Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway--Final Hours!

The last story excerpt is from Summer Again, included in An Uncommon Prince and Other Short Stories, part of the e-book giveaway that ends tomorrow. You can still sign up here: http://tinyurl.com/khf7wfa


A carnival rolled into town for the weekend. Nicholas walked over to Shannon’s cottage and asked if they’d like to go to it with him.

“Do they have a merry-go-round?” Mindy asked. Nicholas nodded.

“Oh please, Mama, can we go?”

Shannon hesitated. She needed to shop for groceries. The cottage needed a thorough cleaning. She needed to work on her resume to submit to the community college. There were a million and one reasons why they shouldn’t spend the day with Nicholas, but one very good reason why they should. It would make Mindy happy.

“All right. Get your shoes on and grab the puppy’s leash. We might as well take him along.”

The carnival filled the town square and spilled out into the street. Shannon kept a tight hold of Mindy’s hand as they walked along. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy enticed them, but after at least a half dozen rides on the carousel, Shannon insisted they eat lunch first.

“I’m glad you joined me,” Nicholas said while they ate hot dogs. A breeze blew in off the lake, and he reached out to tuck Shannon’s hair away from her face. His hand lingered along her cheek.

Shannon felt a rush of warmth that had nothing to do with the noonday sun.

“One thing I never expected was to see you here. I didn’t know your dad still had the cottage.” His voice lowered, as if uncertain. “It’s been a lot of years. So why did you come back?”

Shannon crumpled the hot dog wrappers and finished her cola.

“Dad thought it would be good for Mindy and I to spend some time at the beach, before I enroll her in school and get a job.” She almost told him about Elliot; she probably should. But she couldn’t bring herself to talk about the man she’d married instead of Nicholas.

“You’ve moving back here?”

She nodded and wiped Mindy’s face with a paper napkin.

“Will your husband be joining you?”

Shannon could only murmur, “No, he won’t.”

As much as he ached to ask why, Nicholas knew it wouldn’t be fair in front of Mindy. It didn’t take much to sense that something was wrong, but he would find out later why Shannon and her daughter had come to the cottage alone.

Mindy yawned and dragged her feet on the way home. Nicholas carried her while Shannon toted the puppy and the giant stuffed bunny they’d won. At the cottage, they laid the child and the bunny both in her small bed while the puppy curled at Mindy’s feet. Nicholas touched the little girl’s tousled hair and felt a flash of resentment that Shannon’s child wasn’t his.

“I’ll make some coffee,” Shannon offered. “We can sit on the porch for a while.”

They sat in the old wooden Adirondack chairs. Nicholas drank his coffee and when the daylight was no more than a pink and blue glow on the lake’s horizon, he asked Shannon the question that had burned for years in his mind.

“Why didn’t you come to see me before I went to sea that last summer? I asked you, begged you. Why did you let your father come between us?”

Shannon looked away, unable to meet the old hurt that still shadowed his eyes.

“You went into the navy. I was leaving for the university. We both had our plans, and they didn’t seem to include each other.”

“But you knew I wanted you to wait for me. I told you and I emailed you and I wrote to you. Or did your father have you so brainwashed that I wasn’t good enough?”

A sudden anger flared up in her, anger at men and their often stupid need to prove themselves, despite the cost.

“Of course I wasn’t brainwashed! But I was young and so were you. I’m sorry you couldn’t understand. I guess maybe you still can’t.”

“And this Elliot Grayson you married. Did James approve of him?”

Shannon lifted her chin. “As a matter of fact, he did.” Her parents had both loved Elliot but that was before they’d known marrying Elliot would take her far away from them.

Shannon didn’t watch Nicholas leave but gathered up the cups and went inside.
Three days later the puppy disappeared.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway--Last Two Days!

Tonight's excerpt is from the title story, "An Uncommon Prince."

