Rottweiler's eyes connected with Charlie's through the TV screen, begging her to save him. What if nobody else called in? What if she was his last chance at finding a home? Well, crap. She couldn't just let him die.
Charlie grabbed her cell phone, called the local news station hosting the adoptable pets segment, and signed on the dotted line. Not once did she think she might be making a mistake. Not once did she consider the fact she'd been unable to commit to a man—or even a roommate—longer than two measly months.
And now she planned to commit to a one-year-old canine coming straight out of a neglected past?
Well, adventure had certainly found her, whether she'd asked for it or not.
The rescue volunteers didn't ask her many questions before inviting her to visit the kennel and come pick him up. If they had, maybe she'd have changed her mind.
She might have seen this as a move with the potential of becoming the biggest mistake of her entire life. Worse than the time she'd left mid-semester her junior year to travel to India in search of the answer to life. Worse than the time she'd gotten so caught up in the excitement of V for Vendetta she'd shaved her head in homage. Even worse than the time she'd practically eloped with a guy she'd only dated three weeks, because it seemed like a good and wildly romantic idea at the time.
At least she'd talked herself out of that one.
But what good did escaping one bad decision do, if she'd just replaced it with another by committing herself to a strange dog for—what?—ten years?
Charlie took a deep breath and gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. No going back now. She may have been impulsive, but she had a heart, damn it, and she wouldn't abandon a dog no one else wanted in the first place. Definitely too late to change her mind at this point.
"Now or never," she said to the hula dancer figurine on her dashboard before grabbing her purse and slamming the car door behind her.
"Oh, you must be Charlotte Rockwell." A volunteer with a sloppy button-up shirt and a way-too-large smile greeted her the second she entered the shelter.
Charlie nodded, pretending her feet were one million pound weights gluing her to the linoleum floor below—the only way she'd be able to avoid making a break for it.
"I'm Angela. Come on and follow me to the back." Her oversized smile grew even larger as she turned and trotted toward the back of the building.
Charlie's eyes darted to the floor to check if Angela's shoes sported actual springs.
"I'm sure Ruby told you everything you need to know when she stopped by for the home check, right?"
She nodded, even though she didn't have the slightest idea who Ruby was. The woman certainly hadn't been by her house for a visit.
"Perfect! Rugby's such a sweet boy once you get to know him. I'm so glad he's finally found a good home. You must be thrilled."
Once you get to know him?
What did that mean?
She was this close to changing her mind and dashing straight out of there, but then they pushed through the large metal door to the kennel and Rugby glanced up at her with those same sad eyes that had melted her heart in the first place.
She was screwed.
"Hi, Rugby," Angela cooed. "Look who it is. Your new mommy's come to take you home. Who's a good boy? Yes, you are."
Charlie sank to a squatting position and stuck her index finger through the metal fencing.
Rugby stretched and raised himself into a sitting position. He sniffed her hand delicately and gave her a huge sloppy lick.
"Oh, see. You two are perfect! Best buds already," Angela squealed. She rattled off a litany of instructions, shoved a folder of paperwork into one hand, and the leash to Charlie's new 115-pound baby in the other, and together dog and woman headed home.


