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Monday, December 31, 2012

Introducing QUARRY HALL

Regular visitors to Tabor Heights know about Quarry Hall -- the mansion in Akron that is the home of the Arc Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports the Mission and other worthy causes.

TODAY, January 1, I'm pleased to announce the new year brings a new series published by Desert Breeze Publishing -- Quarry Hall.

JOAN is the first book, going four years into the past before the Tabor Heights books start, and shedding some light on references to the past actions and choices of people you've met in the Tabor Heights books. Just how did Xander Finley get the support of the Arc Foundation? And how did Nikki James go from foster-child to runaway to representative of the Arc Foundation?

JOAN tells the story of Nikki's half-sister, Joan Archer, and her search for answers, healing, safety, and a place where she could not only do some good in the world, but belong.

Gritty, skirting the edge of unpleasant, this isn't a romance by any means, but Women's Fiction that asks some hard questions and explores the wounds we inflict on ourselves, which are sometimes worse than anything someone else could do to us.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 30: WHITE ROSES


"Frank! Just the guy I was looking for," Max called, when Curt walked into the office after lunch. She leaped up from her desk and pulled the gate open, gesturing for him to come through. "I'll be right back, folks," she said, looking around Curt to the couple sitting in two of the four chairs that faced the counter.
Myrna sat at the switchboard, studying a catalog of some kind. Curt saw the concerned look Max shot the woman as she hustled him down the hall. Something was up, and he didn't need to engage his tired brain to realize it had something to do with the couple sitting in front of the counter.
"Why the new name?" he asked, careful to keep his voice down.
"Do you have Toni's cell phone number?"
"Yeah, why?"
"You're the only one who does. Call her and warn her that her parents are here, would you? Just from a couple things I overheard..." Max raked her fingers through her hair and let out a long, exhausted sigh. "They're arguing about something, and I think it has to do with Toni, and they didn't sound really happy when they asked to talk to you."
"Toni's parents?" Curt turned to look behind himself. He stood just around the corner of the editorial room and couldn't look down the hall to the front of the office. What was going on? Why did her parents come here, instead of to her house?
Unless they didn't know where Toni's house was? But that didn't make sense. Wouldn't she have told her parents how to get to her house?
Maybe Toni didn't know they were coming to visit? But still, even if she wasn't expecting them, wouldn't she have told them how to find her house?
Unless her parents still didn't know she was living in Tabor Heights and working for the paper? But then, how did they know to come to the paper to begin with?
All these questions were giving him a headache, and it was too early in the morning for that.
"How did they get my name, do you know?" he had to ask. The picture coming together in his head wasn't very clear, and a lot of pieces were missing, but he didn't like what he began to suspect.
            "Not until after they picked up Thursday's paper and read your name sharing the byline with hers." Max bent forward to look around the corner. "Why do I have the feeling she didn't tell her parents she was working here?"

Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 29: DETOURS


Dr. Holwood and his wife, Doria, spotted Bekka and Kat sitting near the front of the sanctuary Sunday morning, and insisted they come to dinner with them. Dr. Holwood was the head of the Humanities department at Butler-Williams. He served as a deacon at Tabor Christian, and Doria led one of the children's choirs.
It was just a short walk of a few blocks to get from church to the Holwoods' enormous Century home. Bekka and Kat chose to walk, since the day was so nice, with the sun shining and snow melting and the sidewalks clear. Rick's Bakery was open, and Bekka took a quick side trip down to Main to pick up a box of assorted Christmas cookies to contribute to the lunch.
Morgan was just arriving and parked on the street when they reached the Holwoods' driveway. Kat shivered from a little more than cold when she saw their adviser, but she managed a smile for him when he remarked on being surprised to see them there, back from their Christmas trips so soon.
It amazed Bekka a little, to realize how much Morgan did know about their schedules. Well, that was what made Morgan such a great teacher. He cared about his students.
Before Morgan could ask what brought them back to Tabor so soon, the Holwoods' current foster children yanked the front door open and descended on them, demanding the guests come see their Christmas presents. The near-twin boy cousins and dainty little girl were quite a contrast, blonde against the Black Holwoods. Bekka smiled a little, remembering how her straight-laced grandparents still made small protests every once in a while, saying mixed race families were unnatural, even if they were temporary, foster families. They couldn't say much, because Dr. Holwood and his wife were so respected.
The blow-up with her grandparents eventually came out in the conversation. Kat mentioned something, and Dr. Holwood asked a few questions and Morgan guessed. Bekka focused on the opportunity to submit a manuscript to a publisher, and to downplay her grandmother's nastiness the next morning. It all came out, somehow. She knew she had told Kat too much about it.
               The alternative, she realized when she began to squirm inside, was to let the questioning turn to Kat, instead. Her roommate didn't need the sordid details of her stepfather's abuse and the attack and the destruction of her mother's marriage to come out in public.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 27: DETOURS