They spent the morning clearing away the fallen branches that weren’t touching the downed lines. Chris was strong and not a bit afraid of manual labor. He worked on the greenhouse while Emily went in to fix lunch. It was hot, and with no fan running, the house  stifling. It would be better to sit on the porch and eat. Emily brought out sandwiches, a bag of potato chips, and two lukewarm sodas. Then she called her new handyman to eat.

 When they sat at the little round table on the porch, they both noticed the shadowy figure poised at the edge of the woods.

 “He’s been hanging around for the last hour or so,” Chris said. “I take it he’s not yours?”

 “No, he’s just a stray.” Emily watched the gaunt husky slip back into the cover of the trees. She was glad he’d made it through the storm, but the poor thing was probably starved again.

 It had been a while since anyone sat at the table with Emily. Usually, she propped a book up in front of her, but that would be unforgivably rude. She would just have to bury the tiny flutter of disquiet that threatened to balloon up inside of her. So she was sitting across the table from a nice-looking man. So he was going to sleep in her barn tonight. So she didn’t know him from Adam. She was used to dealing with older people so set in their ways they were practically concrete. Certainly she could manage to deal with a man nearly her own age.

Chris had washed in water from the creek and run wet fingers through his hair. When he sat across from her, Emily noticed the tiny drops of water sparkling against the rich cinnamon brown.
He ate with gusto, talking in between about the trip he was making across the country. “I’m just taking my time, wandering about. Going along the back roads.”

“Guess that’s how you happened by here.” Emily offered him another sandwich.

"Best way to see America and meet her people. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I decided not to wait till I’m too old.” He grinned and his eyes held Emily’s gaze for a moment. So blue, so very blue. She thought she could drown in them, but something was being held back, was hidden in their depths. She couldn’t tell what, but his carefree smile seemed almost forced.

Emily finished her sandwich and took the leftovers out to the barn. The husky was nowhere in sight.

 “He’ll be back,” she told Chris. “Sooner or later, he’ll trust me enough. I just have to give him some time.”

She noticed Chris watching her in a peculiar way, as if he wondered why the dog mattered to her at all. She really didn’t know herself, except she felt sorry for him. She knew all about being alone.

 “I have to go to work now.” She turned back to the house. “You can just go ahead with the windows on the greenhouse. I’ll be home around six.”

 Chris watched as she went into the house and came out with a black bag.

 “In case you’re wondering, I’m a public-health nurse,” Emily said. “Home care visits are part of my job. I have some people to check up on after the storm. A lot of them…don’t have anybody else. If you get thirsty, help yourself to whatever you can find. I’ll try to pick up something cold on the way home.”

 It seemed strange to have someone watching as she drove away and even stranger to have him waiting when she came home at half-past eight.

 “I was getting worried,” Chris said when she slid down from the truck seat. He’d been sitting on the porch steps, but he came to meet her and took the bag of groceries and the six-pack of beer from her hand. “You look tired. I fixed some supper. Hope you don’t mind.”

She didn’t. In fact, it felt good to have someone taking care of her for a change, even if he was just a stranger who would be gone in a few weeks.

 After they ate the meal cooked over Chris’s one-burner camp stove, they sat on the porch and drank the beer and watched purple evening shadows steal across the fields. Emily was tired, but it was nice to have someone to talk to instead of just the old dog.

 “My parents lived on this farm all their married lives. I didn’t come along until they were both in their forties. I guess they’d just about given up on ever having a family. As it was, all they got was me.”

 “Not such a bad deal.” Chris’s voice was nearly as soft as the country twilight. “I bet they were immensely proud.”

 Emily shrugged, uncomfortable when the talk centered on her.

 Chris let a space of silence lapse, as if he understood, then he asked, “Didn’t you ever feel trapped, living way out here with no one your own age around?”

 Emily wanted to shout no, but if the truth were told, at 18 she had felt more than ready to get away from home. Her parents had sensed it and they hadn’t held her back. “They made sure I went to college. I lived away for five years, but then the farm got to be too much for Dad. Who else did they have to depend on but me?”

