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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30: BEHIND THE SCENES

      Max, Rose, Joe and Jeremy went to the hospital together around noon to report to Joel on opening night.
      "I admit, I had a white-knuckle grip on my blankets, wondering how it was going. Then I figured if I didn't hear from you, everything was fine. You'd only call for an emergency," Joel said, chuckling. "The reviews in the papers were all great. I'm proud of you, Max."
      "Thanks, Dad." She shrugged, feeling that mix of relief and delight and guilt she always got when something she had thought would be a disaster went well. "I had a lot of help." She braced herself to turn to Rose. "If you weren't there, I don't know what I would have done half the time."
      "Oh, you would have done just fine," Rose said, shaking her head, her cheeks pink.
      "Uh huh," Joel murmured. His grin grew wider. "Well, not that I have any doubt about your ability to handle things, but I think I should get home as soon as possible."
      "That'd be great," Max said, perching on the end of the bed. "How?"
      "All the arrangements have been made." He leaned back against his pillows with a grin. "Ambulance is waiting, plus all the gear I need to make life livable until I get out of this thing." He slapped at his cast. "If you don't mind me sitting around backstage for the next few nights."
      "You're kidding -- you're not kidding, are you, Dad?" Joe blurted, dropping the tangled mess he had made of the string trick he was always practicing.
      "Nope." He looked around at his stunned family. "I'm allowed to come home, I hope."
      "Sure -- but everything's kind of a mess," Max began.
      "When isn't the house a mess?"
      "How do we get you up and down the stairs in that cast?" Rose asked.
      "I'll stay downstairs. The parole agreement includes a hospital bed and wheelchair."
      "Tony's staying downstairs," Max said. "It's crowded with everything else going on backstage. With two of you? Sardines!"
      "Give him your mother's and my room."

      "But Dad--" She decided to give up before she sounded any more helpless. It was what she had been praying for, wasn't it? 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April 29: BEHIND THE SCENES

      Five minutes later, he followed Bekka into the dimness of backstage and took his usual chair tucked into the corner by the director's booth, where they could talk. After a few moments of being flustered, she had been business-like and professional. He approved of the fact that she put her opening night duties ahead of making a good impression on her agent -- which just meant she made a very good impression. Bekka explained her duties as assistant to the director as she checked off the items on her clipboard. He spotted Steve darting around on the catwalk with two other stage technicians, checking cable connections, and kept an eye on him as he and Bekka talked. Winters was relieved, however, when a small crisis at the prop table on the other side of the stage drew Bekka away. He got up and headed over to the ladder Steve would have to climb down. He didn't have long to wait, and held his peace until his target had both feet on the ground.
      "Steven." Winters didn't bother hiding his smirk when his words, coming out of the shadows, made Steve jump about five inches. The young man stared, then looked around, gesturing Winters to silence. He gestured with a tip of his head and walked to the Green Room, and Steve followed him. They went out the front door, so they could have some relative privacy.
      "Are you going to tell my father?" Steve asked.
      "Hmm, no questions about what I'm doing here, or why I'm here. Did you think I came looking for you?"
      "That'd be kind of arrogant, wouldn't it?" He managed a crooked smile. "I'm guessing you're a friend of the family." He put extra emphasis on the last word, and something clutched at Winters' heart.
      Did he know the truth? Carlo had given no indication that he knew his oldest son was here, spying on Max and her family.
      "Why are you here?" Winters asked, and didn't care about the weary tone of his voice.
      "Checking out suspicions. Looking after people." He wrapped his arms around himself, then leaned back against the house. "I remember Miss Emily from when I was a kid. I really liked her. I blamed her when Dad went to France and didn't take me with him."
      That childhood connection had never occurred to Winters. He guessed that he had forgotten Steve ever knew Emily.
      "Why are you here? Did your father send you?"
      "Dad thinks I'm working on an indy film out where there's no cell phone access."
      "Which brings me back to my first question."
      "Is Max my sister?" Steve whispered, without looking Winters in the eyes.
      "You'll have to ask Emily." He mimicked Steve's pose. "What are you doing here, Steven? Besides using your mother's maiden name?"
      "Helping out where I'm needed right now. Don't worry." He managed a sigh of laughter. "I won't cause trouble. These are nice people. I like them a lot."
      "Is that your way of asking me not to tell your father what you're doing?"
      "They don't need any more problems right now."
      "That's true." Winters closed his eyes, wishing he had arrived earlier, so he could have taken a hotel room. No, scratch that -- so he could have visited Emily and Joel. He would have to do that tomorrow before he headed home. "Okay, here's the deal. I'll hold my peace and trust you to look after everybody here and report to me if there's even a hint of trouble. Got me?"

      "Just like they were my own family." Steve held out his hand to shake and seal the deal. His expression was deathly serious.