Will Porter stifled a laugh as he watched the petite blonde tear into the dog park at the end of her Rottweiler's leash. Hardly three seconds passed as they sprinted from the parking lot to the first entry gate.
When the girl unhitched the second entry gate, her dog ran away at lightning speed, not even allowing her to remove his leash. Her eyes darted from side to side as if to make sure nobody had witnessed the mishap.
Luckily, Will looked away before she could catch him staring. He allowed his gaze to settle on her again as she ran after her squatting dog with a plastic baggie cupped over her hand.
Despite the circumstances, he couldn't ignore her beauty. Blond hair escaped from her ponytail and clung to her cheeks in tendrils. Her delicate lips and nose were balanced by huge brown eyes and thick lashes. She almost reminded him of....
He snapped his attention away. Couldn't be thinking like that. Not today. He needed a distraction, and fast.
Will’s golden retriever jogged over and nuzzled his thigh.
"Good boy." As he scratched the dog's head, he sensed her eyes on him, but he refused to look—refused to give her any reason to come over and start a conversation. When had he become such a bitter old man?
He was hardly thirty—way too young to write off the opposite sex altogether. He should still be in his party phase, flirting with any pretty girl who happened to look his way, taking as many of them to bed as possible. But, no, he wasn't like that—even though he often wished he were. Would have saved him the heartache of....
He grabbed the ball Tuck had dropped at his feet and hurled it toward the horizon as hard as he could. The dog raced after it in a blur of golden fur and pounding feet.
Too late, he noticed the massive black blur moving in on the ball from the opposite side of the park.
"Rugby, no!" the blonde girl screamed, but her reprimand fell on deaf ears.
The two dogs reached the single ball at the exact same time. The Rottweiler bared his teeth, a low growl emanating from his throat, but Tuck wouldn't back down. The poor dog didn't even realize what was about to happen. Why would he? He'd never run into such an aggressive, undertrained beast before.
Tuck barked an invitation for the other dog to play, and Will took off running to save his poor, over-trusting pet from the inevitable fight.
The hairs on the back of the Rottweiler's back bristled. His growl grew louder, and he lunged.
"Rugby, no!" The girl raced toward the dogs.
Tuck whimpered and ran back to Will, but the other dog slinked after him with a predatory gait.
"Hey, lady. How about controlling your dog?" he spat.
The blonde grabbed the end of the leash that was still attached to her dog and pulled him back. "I'm so sorry. I...." A sudden onslaught of tears overwhelmed her words.
Now Will felt like a bigger monster than her damned dog.
"Hey, it's okay. Tuck's just fine. No harm done." He patted the dog's head and turned toward the other side of the park, but before he could gain much distance, she spoke again.
"Really, I'm sorry. I've only had Rugby for a few days, and I don't really have any experience with dogs. I thought if I brought him here, I'd see how more experienced people act with their dogs. Maybe learn a thing two." She sniffed back a tear and stared up at him with large, brown eyes—eyes far too familiar for his liking.
Why did she get such a difficult breed if she knows nothing about taking care of a dog? Will couldn't help but wonder. Still, he felt like he should offer something helpful before parting ways.
"Good luck with your training. Try watching The Dog Whisperer maybe."
His hold on her eyes broke when Rugby stood on his hind legs to lick the tears from his owner's face.
She chuckled and gently pushed the Rottweiler back on all fours, then wiped the slobber from her cheeks with the backs of her hands. Turning serious again, she said, "Thanks, I will, but... I just don't know what to do. I'm his last chance. The shelter had him for weeks. He even appeared on the adoptable pet segment of the news three separate times. Nobody wanted him except me. If I can't make it work, I'm practically signing his death warrant."
Will frowned. What could he say to that?
"Hey, your dog is really well-behaved. Maybe you can help us?"
Crap. He didn't want to spend time with a girl who reminded him way too much of the woman who'd turned him off love altogether, but at the same time, he couldn't refuse if it meant saving the dog's life.
"I—I'll pay. I'll pay whatever it takes. Only, please help us." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and offered a weak smile.
"Okay, sure," he gave in. "And don't worry, you don't have to pay me anything." He didn't return her smile. He couldn't let her think he was doing this for any other reason than to save the dog.
"Oh, thank you. Thank you so much!" She wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. "You have no idea how much you're helping me. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Warmth spread through Will's body. He took a deep breath and let his arms go slack. She's just a girl, he reminded himself. Just a girl.
"I'm Charlotte by the way. Friends call me Charlie." She released him from the hug and tucked a strand of hair behind her other ear.
"Will." He drew a business card from his wallet. "Call me, and we'll set something up."
As soon as she accepted the card, he retreated to the other side of the park and tried not to think about how her touch had stirred something deep within him.
A girl. Just a girl.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Freebies and Deals for February 20, 2017

Smolder (Firefighters of Montana Book 1) by Tracy Solheim

Former Army Ranger, Sam Gaskill, is starting over in Glacier Creek, Montana - far away from the plains of Texas and the memories of his late wife. Taking charge as the new captain of a squad of smoke jumpers should provide him with enough adrenaline to chase away the ghosts from his past. Until a sexy, green-eyed temptress with a sassy mouth enters the picture…

Laurel Keenan, champion horsewoman, couldn’t wait to escape her hometown. But instead, an ailing mother and an unplanned pregnancy landed the impetuous dreamer right back on her father’s ranch. Laurel has managed to lead a quiet life with her young son—until she sets eyes on the tough guy with the sexy ass.