 She smiled sleepily at Chris and tried to hold back a yawn, but her eyes simply wouldn’t stay focused. “Must be…the beer.”

 Chris stood up and ‘rousted the bedroll he’d stashed in the corner of the porch. “Good night, Emily,” he said softly and ambled off to the barn.

 It was surprising how quickly Emily got used to Chris being around. After so long living alone, she looked forward to pouring two cups of coffee in the morning. When she wasn’t making her nursing rounds, they worked outside together, and the farm began to take on a new spruced-up appearance. After five days the power came back on, and by the time one week turned into two, it was almost as if Chris had always been there. But when he tried to kiss her, she shied away like a wary doe.

 They were in the orchard and had stopped to drink lemonade from a thermos. The next thing Emily knew, Chris brushed a stray wisp of hair back from her face and carelessly leaned toward her, but his lips only had a chance to graze her cheek before she turned away, her heart thudding in her ears.

 She’d been wondering for days what it would be like to have Chris kiss her, but now that he almost had, fear and uncertainty plucked at her. For a man like Chris, it was no doubt just a moment’s pleasure, but for Emily…for Emily it could be the way to heartbreak.

 You’re acting like a fool, for heaven’s sake. The man only tried to kiss you.

 But it was hard to cope with feelings she had thought were left far behind, and she wasn’t prepared. Everything had been nice and predictable before that storm two weeks ago, nice and quiet with no surprises.

 Why did Chris Carter, a most uncommon prince, have to come along? She had nothing to offer him. She was a plain woman. He must be at least five years younger. She was too old for him, too old for romantic love, but telling herself took all night and far into the early morning.
 
Stop back tomorrow for the final excerpt from An Uncommon Prince and Other Short Stories, part of the Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway. If you haven't yet signed up for a chance to win free e-books and gift certificates, click here: http://tinyurl.com/khf7wfa


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway--3 Days to Go!

Tonight's excerpt is from "Unicorns and Dreams Come True."
 
 
Tyler Morgan had only a moment to glance at the slim feminine figure perched on the ladder. She looked like a kid, and as he loped toward her, he wondered why in the world her parents had allowed her up there. He reached out to catch the ladder and before he knew it he wasn’t clutching rickety wood—he grabbed a softly curved waist. She hit his rangy body with a gasp. And then they were both sprawling backwards on the ground.

Tyler’s first sensation was that of soft dark hair tickling his nose and then the smell of lilacs. It took him about three seconds to realize the body flattened against his was definitely not that of a child.

“My goodness,” she sputtered and pushed herself away. “I’m so sorry.”

“No problem.” Tyler grinned up at the flushed face poised above him. She was embarrassed. Two red spots stained her cheeks. It made her all the more attractive, that and the fact that her eyes were violet like the lilacs he’d smelled. His breath stuck in his throat, but maybe it was just from the fall.

Maggie knelt in the grass beside him and tried to regain some composure. All chance of that was shattered when the beast who’d caused the whole incident insisted on licking Maggie’s face.

“Get lost.” Tyler sat up and shoved the Great Dane away. Ignoring him, MacArthur promptly dropped next to Maggie and leaned his massive head on her shoulder.

“He thinks he’s a lap dog.” Tyler apologized. “He’s really quite harmless, unless you’re up on a ladder, I guess. I’m really sorry for all this. I don’t usually let him run loose, but no one has lived over here in so long, I forgot to call him back.” He noticed her hands were trembling. “Are you okay?”

She wasn’t sure. Nothing seemed to be broken, but she could still feel herself falling through space, and she shuddered. “I’ll be fine.”

“Can’t you hire somebody to do this?” He looked up at the big old house. What was his new neighbor going to do with so much space?

“To be honest, I can’t afford it.”

“Why would you even want such a big place? If it’s just you—“

“It’s not,” Maggie said brusquely and got to her feet. Before she could say another word, a soft voice called, “Mommy?” She turned just in time to see Heather coming down the porch steps, carrying Smoky, her kitten, and MacArthur bounding toward her. When the girl saw the huge dog heading straight for her, she froze.

