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The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling
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Free Excerpt Featuring Kathryn Shay’s Just In Time, a Classic Contemporary Romance Trilogy—With a Time Travel Twist

Last week we announced that Kathryn Shay’s Just In Time: Portals of Time is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!

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A classic Kathryn Shay contemporary romance—with a time travel twist…

The PORTALS OF TIME trilogy combines heart-wrenching emotions and biting social commentary with unique futuristic elements. Three women travel back from the 26th century to right the wrongs of society today so that humankind can continue to exist. Journey with them as they fight for both the future and the men they unexpectedly come to love.

In JUST IN TIME, Dorian Masters must save the life of research scientist Jess Cromwell by preventing his murder in five months. Cromwell’s work would eventually set the standard for eradicating all carbon emissions. But Dorian has to find the assassin first, while Jess’s brother, Luke, cynical New York cop and exasperating man, seems determined to stand in her way. Unaware of her background, Luke questions her suitability as a bodyguard and challenges her on the mistakes she makes about everyday things, including how she talks. But the stakes are high and together they race against time to save Jess’s life.

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  And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:

Chapter 1, present day

The air in Dr. Jess Cromwell’s office stirred and the temperature in the room spiked. Sparks shot out from nowhere as the entire space crackled. And then, in front of him, on the old braided rug, little lights began to take shape. It was like molecules coming together. Right before his eyes, a human form materialized.

Jess blinked, thinking he must be going mad. But no, he saw this. Really saw it. Uh-oh. Not it. Them. After the first body, a second and third formed; three women had appeared, literally, in his Vista Institute office! The scene could have come out of a Star Trek episode where the transporter beamed people from one place to another. For an instant, the three of them stood stiffly, then one toppled to the ground, then the second, then the third.

“Oh, good Lord,” he said as he rushed to them. Mirage or no mirage, he couldn’t stand by and watch three people faint and do nothing.

Disentangling the women from each other—they were solid forms all right—he stretched them out flat on the floor. They were breathing, so he took their pulses first. Fast, really fast, but steady. There was no way to loosen their clothing; he could see no zippers or Velcro on their dull, gray tunics made of some light material, with trousers to match. He’d whipped out his cell phone to call the ambulance when one of them roused. She was the tallest, most muscular and toned. When her eyes opened, they were a startling, pure green. She blinked, like a cat watching a human.

“Greetings,” she said in a sleep-slurred voice.

Man, he was losing it. The woman had recited an alien’s line straight out of some science fiction movie.

When she sat up, she moaned, squinted and massaged her temples. “You are Dr. Jess Cromwell.” It wasn’t a question.

“Am I?”

Frowning, she scanned the room then nodded. “This is the desired location. I recognize it from the computeller screen.”

Just last week, Science Today, a magazine in which Jess had published several articles on his research, had run a photo shoot of him, and they’d included pictures of him in his office. The feature had been in print and online. Because he’d been getting quasi-threatening emails, his cop brother, Luke, had had a fit about the publicity.

At his hesitation, she asked, “Are these not the correct coordinates? In the year 2014?”

“Coordinates? 2014?”

Again, she nodded, just as the second woman shifted on the rug. This one came awake fast and bolted to a sitting position. When she opened her eyes, she glanced at her companions. “We made it, Dorian.”

“We did, Alisha.”

“I ache all over.”

This Alisha frowned. “As do I. Ignore it.” She faced Jess. “Cromwell, right?”

He shook his head. “I’m hallucinating. Helen said I would if I didn’t stop working so hard.”

“Helen is the spousal unit,” Alisha offered.

The bigger one, Dorian, looked past her friend with a worried expression. “Celeste is still unconscious.”

Alisha came to her feet shakily and swayed. Jess reached out just in time to catch her. Once again, she felt real enough. “Steady there.”

Frowning, she stared at his hand on her arm as if she wasn’t accustomed to being touched. Then she bent over her friend who was still out cold. “I wondered if she could make the jump, if she had enough stamina.” Sticking her hand into some sort of sack she carried—all three had similar black pouches looped around their necks—Alisha drew out what looked like a small tablet, but thicker. The device blinked and buzzed as she ran it above the prone woman’s body. “Vital signs normal. Brain activity erratic.”

Dorian nodded. “They always are on her.”

“No, the central Multimed examined her before we left so I’d have a baseline. These readings are different.”

“I hope she’s not too ill from temporal displacement. The jump would affect her the most.”

Jess said, “I can call nine-one-one.”

Alisha cocked her head. “Emergency medical care that arrives on wheels. Primitive life-saving efforts.”

“Excuse me?”

“We don’t need that.” Alisha turned to her cohort. “Help me get Celeste to the sitting conformer.” Though their movements were stiff, the two women picked up the unconscious one and carried her to the sofa as if she weighed nothing.

Dorian touched the cushion of the old leather couch that had once graced his family room and he sometimes slept on if he worked all night. “The furniture is hard. I forgot it would be.” They placed the unconscious woman—Celeste–on the sofa. “Uncomfortable.”

As if to underscore her words, Celeste shifted and moaned, like Dorian had.

Jess took a long look at them. If he was losing his marbles, he was going out smiling. The three of them were knockouts. Very fit. Thick manes of hair, short but beautiful. Nice eyes, nice features…nice everything. Again, Jess shook his head, blinked twice, but the women didn’t go away. For God’s sake, what was happening here? “Where did you come from? And how did you materialize in my office?”

Alisha stood beside Dorian. “Perhaps you should sit down for this.”

He watched her for a minute, then went to his industrial-steel desk, pulled out the chair and sat.

“Okay, hit me with it.”

“Why would we do him physical harm?” Dorian asked Alisha. “We’re here to protect him.”

This had something to do with the threats? Or was Luke jerking his chain? Jess might have believed that, except the women had formed out of nowhere, right before his eyes. Even his excellent cop brother couldn’t pull off that little trick. No one could and that included assassins. So he was probably safe.

Trying to stay calm, he asked, “How did you get here?”
“We traveled through a portal”—Alisha pulled out another thick tablet look-alike—“with this device. We’re from the future, Dr. Cromwell.”

He laughed. “Sure you are.” Blank looks. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”

“This isn’t some version of your twenty-first century humor. I assure you, we came from 2514.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”

Dorian straightened her shoulders. “Because, Dr. Cromwell, your research to stop carbon emissions which pollute the air may prevent the world’s end. However, at some point in the next two of what you call months, someone is going to kill you. We’ve come to prevent your death from occurring.”

oOo

Because of the hammerjack pounding in her head, her sore musculature and the dizziness, Dorian breathed in deeply. She was weakened from the jump, which they’d anticipated would happen, but she wasn’t used to even a modicum of corporeal frailty. As head of the Institute for Physical Stamina, her life task was to keep the members of society at the apex of fitness.

Summoning her strength, she stepped closer to the man seated next to his work space. He looked different in real life than on the chips, where they’d viewed his image. He was smaller than she’d pictured and he had interesting lines fanning out from his eyes, though his age was close to hers. Men of this time period lost their hair and his was gone, which was truly odd to witness. And—she sniffed—his smell was unlike the males she’d joined with.

“Dr. Cromwell, I’m Dorian Masters. I assure you we’re telling the truth. It’s why we teleportaled here, into your work space. We wanted you to see us arrive so that we could convince you who we are and when we come from.” She held up her personal computeller. “There’s data on this machine that will prove our veracity—you will indeed be killed in a relatively short period of time.”

The man paled.

“He’s upset. And afraid.”

All three glanced across the room, where Celeste had roused and spoken. Her face was pale, her blue eyes bloodshot and she pressed her palm into her stomach. Dorian hoped she didn’t vomit.

Closing the distance between them, Alisha scanned Celeste with the first handheld device. “Brain’s still irregular, but physically, she’s fine.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that.” When Celeste stood, she winced and wobbled a bit. After closing her eyes to regain her balance, she walked over to Cromwell. Her body was curvier than the others. “Hello, Dr. Cromwell.”

“You’ve got your stories straight, at least.”

“Stories?” Celeste asked.

“He doesn’t believe us.” Dorian didn’t blame him.

After a brief hesitation, Celeste picked up Cromwell’s hand. She shivered. As a sensitive, she could feel and sometimes take on people’s emotions. “He doesn’t know what to believe. He’s uneasy and frightened. We must show him the proof we carry.”

Alisha was already setting up her computeller. She placed it on the surface of the work space. “Enlarge screen.”

Dr. Cromwell was wide-eyed as the screen expanded to twenty-by-twenty. He said, “Holy shit.”

“Crude expletive combined with a religious term, which makes no sense,” Alisha commented. Then she ordered, “Reveal the fate of the inhabitants in 2514.”

Buzz. Whir. Click. Then the machine announced, “The world will end seventy-five years from the specified date.”

Cromwell’s skin was now ashen. “And you know this how?”

“Computeller, explain time travel to Dr. Jess Cromwell.”

“Society has the ability to project into the future, as well as backtrack into the past. Projection was approved for scientific purposes in the twenty-fourth century, but only by the Guardians and under strict regulations.”

“Who are the Guardians?” Jess asked.

“World leaders.”

“What did you find out when you went forward?”

The computer continued, “In our most recent experiments, we discovered some catastrophic facts. As of seventy-five yearlings after the date we traveled from, we hit a wall. No projection was possible beyond that.”

“Why?” Jess asked.

“Because, as was said, the world ends. Travelers were able to transport to the future right up until then. However, the events of the previous decade are cloudy. Test jumpers arrived but could not move beyond the portal. They could see only outlines, hear spoken language, no more than that. But in 2589, the researchers could not find even a portal that opens. The conclusion is the future society simply ceases to exist.”

Stunned silence from the doctor.

Alisha’s brows furrowed. “I helped determine this, Dr. Cromwell. I’m head of the Institute for Archeology which, for obvious reasons, works closely with the Institute of Temporal Studies on backtracking. I can assure you that our generation was the last.”

“Humankind dies off?” Jess asked. “Completely?”

Dorian nodded.

Alisha continued, “This explains why we’ve decided to come back in time and alter certain events in hopes of preventing annihilation.”

“And exactly what do I do to prevent this?”

“It will be best to show you.” To the computer she ordered, “Activate program on Dr. Jess Cromwell.”

“All data?” the computeller asked.

“Affirmative.”

The computeller clicked for several seconds. “Information available.”

They had hoped Cromwell’s scientific curiosity would make him amenable, and it seemed to. He rolled his chair closer to the computeller, his frown showing more of his eye lines. Absently, Dorian touched her cheek. She was glad for the advancements in aging that scientists of her time period had made, then chided herself for being vain when their mission was so serious.

“Jess Lucas Cromwell, born seventeen, oh-seven, 1970. Donors, Allison Leigh and Lucas Cromwell. Ritualized cohabitation on twelve, oh-four, 1965. First offspring, a brother, Lucas Cromwell, four yearlings before Jess. Donors’ life work: female was a teacher of science and male a NASA specialist. Offspring’s life work: first born, criminal justice and second, research scientist.”

The computeller proceeded to track Jess Cromwell’s life in text and videos. His schooling, his friends, his relationship with Helen Harmon, their ritualized cohabitation, his education.

Throughout it all, Cromwell’s frown grew more intense, and he started to sweat, something else Dorian had never experienced because of their temperature-controlled air. It was fascinating to watch tiny beads of water appear on his brow. “Anyone could know this about me from the Internet,” he finally said.

They were aware of the Internet and, now that they were in this time period, would use the network to create backgrounds for themselves once they got settled.

Celeste frowned. “He may not be ready to witness the rest.”

“We have no choice.” As usual, Alisha spoke without emotion. “Time’s running out, pardon the pun. Proceed,” she instructed the computeller.

“Jess Cromwell is murdered in 2014.”

“How?” Jess asked, his voice gruff.

“Vehicular accident. People of the time period call it a hit-and-run. That is when the perpetrator leaves the scene of a crime.”

“Damn. That sucks.”

