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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Weight of Magic

by Robin Weaver
Nicki trembled as she traced the golden lettering with her fingertips; the last time she’d opened the book, she’d killed her parents.
Nana had warned, “Be careful about wishes.”  But little Nicki couldn’t help wishing she lived with her grandmother.  After all, Nana was alone in her rambling old Colonial and her parents were so consumed with each other, they rarely noticed Nicki.  When Mom and Dad died a month later, she did indeed move in with her grandmother.  Only she didn’t go to her beloved Nana, she went to live with her other grandmother.

Fourteen years later, she’d earned a scholarship at a university near Nana’s house and even before she settled into her dorm, she had ridden her bike two miles to the hospital for a joyous reunion.  When visiting hours were over, Nicki pedaled the extra two miles to the old Victorian and made the trek up the stairs to Nana’s attic.  She’d started to leave when she noticed that some of the books had fallen, so she bent down, intending to return them to the shelf when she discovered the large volume lying behind the others.  Her throat closed, and she struggled to breathe.  She'd found the book with the hole.  Again.  The book that killed her parents.

She pulled the heavy hardcover from its hiding place, dislodging other books as she did so. She studied the gilded title, Book of Magic.  She’d been unable to read the last time she held the book.

Pushing the book away, she remembered how she’d shrank when Nana’s gaze appraised her at the hospital.  She felt heavier than ever with the extra forty pounds she carried and believed her own nose, and its pronounced hump, had overshadowed their special get-together.  She felt embarrassed as her once beautiful grandmother ran a wrinkled yet still soft hand over her sallow, blemished cheek.

Her grandmother had whispered, “You’ll always be lovely.”  The old woman had chuckled. “It was your birthday, last week, so that means you can have a wish.  But only one.”

Nicki had been stunned.  She’d expected her grandmother to dismiss her childish superstitions and tell her the book wasn’t real.  She’d carried the guilt of her parent’s death too long.

“And, honey, don’t be greedy.”  After that, her grandmother dozed.

Nicki’s hands still trembled but she opened the cover anyway, discovering the crude square area where someone cut a hole in the pages.  She started to slam the book closed when she remembered her grandmother’s words, “Don’t be greedy.”
“Maybe one small wish wouldn’t hurt.”  She placed her hand into the hole and chanted, “I wish I were thin.”  Her hand felt like it had been licked by flames, but she berated her imagination, “I’m chemistry major, not some little girl who believes in magic.”  She restacked the books and then pedaled back to school.
During the next months, she visited her Nana whenever she could and by the last day of the semester, the old woman had recovered enough to return home.  Nicki went to say her goodbye.  “I will see you in the fall, Nana.”
Her eyes teared, but the elderly woman smiled, “You will indeed child.”

Nana pushed a package at her and she protested, knowing her grandmother didn’t have enough money to buy presents.  The bag held a new pair of jeans and a short little shirt—the kind Nicki could never wear and the kind grandmothers didn’t buy.  She gave Nana a kiss of thanks but she intended to return the items and put the money in Nana’s secret jar.

“Try them on.” 

Her grandmother smiled.  Nicki swallowed, desperate for an excuse to forgo the fashion show.  She would never fit into the skinny little clothes.  Nana laughed, as if reading her mind, and pushed her toward the bathroom.

Nicki took the shirt and pulled it over her head hoping it would stretch, but to her amazement, the shirt fit.  Like Angelina Jolie’s tank top.  In a trance, she slipped on the pants and easily pulled the zipper to the top.  She ran from the bathroom to stare at her reflection in the antique standing mirror.

“Good Lord.  I’m thin.”

Over the summer, she had decided the bike riding, not the Book of Magic, had sculpted her hot new figure.  When she returned to college, she decided to prove that the book was just a book.  She had difficulty finding the leather-covered hardback in Nana’s attic.  Someone had moved the book to another shelf, tucking it under a large dictionary.  Almost as if the mystery person wanted to hide it.  She wished for a pretty nose, knowing that wish couldn’t possibly come true.

During the week before Christmas break, her roommate, a pre-med student had an unusual request. “I don’t mean to offend you, but my boyfriend is a cosmetic surgeon doing his internship.  He needs to do a rhinoplasty…”

When Nicki started her junior year, she hesitated about making another wish.  Although pleased with her hotness and her fabulous new nose, wishing on the book had also made her an orphan.  Eventually, she wished her skin looked better.  Her new roommate sold skin care products to make extra money, and wonder of wonders, her acne disappeared.

When Nicki was a senior, Nana’s health began to fail.  Feeling that she might soon be alone, Nicki wished, hesitantly, for someone to love her.  She’d rather have Nana—no need to be greedy.

After placing her hand in the hole for the fifth time, she rushed back to campus.  With exactly fifteen minutes to spare.  She’d scheduled a meeting with Professor James about a summer internship and couldn’t be late.

She chained her bike and rushed into the classroom for the planned appointment.  A man—not the professor—squatted in front of an audio-visual control panel, clicking and re-clicking buttons.  A red polo shirt strained over broad shoulders.  Nicki jerked her gaze upward when she realized she stared at the stranger’s butt.  He was definitely not the professor.

“You’re late.”

She blinked, wondering if the man spoke to her.  “Excuse me.  I was looking for Professor James.

“He’s decided to take a sabbatical.  I’m doing your interview.”

How could he possibly know who “she” was?  The arrogant nimrod hadn’t even glanced in her direction.

“And you’re late.”

And you’re rude.  “No, I’m not.  She glanced at her watch, realizing Mr. Rude was correct.  By three whole minutes.

He finally looked up from the equipment to scowl at her.  And what a glorious scowl.  She tried to remember where she’d seen him, but could barely remember her own name.  Pheromones seemed to dance in the air, pulling her toward the gorgeous man.  His full lips projected the word “kissable” and despite the frown, his brown eyes danced with a come-hither expression that was surely illegal.

“Have a seat.”

“What?”  Focus.  She sucked in a breath, determined to ignore his dimples and get the internship—a research position she’d more than earned.

“Have a seat.  A.k.a. put your butt in a chair.”

She looked around the lecture hall.  “Here?”

“Sure.”  He grinned.