“Oh, no,” Maggie moaned and set off on a dead run.

“He won’t hurt them,” Tyler insisted. Nevertheless he was running right behind Maggie. “MacArthur, down!”

Responding to his master’s command, MacArthur plopped down not three feet away from Heather. As if he sensed the child’s fear, he made no attempt to touch her. Heather’s terrified gaze was glued to the giant dog’s big jowly face. Maggie moved slowly to her daughter’s side.

“It’s okay, honey. His name’s MacArthur, and he’s not mean. You don’t have to be afraid.” Maggie put her hands on Heather’s shoulders and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “Say hello.”

Heather shook her head vigorously and shrank back, clinging to the squirming kitten for dear life.

Tyler slipped his hand through MacArthur’s collar and dragged the gentle giant away. Once the dog was secure inside his fence, Tyler came back and crouched down next to the little girl.

“I’m sorry he scared you.” He noticed the child was the picture of her mother, except her long dark hair was a sharp contrast to her fair cheeks. Tentatively, he touched the gray kitten’s furry head. “MacArthur would never hurt you on purpose. He wouldn’t even hurt your little friend here, but I know he’s a big dog, and I’ll try to remember to keep him on the leash or in the fence.”

Heather looked up at her mother. “Will he?”

Maggie brushed her hand protectively over her daughter’s hair. Her eyes met Tyler’s. He looked like a man of his word, a man who could be trusted, but Maggie had vowed never to trust a man again. Still, for Heather’s sake, she would make an effort. “I think so.” Maggie’s voice held a quiet warning to Tyler not to go back on his word. “And just so you know, I plan on opening a day-care center here in a few weeks.”

After her neighbor left, Maggie decided to call it quits for the day. She just didn’t have the heart to go back up on that ladder again. The painting could wait till tomorrow.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway; Only Four More Days!

This excerpt is from "Goodbye to Summer."
 

The following Saturday we bumped into him coming out of the grocery store.  I would have walked right on by but of course Amy  had to stop and say hello.

 “Hi there,” she waved and called out merrily.

 “Hi yourself.” He playfully tugged one of her twin ponytails.

 “Where's your dog?”

 “Afraid I had to leave him home today. I didn't think folks would appreciate him lumbering down the sidewalk or running through the store.”

 Amy hung back when I tried to usher her out the door. “Are you going on a picnic?”

 He let us go ahead of him. I noticed the bucket of takeout chicken under one arm and a six pack of pop under the other.

 “Sort of. Well, I was really just going down to watch the boats on Lake Charleston and have my lunch.”

 “Mmmm. I like chicken.” Amy's nose twitched at the enticing smell wafting from the cardboard bucket.

 Amy.” I gave her a prod.

 “You and your mom are welcome to join me. I have plenty.”

 Amy looked up at me eagerly. “Can we? Please?”

 The man stopped walking and for some crazy reason so did I. We stood there in front of the Good Value market, the afternoon sun shining down on us.

 He was a good head taller than I and perhaps three or four years older. His arms were nicely tanned below rolled-up shirtsleeves and he wore faded jeans. Under the blue gaze of his eyes, I flushed warmly and hugged my bag of groceries more tightly.

 “If it's that we haven't been properly introduced, I'm Mike O'Brien.” He shifted the pop so he could stick out his hand.

 I just looked at it a moment, then accepted the gesture. His hand was big and rough and warm.

 “Katherine,” I said as his fingers closed briefly over mine. “Katherine Mitchell.”

 “May I call you Kate? You look more like a Kate to me.”

 Did I? With my plain brown hair pulled back I wasn't sure I looked like anyone. But I nodded.

 “I take it you live in Charlevoix year-round?” He started walking again. Amy skipped alongside.

 “How can you tell?” I gave him a sidelong glance.

“Oh, you just look as if you belong here, rather fresh and outdoorsy, like someone bred in the north country. There's something special about the north country, gives a person that healthy glow.”