Alisha shook her head. “Don’t look at me. I have no idea what that idiom means.” As an archeologist, she’d come along to acclimate Celeste and Dorian to this society. She was expected to know idioms and slang, but some terminology escaped her.

“Poor Helen.” The man wiped his face with a white cloth taken from his pocket. “Christ. I’m starting to buy into this.”

Alisha gave a slight nod. “We’ll show you more to fully convince you.”

The computeller played videos of newsprint articles about Cromwell’s death. But there were omissions in the timeline because many of the chips from 2014 had become corroded. Consequently, they didn’t know the exact date of his demise. “I still can’t believe it.” He looked up at them. “How can I?”

“He needs more motivation,” Alisha said. “Let’s try this.” She forwarded ahead to events after his death.

Cromwell’s face reddened. “What the fuck?”

Fuck. A derogatory term for joining.

He glared at the screen. “I don’t have a daughter.” His pleasant, now-confused features hardened. “If this is some kind of joke, then it’s cruel, given how much Helen and I wanted a child and couldn’t have one.”

“You’ll have one, Dr. Cromwell.” Celeste’s voice was soothing. “By these calculations, your mate will conceive in her womb soon.”

“Now I know I’m having delusions.”

“Listen further.”

There was a snippet of a ceremony.

“Helen married somebody else?” His tone indicated umbrage, another thing Dorian didn’t understand. “How long after I’m gone?”

“Five yearlings…years.”

“I guess that would be okay.” He sighed. “Look, this isn’t proof. These videos could all be fabricated. It’s too unbelievable.”

“You died, Dr. Cromwell.” Alisha’s voice was curt. “And we believe the person who engineered your demise did so in order to preclude the completion of your research on the safe extraction of natural gas from the earth. Your findings led to a myriad of other developments in the eradication of carbon emissions from the environment.”

“Look, lady, if I died, somebody else would take up my research. As much as I’d like to think I’m indispensable, fracking is increasing our energy supplies, with a lot of big money behind it.”

“You’re incorrect. As I said, your research was special in its containment of methane emissions in a way no one else would discover. But the work you did was stopped by your death, and before someone else could pick up the threads or recreate it, a horrible environmental accident occurred and there was widespread contamination of the ground and water. Thousands of people were sickened or killed. All research on natural-gas extraction was halted, and soon after, the oil companies lobbied the governments of most countries and convinced them this area of energy drilling was too dangerous.”

“I’m so close to a breakthrough. Didn’t people care about what I left unfinished?”

“They were brainwashed, greedy and believed what was most beneficial for them. The dangers of climate change would just start to be taken seriously, and special interest groups would convince the population it was a hoax. That, and your fairly insane electoral process to choose leaders were corrupted so badly, the underminers were successful.”

“Dr. Cromwell,” Celeste said softly, “someone murdered you over your research.”

“My brother was right, then.”

“Your male sibling?” Dorian asked. “He’s in agreement with us?”

“Luke’s been telling me I’m in danger. I’ve been getting warnings.”

“Yes, through an archaic communicative method called email. To date, you’ve received four. Soon they will stop.” Dorian took pity on him. “It makes sense to conclude the sender has some connection with petroleum.”

“An employee of an oil company is warning me of this threat to my life?”

“The sender writes to you as watchingoutforyou@xmail.com.  He or she obviously knows someone intends to terminate you because of your research. Perhaps the sender is the one who must kill you if you don’t heed the warning.” Alisha hesitated. “This was his last bullet.”

“Excuse me?”

“I may have gotten the idiom wrong. His last…shot at stopping you?”

Sighing heavily, Cromwell leaned back in his chair.

Celeste crossed to him and knelt down. Again, she touched his hand. Again, she trembled. “We’re prepared to show you what the time where we come from holds, Dr. Cromwell.”

He cocked his head. “Is that why you want to save my life?”

“Yes, we believe that if you do not complete your research, the pollution of the future will spiral out of control, and mankind will be doomed.”

“My research prevents that from happening?” he asked again. He needed assurance.

“It’s the basis for other research, yes, that prevents future destruction.”

A slow smile spread across his face. “Man, I’d like to believe that.”

“Then let us convince you.”

Again he was thoughtful. “Wait a minute. Are you sure you can change the course of the future?”

“Ninety-nine point one percent sure,” Alisha quoted.

“Then what the hell? This is one great dream…a daughter, my research changing the course of history.”

“It will be if you don’t die,” Alisha said soberly. “If you do, that dream turns into a nightmare for all of humanity.”

Chapter 2

His frustration level going through the goddamn roof, Luke Cromwell stared hard at his brilliant brother. He felt that way often with Jess, and had from the time they were young. “You’re kidding, right?”

Jess fidgeted. Now, when he was nervous, he worried the wedding band on his left hand. When they were kids, he’d scratched his head. “What’s the problem? You’ve been after me to do something about those emails, and I am.”

“Hiring a bodyguard without consulting your brother, who’s a Lieutenant in the Special Investigations Unit of the NYPD, is ridiculous. Why the hell would you do something like this without my help or at least my advice?”

His brother’s face flushed. “I didn’t. Vista Institute did. They fund my research, so I told them about the emails—after you got on me about them so much.”

Luke remembered the conversation…

You have a beautiful wife. Be a shame to leave her alone. Wise up, will you little brother? Let me track down these warnings or whatever they are.

His chin raised, Jess continued, “They’ve worked with her company before.”

The comment made his blood pressure spike. “Her? Your bodyguard’s female?  You’re going to spend all your waking hours with another woman? Oh, I’ll bet Helen will be overjoyed when she learns of the threats and of that little fact.”

Jess gave a goofy smile that Luke didn’t understand. “Helen will be fine once…” He didn’t finish, just crooked a shoulder. “She’ll worry less now that I have protection.”

“I was thinking of jealousy. The green-eyed monster.”

“Helen, jealous? Come on Luke, we’ve been together since high school. Why would I ever stray?”

Precisely because you’ve been together since then. But Luke didn’t voice that opinion. He knew he was overprotective of Jess, and also that his own failed marriage—thanks in part to that monster he’d mentioned—had made him cynical. Plus, Jess and Helen were closer than any couple he knew. Not being able to have kids had created a deep bond between them. “Let’s table that. What’s the new bodyguard’s training, background and skill level?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I told you, Vista took care of all this.”

“Then, I’ll find out. All I need is her name and date of birth to run a background check.”

“No, Luke, I don’t want you to interfere. The company’s concerned enough about me and my research that they’ve provided me protection. They’ve checked out her credentials. I don’t want you to go any further with her.”

Stung, he steepled his fingers. “Fine. You don’t trust my judgment, the hell with it.”

“I trust your judgment. But the situation is under control. Let it go.”

“Sure.” He pushed his chair away from the desk. “So, when do I get to meet her?”
“She’s outside. In the reception area.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, she started today. She got into town two days ago.” Jess stood and walked to the door. Before he opened it, he looked over his shoulder and said, “Be nice.”

Not on your life. “Always.”

Briefly, Jess stepped into the hall, then came back with his bodyguard. Jesus, this was worse than Luke had anticipated. The woman was super attractive. Not his type, though, because she was a little too tall and muscular—he liked his women petite and curvy—but she had a face that could stop traffic. Her hair wasn’t his preference, either—too short—but it shone under the overhead lights. Nice eyes…

“Dorian Masters, meet my brother, Luke Cromwell.”

She strode into the room stiffly, as if she was uncomfortable. Wearing a stark black suit with a crisp white shirt, she spoke first. “Lieutenant Cromwell.” She stuck out her hand, he took it, and she gripped his so tightly it would hurt a lesser man. “My pleasure is to meet you.”

“Yeah, you, too.” He drew back his hand. “Have a seat.”

Glancing around the office, she dropped down onto the chair across from Jess’s. She winced a bit when she sat and rubbed her fingers on the wooden arm. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes when she spoke to him. “Jess has told me a great deal about you.”

“Funny, he told me nothing about you.”

“Why is that humorous?”

Odd. “Just an expression.” Alerted by the strange comment, he studied her. “So, tell me your background. If you don’t mind, I’d like to know who’s watching over my little bro.”

A question in her eyes at his statement. “I anticipate you’re concerned about his welfare. I’ll inform you of my history. I was born in Virginia, which is just outside of Washington, D.C.”
No shit.

“Shortly after, my family moved to South America as missionaries. I attended a private boarding school there and spoke primarily Spanish. We returned to the United Amer…the United States of America when I was eighteen so I could receive further education.” She gave him the satisfied expression of a child who’d successfully recited her catechism. “When I completed eight yearl…years of education, I formed my own private protective agency, Masterminds, which was hired by the Vista Institute to guard Dr. Cromwell. He’s received warnings about his safety.”

Masterminds, as in Dorian Masters. Cute. “Warnings, which up until now, he ignored.”

Her dark brows knit. “I assure you those threats are real. He’s in grave danger.”

Luke held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, lady, you’re preaching to the choir.”

Though Dorian had no idea what that meant, she tried to hide it. Alisha had warned her not to show reaction to phraseology she didn’t understand. The idioms of this time period were going to be a problem. Dorian could never learn them all, so she had to ignore what she could.

However, she hadn’t anticipated keeping who she was a secret from Dr. Cromwell’s family. It had taken hours of re-explanation and review of the history chips, but once they convinced Dr. Cromwell who they were, he’d been adamant about secrecy…

“Helen will freak out if she hears I’m going to be murdered. We only have each other. She lost her parents at a young age, so my family took her in. And if she does get pregnant, I don’t want her upset by this. It’ll be bad enough when she finds out I kept the threats from her. We can’t tell her I’m going to die. We don’t have to, if you stop this…plot. We’ll just say you’re my bodyguard. Maybe later we can fill her in…”

“Dorian, Luke asked you a question.”

“Repeat please.”

He hesitated. “Why don’t you outline for me the way this is going to shake out.”

Oh, dear.

“We have a plan for protection all in place, Luke.” Jess was cuing her, she realized.

“We do. I’ll move into his spare sleeping space until the identity of the email sender and the plot against Jess is uncovered. I’ll accompany him to work and to other functions.”

“So his protection will be out in the open?”

Jess answered. “No, we’re going to say she’s Helen’s cousin and came here to take a job as my assistant in the lab.”
“And live with you?”

“She’s from out of town.” Under his breath, Jess said, “Way out of town. She doesn’t know anybody here.”

“What about going out at night?”

“We ought to be able to work the cousin thing in that way—we’re showing her around town.”

In his peripheral vision, she saw Luke watching her so she stifled the urge to fidget. She was used to dealing with powerful men in her life’s work. But she never truly understood them, because other than professional contact, and joining, of course, men and women of the future didn’t have interaction. As they apparently did in this time period, she’d learned from the chips.

“No offense, Ms. Masters, but I don’t like that I was left out of this decision.”

That decision had surprised her, too. She assumed they’d at least tell the brother, if not his spouse, and avoid more subterfuge. She’d suggested Jess do that…

“We should inform your sibling.”

“No. He’ll never believe you. If he didn’t see with his own eyes what I saw, he’ll doubt you. He’s always been the skeptic of the family. It’s why he’s a good cop. He’ll buy the bodyguard idea easier, believe me…”

“Ms. Masters?” the cop said now, bringing her back to the present.

“I’ll protect your brother with my life, Lieutenant. I swear on the godheads.”

“Excuse me?”
“Oh. The term is from an ancient religion I follow.” She might have followed a religion if the universe hadn’t lost its faith, along with its air and ability to reproduce.

“Never heard that term.” The scowl made his face look older. It was a nice face, though, with interesting angles. And his brown eyes were deep and liquid, swirling with different shades. People of her time had pure colored eyes with no variation. His hair was cut shorter than the men of her time and a rich brown.

“Well,” he said with an angry glance at his brother. “I guess I have no choice but to accept you. For the record, Jess, I wish you’d done it all differently.”

Smiling, Jess answered. “We’ll be fine.”

“I assume, now that you agree you’re in danger, you’ll let me investigate the warnings in an official capacity.”