Sam already failed one woman; he won’t trust his heart with another. And Laurel is determined not to risk her heart—or her son’s—on another thrill-seeker. Can their slow burn lead to a love that lasts?

Chasing Charlie by Kathy Carmichael

Raised in a family of rodeo champions on a South Texas cattle ranch, Charlie wants only one thing: to avoid thrill-seeking cowboys.

Davis Murphy, cowboy wannabe and one of Dallas's most eligible bachelors, needs a pretty and witty faux fiancée so his widowed mother will marry her longtime gentleman friend. Charlie, his local librarian, seems the prefect choice.

Charlie's first reaction is to run, but she's promised herself to step out of her plain-jane routine. When Charlie accepts, Davis's plan is set. But now Charlie's sweet ways are challenging his bachelor heart.

The Great Catsby by Kathi Daley
$0.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

Cait's friend Alex who we met in The Cat of Christmas Past returns to Madrona Island a vastly changed man. It seems that wealth has made an impact on his personality and not in a good way. During one of the legendary parties Alex has become famous for throwing one of the guests dies and it looks as if Alex may have blood on his hands. Cait and Cody set out to prove Alex's innocence with the help of Ebenezer, the cat we met in The Cat of Christmas Past.

Deadly Strain by Julie Rowe

Book one of Biological Response Team

Major Grace Samuels, a trauma surgeon deployed to Afghanistan, spends her life helping her fellow soldiers overcome disease and combat injuries. But her own wounds are harder to heal. Wracked with guilt over the death of a fellow soldier, she finds comfort in her only friend and appointed bodyguard, weapons sergeant Jacob "Sharp" Foster.

Sharp feels more for Grace than a soldier should, more than he wants to admit. When the team discovers a new, quick-to-kill strain of anthrax, he tries to focus on the mission to find its source. He knows he can help Grace defeat her demons, but first they must defeat the deadly outbreak.

Sharp is Grace's most loyal ally, but in close quarters, he starts to feel like more. She can't watch someone else she cares about die—but she might not have a choice. The closer they get to finding the source of the strain, the closer it gets to finding them.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Read Chapter 1 of Death by Chocolate by Sally Berneathy


First book in the Death by Chocolate series

Lindsay loves chocolate. It tastes good, it makes her feel good, it never cheats on her like her almost-ex-husband. It's her best friend. But someone wants her dead and uses her weak spot—chocolate—to try to murder her.

Lindsay's only secret is the recipe for her chocolate chip cookies, but she is surrounded by neighbors with deadly secrets. Suddenly she finds herself battling poisoned chocolate, a psycho stalker, and a dead man who seems awfully active for a corpse.

Her best friend and co-worker, Paula, dyes her blond hair brown, hides from everybody and insists on always having an emergency exit from any room. Secrets from Paula's past have come back to put lives in jeopardy.

Determined to help Paula, Lindsay enlists the reluctant aid of another neighbor, Fred, an OCD computer nerd. In spite of his mundane existence, Fred possesses tidbits of knowledge about such things as hidden microphones, guns, the inside of maximum security prisons and how to take someone down with a well-aimed kick to his chin.

As Lindsay battles the elusive stalker, poisoned chocolate, and the dead man, she will need more than a chocolate fix to survive. But that’s always a good start.