Monday, April 28, 2014

April 28: DETOURS

      Bekka was helping Amy at the returns desk of the library when Kat came in with an armful of books to return for Morgan, accompanied by a tall young man wearing a black beret. They chatted as they slid the books one by one into the return slot. Every time he put on a fake French accent, Kat laughed. Bekka tried not to listen, but their chatter was so ridiculous, pretending to be students in France, talking about what sights they would see that afternoon, pretty soon she and Amy were giggling along with them. By some miracle, there were no staff members close by to hush them.
      Then Marco walked into the library. He paused in the doorway, looking everywhere. His hopeful little smile drooped when he heard Kat laughing and turned to see her yank her companion's beret off his head. She squealed when he wrapped his arms around her, holding her dangerously close until he could wrest the beret from her hands clasped behind her back.
      "Talk about moth to the flame," Amy murmured, as Marco wandered over to the other side of the return desk, trying not to watch the game only ten feet away and failing miserably.
      "We gotta do something," Bekka said, stepping a little closer to Marco. But what could she do to help? Short of brainwashing the young man to forget Kat?
      "We should see about those deprogramming people they use to rescue kids from those weird cults. This whole problem is because of her slimy stepfather, you know. After how he treated her..." She sighed and shook her head as Kat and her new friend scurried out of the library, arm in arm, planning to visit the Louvre after lunch.
      "His name is Roger Alcott," Marco said. "He claims it's French, but he's about as French as a french fry.
      "She isn't doing it on purpose. Hurting you, I mean," Amy offered.
      "She doesn't know I'm alive."
      "It's not that," Bekka said. "Kat is so busy looking for Mr. Perfect, she doesn't sit still long enough for a guy to audition for the part."
      "Perfect?" He stood up a little straighter, his eyes widening as the thought visibly vibrated through him.
      "Kat doesn't know what sticking power is, with guys." Amy winked at Bekka. "If you really want a chance, you have to show her."
      "Thanks. I think." Marco managed a smile for them and left the library with a little more energy than he had shown coming in.
      "You think that's really going to help?" Bekka asked. "I know I told him to wait a while, until their first date was lost in the shuffle and then try again, but..."
      "Kat doesn't know herself what she's looking for, but when she realizes Marco is really serious, who knows?" Amy smiled and nodded for punctuation and went over to start processing the armloads of books Kat and Roger had brought in.
      Bekka bit her lip against laughing. It was rather ironic that Amy, whose own love life was so rocky, considered herself an expert in others' needs.

      Of course, who am I to criticize?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

April 27: FORGIVEN

      Sunday morning, Pastor Glenn waylaid Nikki on the way into the sanctuary and asked her to meet him in his office. She complied, not really mystified. Since Tabor Christian had started the Mission, she assumed the senior minister wanted to know how her evaluation was coming along. Nikki imagined Pastor Glenn hadn't heard enough about the Arc Foundation and wanted to know exactly what her friends could do for the Mission. She smiled, anticipating his pleasure in all the possible improvements and expansion in both facilities and outreach.
      "Thanks," Pastor Glenn said, coming in with Rita. "I'm glad your family always shows up early, Nikki. I just haven't been able to get hold of you the last few days, what with everything going on with the Randolphs' accident, and this is something we need to talk about."
      "What is?" Nikki smoothed her skirt over her knees and gave Rita a questioning little frown. The woman just shook her auburn head and gave Nikki that patented unruffled minister's wife smile.
      It reminded Nikki of the month the Holwoods were out of town taking care of Doria's sick mother and she had stayed with the pastor and his wife, while the other foster children had been split up among other foster families in the church. Nikki had been fourteen. Rita had worn that look when she told Nikki some people had arrived who believed they might be her relatives. They had an infant girl kidnapped about the same time Nikki had appeared in Tabor. It had been a false alarm and Nikki had been grateful, because the people she met rubbed her the wrong way. But Rita had worn the same concerned, determined-to-be-calm-and-supportive look.
      "We're having baptisms at the end of the service," Pastor Glenn began. "Several people are joining the church. We thought you should be warned that Brock is joining."
      "Oh." She gripped the arms of the chair and waited for some reaction. Maybe she just felt numb. Maybe she felt it was a little letdown after expecting something earth-shaking. "Thanks. I probably would be surprised. I mean, he could have told me..." Her face heated a little. She and Brock hadn't really had the opportunity for personal discussions the last few days. They had been busy with Mission business or comparing notes on incidents when they thought Angelo and Marcus had been spying on them, anything unusual in the neighborhood, and what the police had passed on to Nikki through Pastor Wally.

      "I want to assure you, Nikki, I am convinced Brock is genuine about his salvation and about joining this community and becoming an active member." Pastor Glenn folded his hands a little tighter on his desk pad and glanced down at his fingers a moment. "I'm also convinced, just from the things he doesn't say, that Brock is here to win you back."

Friday, April 25, 2014

NEW release: WHEELS

It's HERE!
WHEELS, The 4th book of Year 2 of my Tabor Heights series, has just been released by Desert Breeze Publishing, Inc.
Please go over to the web site and check out ALL the NEW books from DBP.

What's WHEELS about?
The girl next door, forgiveness, memories, danger, dreams ... Yeah, like that really makes you want to read it?
Tommy Donnelly, Tabor's resident comedian, is heading up a Handicap Awareness Walk ... err ... ROLL in Tabor Heights. Natalie Schaefer, a report for America's Voice, has come to town to cover the walk, because she's been doing a lot of little side pieces on handicap accessibility in the magazine. Why has she been doing this? Well, Natalie was the little girl across the street who adored Tommy when they were children. She planned on marrying him someday ... then Tommy broke his back and his family disintegrated and Natalie's father took them to a new town. Should she tell him who she is, and remind him of their shared past?
In the middle of all this, a young man Tommy is helping, who has just been released from prison, is getting some pressure from former associates to return to his old life ... and to use Tommy to hide their activities.

HERE'S THE FUN PART:
I based this book on a script I "almost" sold 23 years ago, to "MacGyver." Well, they told me they liked it, and if I wanted to rewrite it, they would be glad to look at it, but by the time I rewrote it they had already chosen the scripts for the final half-season, so ... It still counts as an "almost," doesn't  it?
Check out my web site and the Desert Breeze Facebook page later on to find out how you can get a PDF copy of my old script. But give me time, okay? It's stored in a format from 5 computers and 3 word processing programs ago, and there's a lot of reformatting to do and junk coding to delete!


