May 30, 2015

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~Chapter Reveal~ The Accidental Art Thief by Joan Schweighardt




TheAccidentalArtThief_medTitleThe Accidental Art Thief
Genre: General fiction
Author: Joan Schweighardt
Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Find The Accidental Thief on Amazon.

For a quarter of a century forty-five-year-old Zinc has worked as a caretaker for a wealthy old man, living in a small casita on his ranch in New Mexico. She doesn’t make much money, but she has the old man, her dogs, and gorgeous views of the mountains. She is basically a very content recluse who doesn’t invest much time thinking about what she might do if her circumstances change. So when the old man dies suddenly, and his daughter all but throws her off the property, Zinc is forced to reinvent herself—and quickly.
With a touch of magical realism and a collection of offbeat characters, The Accidental Art Thief explores the thin line between life and death and the universal forces that connect all things.
//////////////////////////////////////
THE ACCIDENTAL ART THIEF
a novel
by
Joan Schweighardt
Chapter 1

Zinc had hung feeders all along the boughs of the trees, mostly cottonwoods and piñons that she could see from the window of the casita where she lived. This way when she needed a break from the work she did at her desk, she could look up—a small window was right there—and drink in the bird life, albeit at some distance. There were greenish-brown hummingbirds and red-brown finches to be seen three seasons of the year. Sometimes there were piñon jays, their blue bodies as vivid as the desert sky overhead. At least once a week she caught sight of the local roadrunner, whom she had named Steven, after someone she had loved once, someone who had broken her heart. And once—mystery of mysteries—a peacock dropped out of the sky, spread its resplendent blue-green feathers, turned its head in the direction of the window behind which Zinc stood with one hand over her open mouth and her eyes brimming with tears of joy, and looked right at her before disappearing into the scrub. Now that was a day to remember.
But lately Zinc had begun to wonder what it would be like to work facing the mountains rather than the cottonwoods. In fact her casita did have windows facing east, but the main house, where the old man lived, obscured her view. She wondered what it would be like to work outdoors sometimes, where she might see jack rabbits running in the scrub, or maybe even a lone coyote reigning proud from some rocky outcrop. She mentioned this desire to Smith, the old man’s sometimes driver, and Smith said she should get a laptop. Smith told her there was a second-hand computer store on Central. The owner was a real geek, he said; he picked up obsolete models for next to nothing and gave them new life. His prices were extraordinarily reasonable, as if he labored merely for the love of it.
For the love of it. Zinc liked that.
*
On a Saturday Zinc walked down the dirt road from her casita to San Dominic Road, and from there she walked to the bus stop on Bonita. She preferred not to talk to strangers if she didn’t have to, so she carried with her a Macy’s shopping bag into which she’d stuffed the bathrobe she’d removed from her body earlier that morning. It still smelled faintly of the coffee she’d accidentally spilled. When the bus came, she took the seat behind the driver. Then she watched out the window, and sure enough, before long she saw the second-hand computer shop storefront, wedged in between a coffee shop and a new-age gift store that featured a large limestone Buddha in its big front window.
She took the bus a mile or so farther and then got off and awaited a return ride. This time she knew where to look and she was able to gather in more information. The computer store was called Timothy’s Second-Hand Computers, and what Zinc recognized as a very old Mac model sat in the center of the window—a bookend (in size and positioning if not in eminence) to the Buddha in the shop beside it. The Mac’s screen and the innards that should have been behind it had been removed, replaced with a roll of toilet paper, the end sheet of which stuck out from what had once been its floppy drive opening. Timothy had turned the old Mac into a toilet paper dispenser!
Zinc could drive of course, and she had a junker to prove it—a seventeen-year-old Pontiac Firebird that her brother, Frankie, had given her two years earlier. But she didn’t drive it unless she absolutely had to. Just looking at the orange-red beast with its long raised snout and angry flared nostrils, parked as it was as far from her casita as the old man would allow, seemed like a bad idea. And so the following week, late in the afternoon, she took the bus once again, this time throwing a pair of jeans and a paperback into her Macy’s bag, and getting off at the corner just before the second-hand computer store. Then she stood, hidden behind sunglasses with lenses the size of fists, her wild brown curls stuffed beneath a NY Yankees cap, leaning against the stucco wall of the Central Ave Bank, cattycorner from Timothy’s, at the point where she could see the door but could not be seen herself, attempting to determine how busy the place got. When she felt quite sure there wasn’t much traffic (in fact, the door hadn’t opened once), she crossed Central and marched in.
A little brass bell on the door announced her arrival, but Timothy, who had his back to her, only mumbled, “How ya doing?” and didn’t turn around. The table he worked over was full of computer parts, illuminated by a green goose-necked desk lamp, the bulb of which was close to the table surface.
“Fine,” she heard herself say. It came out sounding like a child’s voice. Well, that was her voice; it was high-pitched and there wasn’t much she could do about it.
“Can I help  you?” he asked, and he looked past her for a second, perhaps searching for the child he thought he’d heard.
“I’d like to buy a computer. A laptop. A used laptop. An inexpensive used laptop.” She smiled nervously.
Timothy was old, perhaps in his mid seventies. But it was only the skin on his face, which fell over his bones like carelessly hung curtain swags, that gave him away. He was trim and—she noted as he got up to round the counter—spry and surefooted. She raised her hand to her sunglasses, but then dropped it just before her fingers made contact. A moment later her hand came up again, and this time the glasses came down with it. Timothy stopped in his progress to stare into her eyes, tipping forward from his waist for the briefest moment. “The laptops are over here,” he mumbled, and he turned to show her the way.
Timothy spent the next several minutes describing the virtues of each of the four second-hand models he had available. Two were so old they didn’t even have modems. “What do you want it for?” he asked, turning toward her suddenly.
Zinc swallowed. This is what she hated. The sudden question, the switch in focus, and then the inevitable journey the interrogator always took into her eyes. Years ago, when her skin was smooth and tight, people only said, “What an unusual color your eyes are.” But now she was forty-five and there were tiny lines around her eyes, making them somehow more—not less—prominent, or so she felt. Sometimes it seemed as if they were doorways, with doors that strangers could throw open easily and walk on through. Where did they go?  What did they do in there all that time?
Caught off guard, there was no chance to come up with a lie. And the truth was Zinc was a terrible liar anyway. “I write poetry,” she said.
“For a living?” asked Timothy, sounding alarmed.
“No, I keep house.”
“For a living?” This time he chuckled.
“For an…a…man.” She’d almost said “an old man,” how she and Smith referred to him, a term of affection for them.
“Your husband?”
“My employer.”
“Full time?”
“Part time…the housekeeping. Well, actually, it’s more than that. I do other things for him. And then the poetry. I make some money now and then from that too. So if you put the two together….”  She realized she was rambling and stopped abruptly.
Timothy turned back to the computers. “You’re under the radar,” he mumbled. “One of those people who can’t manage a real job. A lot of you here in Albuquerque.”
The color came to her face immediately, a flash flood. She loved what she did. She loved her life. Why did everyone assume that if you didn’t make much money or didn’t do something glamorous, you were a loser? And wasn’t he under the radar too, working at rejuvenating dead computers in a store that nobody visited? She squared her shoulders. For the love of it indeed. But all she said was, “No.” And then she thought better of it and forced a chuckle. “Well, maybe.”
“You shouldn’t admit it,” Timothy said, turning to hand her one of the laptops. She could see in his eyes that he was serious, that he meant well. “If you make your money cleaning house for someone,” he expounded, “you should tell people you’re a personal assistant. It’s almost true if not exactly, and it sounds much better. Saying you keep house….” He shook his head. “People will make assumptions. You’ll never get anywhere. You’ll clean houses forever.” Again he took the journey into her eyes, but this time he returned much sooner. “But then you’re not all that young, are you?”

