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After 3 years of being pulled from the market, my publisher Zumaya has finally rereleased my Halloween Romance. It’s a comedy. Really:D
Familiar eyes with new sight. Tonight I beheld such beauty that my breath departed my body just to be close to yours.
August 8th, 1918
Man killed with skeleton.
Avalon Lynch scrambled down the tree. Fifteen feet to the
ground. Ten feet. Bits of black bark heralded her descent, tugged at her artfully tattered skirt and chewed holes in her fishnet stockings. Ignoring her pounding heart and sweat slick palms, she toed down the trunk to find a footing on the last branch.
When she discovered who had put the skeleton in the tree, she would curse them until their descendants evolved.
Of course, she might have to stand in line behind the man. The man. Balancing on the thick tree limb, she dried her palms on her skirt. Perhaps he wasn’t dead. Perhaps he was just stunned. She glanced up through the branches of the dead oak. Old Reidon had been wedged about twenty-five feet up. Twenty-five feet times gravity would give her the force behind the crash. Lonnie chewed on her bottom lip. Well, it would if she could remember the conversion factor from feet to meters. Still, Old Reidon couldn’t weigh that much. He was made of the new lightweight plastic, much better and more durable than the old skeleton. In fact, the impact hadn’t damaged the bones at all.
The stranger was another matter.
“Enough, Lonnie. Geez, if cowardice is going to become an integral part of your character after thirty-four years, you might as well just donate your spine to medical science now.”
Coward. She shrugged off the slander. Okay, so she’d skipped town before giving Orren an answer to his marriage proposal. That didn’t make her a coward, did it? She’d always faced the consequences of her actions before.
Which is why you’re up a tree now, instead of down on the ground, tending to the man you bombed with a skeleton? Broken broomsticks, when had her conscience become so acerbic?
Exertion burned along her thighs as she squatted then gingerly plopped her behind onto the branch. Tufts of dead grass beckoned from five feet below. A crow hopped into her landing space and pecked at the ground. Her grease-filled lunch threatened to shoot out of her stomach. Five feet. Four inches less than her modest height, yet a daunting distance when hovering above the earth.
Bark confetti rained onto the ground as she shifted on her perch. She’d have to jump sometime—her victim needed first aid. The breeze carried his low groan to her. At least, he wasn’t dead. Unconscious, not dead. Not that she’d actually believed manslaughter was an appropriate punishment for cowardice. Jumping Jack-o-lanterns, that nasty noun had popped up too often today.
So she’d left—but she always returned to Pumpkin this time of the year. In fact, her vacation request had been in her personnel folder since she’d started working at the Prior-Tea Clinic. Orren’s proposal and her departure was a simple case of bad timing. It most certainly did not indicate any invertebrate tendencies on her part.
“Caw. Caw.” The crow cast a yellow-eyed glance at her before hopping away.
Now was not the time for self-analysis. The man was hurt, and she just might remember enough of her first aid training to help him.
Lonnie pushed off the branch. Her landing rattled up her bones and out her skull. Knees complained as she straightened—she would feel her daring rescue of Old Reidon in the morning. As for the stranger, he was feeling her rescue of the skeleton now.
She stepped into her boots. Their buckles slapped worn leather as she circled the trunk.
“I hope you got ID, buddy.”
The throaty growl stirred the hair on her arms. What was so appealing about a deep baritone? Sure, that velvet rasp was a real asset for phone sex operators and jazz singers but put it on a priest, a teacher or a doctor…
Lonnie stopped as her heart picked up tempo. Orren Prior was a doctor. A doctor with a normal male voice. A doctor with good looks, old money and an older family name. With those assets, he didn’t need a voice like liquid chocolate. And he certainly didn’t need her.
So why had he asked her to marry him?
“And wipe that grin off your face.” The sinful voice truncated her speculation. Bones rattled like chips in a soothsayer’s cup as he shook his attacker. “Assaulting a peace officer is a serious offense.”
Lonnie palmed her giggle. Not many men would have a sense of humor after being knocked unconscious by a skeleton. Unconscious? Brain trauma. Concussion. What other horrible repercussions could result from the skeletal walloping?
“Are you all right?”
Startled, the man bounced on the ground. After stuffing the skeleton behind his back, he turned to face her. Cobalt blue eyes flicked over her with the precision of a laser.
“I just had the wind knocked out of me. Have you been standing there long?”
“Don’t worry.” Lonnie resisted the urge to squirm. She hadn’t done anything wrong, precisely. Old Reidon plunging on top the man’s curly brown head was an accident. “I won’t tell anyone you were consorting with a skeleton.”
White teeth flashed in his tanned face. He settled the skeleton next to him and wrapped his arm around the bony shoulders. “Alas, she’s not my type. I prefer someone with a little more meat on her bones.”
Interest flared in the blue depths.
Lonnie clasped her hands together. She was practically an engaged woman, would be engaged if she had answered Orren. And she wasn’t flirting. She was simply sharing a laugh over the absurd situation.
“I believe weight to be the least of your problems.” She squatted before him. Evenly dilated pupils focused clearly on her lips. She could probably rule out a concussion. A wisp of Old Spice aftershave teased her. Her nose twitched. The clean scent hinted at subtle layers waiting to be discovered. She should keep him under observation, maybe even overnight observation. Just in case.
“You willing to share my problems with me, honey?” The right corner of his mouth lifted, propping up the dimple in his cheek.
Honey. Chocolate. Rich, decadent and forbidden to anyone on a diet or almost engaged. Regret swung across her shoulders as she pulled back. If only she’d given Orren an answer before she left. A no would have allowed her to flirt with Mr. Sinful and a yes…
She stuffed away the useless thoughts. “Old Reidon is definitely a man, not a woman.”
“How can you tell?” Brown eyebrows met over his aquiline nose. “I mean without the obvious, er…” Embarrassment darkened his cheeks.
“The obvious?” Amusement trickled through her. Such chagrin over the simple mention of body parts. Her gaze flicked over him. Not that his weren’t a fine example of his gender. Broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped. Waves of muscle played over bones. A fine example of manhood, indeed.
He cleared his throat and stared over her shoulder. “The obvious plumbing facilities still intact.”
“His pelvis.” Her gaze dropped. Gurgling goo, his zipper was going to pop. She forced her attention back to his face. “A man’s and a woman’s pelvis are different.”
His gaze slid down her shoulder to linger over the area in question. Desire cast heat across her flesh. This was no clinical observation; this was her treacherous body layering innuendo onto a scientific explanation.
“A woman’s hips are wider, flared to cradle a baby and … and a man.”
Images flickered inside her skull, an 8-mm film of skin and passion. Lonnie shook her head, scrambling the thoughts. What was she thinking? Fantasizing about a total stranger. A good-looking stranger, true, but she might be an engaged woman, an almost-wife. She cleared her throat and straightened. Whatever spell he had cast over her would have to be broken. She needed to think clearly—without pheromones, animal musk and that bulge in his pants distracting her.
“It would be easier to explain if I laid a man and a woman side-by-side.”
“Oh, I think I can appreciate the difference.” The dimple flashed again, there and gone, there and gone, as if he were trying to mesmerize her. “Although if you feel the need to instruct me further, I won’t complain.”
He pressed his hand to his chest, swept those blunt fingers over firm muscle. Her breasts tightened. His actions were suggestive but tame compared to the minefield of sexual implications in his statement. Delightfully sinful; decidedly taboo. Lonnie ignored the smile tugging on her lips. She had only one weapon in this game: innocence.
“Unless you’re planning to consort with any more skeletons, I don’t think you’d need a crash course in anatomy.” Science tackled his sensuality. It’s for the best, Lonnie.
“I didn’t plan on this one.” He blinked, banking the interest blazing in his eyes. “I don’t suppose you saw who did it? Attacked me with this skeleton, I mean.”
“Attacked you.” She clasped her hands behind her back, milking her fingers. Attacked was such a harsh description.
“Don’t worry, I can protect you. I’m a peace officer.”
“Protect me?” Crime statistics flipped through her head. Jumping Jack-o-lanterns, this was Pumpkin not Phoenix. Crime didn’t exist in her hometown. Or did it? Her parents had insisted she attend the community meeting at the Between the Towns Gospel Church, yet the hazing between the feuding communities was good fun, not criminal. “From what?”
“The Prankster. This is the second time one of his tricks has almost resulted in a serious injury.” He rubbed the back of his head and stared up at the tree.