April 25: BEHIND THE SCENES

      "M-Mr. W-Winters?" Gloria stood from her desk as Chuck Winters came into his office. Her face was flushed, eyes bright. "You have a v-visitor."
      The thick cream sauce from his linguini at lunch curdled in his stomach while his mind raced over who it could be. Whoever had come in and decided to wait during his lunch meeting, it couldn't be someone angry and dangerous. Not if Gloria looked like she had been offered the keys to heaven.
      "In my office?" he guessed, since the waiting room was empty. He didn't wait for her frantic nod before he opened the door and stepped through.
      Carlo Vincente sat on the edge of his desk, looking through a portfolio of location shots the agency was putting together. He lifted his head and regarded Winters a moment, then a slow smile spread across his weathered Mediterranean features.
      "Chuck, it's nice to see you after so long. How are you doing?" Even after forty years in Hollywood, Carlo still had a soft trace of accent that gave dignity to the elder statesman and patriarch roles he played nowadays.
      That dignity and a touch of disappointment stayed in his large, dark eyes. His smile never reached them. He stood and held out a hand, which Winters shook.
      "Keeping busy. You're looking good. Just in from golf?" he asked, gesturing at the sky-blue polo shirt and tan slacks Carlo wore. Winters wondered, yet again, how the other man could stay looking so trim and youthful despite the silver frosting his close-cropped black curls.
      "No. Jeanette and I just drove in from Palm Springs." Carlo watched Winters settle in at his desk. "It's been too long since we've seen you. I wonder why, now."
      "Busy." Winters tried to smile. He knew what was about to happen. He wished he could predict how it would happen, to ward off as much damage as possible.
      "Too busy to return my calls? Or because they concerned Max and Emily Keeler?" He settled in the chair facing the desk. "I find it rather curious you're representing Emily's son."
      "Let's take this one step at a time, Carlo." He settled back in his chair and took a deep breath. "First, I've been in contact with Emily since she left. Why didn't I ever tell you? Well, you were in France five years. You never asked about her when you returned. Emily asked me to help her vanish. That's all there is to it."
      "And her son? It wasn't hard to put the pieces together. He lives in the same city where Emily lives and was injured. As chairman, I have access to all the forms and biography sheets for the Gabrielli judging. Someone remarked on the name coincidence when Emily was injured. Then I saw the boy's birth date."
      "Uh huh." Winters grinned wider despite the tension running through his body.
      "Max Keeler is Emily's son."
      "Nope."
      "I don't know what kind of a joke you think you're pulling--" Steel cooled the usual warmth in his voice, thickened the Italian accent.
      "It's no joke, Carlo. It's very serious."
      "That big grin of yours says otherwise." He sat forward, leaning his elbows on the front of the desk. "Max is my son."
      "Wrong again." Winters took a few deep breaths, staring down Carlo, willing his expression into neutral. It amazed him that he wanted to laugh. Finally he relented. He knew he had to say something before the accusations gleaming in his visitor's eyes spilled out in words they both might regret. "You ask for so much information on those forms, but do you ever ask about gender? Even just for statistics?"
      "Gender?" Carlo shook his head, looking confused for a moment.
      "Max is short for Maxine. Emily's daughter. I told her she was headed for trouble if she let that misconception continue."

      "Misconception. Interesting choice of words," he murmured.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

April 24: DETOURS

      Shane found great satisfaction in working himself ragged, scrambling between work and school and helping out behind the scenes at Homespun Theater. It seemed like half the drama students at BWU had volunteered to help with the production of Taming of the Shrew. The set still had to be built, the lighting hung, the programs designed and printed, and costumes altered as a few parts were rearranged. Shane didn't care that he was fired from his evening job for canceling out two solid weeks of work -- it was more important to be on the lighting crew at Homespun and be there for Joel Randolph, just like the man had been there for him.
      It also didn't hurt matters any that Bekka had been drafted as Max's assistant, coordinating traffic behind the scenes. Shane didn't mind that he didn't have more than a few minutes at a time to talk with Bekka, and never privately. Right now, what mattered was quantity of time with her in his sights. He figured the more time she spent at the theater, the less time she spent with this musician, Zane. And if he was such a good friend of Joe's, how come Shane had never met him?
      "I never saw Morgan as a comic actor," Shane commented, as he and Bekka and the last third of the cast exited the theater after that evening's rehearsal. He gestured at Morgan who had just opened up the door of his car for the pretty auburn-haired lady who had been prompting him in his lines.
      "He's great," Bekka said. "I saw his yearbooks from Northwestern -- he had them open in his office one time when I was working for him. He was the star half the time, and had big supporting roles the rest of the time." She sighed and shared smiles with Shane. "Max couldn't have chosen anybody better to fill in for her dad."
      "Who's the lady with him?"
      "Kat's mother."
      "Yeah?" Shane whistled. "You think they're... you know?"
      "I hope so."

      The richness in Bekka's voice roused his curiosity. Before he could ask, Audrey called for Bekka to hurry up. She lived in the same apartment building as Bekka, and they rode together to rehearsals. Shane said goodnight, and thought about Bekka's reaction when he eventually offered to drive her home, and she saw his motorcycle. When he offered, not if. He just had to find the right timing. He didn't even know if she liked motorcycles. Sometimes that was the make-it-or-break-it point in asking a girl out.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April 23: FORGIVEN

