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Moonlight Kiss

by Josi S. Kilpack

Chapter One

Clint: So, you got your room extended?
Sarah: I did, 2 extra nights.
Clint: Can’t wait to meet you in person.
Sarah: Me too!
They shared a few more exchanges before Sarah shut down the instant messaging program and promptly dropped her head on the desk with a thud.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Brylee said with a laugh from the other side of the cubicle also known as the billing department for the Omaha office of Bowman and Skagg, Attorneys at Law. “We’re going to have a great time. Seriously, when was the last time you went on vacation? And I don’t mean using a vacation day so you can go to Rose’s school orientation?”
“I’m going to throw up,” Sarah said from her head-against-the-desk position. Having Brylee mention Rose made it all so much worse. “Probably throw up all over Clint. Why am I doing this?” The last part was said with a slight wail. But it was an honest question. Why was she doing this? She’d never done anything remotely like this in her entire life.
“Everyone has to start somewhere.”
“But a weekend with a guy who lives in Seattle? I’m not that girl.”
“A guy you’ve been talking to for four months,” Brylee added, rolling her eyes. “You seriously need to chill out and just let yourself have this experience. Maybe it will lead to something, and maybe it won’t, but even if it goes nowhere, you’ll have some awesome memories when life gets dull, or, in your case, when life is already dull.” Brylee had turned to face Sarah’s side of the cubicle but Sarah’s head was still on her desk, her brown hair spread all over her workspace. When Brylee spoke again her voice was softer, with less teasing and a little more compassion. “There’s more to life than single-mommyhood, Sarah, and you’re thirty years old, not dead. You deserve to walk on the beach hand in hand with a hot guy who thinks you’re awesome. You deserve to be kissed in the moonlight.”
Sarah lifted her head and tucked some hair behind one ear so she could turn to look at her co-worker-slash-friend-slash-bad influence. “I haven’t been on a date in nine years. I haven’t been kissed in almost six. I live in my parents’ basement apartment and eat macaroni and cheese at least five times a week—sometimes cold.”
Brylee scowled at her and shook a finger in Sarah’s direction. “Don’t get all tragic on me. The goal of this weekend is to have a good time for a few days. You’re perfectly capable of doing that.”
“What if he doesn’t like me in person, or I don’t like him, or he thinks I’m looking for some kind of fling?”
“Has he hinted that he’s looking for anything sexual?”
“Well, no, but I watch enough TV to wonder if there are any guys left who don’t expect a first date to end in the bedroom, ya know?”
“But he didn’t ask you to share his room. He’s simply extending a vacation so you can get to know each other. Why is it so hard to look at it that way?”
“Because I don’t do this kind of thing. I don’t know how.”
“Which is why it’s so exciting!” Brylee threw her arms up in celebration and grinned widely. Sarah remained deadpan, unable to tap in to the excitement due to the looming dread that had been building since she’d extended her hotel stay. Brylee dropped her arms and her smile then stood and headed toward the copy machine down the hall, her narrow hips and slender legs moving like a Barbie doll in her pencil skirt. Brylee was twenty-three. She’d joined a sorority in college and spent her spring breaks in Fort Lauderdale. She was a natural blonde, and her own eyelashes looked like the ones Sarah had paid good money for last month. For the twelve hundredth time, Sarah asked herself why she was taking advice from this girl. And yet, something about Brylee’s youthful optimism and YOLO—you only live once—attitude had rubbed off over the year they’d worked together.
At Brylee’s encouragement, Sarah had stopped wearing her hair in a French braid every day and had started wearing contacts. She’d discovered that she looked fabulous in purple and bought her first pair of high heels. When she wore them, her legs didn’t look like Brylee’s, and she had only dared wear them around the house so far, but she owned them. Rose, her six-year-old daughter, had found them in Sarah’s closet one day and clomped around the house for hours after which Sarah hid them so that they didn’t end up in the toilet. Shoes tended to meet that fate more often than Sarah liked to admit. Toilet-seat locks were effective only if you remembered to lock them after every single use.
Sarah turned back to face her computer, and her eyes shifted to one of the photographs tacked to the cubicle wall. In it, Rose was smiling so big that her eyes were slits above her pudgy cheeks. She held a participation medal from her first Special Olympics race. It was one photograph of many, all showing the same bright smile, all reminding Sarah of her purpose, her role, and what made her life different from most women’s.
Brylee came back to grab the master copy she’d forgotten, then headed back out of the cubicle as a confession bubbled up in Sarah’s throat. “I haven’t told him about Rose.”
The clicks of Brylee’s heels stopped then slowly backtracked until she poked her head around the cubicle wall. “You haven’t told him you have a daughter? Or you haven’t told him about Rose?”
“I haven’t told him I have a daughter.”
Brylee was back in her chair in a flash, the document she needed to copy back on her desk as she rolled across the floor and forced Sarah’s chair around so that they were facing each other, with their knees almost touching. She opened her mouth to say something but paused, furrowing her eyebrows. And then, to Sarah’s surprise, Brylee smiled. “That’s actually rather perfect.”
“It’s horrible,” Sarah said. “This whole time that I’ve been emailing and IM-ing Clint, I’ve never said a word about my daughter. What kind of person am I? I’ve gone and created a fantasy world that doesn’t include her. I’m a bad mother.”
Brylee was shaking her head before Sarah finished, causing the light to reflect off her shiny hair. She should have gone into modeling, not accounting. “Relationships are built on trust and full disclosure but this isn’t a relationship. Clint not knowing about your particular circumstances gives you the chance to get to know him, unencumbered. You can then decide if he’s someone who deserves to know more about you.”
“But I haven’t been honest with him,” Sarah said. “That’s no way to start a relationship.”
“It’s not a relationship!” Brylee said, too loud for the office. She made a face and leaned in closer, lowering her voice. “The goal is to just have fun for a few days.” Brylee patted Sarah’s knee and stood again. She was beginning to sound frustrated. “It’s been such a long time since you had any fun that you don’t know how to do it anymore, so it’s getting overcomplicated in your head. Chill out and relax. It’s going to be a great time and if it feels right, you’ll tell him about Rose. If he turns out to be Mr. Right, he’ll be open to it.”
Brylee left the cubicle again. It made sense when she said it, but by the time the words worked their way into Sarah’s brain, everything felt jumbled. Sarah turned back to the computer but saw the picture of Rose again and felt another pinch of shame. Her eyes moved to her most recent family photo, which included Rose, Sarah, and Sarah’s parents, who watched Rose during the day and made up for the fact that Rose’s father couldn’t handle the reality of their Down syndrome child.
Because of her parents help, Sarah had been able to go to college, and once she graduated with her degree she got a job that helped offset the expenses of their expanded family. She could afford to move into her own place, and from time to time thought about doing so, but she needed the emotional support more than she’d ever needed the financial help.
It was through an online company webinar four months ago that Sarah “met” Clint. He was also an accountant for Bowman and Skagg, but in the Seattle branch. He’d contacted her following the conference for some reason she couldn’t remember anymore, and before she knew it, they were emailing or instant messaging almost every day. It had been a safe flirtation in the beginning—he lived four states away, after all—and she liked to think of it as a stepping-stone toward the day when she might date again, something that for many years had seemed impossible.
And then Clint had suggested that they extend their rooms after the annual accounting department conference being held in Cozumel, Mexico this year. In a panic, Sarah had turned to Brylee for help, and Brylee had taken advantage of Sarah’s shock to convince her that this was something she was ready for. Since agreeing to it last week, however, reality had set in. Sarah didn’t know what to do. She’d talked to her mother, certain that of all people, her mom would be the one to convince her against this folly. Instead, her mother had simply made her promise to remember her standards and to buy a new swimsuit before she left.
“Every journey begins with a single step,” her mom had said. Sarah wished she had a better idea of what journey she was on. She wanted to see the situation like Brylee did—an extreme opportunity to break out of her shell and have a good time—but when she dared to be truly honest with herself, she knew that what she really wanted was a partner, a commitment, a life with someone who would love her and her daughter.
Her cheeks flushed at admitting, even to herself, how much she wanted that. She stared more intently at the computer screen. Debits and credits and transfers and checks—that’s where her head needed to be right now. Yet just to the left of the family photo was a picture she’d downloaded of palm trees and white sand beaches. She would meet Clint at cocktail hour the night before the conference. After everyone else went home two days later, they would stay, along with Brylee—Sarah’s roommate and safety net for the weekend, and the guy from Clint’s office he was sharing a room with, Mark. The four of them would go snorkeling and parasailing and eat at nice restaurants together. Clint hadn’t said anything to make Sarah think he had expectations beyond that.
“Two weeks from now, I’ll be in Mexico,” she said and felt the tingle of those words all the way to her toes. “I just want to have a little fun.” And Brylee would be there to offset any awkwardness. Rose would be fine staying with Sarah’s parents.
Sarah grabbed her mouse, expanded the expense report she was proofreading before this afternoon’s meeting, and hoped that Brylee was right, that the memory of these extra days would remain bright and shiny even after returning to Nebraska. But in her heart of hearts, she hoped for more than that; she hoped that this trip would be a beginning of something far more than an extended weekend.