Although she wanted nothing more than to escape, she forced her feet to stay planted just where they were, because, second to escaping, she wanted a laptop. And, as Timothy had so kindly pointed out, she wasn’t a child anymore; she had learned to control her impulses. Ultimately, she chose the laptop that was least expensive—an old modem-less IBM that Timothy guaranteed would work for the next five years if she was kind to it—and took the bus home.
So lost in her thoughts was Zinc that she was briefly startled when she opened the door to her casita and was immediately charged by two dogs, her dogs, Paddy and Orlando. Paddy was six years old and appeared to be mostly golden retriever with some chow mixed in—a furry yellow dog with a black tongue that was always hanging sideways out of his mouth. Zinc had found him at the end of the dirt road that led to the property when he was a puppy. He was half starved then, and the gash on his leg indicated that a larger animal, probably a coyote protecting her pups, had tried to warn him away. (If a coyote had really wanted to hurt him, it would have gone for his throat, and given his size at the time, Paddy would not have survived.) Paddy was sweet and intelligent, but he was also suspicious when there were strangers about, generally up at the old man’s house as Zinc didn’t get visitors herself. Orlando was a beagle mix, about four years old. He had come from a shelter just over two years ago. This was back before the old man’s legs had gotten so bad, back when he could still get around with a cane on one side and someone’s arm on the other. He’d heard that his neighbor’s dog had run away, and since the neighbor was in worse physical shape that he was, and didn’t have a driver to chauffer him around, the old man volunteered to have Smith take them both to the shelter to look for the Doberman, Gilly. Gilly wasn’t there, but the old man saw Orlando dancing at the bars of his cage, and he imagined that the beagle would be the perfect companion for Paddy, that Paddy might relax if he had a younger dog to play with. So he brought him home and told Zinc if she didn’t want him, or if Paddy wouldn’t tolerate him, it wasn’t a problem; the shelter would take him back. But both Zinc and Paddy fell in love with him immediately and that was the end of that.
Once she had greeted her dogs, given them each a biscuit and let them out, Zinc let the “under the radar” remark go down the drain, literally. It was a trick her father had taught her when she was a child (back in rural upstate New York, a couple hours north and west of New York City) and would come home crying because someone had teased her or called her a name at school. He would drag a wooden bench over to the kitchen sink and have her step up on it. Then he would turn on the faucet and Zinc would repeat the words that had hurt her so (“weirdo,” “mute,” “witch eyes,”) and together they would wash them down the drain. They had done this so many times and with such zeal that both believed that they could “see” the insults swirling drainward. “Go play, now,” her father would say, and she would, skipping outdoors, her curly brown pigtails flying out on either side of her head, calling out her brother’s name, Frankie, Frankie, who, her father hoped, would watch after her after he and his wife were gone—because a sixth sense told him they would never reach old age.
Zinc had been working for the old man and living in the casita behind his house for twenty-five years now, since the year after her parents died, the same year Steven left, and she did not love the place any less. It had been built over one hundred years ago, from adobe. Although it had been upgraded with central cooling and heating, Zinc seldom needed temperature control. The adobe stored and released the heat slowly, keeping her little house cool in summer and warm in winter, except when the temperatures were extreme. It was almost as if she were living in something that was alive itself.
Her little casita was beautiful in its simplicity; all the walls were painted a warm white and all eight-hundred square feet of flooring was covered with a red-gold Mexican saltillo tile. Her furnishings had all come from the old man’s house over the years, odd pieces that he no longer needed, and all of it was Mexican as well. And then there was the art. The old man was a collector, and each time he brought new paintings into his house, he would pass the old ones on to Zinc. His daughter, whose name was Marge, liked to carry the smaller ones over herself, probably, Zinc thought, so that she could remind her each time that some of the paintings were of considerable value and that Zinc must never nevercome to think of them as anything but a loan. As if Zinc could ever forget that.

Zinc did not have a land line or a cell phone. She did not have a TV or an MP3 or an iPod or a digital camera. She had a radio. And she had a computer, now two of them, and while the new one was modem-less, the Internet that worked through her desktop model had become her connection to the world. She had even made a few friends over the Internet, most of them editors of literary magazines who considered—and sometimes accepted—her poetry for their quarterly or biannual publications.
She opened her new used laptop on the kitchen table and plugged in the charger. In addition to the Word program that she planned to make good use of, there were a half dozen others. She was delighted to see that one was a chess game, and that you could “zoom” it up to be the size of the screen. She and the old man played chess all the time. She couldn’t imagine playing chess with a computer herself, but the old man might enjoy it. He got so lonely sometimes. And now his eyes were so bad that he could no longer read. She read to him frequently, but never for more than an hour at a time, because she was prone to sore throats. He listened to audio books, but he said it wasn’t the same. They made him sleepy. He hated to sleep, because he had nightmares much of the time.
Zinc thought he must have read more books in his life than any ten people she knew, not that she actually knew ten people. He could remember everything too, even information from books he’d read back when he was quite young. Although his tastes ran toward histories and biographies and hers toward fiction and poetry, they could spend hours talking about books; they could spend hours talking, period.
While the computer charged, Zinc heated leftovers from a casserole she’d made for the old man the evening before: artichoke hearts, spinach and chicken tenders. She called the dogs in and fed them and let them out again. When she finally allowed herself to look at the digital indicator on the computer screen, she saw that the charging had progressed only to fifty percent of capacity, but it would have to do.
Zinc pulled out the cord and closed the laptop and hurried out of the house. Her breath caught immediately and she stopped in her tracks, the laptop crushed to her chest. There was a moment every evening when the setting sun was exactly opposite the mountains, and if one were lucky enough to catch it, one could see the Sandias (sandia meant watermelon in Spanish) turn pink. Not just light pink, but if conditions were right, shocking pink, a kind of otherworldly fuchsia that made the heart pump faster.
Almost as soon as it began it was over. The mountain turned gray and the sun was on its way again, descending over the volcanoes to the west. The spectacle moved Zinc to run, something she did occasionally when no one was around. Orlando and Paddy, who had been resting together under a pine tree, saw her and rose simultaneously to join in the fun. With the dogs at her heels, Zinc ran across the yard, along the slate path through the garden, and started up the slate stairs. The stairs were beautiful. The old man had built them himself, years ago, back when his wife was alive and his children were young. They were encased in stone and featured stone risers. He had gathered the stones himself, from multiple hiking trips taken into the mountains with his loved ones.
Zinc was almost to his door when the toe of her leather sandal caught and she fell forward. Of course she had to drop the computer to keep from landing flat on her face. She sat up and immediately burst into tears. Her new computer—which had cost her two trips to town and half of the money she’d saved in the glass jar she kept on top of the refrigerator—had to be broken. There went sitting outdoors facing the mountain. There went who knows how many poems about coyotes, about jack rabbits running through the brush. Orlando licked her. Paddy moaned as if he knew exactly how she felt.
Under the radar.

The door opened slowly beside her. She looked up expecting to see the old man looming over her. She always praised him when he came to the door with his walker instead of waiting in his wheelchair for her to open it herself. He needed more exercise. He was a small man now, the size of a twelve-year-old boy. He suffered from, among other things, kyphosis, a hunched back. A very hunched back. It made him look like a troll. But it was not the old man’s troll face that Zinc found herself staring up at. It was his daughter, Marge. “What are you doing on the ground?” she asked impatiently, in a shrill voice. “And why are you crying? And where were you this afternoon?”
Zinc got up slowly, lifting the laptop from the slate as she did. She could feel movement, things inside slipping around. She glanced over her shoulder at the driveway. Usually when Marge was there she parked out in front of the house, where a delivery person might park—which made sense because she never stayed any longer than a delivery person would. Now Zinc saw that Marge’s car was beside the workshop. She could see the bumper of the dark red PT Cruiser. If she had known Marge was there, she wouldn’t have run across the yard, and then she wouldn’t have dropped and broken her new computer. “He’s all right, isn’t he?” she asked.
Marge folded her thin arms beneath her small breasts. “No,” she snapped. “He’s not all right.” She looked upward and took a breath. “He took a fall. Down the stairs. Right here. Where were you all afternoon, Kathryn?”
“What do you mean, he took a fall? How?”
Marge unfolded her arms and thrust them out, exasperated. “He must have been feeling badly. I don’t know. He must have wanted something. He must have tried to get you on the intercom and then gone outside to see if you were in the yard. And he must have tripped.” She took another swallow of air. Her arms fell to her sides. “Peter found him. He’s dead.”

May 29, 2015

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~Chapter Reveal~ April Snow by Lynn Steward


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00031]Title: April Snow
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Author: Lynn Steward
Website: LynnSteward.com
Publisher: Lynn Steward Publishing


At the cutting edge of women’s fashion in the 1970s, a visionary young woman subdues her desire for love to remake retail at New York’s most glamorous department store.

