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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #10

Nikki considered scooping up the serving dishes to avoid having to meet his eyes. Ringo wore a brittle mood tonight, still amusing and charming, but with sharp edges just waiting to cut someone. No, leaving the room would be seen as running away. She had nothing to be afraid of because she had done nothing wrong. Even when she didn't like Ringo, she knew he had always been fair with her.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what you're hinting at," she said instead, and sat back in her chair.
"What's with the big guy?"
Was Ringo's chiming tension tonight because of Brock? Nikki turned toward the kitchen, as if she could see through the wall and study him. That earned a chuckle from Ringo.
"I'm not blaming you." He reached over and patted her hand, resting on the table next to her plate. "The guy's uptight. He came back that way. Since you were with him, I thought you might know."
"Oh." Nikki thought back over their day. Brock had seemed focused, to the point of being too quiet, from the moment she got up that morning. Still, it had increased. "Oh, okay. I ran into someone from home this morning. Maybe Brock is upset about that. He didn't really like Joan, so…" She shrugged.
"Someone from home? They know where you are?"
"Cincinnati is a big city, and we're outside it. I know the drill on protecting your privacy."
         "Yeah, you do." He winked, his smile a little broader, but also a little thinner. The shiver that struck her occasionally when dealing with Ringo whispered over her.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #9

"We don't have much time," Moira said, stepping around the end of the aisle filled with wine bottles shaped like fish, cats, buildings, and abstract art. "O'Breza's cover is about to shatter and we need to take out Santiago ahead of schedule."
"But--" Brock swallowed hard. He had met Santiago only once, and the man had made him feel cold for days afterward. Until then, he thought Ringo's errand boys, Marcus and Angelo, were the worst he had encountered in the organization. "Things are going to be churned up for a while after that. There's no way the rest of the operation will work. Ringo will go into hyper-alert, pull a vanishing act, and take us and all the records with him."
"You can bail, but the chances of moving fast enough and getting far enough away are pretty slim. It's not a matter of cutting off one snake's head -- gotta get the whole nest in one blow."
He knew that far too well. He had been part of the effort to make Ringo's "business ventures" so impervious, to knit the organization together so tightly that nothing could happen to one division or team without the others knowing and being able to react immediately. It was a combined effort of self-preservation and lashing out at the attackers.
"You have to get Nikki away to safety before you strike at Santiago."
         "Negative." Moira's voice was cold, but Brock saw the sympathy and regret gleaming warm in her eyes for a few seconds. "If even one thread of his web is pulled out of place, it's going to set off alarms for your boss. If you send Nikki away, he's going to look at you and wonder what you're up to. The whole reason we're here is because those two bulldogs of his have been sniffing around. They don't like you any more than you like them, and that automatically means they don't trust you."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #8

The irony gave him a headache. Why feel guilty now over using Nikki to hide what he was doing? Hadn't he been using her from the very beginning? Hadn't Ringo sent him looking for a cute, innocent-looking girl who could dress up fancy for parties, distract the suspicious and present a wholesome, safe image as they traveled around the country? Brock had set out to romance Nikki, knowing she was the perfect one for the plan from the moment he first laid eyes on her at the winter community outreach at Butler-Williams University.
He nearly stumbled as the coincidences struck him -- he had left Nikki alone for a few minutes at that winter carnival to meet Moira, and came back to find her talking with someone from Tabor. He actually recognized Joan's big gray bear of a dog before he recognized Joan. Something about the way that dog looked at him made him feel like a huge killer icicle had fallen off a roof, ramming right through him and nailing him to the ground.
"It's gonna be okay," he muttered. "I'm not that guy anymore. Nikki's gonna be okay."
          Looking back, Brock knew Ringo's decoy plan had gone wrong from the moment he decided he wanted Nikki and no one else. Just ten minutes of flirting with her, laughing with her, being charmed by her and realizing he hadn't been able to fluster her at all -- he had been a goner. Nikki had conquered him while he worked to win her total loyalty and charm her into running away with him. Two months to the day since she said yes, he woke up and watched her sleeping, and wished he could walk out on Ringo and find her a safe little cottage somewhere to "play house" for real. The masquerade now was in making Ringo think they were both using Nikki. As long as Ringo thought she was innocent and ignorant, he would continue to treat her like a pet, and she would be safe. Brock didn't want his boss to know that he had fallen for the decoy. Hadn't Ringo himself warned him never to put a weapon or hostage into the hands of anyone in their organization?

Monday, December 22, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #7

Over Nikki's shoulder, Joan saw Brock lean inside the pavilion and look around. She held still and silently told him to go away. She needed more time with Nikki. Ulysses whined and got up off the concrete, just a heartbeat before Brock's gaze fastened on Nikki's back. Joan silently echoed her companion's complaint.
"Hey, hon, we gotta go," Brock said, reaching to catch hold of Nikki's elbow. He jostled her just as she was taking another sip of her chocolate.
Nikki let out a little squeal and twisted aside, neatly avoiding the splatter when the cup tipped over, losing nearly a third of the contents. Joan sat still, watching the brown drops hit her boots. She looked up and couldn't help grinning at the confused frown Brock gave her.
"I know you," he said.
"Yeah, this is my friend, Joan, from back home," Nikki said, as she swung her legs over the side of the picnic table bench and stood up. "You got your business done already?"
"Ah -- yeah -- sort of. The guy I was supposed to meet couldn't." Brock still frowned at Joan.
         For a moment, she had the strangest urge to leap at him, shouting, "Boo!" just to see what he would do. Something had him edgy-tense. Joan doubted it had anything to do with seeing her.