The Prankster. Unease feathered across her skin. Everyone knew that things heated up between Pumpkin and Holly as soon as the temperature dropped. Still, her mother had warned her that something seemed different this year. A new malevolence had descended with the autumn mist.
Except the Prankster wasn’t responsible for the skeletal attack. She was. Confess. Now, before his theories grew out- of-hand.
“Perhaps I should check you out.” His blue-eyed gaze returned to hers. “Your injuries, I mean.”
“Huh, yeah.” He twisted on the ground, presenting her with his back.
His silky hair slid between her fingers. Nice hair. No broken skin. I wonder what kind of conditioner he uses. A little red patch here. Nothing fruity but definitely spicy.
Air hissed through his teeth.
“You have a nice goose egg back here.”
“Thanks for not using any fancy medical jargon.” He
brushed her hands aside and cupped the swollen skin. Pain laced the grin on his lips.
“About this Prankster—what has he done, exactly?”
“Little things at first. Stole a few signs. Changed Happy Halloween to Happy Holidays, switched poinsettias for pumpkins, Santas for scarecrows.”
Lonnie smiled. All standard issue in the Holly High bag of tricks. All met equal retaliation from the Pumpkin Predators when the Christmas season rolled around.
“It was, until the Frankenstein monster machine began arcing and snapping. Someone had messed with the electrical system. Sparks flew—literally—and caught a hay bale on fire.” He stared into space. “Thank God, someone thought to try out the thing before opening the Haunted House. As it was, the mayor got himself a nasty burn on his arm when he shut the power off.”
Mayor Russell. Tutmoses Russell, her old high school beau and captain of the Predators football team, was now mayor of Pumpkin. Not that his election to office was a surprise. Most nominees had to be coerced, bribed or tricked into running for the position. Lonnie tucked her hair behind her ear. No, what surprised her was that Tut, a diehard Pumpkin native, had hired an outsider to keep watch.
“At least, he has you to investigate.”
“Not quite.” Muscle bunched against his clenched jaw. The man pushed off the ground to sway on his feet.
Lonnie followed him up and steadied him. Corded muscle tensed under her touch. She waited for him to pull away, reject her assistance. He didn’t.
“No adult from Holly’s set foot inside Pumpkin for almost a century.”
She blinked. From Holly. From Holly. She snatched her hand off his arm. The only thing worse than an outsider was someone from Holly. How could this be? He didn’t have reindeer antlers on his head or sleighbells around his neck. And if he’d jumped out of some bad kid’s closet on Halloween, their fathers would be running for the shotgun for an altogether different reason than slaying the scary monster.
“You’re from Holly?” she croaked.
“Born and raised.” Pride glistened on his face like an oil slick on the ocean.
Lonnie’s stomach bucked. She had dropped Reidon on a resident of Holly. And not just any resident of Holly—its peacekeeper. No one on either side would believe it was an accident.
“You’ll love Holly. It’s a quaint town, lots of charm and character. I would be delighted to—”
“Nicholas!” A man’s voice boomed across the clearing, strong and authoritative. Lonnie swallowed a groan. Her day was going from boiling caldron to bonfire near a stake.
“Nicholas Dugan, where have you gone to?”
Dugan. Every child in Pumpkin knew the name of the boogeyman. It was The Dugan. A whimper squeaked through her tight throat. She had conversed with a Dugan from Holly. All of her ancestors were clawing their way out of their graves to curse her. She had to get away; she must get away.
She stepped backwards, tripped over Old Reidon’s boney arm. A hand wrapped around her elbow, pulled her forward.
“Over here, Father Bean.”
Disbelief spread through her. The serpent actually beamed at her. Could he really not know who she was?
“You’ll like the Father.”
She shook off his touch. If he didn’t know now, he would soon. Father Bean had been determined to mend the rift between the two communities since his Volkswagen van broke down outside the towns in 1972.
Lonnie stumbled backwards; her shoulder slammed into the tree trunk. Cinders and snakes, the stupid skeleton seemed to have wrapped itself around her feet.
“Ah, Nicholas, there you are.” Father Bean pushed aside the branch of weeping willow, waddled through the white picket fence and trod onto the dead grass. “I believe you would serve the communities better inside the church. Indeed, I must insist—” He faltered mid-step. Brown eyes widened in surprise as they gazed at her.
“Father Bean, allow me to introduce my savior, Miss…”
“Lynch.” Lonnie hefted the skeleton off the ground, tossed him over her shoulder and strode toward the clergyman. The priest would protect her from The Dugan.
“Avalon, child.” Father Bean’s brown robes swept over the grass as he strode forward. Strong arms wrapped her in his embrace. Incense wafted off him, mingling freely with the pungent fragrance of homegrown maryjane. “It is good to have you home.”
“Father.” Lonnie returned his embrace, resisted tugging on the gunmetal ponytail winding down his back. No one knew what denomination had ordained the aging draft-dodging hippie, but everyone respected his calling. Besides serving as preacher and justice of the peace, he was the only mediator the two feuding towns respected. And she would need a mediator. A Holly jail cell was no place for a witch.
She slipped out of his hug and faced her victim. “It is good to be home.”
“Home?” The sexy baritone rumbled like thunder. “You mean you’re from around here. No, let me guess.” Fists landed on his hips. “You’re from Pumpkin, aren’t you? Of course, you are. With a name like Lynch, you wouldn’t be from anywhere else.”
“Nicholas, do stop harassing the girl.”
His gaze slid from her to Old Reidon. A heartbeat later, light flared in his eyes. He had made the connection but leapt to the wrong conclusion. Lonnie raised her chin and met his accusing stare. Father Bean would help her with The Dugan.
“You dropped the skeleton on me.”
She squeezed her eyes closed as he reached for her. The Christmas Curse—one touch from The Dugan, and every time you opened your mouth Christmas carols would pour out.
“You won’t be able to stop yourself.” Her father’s voice rang in her head.
“Is there a cure, Daddy?” her five-year-old self asked. “Only for good little witches.”
The Dugan’s touch was soft—a gentle tug on her hair and it was over. She peeked through her lashes. A black twig spun in his fingers.
“Admit it, that’s why you just happened to be on hand. Isn’t that right, Miss Lynch?”
Had she been cursed? Lonnie filled her lungs. She wouldn’t know until she answered him.
“Don’t go getting a wedgie over it.” Relief shook her legs. She hadn’t been cursed.
“I’ll take that as an admission of guilt.”
“It was an accident.” She turned to face Father Bean yet kept the Dugan in her peripheral vision. He may not have cursed her, but his family was guilty of a far greater transgression. “I saw old Reidon sitting up in the tree and thought to get him down. I guess the Prankster must have struck again.”
“Nice story, lady. But how are you gonna explain it if the only fingerprints on him are yours and mine?”
“I imagine you’ll find several people’s prints on him.” “Yeah, well, there are your other talents to consider.” Other talents. Witchcraft. Lonnie straightened. Was history
about to repeat itself? Was a Dugan about to publicly out another witch?
“Just what are you accusing me of?’
“Never let a Pumpkin-eater miss a chance to stir up the rivalry.” He unsnapped the handcuffs from his belt. “Lots of folks would be real happy to know I caught the Prankster. I knew it had to be a Pumpkin-eater.”
“You’ve obviously drunk too much spiked eggnog, pinecones-for-brains. I just got back into town.”
“You heard her admit it, Father.”
“Yes,” the priest sighed. “I heard her admit that Reidon
was in the tree and that she dropped him on you when she went to rescue him.”
She dodged left and crashed into The Dugan’s chest. Cold metal wrapped her right wrist. She jerked away before he closed the other. The free handcuff slapped her forearm.
“It was an accident.”
“That is quite enough, you two.” Meaty hands clamped down on her shoulders. She was turned and propelled through the gate. “This is God’s yard and you will not fight on it.”
“Yes, Father,” Lonnie agreed.
“Yes, Father,” The Dugan repeated. “Now, I must say—”
“Lonnie!” The screech disturbed the pigeons parading across the green grass. “Lonnie Lynch. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.” Primary colors swirled around the thin woman sailing past picnic tables laden with baskets, platters of delicacies and bowls of food. “Guess I should have read my tea leaves after all.” Gold bracelets, hoop earrings and rings jangled to a stop as their owner folded Lonnie into a welcoming hug.