Chapter One

I could tell the minute I woke that it was Sunday, and not just because it was daylight but the alarm wasn't shrieking. The songs of the birds and the September breezes coming through my open window had that Sunday morning sound and feel to them.
I rolled over and snuggled up against Rick's warm body.
That's when it hit me.
Rick and I were getting a divorce. There shouldn't be a man in my bed.
I sat bolt upright, heart pounding. Who the hell was sleeping in my bed?
Good-looking, dark golden hair streaked from the sun and Lady Clairol, nice tan, complacent expression even when he was asleep.
I suppressed a groan as I came fully awake and remembered his unexpected appearance on my front porch…and everything that followed...about the night before. I had clearly lost my mind.
Not that my mind ever had much control where Rick was concerned.
When I'd opened the door to see him standing there yesterday evening, feet planted firmly on my doormat with its image of Taz shrieking in bright red letters, Go away!, I'd been glad to see him. Right then I should have called 911 to request that I be declared mentally incompetent and hauled off in chains for my own protection. I couldn't possibly be glad to see Rick when I knew he'd already moved Muffy or Buffy or whatever her name was into our house and our bed.
Instead I'd just stood there looking at him, and he'd looked back at me with those eyes that were bluer than the Kansas City sky in the middle of summer. Of course, if that sky wore tinted contacts, it could be that blue too.
I did have enough presence of mind to snarl at him. "What do you want?" I demanded then attempted a sneer.
He smiled—the smile that made him top salesman at Rheims Commercial Real Estate for the past six years. Somebody at a party once asked Rick what he sold. He gave the person that same smile and said, "Myself."
And he did a damned good job of it.
So I snarled and sneered and he smiled. I knew he wanted to sell me something. Probably himself.
"Hi, babe," he said and waved a manila envelope. "We need to go over some more terms of the settlement agreement, so I thought I'd stop by in person."
Yeah, right. I knew...and he knew that I knew...there were no more terms to go over. He'd demanded the lion's share and I'd agreed because all I wanted was for the whole thing to be finished. I was asking for four things: this house (not the big one where he and Muffy/Buffy lived but this small one that used to be one of our rental properties), the rental house next door where my friend Paula lived, my coffee/lunch/dessert shop, Death by Chocolate, and my old but fast, red Toyota Celica.
However, I'd been facing another Saturday night alone with a book or playing Rummi-Kube with Paula, and it was one of those evenings when it's not summer anymore but not yet fall. The air was still warm though it had a nostalgic feel to it, as if remembering all the fun of the summer as it slowly faded into the past and dreading the cold winter on its way. Or maybe that was just how I was feeling.
Anyway, I asked Rick in.
And when I wasn't looking, he ordered a pizza. Double pepperoni. My favorite kind.
Like I said, he's a damned good salesman.
One dumb thing led to another and then another...and now here he was, sleeping in my bed.
I slid out very carefully, trying not to wake him. I needed some caffeine and sugar pumping through my veins before I could deal with his inevitable leaving again. Every time was like another knife straight to the gut. A dull, rusty, serrated knife. The kind I should take to his throat right now...or maybe some portion of his anatomy a bit lower.
Nah, he'd just bleed all over my new sheets and I'd have to clean it up. In eight years of marriage, he never cleaned up a single one of the messes he made.
I pulled on the T-shirt and cut-offs I'd been wearing when he came over last night, then fastened my unruly red hair into a pony tail, moving quietly so I wouldn’t wake him. As I started out of the room, I noticed his cell phone had fallen from his pants pockets, the pants he’d draped over my wooden rocking chair last night.
I told myself to move on, get out of that room as fast as I could, but the phone was blinking and a faint buzzing was coming from it. I remembered being surprised and pleased that nobody…like, for instance, that Buffy person…had called him last night. Guess now I knew why. Creep had it on vibrate.
I picked up the phone. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to work it. My cell doesn’t do anything but make phone calls. Rick always had to have the latest in everything. His phone will order dinner, pick it up and hire someone to wash the dishes.
When I figured it out, I saw there had been about fifteen calls, give or take a few, from "My Muffy."