Jess looked to Dorian for confirmation. She nodded.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. Then to her, “Now, shall we go home and tell Helen about all this?”

“That’s acceptable to me.”

Luke stood. “Mind if I come along? I’d like to see Helen’s reaction.” More quietly he added, “I’m sure there’ll be hell to pay, too.”

Jess agreed, but Dorian could tell he wasn’t happy about his brother accompanying him. Neither was she. Her bodyguard status had annoyed the sibling. And she didn’t need Celeste’s powers to tell her that Lucas Cromwell, Jr. was going to be a problem.

oOo

On the trip to Jess’s dwelling, Dorian sat in the front seat of the auto vehicle trying to breathe only through her nose. The bumpy ride caused her stomach to pitch, and the stink of the gasoline made her gag. No wonder the world had succumbed to covering entire regions with Domes in the future. The bombardment of poisons emitted daily into the atmosphere from hundreds of thousands of vehicles was horrendous.

“You okay?” Jess asked. “You’re white as a ghost.”

“The smell and movement is causing me distress.”

“I’ll bet. You obviously don’t have cars.”

“No, moving walks get us from place to place, and we use air cycles run on crystals for emergencies when we must travel farther, which doesn’t happen often.”

“Your description of the future is unbelievable.”

She gestured to encompass the vehicle. “So is this. To me.” She glanced out the aperture. Despite the smell of the car, what she saw there still amazed her. Daylight. And sun—glorious, warm sun—which had been totally obscured by her time period.

After they’d arrived in Jess’s office the previous revolution (a total anachronism because they had no sun) and convinced Jess of who they were, they’d walked down from his office to what he called a hotel. Nighttime out of inside had been surreal; people actually walking around in the air was totally foreign to them, though they were accustomed to darkness. But they’d been weakened by the jump and could not fully take in the situation. He’d gotten them a group of rooms called a suite, where they could rest. Only this dawning (another irrelevant term carried over from earlier times) had they actually seen real grass and trees, and gone out of inside to feel the warm rays of the sun. Celeste had come close to leaking moisture from her eyes, she was so moved by their surroundings.

Finally, Dorian and Jess completed the trip. When they drew up to his residence, her mouth gaped. “I’ve never seen a dwelling so big.” She almost couldn’t take in the multiple-level living space for only two people.

“We inherited the place from Helen’s parents. It is big, I guess. A lot bigger than the hotel you three are staying at.”

They’d secured the…rooms with the currency from the diamonds they’d brought with them. In their time, the gems were on display at the Ancient Galleries but had little value. Today, the opposite was true, as they’d researched. Jess had gone to trade the stones in exchange for the current currency in a region called Manhattan, which had not yet imploded on itself and sunk into the water as it would in the twenty-second century.

Once they stopped and exited the vehicle, they entered into the eating space of the dwelling. Kitchen, Dorian corrected herself. And the auto-vehicle space was in a garage. She’d been trying to think in their terms, but she was still weak from temporal displacement and her mind was not yet functioning with acuity.

“Honey, I’m home.” Jess called out the strange message and placed the auto vehicle’s starting device into a container on a shelf; she followed him farther into the room. Immediately, her stomach roiled again. The smell in here was so intense, she became nauseous.
“Are you all right?” Jess asked.

She pinched her nose. “The smell…”

He sniffed. “Mmm, spaghetti sauce. Haven’t you had it before?”

“No. We have no food, as you know it, in my time.”

“What?

“Natural resources ran out near 2200. Survival depends on water drilled from the earth’s core by robotic means, purified and distributed in carefully meted dosages. Nourishment is taken in tablet form, three times a day, with vitamin content and nutrients measured for age, body height and weight and muscle mass.”

“Aw, wow. What a shame.”
“Why?”

Even his eyes smiled. “Wait until you take a taste of supper and you’ll find out.”

Her stomach contracted at the thought.

A door slammed, and Luke stepped into the kitchen right behind Dorian. This close, he seemed bigger than he had when he’d been seated behind his work space…desk. He was taller than she’d first determined, and his shoulders were wide under his clothing. She noticed how muscular his chest area was. He was an interesting male specimen. “Hey, guys. Where’s Helen?”

“I don’t know. School’s finished for the day, and her car is here. I’ll go upstairs and check.” He glanced at Dorian. “You okay?”

“Yes.”

“Have a seat at the table.”

Dorian went into the dining space off the kitchen, trying to cover her shock at the real wood that was everywhere. She’d never seen wooden floors, box-like things that held utensils, and more wood around the apertures…windows, they were called. She dropped down on a chair, still surprised at its hardness. It made her derriere sore and she missed the conformers.

When Jess left, Luke didn’t lower himself to sit. Instead, he leaned against a wood box with a shelf made of what looked like real stone and stuck his hands in his pockets. He wore brown clothing with little white stripes through it, a white shirt and blue neck cloth. The outfit appeared extremely uncomfortable, like the one she was forced to wear. Jess had purchased scratchy, impractical items for her. She much preferred the two-piece gray tunic and trousers people of her time dressed in.

Not particularly wanting to be around him, she gave him a perfunctory smile.

“So,” he said, his suspicious tone alerting her to focus. “Tell me why the company chose Masterminds to guard Jess.”

“I’m in peak condition, I have an IQ of one hundred and eighty-nine, and expertise in weaponry.”

“And you speak oddly.”

Knowing their speech patterns might not be in sync with the time, before the jump, they’d discussed with the Guardians how to handle the issue. “As I told you, I was raised in another country, a more primitive culture. I was bilingual but didn’t speak English for a long time. My speech patterns aren’t like yours.”

“Yet you don’t have an accent.”

“I’ve perfected English.”

Those dark eyes bored into her. “I have to tell you, Ms. Masters, something about you bothers me.”

“I’m aware that chauvinism is prominent in society, Lieutenant Cromwell. But you have female police officers, don’t you?”

“Hell, yes. Some of our best cops are women.”

“Then, you object to me why?”

“Because, lady, you just don’t ring true.”

Lady? It must be a derogatory term, because Jess had also used it that way when they first arrived.

“Hello.” The wire mesh on the huge opening of the wall adjacent to Dorian slid back and in stepped Helen Cromwell. Dorian had seen her in the chips, but still, she had to force herself not to gawk as the woman came inside. She was as petite as a youngling, no more than five feet tall. Her features were so delicate that she appeared…breakable. And light reddish hair reached down her back almost to her hips. How did the woman even survive with such fragility about her?

“Hi, beautiful.” Luke stepped forward and brushed his lips over her cheek. Dorian knew males and females here had contact outside of joining, but she thought that happened only between mates.

“Hey, handsome.” She looked at Dorian, her eyes widening and her smile brighter. “You finally brought a woman to meet us.”

“Ah, no, Jess brought her here.”

A slight frown.

“There you are.” Jess entered the room, and when his gaze rested on Helen, his face transformed, causing Dorian to take in a quick breath. He enveloped his spouse in a kind of embrace Dorian had only felt with a man in joining. He smacked his lips with hers. “Hello, love.”

They kept arms around each other’s waists. It was fascinating.

“Luke says you brought…” She looked at Dorian. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

“Dorian Masters.” Dorian extended her hand and took Helen’s. Her bones were also fragile; Dorian was afraid one would snap with too much pressure, so she squeezed lightly.

“Let’s sit, honey. I need to talk to you.”

The three of them occupied confor…chairs around the table. Luke stayed where he was.

“There are some things you don’t know.” Jess held Helen’s hand in both of his, the gesture tender. “Some things I haven’t told you.”

“Really?”

Jess explained briefly about the emails.

When he’d finished, Helen raised her chin, and her face reddened. Dorian knew that to be from emotion. “And you didn’t tell me any of this? I wasn’t aware we kept secrets, Jess.”

“I’m sorry. I felt it was best.”

The woman looked to Luke. “You knew about the threats?”

He squirmed like younglings did on the chips. “Um, yeah.”

Throwing back her chair, Helen stood. She didn’t seem so slight anymore. She crossed to the bowl in the shelf—the sink—and turned a metal mechanism. Even though Dorian had experienced it at the hotel, she was still stunned to see actual running water come out of a spigot and how the extra that didn’t go into the glass was squandered.

After Helen had sipped the drink, she faced them. “I’m furious with you both. We’ll have to deal with that at some point. Right now, tell me the rest.”

Jess was visibly upset, but he explained that Vista Institute had hired him a bodyguard. “They chose Dorian.”

A brief arch of an eyebrow. “I see.” The woman studied Dorian. “And you’re the best they have, Ms. Masters?”

“Yes, Mrs. Cromwell, I am.”

“Good.” She returned to the table. “Tell me how this will work. I’ll do anything to help keep Jess safe.”

Sighing, Jess reached out for her hand. Helen drew it back. “You’re not getting off this easily, Jess. You either, Luke. But we’ll put that aside for now.”

Dorian had just finished the outline of how the body guarding would work when someone out of inside came up to the wire mesh on the wall. With something alongside of him.

“Mrs. Cromwell, my mother said—” The speaker stopped. “Oops. Sorry, we didn’t know you had company.”

This time, Dorian did indeed gawk.

Because, though she’d viewed the chips of this, too, she’d never actually seen a living, breathing youngling…or a real drog.

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Sixteen-year-old Leah Grant has given up on being normal. She’d settle for stopping the voices in her head, intrusive visions of the future, and better odds of making it to her seventeenth birthday. That’s the thing about pretending to be human in a world where magic used to exist – at any moment, her cover could be blown and she’ll be burned to death like the rest of the witches.

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by Ashley H. Farley

4.4 stars – 44 Reviews
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A boy, his sister, and her psychopathic roommate. When Katherine Langley’s roommate, Emma, disappears from a house party on New Year’s Day, the only evidence left is a single set of footprints in the snow leading down to a deserted dock.

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A beautiful opera singer hangs herself on the eve of her debut at the Met.  Seven years later the opera she was rehearsing–Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann–begins to take over the lives of her two schizophrenic children, the doctors who treat them and everyone else who crosses their paths, until all are enmeshed in a world of deception, delusion and death.  Onto this shadowy stage steps Nicole P., a graduate student who discovers that she too has been assigned a role in the drama.  What strange destiny is being worked out in their lives?

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by Christine Nolfi

 

Copyright © 2013 by Christine Nolfi and published here with her permission
Chapter 1

Dr. Mary Chance feared she’d poison half of Liberty on her restaurant’s reopening day.

Not that she’d personally put the town at risk. Ethel Lynn Percible’s cooking skills were to blame. Her slippery hold on the summit of culinary greatness had Mary wishing she’d dumped antacids instead of mints in the crystal bowl beside the cash register. Perhaps the elderly cook hadn’t quite poisoned anyone. But the historic recipes Mary hoped to serve arrived soggy, lumpy, undercooked or scorched to a fine black sheen.

A trim woman in a severe grey suit rose from a table. “I hope you were a better doctor than you are a business woman,” she snapped. Storming past, she favored Mary with a dismissive glance. “You should’ve opened an emergency room instead of a restaurant. Or better yet, both. Then you’d have a thriving business.”

For a shattering moment, Mary connected with her frigid gaze. The woman had ordered the opening day special—Martha Washington’s beef stew. She’d received a concoction that resembled glue and smelled worse.

In the center of the dining room, the young waitress Mary had rehired tried to fend off a barrage of insults. Delia Molek’s voice rose like a violin’s plucked string. Trapped beneath antique pewter sconces by a portly man, she ditched patience and began arguing with the disenchanted patron.

In contrast, Ethel Lynn hid in the kitchen. She’d suffered a host of culinary calamities since the first customer arrived at seven A.M. Maybe she was infected with opening day jitters. Maybe she would serve up savory meals once she got into the swing of things. The restaurant had closed for six months. In the fervor of new and disbelieving ownership, Mary had overhauled the menu. She’d brought back a delectable array of historic recipes like succulent beef dotted with cloves and cakes sweetened with Rum that had once graced the finest Colonial tables. The new menu featured a Civil War recipe of chicken seared with cherries, gingered turnips, rich puddings and a Spice Cake from the Roaring Twenties so beloved by Calvin Coolidge during his presidency that he’d made the confection a White House staple.