When Bekka arrived in Cleveland, after three connecting flights and more weather delays than she wanted to remember, it was going on six p.m. She could have gotten there faster if she had rented a car and drove the whole way.
"Merry Christmas," she whispered, and navigated the Rapid Transit and bus line and lugged her baggage on and off buses. Bekka felt sticky and dirty and dreaded finding out what she smelled like after two days in the same clothes.
The Christmas lights were lit when she arrived in the apartment, and a light glimmered underneath Kat and Amy's bedroom door. Bekka put down her bags and stared around herself, wondering what had happened. Maybe she was hallucinating? She was supposed to be the first one back after Christmas break, to arrive next Thursday. She was supposed to take Kat's car and drive to the airport to pick up Amy on Friday, and Kat was to be back on Saturday.
"Something is definitely wrong," she whispered, and turned to take another step into the apartment -- instantly falling over her suitcase.
"Whoever's out there," Kat called, her voice hollow and strained, "I'm warning you, I have a gun!"
Bekka sighed and wrapped her arms tight around herself. A thousand angry, hurting images sprang into her mind, to explain what Kat was doing home so early.
"Your water pistol sprang a leak last month," she called, trying to make her voice teasing.
Kat yanked the door open and stumbled from the bedroom. She stared at Bekka while her mouth opened and closed a few times before she found her voice. A pitiful grin lit her pale face. "What are you doing here?"
"I live here." Bekka slid out of her coat and tossed it onto the couch behind her.
"I mean -- you're not supposed to be back until after New Year's. Gee, give me a heart attack, will you?"
"My grandparents were driving me crazy." Bekka choked on the words. It was her excuse all the time -- no need to tell Kat how bad things had really gotten. "I needed to be alone and write."
"I'm so glad you're back." She grinned and raked both hands through her tangled hair. That wasn't like Kat -- she spent as much time on making her hair look good as she did on decorating the apartment.
"How long have you been here alone?" She remembered how much Kat hated being alone.
"Since Tuesday night."
                The words seemed to echo through the apartment. Bekka felt her stomach twist. What were the chances something horrid had happened to Amy, too, on Christmas Day?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

December 24: THE SECOND TIME AROUND


"Please, Lord, bless Lyn and Kat," Daniel whispered as the strains of Silent Night filtered through the sanctuary and the golden glow from dozens of tiny white candles grew to hundreds as the flames passed from one worshiper to another.
He loved the candlelight service on Christmas Eve almost more than any other celebration of the church year. This year, however, Daniel felt a near-tears ache of wistful longing. How wonderful it would be if he could share the service with Lynette and their daughter. His regret had a jagged edge as he thought of all the missed years of filling stockings for Kat and telling her stories and tucking her into bed. Playing favorite uncle for Candy and Chad had been soothing, but never filled the empty ache.
He glanced down the row at his cousins. Abby sat next to him, dark hair cut short and swept back in that severe style that just made her look more pixie-ish. Ten-year-old Candy sat next to her, sitting still for the first time since the service started, looking so dressed up in her burgundy velvet, lace-trimmed dress. Nine-year-old Chad next to Candy, tugging on his tie to loosen it for the thousandth time that evening. And Al at the end of the row, his linebacker body slumped in the pew. He looked weary and cold from a long day towing stranded cars out of ditches and coaxing recalcitrant engines to start in this cold weather.
Al was a good man. He and Abby and their parents had helped Daniel through the pain of losing Lynette. Daniel wished Al's wife, Bethany, were still alive to fuss over his daughter when the day finally came to introduce her to his family. He wished Kat could meet her cousins tonight. There was so much they had all missed.
Not that he missed the trauma of Kat taking driving lessons, or going on her first date. But he hadn't seen her prom dress or held her while she cried over her first broken heart.
Please, he repeated silently. Please, Lord, I believe You've given us a second chance to be a family. You've given me my daughter, finally, after all these years not even knowing if she existed. I have to believe... A wry chuckle escaped him. Lord, we need a miracle. We don't have a chance with Mike Tyler around. And I don't really wish the man harm, Lord, but he needs to be dropped off the Terminal Tower a couple dozen times. You're going to have to do something about him. But if You don't, Lord, I'm going to trust You. It's all I can do. Even if it's killing me.
At the front of the sanctuary, Pastor Glenn raised the four-inch-wide gold candle high, and the congregation raised their tiny candles. The arched ceiling blazed golden with light.
"So let your light shine, the light of Jesus' birth and life and death and resurrection," the gray-haired, stocky minister called out, his voice joyful and ringing.
The congregation responded with an 'amen' like a roar.
          In unison, with the practice of dozens of years of the ritual, the people lowered their candles and blew out the flames. As tiny spirals of candle smoke twisted up toward the ceiling, the golden lights of the sanctuary came back on. Joy to the World blasted from the organ as the congregation slowly dispersed. Daniel grinned, imagining the unseen organist jamming on the staid old instrument, dancing in her seat as much as a proper, dignified church organist could ever do.

Friday, December 21, 2012

December 21: DETOURS

News Flash!
Now available: Your Christmas present from me -- FREE Tabor Heights short story.
It's a Christmas story, of course.

Click here to open up the PDF of ONE SMALL CHILD, and then save to your computer.

Merry Christmas!!