Chasing Tess

By Annette Lyon

Chapter One

Tess spritzed the curls cascading from her up-do one last time then checked her bun using the mirror in her compact. Almost there. She bit her lower lip as she turned to face her image in the full-length mirror. Yes, she decided, smiling with pleasure. The coral pink chiffon was the right choice for tonight. Feminine and light, perfect for a warm spring evening.
One last thing, and her ensemble would be complete. She took the jeweler’s case from the dresser top and opened it with a creak. Inside lay a thin gold chain with a heart pendant, a diamond glittering at the center point. Gently, she lifted the necklace from its box, unlatched it, and moved toward the mirror so she could put it on easier. With the clasp done up, she smoothed the necklace with her fingers and tilted her head.
“Perfect,” she whispered, although she felt silly talking to herself.
The necklace was pretty, no question. She hadn’t worn it since Valentine’s Day, when James gave it to her. For the last two months, the box had sat in her underwear drawer, covered by a pair of fuzzy pink socks so that when she got dressed each morning, she didn’t have to look at it. James had created the ideal romantic evening—dinner at a French restaurant and a stroll through a park, during which he slipped his jacket over her shoulders in true gentlemanly fashion. A full moon. It was all so ideal, she’d assumed that when he sat beside her on a park bench and pulled out a jewelry box that it would contain not a necklace, but a ring.
They’d been dating for nearly three years, since he began law school. I can’t even think about a future—about marriage yet, he’d said more than once. But after I graduate... And then his eyes always got that dreamy quality, and she couldn’t help but imagine their life together then.
She’d understood that law school would be a hard time, what with all the long hours of studying and tests and writing. He’d even edited the law review, a high honor, and something that would look fantastic on a résumé.
But after I graduate, everything will change, he’d assured her. I’ll be able to focus on other things. Like us.
Even now as she stood before the mirror, she remembered the goose bumps that had broken over her arms and down her back the first time he’d made that promise. Us. Everything would change now; graduation was two days ago.
I suppose it was silly of me to think he’d propose on Valentine’s, she thought wryly as she took a step back to look at her reflection one more time. I shouldn’t have gotten upset over this necklace. He’s always said after graduation.
Tess was rather pleased with herself for getting over the disappointment of that night, of no longer hating the sight of the box, and, most importantly, for wearing the necklace tonight. It was the first time she’d worn it since he’d given it to her.
Tonight, everything would change. The law school graduation ceremony was over. James’s parents had planned a party to celebrate his achievement and “something else,” as he’d put it over the phone yesterday. He wouldn’t say what the “something else” was, but when she’d prodded and asked specific questions, he’d admitted that it had something to do with the future.
Which could only mean one thing: tonight was the night. He would pop the question. She would look perfect in her coral-pink dress, with his pendant resting on her breastbone, her hair curled and stacked just right, her lipstick matching her dress.
My heart will pound as he kneels and asks for my hand in front of his friends and parents.
The thought caused a flutter in her chest.
Her phone’s alarm went off, making her start, but then she smiled. She’d gotten ready exactly on time. Even if she hit traffic, she’d reach the old art museum with plenty of time to walk around the building, find the room where the party was being held—where she would finally, finally get that ring on her finger and be promised to the one man she planned to be with for the rest of her life. As she tucked her phone into the little cream-colored purse she’d bought just for tonight, and went out to her car, she tried not to dream too much into the future. She’d done a lot of that anyway over the years. Five months into dating James, she’d known what colors she wanted for her wedding. Granted those colors had changed three times since with the fashions. And she’d picked out the perfect cake almost two years ago. Her dress last fall.
She refused to let herself think too far past the wedding day itself, or she’d be liable to start planning how many children they would have and even name them before James had gotten the question out. She wouldn’t plan their whole lives, tempting as that might be. She couldn’t wait to experience life with him, the ups, the downs, all of it. Together.
The drive to the museum felt twice as long as it should have, even though she hadn’t hit more than two red lights. After parking, she flipped down the vanity mirror to check her face one last time. She looked flushed from the excitement.
Didn’t need to use blush, she thought with a laugh.
She headed inside and found James in the entryway, wearing a brand new charcoal gray suit with a silver tie. He was talking to a member of the staff and didn’t see her right away, so she stood by the door and admired the view. His hair was newly cut and styled with just the right amount of gel. He must have spent some time outdoors lately, because he seemed more tanned than usual. 
The worker nodded and headed back into a large room—her cue to step forward. Her sandaled heels clicked on the marble floor, echoing slightly and making James turn his head. His face lit up in the smile Tess had come to know and love.
And call mine. No one else got that exact smile. He loves me. He really does.
James extended both arms and reached for her hands, pulling her close and kissing her, then nuzzling her ear with his lips and whispering, “You look fantastic.”
“I could say the same about you,” she whispered back, loving how close he was, smelling his cologne mixed with the faintest hint of spearmint on his breath.
He took her hand and led Tess into the main room, which had a flagstone floor, a raised stand on one end, a live band setting up on it, and caterers moving about smoothly at their tasks as they set up the buffet table. A good twenty tables were interspersed throughout the room, leaving a space between them and the platform. James pointed to that spot.
“For dancing after we eat.” He nodded at the band. “I’ve already requested our song.”
Perfect. Beyond perfect. Until that moment, Tess hadn’t been sure if he thought of “Unforgettable” as their song the way she did—the duet version Natalie Cole did with her late father, the legendary Nat King Cole. To her, it had been their song ever since they’d danced to it by moonlight behind a willow tree during a friend’s wedding reception. The branches hid them from view of the wedding guests, making James the only person Tess could see.
James had sung along to Nat’s deep voice. James twirled her into a circle then brought her back and held her close. They gazed into each other’s eyes—so long it had felt like a lifetime, so short, it passed before she knew it. “I’ll never forget you, Tess,” he’d said as he pulled her close and pressed his cheek to hers and they kept swaying. After that night, any time they heard the song—and there had been a surprising number of times—James had taken her into his arms, danced, and sung in her ear. Even if they were in the middle of a crowd, a street, a mall.
“It’s gorgeous,” Tess said, taking in the room. She could picture their reception in this room, her cake on a table against that wall...
His parents must have put a lot of money into the evening. They arrived shortly after she did.
“Well, hello,” Mrs. Kennington said, sandwiching Tess’s hand between her own; Tess wanted to pull it free. His mother had never liked her, never thought her good enough for her beloved son.
“Hello,” Tess said with a smile.
She repeated James’s words in her mind. She’ll learn to love you. It’ll take time. She doesn’t know how amazingly wonderful you are... yet.
Tess and James ate dinner at the same table as his parents and a few of his law school buddies. She said little, hoping not to give any kind of fodder for Mrs. Kennington’s negativity. James had a spot beside Tess, and had he stayed there, Tess would have been happy to sit beside James as they ate, even in silence. In the past, he’d taken her hand under the table to squeeze it in their code: three squeezes meant “I love you,” to which she replied with four squeezes, “I love you too.” He’d been known to sneak her the occasional wink and make sure to keep her glass filled, her roll buttered, and her salad drizzled with dressing.
But tonight, he hadn’t sat more than five seconds before guests greeted him, and he stood to say hello—then vanished into the crowd again. The same thing happened over and over, leaving Tess with an empty seat beside her and James’s parents pointedly ignoring her across the table.
Surely the stream of well-wishers had to end. James would eventually return to his meal beside her, wouldn’t he? But too many people and too many things pulled him in different directions. Every time he sat down and began cutting into his steak, a friend came over to talk, or he needed to meet so-and-so’s new fiancée, or something else, leaving Tess at the table, awkward and as silent as ever, giving Mrs. Kennington the occasional smile before plunging her fork back into her salad. She’d added the dressing herself. Whenever James returned, he whispered an apology as he sat and smoothed his napkin on his lap. But he never took more than a bite before he was interrupted and called elsewhere again.
Tess wouldn’t ruin his big night by complaining or nagging over being “neglected.” This party was about him. She could sit in the background and bask in the glow of her husband-to-be, who only had to pass the bar before being a bona fide lawyer. As the noise in the room increased, Tess found herself zoning off into her imagination, planning more of her upcoming nuptials. The evening would end with the spotlight on them both; she could wait.
How long of an engagement would his mother insist they have? Tess could plan a decent wedding in three months, if she hurried a few things. July or August would be perfect.
The band finished a song but didn’t start another. The conversation around the room gradually quieted as everyone turned to see the singer, who had given the microphone to Garrett Pack; she recognized him from several law-school parties. James considered him his best friend; they’d studied and crammed together, and they were both on the law review staff. Garrett made a quieting motion with one arm and waited for the remaining chatter to die down.
“Thank you for coming, everyone. This is quite an exciting night, as we all know, celebrating the accomplishment of one James D. Kennington, Esquire!” He clapped against the mic, sending a heavy noise through the speakers. The crowd clapped and whooped their approval.
As the roar died down, Mrs. Kennington leaned in to her husband and said, “I would have thought that with us footing the bill for the evening, that that Pack boy would have let us address the crowd first.” She sniffed and straightened.
Tess pretended she hadn’t heard anything.
Garrett nodded at the applause. “It’s great, isn’t it? Three years of hard work, finally completed. I happen to know that James is ready for the next stage of his life, and he would like to come up now to tell you all about it.”
More clapping. Tess joined in as her heart went wild in her chest. Here it comes. This is the “something else” he hinted at. She prayed she still looked nice—that her curls hadn’t drooped, that her dress wasn’t wrinkled from sitting, that she hadn’t eaten off all her lipstick. All of these thoughts passed through her mind in a flash as she watched James, in his slick gray suit, move from a spot near the left side the room to the front. He hopped onto the platform and took the mic from Garrett, the two of them slapping each other’s backs in a manly variation of a hug.
Garrett stepped into the background beside the band, grinning ear to ear. He had to know what James had planned. Tess never expected to have such a public proposal—had always envisioned something more intimate, private—but so long into this relationship, she would be thrilled just to hear the question any time, any place.
Grinning broadly, James faced the audience. When he caught her eye, his face brightened a little more, which warmed her head to toe.
Oh, how I love this man.
“My man Garrett is right,” James began. “I’m now a law school grad, which means you can all officially crack evil lawyer jokes about me.”
Laughter rippled throughout the room, including a polite chuckle from the Kenningtons.
James rubbed his chin and shifted from foot to foot. “I’ve been in this same place for three years now. It’s been a hard climb at times, but it’s been worth it. I’m sure my parents will be doubly glad when I’ve passed the bar and am practicing law, because then I can start paying off all those school loans, and they’ll know I’m not coming back to live in their basement.”
More rumbles of laughter.
“So the time has come for the next step in my journey, to leave this part behind and move forward to a new phase of my life.”
Tess’s heart threatened to hammer right out of her ribcage. She sat at the edge of her seat so that when he called her forward, she’d be ready, and so she’d stand gracefully in her heels.
“I have been given the once in a lifetime opportunity... ” He let his voice trail off, building the suspense in the room. “To be an intern at Preston, Carson, and McNeil in New York City, with the possibility of taking on a full-time job after I pass the bar.” He raised his glass and bit his lip, something he always did when excited.
This was it. Tess could feel her heart pounding in her chest with anticipation.
“I’m moving to the Big Apple!”
Smiling broadly, Tess stood and took three steps toward the platform, when his words registered.
Wait, what? She stopped in her tracks, catching the toe of her shoe on a chair and nearly pitching forward. She caught herself on the back of the chair, saving herself from sprawling across the floor. James scanned the room. As Tess stood there, frozen, she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d imagined the slight hesitation when his gaze reached her—and moved on.
How many miles is it from Tempe to New York? Hundreds? Thousands?
She felt a sudden urge to check a map. Or to run up to the platform and shake James by the lapels. This didn’t make sense. An internship couldn’t be the big “something” he wanted to say tonight. He’d promised that after law school, they would get engaged. Wasn’t that now? What did he expect her to do, get married tomorrow by a justice of the peace? Not have a nice wedding?
Or worse... the other option came over her in a wave cold as ice. What if he didn’t plan to marry her at all? What if he planned to settle in New York... without her?
That’s exactly what he’s decided. Her hand covered her mouth as she heard a cry. Not until all heads turned to look at her did she realize that she had made the sound. Her face went hot. Her knees felt ready to buckle, and she couldn’t breathe. Tess shook her head and backed up.
James’s eyes widened, and he called out to her. “Tess! Please, let me explain!”
But there was nothing to explain. He was taking the internship. Moving to New York. He’d strung her along for three years, and what did she have to show for it? Drooping curls and a coral-pink dress she’d never wear again.
Tess whirled around, unable to stand the pitying eyes on her. She scooped her purse from her chair so she could drive home—right now—and saw, with another stab of dismay, that Mrs. Kennington wore a pleased, smug expression.
Hearing James call her name again, she fled, running out the door before anyone said more. When she reached her car, she fumbled with the keys, but despite her haste, she kept an eye on the door of the museum, wishing James would come out to stop her, to beg forgiveness, to offer the ring she’d waited for so, so long.
She sat in her car, worrying her keys between her fingers and fighting tears, hoping to see James push through the glass door. But five minutes later—she watched each one tick past on the car’s clock—he still hadn’t come out. She turned the key, backed out, and drove away. Tears blurred her vision. She swiped at her eyes with the back of one hand.
It wasn’t the ring she wanted after all, although that would have been nice. It was James. Dear, sweet James. But he was lost to her now.