Newly single, Dana McGarry learns she must divorce herself from more than a bad marriage to succeed. Not only must she prove to family and friends that she can make it on her own, but she also must challenge an antagonistic boss who keeps standing in her way. Moving out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a dynamic businessman, Dana bets it all on a daring new move that will advance her buying career, But at what price?
Her dreams within reach, Dana’s world is shattered in a New York minute when a life is threatened, a secret is revealed, and her heart is broken.
APRIL SNOW 
Chapter One

Dana McGarry, on vacation for the first time as a single woman, arrived at the Lansdowne Club at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, just steps from Berkeley Square, in London’s fashionable Mayfair on the morning of April 8, 1975.  Her lawyer had filed papers for a legal separation from her husband Brett in January, and after four months of being under the watchful eyes of well-meaning family and friends, Dana was savoring every moment of her solo trip across the pond.  She and Brett had always stayed at the nearby Chesterfield Hotel, but her beloved Colony Club in New York City enjoyed reciprocity with the Lansdowne Club, where she’d previously attended lunches and lectures while her husband met with clients for his Wall Street law firm.  Undeterred by the steady English rain and dark clouds hanging over the slick gray streets, she stepped from one of London’s fabled black taxis with renewed spirit, excited to think that the distinguished house in Berkeley Square would be her home for the next five days.    After Dana checked in, the hall porter asked her if she would like tea brought to her room and then discreetly disappeared with her luggage, a small, welcoming gesture that stood in contrast to an impersonal hotel.  Rather than immediately taking the lift to her room on the fifth floor, Dana stepped into the entrance hall and surveyed the club’s interior, intending to explore Scottish architect Robert Adam’s stately masterpiece commissioned in 1761 for King George III’s prime minister, the Earl of Bute.  Previously, she had limited herself to the dining room, never taking time to appreciate the club’s historic beauty.  Although rich with finely-crafted embellishments and Neoclassical splendor, the house was clearly showing signs of fatigue, and its understated elegance made the environment that much more comfortable.  Dana knew she’d made the right choice. The club was an oasis of tradition and tranquility affording her the peace and privacy she needed.
When Dana arrived in her junior suite, she noticed a bouquet of flowers sitting on a table in the sitting area. Thinking they were compliments of the club, Dana opened the attached note and laughed out loud.  The flowers had been sent by her childhood friend, Johnny Cirone.  The message read, “Take Phoebe shopping and buy up the town.  Whatever you do, enjoy yourself.  Love, Johnny.”
Dr. Phoebe Cirone, who was in London attending a cardiology convention, was Johnny’s sister.  Their father, John Cirone, known affectionately to Dana and her brother Matthew as Uncle John, was the head of the House of Cirone, a manufacturer of ladies eveningwear.  Having a passion for medicine from an early age, Phoebe had never expressed interest in clothes or haute couture, leaving Johnny to reluctantly carry on family tradition by working for his father.  Dana’s parents, Phil and Virginia Martignetti, had been friends with the Cirones since before her birth.
Dana, pleased to see a porcelain tea service had already arrived, took her cup to the window and sipped the Darjeeling as she observed the new plantings in the courtyard garden.  The peace she’d felt a few minutes ago was gone, however.  Something about Johnny’s note, as thoughtful as it was, unnerved her.  Johnny and her mother called daily to see how she was doing.  Dana sensed their concern, although she felt it was unwarranted.  What did they think—that she was going to kill herself because the divorce would soon be final?  They obviously didn’t recognize her personal strength and resolve.  Dana worked at New York City’s B. Altman, and the previous December she’d formed the department store’s first Teen Advisory Board.  She had also succeeded in getting Ira Neimark, the store’s executive vice president, to sign off on installing a teen makeup counter on the main selling floor over the objections of Helen Kavanagh, junior buyer, who thought youth-oriented strategies like those at London’s Biba, were a waste of time and money.   Despite these personal triumphs, she’d taken aggressive steps to further advance her career, leaving her comfortable job in the marketing department for the position of junior accessories buyer.  She had requested time off for this visit to London immediately after settling into the new assignment, and that alone was proof that she knew how to take care of herself.
Dana had been equally aggressive in terminating her marriage to Brett.  Papers for a legal separation had been filed in January by Dana’s lawyer when she discovered that Brett was having an affair with fellow litigator Janice Conlon, a saucy and impertinent young woman from California.  Negotiations for a final settlement were proceeding smoothly, with no protests originating from either Brett or his lawyer lest the firm be apprised of his misconduct with the audacious Conlon.  In the four months since their separation, Dana had realized that Brett’s dalliance with the abrasive Conlon had merely been a catalyst for the end of their relationship since there had been something far deeper and more troubling in their marriage: Brett’s growing neglect of Dana as he vigorously pursued partnership with the firm.  His work always served as a convenient excuse to pick and choose his time with Dana and in the long run, that grim reality had proven intolerable.  Within days of learning of Brett’s infidelity, Dana contacted an attorney and moved from her Murray Hill apartment to a carriage house a few blocks away in Sniffen Court.
Given the decisive actions in her personal and professional life, Dana therefore felt smothered at times by the daily concerns of others.  As for her traveling abroad alone, she felt more than competent to take care of herself.  When Brett had been with her in London, they were rarely together.  He usually spent days working, and evenings meeting with clients, joining Dana for late dinners, if at all.  He was up and out by 7:00 a.m.  She’d always hoped that the next trip would be better, but this was never the case.  Traveling alone?  It was all she knew.
Yes, it had all happened just four months ago, illustrating how the course of a life can change so radically and quickly.  But was she ecstatically happy now that a new phase of her life and career had begun, with Brett being almost surgically excised from the picture?  No, she wasn’t jubilant about anything at present, but she was content, at peace with the decisions she had made to take care of herself and her future.  In the words of her father, she had discovered that she had “a very good life” despite longstanding marital woes and formidable professional challenges.  Many of her friends had urged her to re-enter the dating scene since she was almost thirty and the clock was ticking, but Dana didn’t miss married life in the least and had no interest whatsoever in dating, especially guys described as the perfect match: upwardly mobile professionals, or “Brett clones,” the apt description provided by Andrew Ricci, Dana’s good friend and display director at the store.  Besides, marriage was not the only path to a fulfilled life.  In Dana’s estimation, happiness also resulted from pursuing a creative dream, enjoying good friendships and the myriad interests that gave her immense pleasure, such as travel, literature, films, and lectures on a wide variety of topics.  Being suddenly single was not a condition to be cured but rather an opportunity to be savored.
A line from Dickens came to mind as she thought of events that had altered her life:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Dana had survived the tumultuous weeks of the previous December, when she realized her marriage was over, but surely this was now the best of times, was it not?  She smiled as she contemplated her walk tomorrow morning to Piccadilly for breakfast at Fortnum & Mason, followed by a long and leisurely visit to Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop.  The thought of Dickens reminded her of the delight she took in finding rare editions of the classics, or even first editions of lesser-known authors.  Today, however, she was going to enjoy Richoux’s delicious risotto when she lunched with Phoebe, who was staying within walking distance at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane.  Filled with a new surge of energy, the blue-eyed Dana freshened up, brushed her short blond hair, and grabbed a shawl and a pair of unlined leather gloves. The clouds were beginning to part, and the steady English drizzle had let up, but it was still a nippy fifty-four degrees—a perfect spring day in London.
Rays of sunshine were reflected by leaded windows in the rows of eighteenth century townhomes Dana passed as she strolled leisurely through Berkeley Square.  It was only eleven thirty and she had an hour before meeting Phoebe at her hotel, enough time for a short detour across Hill Street and Hays Mews to the Farm Street Church, also known as the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception.  Years earlier, she’d been sitting on a bench in Mount Street Gardens when she looked up and beheld one of the church’s open gothic portals that seemed so inviting, beckoning her to enter and pray.  Then as now, it had been a glorious April day, the kind celebrated by Chaucer in the opening lines of theCanterbury Tales, when spring rains provide rich “liquor” for flowers suffering winter’s drought.

Dana arrived at the church and chose to enter from Mount Street Gardens rather than Farm Street, as she’d done on her original visit.  In the transept to the right of Our Lady of Farm Street statue was the Sacred Heart Chapel, and this is where Dana chose to pray in deference to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who’d taught her for twelve years in her youth.  She knelt in the third pew, said a decade of the rosary, and then sat, looking up to admire, as she always did, the glorious painting of the Sacred Heart flanked by four saints above an inlaid marble altar with three brass reliefs.  But instead of finding peace in this pious setting, the silence suddenly became deafening, and the alabaster walls of the chapel began to feel close, confining.  A wave of emotion engulfed her, and she cried uncontrollably, questioning her impulsive decision to end her eight-year marriage—and without considering her vows taken before God, family, and friends. What a hypocrite she felt herself to be—a selfish hypocrite who had turned her back on the faith that was such an integral part of her life.
Glancing at her watch, Dana saw that it was almost noon.  She needed to pull herself together and be on her way to meet Phoebe.  She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and walked outside to a bench in Mount Street Gardens, where she would spend a few moments composing herself.
In the sacristy, a priest was marking the readings for the twelve-thirty mass in the gilt-edged lectionary when he heard anguished sobs emanating from the Sacred Heart Chapel.  Curious, he stepped into the sanctuary in time to see a young woman exiting the side door leading to the gardens.  He followed her and observed her sitting on a bench fifteen yards away.  He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and said a brief prayer.  