His unexpected smile made her knees wobbly.  And made her rethink her refusal to sit down.

He stared at her.  She stared back.  Not liking him but loving the view.  “Do I know you?”

“Probably not, but you should.  I was Dr. James’s TA.  When you took his class last year.”

She studied him, wondering how she’d missed a hunk like him.  Probably because he was out of her league.  Guys like him dated beauty queens or women who wanted to save the rain forests.

So are you still a teaching assistant?”

He grinned at her.  “No.  Got my doctorate last week.  I’m taking over Dr. James classes.  And his research.”

The man looked too smug.  That didn’t bode well for her.

“Eh…do you want to see my resume?”

He shook his head, still smiling.  “Not necessary.  You’re not getting the job.”

“Excuse me.”  Anger boiled over, dousing her attraction.  “Why not?  Because I’m three minutes late?”

She blinked.  Was he really still smiling?  After ruining her summer?

“Then why am I not getting the internship?  Because I don’t remember you?”

“No.  Although that is a serious offense.  Don’t worry.  I’ve reviewed your application and recommended you to Professor Markson.  She’s doing similar research and has agreed to hire you.”

Nicki blinked again, wondering if she’d fallen into an alternate universe.  Professor Markson’s project had been her first choice, but she’d been told there were no openings.

“Thanks, I think.  But would you mind telling me why I’m not getting this internship?”

He walked over and sat on the arm of the chair across the aisle from hers.  When he leaned forward, he smelled of fresh laundry and spice and all things male.  Nice.
“Campus policy, Ms. Tremont.”

She resisted the urge to blink again.  “Campus policy?”

He nodded.  “Of course.  If I hire you, campus policy says I can’t ask you out.”


A month before Nicki started working on her Master’s degree, her grandmother went back into the hospital for surgery.  While she and her new man waited in the recovery room, she told him about the book.  Naturally, he was a non-believer.  “Nicki, sweets, you did all those things yourself.  There was no magic involved.  Just hard work. ”  He winked at her.  “Although some people might think I had a magic wand to conjure up a beauty like you.”

Her grandmother opened her eyes and Nicki rushed to her side.  “Nana, I’m going to make my wish a little early this year.”  There was only one thing she wanted.

Nana shook her head.  “No child, I’m ready to go.”

“So the book…”

Just before the doctors ushered them out, Nicki thought Nana said, “It’s the believing.”

A week later, the boyfriend accompanied her to Nana’s funeral.  She wasn’t as devastated as she had expected.  She felt Nana’s beloved spirit watching over her and she knew the boyfriend was here to stay.  She looked at the horde of cousins, seeing her relatives with new eyes.  Why wasn’t she surprised to find that they looked much better, thinner, and richer than she remembered.

 Copyright © 2012 by Robin Weaver

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Scandalous Deed

 by Christy Carlyle
“I haven’t the time for loneliness.” Lucien lied easily, ignoring the look Marcus shot him in that moment. He loathed the pity he would find there.  
A fracas near the gallery’s entry hall was a welcome distraction. He craned his neck to spot the cause as shouts mingled with cries of outrage.
A woman. A bluestocking, more like, wearing a prim black skirt, plain white shirtwaist and spectacles perched on her nose, was pushing her way through the crowd of women in evening gowns and men in black tails. She looked like a magpie wreaking havoc amongst the canaries, though her hair was as striking in color as any of the finery around her. A rich shade of chestnut, it was arranged in a severe style atop her head. Mercifully, several rebellious strands had escaped and hung down around her shoulders. Lucien couldn’t help but notice how the strands shone like burnished gold in the gaslight.
As he watched the woman’s progress, a gentleman grabbed at her roughly and an uncommon surge of chivalry made Lucien consider interceding. But in the next moment, the woman proved she needed no rescuer. Stomping on the man’s foot with her booted heel, she moved easily out of his grasp and continued on her path. A path that seemed to lead directly to him.
For the hundredth time within the hour, Jessamine Wright called herself a fool for agreeing to Kitty Adderly’s ridiculous plan for revenge against Viscount Grimsby. It will just cause him a spot of bother, Kitty had promised. A bit of tittle tattle. A minor scandal. According to Kitty, it was a comeuppance the arrogant lord richly deserved. Jessamine could not consider whether it was right or wrong. She simply needed the money Kitty offered.
Initially, she made her way into the gallery without notice, but within moments a lady had questioned her. Then the woman’s fat husband had stepped in and it all turned into a ruckus before she had even done what she’d come to do. The deed itself shouldn’t take long, she thought. A quick peck on the mouth - Kitty had insisted that she kiss the man on the lips - and it would all be over.  
He was there at the end of the gallery, as far from the entrance as he could possibly be.  Mina continued through the gamut and a man snatched at her arm. Unthinking, she stepped on his foot and he spluttered and cursed but released her.  
Lord Grimsby saw her now. She was certain of it. His dark head was turned her way. Tall and broad shouldered, he towered over the man and woman beside him. And he did look grim, as cold and uncongenial as Kitty had described.
Jessamine moved quickly through the crowd, eyes down, avoiding his gaze. Then she was before him.  Only inches separated them. She met his eyes and found them glaring down at her. Glaring and blue. Shockingly clear blue eyes. His brows formed a vee as he frowned at her as he might a fly that had just spoiled his soup. She opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing. What explanation could she offer? 
Her thoughts scattered as she studied her objective. His lips. They were wide, well shaped but firmly set. Not as firm as stone, as Kitty would have her believe, but unyielding. Unwelcoming. She reached up to remove her spectacles and noticed that her hands were shaking. She hooked them inside the high neckline of her shirt. His eyes followed the movement of her hands, the vee burrowing deeper between his brows.
Behind her, a man shouted. “How dare you!” She felt a hand grasp at her elbow. Jessamine was pulled backwards, nearly off her feet. Then a deep, raspy male voice rang out and stopped all movement.  
“Unhand the woman. Now.” He had spoken. The stone giant. Lord Grim. He glared past her, over her head. The hand released her and his eyes found hers again. They were discerning eyes, not cold and lifeless as she’d expected.  
“Are we acquainted, madam?” The deep timbre of his voice rumbled through her, sending a shiver down her spine.  
Jessmine took a deep breath and moved closer. Lord Grimsby’s eyebrows shot up.  She had crossed the line now. Bursting uninvited into a room filled with the wealthy and titled was one thing. Pressing one’s bosom into the chest of a man with whom one was not acquainted was something else entirely.
He didn’t move away.  She had to lift onto her toes if this kiss was to be accomplished. She took a step toward him, closer, and her body swayed into his. He reached an arm out to steady her.   
A woman said his name, her voice laced with chastisement.  “Lucien.”
Placing one hand on his chest to balance herself, she stretched up on the tips of her toes and touched her lips to his.  
A shock of sensation snaked through her. His lips were not made of stone. They were warm, smooth flesh. His breathing hitched, a small gasp and then his mouth opened, responding to her. His hand slid to the small of her back and tightened there, inching her towards him. The palm of his hand was hot and firm through the layers of of her clothing. She let him take her weight. He smelled delicious. Like fresh air and a subtle, spicy cologne. There was liquor on his breath and she tasted it when she felt his tongue slide between her lips. She felt drunk, but knew the brief taste of spirits wasn’t the cause. His free hand grasped her arm. He enveloped her now, his mouth moving over hers, his arms and scent surrounding her. She felt protected and, for a moment, no longer alone.
Then the spell was broken. A woman shrieked. The sound was high, ear piercing and blessedly brief. Yet it was long enough for Mina to snap back to the moment, the scene she had created.  She pulled away from Lord Grimsby and he loosened his hold, though one hand still lay lightly on her arm. To steady her or himself? His eyes looked dazed, though his expression remained as firm and humorless as before she had kissed him. Only his eyes told her how she had affected him.  A heat there singed her skin as much as the warmth of his still rapid breath against her face. 
She was breathing hard too. They stood staring at each other while those around them clucked and fussed. Mina heard them as if from a distance. She was only aware of the man whose flavor was still on her lips. An arrogant viscount. The man she had just scandalized in public.