He was cheating on her just like he’d cheated on me. Poor "My Muffy." I couldn't restrain an evil smile as I laid down the phone, gathered my dignity about me and tiptoed downstairs, through my house.
I loved the sound of that. My house that held my furniture, most of it vintage garage sale or early American attic, but everything chosen because I wanted it there, not because Rick approved of something and decided we would get it.
Except for Rick's elegant, expensive leather briefcase looking very out of place in my living room where it leaned incongruously against one end of my big, cushy sofa patterned with lots of brightly colored flowers.
I rushed past, hurrying outside with the excuse to myself of retrieving the paper from the front yard.
As I walked out barefoot, I savored the feel of the weathered wood of my porch, the rough, cracked texture of my sidewalk, the dew-damp, cool green of the grass and weeds and clover in my yard. Since I no longer had a lawn service, I no longer had a golf-green lawn. The last tenants of this house were an older couple who either didn't care if the lawn wasn't perfect or couldn't see well enough to tell.
I could see just fine, but I didn't care. I'm not much into yard work. If it's green, let it grow. Green or white. Clover's pretty and smells good. And yellow dandelions are nice for contrast. Okay, the truth is, if a rock wants to sit in my yard and not even think about growing, that's okay too.
I kicked a puffy dandelion, sending the seeds scattering, and took a deep breath of the morning air. It was clear, clean, and cool with the promise of fall.
My house wasn't really in Kansas City but in a small southeast suburb called Pleasant Grove. A few years ago when Rick was looking for some investment property, I checked out this one because I loved the name. Pleasant Grove. And it was pleasant. Too hilly for good farmland, it still had lots of trees and was far enough away from downtown and from the factories north of the city that the air was clean and, well, pleasant.
Renters who wanted to live in the area were pleasant too. Quiet people who paid on time, never wrote hot checks, and didn't have wild parties that ended with them in jail and our house a disaster. We'd subsequently bought the house next door, Paula's place, but this first one, ninety years old, two-stories, a big front porch and lots of trees, was still my favorite.
I picked up the Sunday edition of the Kansas City Star then stopped as I caught a glimpse of the sun glinting off Rick's dark green Jeep Cherokee parked in my driveway.
For a millisecond there I'd managed to put last night completely out of my mind. Well, at least I’d relegated it to the back of my mind.
But there the damned car sat, right in front of me, reminding me of what I had to deal with this morning. Rick in my bed. In the six weeks since we'd separated, I'd been working hard at getting on with my life and forgetting about him and Muffy/Buffy/Puffy. But last night swept away all the healing I'd done in those six weeks. The wound was raw and open and bleeding.
Something soft brushed my leg and I jumped.
A cat. A big cat, marked like a Siamese only gold where Siamese were brown.
He rubbed against my leg again and purred as if he knew I needed some affection right then.
I squatted to pet him. I was sure it was a him by the self-assured stance and the certainty of acceptance that shone in those bright blue eyes. Yeah, I'm a sucker for blue eyes. This pair didn't even have tinted contacts. This pair didn't contain any deceit or hidden depths either.
He purred more loudly and arched into my hand as I stroked along his head and back. "You're a pretty thing, aren't you? Who do you belong to?"
"Lindsay!" For a second, I thought the cat had answered, claiming me as his owner. Like I said, I should have had myself committed the night before. Hearing a cat talk was nothing compared to letting Rick back into my bedroom and my life.
I looked up to see Paula retrieving her paper next door.
Her son Zach, wearing only a diaper, spotted me, grinned, and charged across the yards, shrieking, "Anlinny! Anlinny!"
I tossed the paper onto the porch then reached down and scooped up the kid. "Good morning, Hot Shot!" I brushed his hair back, not because it was long enough to be in his face but just because it was such sweet baby hair, the color and texture of corn silk, and I loved to touch it.
He gave me a noisy smack on the cheek then babbled happily in that almost-language of his, ending with "Kee!" as he twisted in my arms to point down at the cat.
"Yes, that's a kitty. A big one."