      Rich came in just before lunchtime. She wouldn't have known if Joe Horse hadn't told her when she stopped in the kitchen to check some figures the old cook had given her. Rich didn't poke his head into the doorway of the office where she was working, and she didn't hear him calling to the children as they went past him on their way to the gym or the bathroom or to another classroom for story time or craft time.
      "Are you all right?" she asked when she ran into him in the hall on her way back to her office. Her irritation faded when she saw the strips of tape and the three-inch long strip of gauze on his forehead.
      "Hit the steering wheel," Rich muttered, blushing. He reached up like he would rip the tape off, then winced and seemed to think better of it -- and then turned to walk away without the gusher of questions or comments or complaints that seemed to be his standard practice. Maybe, Nikki mused, he didn't say anything because he knew she had figured out his tactic was to avoid going back to work.
      "What steering wheel? On your car? Were you in an accident?" Nikki followed him down the hall, abandoning her looming report deadline for a moment.
      "Some jerk plowed into me at four a.m. It's a good thing I was nearly half asleep."
      "Is your car--"
      "Totaled. But it was a rust bucket anyway. Insurance ought to get me a new one." He grinned, but it couldn't take away the paleness of his cheeks or soften the dark smears under his eyes. "I should have wrecked the junker a few years ago and got myself a new one the easy way, huh?"
      "That's not..." Nikki sighed and scolded herself not to lecture him. Not when he had been in an accident. Still, this sign of his continuing entitlement attitude irritated her.
      Rich waved good-bye and swayed his way down the hall in a modified, slowed version of his usual saunter.
      "He wasn't half asleep," Brock said, after Nikki mentioned it that evening when he showed up to work on the Mission's books again.
      He had the computer software figured out and had promised to teach Claire how to use it. Nikki wanted to sit in, just to see if it was as tricky as he said. She had mentioned the software to Sophie, who said that company was too new to have a track record. Then she asked Sophie to evaluate it so she could pass the word along to others, so no one would get trapped and messed up like the Mission had been.
      "He wasn't?" Claire snorted and shook her head. "Seems like Rich goes through life half asleep most of the time. Why wouldn't he be then?"
      "Because he was drunk. He also didn't mention he was going the wrong way down a one-way street. The guy who he claimed plowed into him wasn't even in his car, which was legally parked in front of his own house."
      "How do you know?" Nikki asked.
      "I work at the Picayune, remember? Curt was grumbling about it when he came back from getting the news for the police blotter. He had a few more stories about good old Rich's driving record, too." Brock snagged another rolling chair by its padded arm and dragged it over in front of the computer. "Are we going to work on this mess, or do you want to gossip all night?" He grinned to take the sting from his words.
      "Oh, gossip is such an ugly word," Claire said. "I prefer more theologically correct language. Like 'sharing.' Or 'fellowshipping.' You know, so sweet and religious-sounding."
      "You mean 'fellowship' instead of 'pigging out'?" Nikki said with a snort of laughter. "I've heard it all, believe me."

      "Either way, the truth's pretty far away from the story Rich told you."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 22: THE SECOND TIME AROUND

      "You're kidding." Daniel looked down the long hospital hallway, waiting for someone to jump out and say 'gotcha.' He really expected Joel to pop out, despite the cast encasing him from hips to toes -- and asleep when Daniel checked on him five minutes ago -- and laugh at his reaction.
      "Please?" Max twisted her face into what Emily called the 'pitiful puppy-dog' expression.
      It worked better with Jeremy and Joe. Max had too much mischief in her, under normal circumstances, for anyone to believe her innocent act. It was even less effective today. Her color was better and she looked like she had managed to get some sleep last night.
      "Me? Play Petruchio?" Something deep inside him started cheering, jumping up and down excitedly. Like he had felt when he was still a student and got the plum part in a production.
      "Dad agreed with me that you're the best bet."
      "Yeah, but I'd really examine any decisions Joel is making lately. Especially since he was probably half-asleep and doped up when you asked him."
      "Morgan... " She crossed her arms, took a step back and waited. Max knew him too well. She knew he was dying to get back on the stage, even if it meant less than a week to learn his part and fit into the pacing and by-play the rest of the ensemble had already established.
      "You know I'll do it." Daniel squeezed her shoulder, giving her a little shake before he released her. "You can always depend on my ego."
      "Ego schmeego. You're a sucker for people in a bind. Can you come by early tomorrow for rehearsal, so Della and Gretchen can get you fitted for the costume? Dad's built a little wider than you are, but the height is a good match, so there shouldn't be that much work to alter it."
      "You were really sure I'd say yes, weren't you?"
      "With suitable groveling and inducing guilt, yeah."
      They laughed together as they walked down the hall to the elevator. Morning visiting hours were over. Daniel had tried to slip in between classes, hoping to catch Joel awake. Life was going to be hectic, his schedule tight, until Joel was out of the hospital and up to speed on life. It was already accepted that until Joel was allowed to drive, he wouldn't come back to teaching. Daniel and the General would have to cover all his classes and administer his final exams. Fortunately, Joel Randolph was so super-organized, he made his colleagues look bad. Thank goodness there were only three weeks left to school, and Taming of the Shrew would only last two weeks.
      When Daniel got back to his office, he called Lynette to tell her he was taking over Joel's part in the play. She was delighted for him. For a short while.
      "There's something in your voice," she said. "Like you're hiding bad news from me."
      "Not exactly hiding. Just not too happy to tell you about it." He took a deep breath and let it out as a slow sigh. "That means my evenings are tied up until the run is over, and my weekends, studying the part, and probably my lunch hours. The ones I don't lose to Joel's classes, that is. Not much time for us."
      "Oh." Silence for a few seconds. "Well, don't you need someone to prompt you and read the other parts? I played a mean Katarina when you took that directing class, if you can remember back that far."
      "You'd do that?"
      "For Joel and Emily? Of course." Lynette managed a chuckle. "Besides, I have this great fantasy of spending the afternoon in the park with a picnic lunch, performing Shakespeare for the birds and deer. Sounds kind of... romantic. Don't you think?"
      "Lyn, you are the greatest. I owe you. Big time."
      "Well then, you can make the picnic lunch, how about that?"

      "It's a deal."