Friday, April 13, 2012

That Explains the Zombie

by Sarah Raplee

 “This time Mother has gone too bloody far!” Sojie Headley slammed the cellar door behind her so hard that windowpanes rattled throughout the first floor of Headley House. A hairpin slipped from her upswept curls and plinked onto the floorboards, a victim of her uncharacteristic violence.
Warmth and the heavenly aroma of breakfast cooking in the Headley kitchen enfolded her. Her stomach growled. Cookie finished spooning golden pancake batter next to hissing bacon on the wood-fired range’s hot griddle before casting a reproving glance her way.
“I’ll thank you to watch your language in my kitchen, Miss Sojie,” the tall, dark-skinned woman said. Lowering her brows with mock ferocity, she lifted her batter-covered wooden spoon and pointed it at Sojie. “Get ahold of yourself, now. What’s the missus done to rile you up?”
Heat rose in Sojie’s face at the gentle rebuke. Dredging up a modicum of common sense, she refrained from elaborating on the reason for her temper. Cookie had no idea that Mother was experimenting with a time machine in their basement.
She blew out a frustrated sigh. Why did she let Mother’s ill-conceived actions provoke her as if she were an ignorant eight-year-old instead of a young woman of eighteen?
“Please accept my apology for using inappropriate language,” she said with a rueful smile.
The older woman nodded. “Jus’ remember that buttin’ heads with your mother is no excuse to disrespect her.”
The wind’s howl had them both looking out at the storm that had raged in Portland since yesterday afternoon. The streets had no doubt turned to rivers of mud by now, making even local travel nigh unto impossible. Sojie was glad they were well-stocked with supplies.
“March sho’ came in like a lion this year,” Cookie said, shaking her head. She reached for her spatula.
Still seething, Sojie strode across the oil-clothed floor through the scullery and then lifted her long skirts to climb the servants’ stairs. Despite her promise to care for Mother until Father returned, she wanted nothing more than to be done with the woman. If she didn’t speak to Mrs. Bell immediately, surely she’d boil her top and end up on the front lawn, screeching like a deranged teakettle. Her mother’s assistant’s calm demeanor and wise counsel had soothed Sojie’s inner turmoil more than once over the years.
Mrs. Bell opened the door to her small apartment on the first knock. The clockwork privacy lock must not have been set. Whilst amazingly secure, the newfangled devices took time to undo.
The petite blond woman was dressed for the day in a serviceable brown muslin frock, but she hadn’t yet donned her laboratory coat. She looked up into Sojie’s face and her welcoming smile faded. Taking Sojie’s arm, she pulled her into the tiny, lavender-scented sitting room. A silver tea tray sat on a polished cherry table between two chairs facing the cheery fire. “Please sit down, dear. I’ll pour the tea.”
Sojie suspected she would need something stronger than tea to calm her, but she chose her usual worn blue velvet chair with Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the wooden arms. Tracing the indentations in the wood with her fingers, she waited for Mrs. Bell to pour the steaming brew into flowered china cups. Then she picked up the nearest cup and saucer and sipped carefully before launching into a description of her scientist mother’s latest escapade.
“A poor, half-grown kitten, Mrs. Bell. How could Mother justify experimenting on such a helpless creature?
Mrs. Bell pressed her pretty lips into a disapproving line, but her green eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. “It’s not as if she dissected the little animal,” Mrs. Bell said. “The kitten is fine. I examined him myself. And I wouldn’t characterize him as helpless. He’s quite energetic, in fact.” She turned her head to one side to reveal an angry red scratch marring the milky white skin of her throat.
Sojie’s stomach tightened. She set down her beverage with a clink. “Your injury only proves Mouser is not fine at all. I’ve tamed him and his brother. They’re as gentle as—as kittens, for heaven’s sake. Cookie invites them into the kitchen for a few hours a day to catch vermin. Now Mouser’s wild again. I swear he doesn’t even remember me, but Hunter is fine.”
Sojie swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “When I confronted Mother about Mouser’s change in behavior, she admitted she'd sent him forward a day in that infernal time machine, the one she was ordered to scrap. She’s secretly pursuing an illegal project, putting us all at risk. I fear this goes beyond eccentricity into the realm of madness. Her behavior has grown significantly more erratic of late, wouldn’t you agree?”
She’d a good mind to contact General Morgan herself. The general had oversight of Mother’s government-funded research. Sojie knew for a fact that the time machine project was forbidden after the accident that tore her family apart. The general had assured the family that given time, Dr. Headley and her brother, Lincoln, would reappear. Unfortunately, not even Mother could predict the date with any real accuracy. Five to eight years in the future, give or take was as close as she could come. Only more than ten years had passed since the accident with no trace of them.
Mrs. Bell gave her a considering look. Then she set down her teacup and stared into Sojie’s eyes as if searching for the answer to an unvoiced question. Goosebumps pricked Sojie’s skin.
At last, seemingly satisfied, Mrs. Bell spoke. “I’m going to tell you something that no one knows outside this house, not even the United States Government. Repeating the information outside these walls could get you or someone you love killed. Do you understand?”