Paula, looking immaculate and well-dressed even though she was wearing her usual uniform of nondescript, cover-up clothing that hid all evidence of her past...a long sleeved white blouse and tan slacks that morning...strolled across to join us. She's one of those tiny, petite little things that I, tall and gangly all my life, have always hated. But nobody could hate Paula. She's too nice.
The first time we met was over a year ago when Paula answered our ad for a tenant. She showed up to look at the house in an old, beat-up car that spit puffs of black smoke every few feet and, when she came to a stop, continued to rattle and shake for a full minute. Rick and I were waiting on the porch, and he shuddered right along with that car.
"I can tell you already, we don't want her," he'd said.
I admit, I had my doubts too. I could imagine our house ending up in the same condition as that car.
But then Paula got out carrying a tiny baby. At first I thought maybe she was a very young teenager who'd been sent away from home because of the baby. Okay, I've read too much Dickens. Her shoulders and head drooped a little, as if she was making an effort to keep them erect but wasn't quite succeeding.
Did the big sunglasses she wore hide a black eye?
When she got closer and took off the sunglasses, I saw that she wasn't a teenager and didn't have a black eye. What she did have were worry lines around her eyes and on her forehead, a scar that makeup couldn't quite hide on one cheekbone and a terror in the depths of her eyes and in the tentative set of her mouth that suggested the scar hadn't come from any fall down the stairs. Maybe my Dickensian guess wasn't that far off.
I knew immediately we were going to lease the house to this woman, that I'd never be able to live with myself if I sent her and that little baby back out into the world in that awful car. I also knew from the disdain on Rick's face that I'd have to fight him on that one. Well, it wouldn't be the first time.
When the four of us walked into the living room of the rental house and she asked if there was a back exit, Rick shot me a lifted-eyebrow glance suggesting he thought she was worried about escaping in case of a police raid or something.
"In the kitchen," I told her. "Good question. Of course you need another exit in case of fire." My last words were spoken to her but directed to Rick. He glared at me and his jaw firmed. But it's a weak jaw. I wasn't worried.
Paula filled out the rental application on the spot. Well, she filled in her name and Zachary's and left the rest blank, then told us she'd just moved from California, she didn't have a job, her husband was dead, her parents were dead, she was an only child and her parents had been only children. She didn't say, but I assumed her husband had been an only child too, and that her son would also be an only child. Probably hereditary.
Rick didn't buy it. He was ready to reject her on the spot, but I dragged him outside and persuaded him, after a few minutes of serious digging-in-of-the-heels, to rent to her on the spot instead. He may be a damn good salesman, but I've got the market cornered on obstinacy. He finally threw up his hands and said he expected a huge apology from me after she trashed the place and the cops raided it. I suspect he only agreed to let her rent the place in anticipation of being able to say, "I told you so."
So Paula gave Rick cash for the deposit and first month's rent, and she and Zach moved in with their two suitcases. She said her furniture would arrive later, but I suspected that furniture was as mythical as her deceased, unprolific family.
I'd peeked over her shoulder when she counted out the rent and deposit and noticed that the rest of her pile of cash was pretty thin. Rick started out the door but I turned back and offered her a job in my shop, Death by Chocolate, a small bakery in historic downtown Pleasant Grove. Even if she was an ax murderess, that baby needed to eat.
"Lindsay!" Rick exclaimed.
I elbowed Rick in the stomach to make him shut up.
"Business is booming and I need somebody to help wait tables," I said. "I've been thinking about putting an ad in the paper, but I don't have time to interview people." That was all true, but I'd probably have offered her a job if I was going into bankruptcy.
Over the past year I'd had more than one occasion to say, "I told you so," to Rick. Not only did Paula prove to be an ideal tenant, but, thanks to her expertise, Death by Chocolate expanded from a specialty bakery to a trendy breakfast and lunch place with a specialty bakery.
My single culinary skill is cooking with chocolate. I can take a basic brownie recipe, make it more or less according to directions, and it always turns out incredible. I used to share my recipes, but friends accused me of leaving out ingredients when their desserts didn't turn out like mine. Now I tell everybody my recipes are "secret" because I have no idea what I do to make them different. Magic, maybe. It's my one talent. I produce irresistible chocolate concoctions, swamp water coffee, concrete biscuits, leathery filet mignon...well, you get the picture.