Friday, December 19, 2014

NIKKI -- excerpt #6

"He's the office manager, the numbers guy. Accounting, that sort of stuff. And he does a lot of troubleshooting. That's why we're here, actually. Somebody in one of Ringo's businesses is having some trouble, so Brock dropped me off here to have fun while he takes care of it."
"So you're living here? Cincinnati itself, or one of the suburbs?"
"We're on the road a lot." Nikki glanced away.
         Okay, not a good subject to pursue. That's fine. All that matters is getting her to talk.
"Me, too." Joan reached down and brushed her fingers across Ulysses' head. "This big guy -- his name is Ulysses -- is sort of my bodyguard while I'm on the road."
"You and Sophie?"
"Ah… no. She's pretty much confined to headquarters. There was an accident and… it doesn't matter. We're both working for Arc, and it keeps us busy."
"Doing what?" Nikki offered her hand for Ulysses to sniff as they stepped inside the partial shelter, where a crowd was already growing around the snack bar offering hot chocolate, coffee, tea, spiced cider, and fresh donuts. The first batch was just coming out of the deep fryer vat, the wire basket bounced to knock off the oil droplets and then the golden brown puffs of dough falling into a mound of powdered sugar.
          "Helping people, basically." Joan's mouth watered, and she decided she didn't care if she had eaten breakfast less than half an hour ago. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

NIKKI -- excerpt #5

"Please tell me my folks didn't send you looking for me." Nikki looked around, probably hoping Brock would show up and whisk her away.
"Nope, I'm totally here on my own recognizance." She gestured around the curve of the skating rink in the other direction. "Can I buy you a hot chocolate? If I promise not to nag you to come home, can we at least talk? I've been worried about you."
"You have?" Another blush, then she hunched her shoulders. "You don't have to. Brock takes great care of me."
Joan swallowed hard to keep from blurting that yes, she did have to worry. It was part of her DNA, and she had been worrying about Nikki long before she came back to Tabor and found her. Her lips burned to spill what she should have told Nikki nearly six years ago -- they were sisters, and she knew who had tried to kill Nikki when she was a baby. Dumping that kind of information on her without any preparation would just send the younger girl running.
"Yeah, I can tell," she said instead, and managed to sound amused. "That must have cost a lot." She ran her gloved finger down the arm of Nikki's sweater.
"I guess. Actually, Ringo bought this for me for Christmas. That's Brock's boss."
         "What does Brock do?" Joan breathed a silent prayer of thanks when she took a few steps toward the pavilion selling hot drinks, and Nikki fell into step with her, no resistance.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #4

"Please, Lord. I know nothing is ever this easy, but… please?" Joan tried not to stare just like she tried not to plead. This summer would mark two years since her sister had run away from home to be with Brock. Nearly two years since all the resources of the Arc Foundation had been focused on finding her and praying her home.
The Brock look-alike gestured around the winter carnival, where shutters were nearly all open now on all the fanciful booths decorated like gingerbread houses, igloos, snow forts and ice palaces. The traffic had doubled just in the couple of minutes since Joan spotted the two of them heading toward her. He nodded at the benches placed against the wooden barricade around the ice rink, leaned in to kiss the tip of the Nikki looke-alike's nose, then hurried off through the thickening crowd.
Joan counted to twenty again, willing the girl to keep walking around the skating rink toward her. She looked away for another twenty-count, looked up again.
"Nikki?" She stood, a chuckle bubbling out of her at the way her heart raced.
The girl stared for several seconds, then her face flushed bright pink. Shrugging, she summoned up a smile and waded through the sudden influx of children intent on getting to the long building labeled Valentine's Sweet Shop, where the doors were just swinging open.
"Joan. How… weird to see you here." Nikki stopped, looking down at Ulysses, who tipped his head to one side and gazed steadily at her. "I didn't know you liked dogs."
         "A lot of things have changed since--" Joan swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Might as well jump in with both feet. "Since you ran away."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #3

Odd. The notebook computer was open, but not turned on. The notebooks were scattered across the table, but none of them were open. No colored pens and highlighters everywhere, and crumpled paper, indicating Brock had been working hard since before sunrise.
If he wasn't attending to another emergency that had sprung up overnight in Ringo's far-flung business empire, then why was he on the phone and who was he talking to?
Maybe her dreams had come from some tension she picked up from Brock? Nikki turned back to the snowy golf course and nodded. That had to be the answer. She certainly wouldn't be having any of those dreams -- times when she thought God was sending her warnings or guidance. Such beliefs belonged to a simple little church girl who obeyed her parents and never crossed the line. Not even when her heart was broken and she wanted to punish the world.
          No, God certainly wouldn't be talking to her in dreams -- if He ever had. She had been a silly little girl, to believe such things. Since running away with Brock nearly two years ago, she had stopped being that silly, simple little girl.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #2

She found Brock in the kitchen downstairs, pacing and talking on his cell phone. As usual. The coffee smelled like it had been brewed just past the fragrant stage. Only an inch remained in the bottom of the carafe. As usual. Brock flinched when he turned and saw her in the doorway -- not usual -- but that changed to a smile and wink, and he resumed his pacing while nodding to whatever the person on the other end said. As usual. Nikki padded to the refrigerator.
This was nice, having a condo of their own instead of sharing a larger condo or a rented house with Ringo. Not that Brock's employer wasn't charming and clever and gracious -- and had good hygiene habits. Nikki liked smaller condos, or even living in hotel suites, because it meant some privacy for her and Brock, and less chance of Marcus and Angelo wandering in, helping themselves to the treats she stocked for Brock and throwing out anything she bought just for herself.
Such as yogurt. She smiled as she opened the refrigerator and saw the four stacks of three cups each of her favorite flavors. Such a small thing, to have everything where she left it the night before. It meant she wouldn't turn around to find either man peering around a corner, leering at her. It meant she could go barefoot in her silky nightshirt, instead of needing a thick robe, or even getting dressed to leave her bedroom.
          Flickers of the dream that woke her intruded as she toasted bagels for herself and for Brock, poured juice, and set his food on the table that was covered with stacks of papers, envelope folders, a dozen notebooks and his computer -- as usual. Nikki took her food to the breakfast nook, like a little enclosed balcony that looked out over the golf course covered with melting snow. She knew better than to try to find a corner of the table to sit at while Brock was busy with Ringo's business.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