“Honey.” Lonnie shrugged off her cousin’s embrace. Excitement sparkled in the kohl-rimmed eyes staring at her and curved the scarlet lips. “How have you been?”
“Not as good as you.” Honey’s gypsy outfit floated around her like a rainbow haze. Crimson nails drummed her cocked hip as her gaze slipped off her cousin. “Mm-mm-mm. Are all men in the valley so delectable?” Bracelets jangled as she pinched Lonnie’s arm. “I can’t believe you waited three whole months to shackle yourself to this one.” She flicked the handcuff dangling from Lonnie’s wrist and licked her lips as she strolled around The Dugan. “Tell me, sweetheart, are there more like you at home?”
“What?” Nicholas jumped as if pinched. And knowing Honey—Lonnie fought to keep the smile off her face—he probably had been. “I am—”
“He’s not Orren, Honey.” Lonnie pulled her cousin out of harm’s way. His touch may not have cursed them but one never knew what could happen if The Dugan was riled. “I left Orren in Phoenix.”
“Well, she tried to, anyway.” Orren Prior, only son of the founders of the exclusive Prior- Tea Clinic, strode onto the grounds of the Between the Towns Gospel Church. His designer silk shirt and soft wool trousers flattered his gym-toned body and reeked of money. Lonnie shook her head. If someone had told her ten months ago that people could smell like money, she would have laughed. Ten months and one day ago, she hadn’t worked for the Prior-Tea Clinic, hadn’t known a clinic could resemble a five-star resort, that check-ups routinely lasted ten days or that breast lifts were emergency surgery. And the money coming in would soon quadruple thanks to the new multimillion-dollar wing dedicated to holistic and naturopathic medicine.
“Orren!” Lonnie clasped her hands behind her back. Small wonder The Dugan hadn’t used the Christmas Carol Curse— he had a more diabolical revenge up his sleeve. She bared her teeth at him and turned to greet her almost-fiancé. “What are you doing here?”
She smoothed her costume over her hips. Spiders and frog’s lips, she hadn’t meant to sound so annoyed, but what could he expect? Irritation wiggled over his face before he smiled. His smile was as fake as hers.
“I guess you wouldn’t believe that I was just passing by?” He frowned as his gaze raked her from head to toe. The ragged dress, the buckled shoes and funky stockings could only add up to one thing: witch.
“Out here?” She resisted the urge to squirm. This wasn’t the Inquisition. This was the twenty-first century. She was a doctor, a scientist researching at a prestigious clinic where vain clients valued reputation over skill. Orren’s family clinic and Orren’s clients.
“Yeah, well.” A cloud scuttled across his sky-blue eyes. Options considered and dismissed. His jaw tightened. A shudder rippled through him. He had made a decision. “Penny told me you’d come home for a family emergency, and I thought now would be a good time to show my future in-laws what a great husband I’d make for their only daughter.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” she lied. Lockjaw couldn’t stop the office gossip from spewing her venom. As for Orren…
Her insides writhed like snakes in a sack. His presence was a harbinger of things to come. But were those things good or bad? She was afraid she’d find out all too soon.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” An elbow poked her in the back.
“Honey, this is my…” Lonnie swallowed the title fiancé. She hadn’t given her answer yet. “This is Orren Prior. Orren, this is my cousin Honey O’Bitz.”
“O’Bitz.” Orren moved closer, smooth as a panther on trapped prey. “That’s an unusual name.”
“They’re all unusual in Pumpkin,” The Dugan piped up.
Lonnie edged him out of their group. “And the only other people worth introducing are Father Bean and Old Reidon.” She held out the skeleton’s hand.
“Father.” Orren nodded to the priest then, ignoring the skeleton, faced The Dugan. “I suppose you have a son running around, and the only way anyone can tell you apart is by the quaint country tradition of tacking an ‘old’ on your name.”
“No.” The Dugan smirked as they shook hands. “No son, no fiancée and no quaint country tradition. My name is Nicholas Dugan. I’m the peace officer of Holly.”
“A Dugan!” Honey sidled behind Father Bean.
“Holly?” Orren managed an artfully confused look. “I thought you hailed from Pumpkin, Avalon. Isn’t that where this family emergency thing occurred?”
“I do hail from Pumpkin.” Interest sharpened his features. “And … And…”
“Holly and Pumpkin are sister cities.”
“Stepsister cities,” The Dugan interjected. “One ugly—” “Nicholas.” Father Bean laid a hand on The Dugan’s
shoulder. “There is strife between the two towns despite their founding by the same wagon train.”
“And your mother?” Orren waved away the town’s history. “I assume you are here to see she gets transferred to a more modern facility?”
“I—” For an instant, Lonnie’s mind blanked. Why would she want her mother in a facility? Family emergency. Orren’s earlier words surfaced. “My mother isn’t ill.”
“No, she isn’t, and the only family emergency is the town feud.” Father Bean nodded to the people streaming out of the church into neat, well-separated lines. “Things have escalated this year.”
“The Prankster has injured two people.” The Dugan glared at her.
“Injured?” Dollar signs flashed in Orren’s eyes.
“It was a simple bump on the head.” Lonnie ignored her maybe-fiancé. He might own the clinic she worked at, but she was on vacation and in the midst of proving her innocence. “You didn’t even require a Band-Aid.”
“I might have a concussion. Old Reidon might not look like much, but he packs a wallop being hurled from a tree.”
“A man was thrown from a tree?” Orren gasped.
Lonnie stared at the sky. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Legend hadn’t magnified the Dugan gift for exaggeration. “Old Reidon slipped from my grasp when I was up a tree.”
“You climbed a tree?” Orren planted himself between her and The Dugan. “Where is this Reidon fellow now?”
“He’s the bones,” The Dugan snapped
“The skeleton is Reidon?” Orren deduced.
“Yes,” she hissed. Pickled toads, Orren hadn’t seemed this
dense in Phoenix. She had to get him to return to Phoenix. She needed time to think. “Now that all the introductions have been made—”
“Not quite.” A hand was shoved between her and Orren. “Tut Russell, mayor of Pumpkin. Did I hear you say you’re engaged to our Lonnie?”
“Avalon and I are to be married in the spring.” Orren preened under the official attention. “Mother has a list of dates the country club is available, and we’ll need to let the wedding planner know so she can arrange the theme. Do you have a preference?”
“‘Jailhouse Rock’ comes to mind,” The Dugan snickered. “I am not the Prankster!”
“Of course, you’re not,” Tut barked. “Who would even suggest such a thing?”
“Someone with pinecones for brains.”
Her friends turned to the only one from Holly in their group.
“I see more of my flock has come out into the pasture.” Father Bean wedged himself between the citizens of the two towns.
“Now seems like an opportune time to announce the apprehension of the Prankster.”
“Allow me, Nicholas.” The priest beamed.
Betrayal whipped through Lonnie. The clergyman couldn’t really believe she was responsible for the tricks. Sure, she’d done her share of mischief in the past, but she had been out of town for this latest batch.
“Be my guest, Father.”
The priest clasped her hand and gently squeezed it then turned to face the crowd spilling onto the lawn.
“Ladies and gentleman, I believe I have the perfect solution to our problems.” He shoved her forward, The Dugan kept pace.
“You gonna perform a weddin’ ceremony, padre?” A voice wheezed from the quieting mob.
“I have another union in mind, Mr. Henderson.” Father Bean smiled down at her. “The Montagues and the Capulets have joined forces.”
“Who’s he talking about?” whispered a voice to her left. “Shakespeare, you idiot. Romeo and Juliet.”
“I know who they are, just don’t know who Monty Cue and Caplet is.”
Father Bean raised his hands, and silence once more cloaked the crowd.
“Nicholas Dugan has agreed to represent Holly in the investigation of the recent troubles. We all know the Dugans are good people, one of the founding families of our community. We are fortunate that he has spent the last three years as peace officer, as well.”
“Now see here.” Tut jostled her shoulder as he moved to stand in front of the priest. “We are not going to take the word of a Pine—er, person from Holly. It’s their kind behind these pranks.”
“You calling us liars, Pumpkin-eater?” A dark-haired man shoved to the front of the crowd.
“If the sanctimonious bull fits.” Tut shoved out his chest and raised his fists to his waist.
Lonnie would bet the farm her old beau could take the newcomer—she slipped her hand through Honey’s—but a little magic never hurt. Rumbling rolled through the crowd. More flesh appeared as sleeves were rolled up.