Dancing at the Flea Market

by Heather Justesen

Chapter One

It had already been an insanely long day when Mara’s plane finally touched down in Corpus Christi, Texas. She threaded through the crowd and found the luggage conveyor for her flight, where she waited for her suitcase, exhaustion pulling at her as much as her heavy carry-on did. Her meager sleep the previous night and short nap on the flight from North Dakota hadn’t been nearly enough.
She shifted her carry-on farther up her shoulder, holding her heavy winter parka on the other arm then pushed her long brown hair out of the way. Bags kept flowing from the machine and whirling past her. They stopped coming, but hers hadn’t appeared, and all of the other passengers had cleared off. Mara was alone. She checked the sign again. Yes, this was the right spot. Her heart beat a little too fast; a sinking feeling said her bag hadn’t made one of the transfers during her two layovers.
She was still standing there with the vague hope that a miracle would happen, and her suitcase would magically appear, when she heard a shrill voice calling her name.
She turned and saw Anna, her old college roommate, running toward her, wearing too-high heels, a short skirt, and a sleeveless top, her blonde curls bouncing as she ran. Mara wondered how Anna could be so energized after her long flight from Vegas.
Mara met her partway and moved her coat to her other arm. They hugged tightly. “It’s so good to see you!”
“I know. I can’t believe I finally convinced you to leave the snow for a few days for some sun.” Anna adjusted her carry-on over her own shoulder; it was only big enough to hold her makeup, and maybe a swimming suit. “Where is your other suitcase? Didn’t your plane arrive like half an hour before mine? I haven’t picked up my bag yet.”
Mara glanced back in time to see a whole new load of luggage start to shoot onto the conveyor. “Looks like mine got lost somewhere en route.”
Anna’s pink-lip-sticked mouth fell open. “Oh, no. Please tell me you packed a swimsuit and change of clothes in your carry-on. I mean, your bag will probably come in tonight or tomorrow, but you have to have something to wear to dinner and at the beach. We’re on vacation, and it’s spring break, baby.”
“We’re way too old for the spring-break crowd,” Mara said, thinking that at twenty-six, she would feel like a cougar even looking at college guys. “But I did pack a change of clothes in my carry-on.”
“Oh, good.” Anna snagged Mara’s arm. “Come on. Let’s grab my stuff, and then we can go talk to someone about your luggage.”
By the time they made arrangements for her lost suitcase and picked up their rental car, it was after three. Anna turned the car west, heading for the mainland and the condo complex where they would be staying, talking almost as fast as she drove. “We have to do some shopping tomorrow; I hear there are great boutiques nearby. Oh, and I can’t wait to show you the great swimming suit I bought for the trip.” She stopped to suck in a breath. “Look at all of these gorgeous beaches.”
“Beautiful,” Mara agreed.
“Remind me again why we’re staying at an inland lake instead of at a hotel out here?” Anna adjusted her sunglasses.
“Noisy, obnoxious college students with spring-break fever.”
“And they’re a bad thing because…”
Mara poked her friend, knowing she was only half joking; Anna would be eternally twenty-two. Mara sat back, getting into the vacation mindset—it had been too long since she put real life aside and let herself go with the flow. That was one of the reasons she’d agreed when Anna bullied her about this trip—Anna was totally fun and spontaneous and would insist Mara get involved instead of allowing life to pass her by while they vacationed.
They arrived and checked in at the condo complex a little before dinner. The building was tan stucco, and looked like it had recently had a facelift.
“This is what I’m talking about.” Anna lowered her sunglasses to peer over the top at some half-clad college men who were striding up the boardwalk from the shore.
“Come on.” Mara grabbed the enormous suitcase Anna had shoved into the trunk and staggered under the weight before setting it on the ground beside her. “What do you have in this thing, rocks?” She didn’t bother to wait for an answer as she rolled the suitcase away from the car. “Let’s go get changed and grab some dinner. After being on the go all day, I need decent food and a relaxing evening to recuperate for the lake tomorrow.”
They reached the stairs to the second floor, where Mara pulled the bag up behind her. The stairwell was narrow and steeper than she’d expected. “I wonder how many people have nearly killed themselves on this thing.”
“Well, hello there.” Anna’s voice was soft and teasing—and definitely not directed at Mara.
Mara looked up to see a man standing at the top, waiting for her to finish making the trek to the second floor. The downward curve of his lips indicated impatience, marring what would otherwise have been a nearly perfect face. His hair was dark, almost black, and cut short. Startlingly pale blue eyes were highlighted by thick brows and a face that was all planes and angles. She had to catch her breath just looking at him.
“Do you need some help with that?” he asked, looking a little annoyed. “I’d rather not stand here all day.”
“What?” Mara realized she’d been staring, so she turned her attention back to the suitcase.
“Sorry.” Heat flooded her face as she began pulling the suitcase again. Way to make an idiot of herself.
There was a grunt, and the man appeared at her side and placed his hand over hers on the strap. “Let me get that.” His voice was more than a little grudging. “I really do have somewhere to be. Second floor or third?”
“Second.” Mara knew she must sound like the biggest moron ever.
He lifted the bag easily, his arm muscles bulging beneath the short sleeves of his shirt while he carried it to the top.
Though Mara had been the one towing it, Anna was the one who responded. “Thanks for your help.” She fluttered her eyelashes a little, and her voice went breathy.
“No problem. Have a good day.” His tone didn’t match the words. He took off for the parking lot without giving Anna’s flirting so much as a second glance—an amazing accomplishment.
Mara watched him for a moment as he walked away—all graceful ease as he strode off. She pulled herself out of her trance when Anna started to titter. “He’s hot, isn’t he? And definitely not a college man.”
She agreed, putting his age around thirty. “Annoying that he was so abrupt. But at least he was nice enough to help with your enormous suitcase. How much extra did you have to pay to get this on the plane, anyway?”
“Don’t ask.” Anna minced her way to the door and slid the keycard in the slot, letting them into the condo. It was small: a kitchen/living room area, a medium-sized bedroom with two double beds, and a bathroom. They had a tiny walk-out balcony on the far side, facing the lake.
Mara walked through to the sliding glass door and stepped out to check the view. “Come take a look; it’s gorgeous.” She sometimes joked that the winters in North Dakota were the best nine months of the year, but she could have sworn it had been longer than that since she last saw anything green that wasn’t a house plant.
The grasses and trees around the lake filled her soul with joy. This trip would be everything she’d hoped for—when she finally got her luggage.
“Nice,” Anna said flatly, apparently unimpressed. “Come on, let’s get cleaned up and grab something to eat. I looked up some restaurants before we came.”
Mara took one last glance at the water then went back inside. She was starting to get her second wind. Her stomach growled, making her agree that dinner took first priority. Plenty of time to soak in the beautiful weather tomorrow.
Carter checked his watch, wondering if Paolo, his former father-in-law, was already waiting for him at the restaurant. It had been two years since Rosa’s death, but Carter still tried to keep in touch with her family, if only to help keep her memory alive. He’d lost track of time while swimming in the lake earlier, and he’d been waylaid by his boss’s executive secretary, who was having trouble with her computer and didn’t trust anyone else to fix it. The fact that he’d been on vacation hadn’t mattered to her. Then those slow-poke women had put him even further behind schedule. He hated being late for anything.
He pulled up to the restaurant and nearly groaned when he saw the sign that read “Karaoke Every Night.” Just what he needed—people singing off-key while he ate. It was bad enough that he had to face the emotional meeting with Paolo without having his ears assaulted. He wondered if his father-in-law had eaten here, or if he’d chosen it from the local chamber of commerce site.
Paolo and his wife lived in Florida, but when he’d mentioned that he was making a business trip to one of Carter’s favorite places, Carter decided a vacation was overdue and arranged to be here at the same time.
Carter found Paolo at a table near the stage. “How are you doing?”
He stood and gave Carter a hug. “I’m well. You’re looking well. That college job must be agreeing with you.”
Carter was head of IT at University of North Texas, and it kept him busy, but he enjoyed the work. “Can’t complain,” he said with a smile. “How are things for you? What are you doing now?”
Paolo started talking about his new business selling nutritional supplements and the magical, life-altering powers they had. He always seemed to be looking for the next best thing to support him and his wife. Somehow he’d managed to keep food on the table when he was raising Rosa and her two brothers.
They ordered dinner, and more people filled the tables around them. By the time the waiter brought out their food and the emcee announced the beginning of the karaoke for the night, the place was packed.
Carter focused on his roast beef sandwich and his companion, trying to ignore the screeching, off-key singers behind him.
“Are you dating yet?” Paolo asked after he’d had a few bites. They’d been putting off that topic since they sat down.
“Not much.” That was an understatement. He’d had a few dates here and there, but Carter always felt guilty about spending time on a woman, as if he were cheating on his wife. Besides, no woman he’d ever met could hold a candle to Rosa.
“You need to start dating again,” Paolo said. “It’s been too long. Rosa wouldn’t want you to be alone forever.”
Carter dragged a French fry through his ketchup. “I haven’t met anyone who could hold my interest.”
“You mean you won’t get to know anyone, because you’re afraid of getting hurt again.”
Carter opened his mouth to protest, but Paolo held up a hand. “Don’t make excuses. I can only imagine how hard it must be to lose someone you love, but you’re still young. I want you to promise me that next time you see someone who intrigues you, even a little, you’ll take a chance and get to know her.”
Carter wanted to argue, but Paolo was right—he did need to get out and start dating for real. He was lonely, and a little companionship—even if he wasn’t ready yet for anything serious—would be a welcome change. “Okay. I promise.”