NIKKI -- Excerpt #1


Nikki woke sweating, reaching for Brock to hold her and chase away the dream.
         Darkness coiled around her, solid and cold like a massive snake. As she struggled, it fractured into dozens of coils, all wearing the faces of Marcus and Angelo, Ringo's errand boys.
Brock wasn't there. His side of the bed was cold.
Nikki curled up, hugging her knees to her chest while she got her breathing under control. Their king-size bed was too big, the extra-thick mattress threatened to swallow her like quicksand, and all the luxuries surrounding her made her feel small and colorless.
She opened her eyes to rainy, early morning gloom. With a soft groan, Nikki unrolled from the tangled blankets and what felt like twenty pounds of quilts, got on her hands and knees, and crawled to the edge of the bed. She shifted onto her bottom to swing her legs off the side of the bed and suddenly the floor looked two stories away.
          "Not again," she moaned, and pressed one hand to her abdomen and the other to her mouth, in case that rolling-on-rough-seas sensation followed through on its threat to make her spew. Deep breaths and focusing her eyes on the door on the far side of the master bedroom helped her steady the world. She slid down to the floor as gently as possible, to avoid jarring anything unhappy inside her. So far, so good.

Monday, December 1, 2014

NIKKI -- Quarry Hall #5

Quarry Hall, the sister-series to Tabor Heights, has a new release coming mid-December from Desert Breeze Publishing.

NIKKI

If you've been to Tabor Heights, then you've met Nikki James, heroine of FORGIVEN, foster-daughter to Dr. and Mrs. Holwood, the Arc Foundation's resident representative at the Mission. And if you've read other Quarry Hall stories, you probably know she is Joan's half-sister.

At the end of Joan's story, Nikki had run away from home with her older boyfriend, Brock.

Now, it's two years later and Nikki is facing some big problems and decisions. December and January will feature excerpts from the book.

Get ready for little tastes in the days to come!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #26

"Whose party is this?" his sister shot back, still smiling, her voice artificially sweet. As if she heard every word ringing through his aching head.
"Well..." The girl glanced at Gretchen, who was too quiet for a moment, then at the other girls in the kitchen. What were they doing in the kitchen, anyway? Had they made such a big mess in the living room they had to retreat in here, where he thought he was safe? "Yours."
"Right. So if I want porcelain birds and silver rings and peach candy sticks for the favors, that's what we're having."
"Silver bells and silver-coated almonds and rhinestone-sparkle netting is what's in this year," Gretchen said with a chuckle and a toss of her head.
"What makes you think I care about what's in this year?" Dinah said.
"As your maid of honor--"
"You're not my maid of honor. There is no maid of honor, there is no best man. This is just a party." She raised her hands to her head, and Drake thought for a moment his sister would yank on her hair. Instead she sank down on the stool at the counter next to his. He handed her his coffee and muffled a chuckle when she took a big gulp of it, glaring over the rim at the wedding party.
"But it's your wedding reception," Gretchen said, her voice soft, her expression calm. "A once-in-a-lifetime experience. It has to be perfect. That's what we want for you. Perfection."
Drake thought if she reached out and patted Dinah's head to soothe her, his sister would do something drastic. Like throw that cup of coffee in her face. He didn't know if he wanted to make the sacrifice. He had stayed up nearly until 1a.m., thinking about the Stacy situation and praying hard. He woke up with a headache and fragments of bad dreams that he couldn't wash out of his mind with coffee. A long, hot shower was next. Maybe a couple miles on the indoor track at the BWU student center after that.
"Yes, it's my wedding reception," Dinah said at last, handing the cup back to Drake with a grimace. That was a good sign, he thought. She wasn't so distracted she didn't notice that it had no cream or sugar. "And Troy and I decided we wanted as little formality as possible."
"You have been this way since we were kids." Gretchen chuckled.
Interestingly, the other girls didn't join in with her this time.
"I swear, you have no sense of... of what's required of someone in your level of society. There are certain expectations, certain duties. Tell her, Drake."
"I'm with Di. I've hated all the fuss and feathers -- remember Mrs. B saying that?" Drake nudged Dinah.
"I wish she was here," his sister sighed. "And Stacy."
"While they both had their uses, they certainly don't have any part in this," Gretchen said. Her sweet, reasonable mask had gone brittle. "People need to learn to stay in their proper places."
         Drake sat up, feeling as if a sliver of a clue had fallen into his hands.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #25

"You should be there, not that lying little screecher. How come you ain't?" Maggie said, yanking gently on Stacy's arm.
"I tried!" She tried to snap her mouth shut after that burst out, but it was like someone else had taken control of her mouth, prying it open and pulling the words out. "I even called Gretchen, when I realized she was taking over, and I offered to help, to get things, and she just laughed at me."
"What'd you call her for? How come you didn't call Dinah? Ain't it her party? If Gretchen wants to run things, she should have her own wedding."
"Yeah, as if anybody would want to marry her." Stacy stumbled, stepping up onto the sidewalk, and looked around. Somehow, she and Maggie were nearly to her house. How had they walked that fast?
Because her mind was so tangled up in her misery and horrifying visions of Gretchen tricking Drake Ashcroft into taking her to the altar, she hadn't been paying any attention to the snowy, black night, that was how.
"Seems to me, the person you need to talk to is your best friend, not the silly twit who hated your guts before she even met you," Maggie grumbled. "You haven't gone over there or called or anything, have you?"
"No," she admitted grudgingly.
"Why not? What's so hard about it?"
"I've got my pride, too! I may be just the housekeeper's granddaughter, but I have feelings!" Stacy yanked her arm free of Maggie's, but she didn't run away like she wanted. At least she had someone to listen to the hurt rushing up like a geyser. "I should have realized years ago, Dinah was only my friend when nobody else would have her."
"Now that's about the stupidest thing I ever heard, and I been around long enough, I done heard a whole lot of stupid. A couple lifetimes' worth of stupid." She grabbed hold of Stacy's arms just above the elbows and shook her twice.
"Yeah, well, that just about sums up Gretchen and her whole crew."
"And you want to be like them silly twits?" Maggie stared at her, mouth hanging open and her eyes wide.
           A tiny giggle broke out of Stacy, and with it, a hard, sharp plug of something seemed to come loose deep inside. She hiccupped, another giggle escaped, and then turned to tears. Maggie's arms wrapped around her, enveloping her with warmth and peppermint.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #24