“People, people—settle down, please,” Father Bean soothed. “No, Tutmoses, I don’t expect you to take Nicholas at his word. That is why Avalon Lynch will be his partner. You don’t have a problem with Lonnie, do you?”
“Uh, no.” He blinked. “No problem with Lonnie.”
Lonnie nodded. She had a problem with this little assignment. Scratch that. She had a big problem with being paired with The Dugan.
“Good. I expect both sides to give our investigators your full cooperation.”
“But, Father, she—”
“She has just arrived back in town after a year’s absence, Nicholas,” the priest informed.
“Deer droppings.” The Dugan kicked the ground.
“Do I have the town representatives’ approval?” Mutterings filled the air. Say no, Lonnie begged. Don’t let a
Dugan into Pumpkin. Fear rumbled through the townsfolk. For the first time in her life, she wondered what the folks in Holly said about them. Were Pumpkin residents the equivalent of the Grinch or Scrooge? And how would they feel about one in their town?
“Good.” Father Bean clapped his hands. “Now that is settled, I think we should save our lovely picnic from the flies. God’s peace be with you.” He blessed them all before turning away and heading toward the heavily laden tables off to the side. “Honey, a word with you, please.”
Lonnie watched her cousin trail after the priest. What did he want with Honey? No way to find out unless she eavesdropped. Her feet turned her in the proper direction. A hand stopped her from moving.
“This is your family emergency, Avalon?” Scorn dripped from Orren’s well-modulated voice. “A prankster? Don’t you have any lawmen to do this? I mean, you are hardly qualified to handle this sort of affair. For Christ’s sake, Avalon, what if word reached Phoenix. Do you have any idea how it would look?”
Lonnie swatted at a fly buzzing by her head. When had a cyclone sucked up her life in its destructive vortex? More importantly, how was she to make it stop?
“I’ll tell you how it would look.” Orren’s blunt fingers punched the air next to his head. “People will say—”
“Nicholas Dugan! What is the meaning of this?”
Nick resisted the urge to hide in the crowd. He was thirty- three, long past the age where he was accountable to his father. Except…
Except he would always be his father’s son.
“Have you lost your ever-loving mind?” Anger darkened Burl Dugan’s already ruddy complexion. “Volunteering to go into that … that place”
Nick swallowed the denial. He hadn’t exactly volunteered to go. And yet, he couldn’t quite regret Father Bean’s nomination. He, Nicholas Dugan, was to be the first adult resident of Holly to set foot in Pumpkin in almost a hundred years. Maybe he could even discover the truth behind the rift in the communities. He hitched up his pants. After he got to know the delectable Miss Lynch a little better.
“Now, Burl…” His mother skidded to his father’s side. “This is not a ‘now Burl’ moment, Mattie.”
“I know, dear. I know,” she soothed.
“Then you know why the boy can’t go.”
Nick ears twitched. They were going to try to talk him out of seduc—er, investigating.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “and since this ‘boy’ is thirty- three perhaps he’ll go anyway.”
“Nicholas, that is no way to speak to your father.”
“Oh, so you two did notice me standing here?” He cleared his throat. He was a man, not a child being deprived of candy. “From the way you two carried on, I thought maybe I had accidentally activated my cloaking device.”
“You’ll be wishing for a lot more than an infernal cloaking device if you set foot in Pumpkin.”
“Gee, Dad, I left my phaser cannons and quantum torpedoes in my other saddlebags.”
“This is not the time for levity, son.” Burl’s hands wandered over his barrel chest. “Your rash actions could have consequences far beyond this generation. Solid sugar! What if the next bride doesn’t survive?”
Nick scratched his head. “Bride? Survive?” Had he missed part of the conversation? “What are you talking about?”
“The curse, boy.” His father wiggled his fingers inside his breast pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “The curse.”
“Curse? What curse?”
“The reason why no one in Holly has set foot in Pumpkin for almost a century,” Burl pronounced, handing Nick the piece of yellowed paper.
Brown letters marched across the torn and crumpled parchment.
A broken heart is not the only harm a Dugan can do. Love will raise an ill wind whenever souls mate, with a spoken vow the only safe harbor.
A pentagram was stamped at the bottom. A witch’s mark. A witch’s curse. The hair rose on the back of his neck. Lonnie Lynch was a witch. Sweat stung his eyes. She’d also paid particular attention to a certain piece of his anatomy.
“Is something going to fall off?” He casually cupped his hands in front of his pants zipper.
“Fall off. Break. Explode.” Burl shuddered. “The curse didn’t specify what tragedy would befall the Dugan women.”
Nick relaxed his guard. Women, not men. The curse would affect his niece and … “Mom?”
“Sure. Well, your mother survived.” His father paled and ran a finger between his collar and neck. “Barely.”
“Egypt survived as well.” Martha Dugan hugged her husband. “We had hoped that time had lessened the efficacy of the spell, but surely you understand why you can’t go over there and stir things up again.”
Nick stared at the paper. A curse on the women of his family. His resolve hardened. He had to protect his niece. She was just a child, an innocent and those … those witches had cursed her.
“This is the reason for the split between the towns.”
“Of course, it is. Look, son, I know you’re proud of your job, but you simply must not do this. Let someone else. Tell Father Bean you changed your mind.”
“I could write you a note,” his mother offered.
“Father Bean is not going to accept a note from my mother. This is my job, not a grade school assignment.” Nick folded the paper with the curse and tucked it into his pocket.
“He’ll understand. Your grandfather filled him in on everything when he first came here.”
“He knows about this curse?”
“Of course, he knows about the curse,” Burl chided. “What have we been talking about these last fifteen minutes?”
Nick slid his hand over his empty handcuff loop. Finding the Prankster would provide the perfect cover to find out who had cursed his family. As for his seduction of Lonnie…
“Do you know who cursed the women?”
“Not the women, son. One of those blasted witches cursed my Granddaddy Dugan. Turned every male offspring into a homicidal maniac every time we lust—er, meet our future mates. It’s like a force from beyond the grave takes over and tries to kill our intended using our bodies.”
“One of those witches?” His new partner was a witch. One of hundreds, if you included the entire female population of Pumpkin. He had to find a way to narrow the list. Motive. Motive tended to be quite specific.
“Pumpkin’s full of them.”
“Why what? Curse us?” Burl scratched his head and
shrugged. “Why do elves make toys? Because it’s what they do. And witches curse people because it’s what they do. And they enjoy their job just a much as the elves. If not more.”
“So you see why you are going to march right over there to the good Father and tell him you’ve changed your mind.” His mother snuggled closer to his father. “You un-volunteer.”
Nick shook his head. He was going. His family needed him.
“I’m a peace officer. I need to go and find out who is responsible for these pranks. If they continue through Halloween our Christmas season is going to be a nightmare.” Warmth blazed up his arm.
“What is that?” His mother pointed to his arm.
Nick looked down. One shackle of his handcuffs circled his wrist. His warm wrist. “What the heck!”
“Don’t worry, Nicholas.” Father Bean wiped the chicken crumbs from his mouth as he waddled over to them. “It’s just a simple binding spell. You and Avalon will remain no more than twenty feet from each other at all times during your investigation.”
“Twenty feet!” He couldn’t go home. Neither could he do a little late-night snooping.
“Yes, well, it will allow for a little privacy, but as neither side is very trusting…” Father Bean shrugged apologetically. “I believe you two could end this feud business, once and for all.”
“That’s all very well you for to say,” Burl Dugan growled. “It isn’t your family tree threatened by the chainsaw.”
“Why can’t he stay in Holly and investigate?” Mattie wrung her fingers.
“Because the trouble is in Pumpkin.” Father Bean offered her a gingersnap. “He’ll be fine. The mayor has guaranteed his safety. Well, Nicholas, are you up for the challenge?”
“What about the witches?” Burl Dugan prodded. “It was a coven what did the dirty deed.”
“I’m ready.” Nick stared at the cuff one last time. Curses, witches, pranksters and Lonnie Lynch—autumn in Rim Country was never dull.
Barnes and Noble—coming soon
Gabriel Stephens stared at the open door of his father’s general store. A gust of cold air rang the bell over the threshold. Visible through the plate-glass window, Phoebe sailed down the boardwalk. He’d give his eyeteeth to know what had just happened. One minute he’d been trying to focus on reading the words on the scrap of paper in front of him while his eyeballs kept darting to the beautiful Phoebe Monpetit.
And then she was gone.