So while Death by Chocolate had gained a certain reputation as a bakery, with Paula's cooking skills, we started to serve gourmet coffees, bagels and cinnamon rolls in the morning as well as my chocolate pastries, and at lunch we added sandwiches and a daily hot entrée to my chocolate desserts. I offered to make her a partner, but the idea of having legal documents drawn up with her name on them made her really nervous, so I just pay her a salary equal to half the net profits of the place. We both make a decent living.
Working with somebody all day will either make you best friends or worst enemies. Paula and I became best friends and I spilled my guts about everything in my life. Paula didn’t reciprocate, refused to talk about her past. She had secrets.
I’d like to say I respected her privacy, but I fear lightning would strike me if I told such an outrageous lie. I was dying to know what those secrets were. However, she consistently ignored my gentle and not-so-gentle probing. Not only did my curiosity go unsatisfied, but it hurt that she didn't trust me with her secrets. However, when I left Rick and moved in next door to her, I became so totally selfish in my own pain that I was more than happy to spend our time together talking about me and my problems.
We had become even closer, and somehow we’d switched roles with her being the mother hen and me being the needy one.
That morning with Rick still sleeping in my bed, I was really glad to see her. I could use a little mothering.
"You know who this cat belongs to?" I asked her, reaching for any topic other than the one uppermost in my mind.
She shook her head. "I've never seen him before. He's beautiful, though." She extended her arms toward her son. "Come on, Zach. We need to go home. Aunt Lindsay has company."
Rick's Jeep in the driveway, an advertisement to the whole neighborhood.
"You don't have to go," I protested. I didn't want Paula or Zach or even the cat to leave. I couldn't trust me alone with Rick.
Paula settled Zach on her hip then looked at me with concern. "You okay?"
"Me? Sure. Oh, yeah. No problem. Everything's under control. See you later." I turned to walk back to the house.
"Want to come over? I've got some cold Cokes."
Since I don't like the taste of coffee, Coke is my caffeine of choice, morning, noon or night. Coke and friendship were at the top of my current list of needs. I whirled around so fast I stumbled over the cat. I regained my balance while he pretended nothing had happened. "I'd love to come over," I said. "Maybe Rick'll leave before I get back."
As I followed Paula and Zach across our adjoining yards, I noticed she needed a dye job. The morning sunlight picked out the blond roots of her muddy brown hair, roots just a little darker than her son's hair, the same color as her lashes and brows when she wore no makeup. For some strange reason, while most women would kill for naturally blond hair, Paula colored hers a drab, medium brown. A nondescript brown. Add that to her nondescript clothing and reclusive lifestyle, and I deduced that she went out of her way not to be noticed.
Like I said, Paula had secrets.
We went into her house which was the same basic style as mine...two-story, white, front porch, high ceilings, hardwood floors. Hers was smaller and about twenty years newer so it was less "gingerbready," but the major differences were inside. She had put shiny new deadbolt locks on the front and back doors and kept the windows closed and locked all the time. Her furniture was new and—guess what—nondescript, as if she felt the need to blend into the background even inside her own home.
Paula latched the screen door behind us, then closed and locked the wooden door and put on the chain. I bit my tongue and didn't comment that it seemed a shame to waste one of the half dozen days out of the year when the weather in the Kansas City area was suitable for humans, neither hot and sultry nor cold and windy.
Paula disappeared into the kitchen while Zach brought me a bright orange truck, jabbered, and made appropriate engine noises. I sat on the floor and we rolled the truck back and forth to each other across the area rug. Zach laughed and chattered, obviously enjoying this activity immensely. I can't say that I got a lot out of rolling that truck, but watching him have a good time definitely made my heart happy.
I revved the truck on the floor. "Vrroom! Vrroom! Here it comes!"
This time Zach grabbed it up and ran across the room, watching me over his shoulder. This was my cue to chase him. I scrambled to my feet, yelled, "I'm gonna get you!" then caught him just before he dove behind the beige chair.