"Have fun tonight?" The scratchy voice came out of the darkness, startling Stacy as she stepped out of the lobby doors of the Mission two hours later.
She exhaled loudly as Maggie stepped into the spill of light and winked at her. Tonight, the town's resident character wore a camouflage-patterned parka that hung on her like a tent, hiding her hands and going almost to her calves. Her purple scarf, hot pink leggings, and orange rubber boots were all in neon shades so bright, they seemed to glow with a light of their own.
"I swear, you get more fun out of scaring people than the sixth-grade boys in my class at church." Stacy glanced over her shoulder as the light cut in half. Paul Hunter waved to her, lifting his hand from the panel of master light switches in the lobby. The Mission was shutting down for the night. "Yeah, I had fun."
"You don't get near enough fun, from where I'm sitting." Maggie tipped her head in the direction of the sidewalk and fell into step with Stacy as she headed for the crosswalk.
"I don't--" She sighed. One thing she had learned a long time ago: never try to lie to her grandmother or to Maggie. They both had built-in lie detectors. "I'm too busy most of the time to miss it. The rest of the time, I'm too tired to care."
"Yeah, that's what you keep telling yourself." She looped her arm through Stacy's and they fell into step together. "Big noisy doings over at the Ashcrofts' place. How come you ain't there?"
"Because I was here tonight. You can't be two places at once." She was mostly pleased with the nearly flippant, carefree tone of her voice. Mostly. Stacy would have tried to toss her head, but it was hard when she had two scarves wrapped around her neck and her coat was so bulky she felt she had to turn her whole body to see in any direction other than forward.
"Don't you go lyin' to old Maggie. You shoulda been making those fancy froo-froo things with the nuts and the nets and plastic wedding bells."
"That's not what Dinah was--" She sighed.
Hearing about Gretchen's designs for the party favors for the reception had been the icing on the already painful, choking cake that landed on her, when she overheard that conversation at the store. Stacy had nearly shouted that no, Dinah wouldn't dare use what Gretchen wanted to use. She had known better. Dinah wanted something different.
But that was the problem -- Dinah had changed, and she did seem to want something different now. In friends and wedding reception decorations.
In eighth grade, Stacy and Dinah had designed their own party favors for their weddings. Dinah's favorite flavor was peach, so she had decided she would have little white porcelain doves and silver rings tied to peach candy sticks with "miles" of white ribbon. Stacy wasn't sure why she was so disappointed to think of Dinah not using that design. Everything else had changed since those fun days of dreaming, why not that, too?
           Maybe, she decided a moment later, she should be grateful. The thought of Gretchen making those party favors that Stacy had helped Dinah create all those years ago would have been unbearable.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #23

The lobby was empty when they reached it. Drake glanced in the nurse's room when they passed. Whatever the damage had been, the little boy wasn't there anymore. He was about to ask who the boy was, and why he wouldn't let anybody but Max help him, then he heard her voice.
"Stacy, there you are," Max said. Her voice came from the old library room. "Drake Ashcroft is here somewhere, looking for you."
"Why?" Stacy's voice cracked. From the clearness of their voices, Drake guessed they were standing in the doorway. He and Tony came around the corner, and he saw he was right. They had their backs to the door. He could also see just past them, to two long tables set up in the open area of the library and children working away on a mixed assortment of different sizes and styles of computers.
"Didn't say. But that reminds me, do you need a ride for the party tomorrow night? Tony and I can pick you up on the way."
"Not going." Stacy shrugged, glanced briefly at Max, and turned to look at her students again.
"Why not?" Max voiced Drake's question.
He was glad she said it, because there was a thick tightness in his throat and he couldn't decide if he was going to shout, or he couldn't speak at all.
"Didn't get invited."
"Huh? But you and Dinah were best friends all through school."
"That was school. People grow apart."
"Well, we're invited mostly because of the university connection, although we've always been friends with the Ashcrofts, church and all that. I can't imagine why you wouldn't be invited. I mean, with your grandmother--"
"My grandmother was just the housekeeper. That was made quite clear to me -- look, the kids are almost finished with this part -- if you see Drake, tell him I'm too busy, okay?"
"Okay." Max's frown was clear, her head turned to watch Stacy cross the room to her students.
"That's weird," Tony muttered.
"Tell me about it." Drake clutched the blue-wrapped box closer to his chest. He wasn't sure what he thought about this new revelation. It certainly explained why his mother hadn't received the RSVP from Stacy yet -- Stacy never got the invitation. There was always the chance that Stacy was just hurt enough to lie. It was easier to say she wasn't invited, he supposed, than to admit that she was so hurt by Dinah's treatment of her that she didn't even want to come to her party.
But what about Mom and Dad and me? Drake wondered. The dropping sensation in his chest was almost laughable. Didn't Stacy want to at least see them? Or had she written off the whole family because Dinah had been cruel to her?
Besides, he might have been gone for too long, and not seen Stacy in all that time, but he couldn't imagine her changing so much that she would lie like that. If Stacy said she didn't get an invitation, then she didn't.
          But he could do something about that.