Sweat greased his palms. She really had been here. He hadn’t dreamed her up. He couldn’t let her go. Not yet. Not now. Crumpling the paper in his fist, he sprinted after her. His footfalls pounded the wooden floor. Dust stirred in his wake. Catching the jamb with his palm, he executed a neat turn and raced up the boardwalk. “Phoebe! Phoebe!”
Pausing, she glanced over her shoulder. The brisk wind shelved red kisses in her wide cheekbones. Jet black hair showcased the olive tones in her skin. Ebony eyebrows arched delicately over onyx eyes. She bit her full bottom lip and turned away.
Air left his lungs in a whoosh. She wouldn’t ignore him, would she? Please, don’t ignore me.
Her shoulders slumped under the severe cut of her green woolen coat. Red mittened hands fluttered around her lush hips before landing on them. Very slowly, she spun and faced him. Her smile was as brittle as an icicle. “Did I forget something?”
Gabe slowed so he didn’t close the twenty yards between them too quickly. What was he supposed to say? How was he to get her to stay? How could he chase that loneliness from her eyes?
She tilted her head to the side. Her smile wavered then fell.
Guilt was a horse-hair shirt irritating his skin. He’d put those barricades in her expression. Breaking promises had consequences. He’d learned that from his parents’ contentious marriage. And he’d broken a doozy to Phoebe, all to escape the fighting in his home.
He’d abandoned her after vowing never to leave.
Just like everyone else in her life.
He stopped two paces in front of her and rubbed his arms through his jacket. “Brrr. I’d forgotten how cold life can be when the wind comes off the Great Lakes.”
“We live on an island. The wind can only come from Lake Huron.”
Wonderful! Now she would think he was stupid as well as untrustworthy. And how was he going to change that? By convincing her to spend time with him and earning back her trust. He didn’t know which would be the harder task. He swallowed the lump in his throat. He had to start somewhere. But where? Paper rasped against his sleeve. Her list of required supplies. That’s it. The store! God truly did watch over fools. “I was hoping you would do me a very big favor.”
Stepping back, she frowned. “What kind of favor?”
“I need to get the store restocked.” He inched toward her. Slowly. Heaven help him if she balked and fled. He would never get her back then. She knew every nook and cranny of the island. She could hide from him for years. He had to get her to stay. His heart hammered against his ribs. “We both know Mother won’t apologize to Mr. Lubeck for at least another month. I’m all alone.”
He clamped his lips together, knowing the thought of others being lonely was one of her weaknesses.
She shook her head. A lock of dark hair swept over her cheek before coming to a stop on her shoulder. The straight black tress ended below her waist. “I’m sure you can find someone—”
Her refusal punched him in the gut. He didn’t want anyone but her. Needed her at his side. He’d seen too much in Europe. And knew that she, and only she, could fill the pit hollowing him out.
And he could undo some of the damage his selfishness had done.
“Please.” He held out his bare hand in supplication. Prayers chased each other inside his head. He’d promise anything. Do anything to keep her.
She sighed and trudged toward him. “I can help today and tomorrow, but I do have my work at the school.”
Her lips contorted as if she’d tasted something bitter.
He had an inkling he had something to do with it, but couldn’t puzzle out the cause. He had yet to reach the age when he understood women or their tender feelings. “Since you’re helping me out in my hour of need, I will help you clean the school for the next two weeks.”
She blinked. “You’re willing to clean the school?”
“Why not?” Slipping his hand around hers, he wrapped his fingers around her palm. Her touch was just the right amount of heat. He had an inkling nearly everything about her was just the right amount. “I remember we used to stay after school many times from all the antics you had Jacob, Lenore, and I do during recess.”
Her lips thawed into a real smile.
His insides simmered. Oh, boy. He might be in a bit of trouble.
“If we stand here holding hands much longer, the townsfolk will talk.” She squeezed his hand.
For a moment, he almost dared her to let the townspeople talk. He wanted everyone to match them. But what if she didn’t? Jacob had said his sister, Lenore, and Phoebe had busy social calendars. Perhaps, Phoebe had a beau. Gabe glanced up and down the street. If she did have a suitor, he wasn’t very attentive.
“Yes. Absolutely.” He squared his shoulders and escorted her to the store.
Although the top of her head barely reached his chin, she matched him stride for stride.
He walked a little taller. Curtains stirred in the windows of the stores that remained open for the islanders. If Phoebe did have a suitor, he would rue the day he took her for granted. Gabe would make certain of it. He paused to allow her to precede him inside then pulled the door shut.
Hot water gurgled in the radiators. The overhead electric lamps buzzed.
Gabe nearly gagged on the heavy scent of dry goods. Coffee, in particular, always recalled his mother’s bitter recriminations, his father’s ineffective apologies, and the waves of anger and helplessness.
Stopping in an open space, Phoebe spread her arms wide, turned her face up to the lights and spun slowly in a circle. “I love the smell of this store.”
He blinked. Never, ever would he have expected to hear those words from her. They’d spent most of their summers in her grandmother’s teepee on the wooded part of their farm. “But you love the Outdoors.”
Even today, she smelled of cedar and pine.
“I love the indoors, too.” Smiling, she stopped her spinning. She bit the tip of her red mitten and pulled it off, then repeated the technique with the other. Her skin was the color of strong English tea with lots of milk.
He loved that drink.
Stuffing her mittens in her pocket, she slid the hand-carved wooden buttons free. Each rosette bobbed as the coat parted, revealing her green woolen dress underneath. “And I love the smell of this shop, in particular.”
“Why?” His stomach turned at the thought of running the store.
“Because of all the items from exotic locales.” She shrugged off her coat. Victorian puffed sleeves ballooned around her narrow shoulders. A cameo of a fish carved into a pearlescent shell clung to her high collar. The generous folds of her skirt covered her scuffed boots.
His mouth dried as he surveyed her middle.
The tailored jacket emphasized her narrow waist, full bosom, and rounded hips. The pictures she’d sent in her letters to him hadn’t done her justice. Neither had his imagination or his dreams of her.
She snapped her fingers. “Gabe? Are you listening to me?”
He shook off his inappropriate thoughts. Phoebe was a lady and his friend. He would treat her as such. “Sorry, I’d slipped away for a moment.”
She quickly shucked her jacket and laid it atop her coat on an empty display area. Then she unbuttoned the tight sleeves around her forearms. Veins wrote in delicate blue script across her pale wrists. “And I won’t ask you about your thoughts.”
“I hope not!” His body temperature soared. He forced cool air in and out of his lungs. She wasn’t baring anything current fashions didn’t already show. But this was different. She was different. He glanced behind him. Through the glass windows, he scanned the boardwalk. Empty. Perhaps he should lock them safely inside so no one else could see her exposed skin.
“I stopped reading the newspapers because news of the war was so horrible. I can’t imagine what it had been like to be there.”
War. She’d been talking about the war. Relief effervesced inside him.
She neatly folded the snowy linen to her elbows.
He licked his dry lips. Her skin looked like silk. Would it feel as soft? Would it…
“How do you wish to proceed?”
He watched her full lips move, but his ears seemed to have stopped working.
“Gabe?” She tapped her toe. “How do you wish to proceed?”
He planted himself back in the business sphere. A field he’d studied at Harvard. He knew these answers. “I thought we would open the closest crates, put the contents on the shelves, then after everything is unpacked, I’ll fulfill the orders I have waiting.”
“No?” He set his fists on his hips. He knew what he was doing. He’d gone to school just to learn how to run and expand the family business.
“No.” She combed the free lock of ebony hair from her shoulder, coiled it into a tight knot, and secured it on her coronet of braids with a pin. “You will find all the orders that need filling, then starting in the storeroom in the back, you’ll begin filling them all at once by using the empty shelves.”
Gabe eyed the narrow passage between the crates of goods waiting to be stocked. He couldn’t even see the storeroom. “It would be easier to work from the front to the back.”
“I imagine it would.” She slipped between an empty barrel for flour and one for oats, then ducked under the dusty counter. “But the older stock is in the back and should be moved first. Just like your father had you move the older cans to the front when you stocked the shelves.”
For a moment, he pictured his father standing beside the rolling ladder handing Gabe shiny cans of peas. He’d been seven and working for a brand new pocket knife. “How did you know?”
He hadn’t worked in the store for over a decade.
“You’re father told me.” She removed a dusty apron from the peg on the wall and ducked under the strap. “He always smiled when he spoke of them. I was a poor summer substitute for you. But he was proud that you had made so many friends, who invited you to spend your vacations with them.”