Paula came back into the room as I lifted him over my head and blew on his soft tummy.
I sank onto the beige sofa with Zach in my lap and she set her tray on the coffee table. It held, among other things, a plate of fudge cookies left over from yesterday's inventory at the shop and a Coke. I must have looked as stressed as I felt. Usually Paula chided me about having Coke and chocolate for breakfast. Now she was offering it to me.
The tray also held her coffee, a plate of non-chocolate cookies, and a red sippy cup, the last a gift from me. Zach wants to drink whatever his Aunt Lindsay is drinking. Since that usually means a red can, his Aunt Lindsay found him a red cup. He's happy and I'm proud that the kid wants to emulate me. Hey, it could be worse. He could be emulating Rick.
I picked up the Coke, popped the top and took a long, satisfying swallow, letting those little bubbles dance over my tongue and down my throat, making my mouth feel clean and awake.
Zach took a long swallow of milk from his red sippy cup then reached for the chocolate cookies.
"These are your cookies," Paula said, handing Zach one of the non-chocolate variety. "I made some bran muffins and baked part of the recipe as cookies," she explained to me.
Zach looked at the chocolate cookies then back to his. The boy was not dumb.
"Wow!" I enthused. "Look at all the chocolate chips in yours!" I pointed to the raisins.
He grinned and began to munch on it. I could just see him in a few years, at the movies, bringing his date a package of Raisinets and telling her they're chocolate covered chocolate chips.
Feeling a little guilty, I selected a cookie of the chocolate variety. Not so guilty I wouldn't eat it, of course. I needed sustenance to face the morning...and Rick in my bed.
"He ordered a pepperoni pizza," I said, as if I had to justify that car in my driveway. "Double pepperoni."
Paula only nodded and sipped her coffee. Nonjudgmental.
I drank more Coke and shoved more cookie into my mouth. I was feeling much better already. Paula's house was always immaculately clean and her paranoia about keeping the door locked and the windows closed made it feel isolated from the rest of the world. Sometimes that wasn't a bad feeling. Today was one of those times.
"I appreciate your not saying anything dumb like, does this mean you're getting back together?" I said quietly, staring into the hole in my Coke can as though I expected to find some sort of answers in there. Some people look for answers in a bottle. I look for mine in a can. Neither of us is successful, of course.
"No." Paula's voice was unexpectedly firm and intense. "I'd never say that. He's not going to change. He'd hurt you again if you took him back."
Definitely an abusive husband or lover in her past, somebody she was scared would find her and hurt her again, put another scar on the other side of her face. I wondered how many she had on the rest of her body, how many she was hiding with her long-sleeved shirts, slacks and ankle-length skirts.
I looked at her, trying to see behind that mask she never let down, but I couldn't. Her spine was straight, her chin tilted upward defiantly.
"I know Rick will never change," I replied.
"Do you still love him?"
That was a tough one. I'd asked myself that question a lot of times over the past six weeks. I'd been in total shock at first, trying to figure out what I'd done wrong. We'd had a lot of good times in the early years, then we'd kind of drifted apart as we became busy making money and getting ahead.
Not so busy he hadn't been able to find time for Scruffy Buffy, of course.
I gritted my teeth and forced a smile. Paula's not the only one who can do masks. "I don't love him the way I love chocolate and Coke."
We all three laughed. I'm sure Zach didn't know what he was laughing at, but his mommy and his Aunt Lindsay were laughing, and that made him happy.
A knock on the front door stopped the laughter.
Paula's eyes went wide, and the blood drained from her face. Total terror. She used to do that regularly at work, freak out every time somebody came into our shop. Fortunately for our profit margin, many people come in every day, and she finally got used to it, but visitors at home were apparently still scary. Of course, she didn't have visitors at home except for the postman and me.
I was sitting on the sofa and the mail didn't come on Sunday.
She set her cup on the table, her hand shaking so badly the coffee sloshed onto her fingers.
"I'll get it." I bounced up, handed Zach to her and was at the door before she could protest.
Not that I think she was capable of speech at that moment.
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