Friday, November 21, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #22

"So, you call him Carlo?" Drake marveled at the idea of his friend, whom he had known as long as he had known the entire Randolph family, was on first-name basis with Hollywood legend and statesman, Carlo Vincente. It was on par with being friends with Charlton Heston, if he were still alive, and being allowed to call him Chuck, or having long, cozy talks with Maureen O'Hara over tea and cookies.
"I don't want to even get into how long it took for Max to figure out what to call him. Her brothers -- the Vincente brothers, anyway -- told her she should call him 'Pop,' but that's just too casual, too close. There were a few times, I thought she'd be afraid to even talk to him, because she didn't know what to say. Then they had a long talk, and she settled on just using his name." He pushed the back door open and they both winced at the hard gust of cold air that slapped their faces.
"Wow. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for her. It's hard seeing anybody but Mr. Randolph as her father."
"Like Max puts it, Joel is her dad. Carlo is her father. And he's such a great guy. You could almost wish her stepmother would be nasty about some things, but..." He shrugged and gestured over at a car parked four spaces down from the brightly illuminated doorway. "I keep telling her Joel won't mind if she has him and Carlo both walk her down the aisle, but Max is afraid of hurting both of them by asking, or not having anyone."
"Elope. Definitely."
"I wish. But Miss Emily and Jeannette -- that's Max's stepmother -- they're having a great time planning the wedding, all the fuss. And we're hearing a lot of griping about your sister depriving the town gossips of the wedding of the century. Between the world finding out Miss Emily is here and the accident last spring and Joel being at the U and everything else--" He laughed as he unlocked the car, opened the door, reached into the back seat, and pulled out a box that looked approximately ten inches on each side. "If we elope, we better not come back to town at all."
"Then Di owes you two, right?"
"It's getting the payback that's the problem." He settled the box in Drake's hands and slammed the car door shut.
            They chatted about mutual friends as they made their way back into the building and down the hall to the lobby area again. Drake was pleased when he mentioned he wanted to do an internship in the area, hopefully at Tabor Christian, after he finished with seminary, and Tony showed excitement about the idea.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #21

"It is not 'done,' to bring a present to the wedding," Tony said in a mocking elegant voice. "Or so those in the know keep telling us. You have no idea what a pain it is, having everybody in the church and half the town telling us what we have to do for our wedding."
"I keep telling him we should elope," Max added.
"If Di could get away with getting married privately, why not?" Drake offered.
"I plan on asking her for some details tomorrow." She looked around the lobby, which was empty of everyone but them. "Wow, it's finally over. If you could wait a few seconds, I'll run out to the car and get the present."
"Sure. You don't happen to know where Stacy Belmont is working tonight, are you?"
"Stacy?" Tony glanced down at the row of clipboards on the table, each one holding a signup sheet for a class. "Computers. Just around the--"
"Max?" Todd Montgomery skidded down the hall from the right end of the school, holding a little boy with dark curls, blue jeans, and a Browns sweatshirt. No other details were visible because he and Todd held a wad of wet, red-streaked paper towels to his face. "He won't let anybody else help him."
"BJ?" Max let out a sympathetic groan and held out her arms. The trembling little boy lowered the wad of towels enough for his big, dark, tear-filled eyes to be visible. He nearly threw himself out of Todd's arms and into hers. "What'd you do now, shorty? Uh -- Drake -- this might--"
"I'll take care of it," Tony said. He watched her hurry down the hall a few steps to a room clearly marked "Nurse."
"I'll walk out with you," Drake offered. "Lots of excitement," he commented, after Tony had retrieved his coat and they headed down the gym hallway to the parking lot door.
"But fun. Max and I volunteer a day or two every week. Most of our work is done, now that registration is over. We have work for the wedding as an excuse." He chuckled. "I'd rather be here, honestly."
"Wedding phobia?"
"I don't mind, for me. Max is tearing herself apart and doesn't even realize it yet. She's great coordinating things behind stage, the more opening night disasters to circumvent, the better. But put her in center stage, forget it. Especially when she's thinking of having both her dads walk her down the aisle."
"I guess that means she's getting along good with her father and his family?"
           "We all get along good. The gossip rags would love it if there was a lot of in-fighting and name-calling and jealousy -- and hints that Carlo and Miss Emily are going to dump their current wife and husband and get back together -- but... we're one big, happy family. So far, anyway. You never know how all the wedding pressure will change things."

Monday, November 17, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #20

"Can I -- Drake!" Tony Martin stood up from the registration table and held out a hand. "You're not here for classes, are you? Or did they get you to tag-team with Pastor Doug?"
"I'm just in town for a few days for Di's reception." Drake stepped up to the table and shook hands with Tony. "Hey, I hear you and Max have set a date, but you've managed to keep the media from finding out. How did you manage that?"
"Shock and awe." He grinned and leaned back against the wall instead of settling down at the registration table again.
"Excuse me?"
"If you're bored enough while you're in town, check out the gossip rags in the supermarket. Every single one has a different date for our wedding, and a different place. Audrey started it, telling some whoppers to a spy in the kitchen where she works. Now, even if the real date and location pops out, nobody will believe it."
"That sounds like a great story, once the whole thing gets resolved. You're not going to put it in a book, are you?" he teased.
"Maybe in about ten years, when we're able to laugh at the insanity." Tony mimed wiping sweat off his forehead.
"We'll see you at the reception tomorrow night, right?"
"You bet. Can't wait to see Dinah and meet Troy. I just hope Max doesn't get any ideas from the party," he said, glancing around with exaggerated fear.
"I heard that!" a semi-familiar female voice called. A moment later, Max Randolph peered around the corner, coming from what was the library when this was the Eloise Elementary School.
"You were supposed to." He gestured at Drake. "Look who's back in town."
"Drake!" She hurried around the registration table to hug him. "Perfect timing."
"For what?" Drake looked back and forth between her and Tony.
"We're planning on dropping off Di's present on our way home tonight, but if you could take it with you, that'd save us one more errand."
"Can't you just bring it with you tomorrow night?"
            A chill shot through him when he realized that was something else that had been nagging him since seeing Stacy's present for Dinah yesterday morning. Why couldn't Stacy just bring it to the reception?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #19