Gabe’s fingernails dug into his palms. His dad had been proud of him? He never knew. And he didn’t have many friends other than Jacob Kerrigan. Gabe had been desperate not to come home. Ironically, he’d seen the trip to Europe as his last enjoyment of peace before returning. He’d no sooner set foot on the continent when the ArchDuke had been assassinated. God must have a sense of humor.
Her eyes filled with concern, but she didn’t say a word. Instead, she reached under the counter and pulled out a tin of wood polish, a thick feather duster, and a cotton cloth. The tin and cloth fit into her apron pocket. The duster was secured in her tied apron strings. “I’ll start dusting the shelves and set the old cans on the counter for you to fill the orders. Work crate by crate, and bring the leftovers to me to stock.”
He nodded and shrugged out of his jacket. “My father must have taught you a lot about the business during those summers.”
“He was lonely.” Metal rattled when she dragged the rolling ladder to the shelf closest to the window.
Gabe didn’t think he was the only one. “I’m sorry.”
Turning her back to him, she climbed to the highest shelf. She hooked an elbow around the rail, then used her free hand to drop the cans to a lower shelf.
She wasn’t going to acknowledge his apology. He wasn’t going to let it go. “I promised I wouldn’t leave you alone, but I did. Worse, I convinced Jacob to enroll in the school with me.”
Depriving her of two friends. He was a cad.
She uncapped the tin and sniffed it. “Hmmm, lilacs. Did you know Mr. Lubeck gave me his recipe for furniture wax, but mine never smelled as wonderful as his.”
Smooth, experienced movements made short work of the cobwebs and dust of the top two shelves.
He crossed his arms over his chest.
Phoebe slapped at a cobweb. “We were children. I didn’t blame you.”
She should. His father had given him the opportunity to return after that first year. Two weeks had been his limit. Not even Phoebe could keep him here. The silence at school had been too seductive. Now it was a rusty blade in a new razor. The cuts it left were deep.
She relocated the cans on the next shelves to lower ones.
Gabe quickly closed the distance between them. Her skirt brushed his shoulder as he shifted the cans to the countertop. Over the scent of lilacs, he breathed in the woodsy fragrance of her.
“You are supposed to be working on those orders.” One leg stuck out behind her, providing balance as she scrubbed the far corners. “People will be stopping in to see you, and you could use the opportunity to make a few sales.”
He eyed the trim ankle, the shapely curve of her calf, all encased in a black stocking. Perhaps, he should flee temptation. “I’ll do that.”
Shoving his shaking hands in his pockets, he strode to the back room. He had to earn back her trust. Without trust, he couldn’t act on this thing between them. And, by golly, there was something between them.
Something worth fighting for.
Something he intended to win and protect. For as long as they both lived.
Only on amazon
ACTUAL AUSTRALIAN COURT DOCKET 12659 —
A lady about 8 months pregnant got on a bus.
She noticed the man opposite her was smiling at her.She immediately moved to another seat.
This time the smile turned into a grin, so she moved again.The man seemed more amused.When on the fourth move, the man burst out laughing,She complained to the driver and he had the man arrested.The case came up in court.The judge asked the man (about 20 years old) What he had to say for himself.The man replied, ‘Well your Honour, it was like this:
When the lady got on the bus, I couldn’t help but notice her condition. She sat down under a sign that said, ‘The Double Mint Twins are coming’ and I grinned.Then she moved and sat under a sign that said, ‘Logan’s Liniment will reduce the swelling,’ and I had to smile.Then she placed herself under a deodorant sign that said,
‘William’s Big Stick Did the Trick,’ and I could hardly contain myself.But, Your Honour, when she moved the fourth time And sat under a sign that said, ‘Goodyear Rubber could have prevented this Accident!’… I just lost it.’‘CASE DISMISSED!!’
Guest Post: Is Amazon a Threat to our First Amendment rights? (@Suzdemello @MFRW_ORG #ellorascave #notchilled)
Amazon is known for its ruthless business practices—it doesn’t merely squeeze competition, it strangles it until it dies.
Amazon currently sells 40% of all new books sold in the USA. Their percentage of the market in ebooks is even larger—perhaps 66% according to the above-cited Salon.com article.
Amazon is not only a book seller, but a publisher, and it favors its own imprints and minimizes the ability for readers to find its competitors. The most famous case on point is that of Hachette. Check this URL for Stephen Colbert’s clips on the issue: http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/search?keywords=Hachette
And the below is quoted from a letter sent by a group of authors to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and its BOD:
About six months ago…Amazon began sanctioning Hachette authors’ books. These sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors’ pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books.
These sanctions have driven down Hachette authors’ sales at Amazon.com by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent. These sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books. (http://www.authorsunited.net/)
Well-known is Amazon’s dislike of sexy covers, adult-oriented books and erotica; it seems to especially target purveyors of steamy books. Though Amazon touts its independent publishing program as a boon for writers, many indie published authors, especially in erotic romance, complain that Amazon’s search engine has made it difficult if not impossible for readers to find their books. The Kindle Unlimited program has cut further into their book revenues. Ellora’s Cave, one of the most prominent publishers of steamy and erotic romance on the web, has downsized radically, citing a massive drop in Amazon sales of its books as the reason.
The loyalty of many customers to Amazon is misplaced. For example, Amazon often does not feature the best online price for a book or other item. A couple of cases in point:
On 30 Sept, the price of one of my shorties, Highland Vampire, on Amazon was $2.51. The price at Harlequin’s site was $2.39.
Being the daughter of Brits, I’m a tea drinker and lately have been into using loose teas (they really do make a better cuppa). Initially I had been purchasing from Amazon—isn’t that the place we’ve all become accustomed to checking first? Then I went to the Twinings Tea site and found that I’d been grotesquely overpaying. My fave Darjeeling at Amazon costs $8.24 and it’s an “add-on item,” which is some sort of irritating practice at Amazon—I couldn’t get the tea without buying other stuff, and I couldn’t find a work-around for that bit of Amazonian weirdness.
The same tea is almost half the price–$4.49—at Twinings.
Like many, I have come to rely on Amazon for so much! I listen to music on my Amazon music player on both laptop and cellphone, and download music from Amazon as well. I’m an Amazon affiliate. I also buy books for my Kindle Paperwhite, which I love, from Amazon.
But maybe it’s time to cut the cord. Why should I fund an entity that seeks to exploit me, maybe even put me out of business?
I’ll probably take down my Amazon affiliate ads—that won’t hurt, as they’ve never earned me a penny. I’ve changed my email signature line, which used to direct folks to my Amazon author pages, to instead include my website and blog. Other changes will be harder.
I’m an Ellora’s Cave author. I also have books placed with two other publishers that have disappointed me in myriad ways—see these links:
http://www.harlequinlawsuit.com/ and scroll down to #9 at
So I want to go indie. But Createspace and KDP are fabulous platforms for self-publishing. How ethical is it, given my concerns, to use those platforms?
And beyond my personal worries, there’s the greater problem. Amazon sells a huge number of books, films, music and other creative and factual works.
Should one entity control so much of what goes into our minds and thoughts?
About the Author:
Best-selling, award-winning author Suz deMello, a.k.a Sue Swift, has written seventeen romance novels in several subgenres, including erotica, comedy, historical, paranormal, mystery and suspense, plus a number of short stories and non-fiction articles on writing. A freelance editor, she’s held the positions of managing editor and senior editor, working for such firms Totally Bound, Liquid Silver Books and Ai Press. She also takes private clients.
Her books have been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, won a contest or two, attained the finals of the RITA and hit several bestseller lists.
A former trial attorney, her passion is world travel. She’s left the US over a dozen times, including lengthy stints working overseas. She’s now writing a vampire tale and planning her next trip.
–Find her books at http://www.suzdemello.com
–For editing services, email her at email@example.com
–She tweets @Suzdemello
–Her current blog is http://www.TheVelvetLair.com
Everyone Phoebe Monpetit has ever loved eventually abandoned her. Even Gabriel Stephens, the man she thought she’d marry. For the last twelve years, she’s muddled through alone, cobbling a life together.
Gabriel took the first opportunity to escape his family’s constant fighting and rarely looked back. When war explodes across Europe, he learns what his cowardice has really cost him.
This Halloween, he’ll use every trick he can to win back Phoebe’s heart.