*                                  *                                  *
Looking in her compact mirror, Dana wiped away the mascara beneath her eyes and reapplied a bit of powder to her cheeks.  She didn’t want Phoebe to see that she’d been crying.  What could she possibly say in answer to any questions her friend might have?  That she was upset over the abrupt manner in which she’d dissolved an eight-year marriage to an inattentive man who’d cheated on her?  No, the emotions that had spilled forth in the chapel had taken Dana by surprise, and they needed to be processed in private moments of reflection.
Dana had been resting her eyes when she looked up and saw a priest approaching the bench.  The Jesuit, a tall man in his early fifties, walked with a confident gait, and the smile on his face was evident when he was still several feet away.
“Good morning,” he said.  “Lovely day.”  He could tell the young woman was upset and,               in point of fact, she wasn’t the only one he’d encountered on the grounds who needed consolation or, at the very least, a friendly smile.
“Yes, Father, it is,” Dana replied.  “A splendid day.”
“Are you on holiday, or are we blessed to have you as a new parishioner?” he asked.
Dana examined the priest’s face more carefully.  He wore rimless glasses, and pale blue eyes regarded her kindly beneath close-cut salt and pepper hair.  He was dressed in a black clerical suit and looked to be strong and vigorous despite his gentle manner.
“On holiday, Father,” Dana replied. “I come here whenever I’m in London and wanted to stop in and . . . visit.  I was taught by the Sacred Heart sisters back in New York.”
“A New Yorker!” Father Macaulay said. “And a member of the family, so to speak.  May I sit?” he asked, motioning to the bench.
A member of the family, Dana thought, again fighting back tears.  Not anymore.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Dana mumbled, rising to leave.  “I’m meeting someone and I’m late.”
Father Macaulay nodded.  “I hope you’ll visit again.  I’m here in the church or the gardens every morning from nine until I say mass.  If you can’t find me, just tell the sacristan that you’re looking for Father Charles Macaulay.”
“Thank you, Father.  Have a good day.”
Biting her lip to fight back fresh tears, Dana and Macaulay shook hands. The priest watched Dana walk out of the gardens, sensing that she was in distress.  He was a good judge of people, and he thought that Dana would surely return to the church before she boarded a plane for New York City.  Somewhere in her soul, he thought, there was unfinished business.
*                                *                                  *
Wearing sunglasses, Dana walked for five minutes along Mount Street until she reached the Grosvenor House.  Phoebe was waiting in the lounge, and after they exchanged warm greetings, they left the hotel for Richoux, which was two blocks away on South Audley Street.
The two women were shown to a small table in the dimly-lit restaurant owing to the dark wood paneling in the main dining room.  When Dana removed her sunglasses, Phoebe immediately saw that Dana was upset.  Her eyes were puffy and her smile was forced.  Phoebe cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Do you feel like talking about it?
“I’m fine,” Dana said, brushing aside the concern.  “Nothing worth discussing.  Now tell me about you, how’s the convention?”
The two women chatted over lunch, Phoebe speaking of the lectures she’d attended on anticoagulation therapy, angioplasty, and catheterization for the diagnosis of coronary artery disease.  In turn, Dana described her new duties at B. Altman.  They laughed at Johnny Cirone’s daily calls and continued concern for Dana since her separation, although Dana was reminded yet again of the excessive attention she was receiving.
“We have to get him married off,” Phoebe said, “or at least find him a serious girlfriend.  He’s becoming a mother hen.”  She paused, knowing that Dana was holding back something painful, but decided not to press the matter.  “By the way, my dad has an offer on his house, and he’s in contract to purchase the estate sale on East 79th Street. It’s a big renovation, so he’s hoping to get approved by the co-op board quickly and start the demo. Johnny is already interviewing contractors.”
John Cirone was moving to Manhattan since his Long Island home seemed far too large since the death of his wife two years earlier.  He’d accepted a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and Johnny was helping his dad make the long-overdue transition to the city—and to the present, away from thoughts of his deceased wife, Lena.
“It sounds like the convention is keeping you pretty busy,” Dana said.  “Would you like me to pick up Uncle John’s cigars at Sautter’s?  It’s a few blocks from the Lansdowne.”
“That would be a lifesaver,” Phoebe said.  “I have two days of seminars on using something called a stent to open up clogged arteries instead of always resorting to bypass surgery.  It would be a non-invasive procedure, but most cardiologists think it’s still years away.”  Phoebe suddenly burst out laughing.  “And here I am, bringing my father cigars, which is the last thing a cardiologist should do.”
The two women finished lunch, Phoebe heading to the convention for afternoon lectures,
and Dana returning to the Lansdowne Club, where she finished unpacking.
Dana sipped afternoon tea while paging through a book of poems she’d found lying on the end table by the sofa, her thoughts returning to her display of emotion that morning.  Brett had indeed been quickly and surgically excised from her life, perhaps too quickly, and yet she had received no judgments about the decision to do so from her parents.   She was aware, of course, that Virginia had always been a bit leery of Brett, even at the very beginning of their courtship.  As for her father, he was quite unflappable and had reminded Dana that things always work out in the end, which was a part of his lifelong, homespun philosophy that she found so comforting.  And yet Dana couldn’t shake the realization that Brett, despite all of his shortcomings, was a man she’d loved for over eight years.  Should she have given him another chance?  After all, the marriage hadn’t been all bad.  The visit to the chapel, she concluded, had reminded her of Catholic dogma regarding marriage: it was indissoluble.  Mount Street Gardens, the chapel, the brass panels—they’d brought to mind her many years with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, causing her to second guess her decision.

Leafing through the slightly-worn pages—she thought that older books had such character—she saw Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.”  It was one of her favorite poems.  She especially liked the lines towards the end.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
The sentiment was essentially that of her father, who had a “philosophic mind” when it came to handling disappointment.  There had been good times in the marriage, but some things were beyond repair, and Dana had indeed retained strength in what remained behind, which was a full life that included friendships and opportunity.  Dana realized how important this trip was—far more than a break from her daily routine or an enjoyable shopping spree.  On her own, she could privately mourn her marriage and process her emotions, opening her mind and heart for whatever lay ahead.  She was at peace again, ready for the rest of her stay in London.  Still, she wondered if Father Macaulay would share her perspective.  The priest had emanated kindness and understanding in the brief minutes she’d been in his presence, and now, feeling stronger, she decided to visit him again before she left London.  He’d demonstrated genuine concern, and she wanted to hear his soothing voice one more time.



May 12, 2015

0

~Release Day Blitz~ Lydia's Secret by Ditter Kellen


Title: Lydia’s Secret
Author: Ditter Kellen           
Genre: Paranormal Romance

Hosted by: Lady Amber's Tours


Blurb:


Lydia's Hughes is not what she seems. Her days are spent in never ending torment until one night in a dark alley a stranger changes her life forever.
Sexy as sin and shrouded in mystery, Roman Castillo inserts himself into Lydia's life only to find he's not the only one with untold secrets.





Bestselling author of Romantic Suspense. A former 911 dispatcher turned author, Ditter Kellen has been in love with romance for over twenty years. To say she's addicted to reading is an understatement. Her ebook reader is an extension of her and holds many of her fantasies and secrets. It's filled with dragons, shifters, vampires, ghosts and many more jaw-dropping characters who keep her entertained on a daily basis. 

Ditter's love of paranormal and outrageous imagination have conspired together to bring her where she is today...sitting in front of her computer allowing them free rein. Writing is her passion, what she was born to do. I hope you will enjoy reading her stories as much as she loves spinning them. Ditter resides in Florida with her husband and many unique farm animals. She adores French fries and her phone is permanently attached to her ear. You can contact Ditter by email: ditterthegreat@hotmail.com



http://www.ditterkellen.com/


Buy Links:

Amazon



May 4, 2015

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~Release Day Blitz~ Broken Lens by Shannon Dermott


Title: Broken Lens
Author: Shannon Dermott
Genre: NA Contemporary Romance
Hosted by: Lady Amber's Tours



Blurb:
Although this book is the second in the series, it’s been written to be read as a New Adult Stand Alone novel. You do not have to read book one, which is a young adult novel, to enjoy.
No one said love is ever easy. And for Jess, he would ride his Harley to heaven and back for an eternity with her arms wrapped around him. That makes leaving her that late summer day to head to separate colleges the hardest thing he has to do. Still, he thinks that they could beat the odds and prove everyone wrong, until one drunken night and one sober confession.