No wonder Ethel Lynn’s skills needed polish. Surely the historic recipes were to blame for her bad start.

Mary stopped wringing her hands as Delia marched up.

The waitress nodded at the portly man fleeing to the street. “He didn’t leave a tip.”

“Would you? I’m grateful he didn’t demand a refund.”

The waitress popped a stick of gum into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “So. Your first day is a train wreck. Guess what? We still have the dinner rush tonight.”

Mary surveyed the patriotic decorations festooned throughout the dining room, a treasure trove of Americana harking back to the restaurant’s inception during The Civil War. So many beautiful things, but they’d gone unappreciated. Diners noticed little but the glop on their plates.

Her heart sank. “There won’t be a dinner rush. After the meals Ethel Lynn made for the breakfast and lunch crowds, we won’t see a soul.”

Delia approached the picture window. “I hope the town council doesn’t burn up the phone lines scaring off our customers.” She squinted at the courthouse anchoring the north end of Liberty Square. “Then again, they have a soft spot for Miss Meg. It might stop them from passing legislation condemning this place.”

“Maybe I should ask my aunt to fire off an email.” Would long-distance lobbying work?

“You should—Meg can fix anything.” The mirth on Delia’s face died as she added, “We were all sorry to see her go.”

And sorry to see me arrive? Mary resisted the unwarranted thought. Didn’t everyone in the small town treat her kindly? Sure, she suspected they gossiped whenever she moved out of earshot. She’d come around a corner in Liberty Square only to find chattering women huddled on the cobblestone walk. One glimpse of her and they’d burst apart like so much confetti showering down on Times Square. The men were no better. If she strolled past the courthouse they stared blatantly, making her wonder when was the last time Liberty had taken on a new resident.

Dismissing the thought, she said, “I know everyone misses Aunt Meg.” She ignored the curiosity glittering in Delia’s blue eyes. “She called an hour ago—from Tibet. She’s praying with the monks.”

“She sure is eccentric.”

Incorrigible was more like it. “She’s practicing yoga with the monks then having a drink once they retire for the night. How she smuggled booze into a monastery is anyone’s guess.”

“Makes her own rules, that’s how.” Delia tipped her head to the side. “She’s also an open book, which you aren’t. You never talk about yourself.”

Mary crossed her arms. “I will when I have something to say.”

Evidently the young waitress wasn’t buying. “Everyone has stuff to talk about,” she said. “Like, why did you agree to take over this dump? And what’s it like being a doctor? Do you miss it?”

“Not at the moment.” Worry over bankruptcy occupied most of her thoughts. “Well, I miss my patients. But I don’t want to talk about it.”

In truth her emotions were sorely in need of CPR. And her bank account languished on death’s door after generous Aunt Meg handed over the restaurant and waltzed into retirement.

True, her aunt’s largesse was perfectly timed. Though Mary was loath to explain, she’d eagerly left Cincinnati for a yearlong sabbatical from medicine. Slogging through her residency and working long hours in the ER had left her exhausted. When the unthinkable happened, she handed in her resignation and packed her meager belongings in two suitcases. Grief over the sudden death of her friend and confidant, Dr. Sadie Goldstein, wouldn’t abate any time soon. She needed time to heal.

None of which was suitable conversation with the gum-popping Delia. Excusing herself, she returned to the kitchen.

Ethel Lynn fluttered before the stove like a butterfly abandoned in the carnage of the kitchen. Her oversized apron swung in loose folds. She padded her fingers across the collar of her bluebell-patterned dress, a retro number that seemed better suited for the Eisenhower era, much like Ethel Lynn herself.

“Is the lunch rush over, dear?” she asked. “I’m ready if you need anything.”

Mary hesitated. “Why don’t I take over for a few hours? You look frazzled.”

Ethel Lynn threw back her shoulders. “I’m fit as a fiddle!”

Right. The woman possessed the metabolism of a sparrow on amphetamines. She’d worried her way through the renovations after the restaurant changed hands. Ethel Lynn had perspired in her delicate way, lace handkerchief at the ready, as the dining room took on a new coat of creamy paint and patriotic bunting was hung on the picture window. Now they’d reopened to disastrous results. Predictably, she seemed ready to fret into a full-blown state of distress.

Which was never good for a woman on the far side of sixty.

Gently, Mary patted her on the back. “About your cooking . . . there’ve been a few complaints. Do you need another pair of hands in the kitchen?”

Ethel Lynn turned her palms skyward. “What’s wrong with this set?”

“I mean, well—it is a lot of work. Too much work for one woman.”

“Nonsense. This establishment manages fine with one cook.” Ethel Lynn puffed out her sparrow’s chest. “You rehired the staff, didn’t you?”

“I rehired Delia,” Mary corrected.

“Only Delia?”

“I called the other waitress. She refused my offer.” The mysterious Finney Smith had blistered Mary with a few choice words before slamming down the phone. Shocking, sure, but who cared if they were short one waitress? “We’ll find a replacement for Finney. Honestly, I can’t imagine a woman like that waiting tables.” Not unless the tables were in Sing Sing.

A squeak popped from Ethel Lynn’s throat. “It’s about Finney,” she whispered, and something in her voice sent goose bumps down Mary’s spine. “She wasn’t a waitress, dear. Her job was—heavens to Betsy—a tad more important.”

Mary’s pulse scuttled. “What do you mean?”

*  *  *

Blossom’s dad thought a lot about dying.

She supposed it was natural given all the pain, blood tests, and hospital visits they’d endured. Going through it, years of it, had changed him. It put lines on his forehead and doubt in his eyes. She’d watched the changes color him, as if he’d been a pencil sketch before the ordeal and was now bolded in by the blues and grays of his experience with cancer.

She wanted to tear up that picture, throw it into a garbage can of unwanted memories. She’d heard for herself the word Dr. Lash used. Remission.

It was over. Finished. The word always made her happy. Then she’d think about her dad, stuck on his thoughts of death.

Which made her sad.

Pausing on Second Street, Blossom tugged the book bag’s straps across her shoulders. Feeling self-conscious, she hesitated beside the large picture window where a curtain patterned like the American flag hung in heavy folds.

She hooked a curl behind her ear and glanced down the street like a spy afraid of being noticed. Which was stupid. She was a sixth grader at Liberty Middle School and knew everyone in town.

Before she might chicken out, she peeked in the window.

No one in sight. Blossom toed the ground with the tip of her bright red tennis shoe. On a silent prayer she swung her gaze to the long counter hemmed in by bar stools. Her mood soared. Mary was there, all right.

Ducking out of sight, she leaned against the wall’s rough bricks as the fizzy elation ran down to her toes.

Then she dashed across the street.

She ran diagonally through the park-like center green of Liberty Square. Maple trees wagged leaves in the breeze. The scent of freshly mown grass mingled with the sweet aroma of lavender spilling in waves across the sidewalk.

Moving faster, she narrowed her concentration with an adolescent blend of purpose and amusement. Sure, her dad worried about death. Grown-ups did all sorts of stupid things. He acted as if death lurked outside the door, which she knew was a silly idea. Death wasn’t cloaked in black, waiting to snatch you away.

Yet no matter how many times she reassured her father, he saw death as the enemy. He believed in it.

That was nonsense. Blossom knew with an eleven year old’s certainty that death was outsmarted by good doctors and positive thoughts. Wishing helped, too.

Buoyed by the warm May air and her foolproof plan, she ambled across the hot pavement of the Gas & Go. Inside the garage her father clattered around the pit, working beneath a late model Toyota.

“Hey, there.” She spotted the vintage oak office chair, her favorite, and dropped onto it. “How ya doin’?”

“Hi, kiddo,” Anthony Perini called from inside the pit. “How was school?”

“Just counting the days until my prison break.” She yawned theatrically. “Guess what? The restaurant reopened this morning. Been there yet?”

A rattling erupted beneath the car. “Too busy.” Several bolts clanked into a tray.

“Go over and meet the new owner. She’s nicer than prissy Meade Williams.”

“Don’t start. All right?”

It was an old request. Meade Williams posed the biggest threat to Blossom’s emotional well-being since she and her dad had high-tailed it out of the hospital last year. Rich and as plastic as a platinum-haired Barbie doll, Meade was now upping the ante. The cosmetics entrepreneur filled her Mercedes at the Gas & Go so frequently she was probably siphoning off gas in a cornfield to keep her fuel gauge on empty.

Ditching the thought, Blossom said, “If you aren’t careful, Meade will have you doing the goosestep to the altar. You don’t know women like I do. I am a woman.”

“We aren’t having this conversation.”

“Face it, Dad. If I don’t give you advice, who will?” She wheeled the chair to the garage door. Sunshine dappled the quaint shops and the restaurant on the other side of Liberty Square. “The lady at the restaurant is pretty. You’ve got to meet her.”

Beneath the Toyota, a tool clanked. “Meet who?”

She wheeled close, happy she’d caught his attention. “The lady—I think she’s Miss Meg’s niece. She’s a real looker.”

“If you say so.”

“Aren’t you interested?”

A grease-stained hand popped out from beneath the car and grabbed the air ratchet’s snaking black hose. The hand disappeared underneath, as an ear-splitting, motorized whirring roared through the garage.

When the tool fell silent, Blossom continued. “She has brownish-red hair down to her shoulders and green eyes. She’s kind of shy, like she’s scared or something. She even fixed up the boring old menu. I’ll bet the stuff she’s making is better than your cooking.”

“Hard to believe anyone cooks better than me.”

“A lady like that must be a great cook.”

“Whatever.”

Frustrated by his lack of interest, she kicked away the bolts he’d thrown from the pit. “She changed the restaurant’s name. It’s now The Second Chance Grill. Her name is Mary Chance, by the way.”

“Great.”

“She’s younger than you. Twenty-eight or twenty-nine—nowhere near the old fart stage.” Like Meade. “C’mon Dad, take me over for a sundae.” Her father muttered a curse before climbing out of the pit. Plastering on a smile, she added, “You’ve got to see her.”

When he paused before her, she wrinkled her nose. He was grease monkey all the way. Droplets of motor oil dotted his curly brown hair. Oil glazed the side of his large nose. Beneath deep brown eyes, smudges of black covered his cheeks. To top it off, he stank of eau de gasoline and perspiration.

“You’re a stink pot.” She pushed the office chair toward the garage door and the reprieve of springtime air. “And you’re ruining your clothes. Geez, we’ll never get the gunk out of your jeans. Not even with ten boxes of detergent.”

Looking mildly offended, he ran his palms down his filthy tee-shirt. “Why are you always bugging me about my clothes?”

“You’re a good looking guy, that’s all. Clean up once in awhile. Strut your stuff.”

He gave her the quizzical look that meant she’d crossed the line of father-daughter relationships—a line she didn’t think existed.

She rolled her eyes at the ceiling. “I hate to point out the obvious but you need a date. Meade stalking you doesn’t count.”

“Blossom—”

“How long’s it been? Can you remember the last time you had a date?”

“Not really.”

“That’s why she’s got you in her sights. It’s about damn time you found a nice woman.”

He threw a sharp glance. “You shouldn’t swear.”

“You shouldn’t make me.”

She pulled her attention from the ceiling and leveled it on his sweet, teddy bear gaze. It never failed to warm her when he looked at her that way. It also made her sad, the worry lurking in his eyes, the concern he tried to hide.

He’d had that look her whole life.

Crouching, he clasped the chair’s armrests. “Blossom, the last couple of years nearly did us in. It’s a miracle we survived. I can’t imagine thinking about a woman or dating or—”

“You don’t have to worry.” She patted his greasy cheek. “We’re fine.”

The concern in his eyes deepened. “I know.”

“Try believing it.”

A weary smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “I’m trying.”

He let the chair go, and she snatched the paper bag at her feet. Following him across the garage, she said, “I brought clothes. You can wash up and change.”

“You what?”

She lifted the bag. “Clean clothes. Let’s go to The Second Chance for a sugar buzz.”