Monday, April 21, 2014

April 21: BEHIND THE SCENES

      With the hospitalization of their parents, Chuck Winters functioned as public relations man and buffer between the three siblings and the media. The sudden reappearance of Emily Keeler was big news. People who had turned their backs on her years ago when she abruptly left Hollywood had filled the papers in less than twenty-four hours with fond reminiscences. Max despised them all. Whatever Chuck Winters wanted, he would get. Including a speedy pick-up of his phone call. It wasn't quite nine a.m. in Hollywood. What was he doing at work so early?
      "Hi, Chuck." She settled into the sagging corner of a couch in the cavernous living room, which also served as the costume shop and Green Room for the Homespun Theater.
      "How are you three holding up? How's Joel? What do the doctors say about Emily?" His sympathetic smile came through the phone.
      "Dad's more alert. Dr. Holland is threatening to take the phone out of his room if he doesn't stop trying to run things from flat on his back." Max congratulated herself on keeping her voice steady. "We're doing okay. Rehearsal tonight. You're coming for opening night, aren't you?"
      "Haven't missed it in seventeen years. Certainly won't miss it now." He sighed.
      Max heard a multitude of unspoken messages in that sigh. Chuck Winters had been friend, critic and supporter to her parents when they first established Homespun Theater. He had given away the bride when Joel and Emily married. He had spirited away talented new actors Joel and Emily had nurtured, to careers on both coasts. When Max began writing, he had hounded and harassed her until she improved it enough to be saleable. She blamed him for her current misery, caught in a book she no longer wanted to write. She would be lost without him.
      "Got some good news today," he said after a few moments of sympathetic, comfortable silence. "Pelican wants an option on your Gabrielli script. You'll get just over eight thousand after my fee, but it's a start. They want a bio piece before they make a final decision."
      "They heard about Mom and made the connection, didn't they?" Max wondered how she could feel so elated, and then two sentences later feel like a lead weight had settled into her stomach. "They don't want a family comedy script. They want something written by Emily Keeler's daughter."
      "Son." Winters chuckled. "For some reason, they think you're a boy."
      "Let them."
      "Max--"
      "We're getting hounded here, people asking about Mom. If everybody thinks Max is a boy, that'll be some protection for us, won't it?"
      "And when you have to go to L.A. for meetings? If they're expecting a man, and a woman shows up..."
      "For now, could we leave them in their ignorance?" Max sighed and pushed her problems aside. This was no time to feel sorry for herself. Future problems would just have to be handled in the future. She had her brothers and parents and the theater to worry about.
      "All right." Winters sighed too. Max wondered what kind of rotten day he had been having. Probably woken at dawn by reporters. "I'll send a safe, unisex biography. I hope you won't be too proud to accept the option check, even if all they do want is something from Emily's kid."
      "I'll take all the money I can get right now. Insurance doesn't cover everything." Max leaned back over the swayed arm of the sofa and stared at the ceiling.

      The spider web of crack marks across it had four new arms. Someone would have to climb up and spread tarpaper and sealer on the former firehouse roof before it rained again. With the hospital bills that weren't covered by insurance, and no real hope of getting restitution from the drunk truck driver who hit her parents, how could she find the money for this new expense? It was all resting on her. It seemed to Max that every hour brought some new responsibility and pressure. For the last two days, her prayers had mainly consisted of "Help!"

Sunday, April 20, 2014

April 20: BEHIND THE SCENES

      Nine a.m. Max knew she should call Tony. At the oddest times during the long, stressful night of waiting at the hospital, she thought of Tony anxiously waiting for news. She couldn't. Telling Tony her parents' condition would be admitting how bad it was. The three-hour difference between California and Ohio would only be a valid excuse for a little while longer.
      The hospital had set aside an entire waiting room, just for their family and friends. Max knew it was more a survival tactic than kindness. At least twenty people waited with her and her brothers at any one time. The noise alone had to be a problem. A private waiting room gave the staff the option of closing a door.
      Pastor Glenn and Rita had been there from around eleven until three in the morning, then they had to go home to get a little rest and prepare for the worship services. Jeannette Marshall had come around eight, with breakfast and fresh clothes for her and the boys. Dr. Morgan had keys to the theater, and he let her in, then followed her to the hospital. From the moment Morgan walked in the door, he had been a rock of support and common sense. Not ten minutes ago, he ran interference with the first newspaper reporter who tried to slip into the waiting room. Max hadn't even realized what was happening until Morgan was at the door, throwing the full weight of professorial disapproval on the stranger with the digital camera. Then a hospital security guard showed up and led the reporter away before any damage was done.
      Max supposed the moment the name Emily Keeler appeared in the accident report, a flag program somewhere on the Internet passed the news on to a thousand sites. The concept of "viral" took on a whole new meaning.
      Worrying about the paparazzi was low on her list. She had a book deadline to meet. Taming of the Shrew was supposed to open up next Tuesday. The set wasn't finished yet. The costumes weren't finished. And Joel was playing Petruchio -- who was she going to get to replace him with eight days to learn the lines and the blocking? Maybe she should cancel the production. She stared at the list of things to do when she went home from the hospital, if she ever went home from the hospital -- how could she go home and leave her parents here? Why wasn't Tony here to hold her hand and help her think straight? She was cut in half without Tony. Why did he have to pick now to leave her all alone?

      "Max." Morgan sat down next to her and caught hold of her hands. "One thing at a time. You're not alone in this."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

April 19: BEHIND THE SCENES

      "Max Keeler anywhere around?" Heavy footsteps crunched in the gravel of the yard behind the scene shop at Homespun Theater.
      "Who's asking?" Max Randolph finished putting the freshly sprayed copper plates down on the wire drying rack her stepfather had created decades ago. The chemical stink of the spray paint made her feel a little dizzy, which was why she took advantage of the nice weather to do her spray painting chores outdoors.
      When she had a hard time working on a scene for her latest book or screenplay, she put in a few hours in the scene shop or the printing shop. Today, she worked on props for The Taming of the Shrew, which Homespun would be producing in a little more than a week. She had been doing a lot of scene shop chores since her writing partner and best friend, Tony Martin, went to UCLA to do his writer-in-residence stint. If he didn't come back in mid-May as promised, her writing career just might be stalled out permanently.
      "I'm Steve Coheny," the stranger said.
      "Sorry, don't know the name." She stood up, careful not to wipe her paint-smeared hands on her jeans. Max turned around and nearly staggered backwards into the damp plates. A jolt of adrenaline drove away the paint fumes headache that threatened to turn into a bout of nausea.
      She knew that face, but fifty years older. The face that haunted her worst nightmares had similar coarse curls, but shorter, tighter, gray-frosted, not dark chocolate. Steve Coheny wore Carlo Vincente's face -- or an unreasonable facsimile, as Tony would say. He was taller than Carlo; his shoulders were wider, and his complexion not quite so Mediterranean dark.
      Max took a deep breath and felt some of that tension tying her guts into knots loosen and fade. No, he looked a little like Carlo, but not as much as she thought on first glance. It was more her imagination than his bone structure. She had to find a way to get her mind off that problem she had been gnawing since the mail from the Gabrielli Film Fellowship came yesterday.
      I have got Carlo Vincente on the brain, she silently snarled.
      It wasn't Carlo's fault that he was single-handedly shredding her latest triumph. He had no idea she even existed, and Max preferred to keep it that way. For the rest of her life, if possible.