 I had to laugh. “That's funny. I just moved here six years ago. Where are you from?” In a small town, I was certain I would have seen him before.

 “Actually, I just started working in this area a few weeks ago. I'm from Mackinaw City. Lived there most of my life, except for the years at Michigan State.

 Most of my growing up years had been spent on a farm in southern Illinois. I suppose that was one reason why winter here stretched on interminably for me.

 We reached the parking lot and stopped by my car. “So would you like to join me?” He nodded to the bucket of chicken.

 Amy tugged on my arm. “Please, Mama? You said we might take a walk to the park today. I want to see the boats.”

 “Come on, Kate Mitchell,” Mike O'Brien said. “It's a nice day. The boats are lovely on the lake. In the middle of winter you'll wish you had.”

 “Okay,” I finally gave in. Amy whooped with glee.

An hour later, the chicken consumed, we sat by the lake while Amy played on the nearby swings. Before us lay Lake Charlevoix, shimmering crystal blue in the September sunlight. A few sailing diehards skimmed across the rippled surface in their bright catamarans.

 “That was good.” I wiped my fingers on a paper napkin and stuffed the leftovers in the empty bucket. “Thank you for sharing with us.”

 “You really did me a favor.” Mike leaned casually against a nearby oak tree. “I've gotten a little tired of eating meals alone lately.”

It was difficult to imagine him being alone. He was much too good-looking and friendly.

 “You said you've only been working here a few weeks?” I curled my legs beneath me in the grass.

 He continued to stare out at the water. He had a strong profile with a determined chin that jutted forward. I thought the he was a man who would never be dissuaded once he wanted something.

 “That's right, since the day after Labor Day.”

 It seemed an unusual time of year to be starting a job around here. “What sort of work do you do?” I asked.

 “I'm with the state forestry service. I'll be heading up to the Upper Peninsula next month to winter at the Porcupine Mountains.”

 “You're a ranger then?

I wasn't surprised to see him nod. With his tanned and rugged face, he certainly looked like a man who spent a great deal of time outdoors.

 “I'll  bet you love your work. Getting to be out in the woods all the time. I love the woods almost as much as the beach.”

 In spite of my not liking the winters up here, I had truly enjoyed the camping Pete and I had done the first years of our marriage.

 “There's a lot more to my work than just being in the forest.” Mike rubbed his hand over his chin. “Some of it can be pretty trying at times, like teaching folks to respect our natural resources, not to run rampant over them. They don't all value forests the way we do, but you're right, Kate.” He rested his blue gaze on me. “I do enjoy my work.”

 “Pete did, too. He was a biology teacher.”

 “How long has he been gone?”

It wasn't an intrusive question, because somehow I think he'd known all along there was no man in my life, in spite of the wedding band I still wore.

 I felt no hesitation in answering. “A little over a year.” 

 “You still miss him.”

 I shrugged. “I suppose it gets easier as time goes on, and I do have Amy.”

 We sat quietly for some moments and I found myself wondering how he had known. “What made you ask us to share your lunch? I mean, how did you happen to...”

 “Just a hunch, but my hunches are usually right.” He smiled in a slow, persuasive way. “I have a hunch now that if I ask you to have dinner with me tomorrow night you'll accept.

 Coming from another person, the remark might have been conceited, even arrogant. Coming from Mike O'Brien, it wasn't, and I had to admit it---I liked him.

            I liked the way his hair, a light burnished brown, curled carelessly back from his wide forehead, touching his collar in back. I liked the way he smiled so effortlessly, as if he smiled a great deal.    I liked the deep blue color of his eyes.

I had a hunch I was going to prove his hunch right. “I don't know if I can find a baby sitter,” I hedged.

 “Bring Amy along. If we go early enough, we can take a ride. I'll show you some places where the trees are already starting to change.”

 After a moment of thought, I agreed to go, and Mike smiled again.

 When Amy and I walked back to our car, I felt a curious warmth inside that had nothing at all to do with the bright sunshine streaming down that afternoon.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway--Final Five Days!