Sojie blinked at the unexpected turn the conversation had taken. Then she sighed. She shouldn’t be surprised, considering this had always been a house of intrigue. “I’m sworn to secrecy. I understand.”
“You may find what I have to say disturbing, but it’s vital that you understand your mother’s motivations in attempting what we must over the next months. These experiments have far-reaching moral as well as practical implications. Things will become even more strange than usual at Headley House, and more dangerous.”
Sojie shivered at the prospect, then nodded. She needed to know what was going on.
A tap on the door made them jump. “Mum?” said a deep male voice Sojie hadn’t heard in nearly a year. Her breath quickened and her hands fisted at her sides. Jett Bell was the last person she wanted see, especially when she was already upset, but his presence offered some small comfort. He had the most analytical mind of anyone she’d ever met besides her mother. If there was to be more than the usual trouble at Headley House, they could use his help.
Mrs. Bell smiled and rose to answer the door. “Jett arrived home from University late last night. I’d hoped he would join us.”
Sojie smiled. Mrs. Bell had an uncanny ability to attract the visitors she needed whenever she wanted them. That explained Jett’s unscheduled arrival.
“Good morning, son.”
An olive-skinned young man so tall he had to duck under the lintel bent to kiss Mrs. Bell’s cheek. His physique had transformed from a boy’s into a man’s, with broad shoulders and a deep chest. Before Sojie had time to adjust to the change in his appearance, he turned his mother’s chin to examine the long, deep scratch on her neck. His black brows drew together slightly over wide-set blue eyes that flicked first to Sojie, then back to his mother.
Sojie’s ears burned. She feigned interest in the flames dancing in the fireplace. After growing up in this household, one would think Jett would look to her mother for an explanation whenever someone got hurt. Ever since the accident, he always seemed to blame her.
“It’s nothing,” Mrs. Bell said. “Come sit with us.” She returned to her seat across the small table from Sojie.
Jett folded his lanky frame into the large oak rocker by the hearth. A lock of straight raven hair fell onto his forehead. His gaze settled on Sojie’s heated face. The corners of his wide mouth lifted and he dipped his rather pointed chin. “It’s good to see you again, Miss Sojie. You are looking—” His startlingly-blue eyes moved to her hair, her lips, back to her eyes.  “—well, if a little perturbed. I hope my arrival isn’t interrupting anything?”
Startled by his sudden interest in her appearance, she searched his familiar, exotic features for clues to his wordiness. His normal greeting had always been a nod followed by her name, nothing more. Had his time at University changed his character as much as it had his appearance? It was an unsettling thought.
“I prefer to speak with both of you,” Mrs. Bell said. “What I have to tell you is information best not repeated.”
Her focus shifted to Mrs. Bell’s grave demeanor. “Rumor has it that the Prussians have developed a long-distance listening device. The less said about these matters, the better. These are dangerous times. You must both be cognizant of the risks Mrs. Headley and I are taking in attempting to find Dr. Headley and Lincoln.”
Sojie choked on her tea. Jett materialized at her side and relieved her of her cup and saucer while she continued to cough and splutter. Being Jett, he handed her his handkerchief and returned to the rocking chair as soon as he’d ascertained she would recover.
Her breathing eased and she dabbed her eyes. Had they developed a theory about what might have gone wrong in the accident? From what Mrs. Bell had said, they must have a plan of action. Dare she hope there was a possibility of finding Father and Link?
She blew her nose and balled the soiled linen in her hands.
Mrs. Bell caught her gaze and continued. “We’re all at risk. Many would kill for the plans for a working temporal vehicle, even an imperfect and dangerous prototype.”
“How can sending poor helpless creatures into the future help us find Father and Link?” Sojie said.
“You spoke of strangeness, Mum,” Jett said, locking his gaze to his mother’s. He placed his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers. “Please elaborate.”
Sojie glared at him for interrupting. He gave no indication of having noticed.
“The strangeness and the temporal travel are interrelated,” Mrs. Bell said. Her gaze dropped and for a brief moment rested on the hands she’d folded in her lap. Then she drew a deep breath and stared into the flames. “Ten years ago we found evidence that temporal travel into the future heals, and in effect re-animates newly-deceased organisms. We theorize a similar rejuvenating effect on the living, which might lead to disorientation and  quite possibly memory loss upon arrival in the future. We are continuing the line of experimentation we were pursuing when the project was canceled after the unfortunate accident.”
“That explains the kitten,” Sojie said. No wonder Mouser hadn’t recognized her. Traveling forward in time had scrambled his memory. He’d been confused and frightened and—
Sojie gasped. If Father and Link had arrived in the future as upset and bewildered as Mouser, there was no telling what they might have done or where they would have gone. But they might still be alive somewhere. Now, in the present day.
Alive! She must be grinning like a fool.
“Well,” Jett said, gripping the wooden arms of his chair and rocking forward.
She beamed at him, sure that his first-ever utterance of a meaningless word indicated he was as overjoyed as she at the prospect of finding Link and Father.
Jett glanced at her and frowned, then settled back in his chair and shook his head. “That explains the zombie.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Charity's Desire