Through the jagged edges of a broken lens, he’s faced with the reality of his choices. And fixing the pieces of Jess’s broken heart may be impossible. Without her, he’s left with only a mother who hates him and marks him as a dead man walking. And that’s not the only truth that has the potential to destroy his life.

The upcoming trial will reveal the defendant’s motivations for the crimes committed against the people he cares about. But that guy’s not the only one who’s guilty of something. With a cloud of mistrust hovering around him, can he keep Jess safe from his past? Can she or anyone forgive him for his secrets? Will he win back the one girl he’s ever loved or will he lose her forever?
*WARNING* This book is rated a New Adult book, which means it can contain foul language and sexual situations. Please be warned in advance.

Shannon’s first love is reading, diving into other realities to explore and brave new worlds. To share her writing is the best experience of all. She writes books about teen romance whether paranormal or contemporary. She also has a steamy adult series. When Shannon isn't writing she loves to shop and watch horror movies that make turning out the lights seem like a stupid idea. You can explore more about her at her website www.shannondermott.com, on facebookgoodreads and twitter.



Buy Links:

After the second beer and a dose of pain meds, I finally passed out. I dreamed of better times. A carefree Jess when I’d realized I’d fallen completely for her. Then she’d looked at me like I was worth something more than the image of my face or the size of my bank account.
The warmth of the sunlight, like Jess’s fingertips on my skin, jolted me awake. My hand went to the back of my neck where the sofa created kinks I couldn’t get out. I stood still unsteady and found Jess asleep on my bed. Thoughts of kissing my way up her from her leg to her beautiful mouth invaded my mind. I made a hasty retreat to my bathroom...
I shucked my clothes, causing them to slap against the tile floor. I turned on the shower and stepped in, even though, the water was as cold as ice. Hopefully, it would alleviate my heated desire for the girl on my bed who had me hard as my thick skull.
Soapy, head to toe, I fisted my need in my hand as I rested my head on the tiles. Water cascaded down my back and did nothing to cool my heated skin. I almost didn’t hear the door to the shower stall open. As the water began to warm at my back, a soft hand landed on my hip. I jumped and turned around.
Jess stood with willing Puritan eyes. If only she knew of the monster that was so close to the surface, she would most likely run like hell.
“Jessica, you need to leave now.”
Her hand reached up and touched my shoulder. “I don’t want to leave.”
“You have no idea what you’re asking for. Please leave, or I swear I’m going to have you like I’ve wanted since the first day I saw you.”
I gave her my back and rinsed the soap out of my hair. Her finger grazed around from my hip down the definition of muscle that led to my pulsing need.
Roughly, I said once more. “Jessica, please go.”






May 3, 2015

0

~Blog Tour~ The Voyeur Next Door by Airicka Phoenix


Title: The Voyeur Next Door
Author: Airicka Phoenix    

Genre: NA Contemporary Erotic

*Warnings: Strong sexual content & language. (18+ Only)*
Release Date: April 27, 2015
Hosted by: Lady Amber's Tours

Blurb:

He lived next door.

Alison Eckrich was an expert at being invisible. Having been raised by a mother who saw only flaws, she had learned long ago to watch and never participate. Until him. He was gorgeous from what little she could make out through his bathroom window and he awakened things inside her she had always been told was wrong. But she didn’t care.

She was addicted.

Gabriel Madoc was no stranger to the cold sting of betrayal. His broken heart had left him hard and bitter and that was how he liked it. Until her. She was a vision in the soft twilight. Everything about her called to him. It didn’t even matter he couldn’t see her face.

He wanted her.

The rules were simple: No names. No faces. No attachments. They both had what the other needed so long as they never broke the rules. But what will happen when the mystery is unveiled and they both come face to face with the truth and each other? Is what they shared in the cloak of darkness enough to keep them together, or will reality tear them apart?