The Best Laid Plans

By Sarah M. Eden

Chapter One

It’s Cancún, Madison. How can you say no to Cancún?”
Madison slid her smartphone across the desk to Beth. “From my mom.” She indicated the chain of texts already open.
Beth gave her a curious look, but picked up the phone, reading out loud. “‘I had a wonderful evening with Mr. Fabulous. He took me to the new Italian place on Vine. He likes lasagna. That is a good sign, don’t you think—’” Beth looked up, eyes wide with amusement. “Her texts get longer all the time.”
I know. It’s like she’s writing a novel.”
Beth dropped her gaze back to the phone. “I’m surprised she doesn’t have arthritis in her thumbs.” She took up the reading again. “‘Mr. Fabulous is coming over tonight again. He is so wonderful. Also, the water heater broke and flooded the basement. Talk to you soon. Mom.’ Wow. A flooded basement is an afterthought now?”
Exactly.” Madison took her phone back. “I think it’s time I met ‘Mr. Fabulous.’”
You haven’t yet?”
Madison dropped her phone in her purse, packing up for the end of the day. “I haven’t been home since summer. Mr. Fabulous wasn’t in the picture then.”
Is his name really ‘Mr. Fabulous’?”
Madison hadn’t thought of that. “Ugh, I hope not.”
Beth slung her own bag over her shoulder. They’d had desks next to each other at the bank for a year. What was the name of the last guy?”
They walked to the doors together. Madison waved to the afternoon tellers before pushing the door open.
Mom called him ‘Captain Dreamy.’ The nicknames are a very reliable early warning system.”
What was he captain of?”
Being a pig.” Now in the parking lot, Madison unlocked her less-than-pristine Altima with the key-chain remote.
Beth’s sportier compact sat next to it. She spoke across the roof. “Was Captain Pig the Vegas guy or the Aspen guy?”
Vegas.” Half the miles on Madison’s car were from driving to various places to pick up her mother after one guy or another had ended a relationship hundreds of miles from home. Vegas. Aspen. Anaheim. Phoenix. Madison had seen America saving her mother from romantic disasters.
How about this time you let your mom deal with the loser, and you come with the rest of us to Cancún?”
Beth’s suggestion was tempting, but Madison needed to nip this latest star-crossed love story in the bud. “I don’t have enough vacation days to go to Cancún right now, and in another month or two, I’ll have to take more time off to chase my mother to San Francisco or Albuquerque or wherever she lands herself next.”
So you’re picking Folsom Lake over Cancún. Are you insane?”
Madison tossed her purse into the car. “Sometimes I think I am.”
Beth crossed her arms on the car top, apparently settling in for a conversation. “Will he be there?”
Nothing beyond the pronoun was necessary. When speaking of Madison’s hometown, there was only one he: Derek McGee. She’d known him since high school. They’d dated in college. Things had even been serious just after college graduation. It hadn’t worked out, and her heart was too stupid to forget him. Just thinking his name made her heart skip and jump around.
Stupid, stupid.
He’ll be there, won’t he?” Beth was enjoying this too much.
This trip is about my mother’s man troubles.”
Man Troubles. That should be the name of your family business.”
It probably should have been. Her father was to thank for that. The only good thing that man had ever done was walk out on them.
Have fun in Cancún.” What was she saying? Of course Beth and the rest of their friends would have fun. They weren’t headed home for a family crisis intervention.
I’ll post pictures.” Beth wiggled her eyebrows and grinned.
Careful which ones,” Madison warned with a laugh. “‘The internet is forever.’”
Beth’s grin grew as she tossed her things in her car. “Text me a picture of President Amazing.”
Mr. Fabulous,” Madison corrected. “I’ll send you a before and after shot.”
What do you plan to do to this guy?”
Whatever it takes.”
Beth gave a nod of approval. “I’ll help you hide the body after I get back from Mexico.”
Perfect.” It was nice to joke about the whole ridiculous situation. “See ya.”
¡Adios!” Beth made air castanets.
Madison sat in her car for a while after Beth pulled out of the parking lot. I’m giving up Cancún. She’d been looking forward to the trip for months. But someone had to save Mom from herself. And that someone was Madison. Always.
Maybe it was the fact that she’d made the trip to fix Mom’s problems so many times, or maybe it was because she looked forward to spending time at home.
Either way, the following evening as she pulled off the highway at the familiar exit, the resentment that had started to take form in the bank parking lot disappeared.
Folsom Lake didn’t change much. The same people. The same main street. The place was small enough to feel cozy, but large enough that even life-long residents didn’t know everyone. They had their own high school, a couple of middle schools, and a smattering of elementary schools. Folsom Lake even had a multiplex, choice of grocery stores, and a branch of the same bank Madison worked at in what her grandmother called “the big city.”
Madison always missed home during that first drive into town whenever she returned. By the end of her stay, though, she was always ready to leave. This time, she’d be exhausted from saving her mother from her latest romantic disaster. Watching her friends live their married lives or their I-have-a-dreamy-significant-other lives wore on her. And, though she’d managed to avoid him on her last visit, Derek McGee might get under her skin as well.
He’d smile at her the way he always had. He’d make her laugh. And for just a moment, she’d believe they could make a relationship work. She’d start dreaming again of happy-ever-afters and fairy-tale endings. But life wasn’t like that.
She pulled up in front of her mom’s house, bracing herself for the coming few days. At least she was taking an intervention approach this time rather than a damage-control one.
I just have to convince Mom to break it off now before the relationship implodes.
She practiced her speech by addressing the steering wheel.  “Hey, Mom, I’ve come to visit. It’s time to say goodbye to Mr. Fabulous. So, what’s for dinner?”
Awkward, but doable. She’d wing it from there.
Madison pulled her little suitcase from the trunk and made her way to the door. She allowed herself only the tiniest glance down the street. Derek’s parents had once lived on the corner. Coming home always made her think of him.
That’s all in the past. This visit is about Mom.
She rang the bell and waited. This wouldn’t be easy, but it was for the best. Preventing a mess was definitely better than trying to clean one up afterward.
Mom’s squeal upon opening the door brought a smile to Madison’s face.
Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” She squeezed Madison in an almost suffocating hug, bouncing up and down.
Why didn’t I tell you? So you couldn’t hide Mr. Fabulous.
Come in. Come in.” Mom held the door open, her smile not slipping at all. “Look who’s here,” she called to someone in the next room. “Madison’s come for a visit.”
Who else could she be talking to but her latest: Mr. Fabulous. Mom took an all-or-nothing approach to dating. She probably spent every free minute with him. Of course he would be at the house.
I should have practiced longer with the steering wheel.
She pasted a smile on her face. No point tipping off the enemy that she had him in her sights. She followed her mom into the living room.
Hey, Maddi.”
She froze. Only one person had ever called her “Maddi.”

Picture Perfect

An Aliso Creek novella

by Heather B. Moore


Chapter One

“I can’t go,” Arie said, the pout in her voice carrying through the phone. “If I lose this client, I’ll lose my promotion.”
Gemma exhaled with frustration. Arie was the second one to cancel for the weekend. Granted, her excuse was solid, but Gemma had gone through a lot to get three days off for their annual spring vacation. She stared out her condo window at the scenery that never seemed to change—green trees, blue skies—San Diego’s temperatures fluctuated only about twenty degrees throughout the year. “Jess isn’t coming, and now you aren’t. What about Liz and Drew?”
“Liz is still going, but I don’t know about Drew,” Arie said. “I haven’t talked to him much this year. He didn’t come last time; I wonder if that means something.”
Gemma talked to Drew quite a bit—well, about once a month. A text or quick phone call. They’d managed to stay in touch over the years since high school. All of them had stayed in touch—the “Five.” Other friends had come and gone—heck, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends—they’d all been a part of the group at one time or another. But currently, it was back to the original Five for this weekend. Or it was supposed to be.
Gemma could hardly believe it had been twelve years since they’d graduated from Aliso Creek High, which, of course, reminded her that she’d just turned thirty. She was the last of the group to hit that milestone—which made her the baby of the Five.
Arie was saying something else about work, and Gemma forced herself to tune back in. She already felt the despondency hit. First, turning thirty... next, her boyfriend, Randy, had been weird lately, but that was probably the funky phase that all relationships went through... then everyone was cancelling on the spring vacation plans. She’d been looking forward to the trip more than she’d realized.
“So sorry, Gem,” Arie said. “We’ll do lunch later this month.”
“Okay,” Gemma said. “Love you.” When she hung up, Gemma texted Drew and Liz separately.
R u still planning on this weekend?
Liz texted back immediately. Yep, can’t wait! What time will u be there?
Leaving @ 9 am Friday. Should be there 11 @ the latest, Gemma wrote.
Sounds good. I’ll be there @ 12.
Gemma tossed the phone on the couch and went to her bedroom to start packing. It looked like it would just be the three of them, assuming Drew was coming. She slowed as she passed the hallway mirror. She’d hardly changed a thing about her appearance since high school. Throughout college, she’d sported the same straight brown hair. The only evidence of the passing years was fluctuating weight and an inch here or there on the length of her hair.
I look average. Her hair was pulled into its usual ponytail, the easiest way to wear it while working at the floral shop. She brushed the top of her black pants—another item from work. She and all of her employees—which amounted to two—wore the same thing: black pants and pale green shirts. Gemma had read a study that if the employees wore matching clothing, they looked more professional.
Perhaps it was true. Gemma’s floral shop had done well, allowing her to hire a full timer and a part timer. Her parents had been disappointed that she hadn’t gone into the corporate world, but they seemed more supportive now that they saw her success. In fact, about once a week, her dad stopped in to buy flowers for her mom.
It was kind of sweet.
Totally sweet, she corrected herself. Her parents had one of those magical marriages, where they were still in love and weren’t afraid to show it. Gemma sighed and readjusted her ponytail. It had been at least two years since her parents had bothered her about the M word. And that was because of Randy. Yet now she didn’t know what to make of him. On the one hand, she didn’t want to admit to herself that the past few months had felt off. She couldn’t quite explain it. They were great together. Besides, she was thirty now, and it was time to take things more seriously. Maybe that was it—she didn’t see Randy as being equally serious.
She knew one thing: her parents definitely approved of him—a corporate tax lawyer, blond, good looking, from a great family—what’s not to love?
Me. The word popped into her head, unwelcome. Randy had said he loved her. Maybe not as often as she wanted, but sometimes—like now—when she was feeling sorry for herself, she doubted.
Which is completely normal. All couples go through doubts.
Gemma walked in her room and pulled out the small suitcase from under her bed. I just need to be more patient with Randy. Maybe it’s just an off month for him. If everyone canceled spring vacation on her, she’d go alone, and she’d love it. She’d already arranged for others to cover for her at the shop, which was easy to justify, as she hadn’t been gone more than a day since opening three years ago.
Something Randy regularly complained about. But she’d explained over and over that her vacations weren’t paid, unlike the corporate-sponsored cruises and resort escapes Randy’s company sent him on.
Gemma opened her closet and tugged a couple of shirts down from their hangers. Now that she thought about it, Randy hadn’t been complaining about anything lately. He’d been quiet overall, often waiting a day or two before returning her calls. Tonight they’d be going out for dinner, though, so maybe she could ask what was bothering him then.
As long as it didn’t turn into a fight—she didn’t want to go into her vacation with an upset boyfriend back home. She looked at the two shirts she held and scowled. She’d probably worn them at the last spring vacation, and the one before that. Everything in her closet was old.
Just like I am now.
Of course, she didn’t think thirty was necessarily old, but she hadn’t thought that at thirty, she’d still be living alone, with no husband, no kids, no marriage like her parents’. Or that she’d still be hanging out with her high-school friends—not that she didn’t love them.
Really, out of the five of them, the only one who could be counted as making a name for himself was Drew. Yet even he hadn’t married and settled down. His photographs were now national sensations, and he’d landed gigs with some of the largest fashion magazines in the country. He’d even moved to New York for a couple of years, but now he was back, where he said his “bones didn’t get cold.”
Gemma smiled at the thought. Nothing about Drew was cold—even at thirty. He could still be considered hot. And, like most good-looking, successful men, he knew it. He had an arsenal of girlfriends to stroke his ego, which pretty much meant he was a gigantic tease to his “sisters” from high school.
Arie was next on the totem pole of success. She was close to making vice president of a real-estate company. And Jess, scattered Jess, was lucky to have a job at all. She ran a home business making jewelry, but that didn’t bring in much income. Gemma had once mistakenly offered her a job at the shop. When Jess didn’t show up for work three days in a row, Gemma reluctantly let her go.
The best way to describe Jess was a cute bag lady, who seemed to get whatever she wanted, even when she became a widow. It didn’t hurt that her former husband was twenty-five years older and had left her quite a bit of money when he died. Jess seemed to have a hard time with jobs that were structured and required consistent hours. Hence her brief stint in Gemma’s floral shop.
Then there was Liz—twice divorced, with a six-year-old from her first marriage. Liz had changed when she became a mom—less spontaneous—but Gemma didn’t blame her. Liz was dating someone she thought was perfect, so Gemma was sure he would be the main topic of conversation for the weekend.
What will I tell her about Randy? Gemma wondered. Still dating. Still no proposal. Still living separately. Still working crazy hours. Nothing’s changed.
Gemma pulled down another shirt then tossed it on the bed. Nothing had changed in her life. Different boyfriend, different condo, different job, but really, she was essentially the same as she had been in high school. Gemma dug through her clothes, looking for anything that looked remotely interesting, but only found more of the same.
She glanced at the clock by her bed. It was only 4:30 pm, and she didn’t have to meet Randy until 7:00. She hadn’t braved any clothing stores in a long time, since ordering the basics online was so much easier.
Mind made up, she grabbed her keys and purse, leaving the packing for later.