By Paty Jager
copyright 2012

Charity looked up as Miss Vonnie ambled over to the wash tub. She’d finished the six sets of sheets and was working on the personal clothes of each girl. Her back and shoulders ached, but for the week the group camped here, Sammy and Sadie would eat more than beans and biscuits, and she would have money for more supplies to move on to the next town hiring a teacher.  Ray and Jane might not like she and the children had taken up with a group of prostitutes, but they'd run out of options. Doing laundry was better than starving.
“Charity?” Miss Vonnie’s voice startled her from her reveries.
She dried her hands on her apron and shifted away from the washboard. “Yes?”
“Mr. Jamison would like to meet you.”
Jamison.  Could the woman who turned the school board against her have changed her mind? Hope swelled in her chest. The woman’s cold eyes and even colder heart asking for proof Sadie and Sammy were her niece and nephew and not her children had speared her with mortification. She would have had to have been pregnant at fourteen to be their mother.
“Did he say why?” She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears and wiped a hand across her perspiring brow.
The older woman held up a coin.  “He gave me this to talk to you.” She grasped Charity’s hand and placed the coin in it.
“He paid to talk to me?” Anger swirled in her stomach and infused her neck and ears with heat. She peered past Miss Vonnie and nearly choked. It was the handsome man who held the door for her when she left the school after the interview. His smiling brown eyes had given her a measure of comfort after having her character attacked. Did he believe as his mother? That she was of low moral conscience.
She held the coin between her fingers, grasped her skirt in the other hand, and marched over to the man. Stopping far enough back she didn’t have to tip her head too much to look into his face, she held out the coin. “I don’t know you and you sure don’t know me if you think you have to buy my time to talk with me.”
“Charity, it was—” Miss Vonnie started, but Charity cut her off by slicing her hand through the air.
“I take it Mrs. Jamison of the Clancy school board is a relation? Did she send you here to gloat?” Charity fisted her hand on her hips and glared at Mr. Jamison. It wasn’t a hardship to keep her eyes feasting on his curly blond hair, brown eyes, and square chin.  The hard part was remaining mad while staring into his perplexed eyes.
“She’s my mother. And I didn’t come here to verify her accusations.”
She tilted her head and gave him an “I don’t believe you” snort.
“I came at my father’s request to make sure Miss Vonnie is treating our hands fairly. But I recognized you from the school and wanted to see how you’re doing.”
The honesty in his deep voice chipped away at her huff. “Why do you care?”
He smiled and her knees lost all the starch she’d shorn them up with in anger.
“Let’s just say, I like to prove my mother wrong. But…” He looked around at the scantily clad women, then cast his gaze to her wagon set off from the rest where Sammy and Sadie were playing.  “I’m thinking my mother may have been right this time.”
“How dare you!” She threw the coin at his chest and spun, stomping toward the creek. If she stood near that man any longer she was sure she’d have said something that would have confirmed his assumptions. Her mother, and later her brother-in-law, were continually cautioning her on the colorful language she’d picked up from the local boys while growing up.
Her anger took her all the way to the creek. She paced up and down the bank hidden from view of the camp. The secluded spot was where the women came to bathe and cool off in the hot August afternoons.
She sat down on a rock. Her thoughts immediately went to Mr. Jamison. Any woman with a breath of life in her would find the man easy to look at. She sighed. Don’t go thinking anything other than he’s an enemy. He as much as said he believed his mother by offering money to talk to me. Her anger sparked again at the affront. How dare he… Why hadn’t Miss Vonnie rejected the money? 
“Can we start over?” The deep voice shot her to her feet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He grasped her arm, steadying her swaying body.
Her head whooshed, and her heart slammed into her ribs at his gentle grip on her arm. Her gaze locked on his face. Concern and sincerity flashed in his eyes and reflected in the self-conscience smile on his lips. To break the hold he had on her senses, she glanced at his hand still on her arm. He let go and extended his hand.
“I’m Duke Jamison. My family owns the land Miss Vonnie and her girls are camped on.”
Reluctant to touch him again, she slowly extended her hand. He grasped her fingers and drew her knuckles to his lips. The softness of his lips and warmth of his breath, stole her air. She stared into his eyes which lit with amusement.
“And you are?”
She tugged her hand from his, tucking it against her quivering stomach. Why was this man triggering a plethora of reactions? She stared into his waiting face. A simple patient smile curved his lips. What had he asked? Racing through the last few minutes, she captured his question.
“Charity Bowen.”  She scowled. “But you know that. I’m sure your mother would have mentioned my name since you seem to know everything else she thought about me.” Anger. Yes, much better than the other emotions he tangled in her.
“My mother merely mentioned they’d turned down an applicant. When I first saw you I didn’t realize you were the teacher they were interviewing.” He waved an arm back toward the camp. “And finding you here, I wasn’t sure you were the same person.”
She walked away from him, before her temper took over.
“Did I say something that upset you?” His voice came from only a step behind her.
“Stop following me.” She spun around and nearly banged her nose on his chest. Her neck hurt tipping her head back to peer into his face. Charity took two steps back. “Why don’t you just ride back to your ranch and tell your mother ‘guess who I found working for Miss Vonnie’.”
“It’s not my habit to prove my mother correct. In fact, I enjoy proving her wrong.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Reluctant Valentine

By Judith Ashley

Jackson Montgomery strode into his office, slammed the door, and stalked to his desk. “She won’t get away with this,” he muttered throwing his jacket at the back of a chair. “Hell and damnation,” he cursed stomping over to grab the erstwhile garment now on the floor. “Why can’t she be normal like other women?”
          A bark of a laugh escaped. “If she was like other women, I wouldn’t be trying to win her over.” He wandered to the window. Looking out at the rain muting the cityscape, he sighed, “Ah, Lily. You drive me to distraction.”
          Lost in thought, he drifted back to his desk. He sank into the chair, his brow furrowed in thought. Templed fingers tapped his chin. He bolted upright. “I’ll make a list,” he said grabbing a sheet of paper and pen. 
Ideas for Lily for Valentine’s Day
1.     Flowers
2.     Jewelry
3.     Candy
4.     Dinner out
5.     Clothing
6.     Movie
7.     Card
      One-by-one he assessed the items. “Even sending a card is a challenge because she’ll toss it out unless it’s sent from ‘anonymous’,” he grumbled. “There has to be a way,” he groused, “to show her how I feel without scaring her off. But what?” he asked himself as a sense of failure loomed. “Brooding about this isn’t getting me closer to finding the answer,” he griped. “One thing is clear – whatever I decide to do, it has to be subtle, under her radar, sneaky.”