      Okay, God, I admit I was stupid choosing my mother's maiden name for my screenwriting name, but do You have to keep rubbing my nose in it?

Friday, April 18, 2014

April 18: FIRESONG

      Friday morning meant a breakfast buffet in the building attached to the auditorium where Firesong had performed. Dani had a room in the girl's dormitory on the far side of the quadrangle formed by auditorium, library and two dormitories. The guys were housed in a dormitory next to the auditorium. She didn't mind the walk across the misty, tree-filled green to the building, even though she did grumble that the guys got an extra ten minutes of sleep. When she got to the building, she found a few people picking through the buffet tables, but no family members.
      She wasn't surprised. Even though they all grew up on a farm, all the boys -- especially Andy -- were disgustingly flexible when it came to sleeping in.
      Taking a deep breath, knowing the inherent smell and mess of male-dominated dormitories were part of the reason she went to a two-year commuter college, Dani stepped into the dormitory to hunt for the guys. If she let them go hungry, she would hear about it until lunchtime. Keeping them on schedule really was part of her job description, after all.
      "I'm a doggone babysitter," she mused, and nearly burst out laughing when a young man wearing nothing but boxer shorts, lying on his back on a couch with a pile of books in the lounge, gave her an odd look.
      The guest rooms were down a flight of stairs, so Dani didn't have to go through the fire door with a huge sign listing the hours the opposite sex was allowed inside. This was a Christian college, after all. She hurried down the steps and prayed for no more doors or stairs to deal with. A right turn in the little lobby filled with couches and vending machines led into the laundry room. A left turn brought her into a hall lined with doors. Dani paused, trying to remember what rooms Andy said they were in.
      "Stupid." She took a deep breath. "Breakfast!" she called, pitching her voice to penetrate.
      "Dani?" A door creaked open and Tom looked out, rubbing his eyes. His hair was a tangled mess. "What time is it?"
      "The sun is up and has been for an hour. The food is out, and if you slugs don't hurry, there won't be anything to eat." She smiled brightly, turned on one heel and got out of there.
      The less time she spent in a male dormitory, even on a Christian college campus, the safer her reputation.

      Dani had thought long and hard about her resolution last night. If she set up a routine and a pattern of behavior, no one would believe a word of scandal anyone tried to raise against her. She thought of Pilgrim's Progress, where people threw mud at the pilgrims dressed in clean white clothes. The mud slid off without leaving a stain. Dani resolved to be like that.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 17: FIRESONG

      "Boring," a tenor voice whined somewhere behind Kurt.
      He didn't know which of the White Knights had said it, and right now, he didn't care. Only two hours into his babysitting duties, and already Kurt wished he had been in the car wreck instead of Wade Klinghoffer. He suspected he would only be able to relax while the White Knights were too busy performing to get into trouble, or else asleep. Or else they were occupied somewhere and cut off from all temptation and opportunities for mischief -- meaning no college girls to dazzle and lead off into dark corners. Half an hour ago, he had walked in on the band members speculating on what the college girls here looked like, and making bets on how many each of them could score with.
      Remembering his own college days, when he also used his music to impress girls, Kurt could almost sympathize. But he had fallen away from his commitment to God back in college, and his band never pretended to serve God with their music. The White Knights claimed to be Christians, yet they intended to use their music to seduce girls at a Christian college.
      No wonder Wade wanted out of this contract.
      Kurt had stepped into the dormitory lounge given over to the band and was relieved when they changed the subject. He didn't see any guilt on those faces, and that had made him angry enough to lecture them on the conduct expected of guests on campus. Obviously, his lecture had gone over their heads.
      He couldn't trust the White Knights to behave themselves while his back was turned. If they were bored, they weren't heading toward a lawsuit from some outraged parents.
      "Don't you guys have to practice? Aren't you playing tonight?" he asked. It was bad enough he had to sit in the same room with them while he worked on his notebook computer and caught up on paperwork and correspondence. Did he have to think for them, too?
      "Nah," the baritone said with a lazy grin. All the White Knights were skinny and blue-eyed, with long blonde hair. Kurt had a hard time telling them apart. "Some other group's driving in from Ohio. We can have a good time tonight."
      "Hope so," somebody muttered. Kurt didn't look, but he felt the scorch of angry glances turned his way. He fought a smile and told himself he was performing a good deed.
      Then the baritone's words registered. He could be wrong -- there were probably hundreds of bands in Ohio. But didn't Katie say something about Firesong performing at a conference for youth leaders this weekend?
      Pulling his cell phone from his pocket, Kurt stepped out into the hall. He hoped the White Knights were all too lazy and self-absorbed to listen as he placed a call to Katie.
      "Yeah, they're probably halfway to Fort Wayne by now," Katie said, when Kurt asked her. "Why?" She laughed when he gave her the abbreviated version of what he had heard. "What do you know? You and Dani might finally get to spend some time together without a thousand errands pulling you apart."
      "Very funny, Miss Matchmaker," Kurt growled. But he grinned at the dormitory door in front of him. She might just be right. This might be the chance he had been praying for, wishing for.