Will she keep her true feelings covered, or will she let Gabe unmask her heart?
Exclusive to amazon
Hope’s Point, Michigan
Phoebe Monpetit stumbled onto the boardwalk in front of the bakery. A gust of wind tugged at her woolen coat and a puff of cold air breathed against her high collar. The sky was a robin’s egg blue. Fluffy, white clouds scampered across the horizon. Beyond the row of buildings opposite her, gulls greeted each other in Crescent Harbor. Across from the Ojibwa Hotel, a horse jingled in his harness and nodded in the air.
The wind snapped at the blue awning still running the length of Stephens and Sons Dry Goods and Curiosity Emporium. Dust gathered on the display tables in the rain-spotted windows. Phoebe frowned at the white threads dangling from the tear in the canvas and the empty shelves inside. Where the dirt street met the boardwalk, remnants of last night’s snowfall gathered like yesterday’s forgotten newspaper.
Hanging the basket of empty milk bottles on the crook of her right arm, she rested her hand on the grimy brass door handle.
The sign in the window of Stephens’s Emporium was turned to open. Lights blazed inside. But no one stirred. Was the store even open? It wouldn’t be the first time Mrs. Stephens had forgotten to close up shop since her husband’s death.
And he hadn’t returned from his grand tour of Europe.
But Gabriel Stephens was expected back any day, and tomorrow she might encounter him. She wasn’t ready. She plucked at her out-of-date clothing. Not yet. She wanted to look her best when they met, in case his time on the continent had made him rethink his promises of love. Taking a deep breath, she wrenched open the door.
Bells tinkled above her head and rattled around the interior.
A dust bunny rolled across the dull wooden planks. A cobweb glistened on a stack of straw hats. A dozen canned goods were all that remained on the wall of shelves along the right. Fingerprints marred the glass case displaying the tarnished silver hair brushes on the left. A few bars of French soap held down the baskets on the bottom of the aisle closest to her. Picked over sundries filled the other aisles. Despite the emptiness, the robust scent of coffee, tobacco, and soap perfumed the air.
Taking the scrap of paper with her needed supplies out of her jacket pocket, she slipped the wooden coat buttons out of their holes. The pile of crates and barrels grew as she approached the counter. Glass crunched underfoot and her eyes burned from the cloying fragrance of roses from a broken perfume bottle. Holding her sleeve to her nose, she filtered the air coming into her lungs.
“Mrs. Stephens?” The thick fabric muffled her words and she rolled her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she uncovered her nose and mouth and tried again. “Mrs. Stephens?”
A pot clanged overhead. Then the steps creaked. In the right corner, the curtains concealing the entrance to the private living quarters on the second story fluttered. Mrs. Stephens was coming.
Phoebe retreated from the shattered perfume bottle to stand by a broken snowshoe, under the sign proclaiming Indian Curiosities. She raised her chin. She wasn’t ashamed of her Ojibwa blood anymore than her French blood. Her family had been on this island since before the United States came into being. Before the Stephens family came to Hope’s Point. And she was here on official school board business.
Hinges creaked. A hand batted at the lemon yellow curtain. Then a head appeared. Short golden curls lay against a perfectly formed skull. Matching brows descended over gray-blue eyes. Firm lips hung under a patrician nose.
Her heart faltered and stumbled to find its usual rhythm. The list of supplies slipped from her numb fingers. The neat rows of printing winked at her as the scrap of paper drifted to the ground.
Gabriel Stephens was back.
No one had warned her. No one. On her milk and egg delivery route this morning, she had seen six people and talked to each of them. Yet they had said nothing. It was a small island! The butcher, the baker, and the blacksmith all lived within a stone’s throw of the pier. They had to have known.
“I apologize for my appearance.” Gabe tucked his arms through the sleeves of his woolen jacket. A fancy white label flashed along the sleek lining before he slipped it over his broad chest.
No homemade clothing for him. Phoebe’s mouth opened and closed. Her knees trembled. She was no longer a child. She no longer had a crush on him. Her heart didn’t seem to be listening.
“Now, what can I do—” Adjusting the lapels of his suit, Gabe looked up. He blinked once. “Phoebe?”
Her reply stuck in her dry throat so she nodded.
A dimple winked in his left cheek. The one he always said came out to play just for her. His gray-blue eyes shifted into sapphire as his gaze traveled from her black hair to her muddy boots. “You are looking more beautiful than I remember.”
Desire fanned the banked coals in her belly. Heat licked at her. This shouldn’t be happening. She couldn’t allow this to be happening. Little Bird had warned her to leave the past behind. Phoebe cleared her throat. She would put an end to this nonsense and give her good sense a severe talking to later. “I see you’ve picked up more fancy learning while you’ve been away.”
His brow furrowed and he tilted his head.
Had he become so accustomed to false words that he no longer recognized the fool’s gold in their sparkle? “I imagine the sophisticated ladies of Europe appreciate your flattery, but you should remember, we islanders are plain spoken folk.”
Red suffused his cheeks. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I was born on the island.”
“True, but you spent half your life in Boston, vacationed at Newport, and rubbed shoulders with royalty.” Her teasing tasted bitter in her mouth. “You’ve washed the island patois from your speech.”
Phoebe’s teeth clicked together. Had she really just repeated his mother? She couldn’t believe it. It must be the shock of seeing him.
A glint flashed in his eyes as they shifted back to gray. “I’ve acquired a new patois. Part French, part German, and a smattering of…” Leaning forward, he dropped his voice. “Italian.”
“Never say so! Oh, the horror. However shall I understand a word you say?” Tears burned her eyes. That was the boy she’d fallen in love with. Never taking her seriously and teasing her out of her bad moods. But they were older now and wiser after a fashion. Their paths had diverged but they could still be friends. And she had to accept the olive branch he offered. Blinking rapidly to clear her vision, she slapped her hand over her mouth in feigned outrage.
He laughed. The deep timber of a man grown and certain of his power.
She envied him that. Among other people, she always felt like a boat at sea with a storm on the horizon and no safe harbor in sight. The cigar band he’d given her as a token of his undying love burned between her breasts and weighted the yarn string around her neck.
Gabe had once made her feel a part of something.
She’d slept the night through warmed by the thought.
Gray eyes twinkling, he stopped laughing to grin. “I’m sure you can understand the French, but how’s your German?”
“I still remember Mr. Lubeck teaching us to count to ten in German.” She couldn’t force the smile. Gabe and his best friend had been in Europe when the war broke out. If the newspaper reports were true, perhaps he was glad the old German shopkeeper had been fired. But how could any country that gave rise to the apple-cheeked, rotund man be so barbaric?
Gabe’s grin reversed into a frown. “Do you know why Mr. Lubeck left?”
She couldn’t tell him the truth. Gabe would get angry at the injustice. His mother needed his strength just now. Phoebe bit her lip and glanced down. Her list stared back at her. She stooped to retrieve it, giving her a chance to think of a reason.
Dropping to his knees beside her, he set his hand over the list. Long tapered fingers smoothed the curves of the letters. “You know something, Phoebe. Please tell me.”
He crooked a knuckle under her chin and raised her face to his. His blue eyes bore into the back of her skull. “Don’t lie to me. Not you.”
Something dark flashed in his eyes.
There and gone so fast she might have imagined it. Tingles sprayed her skin where he touched. Her lungs forgot how to work. Rocking back on her heels, she eased out of his touch. She cleared her throat and held his gaze. “We were worried about you when we got word war had broken out in Europe.”
His lips firmed and his mouth narrowed, but he said nothing.
“The newspapers reported that many Americans were stranded and were being mistreated.” And atrocities of such horror she couldn’t even look at the paper anymore. Shuddering, she wrapped her arms around her waist and rose to her feet. To think he had been there when the German steamroller had flattened one country then another.
Standing in front of her, he cupped her cheek. “The village where we stayed surrendered without a single shot being fired.”
Her face warmed when he swept his thumb over her cheekbone. She pulled away from him. Perhaps their friendship should be a distant one. It was safer that way. “I am glad. Père Flambeaux has remembered you and Jacob Kerrigan at Mass since August.”
Gabe’s lips twitched. “I bet mother loved that.”
“I’m sure it gave her some comfort. She was worried. We all were. Two of our favorite sons were in harm’s way.”