Her grandparents stayed behind the barrier while Bekka went to the conveyer belt line that flashed her flight number.
"Third degree, huh?" Shane said, stepping up next to her. He grinned and nodded over his shoulder in the general direction of her grandparents.
"They love me, they just... don't understand me." There was no way she was going to go into even a minimal explanation for him. Not at this time of night -- or was it morning? "How much did you hear?"
"Enough. So, what church do you go to back at school?"
"Church?" She blanked. What made him ask that? Then she thought about what her grandmother had said. Sure, Shane had to conclude she went to church. "Tabor Christian. It's up on--"
"Yeah, I know where it is. Small world, huh?"
"Excuse me?" Maybe she really was sleepwalking.
"I go there when I'm not working the midnight shift on Saturdays. Here's my gear." He dropped his duffle and reached for a suitcase that looked like it had been through a war. Zippers were held together with industrial strength safety pins, the entire bag wound with half a dozen wraps of twine, and what looked like two garment bags attached to the entire conglomeration. Four tiny, wholly inadequate-looking wheels stuck out the bottom. It made Bekka think of a very broken-down R2D2 unit trying to carry too much luggage.
Then her bag came around and she stepped away to snatch it up. When she turned around, Shane was already at the little gate, showing his baggage tag and ticket to the uniformed attendant. He looked back, waved to her, and stepped through. Bekka waved and suddenly felt too tired to move. She had to, though. She couldn't expect her grandparents to help out, even if it was to carry her computer bag and backpack.
"Who was that?" Grandma wanted to know as they stepped away from the gate.
"Shane... Sorry, I'm too tired to remember his last name."
"You let a stranger pick you up on the plane? Rebekah Joanne Sanderson--"
"He goes to BWU, Grandma. We had a history class together." No way was she going to mention it was theater history.
                "Oh. Well. History." Grandpa nodded and looked down the concourse, where Shane was already little more than a stick figure about to vanish around a corner. "Clean cut young man. What are his prospects?"
"Oh for pete's... Grandpa, Shane is more interested in Kat than me."
"What does that little tramp have that you don't?" Grandma blurted.
"Hold it!" Bekka didn't care who stared at them. She stopped short and let her suitcase hit the floor with a bang. "Kat is not a tramp."
"She doesn't have a steady boyfriend." She sniffed, her mouth flattening in distaste.
"Neither do I. Does that make me a tramp?" Bekka pressed on. "She doesn't date a guy more than twice. She doesn't even kiss one tenth of the guys who take her out. How does that make her a tramp? Sounds more like she's a nun."
"Rebecca--"
"I'm too tired to be polite. If you can't promise to be quiet about my friends, I'm staying here and taking the next plane back to Ohio."
"It would be nice if you had some Christian friends," her grandfather grumbled. Neither of her grandparents would look at her -- but they seemed more ashamed than irritated, Bekka noted. That was a good sign. Points for her cause. Maybe their new church and new friends were having a good influence on them.
"I do have Christian friends. Lots of them."
"That flighty girl in the singing group -- and that foster child of the Holwoods', who ran away. Fine friends."
"They go to church, don't they?" Bekka shook her head and continued. "But they don't need me like Amy and Kat do. Maybe the apartment is my mission field. Do I have your promise you won't talk about them, since you can't say anything nice about them?" She waited, prepared to head back down the concourse to the ticket counter. Her grandparents were just stubborn enough to get their feelings hurt and tell her to go ahead, ruin her Christmas break, waste the money she had spent on the tickets, and go back to Ohio.
"I promise," Grandpa finally said. He looked at Grandma, and she nodded, murmuring a 'promise,' Bekka could barely hear.
               "Good. Thanks. That means a lot to me." Bekka picked up her suitcase and gestured down the concourse again. At least her Christmas vacation would be quiet, in terms of Kat and Amy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 20: DETOURS


The set strike went almost as quickly as the closing performance, everyone moving with turbo speed to get everything cleaned up and put away so they could relax and talk and enjoy the food. The crew had put away all the set pieces and props as soon as they were finished on stage. That meant only a fraction of the usual cleanup work at the end of the performance. In what seemed like moments, the stage had been reduced to scuffed hardwood. Curtains were folded and hauled up into the storage area next to the grid. Costumes were tossed into the bins to go to the dry cleaner over Christmas break. Chairs and tables appeared and actors wearing street clothes and glitter makeup descended like the proverbial locusts on the long rows of steam tables where Mike's crew, decked out in sweatshirts, waited to serve them.
The three roommates sat in a shadowy corner of the stage near the proscenium, talking with Lynette. They were all exhausted, the afterglow fading, leaving them mostly smiling at each other and not saying much. It was fun just to watch what was going on around them.
Bekka caught a few glimpses of Morgan standing by himself a few feet away, watching the party, but mostly watching them. She wondered why he didn't come over and join them.
Then the General bombed his way through the dancing, around the knots of chairs, dragging two strangers in his wake. From the camera hanging around the neck of one and the notepad and tape recorder clutched in the hands of the other, Bekka guessed they were theater reviewers. Likely from one of the college associations that judged new productions, or a magazine devoted to collegiate theater. They couldn't be Broadway writers, could they? Sometimes Bekka just didn't know what to make of the General's boasting about all his connections in the industry.
"There is my pretty little tree!" the General boomed. He spread his arms wide in prodigal blessing. "Darling girl, you must catch up on your sleep. Such a hard worker."
From the corner of her eye, Bekka saw Mike frown and waddle over to join their group. She groaned and prayed Kat wouldn't see. It would ruin her moment in the spotlight. Kat had chosen to use her mother's maiden name as her stage name. Knowing blustery Mike, who embarrassed Kat by always referring to her as 'his little girl' and insisting on big, long hugs and kisses whenever he saw her, the big bozo would raise a fuss when he learned Kat wasn't wearing his name. Just because he adopted her when he married her mother didn't mean he owned her -- but obviously Mike had never figured that out.
"He's rather tiring, isn't he?" Lynette said with a chuckle, when the General led the strangers across to the other corner of the stage, where Dina Harkness huddled with her friends -- most likely complaining about her accumulated bruises from the harness she had to wear so she could fly across the stage during the entire performance. Bekka had lost her envy for Dina's tiny daintiness, after seeing what being built like a fairy could lead to.
"The guy's crazy, if you ask me," Mike said, joining them.
                 Kat rolled her eyes. Amy and Bekka traded glances and tried not to laugh. Morgan left his corner to join them, his tired smile fading into a frown. All directed at Mike. Bekka saw and wanted to cheer.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December 19: COMMON GROUNDS