      But that meant he had to protect Dani from the White Knights. How could they resist someone so alive and vibrant?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April 15: FORGIVEN

      Nikki came back into the office later that afternoon, just before closing time for the daycare, and found Brock standing behind Claire at her desk, studying the computer screen from over her shoulder. For a moment, Nikki just stood there in the doorway, poised to go in but already turning to go out again. Her face felt so hot she thought the temperature of the office could go up five degrees.
      "Hi," she finally said, startling them both. Brock stepped back from Claire, putting more than arm's length between them. "What are you doing here?"
      "Pastor Glenn sent him over to help us clear up this mess with the accounting program," Claire said. "Isn't that great?"
      Brock went very still, watching Nikki, waiting for her response. Did he wait for her to denounce him?
      "Pastor Glenn sent you?" Nikki swallowed, forced herself to relax. She trusted her pastor's instincts; or was it his sensitivity? "This is the project you mentioned you were waiting to hear about?"
      "I told him I wanted to get involved and help out and use my talents and..." Brock spread his arms, indicating the entire Mission. "Here I am."
      "Great. How are things going at the Picayune?"
      "Getting there. Claire's explaining the computer program--"
      "Trying to explain," the woman broke in, laughing. "We were so glad to have this program donated, we should have known something was fishy. It's a beta test of a program that isn't even out on the market yet -- that's why we got it free. This thing is never going to sell if it works this badly and the manual is so hard to untangle."
      "I haven't really investigated that far," Brock added with that deprecating little smile and a glint in his eyes that meant he was interested in the challenge. "I have this feeling, though, that we'll have to start from scratch. Maybe go back to paper records, and if we try computer programs again, get a different program."
      "Can I have a witness?" Claire chirped.
      "Uh, Claire... I think Nikki needs to see me about something." He stepped around the desk and headed for the door. "Be back in a minute."
      "Okay. The problem'll still be here when you get back."
      Nikki followed Brock around the corner, down the hall toward the gym. It was quiet and dark now. Not even echoes of splashing water or thuds of a mop handle on a metal bucket. That was strangely comforting.
      "I'm sorry," Brock said. "I had no idea Pastor Glenn was planning on sending me here."

      "It's okay." She grinned at his surprise. Truth to tell, she was just as surprised at how calmly she seemed to be taking this. Maybe because of last night's revelation, and the prayer she had prayed Saturday night, turning over to God everything concerning Brock and her past pain. Nikki had no idea how long the peace and confidence was going to last, but she was going to take advantage of it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

April 14: FORGIVEN

      Kat and Amy showed up with their carload, along with two more of Lisa's sisters-in-law, by the time Nikki and Bekka got their car unloaded. They stayed to help unpack and generally organize the other two carloads, and by then Todd had showed up with the rental truck and the big furniture. The next trip had the apartment emptied, and when Nikki and Bekka brought the Jeep's load into the cottage, they decided to help set up a picnic dinner in the living room. Nikki kept careful watch and she approved of the smiles Lisa and Todd shared, the tentative touches, and the way he looked after her and hurried to take any load she tried to carry. She also returned the bag of ring binders and galley proofs -- and was relieved when Lisa said she wanted to talk about the whole 'baby issue' but that it would have to wait until later. She had deadlines to meet, and a house to settle into.
      Nikki was pensive on the quiet drive home. She remembered the few short days of dreaming about settling into a little house and decorating the nursery and the idyllic life she wanted to have with Brock. Then he had come back to their hotel from a week-long trip away -- which, she learned during the trial, had been to meet with his DEA contacts and pass on the first batch of information -- and her dreams had been shredded by his reaction. He hadn't told her right away to abort, but it was clear he didn't want their baby. He never accused her of deliberately getting pregnant, but he did blame her for being careless with the over-the-counter contraceptives she used.
      Looking back, Nikki wondered if Brock had deliberately been picking fights with her to drive her away. He couldn't be honest with her about the work he was doing, either the drug dealing work for Ringo or the information gathering he was now doing for the DEA. He couldn't pack her up and send her home to Tabor without making Ringo suspicious. Especially if Nikki put up a fight about going home.
      "He had to drive me away," she whispered as she pulled up in front of her parents' home. Nikki blinked hard against tears she had promised herself she would never cry again. Tears for Brock Pierson and the relationship they had once shared. She sat there in her Jeep until the ache in her chest faded and the tears dried, leaving her eyes feeling hot and scratchy.
      Even when he hit her, Brock still loved her. That much was obvious.

      The question was if that changed anything.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

April 13: FORGIVEN

      "So, how about going out to dinner with me?" Rich greeted Nikki, when he met her in front of the church that morning.
      "Can't." She tamped down another flare of anger. The service was about to start, and she had been standing out here with Aurora, waiting for him, for nearly half an hour.
      At least the little girl was too busy chattering at her plush bunny to notice her father's arrival and the tension flaring in the air. She kept putting the toy as big as her head in and out of the Easter basket Doria had put together for her at the last minute. It wouldn't have been nice for Aurora to have nothing to do, no basket to fill, when Brandy and the boys scrambled around, hunting for their Easter baskets and then ran around outside in the dawn chill, hunting for all the plastic eggs Nikki and Dr. Holwood had hidden just moments before.
      "You are always busy. What's wrong with you?" Rich snapped, stomping one foot so hard his battered loafer nearly came off.
      "What's wrong with you? It's Easter. I'm spending it with my family. Don't you have plans with your mother?"
      "Oh. Yeah." His face twisted as he visibly fought anger and embarrassment. "Hey, Rory, ready to go?" He bent and scooped up the little girl, putting her astride his hip with enough force to knock the basket out of her hands. "For Pete's sake, can't you shut up just once?" he blurted, when the little girl let out a wail and tried to leap from his arms to retrieve her treasures. "I should have left you with your grandmother last night."
      "Wasn't your mother out of town?" Nikki said quietly.
      "No. Where'd you get--" Rich let Aurora slide down to the ground again. "Oh, yeah. Look, things changed at the last minute. And Rory was so excited about staying with you, so I figured, what would it hurt?"
      "Nothing." She swallowed down the shiver of uneasiness that crept up from deep inside. "But considering our past, I think focusing on honesty would be good for both of us."
      "Oh, come on, Nikki..." He raked both hands through his hair and turned around once, as if searching for inspiration or help from the parking lot. He nearly tripped over Aurora, on her hands and knees, picking up her scattered treats. "Why do you have to keep picking on me?"