Here is an excerpt from An Uncommon Prince and Other Short Stories, from the story, A Test of Fire.



Back in the farmhouse, Tessa busied herself feeding Shadow and Pandora. She'd adopted the black and white shepherd from the shelter when Phillip left on his first tour of duty, the calico cat at his second. They were her family now. The cat rubbed at her ankles before crouching at her dish. Too nervous to eat, Shadow watched from her den beneath the table, offering an occasional whine of concern about their precarious situation.

“Aren't we a sight?” Tessa's hand shook a little as she picked up the coffee pot. “A houseful of nervous females. What would Phillip have said?” He'd often teased Tessa about her penchant for adopting only female animals, grumbling good-naturedly that except for the rooster, he was outnumbered. If only things had been different, his dream of building a small herd of cattle and farming full-time might have come true, but war in some godforsaken land had taken him away....and left Tessa with the unfulfilled dream.

She dumped the untouched coffee in the sink and went upstairs to make her bed. From her window she could see the side of the mountain was shrouded in dense smoke. The fire must be moving across the plain to the west. Soon it would reach White Cloud, and after that where would it go? She had just smoothed the ivory crocheted coverlet over the bed when she heard Shadow's sharp staccato bark, followed by a pounding on the kitchen door. For a minute, fear like an icy finger trickled down Tessa's spine. She was alone except for her menagerie. Anyone could come in here and...

Before he'd left the first time, Phillip had taught her to shoot his shotgun. Unloaded, it sat in her closet, because she hated guns. She glanced toward that closet door now but didn't go there before heading downstairs.

At the door she gripped her rolling pin in one hand. Holding firmly to the doorknob she called out, “Who are you?” A tall figure moved on the porch. “Forest service, ma'am. We're advising everyone to evacuate. The fire's gotten out of control and is heading this way.” The man's voice sounded raspy and tired. Tessa's fear drained away. Pushing Shadow aside with her knee, she opened the door.

The man on her porch posed no threat, although he looked terrible. Streaks of soot ran down his face from beneath a battered yellow hard hat. Beard stubbled his square jaw and his eyes were rimmed in red. No doubt he'd been fighting the fire all night. His heavy jeans and denim shirt were stained with sweat and caked with black grime. She hoped he wouldn't just keel over.

  Tessa stared up at him, not wanting to believe what he said was true. “Who sent you?” she demanded. He closed his bloodshot eyes and sighed deeply. When he opened them again, Tessa could see their normal color was a light teal blue.

 “The sheriff, if it makes any difference. A new crew of firefighters came on this morning. I'm on break for a while but I told the sheriff I'd check out this area and make sure everyone had left.”

“And have they?” Tessa peered past him toward the now empty highway, praying that at any moment someone would waken her from this bad dream. But the weary man on her porch was all too real.

 He nodded his head. “Yours is the only place where I found anyone at home. And I'm not fooling about leaving, ma'am. I've been on the fire line since yesterday. I know what I'm talking about. The fire is coming this way and you'd best get out now.”

Tessa stepped back from the door and looked around her kitchen, at the perky green and white gingham curtains she'd made, the solid oak table Phillip had refinished. How could she just leave it all? It seemed an act of cowardice to her. Her hand went to her throat and pressed the wildly beating pulse there. “I...can't. I can't leave it. My husband...”

“Your husband?” An angry frown cracked the grime on the man's face. “Where is he? Away?” She nodded. “Well, it's for damn sure he wouldn't expect you to risk your life by staying. It's not worth it.”

That's what everyone had said when she and Phillip bought the dilapidated homestead five years ago. No one understood their dreams. Maybe the place didn't look like much to this man, but it was all she had. And she wasn't about to leave it to the fire's hungry whim.

Please stop by tomorrow for another story excerpt, and don't forget to enter the Sweet Romance Christmas Giveaway by clicking the "Giveaway" button at the top of my facebook page at
www.facebook.com/LucyNaylorKubash