 Footsteps on the polished marble stairs caught his attention and he stepped back to look upwards. Sure enough, his father hurried down, tugging on his gloves, a frown of concentration on his face. Making a silent bet with himself, Drake waited at the foot of the stairs. His father looked right at him, nodded a greeting, and headed for the door.
"Dad?"
Devon Ashcroft turned, his frown deepening, to shatter a moment later with a chuckle. He easily admitted his bad habit of being so deep in thought he lost track of the outside world. His ability to laugh at himself defused any frustration his friends and associates usually felt. That, and his constant efforts to improve.
The door on the opposite side of the lobby opened and a young woman with long, straight bronze hair stepped out, shrugging into a full-length navy coat, holding a piece of paper between her lips, and juggling a purse and an accordion folder full of papers. Her phone rang. Drake stared, smiling, as he merged his last clear memory of Stacy with this three-years-older young woman. His certainty of her identity was confirmed as she yanked the paper from her mouth and brought the phone up to her ear with the other hand, and spoke.
"Just a second," he said, when his father gestured at the door.
Then Stacy headed for the door as she listened to the person on the other end, and didn't show any sign of seeing them. Drake focused on her as he and his father followed her outside and down the steps.
"Stacy?" he called, when she finished the phone call with a promise to call the other person back in an hour, and put the phone back in her purse. "It's Drake. Drake Ashcroft," he added, with a funny little dropping sensation of disappointment when she frowned at him, her expression clearly saying she didn't recognize him. She hadn't changed enough to be noticeable or confusing since the last time they had spoken -- how could he have?
"Oh -- hi." Her eyes widened in what he could have sworn was panic, though she managed a wobbly smile. "I guess you're back in town for the party. Well, duh, of course." Stacy offered a laugh.
"Come to lunch with us," his father offered. Drake came near to hugging him in that moment, when his tongue seemed stapled to the roof of his mouth.
"Can't. A dozen errands, and I have to cut my lunch short to take care of another emergency for Dr. Filmore. Thanks." She waved and hurried away. A little too fast for the coating of icy snow on the sidewalk.
"When can we get together?" Drake called. "You know, talk, catch up?"
"I'll call you when I check my schedule, okay?" She waved, not even looking back at him, and picked up speed.
          "Something is definitely wrong," Drake muttered. Fortunately, his father didn't hear him, so he didn't have to explain.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #18

"I don't know what that girl is drinking at this time of the morning," Mrs. Ashcroft said with a chuckling sigh, looking out over Drake's shoulder. They both stood in the open front door, watching six girls cram into Gretchen's BMW.
"Huh?" Drake had laughed and glanced at his mother. That little frown, the triple lines between her eyebrows, threatening to draw a little line down her nose, worried him. He should have come home a week earlier, to help her with all the work involved in the party.
Stacy should have been there, helping. He wouldn't have put it past Gretchen to have done or said something nasty, to keep her from participating in all the preparations.
"There are no assigned seats, and no bridal party table," his mother said, raising her hand to wave as Gretchen slapped the horn with a brief blatt. "I don't know where the girl gets those ideas."
"Better check with the caterer to make sure none of your instructions got changed," he said, and closed the door. "I wouldn't put it past Gretchen to call them and overrule everything you told them last week."
"Hmm, yes. I thought for a while that girl had changed, that she had finally grown up." Mrs. Ashcroft shook her head. "Good idea."
"You wouldn't have these problems if Stacy was helping out."
"Yes, well, Stacy isn't talking to your sister for some reason." She paused, her foot on the bottom step, heading upstairs. "I should really call her, find out what happened."
"Dinah dropped her. That's what happened." Drake offered a smile and shook his head. "It'll all work out. Stacy'll come to the party tomorrow night and she and Dinah will hug and laugh about the whole stupid misunderstanding and everything'll be fine."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #17

 "We should have called ahead," Dinah said, as Drake rang the doorbell of the Belmont house for the third time. The soft chimes could be clearly heard, despite the muffling sensation that came from the thickly falling snowflakes that seemed to wrap a white curtain around the world, beyond the pool of light from the front porch lantern.
"Do you know her cell phone?" he asked.
"I don't even know if she has one."
"What is wrong with you, Di?"
"Wrong with me?" She glared at him for a fierce three seconds, before turning and stomping down off the front porch steps and down the slate path to the sidewalk.
"I thought Stacy was your best friend."
"She is -- was -- we drifted apart, okay?" She stopped abruptly and turned, waiting for him to catch up to her. "And why should you care so much? If Stacy was so important to you, how come you didn't keep in contact with her?"
"I've asked myself that a few dozen times since I got in this morning." He hooked her arm with his and tugged her close, so their hips bumped a few times as they headed down the sidewalk, until they got their rhythm matched up. "The thing is, I was just used to hearing from you and Mom and Dad how Stacy was doing, what she was up to... I didn't even realize I needed to hear about her, until there was silence."
"Needed?" She bumped his hip deliberately. "Be careful, big brother. Somebody would think..." She sighed.
"Think what?" He wanted to hear it from her. It was easier than voicing something he wasn't quite sure about himself. Especially since he hadn't talked to Stacy in what seemed like years.
"If it wasn't for Troy, I could almost wish I had never moved to Virginia. Everything is so different, and I'm starting to think that Stacy not being here, my not knowing every part of her life is more than just a symptom."
"Yeah, well, never thought you'd be best buds with Gretchen, of all people. I mean, come on, Di, when did that Tammy Fae wannabe turn into a good friend?"
"She's not that bad." Dinah chuckled and leaned over a little to rest her head against his shoulder as they strolled through the snowy dark quiet. "Especially since she cut down the makeup by about ten pounds a week."
"Ouch. Don't let her hear you say that. She might start using a trowel again."
"Especially since you're home. If she hadn't been so silent on the topic of you in the last year, I'd think the only reason she's being so helpful is to get in good with you."
          "That twit could never get in good with me. Not even if she joined a convent and gave Mother Theresa a run for her money." Drake frowned, hearing a faint echo of the sour, sharp tone of his voice.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #16