      "I'm not. Look," she said, holding up a hand to stop him. Judging from his expression, he was ready to argue long and loudly. "I have to get inside. The service is starting. My folks are probably holding a seat for me, but since it's Easter, seats are at a premium. Bye, Aurora." She hurried to pull the door open and enter the building and get away from Rich and his daughter as quickly as she could. If Aurora even noticed she was gone, Nikki had no idea.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

April 12: FIRESONG

      Dani bent to pick up another stack of boxes to take from the fellowship hall, out to Andy's truck. The shower was over and she could only breathe a sigh of relief as she thought about it. The wedding would be much easier to handle, because she wasn't choreographing everything.
      "So, how did it go?" Kurt asked, coming up behind her.
      "Don't do that!" She nearly dropped the boxes.
      Kurt leaped forward to catch and help re-balance them in her arms. There was a box with a set of frying pans on the bottom, three boxes with towels, one with cooking utensils, and on the very top a box filled with tissue paper and airy spun glass napkin rings. Someone hadn't bothered reading the registry of practical and useful items Katie and Andy had requested.
      "Sorry." He grinned and didn't look repentant. Just like she remembered from when they were children. "Need some help? Aunt Kathy's sure there won't be enough room in Andy's truck."
      "Yeah, well, some people aren't very practical. I mean, I said to just give them money." She shrugged, nearly losing the napkin rings. Kurt came to her rescue again. "Lead the way!"
      They made uncounted trips out to the cars and truck waiting in the parking lot, aided by other members of the bridal party. Andy and Katie directed and packed up their gifts, deciding what went to Andy's new apartment now and what went to Katie's house until after the wedding.
      Kurt didn't say much, but every time Dani turned around, she found him watching her. That little tilt to the head, the slight upturn to one corner of his mouth, the sparkle in his eyes -- what was he thinking?
      "Okay, what's up?" she demanded, when they came back into the fellowship hall and found themselves alone for the moment.
      "Up?" Kurt shrugged and jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. "Nothing. Yet."
      "Uh oh." She grinned as she realized she felt very comfortable around him. It was easy to fall into the same teasing pattern she had with her cousins and Katie. Maybe that was it -- he was her best friend's cousin, after all.
      "Hope not." He stepped up to the main table, half-emptied, and held out his arms for her to fill. "I was just wondering where I could take you, if you'd go out with me."
      "Go out with you?" For a few seconds, the words made no sense, and that scared her. She was the wordsmith, the one who came up with lyrics to every single melody Andy composed.
      "Yeah, you know, maid of honor and the bride's cousin? It's the law, gotta spend some time together."
      "You're crazy. Which makes sense, considering your family." Dani was glad to finish loading his arms and turned away to pick up a stack of thin boxes and put them into a huge wicker laundry basket she seriously wanted to borrow from Katie.

      "Does that mean you won't go out with me?" Kurt didn't sound at all discouraged, and she rather liked that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

April 11: FORGIVEN

      Gray, who had wisely taken up his post out in the hall away from the dust and clutter, now raised his head and whined. Nikki pulled her thoughts back to the present. How long had she been staring unseeing at her clipboard? Then she heard the tight male voices. They kept low and urgent, which signaled trouble to her. Ringo had been that way, almost purring before he shot Brock.
      That was Brock's voice, she realized with a prickling sensation up her back. What was he doing here? She hurried around the corner, into the lobby. Brock stood in the doorway to outside, and Rich blocked his way with the bucket and mop handle.
      "I don't care what you think," Rich growled. "You're not coming in until you tell me what you want with her."
      Nikki felt sick. She glanced at her watch, only quarter after twelve. The scenario was easy to guess. Brock had walked over from the Tabor Picayune to see her on his lunch hour, and Rich had gotten possessive and protective. He had been trying to inch his way into the position of being her assistant and bodyguard in the last few days, and had intervened a dozen times already when other people wanted to talk with her. Nikki thought her last talk with Rich had finally sunk in -- but obviously not.
      "You were looking for me?" she asked, as Brock opened his mouth to retort.
      "Yeah. Mr. Clean here seems to think I need a hall pass." Brock moved to cross the lobby to her. Rich hesitated and missed thrusting the mop handle in his way. Nikki had the oddest feeling he had tried to shove the stick between Brock's legs to trip him.
      "I told him you were busy and he wouldn't go away," Rich grumbled.
      "It's break time." Nikki tried to think of where she could lead Brock where they wouldn't be alone, but still have privacy to talk without being overheard. The noisy cafeteria a few dozen steps away might be the perfect place.
      "He's got no business wasting your time."
      "Why don't you let Nikki decide for herself?" Brock snapped. "I'll bet you didn't give her any of my messages the last few days, did you?"
      "Messages?" Nikki hated how her face got warm. She didn't like Brock getting angry when it came to her. Not through fear, but because for so long, making him happy had been the focus of her life.
      "Hey, I'm a busy guy." Rich jammed the mop back into his bucket and slowly wheeled it down the hall. "Not your secretary."

      Since when? she wanted to snap at him. If he insisted on getting involved with everything she did, everywhere she went, knowing every detail of her entire schedule, then he had better accept some responsibility with it. Especially if he accepted messages from Brock for her, and yet neglected to deliver them.