            "Go on with life as usual.  Right," Hannah muttered.  Her voice seemed to echo in the half-empty rooms of the new office.
            She glanced down the hallway, positive she had heard a footstep.
            Impossible.  Xander had walked her to the office and made her wait in the front while he checked out every room, then he called the Arc Foundation to tell Vincent they were taking him up on his offer to check security.  Then he locked her inside.  No one could get into the office unless they unlocked the front door or came in through the cellar — through the door that had a bar across it and a rusty padlock and heavy chain to reinforce it — and knocked down the sturdy, dead-bolted door between the cellar and the first floor.  All that breaking would create enough noise to alert Hannah, even if she was foolish enough to wear headphones and play CDs at chop-and-liquefy volume.  Right now, she preferred utter silence, thank you very much.
            Hannah made a mental note to hang that old-fashioned bell over the front door, so no one could sneak in on her.  Maybe she should hang bells by all the windows, and at her apartment, too.
            "You're not crazy if you talk to yourself," she told the paint roller as she bent to slop it through the paint tray again.  "Only if you start answering back."
            They had all agreed that since she insisted on staying in Tabor and working — who would get the office put together and ready to use if she left?  — they would go on as if nothing was wrong.  Curt and Angela at the newspaper would know, but only because they were pursuing their own leads, trying to track down the identity of the White Rose Killer.  Hannah didn't want her family to know until absolutely necessary.  They hoped the lack of media coverage and no change in her routine or any reaction from the people around her would drive the White Rose crazy and make him act out of character. 
If he really had targeted her. 
               If there was a copycat involved, they hoped Hannah's lack of reaction would prompt him to act out of character for the White Rose Killer, so they could catch him.  Or her.  If the White Rose had really focused on that poor, frightened college student, alerting the media would reveal that she had dropped out of school.  The longer the White Rose Killer waited for Tracy to come back from Christmas break, the longer the women of Tabor would be safe from his attentions.  When the White Rose realized his newest 'true love' had escaped him, he would find another target, if he didn't try to track the poor girl down and punish her for running away.  Either way, silence was the best course of action.

Monday, December 17, 2012

December 17: COMMON GROUNDS


            Hannah woke Tuesday morning in a better mood than she had known in nearly a week.  She supposed part of it could be blamed on the weather, with hints of a brilliant day streaking the sky with blue and gold and scarlet, and the sound of snow melting and dripping off the eaves just above her tiny bedroom window.  Or it could be blamed on the fact that she would spend the day at the new office, free from worrying about clothes or makeup or styling her hair.  Why look fancy to paint walls and scrape windows?
            On Friday, Kiddie-Time's corporate office agreed to settle out of court.  Curt had promised the write-up would be in the paper that morning, so Hannah left a message on Xander's answering machine, asking him to pick up a copy of the Picayune on his way out to visit that afternoon.  What mattered to her were the buckets of solvent Kiddie-Time had agreed to buy and the college students they paid to spread the solvent on the lease-violating window decorations yesterday.  The solution had all night to work, and Hannah looked forward to scraping off the odd color combinations and seeing clear glass today.
            This office was her domain now, and the sooner it looked like a legal clinic where people could get help, the better.
            She whistled a few notes from the new praise song the choir had taught them on Sunday as she strolled down the sidewalk from her apartment to the office.  Her good mood went up a few notches because there was something especially grand about wearing sneakers outdoors in December. 
The notes soured when she opened the door and the near-toxic smell of the solvent rushed out the door to slap her in the face.  Hannah coughed, stepped back to fill her lungs with clean air, then braced herself and dashed inside.  She opened two windows in front, then one on each side, filled her lungs with more clean air, and ran to the back of the office to open a window in what would be the kitchen.  She wore a sweatshirt, so what was a little shivering compared to inadequate ventilation?  She didn't feel like suffocating at nine in the morning.  Or worse yet, feeling her brains dissolving and running out her ears.