The Science of Sentiment

By Aubrey Mace

Chapter One

It was the perfect kiss—tentative, but passionate at the same time. It was tender, yet somehow insistent. As I felt heat creeping from my neck to my hairline, I knew that something about this kiss was different. It was sweet and breathless and exciting and scary, all at the same time. The kiss by which all other kisses would be judged and found wanting.
As pleasant as it was to dwell on the past, the fact that I’d since broken up with the aforementioned kisser kind of soured the memory for me. The idea that I’d dated multiple guys since without a fraction of the spark made it even more bitter.  I sighed and forced myself to focus on the view instead. The snow-capped mountains were beautiful, but I couldn’t help being a little disappointed.
When I’d come up with the idea of driving to my grandfather’s cabin for spring break, I had a different picture in mind. I’d been there many times, and all the memories were happy ones. They were also warmer ones, from summer or fall, when the world was verdant green or even orange or red or bright yellow—not the omnipresent white and gray surrounding me now. My brain had been anticipating one thing, but the reality was quite another. To me, “spring break” implied some spring involved, but apparently Park City hadn’t gotten the memo.
For someone who was rational to a fault, I’d been incredibly irrational about taking this last-minute trip. I hadn’t even brought a coat. Shivers rippled through me while I waited for my gas tank to fill, so I bought some hot chocolate at the gas station. It seemed more appropriate than the tub of Country Time lemonade in my backseat. Unfortunately, 7-11 didn’t sell outerwear, and although the sky was blue, it only looked warm outside. I was fairly certain that the first strong breeze would send me ducking for cover under the thickest quilt I could find.
I turned off the main road, onto the gravel one that would lead me to the cabin. Even if the weather wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for, this weekend would be just what I needed. I was tired. Life had been wearing me down lately, and I couldn’t wait to have some time alone to relax and try to recover my normally optimistic outlook. I had my sketchbook and pencils, and all I wanted was to draw and go for long walks so I could tune out for a while.
Everything looked so different from what I remembered. If I looked closely, I could spot familiar trees I knew and loved even with the stark branches they’d disguised themselves with. On my way up the mountain, some of the trees had the greenish tinge that comes with the first of the warmer weather, and at their bases, some even had waxy new green leaves. But at this altitude, the trees were still bare and dead looking.
When I reached the gravel driveway, I was startled to see a shiny blue truck parked in front of the cabin. It wasn’t a vehicle I recognized, but Gramps was famous for opening the cabin to anyone who wanted to stay there. I had my own key, but I was sure I wasn’t the only one. Now I wanted to kick myself for not checking with him to see if the place was already occupied this weekend.
I parked and left my stuff in the car. Might as well check it out first—no use hauling it all in if I wouldn’t be staying, not that there was much to haul. The gravel crunching under my feet was louder than I remembered, and the mountain air, albeit chilly, smelled deliciously of pine. I had the key in my pocket, but I didn’t want to alarm whoever was already in there, so I knocked politely. I waited.
No answer.
I knocked again, a bit louder than before. It was freezing. The air up here made the temperature at 7-11 seem almost tropical. I hopped from one foot to the other with my arms wrapped around me, trying to get blood flowing through my veins. I felt even sillier as I tried to reconcile my plans for lengthy strolling with my wardrobe of t-shirts and jeans. Normally, I had everything planned to the last detail, so I blamed this lapse in judgment on how stressed out I’d been lately. My fingers were starting to feel numb, so I knocked again while I still could.
Still no answer. Maybe whoever was here had brought realistic clothing and was outside somewhere, taking advantage of the beautiful but frigid day. I was about to try my key when the door opened abruptly, and I couldn’t help the sudden intake of sharp, cold air that stuck in my throat. The person standing on the other side just grinned.
“Kevin,” I said finally.
“Well, hey, Rosie.” His voice was as steady and unsurprised as if I were the pizza delivery guy.
Kevin was, of course, the aforementioned best kiss of my life.

The Road to Cavan Town
By Sarah M. Eden
Chapter One

County Cavan, Ireland, 1864
The roads leading to Cavan Town boasted a fine collection of young bachelors hying themselves to that gem in the midst of the lake county. They made the journey, not to conduct business, not to shop at market, not to worship. The men came to pay court to the belle of the county, each hoping to have a single word, a single glance from the object of their universal affection. Unfortunately for Alice Wheatley, she was not that belle.
Alice hadn’t a particular taste for the attentions of hordes of men at one time. Her heart belonged to but one man, a certain Isaac Dancy, whom she’d met on the road to Cavan. He walked the dozen miles around the lakes from his home near Killeshandra every weekend to join the throng of besotted men. Alice walked nearly as many miles herself, returning home to Cavan from her weekday job as a maid-of-all work for a farm family of very comfortable means.
They’d struck up a conversation and a friendship quicker than a change of weather in autumn. He’d shown himself intelligent and thoughtful and kind. They laughed together and smiled together, yet their conversations were known to take serious turns as well. She knew his worries, and he knew hers. She felt closer to him than any other person on earth.
Yet he was making the weekly walk into Cavan to court another woman. Even knowing the reasons for his weekly journeys, Alice had fallen quite deeply in love with him. If her parents had given her a middle name, it likely would have been “Terribly Unlucky.”
Still, as she followed the turn in the road that she walked each weekend and approached the spot where Isaac waited for her every Saturday morning, she didn’t regret her lack of luck. He stood there as usual. Her heart smiled to see him. Unlucky she might have been, but she had his company twice each week and felt grateful for that.
“Good day to ya, Isaac Dancy.”
“And to you.” He rose from the rock he’d been sitting on.
Alice sometimes wondered if she’d ever grow accustomed to the sight of him. His hair could not have been a darker shade of black. Deep brown were his eyes, and full of intelligence and a love of living. And a life of working the land had left him broad of shoulder. What woman could help admiring the very sight of him?
“Have ya noted our fine view this morning?” he asked. “The last bits of autumn color are on the leaves.”
She had noticed it. A fine prospect the lakes offered all the year ‘round. Snow hung on bare branches in the winter. Buds of green brightened the landscape in spring. Foliage was lush and plentiful during the summer. She’d developed a fondness for the road in the two years she’d walked it. But the past four months, walking with Isaac, she’d hardly noticed the beauty around her.
“How went yer week, Isaac?”
Thus began their usual stroll. He spoke of having finished his harvest and preparing his home and land and animals for the coming winter. She spoke of her own work and the growing coldness at night, how her tiny closet of a room at the farmhouse hardly kept any of the night air out. He suggested she might want to begin bringing blankets with her as the seasons changed. She wondered aloud if the market would yet have apples or if the picking season had entirely ended.
’Twas always that way between them. Conversation came easily. They could speak on anything or nothing and thoroughly enjoy themselves.
In time, she told herself, he would recognize that for the wonderful thing it was. In time, he would give up his courtship of Miss Sophia Kilchrest and move on to higher pastures, as it were.
Sure, he’d been lured, like so many others, by Miss Kilchrest’s lovely face and fine figure. He’d been pulled in by her flawless manners and twinkling eyes. He’d even found a bit of motivation in the dowry she’d bring with her, though, to his credit, he’d not mentioned that but once, and even then, as an off-hand observation. And, Alice had noted, having set his mind on the pursuit of such a highly prized treasure, Isaac had taken on a certain single-mindedness where Miss Kilchrest was concerned. Alice doubted he gave his pursuit much thought of late. He simply continued because it was a goal he’d worked on so long.
“Do ya plan to keep making this walk after the snows come?” Alice asked, praying and hoping and feeling generally quite desperate that he would.
“I don’t plan to give over the progress I’ve made with Miss Kilchrest, if that’s what ya mean.”
’Twas not in the smallest bit what she meant. But life had taught her that men could be terribly thickheaded, and a woman had no real choice but to be patient with them.
“Are ya making progress, then?”
Isaac nodded. “She spoke to me quite particularly the last few weekends, though the other men vying for her attention were ready to rip me apart over it.”
“And men enjoy that, do they, the look of violent loathing in the eyes of another man?”
Isaac grinned. “Indeed.”
I will never understand men. Was it the loathing and the sense of victory Isaac liked, or was it the attentions from Miss Kilchrest? Surely he was intelligent enough not to court a woman simply out of pride. “And what did ya talk about during this jealousy-inducing conversation with Miss Kilchrest?”
He buttoned his coat against the growing wind as they continued down the road. “She spoke of her friends and fashion and the weather.”
“Fascinating.” Alice only just kept her tone less dry than she felt the comment deserved.
He laughed a little. “She and I aren’t the friends that you and I are. We’ve not endless topics to discuss yet.”
So stop trying to converse with her and start spending more time with me. She’d convince him one day; she swore she would. He’d realize Sophia Kilchrest was not for him. More important still, he’d realize she absolutely was.
“Can I let ya in on a secret?” he asked.
Alice couldn’t help a smile. He’d shared “secrets” with her before. Sometimes ’twas nothing more than a teasing story, though on a few occasions, he’d told her of plans he had for his home and land. He told her personal things, important things, things she felt certain he hadn’t told Miss Kilchrest.
He’d piece it together. He’d realize in time she was his match and not the Belle of Cavan.
“What’s this secret?” she asked.
“This weekend in Cavan,” he said, earnest excitement in his voice, “I mean to ask Miss Kilchrest if she’ll consider me her exclusive suitor. I mean to see to it we’re on the firm path toward making her my bride.”
With that declaration, Alice Wheatley’s world ended.

It Happened Twelfth Night

By Heidi Ashworth


Luisa waited behind the tree with bated breath. Percy, a black handkerchief about his eyes and arms outstretched, was close enough to touch. Did she, however, wish to be found? To be discovered by the grazing of his fingers against her gown amidst shrieks of his friend’s laughter would be delicious. Yet to win the day and carry forth the trophy (this year it was a basket of delightfully pink blooms) had been one of her heart’s desires for almost every one of her eighteen years.
Percy’s father and mother, Sir Walter and Lady Brooksby, loved a good celebration and eagerly availed themselves of every opportunity to welcome throngs of people to the abbey. This June day was the 74th birth anniversary of old King George and, though he was not likely to have been the least aware of it, it was a long standing tradition to invite the entire village to a celebration at the abbey on His Majesty’s behalf. The itinerary was the same every year: lawn games were followed by the unveiling of tables groaning with delectable foodstuffs both sweet and savory, each dish interspersed with pitcher after pitcher of tart lemonade. The pure white batiste cloths adorning the tables, so long they swept the green blades of grass, were so beautiful they made Luisa’s heart ache.
In point of fact, in her eyes, everything Sir Walter and his Lady set out to create was executed to perfection, including their eldest son, Percy. Those golden tresses! Those smoky eyes! That chiseled chin! Luisa was persuaded there was never another like him in all of England.
But now it seemed she was to be caught after all. The idea was every bit as intoxicating as she had hoped, especially since he seemed to know at once whose waist was suddenly between his warm palms as he spun her around to face him. Pulling the cloth over his head, she looked up at him, a question in her eyes. His slow answering grin caused a fluttering in her stomach, a sensation with which she had been most familiar of late. She couldn’t be certain when Percy-her-friend had become Percy-her-beau, but there was no mistaking the gleam in his eye as he tugged her by the hand and led her to the relative privacy of the summerhouse.
Leaning against a shadowed wall of the round stone structure, Luisa tried to catch her breath, but the way Percy was looking into her eyes was, for her lungs, a bit of a dilemma. For Luisa herself, it was nothing of consequence; who needed whole draughts of air when one could be gazed at in such a searching way? As for herself, all she was able to find, to see, to dwell on, was the perfect pink of his lips as they descended upon her own. Her eyes fluttered shut, and all sound was reduced to a rushing in her ears; all thought tuned to the rhythm of his heart hammering in unison with hers.
“I love you, Luisa Darlington, and when I return from this unforgivably interminable trip abroad, I shall look for you, right here, directly upon my return.”
Luisa opened her eyes to find his gaze locked on hers. Unaccountably, she began to giggle. “Won’t the summerhouse be shut up for the winter? Shan’t I wait for you in the abbey instead?”
“No, right here! While we are parted, I shall think of you every minute of every day just as you are, your hair divinely tousled and your lips swollen with desire. Vous avez l’air parfait comme vous êtes.
You know I don’t comprehend a word of French,” Luisa murmured, secretly hoping he would be just as content to discover her by the blazing fire in the library on that long-to-come December day.
He must have seen doubt cloud her eye, for he took her by the shoulders, and with a little shake, said in a voice full of urgency, “Swear it! Luisa, you must!”
“Yes! Of course! Did I not say so?” she asked with a buoyant smile calculated to dispel all misgiving. A barely audible moan of longing escaped his lips before he once more pressed them to hers with great affect.
Taking her again by the hand, he said, “It is settled, then. You shall be here when I return, and only then will I feel truly happy.”
How Percy would convince his parents that she, daughter of the keeper at the abbey gate, was a suitable bride for their son was a question that nibbled at the edge of her mind, but she put it aside. His father was a baronet, not an earl or marquis. “It is an accord,” she replied with a squeeze of his hand and with a gentle tug, Luisa led him back to the gaiety of the party, her heart swollen with love and her mind full of the knowledge that true happiness had already found her. 