“Shouldn’t you go home, do homework or something?”

“Got it done in study hall.” She pulled out a pair of jeans and wagged them before his nose. “Can we go to Miss Mary’s restaurant? Please?”

Her father leaned against the doorjamb, shaking his head. “Shit, you never give up.”

She tipped up her chin. “You shouldn’t swear.”

He offered a lopsided grin. “You shouldn’t make me.”

* * *

The now-familiar girl with the corkscrew curls and red tennis shoes entered from the street. She’d been peering in the window for days, an amusing state of affairs. A tall man in jeans followed. Mary nodded in greeting. Hopefully they’d arrived for an afternoon snack that wouldn’t put Ethel Lynn anywhere near the stove.

To her eternal relief, the girl asked, “Do you have sundaes?”

“With twenty flavors of ice cream.” She reached for the order pad as they slid onto barstools. “Would you like menus?”

The girl smiled broadly, revealing pearly teeth. “Naw, I’ll stick to chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce. And sprinkles, if you’ve got ‘em.” Light sparkled in her toffee-colored eyes. “I’m Blossom Perini. You’re Mary, right?”

“I am. It’s nice to meet you.”

The man quietly studied her, sending a pang of discomfort through her. He had the most expressive eyes—almond shaped, and a deep, warm brown. Like Blossom, his hair was a darker brown, and curly. An older brother? Or Blossom’s father? He possessed the well-toned build of a man who worked out, lending him a youthful appearance. Deducing their relationship was impossible.

Immediately Blossom cleared up the mystery. “This is my dad, Anthony.”

Mary extended her hand. “Hello.”

“It’s a pleasure.” He surged to his feet to give a handshake formal enough for colleagues meeting at a medical convention.

But he didn’t let go after the obligatory three seconds. With a start, she wondered if an odd bit of food was stuck on her face. Flecks of ash from the sausage Ethel Lynn had burned? With her free hand she made a self-conscious swipe at her cheek.

Clearly aware of her discomfort, he released her fingers and jerked back. He continued to stand behind the barstool in what she decided was a state of utter confusion. She didn’t know how to proceed, not with him staring at her and Blossom watching the interchange with ill-concealed mirth.

Blossom yanked on his sleeve and he dropped back onto his barstool. “Do you want coffee?” she asked.

The question drew Anthony’s attention back to his daughter. When he nodded in the affirmative, Mary tried to regain her composure. She stole a glance at the mirror behind the bar—no smudges, no food anywhere on her face. What had he been gaping at? Surely she appeared presentable, if a little exhausted. Given the apologies she’d doled out all day long, who wouldn’t look haggard?

Shrugging it off, she scooped ice cream then fetched the coffee pot. She’d just finished pouring when Anthony said, “So you’re Meg’s niece. How is she?”

“Traveling the world.” His remarks were light, and much friendlier than his strange, first reaction and so she added, “Meg’s decision to turn over the restaurant came as a shock. I’d never visited. I should’ve found the time.”

“I would’ve remembered seeing you.”

He seared her with a smoldering look. Was he flirting? The possibility boosted her sagging spirits.

Steering the conversation to safe ground, she said, “It’s been a crazy week. I’m still sorting through the antiques in the storage room and cleaning things up.”

“This is the oldest landmark in town but Meg hadn’t been turning much of a profit.” Anthony took a sip of his coffee. “I’m sure you’ll have better luck.”

“I hope so.”

An attractive grin edged onto his mouth. “I hear Ethel Lynn is still around.” He nodded toward the kitchen. “Keep her on a short leash. She’s . . . high strung.”

Mary chuckled. “And as eccentric as my aunt.”

“Eccentric? Wait until you get a load of Theodora Hendricks.” He warmed to his story. “Closing in on eighty years old, she thinks yellow lights mean ‘hurry’ and red means ‘floor it.’ She’s a bit crabby and about four feet tall—she drives a sky blue Cadillac. If you see her barreling down the road, get out of the way.”

His eyes danced, drawing a laugh from Mary. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll watch out for her.”

The kitchen door swung open and Ethel Lynn fluttered out. “Now, Anthony, you know better than to frighten Mary with tales of Theodora’s driving.”

“She’s had six fender-benders in the last year. Trust me with the numbers. I’m stuck working on her car every time.”

“You do bodywork?” Mary asked. His body didn’t need any work. He was a glorious study of lean muscle and commanding height. Squashing the thought, she added, “I mean, if you work on cars . . .”

“I’m a mechanic. The bodywork is a side business. Theodora is my best customer.”

He shrugged and Mary decided she liked Blossom’s father. He was attractive and sweet, and extremely protective of his daughter. Since they’d arrived, he’d reached behind his daughter’s back several times to pat her affectionately or rub her shoulders. It was heartwarming to see a man so engaged with his child.

Anthony turned to Ethel Lynn. “Does the change of ownership mean you’re retiring, too?” he asked.

“I promised Meg I’d stay until Mary settles in,” she said.

“Meaning you’d like to retire?” Mary savored the thought of ridding herself of the fretful woman. Guilt washed through her—Ethel Lynn was Aunt Meg’s closest friend.

Blossom, finishing her sundae, scanned the newly painted dining room. “I think Mary is doing great by herself.”

Anthony nudged her shoulder. “She’s Miss Chance to you.” He gave an assessing glance. “Or is it Mrs?”

“Dad, I told you—she isn’t married. Everyone knows that.” Blossom regarded Mary. “Well, Miss Chance, I like everything you’ve done to the place. Especially the new name.”

Mary smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”

“The Second Chance Grill. It’s a great name.” The girl tugged on her father’s sleeve. “Everyone deserves a second chance. Right, Dad?”

Her inoffensive comment drove sorrow into Anthony’s gaze. Mary’s breath caught. Both Ethel Lynn and Blossom missed the expression, vanquished quickly from his face. But Mary recognized it, a demonstration of intense pain deftly hidden a moment after it appeared. It was an emotion she knew too well.

Like Anthony, she’d learned how to hide the pain as soon as it surfaced. The sudden death of her closest friend, the loss of Sadie’s calm presence and unwavering confidence—all the dreams they’d shared about building a medical practice together had vanished in an instant.

She dispelled the memory before it gripped her heart. Well, she’d finish grieving before returning to Cincinnati. Once The Second Chance Grill was solvent, she’d get on with her life.

Drawing from her thoughts, she blinked. Then flinched—she was still staring at Anthony. Flushing, she pulled her gaze away. But not before his eyes grew dull with some confusing mix of emotion. Clearly he understood: she’d glimpsed his pain. His emotions were laid bare before her, a perfect stranger.

Her mouth went dry as his expression closed. Embarrassed, she stepped back as he rose and paid the check. Murmuring a farewell, he led Blossom out.

They skirted across Liberty Square. “What . . . was that?” Mary whispered.

Ethel Lynn looked up with confusion. “What, dear?”

“Anthony was so upset when Blossom said everyone deserves a second chance.” Why had the remark upset him? Trying to work it out, she asked, “What’s the story between him and Blossom’s mother?”

Ethel Lynn waved the question away. “Hells bells. Anthony dated Cheryl when they were teenagers. She got pregnant and he did the honorable thing by marrying her. Two years after Blossom came along, Cheryl fell for a guitarist and skedaddled off to Florida.”

The explanation was depressing and common. “Does Cheryl visit Blossom?” Mary asked.

Ethel Lynn snorted. “Good grief, we haven’t seen her in years. I doubt Blossom remembers her. Good riddance, I say.”

“No wonder Blossom’s comment upset her father. With a wife like that, he doesn’t believe in second chances.”

Silence descended on the dining room. Ethel Lynn seemed lost at sea, her expression clouding and her gaze faraway. An odd foreboding filled Mary.

Slowly Ethel Lynn withdrew a lace handkerchief from the pocket of her dress. “You don’t understand,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “Blossom has leukemia. Last year she was so sick, we weren’t sure she’d make it. The cancer is in remission, thank God.”

The news struck Mary hard. “And Anthony?” she finally asked. “How’s he managing?”

Sorrow bent Ethel Lynn’s spine. “He’s afraid to believe in second chances. He’s learned to live each day as if it’s Blossom’s last.”

Chapter 2

Learning of Blossom’s leukemia added considerably to Mary’s anxiety the following morning as she drove out of Liberty in search of Finney Smith’s house.

She glanced at the address Ethel Lynn had jotted down before returning her attention to the road. Swatches of pink light brushed the newly plowed fields. Up ahead, a farmer on a tractor kicked up dust as he tilled the brown earth. She drove past with her thoughts wending back to Blossom.

Given Mary’s background in medicine, she couldn’t help but wonder about the prognosis. Leukemia was the number one type of cancer in children. When did Blossom receive the diagnosis? Was her remission stable, or did she still undergo treatment? And how did her single father manage? Like any doctor, Mary understood how stressful caring for an ill child became for a parent. Anthony’s confrontation with Blossom’s cancer might have affected his own health. Did he suffer sleepless nights? Have an ulcer?

Considering his wellbeing was the easier choice. She’d trained for a career as a general practitioner. Pediatrics had been the area of expertise of her closest friend, Dr. Sadie Goldstein. Before Sadie’s death, during those nights when they’d stayed up late discussing the practice they’d soon share, she’d talked with excitement about serving Cincinnati’s poorest children. Nothing about childhood illness frightened her. During their residencies at Cinci General, she gladly did the rounds of common ailments like an ear infection or a broken femur. But she’d never feared working with the life-threatening cases, like cancer.

Mary had always known she didn’t possess Sadie’s fortitude. During a rotation in oncology, she’d worked with a man losing his battle with prostate cancer. His smile said ‘Surfer Dude’ even though he was well past sixty. Throughout an increasingly unsuccessful course of treatment, he talked of taking one last trip to Hawaii with his wife. Too weak to surf the Pacific’s whitecaps, he’d appeared eager, even serene, about one last stroll on the beach.

Many of the adults she’d one day serve would confront disease, even death. Maturity would see them through life’s most difficult passage. Steering a vulnerable child through the frightening journey to death—as Sadie would’ve done with cool-headed compassion—was beyond Mary’s emotional skills. Pity filled her as she imagined the impact of Blossom’s ordeal on her devoted father.

Brushing away the thought, she scanned the countryside for signs of life. There wasn’t time this morning to consider a single father’s struggles or his daughter’s prognosis. She had a restaurant to manage. If she didn’t talk the cook into returning to work, The Second Chance Grill would soon close.

She cut a sharp right onto Elmwood, a woodsy stretch of road void of houses. On the side of the road a ravine swept down at a steep pitch. The soothing melody of the green, gurgling waters reached her ears. A thick line of evergreen trees blotted out the morning light, throwing shadows across the car’s hood.

Where was the house? She slowed to a crawl to consider her options. Give up looking for the cook’s house and return to Liberty? It wasn’t as if she’d worked out a suitable plan for convincing Finney to resume her job at the restaurant. Last night at closing, a nervous Ethel Lynn had admitted that she’d fired the cook weeks ago. Chances were, Finney had already secured another job. Convincing her to return might prove impossible.

Gravel crunched beneath the car’s wheels. Past a stand of maple trees, a white house sat lonely in a patch of yellowing grass.

The house needed a paint job. A truck pockmarked with rust sat in the driveway. Music blared across the lonely expanse. Did Finney have a teenager? Or was the cook a fan of screaming guitars?

Unsure, Mary parked and got out. Anxiety darted through her but she started up the steps.

And might’ve knocked, if the door hadn’t jerked open first.

“What do you want?” The woman didn’t wait for a reply. Turning away, she shouted, “Dang it all, Randy! Turn the music down!”

Mary floundered as the house fell into silence. She was quite a bit taller than the heavy-set woman before her. Finney’s shirt sported rumples but her brassy blond hair was neatly brushed. And she was as curvaceous as a woman could be. Despite her rampant femininity, a decidedly masculine aura surrounded her.

Squaring her shoulders, Mary asked, “You’re Finney Smith, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. Are you stupid?”