“We’re Americans.” Gabe lowered his hand to his side. Her list of supplies dangled from his other one. “President Wilson has made our neutrality abundantly clear. The only reason we stayed so long was to help Mr. Hoover in securing passage for others, whose guides had deserted them. Jacob traveled to Belgium to help with its relief, or he would have come home with me. Everyone was most cordial to us. I even met a few folks who respected our wishes to remain clear of the European War.”
“Just a few?” Phoebe ran her finger down a postcard of Father Marquette Park. Dust coated her finger. She quickly wiped it on her coat.
“They are at war and suffering. Both sides think that America will bring the thing quickly to an end.” He shrugged.
“Yes, but whose side? Walk a block on any city street and the loyalties shift. As for the papers… The famous Nellie Bly has gone to Germany to see the war for herself and raise sympathy for their cause. While another reporter has gone to Antwerp to speak for le petit Belge. ” Phoebe felt like she stood on the beach as the tide raced in, the ground eroding beneath her boots. Only the solid limestone of Hope’s Point was certain. “I don’t think our country could survive supporting one group over another. I already heard of a lynching of a German man in Chicago by Anglophiles and reports that the police won’t do anything about it.”
“It is a tragedy, Phee.” Gabe’s eyes narrowed. “But what does that have to do with why Mr. Lubeck left my mother in her hour of need?”
Phoebe closed her eyes. She had forgotten that stubborn streak of his. It had probably grown as wide as his shoulders.
He sighed. “Mr. Lubeck didn’t leave. Mother fired him.”
“He’s staying above the blacksmith’s. Mr. Benjamin found ever so many jobs for him to do while the season was with us.” Few people had paid the old man any mind. But there had been a couple fights in the salon during the August heat. “He’s willing to come back, if your mother apologizes.”
Gabe snorted. “I have barely seen my mother in the last twelve years, but the woman in my memories wouldn’t apologize if her life depended upon it.”
“She was worried about you. People say things they don’t mean when they’re worried.” Phoebe set her hand on his forearm.
Corded muscles felt like warm steel under his jacket. “We both know my mother is very conscious of her place in society. I’m certain she sees firing Mr. Lubeck as her patriotic duty.”
“America isn’t at war.” But there was a ring of truth to his words. Yet, why did Phoebe still rate so far down his mother’s list? Her father had been French. Also an injured party in the European War. One standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the English.
“Given that the majority of hoteliers are of English stock, this is her chance to stand in solidarity with them.” He slanted her a glance. “Guess you’re great friends now. What better way to scheme her way into island society than making friends with a descendant of one of the men who traveled with Father Marquette when he discovered Hope’s Point.”
If only. Phoebe’s skin was too dark for many drawing rooms. Not that it mattered. She was happy with her life. She jerked her hand off his sleeve. “I was sorry to hear about your father’s passing.”
Would Gabe have come home if his father hadn’t suffered a stroke and died? She’d bite her tongue off before asking. She had no claim on him. None. Why couldn’t her heart remember that? She should leave. Now, before she did something foolish. She backed toward the door.
He trod slowly after her, never closing the distance nor widening it either. “Thank you. I visited his grave when I arrived last night. The snow was a blanket of diamonds, glistening in the light of the quarter moon. Winter was his favorite time of year.”
Glistening diamonds. He really had changed. Phoebe’s heart tightened inside her chest. “I remember. He said he could finally catch up on his reading.”
“But he’d always made time to take us out in the sleigh.” Gabe’s eyes lost focus as he looked into the past. “The walks in the woods, those faint glimpses of deer, moose, and bush wolves. You and Lenore Kerrigan would always stay close to the sleigh, while Pa, Jacob, and I foraged for pinecones and birds’ nests.”
She’d never felt afraid when they had been together. Sometimes, she’d imagined the five of them to be her family. She set her hand over the ring under her chemise. Her mother was dead. Her father had deserted her for a new wife and family a thousand miles away, and had never told her half-brothers and sisters about her existence. And when she’d turned sixteen, her grandmother had left to summer alone with her people. A people that viewed Phoebe as too white. No point in feeling sorry for myself.
She took a steadying breath. “Yes, well, perhaps I should go.”
Gabe held up her list between his index finger and thumb and shook it. No dirt marred the neatly trimmed fingernails. A callus appeared on the middle finger of his writing hand. Unlike in his youth, the tanned knuckles remained free of cuts and bruises. “Don’t you want me to fill this?”
She nodded then shook her head. “I can pick it up tomorrow. You and your mother should celebrate your first day back.”
“Mother has gone to announce my return to all and sundry.” He flicked his wrist then focused on the paper. His lips moved as he read.
Phoebe rubbed her nose to cover her smile. That habit hadn’t changed.
“What are you cleaning to need so many supplies?” Brow furrowed in confusion, he looked up.
“I clean the school.” She straightened. And the school board’s salary would allow her to buy more chicks and piglets in the spring, maybe even another milk cow. Many of the hotels would purchase her eggs and milk. Who knows, maybe she could even buy a fancy store dress, gloves, hat, and parasol at the end of next summer.
Gabe’s eyes widened in surprise. “You clean the school?”
“Yes, and I’m well paid for it too.” Phoebe raised her chin. She was lucky to get the job. Most folks on Hope’s Point had nothing to do during the winter months after the tourists had returned home.
He blinked and shuttered his expression. “What happened to old Bessie?”
“She said she couldn’t take another island winter and moved south with her son and his family.” Phoebe’s stomach cramped. Gabe didn’t approve of her job. Not that it mattered. It was good, honest work. A strand of hair came loose from her coronet of braids and tickled her cheek. She raised her hand to tuck it behind her ear and caught sight of the chapped, reddened skin of her fingers and palms. A laborer’s hands. Her nose prickled. She wouldn’t feel ashamed. She wouldn’t.
“Will you keep me company while I fill your order?”
She trapped a yes behind her teeth. “I should be getting home. There’s so much I need to do before Gigi returns to the farm today.”
His head snapped up. “Your grandmother left you alone?”
“I’m twenty years old, not two. I can manage.” Phoebe smiled. Although that first summer, she nearly caught their log cabin on fire. “Besides I’m not alone. I have old Thom.”
Gabe flashed his dimple. “Mother let me give him to you because he was the runt of the litter. I knew you would see him through that first winter.”
She remembered, too. It had been her first gift ever. “He’s the best mouser on the farm and is always bringing me the heads of his latest kills. He’s certainly no longer a runt but the king cat of the barn.”
And her faithful companion. Her only friend after Jacob and Lenore Kerrigan left the island to continue their education. Most of the townsfolk were friendly, but it wasn’t the same. And she couldn’t risk another heartbreak after Lenore left when they were sixteen. Thankfully, she had returned two years later and their friendship had picked right up.
Gabe scratched his freshly-shaved chin. “I would like to see the old puss.”
Her mouth dried. He’d have to come out to the farm for that. After all the palaces, castles, and fine homes he’d seen, he would see the old homestead as squalor and mud. She couldn’t let him come. “I’ll bring him by sometime. Maybe tomorrow morning when I pick up the cleaning supplies.”
“It’s good to have you back. And see you. And have you safe.” Mon Dieu! She was rambling. She had to leave. Now. Twirling on her heel, she sped toward the door and the outside. She would be safe from him outside. At home, there’d practically be the whole of the island between them. Once at the cabin, she’d take herself firmly in hand and rid herself of her foolishness once and for all. She threw open the door and rushed outside. “Goodbye.”
Forever. Until her heart learned its place, she couldn’t risk seeing Gabriel Stephens again. Ever.
You’re An EXTREME Redneck When . . . . .
You let your 14-year-old daughter smoke at the dinner table in front of her kids.
The Blue Book value of your truck goes up and down depending on how much gas is in it.
You’ve been married three times and still have the same in-laws.
You think a woman who is out of your league bowls on a different night.
You wonder how service stations keep their rest rooms so clean.
Someone in your family died right after saying ‘Hey, guys, watch this’.
You think Dom Perignon is a Mafia leader.
A ceiling fan once ruined your wife’s hairdo.
Your junior prom offered day care.
You think the last words of the Star-Spangled Banner are ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’.
You lit a match in the bathroom and your house exploded right off its wheels.
The Halloween pumpkin on your porch has more teeth than your spouse.
You have to go outside to get something from the fridge.
One of your kids was born on a pool table.
You need one more hole punched in your card to get a freebie at the House of Tattoos.
You can’t get married to your sweetheart because there’s a law against it.
You think loading the dishwasher means getting your wife drunk.