Valentine’s Day loomed a week away. Jackson’s brooding had not produced a viable idea. He’d hoped Valentine’s Day would be an opportunity to nudge their slowly growing friendship towards romance. When it dawned on him he might fail, it took all his self-control to resist the urge to lay his head on his desk in defeat.
Jackson whistled a jaunty tune as he drove into his garage. Upstairs the unsuspecting Lily would be finishing her daily physical therapy routine. While he would never wish her illness or injury, the reality of the injuries she sustained in the traffic accident served his purpose of winning her over. She’d been unable to refuse the offer of staying with his mother and him when the alternative was a rehabilitation facility.
          He opened the trunk retrieving a grocery bag and an unmarked sack. Making his way to the kitchen, he set them on the counter.
First things first: he flicked on a linen tablecloth and set the table with his best silver, crystal, and dishes. Next, he busied himself preparing a tossed salad and his famous (if he did say so himself) homemade dressing. When steaks were marinating in another one of his special recipes and a loaf of bread warmed in the oven, he crossed the room.
“Dinner’s almost ready, Lily,” he called from the bottom of the stairs.
“Mother?” he said through the open French doors leading into her apartment.
          “I’m coming,” was her reply.
          “I’m coming,” she said from the top of the stairs.
          He watched her descend, her steps slow and cautious. She was able to have the immobilizers off for short periods of time but her shoulders were still healing and a fall would be disastrous. Independent as she was, he knew better than to charge up the stairs and offer his help.
          Once the two women were seated, he brought salads and chatted with them while he cooked the steaks on the indoor grill. As he’d hoped, dinner was a convivial time with conversation sprinkled with compliments to the cook and laughter.
          “Dessert,” he announced, returning to the kitchen and retrieving a container of his homemade vanilla ice cream from the freezer,” is ‘make-your-own’ sundaes.”
While his mother and Lily created their masterpieces from the variety of toppings including cherries and whipped cream, he plucked the unmarked bag out from behind his mixer and tucked it behind his back. Sidling past the two women, he surreptitiously took two boxes from the bag and placed them in the middle of their place settings before joining them.
“What is this?” his mother asked holding up her box.
Studiously ignoring the question, Jackson built his own simple sundae of ice cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, whipped cream and topped with three cherries. Before resuming his seat, he put the most perishable items away. Out of the corner of his eye he watched his mother inspect the box as if by doing so she could discern what was inside. Lily, he noted, had moved the box aside and was disregarding it as best she could with his mother rattling on next to her.
“Jackson,” his mother said, “what is this? It has to be from you as Lily and I were together in the kitchen and these boxes weren’t here when we got up from the table.”
“I guess you’ll have to open it and find out,” he said looking down at his sundae a secret smile playing on his lips.
Lily opened her mouth to protest but closed it with a snap.
“Oh, my dear, this is lovely,” his mother said, holding up a silver tree of life pendant its five colored stones sparkling from different branches. “Lily, you must open your box and see what’s inside,” his mother coaxed.
Jackson stifled a smile as Lily, with obvious reluctance, picked up the box and opened it. Inside was another silver tree of life pendant with eight colored stones on different branches.
“I really can’t accept this, Jackson,” Lily started, shoving the box towards him.
He boldly interrupted. “I couldn’t get something for mother and leave you out. That wouldn’t be polite and I do try to be polite.”
He hopped up and circled behind his mother. “Here, let me put this on for you.” As he fastened the necklace, he added, “Mother’s has her birth stone and one for each of her children, and my father.”
Picking up Lily’s box, he opened it, and pulled out a similar pendant. Dangling the dazzling piece in front of her, he said, “You’re tree has your birth stone, one for your son, and each of your circle sisters.” He shifted to stand behind her. Purposefully he swept her hair from her neck, his fingers grazing against the nape as he carefully secured the necklace.
The slight shudder, a shiver actually, told him what he wanted to know. He was on the right path.
© 2012 Judith Ashley