She attempted a smile, and failed. “Finney,” she said, her lips frozen in a grimace. “It’s unusual. Is it Irish?”

The cook folded her arms across her ample bosom. “It’s Filomena and I don’t know what it is.”

“Filomena. Why, that’s beautiful. Why don’t you use it?”

“It’s too long.”

“Filly?”

Finney glared. “Do I look like a horse?”

Mary stalled, unsure of how to proceed. In fact, the woman was as voluptuous as a Rubens despite her Farmer Joe jeans and plaid shirt. The shirt seemed ready to release her generous breasts from their unfashionable prison.

Starting over seemed wise. “I apologize for stopping by without an invitation,” she said. “I’m the new owner of the—”

“I know who you are. Get in here.”

Finney grabbed her by the wrist. Mary stumbled into the tiny foyer. Further down the hallway, a lanky teenage boy sauntered into the kitchen. No time to offer a greeting—a push on the back sent her lurching into the family room with its beat-up green couch.

A teenage girl’s voice rang out from the kitchen. Then the boy’s voice as a squabble erupted. So Finney had two kids. Mary recalled Ethel Lynn mentioning a deceased husband. A police officer, he’d died in an accident on I-90 several years ago. Evidently the cook supported two teenagers on her own. And barely, from the looks of the place.

“Sit there,” Finney said, breaking into her thoughts. Mary sank down onto the couch and the cook added, “Did the nibby old bat tell you why she fired me?”

“Ethel Lynn? No.” Mary pressed her knees together, conscious she was sitting like a disobedient child. “Would you like to explain?”

“Hell, no.” Finney paced before the couch. “Meade Williams has no right throwing her weight around when she’s inside my restaurant. Complaining because I put sour cream in the low-fat ranch dressing! I don’t use much, just a few tablespoons. So I threw her out.”

“Who’s Meade?” she asked, trying to keep up.

Finney snorted. “You haven’t met Liberty’s belle of fashion? She’s chasing our town’s favorite son, Anthony Perini. He owns the Gas & Go across the Square from the restaurant. He’s Mr. Fix-it.”

“I’ve met him,” Mary offered. “He’s nice.”

“God bless him, he’s always fixing something at the restaurant. But he’s got a problem. Meade has him in her sights. He’ll be hog-tied and hauled into marriage before the year’s out.”

“So they’re seeing each other?” The possibility sent relief through her. Ridiculously, she’d experienced the stirring of attraction when they’d met. A true inconvenience since she had more pressing concerns like convincing Finney to return to work, preferably today.

“It’s more like Meade’s on the hunt and Anthony is running for cover,” the cook said. “Why do you ask? Do you have the hots for him? Half the women in town do, you know.”

Mary angled her neck back. “I don’t have the hots for him, no.”

“Well, you are stupid. He’s the only eligible bachelor in town. Maybe you put men off. You seem the type.”

“You don’t know the first thing about me!”

“I put men off, too,” the cook said, missing the heated denial. “But for different reasons. I’m not strung tight, like you. Mine’s a different problem. I come on a little strong.”

“Like a bull?” Clearly she needed a seminar on polishing her people skills. An entire semester of White Gloves and Party Manners.

The insult stamped pleasure on the cook’s face. “Men don’t take well to strong women. The sissies.” She changed track. “Your Aunt Meg is a good woman.”

“Thanks.”

“She never so much as mentioned having a niece. Nice of her to leave you the restaurant.”

“I thought she was joking when she called to tell me.”

“Who jokes about real estate? I hope you thanked her.”

“Of course.”

Despite Finney’s brusque nature, Mary found herself softening. The cook lived a hardscrabble life that seemed a place of meager hope and limited possibilities. A basket of laundry sat on the rug, the tee shirts and blue jeans folded with military precision. The jar on the windowsill brimmed with daffodils. Despite difficult circumstances, she clearly took pride in the smallest things.

“Meg knew I needed a change.” Glad for an opening, she donned a look of sincerity. “Listen, Ethel Lynn never should’ve fired you. Certainly not without consulting me first.”

“Damn right.”

“If I’d been in town, I would’ve stopped her.”

Finney shrugged off the apology. “Why did you need a change?” she asked.

The question hung in the air. From the kitchen, the girl shouted and the boy let loose a string of profanity. The back door slammed shut.

She smiled gamely. “A friend died.” Of course, Sadie had been so much more. Her touchstone. Her sister in every way except blood. “I needed a sabbatical from medicine and my aunt wanted to retire. When she suggested I come to Liberty, I jumped at the chance.”

The explanation seemed to satisfy the cook. “Sometimes we all need a change of pace.” She offered a sympathetic glance. “What happened to your friend?”

“She was working late, downtown.” Grief settled in Mary’s chest. A twelve-hour stint at the hospital—no wonder Sadie hadn’t seen the car. “She was dashing across the street. A drunk driver hit her.”

“Good Lord.”

The pity on the cook’s face intensified the sorrow in Mary’s chest. “Sadie was killed instantly,” she said, wondering why sharing such an awful memory gave a respite from the pain. “It happened so quickly … I don’t think she felt anything. I’m grateful for that. I’ll always be grateful.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Pulling from the reverie, Mary returned to the task at hand. “Will you come back? The restaurant will go under without you.”

“Now there’s a news flash. Can’t run the restaurant without me.”

“Finney, please.”

The cook snatched up a notepad and a pen from the coffee table. She scribbled furiously then thrust the pad toward Mary. “This here’s my hourly amount. I’ll work fifty hours a week . . . and this here’s my weekly pay. I gave myself a raise for general aggravation.”

“General aggravation?”

“I heard you’re letting that old bat, Ethel Lynn, stick around. I suppose that makes you crazier than a loon but we all have our faults.” She planted her feet. “You’ll pay me on Fridays.”

“I will?”

“Miss a Friday and I’ll make your life hell.” She tapped the edge of the notepad. “This is my final offer.”

So Mary wouldn’t have to beg. Finney wanted to return. The pay she requested was more than reasonable. Mary was about to agree when the cook spoke again.

“Now I have a few questions for you.” She lowered her generous body onto the couch. “I like a good understanding of my employer. Ethel Lynn, well, she’s as buggy as a flea-infested mattress. How ‘bout you?”

“I don’t conjure imaginary friends,” she offered dryly. She might have laughed if the cook hadn’t been serious. Quickly, she added, “Finney, we’ll get along fine.”

“How many eating establishments have you owned?”

“Before this one?” The nerves she’d put at bay returned.

“Were you the cook in a fancy place? If Meg left you the restaurant you must have culinary experience.”

Wasn’t it enough that she’d survived med school and a grueling residency? “I don’t have experience. So what? How hard can it be to run The Second Chance?”

“You think running Liberty’s only restaurant is a walk in the park? Are you crazy?”

“We aren’t talking brain surgery. It’s a restaurant.”

Finney arched a brow. “What exactly are your qualifications?”

“I’m a doctor,” Mary snapped.

Finney sucked in a breath. “Run that by me again.”

* * *

Stifling a yawn, Anthony dragged himself from the master bedroom.

Inside the bathroom at the end of the hallway, Blossom gyrated wildly before the mirror. A portion of her back popped into view as she struggled mightily with a stretch of slingshot-like material. Evidently she risked losing the battle. Wrenching the strap up past her elbow, she growled with fury. The fabric snapped back and she veered into the wall with a loud thump! The sound sent Anthony hurrying down the stairwell.

With horror, he resisted the notion sinking into his skull. The effort went unrewarded. The truth hammered his grey matter, forever ending his parenting bliss.

Blossom had bought a bra.

A bra? At age eleven? Sure, female gadgetry loomed in her future. But she didn’t need the contraption. Not yet, not if her petite and scrawny build was any indication. He tiptoed back to the landing and stared dejectedly up the stairwell. Thank God nothing was visible except the shuffle of her feet as she battled the elastic menace.

The fact that he had no idea his daughter required feminine niceties sent him into a gloom that competed with his need for a morning caffeine fix. He fled toward the kitchen, away from the muttering irritation of his adolescent daughter, who might well strangle herself before she figured out the damn lingerie.

And therein lay the problem. Who would help Blossom negotiate the dangerous terrain of womanhood?

Single-handedly, he’d steered his kid through early childhood. He’d attended school plays and picked out her clothing while Blossom sat in the shopping cart or leaned against his hip.

In retrospect, those days were idyllic. They’d melted beneath the volcanic eruptions that were now commonplace, her sudden squabbles with friends, the stalking through the house with her mood as black as her jeans. Blossom had acne now, a sprinkling of hormonal rage scattered across her forehead. When she appeared for dinner, Anthony was confronted with cheekbones gaining definition and a mouth veering toward sensuality.

What was even worse? She no longer considered Good Old Dad as her buddy. If he dared to offer pithy advice or cracked a joke, she’d roll her eyes with embarrassment.

Were they becoming strangers? Worried, he trudged into the kitchen. He yanked the coffee machine open and dumped grounds inside. The machine started brewing. Above his head, thumps bounded across the ceiling like balls set loose in hell’s bowling alley. What was she doing upstairs? He wondered if she was evacuating the bathroom with her dangerous new lingerie—and he flinched as his daughter stomped to her bedroom with the grace of ten gorillas. Sighing, he took down a mug.

By the time he’d poured a second cup, Blossom was talking loudly on her cell. Something about Tyler’s cute butt—he glared at the ceiling in disgust. Listening to the rest of the conversation wasn’t an early morning elixir, and he retraced his steps to the front of the house and the sanctuary of his large front porch. On this gloriously sunny Saturday morning, several kids played hide-and-seek across the street. The sky was a faultless blue, unmarred by clouds.

He’d barely settled into a wicker chair when he caught sight of Meade Williams sashaying down the street with her white poodle straining to escape its faux diamond leash. The miniscule Melbourne was spraying everything from Mrs. Osborne’s petunias next door to the crabgrass beneath Anthony’s mailbox. What the beast lacked in size he made up for in sheer male aggression.

“Anthony!”

Before he might duck back inside, she tugged her pint-sized companion due east. Melbourne gave out a yip, bells jangling as she dragged him forward. Midway up the stone path, she paused to admire the pink turrets and gingerbread latticework adorning his large Victorian house. Longing bloomed on her face.

Like her irritating dog, she knew how to mark her territory. Why she’d staked a claim for Anthony—and his beaut of a house—was too frightening to consider.

Even if it was his fault, it didn’t make sense. Meade could have any man she wanted. Single, successful and snobbish, the cosmetics maven had seven years on him and more assets than his entire extended family.

Now she appeared determined to settle down whether he agreed or not. And if he were honest with himself, he had begun worrying about how his single status affected Blossom. No doubt Meade, with her laser-like blue eyes and kissable lips, had caught his scent of desperation. What man in his right mind wanted to fly through his daughter’s teenage years without a co-pilot? Stupidly he’d admitted as much to her last winter, at Mayor Ryan’s Christmas party.

“Meade. Good morning.”

His thoughts strayed to Mary Chance. Unlike the woman trotting up his front steps in crisp linen shorts and expensive jewelry, the new woman in town was . . . nice. Sexy in a subtle way. Assuming he did have the courage to find a woman, he’d prefer to take a shot with someone down-to-earth like Mary.

“Oh, coffee! May I have a cup?” Meade asked, dragging his attention back to her.

“Sure.” Anthony nearly tripped over Melbourne in his haste to reach the safety of the house.

She brushed past. “I’ll fetch it myself.” Melbourne dogged her three-inch heels.

Speechless, Anthony followed. Entering his house without an invitation was a new and disturbing escalation of her tactics. He wasn’t sure what to do about it.

In the kitchen, Meade asked, “Didn’t you use the beans I bought at Starbucks?” She frowned at the pizza box and the red sauce dribbling across the counter. “Where’s the coffee grinder?”

Anthony grabbed the pizza box and stuffed it into the garbage. “I’m not sure.” She’d given him the gift of grinder and beans last week. “Let me look for it.”

“You haven’t been making fresh?” With a silvery laugh, she rummaged through the cupboards. “Men. You’re helpless on your own.”