In between discussing the computer classes Stacy taught at the Mission, the plans for finally renovating one of the rooms there into a coffee house, and expanded hours for the childcare offerings, they finally teased an answer out of Rene to explain the presence of the baby shower catalogs. Hannah and Xander had only been married since November, but Hannah had been feeling odd too many mornings in a row for it to be simply a bout with the flu. Especially when she was full of energy and rosy-cheeked only an hour or so later. It was too soon to tell yet, and Rene hadn't managed to tease a confession or hint out of her former roommate, but she dearly hoped Hannah was pregnant.
"Isn't it kind of soon? I mean, sure, I've heard about lots of babies born exactly nine months after the wedding night, but..." Stacy shrugged. "If it were me, I'd want to wait a year or two, just to get used to being married."
"Sounds like you've given it a lot of thought," Bekka said with a smirk.
"And you haven't?" Rene challenged. "Fess up -- what have you and Shane decided? How soon can we start planning a baby shower for you two?"
"Well, we did discuss getting a sidecar for his bike -- if we ever needed one." Her cheeks darkened and her hand shook a little bit as she spooned up another helping of the broccoli slaw, belying the casual shrug and tone of her voice. "But yeah, we're thinking we want to enjoy just being a couple before we add on a baby and all that gear and responsibility. I mean, can you see me as a mother?"
"The question," Rene said softly, "is if you can see yourself as a mother. I think Shane would be an incredible father. He's so sweet and wise and thoughtful. A little girl would have him wrapped around her pinky before she could even sit up."
"Yeah," Bekka whispered, eyes glistening before they went dreamy and distant. "I know."
To have a baby, Stacy thought with bitterness that shocked her, she would need to have a father for that baby, first. Despite letting friends at church and work set her up on blind dates, no one who made her want a second try. She had never even considered asking a guy out when the Singles group at church had Sadie Hawkins parties.
Straighten up, you nit, she silently scolded herself. Just because everyone else is getting married, that doesn't mean you should, or that you even need to.
              The funny thing was, a fragment of last night's dreams flashed into her mind. She had seen herself walking down the aisle at Dinah's wedding, and Drake stepped up when she reached the end of the aisle and offered his arm. She had felt blissfully happy when she looped her arm through his. And when she looked down at her dress, she couldn't tell if it was the dark sapphire tea-length skirts of the bridesmaids dress she and Dinah had chosen when they were twelve years old... or if it was a white satin sheath trimmed in silver lace, with silver lace slippers -- which she had seen in a bridal magazine just a month or so ago.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #15

"Oh, Kat would be with Marco for the rest of her life if it was up to her," Bekka said. "It's Marco. I think he's getting cold feet or the usual guy immaturity panic, and he's been pulling back lately. Missing lunches, forgetting to call when he said he would, things like that."
"Usual panic? Is Shane putting you through that?"
"Shane?" Bekka's smile changed utterly, and Stacy felt a cold, sharp stab of pure jealousy, seeing the security and happiness and the little bit of amazement that always lit Bekka's eyes when she talked about her fiancé. "No. I might expect him to get a little nervous when the date gets closer, but... solid." She sighed and headed for the kitchen. "Very solid."
"Speaking of the date, when are you going to start looking at dresses and menus and all that junk?" She followed her into the little kitchen, where the smells emerging from the oven and the covered pots on the stove were truly amazing, just as Bekka had promised.
"We have the fellowship hall at church and the sanctuary reserved. Late October. Keep your schedule clear, okay? Pastor Dave and Pastor Glenn are sharing the service. We've talked to Mr. Rick at the bakery about the cake. We're just having a punch and cake reception, and Kat's mom said she'd handle the flowers for us. It's January, and we're getting married in October." Bekka shrugged. "Plenty of time."
"But what about the dress? And the invitations. And decorations. And registering for presents and..." Stacy shrugged, lifting her arms wide to encompass all the multitudes of fine details that went into a splendid wedding.
All the things she had planned on helping Dinah with someday, and Dinah helping her with. And all the things Gretchen was taking care of now.
           Suddenly, she wasn't so hungry. The incredible, rich aromas of the dinner waiting to be eaten seemed to choke her and fill her stomach with lead instead of making her feel empty and weak.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #14

"Did you invite Stacy for dinner?" Mrs. Ashcroft smiled. "I wish I'd thought of that."
"You didn't?" He paused, his hand reaching for the swinging door panel. "Dinah, didn't you say--"
"I think you brought it up, Dad. When we were talking about what time Drake was getting home." Dinah shook her head. "I haven't talked with Stacy since I got home. But I plan on it tonight. Since she's coming to dinner, that sort of solves everything." She smiled and reached for the silverware drawer.
"How do you know she's coming, Dad?" Drake asked. He felt like a slug, just sitting there while his mother and sister worked, but something was off in this whole conversation, something missing, and he had to sit still to focus, or he'd miss it.
"Oh, I mentioned dinner tonight, and her meeting Troy. Where is he, by the way?"
"His plane got delayed again, and he's not arriving until eleven," Dinah said with a sigh. "He called about an hour ago, and we were trying to decide if he should just rent a car and drive the rest of the way. But you invited her for dinner, right?"
"Not exactly, I just assumed..." Mr. Ashcroft's smile faded completely. "I mentioned her coming for dinner, and then Rance Holwood stepped in, and honestly, Stacy never confirmed or denied it."
"Oh, dear," Mrs. Ashcroft said. "That poor girl."
           "What do you mean, poor girl? Stacy's like family. I'm sure she'll understand and laugh. It isn't like we haven't had communications mix-ups before." He stopped halfway through the swinging door and gestured at the telephone. "Call her before she starts making dinner." He winked at his son. "Do I have to think of everything for you people?" With a return of his grin, he headed out the door.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #13