Friday, December 14, 2012

December 14: DETOURS


Shane went to Annalee's funeral, even though he barely knew her. Mr. Gray had spent three weeks in Dr. Morgan's class at church, sharing his experiences in Rome when he had been a young man, and Shane had come to know the older man well enough to want to be there to support him through this loss. Morgan served as a pallbearer, and Shane sat with him near the front, on the right side of the sanctuary. He admired the Grays for choosing to make the service a celebration of Annalee's life, with different people in the church singing her favorite songs, and a PowerPoint slide show of pictures from high points in her life.
He wished he had spent time with their daughter, gotten to know her. He thought of Trix, who was making noises about having a job lined up and waiting in Denver.
Shane realized he had a lot of regrets, a lot of wasted opportunities. If he was smart, he'd cancel his classes for next semester and go to Orlando for that guaranteed opportunity at the Disney complex.
He thought about what the police had to be feeling right now, wondering what they could have done to protect Annalee and keep the White Rose from taking her from right under their noses, with a patrol car on the street in front of the house. Shane understood what they had to be thinking and feeling, because he had the same regrets and questions about Trix. He was her friend, they were pals since wading pool days -- what could he have said and done to keep her from running off with that jerk who got her pregnant and then wouldn't stand by her now?
Then the service was over and Morgan got up to join the other pallbearers and take the casket from the front of the sanctuary to the waiting hearse, to go to the cemetery. Shane stood up with everyone else and turned to watch the departure. He saw Bekka, pale and red-eyed, her hair pulled up in some simple style that made her look older. Shane thought about wading through the crowd to talk to her. Then he saw that same guy from campus pull a handkerchief from his coat pocket and hand it to Bekka -- and then put his arm around her shoulders.
Talk about lost opportunities. Shane kicked himself mentally as he let the flow of the departing crowd move him down the hallways to the parking lot. He decided not to follow the hearse to the cemetery, hopped on his motorcycle, and got out of there.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

December 13: THE SECOND TIME AROUND


"Mike, please tell me you didn't force yourself on Kat's strike party," Lynette moaned as she stomped into her husband's TV room.
"Force myself? Honey, all I did was offer to cater closing night." Mike barely turned his head away from the hockey game. "Come on, we gotta celebrate. Kat's finally got a decent part. How am I gonna show my little girl how proud she makes me?"
"What have I told you about sneaking around behind Kat's back?"
"I didn't sneak around!" He nearly rose out of his chair, but a moment later a fight broke out and he sank back into the cushions with his gaze glued to the screen.
"Did you ask her if she minded if you got involved?"
"Geeze, Lynette, sometimes I think she wants to cut me out of her life completely. I wouldn't even have known about closing night if I hadn't seen those tickets she sent."
"Hmm. Yes."
"Come on, who's going to give those kids a really great party for free?" He turned on that smile that was part charm/part mischief that had originally won her heart. Was it only eight years ago? It felt like forever.
And in some ways, it felt like a dream. Something that never really happened. Lynette wondered if she had been so desperately lonely she had created an illusion for herself. And Kat suffered for it.
The truth was, Kat had sent the tickets for closing night for Lynette to take a friend. Nothing was said at all about her stepfather. Lynette knew that was deliberate.
She also knew she didn't want to show up at closing night and have to endure the strike party without someone at her side to shield her from Daniel. He would be there. Kat had reported a dozen incidents where Daniel had come to the rescue, saving the General from irate performers or stage crew, or saving the crew from crazy ideas the General came up with at the last moment. Everyone adored him.
Lynette wondered if Kat would be so enamored of Daniel if she knew he was her father. Would she whine to her mother about his interference, exactly as she had just done by phone, when she found out Mike was catering the strike party?
"Just behave yourself, Mike. Don't go running around telling everyone you're her stepfather. Let Kat enjoy her night with her friends her way, okay?"
           "Geeze, you make it sound like I deliberately set out to embarrass Kathryn." Mike pouted, and the next moment his eyes glazed over as an instant replay filled the TV screen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