The comment hit too close to home. Blossom was maturing. The physics of steering a girl to womanhood were beyond him. How to manage?

“Ah, here it is.”

She placed the grinder on the counter with a self-congratulatory smile. Blossom trudged into the kitchen with her golden retriever, Sweetcakes. Blossom’s pooch noticed Melbourne. Meade’s runt bared his teeth and offered a low, rumbling growl in greeting.

Anthony sent his daughter a warning glance. Snickering, she pulled Sweetcakes into a sitting position before the dog made a snack of Meade’s poodle.

Blossom flopped into a chair. “I wouldn’t use the grinder if I were you,” she said to Meade. She made a careless wave of her hand. “The blades are screwed up.”

Meade popped off the lid and peered inside. “Goodness—they are.” She gave Blossom a glittering stare. “What happened?”

“I was grinding stuff.”

“What, exactly?”

His daughter licked her fingertips then dunked them into the sugar bowl. “Peppercorns. Some of my dog’s biscuits. Rocks.” She licked off the sugary mess. “I was experimenting.”

“With the limestone Uncle Nick gave you?” Like his older brother, Blossom had a yen for science that made Anthony proud. “Or was it the quartz?”

“Both.”

He dared a glance at Meade. She appeared past simmer on her way to boil. “You should’ve asked first,” he said in a suitably firm voice. “The grinder was a gift.”

“Oops. I forgot.”

Meade banged the grinder down. “You don’t sound sorry.” She scooped up Melbourne and stalked across the kitchen. “Anthony, I really don’t have time for coffee. I have an appointment this morning.”

Blossom twirled one of her curls around her finger. “See ya.”

He launched into an apology for her impolite behavior—too late. Meade sailed through the house and down the front steps.

When he returned to the kitchen, Blossom gave a toothy smile. He couldn’t tell if, beneath her loose tee shirt, she wore the bra she’d wrestled upstairs. Did it matter? It wasn’t like he’d broach the subject. Not even if she cleared his bank account for iTunes downloads.

She surged to her feet. “Do something about Meade.” She got a bowl from the cupboard. “She’s on a mission, Dad. You’re the mission.”

He swigged down the last of his coffee. “Stop, all right?”

“I will not! This is serious.”

“I’ll handle it,” he said, having no idea how. Without thinking, he added, “Don’t blame her. I’m at fault for the way she’s acting.”

His daughter stopped pouring cereal. “Geez, what did you do?”

He stared at her as his brain emptied out. At a loss, he pretended to drink from his empty cup.

“Tell me!”

To punctuate her angst, Blossom stuck her hand inside her shirt. Red-faced, she looked away. Maybe she’d put the bra on so tight she was having trouble sucking in air.

The possibility sent his thoughts fleeing in another direction. Not that a stroll down memory lane to the drunken debauchery of Mayor Ryan’s Christmas party gave any comfort. Had Meade set him up? She’d arrived with punch laced with so much alcohol that diesel fumes seemed to waft from the bowl. Several of the shop owners on Liberty Square broke into song. Soon after, the mayor lured the county commissioner into her den. Other guests paired off.

Hammered after two cups of punch, Anthony grinned with drunken delight as Meade crowned him with mistletoe. When, exactly, did she lead him to a bedroom upstairs? More importantly, did she have a dragonfly tattoo above her left breast? Or was it a birthmark?

Blossom poked him in the ribs, catapulting him back to the present. “Spill, buster,” she said. “If you can’t talk to me, what will you do? It’s not like you have friends.”

“I don’t have time for friends. I have a garage to run, bills . . . and a nosy daughter.”

“This concerns me too.” Returning to the table, she dug into her cereal. “You need my blessing to marry. Skip the ritual and you’re excommunicated.”

“I’m not getting married.”

Unfortunately he’d given Meade a different impression when they’d wrestled in the sheets. He’d always found her attractive if a little too slick for his tastes. He considered her a friend. She lived life on the surface, which he didn’t like, but she was long-legged and shapely, which he did. For a woman of forty, she stayed in great shape through merciless exercise and a Spartan diet. And who wouldn’t admire her business acumen or her ability to get what she wanted from life? His days were a struggle. A shotgun marriage, Cheryl taking off, Blossom’s leukemia—by the time he’d reached his thirties, he’d felt beaten down by too many challenges. He’d nearly lost his child before the cancer was brought under control. Even now, worry poured into his gut if Blossom caught a cold or looked unusually pale.

The party’s Christmas music had been to blame. It left him feeling maudlin. Seeing so many couples together made him feel sorry for himself.

Of course, eighty-proof punch would loosen anyone’s tongue. By the time Meade steered him into the mayor’s guest bedroom, he’d admitted he was tired of single life, of raising a daughter without a woman’s influence to soften puberty’s harsh edges.

The other issue was too embarrassing to consider. He’d always been hot-blooded. Years of celibacy had taken its toll in sports injuries from too much jogging. He’d only had a sampling of marriage before his ex took off for greener pastures. At thirty-four he was at risk of reaching middle age as an abstainer. A real humiliation.

Which explained why he’d nearly slept with Meade before shame eroded his lust. He’d pinned her against the pillows, her platinum blond hair spilling across his fists. But he’d never used a woman. It took every ounce of self-control to get off the bed and leave.

Blossom dispelled the painful memory as she said, “You need to think outside the box. There is someone else you can date.”

She meant Mary Chance. If nothing else, his kid was persistent. Not that he was prepared to ask anyone out. His dating skills were rustier than his ‘69 Mustang. Knowing his luck, they were beyond repair.

He found his keys. “Are you coming to the gas station?”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“I’m not ready to date, all right?” He stopped from mentioning cancer, or remission, or any of the crap they usually discussed. “Stop bringing it up. When I decide to hang out my shingle, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Geez, you’re touchy.”

“Damn right.”

“You shouldn’t swear.”

“You shouldn’t make me.” He shrugged on his jacket. “Well? What’ll it be?”

“I’ll hang with Tyler while you work.”

He wavered in the doorway. “Where are you hanging out?”

“At Tyler’s house.” When he stared, she added, “Chill, Dad. His mom is home.”

“She’d better be.”

“Go to work already.” She waved dismissively. “You’re getting on my nerves.”

He let the hostile retort pass. It was victory enough that she didn’t plan to torture him with dating schemes at the Gas & Go.

The traffic on Liberty Square was light as he drove past the courthouse. Sadly, no cars were parked before The Second Chance Grill. The tables looked spotless with their red, white and blue tablecloths. Small vases of carnations dyed in the same patriotic colors lent the lonely dining room a bit of cheer.

Mary stood at the picture window gazing at the center green. Disappointment rimmed her mouth, a puckering at the corners of her pretty lips. She’d bound the rich mass of her hair at the base of her skull but tendrils fell loose by her ears in a fetching display. Driving past, he glanced in the rearview mirror in time to see her lower her face before disappearing from view. Now there was a woman worth gambling on.

Jarred from his thoughts, Anthony blinked. Why even consider it?

Chapter 3

The kitchen’s turbulent atmosphere did not resemble the sanitized sanity of a hospital.

Unsure how to bring order, Mary closed her eyes and imagined Cinci General. She’d despised how the constraints of a patient’s insurance controlled the amount of time allotted to administer care, how the long hours destroyed any possibility of a private life. But she’d enjoyed the nurses and the patients, and the air of civility that pervaded a hospital. No matter how dire the emergency, medical professionals never resorted to childish tantrums. They never raised their fists or shouted oaths. Even when the ER brimmed with sports injuries and whimpering children, the doctors and nurses worked with steely-eyed calm.

Now, regarding the mayhem, Mary was swamped with a feeling much like homesickness. The kitchen was officially a war zone.

Muttering furiously, Finney stalked in a circle like a panther bearing down on its prey. Ethel Lynn cowered in a vintage lemon colored dress and a pillbox hat that would’ve done Jackie Kennedy proud. Getting the two women on anything resembling civil terms would be difficult. Or impossible.

Silently Mary counted to ten. Pity she didn’t have a weapon. Finney did, and she whipped the ladle past Ethel Lynn’s shoulder. A joggle of old woman ankles, and Ethel Lynn scuttled to safety.

The cook stalked into the walk-in cooler. “What happened in here?” She surveyed the shelves of fresh produce and meat. “Broccoli has no business cozying up with beef brisket. And I don’t know what to make of collard greens sitting by the cottage cheese.”

“We can rearrange the cooler if you like,” Mary said. At least they had ample supplies if anyone took the gamble and dined at the restaurant.

Finney’s cheeks reddened. “I don’t want my cooler rearranged. It was perfect the way it was. Who’s been messing around in here?”

“Why, I don’t know . . .” Mary’s voice drifted away. She looked to Ethel Lynn.

The old woman tottered on her orange pumps. “I alphabetized,” she squeaked.

The cook rounded on her. “You what?”

“I wasn’t sure how to find ingredients. Doesn’t it make sense to put everything in alphabetical order?”

“Are you nuts?”

“You seem agitated.” Ethel Lynn waved a handkerchief before her delicately perspiring face. “Do you need a sedative? Should Mary write you a script?”

Finney backed her against the wall. “Why don’t you march your silk stockings out of my kitchen right quick?”

“Why, the nerve!” The pillbox hat nearly tumbled from Ethel Lynn’s head. Righting it, she added, “You’d left this fine establishment for greener pastures.”

“I left because you fired me!”

Mary stepped between them. “Let’s return everything to the way it was.”

“How about if I put Ethel Lynn out of her misery instead?” For emphasis Finney sliced the air with her ladle. “Use your doctoring skills to raise her from the dead.”

Delia crept into the kitchen. “Uh, Mary . . . someone out front wants to interview you.”

“Hold on a sec.” Channeling her Inner Zen, she turned back to the others. “I forbid you to kill each other. Finney, work on the cooler. Ethel Lynn, check out the storage room. It’s filled with antiques. I’d like to spice up the dining room’s décor. See what you can find.”

She followed Delia through the swinging door. “FYI, I’ve hung up my stethoscope for now,” she said. “If someone’s looking for a doctor, I’m not in the market.”

“You wish. It’s not about your last job.”

“My real job.”

“Yeah? Looks like you’re a lowly waitress now. Welcome to my nightmare.”

Mary smoothed down her apron, noticed a smudge of grease. “What is this about?” She tried rubbing out the stain then gave up.

“It’s about the food poisoning,” Delia said. “You’re in deep with the one person you don’t want to cross.” The waitress eyed her with clear sympathy. “Do you pray?”

Mary stopped abruptly. “Someone wants to interrogate me?” She considered dashing back through the door, which slowly squeaked shut. “Who, exactly?”

“Theodora Hendricks wants answers. She thinks you intentionally tried to kill half of Liberty.” The waitress shrugged. “Or that you’re incompetent.”

“Tough choices. Is there a door number three?” If so, she’d escape through it. Ditching the thought, she lowered her voice. “In point of fact, Ethel Lynn did the poisoning—I mean cooking.”

Delia smirked. “Sure, blame it on the old bat. Think it’ll work? The minute she learns Theodora is on the warpath, she’ll sell you down the river.”

“She’ll let me take the fall?” Mary was beginning to like the old woman. Ethel Lynn was strung tighter than a violin but she had a sweet side.

“Don’t let her ditzy personality fool you. She’s got the survival instincts of a Great White Shark,” Delia said. “If I were you, I’d take Theodora’s thumping like a man.”

To punctuate the warning, she grabbed Mary by the shoulders and swung her around. Anxiety pitched through Mary’s stomach as she glimpsed the petite woman rooted at the counter’s far end. Raisin-skinned, the woman sat ramrod straight like a five-star general. She wore a retro flowered dress that could’ve come from Ethel Lynn’s closet. She looked peeved. Which was odd, given her jaunty straw hat, a fruit festooned number reminiscent of Carmen Miranda headgear.

Theodora hung her beady gaze on Mary. “Get down here, missy.”

From behind, Delia whispered, “Let her give you an earful.”