"So, what did Stacy give you?" Drake asked, when he came downstairs, his head slightly aching from the dregs of his nap and from reading until the light dimmed in his office.
"Stacy?" Dinah paused in chopping celery for the salad.
"Yeah, she dropped off a present this morning. I found it on the back step when I came in." He glanced over at their mother, who had come up from the downstairs pantry with a jar of artichoke hearts and one of olives. "Didn't you tell her?"
"The girls just left, and you can't get in a word edgewise when they're around." Mrs. Ashcroft held out both jars to him.
Drake grinned and stepped over to open the jars.
"Now why would I open a present before the party?" Dinah said. Something in her light tone made him pause in wrestling with the tight lid and really look at her.
"Are you two fighting about something?"
"We'd have to be talking to fight." Dinah lifted the cutting board and scraped the celery off it into the bowl. "She hasn't come by, hasn't called, since I got home."
"Maybe she didn't know when you got home, and she's been waiting for you to call?"
"She has a point, dear," Mrs. Ashcroft said.
"Gretchen left messages for her." Dinah shrugged and reached for the tomato and concentrated on coring it before slicing. Drake knew it didn't take that much effort to take out the area where the stem attached. Something bothered his sister.
         Still, he couldn't help snapping at her. "You left it up to Gretchen to tell Stacy you were home? Mom, what's wrong with this picture?"

Friday, October 24, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #12

"Hey, what's really bothering you?" Bekka asked, looping her arm through Stacy's.
"Huh? No--" Stacy blinked and realized they had walked three whole blocks while her mind was lost in her painful memories.
"You have been alone way too much. Come on home for dinner with us, okay? Kat's having dinner with her folks, so it's just Rene and me. She made all this incredible food because Hannah and Xander were supposed to come over, but Hannah's new niece decided to make an early entrance so they're all camping at the hospital. Shane has a class, so he's not coming over at all. You gotta come." She tugged harder on Stacy's arm, as if she would pull her across the tree lawn and into the street.
"Bully." Stacy managed a credible laugh.
Bekka was right, she decided a moment later. She was alone too much. She skipped too many Singles group activities at church and took more opportunities to put in extra time at work, so she didn't have to go home to her empty house until she was so tired she ate a bowl of soup and went right to bed.
The cure for loneliness, her grandmother had always said, was to find people who were lonely and be their friend. If she felt sorry for herself, she had to find people with worse troubles, and help them.
        Stacy resolved to find more places to volunteer and get involved, and get out of her silent, too-big house. After she spent a fun evening with friends she didn't know nearly as well as she would like.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #11

Stacy looked down the street, blinking away sudden tears as she pretended to check for traffic that was practically non-existent at this time of the day. It was a one-way street and all traffic turned out of the parking lot headed in the other direction. She remembered clearly those silly summer evenings spent scouring different home goods stores with Dinah, looking for the perfect dehydrator for her to take to Virginia with her when she moved for her nursing job. They had made plans for Stacy to come visit in the summer, when BWU shut down for a few weeks between terms. They had made plans for Dinah to come home in the winter and visit the Metroparks toboggan chutes. They had emailed regularly at least once a week for the first three months. Then it was every ten days, then twice a month. Then Drake introduced Dinah to Troy and Stacy had understood completely when her good friend had practically no time for her.
Then Harmony and Susan had cornered her at Heinke's, by the salad bar, and made sure she knew all the sordid details of Gretchen's new PR job which had resulted in her meeting up with Dinah and renewing their friendship. They had a message from Gretchen specifically for Stacy -- a bit of advice: stop pestering Dinah with her pitiful emails. They didn't even make her laugh anymore, although Gretchen found them rather amusing, especially where Stacy asked if she wanted her to send some of her grandmother's lemon mince bars for Christmas, since Dinah couldn't come home for the holidays that year.
That little detail had told Stacy all she needed to know. Dinah and Gretchen were close enough that Dinah let Gretchen read her emails.

Gretchen finally had what she wanted -- she was Dinah Ashcroft's best friend, and Stacy Belmont had finally been discarded, once and for all. It wasn't like it had been in elementary and middle school, when Dinah would drift away for a week or two and then come running back, apologetic over letting Gretchen and her crowd tempt her away. There was more to life than makeup and gossip magazines and boy bands, after all. This time, the change was permanent.

Monday, October 20, 2014

INVITATION TO A WEDDING -- Excerpt #10

          "Stace?" Bekka Sanderson's voice came as a welcome relief and distraction when Stacy approached the massive arched sandstone entrance of the administration building at quitting time that evening.
Mr. Ashcroft chatted with several men at the landing midway between the first and second floors. His voice was distinctive, especially that rumbling, infectious laughter that hadn't been heard nearly enough since he fell ill last fall. Despite him being busy, Stacy just knew he would see her as she passed by the base of the stairs on her way to the door. There was no other way out of her part of the administration building. The last thing she wanted was for him to call her name -- she would have to stop and wait for him, and then he would link his arm through hers and make her walk out to the car and get in and come home with him, assuming that she was free and planning on coming to a nice, cozy family dinner.
The sad thing was, she was definitely free, but nothing in the world could be more painful than to walk in the door of the Ashcroft house as if nothing had changed. As if she hadn't been ignored by Dinah for the last two years, since she moved to Virginia and Retchin' Gretchen latched onto her to become best buddies. Finally. As if she hadn't lost sight of Drake. As if she hadn't been forgotten like worn out linens since her grandmother died. It was easy to see she had only been included in the Ashcroft family because of her grandmother, and not because they actually wanted her and loved her as if she were one of their own.
"Hey, you okay?" Bekka said, catching hold of Stacy's arm. She glanced up the stairs, where the four men were still chatting, their voices echoing up the massive vaulted entryway to the fourth floor and back down.
           "Huh? Oh -- sorry. Spaced out." Stacy tried to laugh. "Too much time staring at my monitor, I guess. You spend too long untangling coding, you start thinking and seeing codes. What's up?" She stepped out into the entryway, putting Bekka between her and the stairs.