An Unexpected Proposal

By Annette Lyon

Chapter One

Logan Canyon Wood Camp, Utah—1880
Caroline tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear and set to filling the bread basket with slices of rye and wheat bread, all the while wishing she could stay in the kitchen the entire evening instead of serving the workers. She hated the evening meal; it was the worst part of the workday at Wood Camp, and had been ever since Butch Larsen showed up to cut and haul trees two weeks ago. Today she’d first hinted at, and then begged Mrs. Hansen, the foreman’s wife, to let her stay in the kitchen to prepare the serving platters and get a start on cleanup, with Mrs. Hansen doing the actual serving.
“Why in the world would you want to spend your evening in here?” Mrs. Hansen said, shooing Caroline into the main room to serve the sweaty, tired men seated on benches around long tables. “It’s hot and stuffy.”
“But—” Caroline cut herself off, unsure how to proceed. She adjusted her hold on the bread basket, which was nearly overfilled. She glanced over her shoulder at the door toward the main room and winced.
“Well, now, get on,” Mrs. Hansen said with another shooing motion, and then wiped her brow with the back of her wrist. When Caroline hesitated a second time, Mrs. Hansen placed one bony hand on her equally bony hip and tilted her head. “Tell me truly, child, what’s the problem?”
Caroline closed her eyes and confessed. “It’s the new Larsen boy. He makes me uncomfortable.” She shuddered at the memory of how he’d encouraged her to lean forward so he could get a proper view of her bosom—even though it was modestly covered, with a high neckline of navy calico with pale pink flowers. She never mentioned the time he—she would swear it on a stack of Bibles—had patted her behind—her behind!
It was one thing to flirt with the men; she’d done that plenty of times. But Butch Larsen took the whole thing too far. She’d come to the point of staying mute in the serving room and avoiding any eyes but her old chum James’s.
Not that ignoring everyone but James had helped much; Butch still tried to get her attention. He made off-color comments, laughed, and then went right back to his mashed potatoes as if nothing had happened. At times she wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing, but each time, his grin and the way he nudged his seatmates with his elbow told the truth.
Now Caroline searched for a way to explain that wouldn’t denigrate a camp employee. “Mr. Larsen is not . . . now I hate to speak ill of anyone or spread gossip, but, well, he hasn’t been entirely . . . appropriate in his behavior toward me.”
There. She’d said the words she’d been holding back for a nearly fortnight, ever since Butch started getting fresh with her. Her old childhood chum James—a boy who’d grown up on the neighboring farm—arrived at the camp two weeks before Butch, the day after Caroline herself came to help the Hansens in the cookhouse and with other odd jobs like mending the men’s work clothes. Unlike Butch, James worked on road construction duty, so the two men didn’t interact except for during meals, and even then they rarely spoke.
The roads up the canyon were always rutted and filled with holes, especially in the spring and fall, due to the rain and the snow and subsequent freezing and thawing, making the ruts and holes even bigger. It was the job of the road team to keep the way passable for horse-and-mule teams pulling wagons filled with newly felled trees destined for the Mormon temple, the recently arrived telephone company’s poles, construction scaffolding, and other uses in the city of Logan in northern Utah.
As Caroline waited for a verdict about the evening’s service, she bit the inside of her lip. Mrs. Hansen pressed her lips into a thin line as she eyed at Caroline critically. “Very well. I’ll do the serving . . . today,” she said, with extra stress on today. “But then I expect you to do all of the cleanup afterward. Every pot, pan, plate, and spoon. All of the sweeping and mopping and wiping down of countertops and tables. Hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Caroline said with a bob at the knee, too grateful for a reprieve from Butch’s unwelcome advances to care that she’d be working an extra hour or two after supper by herself.
Mrs. Hansen took the bread basket from Caroline and marched into the main room. A distinct moan of disappointment went up, and Caroline had half a mind to peek out the doorway to see who all was reacting that way—surely more than Butch. Did James wish to see her? Possibly. Most nights after her duties were finished, the two of them took evening strolls along the canyon paths and roads together, chatting about old times at school and church, or whatever else struck their fancy. It was pretty much the only time she looked forward to during this job of hers that had taken her so far up the canyon.
She’d been at the Wood Camp barely over a month, and already she was sick of it. She wouldn’t have come at all if it hadn’t been for the fact that her family needed the extra funds. They’d lost most of their spud crop to disease. Worse, her little sister Bertha suffered from a rare and chronic form of tuberculosis, requiring frequent physician visits and medication that seemed to do nothing, or make things worse, as often as it helped.
Bertha’s condition is what finally sent Caroline up the canyon for employment. Mr. Hansen had heard about Bertha; as a child, he had battled the same disease for the better part of a decade. It had left him weak as a young man, unable to do manual labor, so he’d turned to tailoring to make a living before emigrating from Denmark. He’d offered the job to Caroline as a way to help pay for little Bertha’s care.
He’d taken to teaching Caroline how to mend the workmen’s torn shirts and trousers, and she could now mend better than even her mother had taught her. She looked on the lessons as a gift, as each time she fixed someone’s worn-out or torn clothing, she was paid directly by the worker, which added to her stash for Bertha and the rest of the family. And maybe, if Providence shined upon her, for herself and her trousseau.
Her position at camp would last a few more weeks, and then she’d head home for the remainder of the winter, during which time the Wood Camp would have a skeleton crew, and her services wouldn’t be needed. If they found they required help in the cookhouse again in the spring, she’d return then.
Would Butch—or James—be here in the spring? She could hope not on the first count, and hope yes on the other. The men would take time yet to finish eating, but eventually they’d leave the building in search of evening pursuits, whether singing, reading scriptures, or resting.
With the food already prepared, Caroline set to heating a pot of water on the stove to wash dishes in. First it would be the plates, cups, and silverware, and later the pans, bowls and other big dishes. With two pots of water settled to heat on the stove, she found two saucers and put butter in them for when they ran out. They always ran did, as the men generously slathered the stuff on their bread. She refilled the pewter pitchers with well water then prepared servings of peach cobbler for dessert before checking on the heat of the wash water, all while Mrs. Hansen bustled to and from the main room, serving the tired workers.
As Caroline wiped her hands on her apron, she couldn’t help but think that even though the kitchen work kept her hopping, it was so much nicer than being in the main room. Butch was always the worst part of the experience, whether it was for breakfast, dinner, or supper. He managed to make things particularly uncomfortable for her at supper, when he seemed to lose some his inhibitions after a long day’s work. She had to wonder if he indulged in spirits after the work day was over, even if consuming alcohol was against Wood Camp rules. She didn’t know what alcohol smelled like, but even if she did, she wouldn’t have dared say anything to Mrs. Hansen about Butch imbibing; he scared her too much for that. She’d already stepped beyond her bounds today admitting that he made her uncomfortable.
When she did have to serve the men, James was the one saving grace, whether she was handing out bread or serving up ladles of soup. With his unruly mop of curly hair, he always sent her encouraging smiles—and gritted his teeth whenever Butch tried to step over his bounds. Butch was subtle enough the few men were aware of his knavery, and no one would have dared confront him about them, not when he was from a respected family—and weighed almost twice what the other men did, his the extra weight being all muscle. More than once, James looked ready to pummel Butch, but Caroline always shook her head at James, begging him to never utter a word. She didn’t want him to risk his job by insulting Butch—who, they soon learned, was the great-nephew to Mrs. Hansen, or fourth cousin, or some other distant relation. No, insulting the blood of the foreman or his wife wouldn’t do.
No one did, not to Butch, and not to the Hansens. Not even to Caroline.
She kept her distress to herself as well. 