December 12: COMMON GROUNDS


                "Merry Christmas, Madam.  Sir."  The tuxedo-clad woman who opened the door wasn't familiar to Hannah. 
Usually one of the young women who worked for the Arc Foundation and lived at Quarry Hall played the part of butler at the holidays.  Last year it had been Sue-Ma, with her kinky red hair tamed by a gallon of gel, clad in a tuxedo, with a fake moustache and goatee bristling under her mischievous blue eyes.  This slim brunette stranger was dressed as a butler from the time the original owners of Quarry Hall had entertained the local gentry, opera stars, and presidents.  She also had a radio clipped to her belt, visible when she turned to hold the door open for Hannah and Xander.  That bulge at her waist under the back of her coat looked suspiciously like a gun.
"Security?" Xander murmured, when he caught Hannah studying the stranger.  She shrugged and let him take her arm and guide her down the hall to the formal greeting room, where another tuxedo-clad stranger, an Oriental man this time, took their coats for them.  They stepped through a doorway into the main hall that ran the length of the first floor of the house, intending to go to the Great Hall and check out the two-story-tall Christmas tree.
"You made it!" a familiar young, female voice crowed.  A flash of green warned them just before Nikki flung her arms around Hannah.  Joan's younger half-sister laughed as she gave Xander his hug.  "I bet Sophie and Vincent that you'd make it.  They thought for sure you'd be too busy.  Joan didn't say a thing, so I was pretty sure I was right."
"What did you win?" Xander asked, as she hooked her arms through theirs and led them into the Great Hall.
The wood-paneled walls glowed softly in the green, crimson and gold lights of the massive tree.  The scent of pine made the air sweet and spicy.  The room was oddly empty of guests.  A burst of sound coming down the hall from the left answered that question before Hannah could voice it.  The open houses always featured local school and church choirs, orchestras and ensembles.  This evening's children's choir was performing, keeping most of the guests in the music room for now.  When the music ended, the children would be set loose on a scavenger hunt through all the public downstairs rooms, to find treats hidden inside fist-sized, hollow ornaments.  Hannah had enjoyed helping to fill ornaments last year.  It had been a relaxing weekend, chatting and laughing with the 'daughters' of the Arc Foundation, watching movies, eating far too much chocolate and pizza, and basically having a two-day pajama party.
"She didn't win anything," a mellow, lazy voice answered, and the speaker appeared through the doorway from the dining room a moment later.
From his shaved, glistening ebony head to his boot-clad feet, Vincent exuded efficiency and danger, slim and elegant even in a bulky pine-green sweater and matching slacks.  He tipped his head to one side, crossed his arms, and gave Nikki a look that Hannah could only describe as fond exasperation.
"I did so.  Two whole days without you beating me black and blue," Nikki retorted.  She winked at Hannah.  "What's the use of learning self-defense if I'm so sore I can't move to defend myself?"

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Release: INVITATION TO A WEDDING


The next Tabor Heights, Ohio novel is now available at Desert Breeze Publishing!


Stacy was the housekeeper's granddaughter.
Drake was the oldest son and heir to one of the founding families of Tabor Heights.
They grew up together, with Stacy considered a member of the family. Then the years and careers and distance conspired to create silence and misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
When childhood nemeses conspired to keep her from participating in his sister's wedding, Drake had little time to turn Stacy into Cinderella.
Just maybe, he was ready to be her Prince Charming. For keeps.

Monday, December 10, 2012

December 10: COMMON GROUNDS


            "Why isn't Hannah eating with us?" Joan Archer asked, pausing midway through her first slice of pizza.  She laughed when her question caught Xander Finley taking a big bite of pizza.
            He grimaced and chewed.  She would just have to wait until he finished.  When Joan had called from the road, saying she wanted to meet with him before she headed home to Akron, Xander had chosen to work later than usual and picked up pizza from Mancuso's before he headed home to meet Joan.  Mancuso's pizza was not to be hurried, even for an old friend.
The ringing phone stopped Xander in mid-chew.  He rolled his eyes and stumbled away from the tiny bistro table set up on the plain hardwood floor in the middle of his echoing dining room.  After three years in his condo, he still hadn't bought a dining room set.  Or living room furniture.  Or a frame for the mattress he slept on.  He never thought about furniture until he had guests, like now.
            Xander chewed and swallowed as he reached for the phone, and Joan's question finally registered.
            Why hadn't he asked Hannah to join them?  She would be in charge of the branch office of Common Grounds in Tabor.  She liked Joan, and they got along great, like old friends.  Inviting her to share in the brainstorming and troubleshooting session tonight would have made sense.
            Lately, he had daydreamed a little too often about how much nicer his condo would look and feel if she were there to light up the place with her bright smile, her chiming laughter echoing off the walls.  Xander tried to keep his interest in Hannah just a little warmer than the long-term friendship he shared with Joan, the head of the Arc Foundation.  He feared if he let their friendship grow into something warmer, closer, it might affect their working relationship. 
When that happened, people might see how he felt about her, the things that filled his dreams when sleep erased his self-control.  Xander knew how people gossiped, how a casual touch could be warped into sexual harassment.  Hadn't he defended enough innocent bosses and schoolteachers since opening up Common Grounds?  He knew what people's filthy imaginations could do to someone's reputation, and he had more than his own image to protect.  Xander had no right to risk one fleck of dirt on his reputation, indirectly harming the Arc Foundation with his actions.
            That resolve got harder to keep by the week, because sometimes he thought he would burst if he didn't tell Hannah how pretty she looked.  How her presence brightened the office.  How much better he felt when he had been sick last month, just because she touched his forehead and made him drink orange juice.  Her voice soothed his headaches.
            Hannah's slim, athletic build and strawberry-blonde hair were very easy on the eyes after a long day digging for precedents and writing briefs and glaring across conference tables at opposing lawyers.  She was paralegal, Gal Friday and den mother for the lawyers at Common Grounds Legal Clinic.  Xander didn't know what he would do without her presence every day.  Maybe he had put her in charge of the proposed Tabor branch office so her physical presence wouldn't torture him so much of every day?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