Saved By the Ring

By Diana McCollum

He had just been dumped. Dumped by Elizabeth Barrett Steller, his college sweetheart, and not for just any reason, but because he signed back on with the Army.
Ben stomped to the car, his anger making it hard to get the key in the lock of his old 1989 Chevy pickup.
Yanking the door open, he slid into the driver’s seat. Leaning his forehead against the steering wheel, he took deep breaths as he fought to control his emotions. At twenty-four he could damn well make his own decisions. The sweltering June sun only added to his temper.
God, he felt like his heart had been ripped out. He had re-upped for her, for a chance of a future together. He didn’t want to end up pumping gas like his brother or doing some other menial job. That was no way to support a wife and family. The Army would insure he could afford college, and get a degree in computer science. He’d be able to get a VA house loan someday and take care of his family. That didn’t matter to Lizzie, spoiled self-centered Lizzie.
“Ben, Ben…wait!” Lizzie ran towards the truck barefoot, her long brown hair flying behind her. He paused for a second as he glimpsed the college cheerleader he’d fallen in love with four years ago.
He turned the key and floored the gas. She’d had her say. His pride didn’t need any more abuse from her about how he should live his life. He fingered the ring box in his pocket, as he glanced in the rear view mirror. The road was empty. Good thing he’d had sense enough not to ask her today.
Her words burned in his memory.
“Ben, if you re-enlist there is no guarantee you won’t be sent to Iraq. I can’t go through it again, not knowing if you are safe or not.” Lizzie had turned on the tears, always a good move, only this time they didn’t work. “I want to be with you. Don’t I mean more to you than the Army?”
When he told her why he had re-enlisted, she took her final stand with her arms crossed, “I’m not waiting for you, Ben. You do what you have to do, but I’m not waiting. I’m not an Army wife and I don’t plan on ever being one. The stress was too much during your last deployment. When you went missing for four days…I couldn’t eat or sleep. I almost lost my job. I can’t do it again, I just can’t.”
She turned away from him and stared out the kitchen window. “Go. Just go.”
He turned to leave. His hand on the doorknob, he paused, waiting for her to tell him to stay, that they could work it out. She didn’t.
Six months later in the Iraq desert the Cougar Ben was riding in set off an IED. As Ben lay in the sand listening for the whirl of the Medevac copter to arrive, he thought of Lizzie. He had thought of her almost daily since the breakup. Once he got to the war zone, he’d tried to put her out of his mind. The sadness of losing Lizzie gripped him and a tear slid down his face.
The fire in his core engulfed him. He gasped. The sweat ran down his face, he wiped at it and came away with blood. Now with the potential of death, he prayed, a low whisper of a prayer, “Lord, let me see her one more time.”
Helicopter rotors kicked up a cloud of dust and in seconds a medic was by Ben’s side. His ears rang from the blast and that along with the noise from the copter made it impossible to hear what the medic was saying. The last thing he remembered was being strapped onto the litter and hoisted into the Blackhawk.
Wounded Warrior, that’s what the staff at Walter Reed Hospital called him. A respectable title for what he and many other wounded soldiers had been through. Ben worked hard at recovery. Physical therapy kicked his ass.
The doctor came in carrying a small book. “This is yours soldier. It just might have saved your life.” He handed the small Bible to Ben.
“What‘d you mean it saved my life?”
“Turn it over.”
Ben turned it over and saw the jagged hole in the cover.” His eyes misted over, his voice trembling with emotion he said, “Thanks Doc, thanks a lot.”
His mom called that night. Her recuperation from a mild stroke was as good as it was going to get. She had trouble with her speech but the doctor hoped it would clear up eventually.
They wanted him home, his family. When he could walk on his own, he’d be going --not before. His goal was to walk off the plane on his mom’s favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day.
On February fourteenth he headed home. He walked off the jet, picked up his luggage and hailed a taxi. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Mom’s face when he gave her the box of chocolates and told her he was taking her out to dinner. He chuckled remembering how much she loved Valentine’s Day. That was their special day, ever since he drew her a Valentine’s card in first grade.
When the cab turned down his mom’s street Ben let out a low whistle. “Looks like someone’s having a party.” Both sides of the street were filled with cars. A few he recognized. His brother’s and Aunt Tilly’s were parked in front of the house.
“You can just drop me here.” He handed the cabbie the fare, and got out. The heart shaped box of chocolates he’d bought for mom tucked under his arm. He turned towards the house and stopped, not able to pass the car that sat in the drive.
His eyes must be playing tricks on him. Nope, it was Lizzie’s unmistakable mini-Cooper in the driveway. What was she doing here? He wanted to see her, but not now, not here. His heart beat out a rat-a-tat-tat and his palms were suddenly sweaty. He glanced towards the end of the street but the cab was gone. No escape. Man up, Ben. He readjusted his luggage and marched up the steps. Before he could ring the doorbell, the door swung open.
“Ben!” Mom said.
“Ben’s here.” She shouted over her shoulder. His mom embraced him, tears of joy slid down her rosy cheeks. “Come in, come in.”
The entryway was filled with pink heart shaped balloons. A Valentine’s party? The living room was filled with all his aunts, cousins and friends. There was definitely a party going on.
“What…” Did he forget a birthday or something? “Here, mom.” He held out the heart shaped box of chocolates.
Everyone stared at him. His shirt collar seemed too tight, and he was beginning to sweat. He looked at his mom for an explanation.
“Ben, Ben dear boy,” She plopped down in an overstuffed chair and fanned her heated face with her hands. “Why don’t you put your bags down in the hall and get me a drink of water? I’m feeling a bit faint from all the excitement.”
She winked at Aunt Tilly. He tried to figure out why while he stashed the bags in the hallway, and rounded the corner to the kitchen.
“Hello, Ben.” Lizzie’s voice was tentative. She sat on a stool on the other side of the counter, filling little bags with candy and tying them with pretty pink ribbon.
“Lizzie…” He reached up and unbuttoned the top of his uniform shirt.
“I’m glad you made it home. I was so sorry to hear you were injured.” Her voice quivered as if she barely held back tears.
“What are you doing here?” She was so pretty. He couldn’t catch his breath. Well, he’d got his wish.
“I was invited.”
“Why?” He ran his fingers through his hair.
She stood up then and he could see she was expecting. His heart galloped in his chest.
“Your mom is giving us a baby shower. I’m pregnant with your daughter.” She ambled over, and placed his hand on her belly. “I found out the week after we broke up. I didn’t tell you because one, we broke up and two, I wanted you to focus on coming back alive.”
He felt a movement. His daughter! He removed the small bible from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Lizzie, will you marry me?”
A puzzled look crossed her face as she opened the Bible and stared at an engagement ring dented in half. “What…”
“I was going to ask you before I left for duty. Then we fought, I kept the ring in the pocket flap in the Bible. The Doc said it saved my life, you saved my life.”
“Yes, yes I’ll marry you.” Her eyes sparkled with tears of joy.

© Diana McCollum 2012 All rights reserved.
A special thank you to artist Nick Pino
© Nick Pino 2012 All rights reserved.

The Worth of a Kiss

by Christy Carlyle

Jaw clenched, long fingers rapping an insistent rhythm on the polished arm of his aunt’s sitting room chair, Lord Lucien Grimsby struggled to control his emotions. It was an unusual sensation. Normally a master of his feelings, Lucien found that simmering irritation had become his constant companion. His aunt Nora, Dowager Countess of Stamford, seemed oblivious to his distress and blithely carried on praising Miss Wright, the source of all of Lucien’s frustration.  Without even a second thought, Lucien could easily declare Jessamyn Wright to be the most infuriating and outspoken woman – he could hardly call her a lady - of his acquaintance.  

He cut across his aunt’s words, his voice louder than he intended. “Come now, Aunt. She reads to you. It is hardly drudge work. Nor does it require the kind of talents you ascribe to her.”

Lady Nora fussed with an elaborately laced handkerchief and glared at her nephew.  “It’s more difficult than it might seem. I have high standards and she must read it just so.”

Lucien made a most uncharacteristic sound - somewhere between a snort and a chortle.  Aunt Nora’s brows shot up into her increasingly white hairline.  The echo of footsteps drew their attention to the sitting room door.  Without knocking, the source of Lucien’s ire and his aunt’s adoration stepped across the threshold.  