Caroles on the Green

by Joyce DiPastena

The Ring

England, December 24, 1151
“Father, must we feast like this every night? I shall be quite fat by Epiphany.”
Lord Stephen answered his daughter with barely a glance. He swirled the mulled wine in his goblet and mumbled around a mouth full of roast capon. “Ask Isabel. We will do what your sister thinks best.”
Isabel sat between her father and younger sister at the high table on the dais of the great hall of Weldon Castle. She smiled at Agnes, but beneath a white tablecloth stained with grease and sauces from their meal, she tapped her toe impatiently in response to her sister’s question.
 “Had you eaten more than three bites of tonight’s feast,” Isabel said to Agnes, “I might feel myself reproved by your complaint. I have spent a month planning these festivities and a good fortnight laboring over the menus for our guests. You were too busy flittering about like a bird to help me, and now you peck at your food like one. A willow reed would have to double its width to compete with your slender figure.”
“I would not flitter so if you would give me something more amusing to do than embroider more shirts for Father,” Agnes said with a pout on her pretty fifteen-year-old lips.
“Like what?” Isabel asked, though she already knew how Agnes would answer.
“Like do sums. I am ever so much more clever with numbers than you are, but you will not let me near the household accounts, even when you have added the columns so many times that your eyes grow red and it gives you a headache.”
“Sweetness, your husband will have clerks to add sums for you, as we did before Edmund Clark retired to the abbey.”
Agnes twisted a lock of golden hair about her finger as she did when she was vexed. “That was four years ago, and every time Father wishes to engage a new clerk, you say that Edmund mismanaged the spice accounts, and you will not let us be cheated again by dishonest or incompetent servants. So you add and add and add, double and triple checking, when I would be sure of the correct sums on the very first try.”
“I let Edmund teach you to read,” Isabel said. “I assure you, reading is vastly more enjoyable than adding numbers. Come, Agnes, let us not quarrel about this now. Father has agreed to let us dance some caroles after dinner. You will like that.”
Isabel had flirted before with the idea of dancing the lively circle songs, which were frowned on by the Church, but she had respected their father’s hesitance until this year. Once she had made up her mind to find a husband for Agnes, she had firmly factored dancing into the Christmas celebrations, winning their father’s consent by promising to keep the dancing circumspect and private—as though she would be caught doing anything as undignified as dancing on the village green like her father’s serfs, even were the green not covered with snow. Carole dancing would be the perfect opportunity to watch Agnes interact with prospective suitors.
The soft strains of recorder, rebec, and viol floated down from the musicians’ gallery, weaving their melodies in and out of the steady patter of conversation rumbling through the hall. Isabel nibbled on a mushroom pasty, savoring the smooth richness of the cheese that flowed over her tongue as she studied by turns the knights who ate at the sideboards below the dais. She had made certain to sprinkle a fair sampling of handsome young men among the graying men and women of her father’s generation. Perforce many of them had brought their sisters, but Isabel held little fear of any of them posing a serious threat to Agnes’s delicate beauty. She had invited a few knights on her own behalf as well: Sir Theo of the shy smiles, who had sent her that pretty posy of periwinkles and white violets at the end of last summer; Sir Eustace of the smoldering eye and flattering tongue, who had made her feel desirable again after the debacle of her courtship with—
“You do not mind that I asked Sir Lucian to join us, do you?” Agnes asked, apparently following Isabel’s gaze to the broad-shouldered knight wearing an acorn-shaped cap atop his dark blond curls. The exotic embroidery worked around its brim bespoke of an Oriental influence favored by many knights returned from the last Crusade. He would have been the most handsome knight at the feast had it not been for his slightly off-kilter nose. A stir of guilt squirmed in Isabel, but she tamped it firmly down.
It was your own fault, Lucian de Warrene.
“I only invited him because Ronwen begged me to,” Agnes said, nudging Isabel’s gaze away from Lucian to the flaxen-haired woman who sat on Lord Stephen’s left. “And because you told me you were at quits with him. Are you truly? Because I would never, ever have agreed to it otherwise.” Agnes drew Isabel’s hand beneath the tablecloth and squeezed it fiercely, whispering, “It frightened me, Bel, to see you weep so. Did I do wrong?”
Isabel felt her smile become more strained as she met her sister’s anxious eyes, but she kept the corners of her lips relentlessly turned up. “Nonsense, dearest. They were tears of relief that I came to my senses before it was too late. Sir Lucian and I should never have suited each other in the least.”
She made no effort to lower her voice to match her sister’s. Lord Stephen thumped down his goblet and turned to his eldest daughter with rare sternness. “You may do as you will with Sir Lucian, Isabel, but you have given me your word—”
“Yes, yes, Father, I know. I told you I would choose a husband by Epiphany, and I will.”
Lord Stephen grunted and returned to his roast capon.
Isabel saw her cousin Ronwen smirk. This marriage mischief had been her doing. Lord Stephen had been perfectly content to let Isabel walk in her mother’s slippers after the Lady Felicia’s death four years ago, directing the affairs of their family, until Ronwen had come to live with them. Lord Stephen had made a few half-hearted suggestions for marriage partners for his eldest daughter through the years, but he accepted Isabel’s rejection of each, allowing her to reach the age of nineteen still unwed. Isabel suspected he had actually been pleased when a promising courtship by their neighbor’s son, Sir Lucian de Warrene, had unraveled, for she knew her father was far too indolent to go through the trouble of finding himself a new wife when he had a perfectly capable daughter to maintain the tranquil flow of his life.
Isabel and Lucian had grown up together as little more than casual friends, but had reunited with a fresh perception of each other after Lucian returned from the Crusade with his father. The formerly rawboned squire had become a bronzed, muscular young knight who carried himself with a compelling self-assurance. Ronwen, sent to join her uncle’s daughters by a disinterested brother when her parents died, had strutted and simpered and fluttered her flaxen lashes in vain, trying to win Lucian’s attentions away from Isabel. But time had accomplished what Ronwen’s flirtations had not. Provoked beyond bearing by Lucian’s high-handed manners, Isabel had at last declared him intolerable and banished him from the castle and her sorely tried affections.
It had not surprised Isabel that Ronwen had swooped in to pick up the shattered pieces of Lucian’s heart. It had appalled her, however, to discover Ronwen to be so insecure in the knight’s budding devotion as to feel as if the only way to secure him safely and permanently was to see Isabel married to another man.
“You really mean to do it, Bel?” Agnes whispered, clearly wishing not to draw Lord Stephen’s attention again. “Marry one of these men?”
“Any one but that one,” Isabel murmured, nodding her head in Lucian’s direction. This time she kept her voice soft as well.
“I thought you would talk Father out of it again.”
“I tried. But Ronwen told him he was selfish to make me a spinster merely for the sake of his own comfort. She was right, of course, about Father being selfish, but when she added that men would think he had sired a termagant whom he could not marry off, her words stung his pride as well as his conscience. Just because he is lazy does not mean that he wishes to admit it. He cares for the world’s opinion enough that he will no longer listen to me, especially when he thinks he has another daughter to take my place when I am gone.”
“Does he not?”
“Of course not, sweetness. You are much too beautiful to let Father turn you into a drudge. Why do you suppose I am determined to see you betrothed before I wed? But I cannot leave Father miserable, so I must find him a wife as well.”
“You have always been extremely efficient, Bel, even if you struggle at sums. Will you please choose me a man who is stupid with numbers, so perhaps he will let me help with his accounts?”
Isabel laughed, winning a suspicious look from Lord Stephen and, to the dismay of her suddenly tripping heart, a quick glance from Lucian’s cornflower blue eyes.
A servant appeared with a tray of apple tarts baked in small, individual shells for each guest. Isabel turned her gaze away from the side tables and reached out to take one.
“If it please you, my lady,” the servant said, “Marjory Cook prepared you one with extra apples. She marked it there, with that little cross on the top.”
Isabel plucked the indicated tart from the platter and set it on her trencher. “Pray, thank Marjory Cook for me.”
The servant bowed and offered a tart to Agnes. Although she took one and cut it open with her little dining knife, Isabel knew she meant to do no more than spread the filling around a bit. Isabel’s own mouth watered for the treat. She had given explicit instructions that it be baked with minced apples, rather than ground, and that the filling be firmed with crushed almonds. With her knife, she cut a small hole in the upper crust, as was her habit, and employed her spoon in fishing out the raisins. Isabel could rule everyone in the castle except Marjory Cook. Neither blandishments nor threats had ever convinced Marjory to leave raisins out of Isabel’s apple tart. “They simply belong there, my lady,” Marjory always said.
Agnes reached her own spoon over, scooped up a few raisins from Isabel’s growing discard pile and slid them into her mouth. “Mmm.”
Isabel’s tongue recoiled from the tiny wrinkled fruit, but she was pleased to see that they tempted her sister into delving for the raisins in her own tart.
 “Do you think they will suit better than you?” Agnes asked after she’d nibbled the raisins in silence for a few minutes.
 “Who, sweetness?”
 “Ronwen and Sir Lucian.”
Isabel resisted the impulse to glance down at the sideboards again. Instead, she stole another look past Lord Stephen at their cousin. Ronwen had plaited her flaxen hair with red holly berries. Isabel could not deny that the sixteen-year-old girl was lovely, though her insistence on wearing pale shades, such as the honey-colored gown she had donned for tonight, washed some of the bloom out of her cheeks. Isabel had sense enough to select rich greens and reds for herself, knowing they set off her black braids to their best advantage. Men called Isabel elegant and graceful, and since her father’s ultimatum—“Choose, or I’ll choose for you!”—she had not wanted for eager suitors of her own.
She saw Ronwen smile like a satisfied cat and tilt her head coyly while gazing steadfastly at someone sitting below the dais. Isabel need not look to know who the recipient of her cousin’s coquettish approval might be.
“I am sure they will suit each other splendidly,” Isabel said to her sister’s query.
She plunged her spoon more vigorously into her tart, seeking a raisin that threatened to swim away then heard a tiny clink. Alarm flickered through her. Oh, she hoped a careless scullery maid had not spilled some broken pottery into the filling. Why, one of their guests might break a tooth! She must be sure before she sprang to her feet and shouted an embarrassing warning. She swished her spoon beneath the suspicious lump and lifted it free of the tart.
It took only two heartbeats to recognize the lump. It was no pottery shard. Quickly, she lowered the spoon nearly to her lap, bunched a wad of tablecloth into her free hand, and wiped the object clean of the rich apple-gold filling. A ring with a yellow topaz carved in the shape of a heart winked up at her, set in a band clearly cut small for a woman’s finger.
She heard the hiss of Agnes’s breath. “Is that from one of your suitors?”
Isabel detested the little flutter in her breast that drove her eyes first to Lucian. He had removed his cap and was showing it to the gray-bearded man on his left, no doubt explaining how he had come by the style in the East. Ignoring an emotion she refused to name—he had always said that if he had the means, he would drape her in rubies, anyway—she quickly surveyed the rest of the company. Sir Theo smiled up at her shyly. Sir Eustace grinned his rakish grin. Without doubt, one of them had sent the ring and waited to see what she would do.
A movement from the corner of her eye tricked her into turning her head. Sir Lucian redonned his hat, then smiled warmly at Ronwen.
Isabel drew a sharp breath and slid the ring onto her finger.
“Isabel, what are you doing?”
 “Father bade me choose, but I have not been able to make up my mind. I shall let this ring choose for me.”