FB Release Party: https://www.facebook.com/events/808116989263187/




Chapter One


Ali

“God, baby, I need you inside me so bad…” My husky moan fogged the glass, obscuring my view of the deep fried and smothered in chocolate goodness just one creepy glass lick away from being all mine. “But I can’t let you control my life anymore.”
The pimply faced adolescent on the other side of the counter fidgeted uncomfortably, clearly disturbed by my affections, and possibly the drool marks I was leaving on his pristine display case.
“Ma’am?”
Giving the pastry one final glance of longing, I turned to him. “Just tea. Decaf because I apparently hate myself.”
Still looking nervous—maybe he was afraid I would start making out with the register next—he punched in my order, muttered off my total and then scurried off to grab me a pretty white cup and fill it with hot water. I set my money down and waited, all the while casting furtive peeks at the Boston cream pastry eyeing me back with a seductive, chocolaty glaze that all but whispered all the ways it could make me feel muy mucho goodo because that was how all my dirty fantasies started—with my food sounding like Antonio Banderas.
My water and teabag were set on the counter and nudged towards me the way lions were fed at the zoo—with a long stick poking their meals in under a steel cage door. Only the stick was his finger and the counter was the only thing keeping him safe from my all out crazy. My money was swept into a sweaty palm and tossed carelessly into the register. The drawer was slammed shut. Then there was nothing left for me to do but leave. Yet my weakness took that moment to nearly win; I started to open my mouth to order the pastry anyway, to portray that fuck it attitude I only pretended I possessed. But who was I kidding? It would never be just the one and my ass could do without the extra pounds.
Dejected, I took my disgusting drink and shuffled off to find a table somewhere within the air conditioned heaven. No one wanted to sit outside when it was hot enough to fry bacon. But most of the tables in the small café were full by drone-eyed squatters slumped over their laptops and cappuccinos.
Bastards.
Moving quickly down the line leading all the way to the door, I bee-lined for the only available table out on the shaded patio. My scalding water sloshed in the cup, but stayed stubbornly within the confines of the ceramic.
The moment I shouldered open the doors, I knew I’d made a mistake getting tea; it was just too damn hot.
I glanced back over my shoulder at the line. Nope. No way was I standing in that death trap a second time, not even for a Frappuccino with whipped cream and chocolate syrup, which was what I had originally gone in to get, except the beautifully athletic woman ahead of me had ordered a soy, low fat, no foam, something-something-something latte and the guilt had been too much. When the boy had fixed me with those judgy little eyes, I had balked and let myself be swayed by peer pressure and shame.
Resigned, I went to the table and sat. I stuffed my purse into the seat next to me and wondered how to drink my tea without sweating to death. I started by dropping my teabag into the water and watching as dark tendrils escaped and tainted the clear liquid. I adjusted my glasses as they began to slide down my sweaty nose and squinted at all the blinding brightness around me.
The café sat in the middle of a semi busy street catering mostly to restaurants and coffee shops and the occasional art studio. I wasn’t normally a coffee drinker and art made no sense to me, but I liked people. More importantly, I liked watching them … secretly … from a very great distance so as not to have to interact. People fascinated me. The things they did half the time made me question just how much chemicals and hormones really went into our food. But the problem with the artsy part of town was that it was very shiny. Everything gleamed. There were lights everywhere and everyone was dressed in bold, flashy colors that hurt the brain.
Me, in my long black skirt and baggy blouse melded with the décor. I could never pull off bold and sexy. Hell, I couldn’t even pull off one of those. Most days, my face would be lucky to see makeup, just because it was time taken away from something less pointless. No guy that didn’t require coke bottle glasses would ever look in my direction twice. Everything about me was all the things most men never noticed in a woman, unless they were into lobotomizing their dates. I just didn’t have the right looks to get men excited. It was a fact I had come to accept. Me and my lowly little decaf cup of tea.
“Rats!”
The exclamation was followed by the ripping sound of paper and the thud of things striking pavement. I twisted around in my seat just as an elderly man dropped down next to his torn bag of groceries. Pedestrians flocked around him, parting like the Red Sea to avoid stepping on him, or his things. But no one stopped to give him a hand as he scrambled to scoop items off the ground.
Abandoning my untouched drink, I hurried from my seat and dropped down next to him. My hands closed around a bag of apples, a tray of fresh chicken breasts and several cans of corn. I hugged them to my chest as he dumped his armload into the torn paper bag.
“Here,” I said, pulling the bag to me and emptying my things inside as well.
There was a stalk of celery and a carton of eggs that had upended on the sidewalk. I managed to salvage the celery. But the eggs had already begun to sizzle against the concrete.
“I think your eggs are toast,” I told him, stuffing the celery into the bag. “Or fried eggs, I guess.”
The man sighed. “Figures. That’s what I get for getting them free range eggs for about ten dollars more.”
It was a struggle not to laugh at the disgruntled huff.
“I think I have a plastic bag in my purse,” I said instead. “We might be able to fit all of this into it.”
Taking the bag from him, I walked back to my table and dragged my purse over. I opened the first pocket and rummaged inside.
The man shuffled up beside me and whistled. “Now, I’ve seen some crazy purses women carry around, but that right there is a doozy.”
My purse really was unique. When I first found it, it had only had the one big pocket and the one tiny pocket sewn into the inside. By the time I finished with it, it had about twenty pockets in various shapes and sizes and they all carried something. I had everything from a tiny sewing kit, to a paperback novel nestled inside. There were packets of tissue, gum, a small set of screw drivers, several zip ties, different sizes of Ziploc bags. and even a flashlight. I had everything a person could possibly need for just about any occasion. Because of all that, the bag was actually kind of heavy, which came in handy if I ever had to hit someone, which hadn’t happened yet, but I was hopeful.
“I like being prepared,” I told him. “Here we go!” Shaking out the plastic bag, I slid the paper one into it and held it out to the man. “There you are.”
The man squinted at me with one brown eye. The other one was screwed shut against the sun and he had to cup a gnarled hand over his brows to see me properly.
He had to be in his late seventies with big, child-like eyes and a kind face that immediately made a person like him. What little hair he had was combed over the wide bald patch on his head and looked as fine as a baby’s. His frail body was tucked into a pair of beige trousers and a checkered top that was buttoned all the way to his throat.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Still holding the bag, I smiled. “Alison Eckrich.” I held out my free hand. “Everyone calls me Ali.”
He took it in a surprisingly firm handshake. “Earl Madoc.” He let my hand go and squinted some more. “Listen, Ali, you wouldn’t mind helping an old man get his groceries home, would you? My arthritis is just killing me today.” He rubbed his contorted hand, working the stiff muscles with a grimace deepening his wrinkles. “I live about a block down that way. I would pay you for your troubles.”
I waved away the offer. I was done with the whole fresh air thing and would have probably gone home anyway. Walking him would have been no skin off my nose, especially since he was walking in the same general direction.
I grabbed my purse, threw the strap around my shoulders, and took up his bag of groceries once more.
“Lead the way, Earl.”
Offering me a kind smile, he started forward at a shuffle-limp, like his right leg had been injured at some point and hadn’t recovered properly. I wasn’t sure if that was the case, or if it was just age, but I wondered why he didn’t walk with a cane if it hurt him as much as it seemed to. I didn’t ask. I figured whatever the reason was, it was his business.
We walked in silence for several steps and stopped at the lights.
“So what do you do, Ali Eckrich?” Earl asked as the lights changed and we started across.
“I am currently between jobs,” I replied around a tight curl of my lips. “I just moved here, so actually I’m kind of still looking.”
“No kidding.” He scratched his jaw dusted with a fine layer of white bristle. The sound reminded me of sandpaper. “Where did you move from?”
“Portland, Oregon,” I answered.
Earl’s eyes went wide. “An American!”
I laughed. “No, I was only there for school. I’m originally from Alberta.”
“What did you study?”
I pulled in a breath that smelled of fried hotdogs from the cart we passed and asphalt from the construction crew working on the roads a street down.
“I have my bachelor’s degree in business administration.”
Earl whistled through his teeth. “That’s fancy.”
“Four years,” I confessed.
“And they didn’t teach that here at the schools in Canada?”
I laughed at that. It was the same comment I got from my sister when I initially got accepted to the University of Portland. But at least she had known the real reason behind my need to get as far away from home as possible. Earl didn’t need to and I didn’t need to tell him.
“It was a growing experience,” I said, using my fall back response to most things.
“So you’re good with the books and things of a business.”
I shrugged. “Yes, and marketing and finances.”
“Interesting.” He scratched his jaw again. “Do you know anything about filing?”
“Filing?”
“Organizing,” he corrected.
I had to shrug at that. “I guess. Depends on what it is.”
We turned a corner and started down Pine Street. For a split second, I almost stopped, thinking I was inadvertently leading the poor guy back to my house. But Earl kept shuffling onward and I hurried to keep up.
“I just moved to this street,” I said. “My apartment is further down.”
“Yeah? My grandson did, too,” Earl said.
I started to ask where, when Earl veered left, hobbling his way towards a large, badly painted building that was impregnating the whole street with a powerful stench of motor grease, metal, and sweat. The rusty sign bolted over the trio of wide garage doors spelled, Madoc Auto Body Repair. The bay doors were all open to the bright afternoon. Two were empty. The middle one had a car hoisted on a lift. A man in a blue jumpsuit stood in the trench underneath with a handheld work light.
“It’s all right,” Earl called out to me when he realized I wasn’t following him. “This here has been in the family for near four generations.”
Curiosity perked, I knuckled my glasses back up the bridge of my nose and shuffled after him. Up close, the smell did not improve.
The man beneath the Pontiac banged on the underside of the car with a wrench; the sound swallowed the hum of jazz spilling from the boom box perched on the red toolbox next to the car. I watched him even as I followed Earl up a set of stairs built into the side of the garage, leading into what appeared to be an office cut out of gray stone slabs. It was impossible to tell what was hidden beneath the towers of paper that were layered over every available flat surface. There was another set of doors straight across, painted a harsh yellow that led to what looked like stairs going up. Earl stopped at the bottom, gripping the railing bolted into the side and leaned against the wall, his face flushed.