“Ah, Jessamyn. My nephew was just making light of your oratory skills.”  Lady Nora smiled as she said the words and shot Lucien a look of challenge.

“Aunt.”  Lucien’s voice was low as he bit off the word, infusing it with as much menace as he dared to direct at the woman who knew him better than his own mother.  Straightening in his chair, he studied the wallpaper directly above his aunt’s head.  Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Miss Wright wore blue, a dark, drab dress that had nothing to do with fashion or feminine curves. Somehow, it suited her and served to highlight her pale complexion and auburn hair. 

She did not acknowledge his presence, but merely glided soundlessly across the room and took a place on the divan nearest his aunt.  She picked up a book as if she meant to ignore them completely, and he thought that she might actually sit silently for once.

Then her rich, warm voice interrupted his musings.  “Perhaps his lordship would like to have a go.”

            “I beg your pardon?”  He arched one dark eyebrow, simmering irritation beginning to boil.

            “You could show me how it should be done.” Her expression was unreadable, her grey eyes clear.

            “I never claimed superiority at reading anything.”  Though he was certain his reading habits were superior to his aunt, who opted for poetry and horridly gothic romance.  “I simply said...” 
            Aunt Nora’s sing song voice lifted with enthusiasm. “Oh, yes, Lucien. Do read for us.”

            He closed his eyes, sensing defeat before he had even begun to fight.  Miss Wright’s lavender scent was tickling nose and his aunt was watching him with the look she used to give him as a boy when he had done something utterly witless.

            He unclenched the fist he did not realize he was making, opened his hand, palm up and held it out to Jessamyn.  “Let’s have it then, Miss Wright.”

            She lifted the slim volume and laid it in his hand.  As their fingers touched, he felt a jolt of heat down his body, though her fingers were cool.  Their eyes met and he saw amusement in her expression.  With a jolt of shock, he realized that he liked seeing that flicker, that ember of joy.  He found that he wanted to stoke it and bring it to life, so that it would light up her eyes and shine onto him too.  

            He opened the book, a volume of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley. His fingers flipped the pages to Queen Mab, a poem he’d read at university and recalled enjoying. He cleared his throat, took a fortifying breath and began to read.

            Lady Nora's voice stopped him before a single syllable could escape his lips.  “How can you begin reading, Lucien?  I have not even told you which page.”  

            “I had taken the liberty of choosing a poem, Aunt.”

            Lady Nora made a sharp snapping sound with her tongue. “No, I must choose. That is the way of it.”
            He glanced at Jessamyn as if she might come to his aid.  Sitting ramrod straight, perched on the edge of the divan near his aunt, she merely nodded her head.  “It is true. That is the way we do it.”

            He thought of demanding his lordly rights, but demurred.  “What page, dearest aunt?”

            “Page 103, if you please.”  He turned the pages until he was near the end of the volume and landed on page 103.  A single, short poem took up the space of the folio page.  It was titled Love’s Philosophy. Lucien skimmed the words he was about to read and finally felt the strands of the web in which his aunt had ensnared him.  He speared her with an icy gaze above the book’s page and narrowed his eyes at the Cheshire grin that crested her lips.

            “Come, Lucien.  It is fitting for such a day, is it not?”  Lucien’s brow creased in confusion, but before he could ask, his aunt added archly, “St. Valentine’s Day.”

            The poem might as well have been written in a foreign language, so strange was its meaning to a man used to stifling his emotions.  He stammered through the poem’s first stanza, every line causing him to stumble.  Full of sentiment and intimate meaning, the words tripped his normally steady tongue while his mind wandered into places he rarely let it venture.

            Mercifully, his aunt stopped him short.  “Oh, that is not right at all, Lucien. It seems my clever Miss Wright surpasses you in poetry reading after all.  Do go and rescue him, my dear.”

            Miss Wright hesitated before obeying her employer, but then he sensed her moving toward him.  He could not look at Jessamyn as she retrieved the little book from his hands.  He thrust it towards her and sank down into his chair.
            Lucien had always acknowledged the beauty of Jessamyn Wright’s voice.  It was not high pitched and interspersed with giggles, nor too deep and unfeminine.  It was smooth and rich, just the sort of voice to serve a poetry reader well. 

            Miss Wright began to read, “The fountains mingle…”

            Lady Nora stopped her.  “Don’t start again, dear.  Just continue on.”

            Lucien knew what came next and could not resist watching Miss Wright as she read.  He watched her full lips lovingly caress the kind of words that had caused him to stumble.  He watched her neck, the smooth white line of skin that arched up across her cheeks.  As she read, her cheeks gradually flamed into a blush as pink as her mouth. She spoke of kissing, and he was struck with the memory of her lips on his as vividly as if she stood before him, the taste of her fresh again on his tongue. At that moment, he knew the worth of that kiss.  It had changed him, changed everything.

            “What are all these kissings worth if thou kiss not me?” As Jessamyn spoke the last line, her voice wavered and the book started to slip from her hands.  She caught it and looked up at Lucien.  Her eyes glowed in the gaslight and Lucien felt drawn by their light.  He started to stand, but she stopped him.

            “No.  I…” For a moment, she seemed confused, disoriented.  Then she approached Lady Nora and handed her the book of poetry.  “Forgive me, Lady Nora.  I need a breath of air.”

            The dowager countess’ voice was quiet, nearly a whisper.  “Of course, my girl.”
            The silence that descended in Lady Nora’s sitting room was stifling. Lucien tugged ungentlemanly at his neck cloth.  He could not stop his foot from tapping, though the aubusson carpet was so thick, he made no sound.

            “Lucien?”  Lady Nora’s voice had lost its sing song tone. 

            “Yes, Aunt?”  He stopped tapping his foot, but his fingers immediately began to trace the carved pattern in the arm of his chair.

“You are not a fool.”  She said the words firmly, without a sliver of doubt.

“Am I not?”  Lucien did not share his aunt’s faith in her assertion.

            “No.  So you must go after her.”  He lifted his head and met Lady Nora’s eyes.  She looked haughty, ready to command and be obeyed. But a smile softened her lips, and he knew in that moment that she saw through his veneer of cool detachment.  “Only a fool would stay here with me at a moment like this.  Go and get her.”

© Christy Carlyle
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