December 9: WHITE ROSES


He yanked the tape from the cassette player clipped to his belt and crushed it in his fist without intending to. He nearly tossed the fragments, the filmy twists of tangled brown tape into the snow, but caution stopped him. He put the broken pieces into his pocket and kept walking.
His angel was betraying him. She told lies about him, told people that he frightened her, that he would hurt her. That was the only explanation. Chief Cooper was a good man. He wouldn't plot to take a man's true love away from him unless someone lied to him. She lied to him. She was lying to everyone she met when she smiled and pretended to be sweet and innocent and afraid.
Sunset spilled crimson and gold across the snow piled around the dormitory parking lot as he stalked up the sidewalk. He walked to work off his anger, the surging waves of pain that made him want to scream and smash things to pieces.
How could the chief have betrayed him like that? He nearly wept, grateful that he knew how to set up wiretaps and record phone conversations. All of City Hall was set up for recording, for security purposes, so it had been ridiculously easy. He taped all Chief Cooper's and Mark Donovan's phone conversations now, because they weren't telling anyone about the hunt for the White Rose.
How could his angel have betrayed him like that? How could she go to the police and tell those lies, saying he frightened her?
No, she had never been his angel. She had deceived him, lied to him, played games with him, broke his heart. Just like the others.
"Tracy, wait up!" Laughter rang against the dormitory walls and the icy parking lot, and bounced off the Mission building across the street.
He turned and saw the college girl standing on the steps of the dormitory, waiting to go inside. She stood in a puddle of sunset, wearing jeans and white boots, a green sweater and blue down vest. As he watched, she swept her blue stocking cap off and laughed at the girls hurrying to catch up with her. Long, dark hair fell down almost to her waist and she turned her face to the setting sun, so it painted her pale, oval face in gold.
"Angel," he whispered, and the sharp pain filling his chest softened. He watched her laughing with her friends as they hurried up the steps and into the dormitory.
He laughed softly and turned to go back the way he had come. How could he have missed her all this time? She was here, right under his nose. He walked this path a dozen times a week.
His angel. She had been waiting for him to find her. And now that he was no longer blinded by his false angel, he could see her now.
                She was the one. He had waited so long for her to return to him.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

December 8: WHITE ROSES


"We're taking Annalee out to lunch," Curt announced when Toni opened her cottage door only twenty minutes after she returned from church, "and Chief Cooper will just happen to be there."
She blinked several times, and he swore she nearly laughed before sighing and beckoning for him to come inside. "I hope it's not fancy. I don't have the energy to change my clothes, much less make a fashion decision."
"It's a casual place." He swallowed down a comment that he thought she looked great. Mandatory sexual harassment training raised its ugly head, reminding him that commenting on a woman's physical appearance could lead to trouble. But Curt wanted to tell Toni that he always thought she looked nice. He liked sitting across the desk from her, watching her frown over her computer keyboard, or the way she chewed on her pen cap.
Just to be careful, he looked her over, trying to pay attention to the details, instead of the overall impression. Sweatshirt with embroidery of hummingbirds. Black jeans. Stocking feet. She looked fine to him. Like always. He opened his mouth to comment that she would need shoes since it had started snowing and they were going outside, and Toni bent to pick up a pair of hiking boots from the mat next to the door.
"I used to think all this clandestine meeting and cloak and dagger would be fun." She rolled her eyes as she sat down to put her boots on. "So, what's the meeting about?"
"Annalee is ready to think about a safe house." Curt grinned at the loud, gusting sigh of relief Toni made.
"You know, I was willing to let things go on as they were, hoping we'd catch him, but when he got into the office without anybody seeing ... he could be anybody. The last person we'd suspect." She gestured at the piles of papers spread out on the floor in front of the TV, which still played, the volume turned down. It meant that like him, she had the TV on for company while she worked. "I don't know about you, but my half of the research is getting us nowhere."
"We've crossed ten people off the list, because they're either dead or too far away to be suspects. That's pretty good," he offered.
"Not good enough. I wish we could get the police involved --"
"But there are security issues. Yeah." Curt shivered. "You know, there are ten people in the department who are lifelong residents of Tabor, that I know of. They could all be suspects. And they can all get into the police computer and follow any research into records that's being done."
             "Oh, that's really comforting." She sat up and took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. "So, we casually run into the chief and he makes arrangements to get Annalee out of town. Sounds good. What's on the menu?"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

December 4: WHITE ROSES


Toni regaled Annalee with some stories of Maggie that had become legend in Tabor, how the old woman talked to squirrels in the park and got them to perform tricks, how she always had quarters to buy ice cream for any child who wanted some, when the ice cream truck trundled down the street. Funny, but it never occurred to her until just that moment that it was rather odd that parents let Maggie buy treats for their children. But Maggie was a fixture. Only outsiders distrusted her. Things were just done differently in Tabor Heights, and Toni was glad of it.
Too bad the White Rose Killer seemed to be part of Tabor, too, just as much as Maggie.
She finished a story about the time Maggie camped out in a life-size Nativity scene in front of St. Ambrose church, just as she and Annalee got back to the office. The younger woman's laughter made Toni feel good. She wished she could make it possible for Annalee to permanently forget about the threat that hung over her.
Annalee slid through the gate at the counter first and stepped over to her desk. Her soft chuckles stopped with a gasp. She stumbled back from her desk, dropping her gloves and scarf.
"What?" Toni almost ran into the gate in her hurry to get through. Then she understood. Words clogged in her throat. There was nothing bitter and sharp enough in her vocabulary to express what she felt right that moment.
Two white roses sat on Annalee's desk, tied together with a white ribbon.
"Jackie?" Toni turned to the girl at the switchboard. She waited until the pigtailed college student looked up from her books. "Who was in here after we left?"
"I don't know. A couple dozen people. We had a run on paper sales, and then a bunch of people wanted to place last-minute classifieds, so Ted was up here for a while and you know what a mess he makes of things. Why?" She started to stand up.
"Annalee left some pictures on her desk and they're gone now, that's all." Toni turned to put herself between Jackie and the desk. She scooped up the roses with a tissue, wrapped an arm around Annalee's waist, and hurried her into the back.
Fortunately, Angela's office was empty. Toni settled Annalee in one of the chairs in front of the editor's desk and hurried out into the newsroom, still clutching the roses.
Curt swore, the first time she'd ever heard such words leave his mouth, when he saw the roses. She didn't have to say anything. He hurried to follow her back to Angela's office, then detoured into the lunchroom. Angela and Loni followed him back into the office a moment later. Loni closed the door and Angela went down on her knees to wrap Annalee in her arms.
                Annalee had been silent and pale and still up until that moment. Then she burst into tears, shaking hard enough Toni feared she would have a seizure.