“The kitchen is straight up,” he panted slightly. “I’d show you, but that heat just about did me in and I can’t trust myself on them stairs right now.”
Concerned by the sheen of sweat glistening across his brow, I tossed a frantic glance over the room. I caught sight of a swiveling chair poking out from beneath the papers and hurried over to it. The wheels grated against the concrete as I shoved it to where Earl half slumped against the wall.
“Here.” I guided him into it. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you some water?”
Earl smiled at me. “You are such a sweet little thing.”
“Will you be okay if I run up?”
He waved me away as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Not wanting to leave him alone for longer than I had to, I hurried up the stairs, grocery bag in tow. At the top, I paused as the loft-style space came into view. The layout was straightforward with a bedroom set in one corner beneath a grand, bay window. At the foot of it, was a sitting area equipped with a leather sofa, recliner and TV. Across from that was a kitchenette and a bathroom on my right. I moved towards the kitchen. I ran the tap and occupied myself by shoving the groceries into the fridge while I waited for the water to get cold.
“Who are you?”
The pack of chicken breasts slipped out of my hands with my undignified squeak of fright and hit the top of my sandaled foot. I whirled around to confront the sudden explosion of words from behind me. The booming voice was male, but it was the volume of it, the sheer weight behind the sound that prickled the skin along my spine. My hand trembled as I fidgeted with my glasses, shoving them back into place so the dark, blurry shadow looming mere feet away could come into focus.
I wasn’t blind. I could see most things without my glasses. They just weren’t very clear. Everything had a fuzzy hue around the edges. Kind of like a smudged pastel painting, exaggerating the shapes and size of people.
This guy was not exaggerated.
No less than seven feet with a frame that was clearly stolen from some lumberjack catalogue, he stood blocking my escape. I mean, I could have maybe done some crazy ninja lunge over the counter, but that probably wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I stood there, slack-jawed, staring at the mountain man glowering back at me with a suspicion one would normally reserve for diamond thieves and those bitches who steal all the bikes at the gym just to sit and talk to each other.
He wore flannel, which only made my lumberjack theory all the more plausible. It was undone over a white t-shirt and form fitting jeans that hugged his lean legs the way I kind of wanted to. The hems fell over battered and really ugly boots that needed an incinerator to put them out of their misery and were frayed around the cuffs. His chest strained beneath the thin material with every breath and my gaze was drawn to the hard squares cut of his breast plates and along the wide lengths of his shoulders. The sleeves on the flannel were rolled up his toned forearms and barely concealed the raw muscles underneath.
Definitely a lumberjack.
Shit the man was hot. Screw Boston cream pastries. I’ll take two of him.
“Hello?”
Blinking, my eyes shot up to the head attached to that delicious body and my steamy fantasy bubble popped.
Thick, black hair covered his jaw and mouth in a beard. His hair was the same shade of ebony and hung uncut around his ears and over the collar of his flannel. From amongst all that hair, I could just make out piercing, intense gray eyes.
“Really?” I blurted in clear disappointment, my brain and mouth having lost communication at some point.
It was his turn to blink in surprise. He leaned over and snapped the faucet off with a smack of his palm.
“What?”
There was no helping it. My whole day was officially ruined and it was his fault.
Okay, I had no problem with men with facial hair. Sometimes, it was even hot. But not when it looked like he was going for a yearlong expedition through the Himalayan Mountains, or planned to live with bears out in the wilderness. There was a reason trimmers and razors were invented. And … Goddamn it! The dude was too hot for that shit.
“Are you lost?” he demanded when I could only stand there and silently judge him.
“I don’t know! Maybe you could loan me a compass!” I shot back. “Or a hatchet.” So I was just being crazy and I almost couldn’t blame him for his confounded scowl. I took a deep breath. “I’m Ali,” I said calmly and rationally. “I—”
“Gabriel?” Earl limped up the stairs, clutching tight to the banister until he was at the top. He looked better, I noted. The flush was gone from his face and he wasn’t panting. “I didn’t know you were here.”
Gabriel turned to the other man.
“Really?” I was amazed at how much that single question sounded like mine, full of indignant disapproval. “She’s not even half your age.”
I had not seen that coming.
“Whoa! Wait. What?”
I was ignored.
“Why do they keep getting younger?” he demanded of Earl. “You’re going to break a damn hip … again, and I’m going to have to listen while you explain to the doctor how you broke the fucking thing … again! You’re eighty years old, Grandpa!” Gabriel then rounded on me. “He’s eighty years old!”
“Dude!” I began, putting both hands up to ward off the craziness he was spewing. “I am not tapping that.” I winced and shot Earl a sheepish smile. “No offense.” I went back to glowering at Lumberjack. “So his hip is perfectly safe with me.”
Gabriel looked me over. Actually looked me over with a disbelief that was astounding. Did I have old man hooker stamped to my forehead, or something? Like seriously? I was insulted … and then he added salt to my injuries.
“I guess,” he mumbled. “Did he forget to return a book, or something? I didn’t know the library did house calls.”
How. The. Fuck. Did I go from being a hooker, to a librarian in the span of two seconds?
“Ali was kind enough to help me with my groceries,” Earl piped in before I could kick his lovely grandson in the family jewels.
Swooping down, I hefted up the pack of chicken still lying at my feet and shoved it into his gut with all the force in me. His grunt of pain was only mildly satisfying.
“I accept apologizes in written form only,” I growled through my teeth. “I like to file them under Fuckhead.”
With that, I stomped around him and started for the stairs.
“Ali, wait.” Earl hurried after me, and I only stopped for him. Otherwise, I was ready to make my grand exit, stage left. “Don’t mind Gabriel. His mother drank while she was pregnant.”
“Grandpa!”
He ignored his grandson, which amused me. I was really beginning to like Earl. Enough to sleep with him? Uh, no. But definitely enough to want to give him a high five.
“I still owe you for helping me with my groceries.”
I shook my head. “Really it’s fine. I have to get home anyway and continue the job hunt. But it was wonderful to meet you.”
“Actually!” Earl grabbed my hand before I could leave. “That’s exactly what I want to do.”
I frowned. “You want to help me job hunt?”
“Yes and no,” he answered with a chuckle. “We need someone with your expertise here at the shop and you need a job. I think we can help each other out.”
“What are you doing, Grandpa?” Gabriel demanded.
“I’m getting this place an administrative assistant,” Earl retorted. “Someone who knows how to do the books and filing, because apparently you got my brains when it comes to paperwork.”
Gabriel scowled. The guy was a professional scowler. I could tell. He was very good at his job.
“We’re doing fine,” he grumbled.
“Have you seen the office, Gabriel?” Earl countered. “I found a form the other day dating back to when the shop was first opened. We need the help.”
Gabriel seemed to chew this bit of information over, possibly literally. His face-bush kept twitching. Either that, or some unsuspecting rodent had made a home beneath that jungle.
“Fine. I’ll call someone,” he replied. “There has to be an agency, or—”
“Why when Ali’s right here?” Earl said, waving a hand at me.
Those smolderingly gray eyes darted to me and narrowed even further if possible. “You met the girl two minutes ago. How do you know she’s any good? Besides, she barely looks old enough to be out of school.”
Yeah, this guy and I would never be friends. He made me want to stab him, repeatedly, with something pointy and rusty. That didn’t make for very good friendship.
“I graduated with my bachelors last year,” I informed him sharply. “And spent the last ten months interning at one of the biggest ad companies in Portland. Trust me, I am very good at what I do.”
“And I am a very good judge of character,” Earl added. “I like Ali and since this is still my shop, I’m hiring her.”
Gabriel stared hard at his grandfather. “That’s not how this works. You need references and—”
“I’m not an idiot, Gabriel!” Earl snapped. “I’ve been doing this since before you were born. But she’s the one I want.”
It didn’t even dawn on me that I had just accepted a job at a garage. At that moment, all I wanted was to rub it in Gabriel’s smug little face. Then it hit me.
“Wait, you’re giving me a job?”
Gabriel threw his hands up. “Observant.”
I opened my mouth to tell him I was ten different belts of crazy and not afraid to use all of them on him if he kept pushing me, but Earl touched my arm.
“If you want it,” he said kindly. “It might not be all fancy, but you can start tomorrow. Bring your papers and Gabriel will go over them.”
With that, and a pat on my shoulder, he shuffled back down the stairs, leaving me alone with Mountain Man.
“Are you sleeping with him?”
Unbelievable.
“I don’t sleep with men to get what I want, Jack,” I snapped. “I’m perfectly capable of getting through life without offering my taco to every man that walks my way.”
That seemed to silence him. He watched me like I was some endangered species that just made no sense. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I wasn’t there for his approval. I certainly didn’t want it.
But, at the same time, I did need a job. After three months of unemployment, my savings had begun to grow a happy family of dust bunnies and I didn’t know when I would get another offer like that. Besides, it would only be temporary. I could watch my mouth and temper for a few months.
Gabriel turned his full attention on me, which meant not just his eyes, or his head, but his entire body so we were facing off. I hated that he was taller than me. Pretending to be a bad ass took extra effort when you were stuck glowering at a beautiful man chest.
“My grandfather is eighty years old,” he told me again in a deep, quiet tone. “He’s trusting of pretty faces, but I’m not. I may not have any say in who he hires, but that sure as hell won’t stop me from booting you out of here if I smell even a hint of foul play.”
“What exactly do you think I’m after?” I wondered. “And what exactly does foul play smell like?”
His gaze roamed along my frame, taking in everything from the chipped, purple nail polish on my toes to the messy knot that was my hair bun. I wasn’t sure which of that irritated him more, because his frown never shifted. He seemed to disapprove of all of me.
“Look,” I said, struggling to keep my calm when all I wanted to do was throat punch the guy for making me feel about two inches tall with just a look. “I get it. You think a woman doesn’t belong in a garage.”
“You’re right,” he said evenly. “That’s exactly what I think.”
It took me a full second to peel my jaw off the floor.
“That is the most sexist thing I have ever—”
“Do you know what women are, Ali? A liability,” he went on, ignoring my irate sputtering. “They come into a place and destroy it with the two ton bag of drama they heave around. I don’t like drama. And I don’t like trouble, which is exactly what you are.”
Any other time, any other person and I would have taken that as a compliment. As it were, his condescending bullshit pissed me off.