“No thanks.”

“If you don’t, she’ll never leave. You were a doctor once, right? Do you want me to get high blood pressure? I’m too young for that shit.”

“I am a doctor.” And she wasn’t about to suffer a verbal thrashing over something she hadn’t done. Cowardly, sure, but Theodora had bared her false teeth in a threatening display of geriatric rage. “Get Ethel Lynn. This is her problem.”

Delia patted Mary with mock sympathy. “You’re on your own, boss. Can I have your car if you don’t survive the skirmish?”

“No.” She squared her shoulders. “Remind me to fire the bunch of you after I’m skinned alive.”

She hurried forward, grateful for the counter separating her from the intimidating, gnat-sized woman on the other side. Enduring a verbal lashing wasn’t on her bucket list. At least she was spared the embarrassment of onlookers. There wasn’t another customer in sight.

She’d barely come to a standstill when Theodora said, “How dare you poison the fine people of Liberty. The drugstore is clean out of Pepto-Bismol.”

“I’m sorry about that.” Mary swallowed. “Everything is fine now.”

“Like hell. Why should I believe you?”

“Finney is back. She’s cooking.”

“You mean she’s promised to keep you out of the kitchen?”

“It wasn’t me—”

Her ready defense fizzled as Ethel Lynn flew out of the kitchen. “Mary meant no harm,” she cried.

Stunned, Mary gaped at her. How could Ethel Lynn betray her like this?

Ethel Lynn scrambled for the coffee pot. “She’s new to the culinary arts.” China rattled as she placed a steaming cup before Theodora. “Don’t worry. Finney will keep her on a short leash.”

“Damn right I will,” Finney called from the kitchen. A banging of pots, then, “Of all the—why are the peaches stacked on top of the pork chops? Ethel Lynn, I’m putting out your lights!”

Theodora leaned across the counter. “Watch your mouth,” she shouted back. “Your first customer has arrived. I won’t tolerate foul words peppering my eggs.”

Mary’s eyes widened. “You’re staying? For breakfast?” Maybe a verbal thrashing wasn’t so bad. Not if it put a few dollars in the cash register. “Would you like a menu?”

The old titan screwed down the brim of her hat. “Do you have ipecac? Just in case?” She waved her hand at Ethel Lynn, as if shooing a fly. “And get her away from me. My patience has worn thin.”

“Right.” She glanced at Ethel Lynn, which was enough to send her dashing toward the wall. Delia was right—Ethel Lynn had sold her down the river. No doubt everyone in Liberty thought Mary was at the bottom of the opening day fiasco.

Theodora snapped her fingers. “Delia, pour my tomato juice.”

Delia grabbed the pitcher.

“Don’t forget the stewed prunes or the grits. Eggs are worthless without grits on the side.”

Mary frowned. “What are grits?”

Theodora banged her flea-sized fist on the counter. “Now you have me wondering if you’re as big a fool as Ethel Lynn. Grits have been on the menu since The Civil War.”

“No kidding.” She knew little of the restaurant’s history, a state of affairs she hoped to remedy. “What are they exactly?”

“A fine Southern dish brought to these parts by the first owner. She was from South Carolina.” Theodora switched topics. “Is it true, what they’re saying? You were a doctor?”

“I am a doctor.” When Theodora arched a wispy brow, she added, “I’m on sabbatical.”

“How high was your malpractice insurance?”

Ethel Lynn gasped. “Have you poisoned anyone outside of Liberty, dear?” she asked Mary. Evidently she’d bought her own lie.

Mary folded her arms. “My medical record is unblemished.”

Theodora pulled a Blackberry from a white patent leather purse that was the height of fashion in 1962. “Let’s Google her. See if she’s run afoul of the law.”

Ethel Lynn struck an obliging pose. “It might be wise.”

Mary readied a hearty defense. The words died in her throat as Finney barreled from the kitchen with a plate of eggs, sunny side up, and a mound of grits on the side.

“There’ll be no poisoning today, not with me in charge.” She set the food down and regarded Mary. “All the doctors I know are high and mighty. Bedside manner, my ass. They give you five minutes and what do you get? A bill you can’t pay.”

“Insurance pays most of a standard office visit,” Mary said. Where was her laptop? It was time to escape from Theodora and drum up business. “Co-pays are usually negligible.” It was that, or contact Aunt Meg in Tibet and admit the townspeople had branded her a quack who couldn’t cook.

“If you have insurance,” Finney said. “Which I don’t.”

Theodora balled her fists. “Must I listen to this babble? You’re spoiling my meal.”

Mary followed the cook back into the kitchen. “Didn’t my aunt supply insurance?” she asked.

Finney ran an impatient hand through her brassy blond hair. “Once Meg slowed down, business did, too. She made cuts to keep the restaurant afloat. Including health insurance.”

“But you stayed?”

Fear darkened Finney’s eyes. “You don’t give up steady work.”

“Well, don’t worry. You will have health insurance.” She couldn’t imagine offering anything less. Full-time work deserved full-time benefits. “Give me a few days to set it up.”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course I am.”

She spotted her laptop beside a bag of lemons. Maybe she’d run a promotion on Groupon. The restaurant, with its anemic grand opening, needed a transfusion of good publicity.

Finney’s return gave The Second Chance Grill a fighting chance. With a bit of luck and enough advertising to draw in crowds, the place could become an investment in the future. Mary flipped open her laptop and glanced around for a chair. She had only to stay in Liberty for a year, long enough to make the restaurant profitable. Long enough to deal with the sorrow of losing Sadie and the dream they’d shared of taking over the free clinic that served Cincinnati’s poorest citizens. She’d hire someone responsible to manage The Second Chance—not Ethel Lynn, God forbid—and grow a nest egg from the profits. Afterward she’d make good on her promise to Sadie’s father, Dr. Abe Goldstein, and take over the free clinic he managed.

“I do appreciate the health insurance,” Finney was saying. “You sure are something.”

“Thanks.” At least the cook wasn’t accusing her of not being a doctor. It was a start.

“You sure are special. Isn’t she a good woman, Anthony?”

Mary snapped shut the laptop. In the back doorway, Anthony casually swung the toolbox in his fist. Their gazes merged and warmth climbed her cheeks. She immediately tamped it down.

The reaction was nothing more than common sexual attraction for the handsome mechanic. The jumble of hormones singing through her veins had everything to do with propagating the species and nothing to do with the human heart. Merely chemistry, she quickly brought it under control. Which might have given her a feeling of satisfaction if not for the color rising on Anthony’s face. His mouth thinned—evidently the supercharged air zinging between them unnerved him too.

Luckily, Finney severed the connection. “Hey, Anthony.” She thumped him on the shoulder. “Get this—Mary doesn’t know anything about running a restaurant. She’s a doctor.”

He placed his toolbox beside the sink. “You are?”

She dragged her attention from the dark lights warming his gaze. “I never thought I’d be running a restaurant. But you know my Aunt Meg—full of surprises.”

Finney beamed. “I’m glad Mary took over. She’s bringing back health insurance.”

“That’s great,” Anthony said.

“Our kids will be covered, too. Won’t they?” The cook looked up expectantly. “I don’t suppose you’ll add dental right away. My Randy has cavities in his back molars.”

“We’ll see.”

“Dental insurance can wait.” She gave Anthony another thump. “Guess what? Mary here is single.”

This time, his ability to smile misfired. Probably his neurons were running amuck. Mary looked away.

“I’ll bet she’s been out of commission for as long as you, too,” Finney was saying. “Must be hard on you both. I’m middle-aged. It makes handling the frustration easier. Not that I’d stop a man from sweeping me off my feet.” She studied her size 10 shoes. “I like big men.”

The sexual nature of her comments stamped pallor on Anthony’s face. For reasons beyond logic, his embarrassment drew his attention back on Mary. His pallor melted beneath ruddy splotches of color bleeding from the corded muscles of his neck all the way to his hairline. With jerky movements, she wiped her brow. Was it hot in here? The kitchen felt like the Sahara.

“I’d better check the electric to the walk-in cooler,” he muttered. At her questioning look, he added, “Finney asked me to stop by. The cooler’s motor is running hot.”

Like me. And from the looks of it . . . you. Her thumping heart sent spots of grey before her eyesight. “Do you always handle the repairs?” she asked.

“Whenever Finney calls.”

“Our Mr. Fix-It is the best handyman in Liberty,” Finney added.

“Which isn’t saying much.” He grabbed a wrench from the toolbox and tossed it from hand to hand. “This isn’t a big town.”

The cook swatted air. “Now, you know you’re the best. I wouldn’t trust another man in here. You can fix anything.”

Mary laughed, a nervous bubbling of emotion. “Can you fix the business model for this establishment?” When he frowned with confusion, she added, “I’m having trouble bringing in customers.”

“Look on the bright side,” he said. “At least the town council hasn’t condemned this place.”

“That’s what Delia said after Ethel Lynn did her best to poison our opening day clientele.”

He grinned, which did something marvelous to his face. The tension at the corners of his mouth eased off. His eyes sparkled. Mary sighed, entranced.

“How about if I make a few calls around town to drum up business?” He pulled out his cell and punched in numbers. “What’s today’s special?”

They didn’t have one. Between hunting down Finney and being sold out by Ethel Lynn, she’d forgotten.

Finney came to the rescue. “How about my special trout? Call the Rotary Club—those men love my trout.” She sorted through the vegetables and meats that had arrived in the morning shipment. “And Veal Piccata.”

“Got it.” Pivoting away, Anthony spoke into the phone. “Sam? Yeah, hi. Hey, Finney wanted me to give you the heads up on today’s specials.”

Distress wove through his expression. Mary approached. “What’s wrong?” she mouthed.

Turning away, he lowered his voice. “No, Sam. Mary isn’t cooking.”

She planted her hands on her hips. Where was the justice? “I’ll never live this down, will I?” she asked when he’d hung up.

“Give it a few years,” he joked, dialing another number. “Bill? Yeah, I’m calling from The Second Chance. Finney’s back. No, no—Mary won’t be in the kitchen . . .”

Despite her bruised ego, she watched with growing amusement as he made a series of calls. When he’d finished, he handed the phone to Finney. “I’ll call the bowling alley,” she said. “The women’s league plays this morning. They’ll be hungry when they’re finished.”

“Should I get on the line?” Mary asked. “Swear I won’t do any of the cooking?”

Finney leafed through the phone book. “Like I’d let you.” She settled on a page. “Stay off my turf and I’ll help you draw back the crowds. Seeing that we’re becoming friends and all.”

Mary chuckled. “Thanks.”

“It’s the least I can do. You’re new to town and need my help.” Finney cradled the receiver as she circled numbers in the phone book. “When you’re ready to buy a house, I’ll help with that, too. I’m friends with a real estate agent.”

Real estate? Mary had no intention of staying long enough to put down roots. Guilt sifted through her. Admitting as much to Finney seemed unwise.

Awareness tickled her spine. Turning, she discovered Anthony quietly studying her.

He neared. “What’s wrong? You look upset.”

She took a self-defensive step back. It was that, or give into the urge to run her palms across the front of his work shirt, a thoroughly unwarranted thought. He smelled soapy and clean, and the compassion burnishing his features was its own form of temptation.

“It’s nothing,” she finally got out.

He nodded good-naturedly. “I’ll mind my own business.” He ducked into the walk-in cooler.

Wordlessly, she watched him disappear inside. Her thoughts turned to his daughter, Blossom, a girl with a mischievous grin and a crown of corkscrew curls. Who wouldn’t feel affection for a child so full of life? Yet Anthony had nearly lost her to leukemia.

He’d suffered enough hardship.

The last thing he needed was a short romance sure to lead to disappointment. She liked him more than was sensible, which made the situation precarious. She’d enjoy his companionship. But she’d dread the sadness sure to follow once she handed off management of the restaurant and resumed her career in medicine.

Resigned to her choice, she buried her emotions beneath a physician’s calm and got to work.

…Continued…

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Second Chance Grill

(Book Two, Liberty Series)
by Christine Nolfi
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