Monday, December 3, 2012

December 3: WHITE ROSES

"You weren't at the stores." Curt fought to keep his volume down. There were no other reporters in the newsroom, but voices had a way of bouncing off walls so sometimes conversations in the back were audible at the front door. Myrna was on duty today, and even though the plan was for people to believe he and Toni were 'together,' he didn't need the interfering, know-it-all woman to blow things out of proportion. The way Myrna and her gossipy friends operated, Curt could hear that he was engaged to Toni before they even went on their first real date.
"You were in the parking lot, just the two of you. Nobody around to see if something happened or hear you call for help," he said, trying to sound reasonable. It didn't help that he wanted to grab her and shake her. What was wrong with him?
"Nothing happened. And isn't it better if Annalee can go on as normally as possible? Wasn't that the whole idea, making sure she had an escort? Besides, I like her. Why can't I be friends with her if I want to?"
"The more time you spend with her, the more the White Rose can see you."
"I won't become his target." Toni finished putting her shoes on and dropped down into her desk chair.
"You don't have any guarantee--"
"For me to become his target," she whispered with the intensity of a shout, "he has to kill Annalee, and that isn't going to happen. We're going to catch him before he can even try to touch her. Aren't we?"
She glared at him, meeting his angry gaze with heat of her own. Suddenly, everything went quiet inside Curt and he felt a little lost. He slowly nodded.
How could he have forgotten what all this meant to Toni? She never forgot. Every time she looked in the mirror, she was reminded of Angel. Every time she looked at Annalee, she remembered her sister.
"Yeah, we are." He nodded and suddenly felt as if he hadn't slept a wink the entire night. "Guess I was kind of stupid, huh?" He offered her a weak smile by way of apology.
"Comes with the territory." Toni's eyes sparkled and her lips twitched as she fought a smile.
The relief he felt made Curt feel lightheaded. Why did her feelings, her friendship matter so much to him? He was Mr. Untouchable. His friends in the inter-church basketball league claimed he was a founding member of Bachelors-'Til-The-Rapture, sworn never to buy an engagement ring or go near a house with a white picket fence.
"Yeah? What territory? You mean me being klutzy Clark Kent?"
             "Nope." She scooped up her jumbo-sized Calumet Cyclone mug and fished two bags of hot chocolate mix from her desk drawer and stood up. "Testosterone poisoning. Causes paranoia along with all that brain damage." She wrinkled up her nose at him and scurried out of the newsroom.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

December 2: WHITE ROSES


Curt wasn't sure later what made him turn to look as he pulled out of the parking lot. The shopping center across the street was bright with all its Christmas lights glowing green and gold and red, but he was already jaded from the onslaught of color and holiday cheer. Maybe it was the glimpse of movement when everything seemed so quiet and still, at nearly nine at night. Maybe he was just tired from the long day handling last-minute problems with the paper. For some reason, the company that printed the Picayune and three other weekly and twice-weekly papers couldn't keep their files straight. Picayune stories were appearing in the other community papers, and vice versa.
Then he saw them, walking toward the parking lot he had just left. Toni and Annalee held onto each other, sliding on the icy pavement and struggling with several shopping bags each. Curt waited until he saw them approach Toni's SUV. There was no other traffic on the street, so he didn't have to worry about being in someone's way. He watched until he saw Toni open the back door and toss their bags into her car, and Annalee climbed into the passenger seat.
Then snow started falling, and the two women seemed to just vanish among the lights and shadows. Curt swallowed a growl of pure panic and made himself sit until he saw the taillights of Toni's SUV light up, then the reverse lights, then the dark bulk of it backing out of the parking space.
"They were just shopping," he muttered, but his angry, racing heart didn't seem to pay attention.
He should be grateful that Toni and Annalee had made friends, and the younger woman was comfortable enough, felt safe enough to indulge in a little Christmas shopping.
            Still, the mental image of a dark shape emerging from the shadows of the parking lot and the falling snow, snatching Annalee and knocking Toni unconscious, lingered in his mind all the short drive to his apartment. It haunted his dreams when he finally got to sleep.