“And how am I trouble?” I bite out with all the composure I could scrounge up. “Is it the glasses, because I can vouch for their character?” His eyes narrowed, but I didn’t give a shit. “You know, this is why women don’t feel comfortable bringing their cars in to get checked, because of assholes like you who treat them like they’re braindead and unworthy of a fair exchange. You think just because we’re women and may not know as much about vehicles as men that we’re somehow less superior to you. Well, you know what, Jack, you can keep your fucking job. I wouldn’t work for you, with you, near you if you paid me in gold bricks.”
Whirling on my heels, I left.
I walked out of the garage without running into Earl. I briefly wondered if I should find him and thank him for the generous offer that I needed to decline, but thought better of it. I needed to get away from that asshole before I did something I might not regret later.
My apartment was a two block walk from the garage, tucked behind a towering wall of spruce trees. It sat nestled on a slight incline surrounded by Victorian homes and other smaller apartments. Mine was one of the older structures. The red brick was faded and chipped in places and the windows were the enormous panes used in lofts, but the rent was cheap and I liked the view.
The building itself had originally been two separate structures with six stories each. At some point, someone had connected the pair by a wall on either end, leaving a narrow gap in between that opened into a courtyard that was never used because realistically, it was a squished alley someone spruced up with flowerboxes. I could easily leap from my balcony into the apartment across the way … if I was Cat Woman, or a burglar. As it were, I was neither and had no desire to leap into an empty apartment. But the thing I did like to do was occasionally stand by the terrace doors and watch the lives of the people in the other building. As a person who lived on the sixth floor, dead center, I had the perfect angle to see most of what was going on in the other suites. Call me crazy, or a pervert, but most people in my position would do the same, especially since there was nowhere else to look, except to maybe count the bricks on the building. My neighbors were much more interesting.
I have always liked watching. I like seeing how people interact and behave alone and in groups. I like wondering what they’re talking about and what they’re thinking. As a child, I was the lone kid on the playground, the one that said nothing, but stared at the others as they ran and played. I was okay with that. I never cared that I wasn’t picked for teams, or asked to play skip rope. While I wasn’t some creepy shut in that liked collecting strands of my classmate’s hairs to make dolls, I didn’t go out of my way to make friends either. I still don’t. Friends are great, except I never know what to do with them. I see other people and it all seems so natural. They laugh and talk and make plans to talk and laugh some more at a later date. I would probably throw a fry at them and hope they were distracted enough not to notice me running away.
So I stayed home. When I did have to interact, I did so cautiously and tried not to make any sudden movements. Occasionally, I could even have full on conversations with people without anyone getting hurt. But I liked my solitary life. I cherished it even.
My apartment was designed by someone with no concept of measurements. Everything was done in extremes. The living room was barely big enough for a sofa, while the only bedroom was enormous. The kitchen was small, but the single bathroom could fit an entire Russian circus. The closet in the hall could have doubled as a second bedroom if it hadn’t been so narrow, while the pantry in the kitchen could barely hold a stack of towels. I was only thankful no one ever came to visit me or it would have been hard to explain why my bedroom was in the living room and why my living room was in my bedroom, or why all my food was in the closet down the hall near the bathroom and my towels were in my kitchen. It all worked fine for me, but I knew it wasn’t normal.
Tossing my keys and purse onto the glass table I kept by the front door, I kicked off my sandals and made my way into the bedroom. It was a short walk down a minute hall that split off in three separate directions. Right to the kitchen. Left to the living room and bathroom, and straight for the bedroom. My toes curled in the plush carpet that extended from wall to wall. Underneath it was the scarred hardwood that came with the place. But after a week of waking up to use the bathroom and having to tiptoe on what felt like a sheet of ice, I said screw it and splurged on a carpet. Best investment ever.
My bedroom was my favorite spot in the whole place and it showed. It was designed for comfort and easy access to everything. My queen sized bed faced the TV I had mounted over a glass set of shelves holding my DVD player and surround sound. On one side of the bed was my mini fridge. The other held an end table with a lamp and the remotes to the TV. The terrace doors were on the other side of my bed, draped in sheer curtains. On the opposite side of the room, against the wall that separated the bedroom from the kitchen was my vanity. Everything was within reach.
I stripped. I rarely saw the point of being dressed at home. There was no one there to judge me for the way I looked, or what shape I was in. It was my place of sanctuary. Plus there was something liberating about eating a cup of pudding completely naked.
At a little after six, I drew on a robe, turned off the TV and wandered into the kitchen for a bowl of something. My pantry consisted mostly of things that could easily be warmed, cans of soup, microwavable dinners, the occasional canisters of squeeze cheese. I lived for one person. Me. If I wanted to cook a full meal, I had the luxury of running to the grocery store, grabbing the items and coming home. But those desires were rare. As it were, I grabbed a bowl of cereal and made my way to the terrace.
Seven o’clock was when my neighbors came home. It was when the dark windows lit up and life happened on the other side of the glass. I treated seven o’clock the way soap opera junkies treated their favorite sitcoms, with reverence and excitement.
The steel hoops embedded into the curtains hissed as I dragged the sheer drapes across the metal rod. I propped the glass doors open to the muggy evening and leaned a hip against the frame.
It was still fairly bright out. The sun was just making its final descent behind the buildings, but the narrow notch of space that I considered my little world had shadows slinking their way across the bricks. The lights from the other apartments were sharper, brighter, casting the figures inside into edgy silhouettes.
There were eighteen apartments. Each floor had three windows stamped into the side. I had given each one a name, which periodically changed as the occupants did. For example, in the three months I’d lived there, no one had ever rented the apartment adjacent to mine so that had come to be known as the Empty. Levels one, two, and three were impossible to see into from my sixth floor view. So that left me four, five and six. Four was iffy. I could only see about six feet into their apartments. But five and six were gold and that was where my favorite people lived.
Window one, top row: Old Man and Young Girl I had assumed for the first three weeks were father and daughter. So. Not. I learned that the hard way while eating spicy curry and nearly dying when he heaved the girl against the glass and started fucking her.
Window two, top row: Empty.
Window three, top row: Crazy Jungle Couple who fought like piranha’s over fresh meat and made love just as intensely. They were better to watch than WWE on pay per view. I always had popcorn ready for when they got home. It was impossible to tell how the night would end.
Window one, second row: an Asian Couple with Little Girl. Watching them made me nostalgic for my own family, but then the girl would cry and throw things and that feeling would go away.
Window two, second row: Slutty Blonde with copious number of lovers. That week, she was banging the occupant of window three, second row, Handsome Dark Haired Dude with a beer belly but a seriously massive cock.
Row three was full of families.
Window one, row three: Single Mother with Little Boy. I would occasionally see him sitting at the window with his hand held game, munching on carrot sticks.
Window two, row three: Man and Woman with Twin Ghost Daughters. I was convinced those two girls were from The Shining. Creepy little shits. Every so often, I would look down and they’d just be standing there … staring back. Not blinking. It made it even creepier that they were both extremely pale with dead eyes and long dark hair. I shuddered every time my gaze roamed over their window.
Window three, row three: Large, Hairy Man with a deeper love of microwavable food than me, who spent a large portion of his time in his recliner watching football. I had a feeling he was a gambler, simply from the fits he’d always have when his team lost. It was irrational. But then what did I know about men and sports? Maybe he just had rage issues. Yet that didn’t explain why he’d get on the phone immediately afterwards and shout at whoever was on the other end. But that also could be explained. Maybe he had a friend somewhere else equally pissed and the two were venting to each other.
The fun was always in the guessing.
That evening, only three of the windows lit up. Old Man and Hopefully Not His Daughter came home first. She sauntered into the living room, tossed her bright, pink purse down on the sofa and flopped down next to it. Old Man ambled his way into the kitchen and yanked open the fridge.
No fucking tonight, I thought, shifting my gaze to the other two windows.
The Ghost Girls were back in their lacy, purple dresses, white stockings and jet black hairs. They stood shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the window. Their dad was hanging up their matching red coats in the hallway closet. Mom wasn’t home yet. She was a secretary, or a lawyer. She didn’t get home until about eleven, stooped over like her briefcase was filled with bricks.
The third window gave me a start. The presence of the pale, golden glow took my brain a full minute to process and even it knew something wasn’t right.
Window two, top row: wasn’t empty. There was movement behind the curtains. There was light!
“Holy shit!”
Cereal bowl abandoned on the glass table next to the terrace doors, I stepped further onto the balcony. My fingers curled around the cool metal railing and I leaned in as far as I could without forgetting my not Cat woman notion and making the lunge over.
But as quickly as all the excitement had started, it sparked in surprise when the light flicked off and there was nothing. My gaze darted from the windows to the glass doors, waiting like an eager little puppy begging someone to throw the fucking ball already.
Nothing happened. The lights remained off. Stillness continued.
My gaze narrowed as I straightened. “All right,” I mumbled to the silence. “You win this round, but tomorrow…”
I let my promise linger into the night as I stepped back into my apartment.



Airicka Phoenix is a hopeless romantic with a dark imagination and an incurable addiction to chocolate. She is also the author of several novels written for young adult and new adult romance readers who like bad boys, hot kisses and a gritty plot. Airicka prides herself in producing quality material her readers can fall in love with again and again.

When she's not hard at work bleeding words onto paper, Airicka can be found cuddling with her family, reading, watching TV shows, or just finding excuses to avoid doing chores.

To find out about upcoming books, teasers, giveaways and more, join her newsletter or check out her www.AirickaPhoenix.com!:

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