A Winter’s Knight

By Donna Hatch

Chapter One

England, 1813
Clarissa Fairchild stared out of the coach window at the forbidding fortress crouched atop the bluff. Dark clouds closed in around it as if to echo the evil lurking inside the grey stone castle, a castle teeming with secrets Clarissa longed to discover.
Next to her, Great Aunt Tilly shivered. “Do close the curtain, Niece. That cursed place gives me the chills. Filled with murderers, you know.” She waved a gnarled hand at the window and shifted as the carriage hit a particularly large rut in the road.
Fascinated, Clarissa couldn’t tear her gaze away. All her life, stories whispered furtively about Wyckburg Castle and its terrifying lords had captured her imagination—a dark and terrible place with an equally dark and terrible earl. What a grand adventure it would be to explore the forbidding castle, a gothic novel come to life. If only she could find a gothic hero of her own.
Clarissa tapped her chin absently. “I wonder if they hid their wives’ bodies inside the castle, or if they buried them in the churchyard to make it appear as if they died naturally.”
Aunt Tilly pulled her cloak more tightly around her and shifted her feet. The warming bricks had cooled since they left the village, leaving the floorboards cold. “You’d have to be foolish to venture amid murderers to view the headstones.”
Tired from shopping, they fell silent as the carriage bumped along the country road. Again, Clarissa considered Wyckburg Castle, where, for generations, the mysterious lords were born, lived, married, and killed their wives. Of course, no one ever proved the wives had been murdered. After all, who would have the audacity to accuse an earl of murder? Yet, for generations, every Countess Wyckburg had met an untimely death shortly after marrying each successive earl.
Clarissa conjured all sorts of possibilities, each more wonderfully frightening than the last. The current lord had been reclusive even before he married, but had made no public appearances since his wife’s death. What manner of man was he? Openly evil? Slyly sinister? And what manner of woman had dared marry him, knowing the family’s reputation?
A new thought hit Clarissa and she drew in her breath in horrified delight. Perhaps the earls abducted maidens and forced them to wed. Or maybe the earls were so darkly handsome, no lady could resist them.
How delicious! She shivered. “I wonder if any of those poor women knew of their doom before they were murdered, or it if it happened suddenly.”
“It’s not proper for a gently bred young lady to dwell on such morbid thoughts,” Aunt Tilly said primly. “You should be thinking of finding a nice young man and settling down. After all, you’ll be twenty soon. You don’t want to be an old maid, do you?”
“Oh, Aunt, all the men I’ve met are so dull.” Murderous earls were so much more fascinating than real men wearing bored expressions while playing polite social games. Her gaze wandered back to the castle. “What would drive generations of men to kill their wives?”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, child!”
“Sorry, Aunt.” Clarissa laughed at herself and her obsessive thoughts. Perhaps she did read too many Gothics. “I won’t speak of it again.” But oh, she could imagine.
Moments later, wind shook the carriage, and swirling whiteness overtook them, forcing the coach to slow. The castle and bluff blurred into shapeless dark masses.
“The storm has caught us,” Aunt Tilly gasped.
Alarm tightened Clarissa’s stomach as the very real danger of the storm finally sank in. She put an arm around Aunt Tilly. “I’m sure all will be well.”
Aunt Tilly’s lips moved in silent prayer. Clarissa opened the compartment inside the coach where they kept writing implements. She dug around, looking for the food or drink it occasionally contained, but found nothing. Not surprising; their shopping trip to town was only supposed to take a few hours. With a sigh, Clarissa closed the hatch and leaned back. The carriage followed a curve in the road and began climbing a steep incline.
Aunt Tilly let out a gasp. “We must be going to Wyckburg Castle! I’d rather freeze!”
The castle? Dizzying excitement swept over Clarissa. After all this time, would she really see the inside of the castle, or even steal a glimpse of the earl? She should have been frightened, she really should, but oh, going inside the castle at last!
She patted Aunt Tilly’s arm. “Surely the driver wouldn’t take us there if he thought we’d be in danger. And the storm is a more immediate threat.”
Aunt Tilly prayed vocally, asking for protection from both the storm and the evil that awaited them in the castle.
A terrible groan splintered the air. The coach lurched sharply to the side, throwing them both out of their seats. Clarissa slammed against the side of the coach as it fell sideways. The carriage continued to roll, then tottered, groaning, before it rocked onto its other side, where it lay still. Outside, horses screamed and tack jangled. Then all fell silent except for the moaning wind. Next to Clarissa, Aunt Tilly lay in a motionless heap.
Taking a shaky breath, Clarissa pushed herself onto her knees. “Aunt Tilly?”
Her aunt’s eyes fluttered open. “Clarissa? Are you hurt, dear?”
“No, I don’t think so. You?”
“Just shaken, I think.” But already a bruise was forming on Aunt Tilly’s head. She tried to sit up, but let out a cry and crumpled. She lay, gasping, her lined face twisted in pain as she gripped her wrist with her other hand.
“Lie still, Aunt.” Clarissa spread both carriage blankets over her aunt. Where was the coachman? Had he been injured? “I’m going for help.” She fumbled with the door latch.
From outside the carriage came a voice. “Miss Fairchild?” A face appeared in the window above them. Though respectful to her, the coachman always appeared ominous with his teeth sharpened to points to aid him in whistling to the horses. “I have to get the team out of the weather!” he shouted over the wind. “We’re about a mile from shelter. You can ride on one of the horses.”
“My aunt is injured,” Clarissa called up to him. “I won’t leave her here alone.” Not even with the lure of the castle singing to her like a siren’s song. Would her trip to Wyckburg prove as treacherous as sirens were to sailors at sea?
The driver’s head bobbed. “Stay inside. You’ll be protected from the wind. I’ll return with help.”
“I understand. We’ll be fine until then,” she said confidently.
“Here’s some light.” He opened the door to hand down a carriage lamp. Snow blasted inside and bit into her cheeks like shards of glass.
Standing as much as possible in the cramped quarters, Clarissa took the lamp and offered him an encouraging smile. The coachman closed the door, shutting out snow. Outside, wind howled and rocked the carriage. Her teeth chattered, and her body shook.
“So cold,” her aunt mumbled.
Clarissa removed her woolen cloak, lay next to Aunt Tilly, and laid the cloak over them both like a blanket. Cold crept in like icy fingers burrowing to her bones. Sleepiness drifted over her. She battled it back but never banished it, only driving it off for a moment before it returned. She drifted in a haze of gray. Wind screamed like ghosts demanding vengeance.
“It’s going to be all right,” she whispered, as much to herself as to her aunt. “We’ll be rescued soon, and then we’ll be safe and warm.”
 The carriage door flew open. A dark form appeared in the doorway above them. “Miss Fairchild? Can you stand?”
She ordered her limbs to move but could barely lift her head. The coachman spoke to someone outside her line of sight, then lowered himself into the carriage.
“Help is here.” He slid his arms underneath her shoulders and knees, and lifted her. Standing, he raised her and transferred her to another pair of arms which cradled her against a hard chest.
“Good heavens,” muttered a male voice.
Clarissa floated into darkness.

A Fortunate Exile

By Heather B. Moore

Chapter One

New York City, 1901
“Are you pregnant?”
Lila stared at her father, her eyes focusing on his stiff collar, stark white against his carefully shaved, red face. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out.
“By all that is holy, if you are with child. I will—” His hand came up too swift to stop and struck her across the face.
She stumbled back, knocking against her mother who sat prim-faced on the settee.
“James,” her mother yelped, half-hearted as it was.
Lila scrambled away from the settee as her father turned his wild eyes on his wife. “I will not have our daughter behave like this, Annabelle! Not in my house.”
Her mother’s face paled even more, if that were possible, as she clenched her already clenched hands tighter. Her mouth closed into a pinch.
Making her way behind the settee, Lila spoke in a raspy voice that had already spent hours crying. “I am not pregnant. We did not . . . I am not compromised.”
Mr. James Townsend looked from daughter to mother, his face darkening, disbelieving.
The knot in Lila’s stomach twisted until she thought she’d be sick, right there, on her parents’ talk-of-the-town Persian rug. Now I will be the talk of New York. Either by a sudden marriage, or worse, a suspicious departure. But how could she explain to her father that she was not defiled, that the things she and Roland had done may have been touching the fire’s flames, but not that.
Her eyes brimmed with tears—tears she thought were already spent. They weren’t from her father’s slap, but because she’d sent a letter to Roland early that morning, and there was still no reply. It was now well past the ninth hour, and had been dark for three. The blizzard that had hit the upper coast the day before had just reached New York City. The snow fell swiftly outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. No one in their right mind would venture out in the face of the storm.
“Can you swear this over your sister’s grave?” her father asked in a steely tone.
Her mother gasped at the mention of their younger daughter, and Lila straightened, lowering her hand from her stinging cheek. That her father had brought little Charity into this ugly argument was momentous indeed. “I swear,” she whispered.
The room was quiet for a moment. It seemed as if the tick of the grandfather clock in the corner had faded with the silent falling snow. Her father turned away as if he could no longer bear to look at his only surviving daughter. He stood with his back to the women and stared out the massive windows.
Finally, his pronouncement came. “She will leave in the morning for my sister’s estate. There she will stay until this whole business is completely forgotten.” He scrubbed his balding head. “What will the society papers say tomorrow? There has already been enough speculation, since any woman who associates with Roland Graves is ruined, and our . . . daughter . . . has more than associated with him.”
Her mother whimpered and brought a handkerchief to her mouth.
Lila’s head throbbed. Her father’s sister, Mrs. Eugenia T. Payne, was as austere as her name. She’d worn nothing but widow’s black since her husband’s passing, and her eldest daughter had converted to Catholicism and gone into the nunnery.
Who goes into the nunnery in 1901 America? That was the thing of gothic novels.
Aunt Eugenia’s younger daughter, only one year older than Lila, had made a boring and dull marriage to the local parishioner. Lila had attended the wedding in Connecticut the year before, which was the first and last time Lila ever planned visiting their “estate”—which was in reality nothing more than a farm.
I can’t leave the city. What if Roland comes to propose? She stared past her father into the driving snow. Surely he wouldn’t send me out in such a storm.
Lila’s father turned from the window, and she lowered her gaze. “She’ll leave first thing in the morning with a letter of explanation to Eugenia. Send Fay up to pack her things. As far as society will know, our daughter is spending the holidays with her widowed aunt.”
Her mother murmured assent; Lila wanted to crumple up on the floor. Instead, she turned and slowly walked out of the room then up the stairs to the second floor. Her heart hammered as she thought desperately for some sort of plan. Should I send another letter? Could I bribe our driver to deliver it in the storm?
Tears started immediately after shutting her bedroom door. Not tears of shame like another girl would shed at being discovered with the most notorious bachelor in the city, but tears of anger. How dare her father send her away? She was certainly not the only woman in the world to make a mistake. Her father had made plenty of his own.
His own sister refused to come visit their home because of the corruption in the city—at least that’s what she called it. I know otherwise. Aunt Eugenia doesn’t approve of my father, or his associates, or his business practices. I’ll admit that I’d been pretty innocent before meeting Roland—innocent of all things. But no longer. He taught me a thing or two about the ways of men, and I’ll never look at my father, or any other man, the same way again. What will my aunt think when she learns about Roland?
Lila sat at her ivory painted dressing table and absently moved the trinkets and perfumes around. Everything in her room was ivory and gold, patterned after a distant cousin’s bedroom in Paris. When Lila had visited France in the summer, she’d fallen in love with the opulent décor. Her father had ordered furniture from as far as India to achieve the right ambience, and now she’d be trading this divine room for one of splintered furniture and moldy linens.
A light knock sounded at the door. Lila didn’t have the voice to answer, so she wasn’t surprised when Fay opened the door anyway.
Fay shut it with a firm click before turning to Lila. The sorrow in the maid’s eyes about did Lila in. Fay was her oldest friend and confidante. Only she had known about Lila’s secret escapades. Fay might have been twenty years Lila’s senior and would never live life beyond a personal maid, but she never judged Lila.
The tip of Fay’s nose was red, and her pale blue eyes watered. “This came for you, Miss Lila, when you were in with your parents.”
Lila stared at the folded envelope in Fay’s hand. “Someone delivered it to the door?” She’d heard nothing. Even over her father’s yelling, she would have heard if someone had arrived in the front hall.
“It was delivered to the stable boy. He brought it to me.”
Lila held out her hand. She’d have to thank Tim later, since he’d done the proper thing with this sort of letter. But when she took it from Fay, her heart stuttered. It was the same envelope she’d sent Roland. Had he returned it unopened?
Lila turned it over and saw the broken seal. Her heart thundered in her ears as she slid the letter out. She knew without opening it that it was the one she’d sent. Her throat pinched as she skimmed her note, then read his answer below.

Dearest Roland,
Do I dare believe the words you spoke to me this fortnight past? I know there have been other women for you in previous years, but I hope that I was different. My feelings are true, and I can only hope that yours are too. My father wants to send me away. Probably someplace like Africa to live among natives and to grow crops in the dry dirt.
I didn’t mean for us to be discovered, and I’m sorry that it happened this way. To be forced upon you when you’ve lived in bachelorhood for so many years. But I hope you do not feel forced and will consider my father’s request. I would be most honored to accept your offer.
Affectionately Yours,
Lillian Beth Townsend

Below her carefully constructed letter were the scrawled words:

I depart on the next steamship to England and will be gone for an undetermined time. My deepest regrets to you and your family. You knew who I was when you involved yourself with me, and I never gave you any promise. Your expectations are your own.
Best wishes in Africa,

Lila read Roland’s note a second time, then a third. Disbelief pulsed through her, then sorrow, anger, more disbelief. He was leaving for England. He was leaving her.
Her face burned, the heat spreading down her neck, to her chest. The things he had whispered to her, promised her, and the way he had kissed her . . .
“Fay,” she croaked. “Tell Collings to have the carriage ready at midnight. I’ll be paying a visit to Roland.”
“Your father—”
“Shh! He’ll know nothing!” Lila hissed. “I deserve a better answer than this.” She held out the scribbled letter. “Roland didn’t even use his own stationery.”
Fay’s face paled, and she peered at the letter, although she couldn’t read it.
“We will pack just as father ordered,” Lila said in a hurried whisper. “But my things will not be going to Connecticut to reside with my suffocating aunt. We’ll be taking the same ship as Roland to England.”
“There will be many expenses,” Fay cut in, her eyes wide with horror.
“Roland will be sponsoring our fare.” Lila’s voice sounded confident, final, but inside, her heart was breaking.
“But, miss, everything I know is here.”
“Then you’ll stay here. I’ll go alone,” Lila said in a sharp voice. “I’ll be a married woman soon enough, and I won’t have to answer to you or anyone.” She closed her eyes against Fay’s stunned expression. I hurt my only friend, but it has to be done. She went behind her dressing screen if only to get away from Fay’s gloomy face.
Once Roland saw her again, he’d remember how much he loved her. How perfect they were for each other. How she made him laugh, and how when they kissed, everything transformed into the most beautiful dream.


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