Category Archives: Blog Tours

FIRST: Garden of Madness

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Thomas Nelson; 1 edition (May 1, 2012)

***Special thanks to Ruthie Dean of Thomas Nelson for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tracy started her first novel at the age of eight and has been hooked on writing ever since. After earning a B.A. in English Literature at Rowan University, she spent ten years writing drama presentations for church ministry before beginning to write fiction. A lifelong interest in history and mythology has led Tracy to extensive research into ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome and Persia, and shaped her desire to shine the light of the gospel into the cultures of the past.

She has traveled through Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Italy, researching her novels and falling into adventures.

Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

The Untold Story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Daughter.

For seven years the Babylonian princess Tiamat has waited for the mad king Nebuchadnezzar to return to his family and to his kingdom. Driven from his throne to live as a beast, he prowls his luxurious Hanging Gardens, secreted away from the world.

Since her treaty marriage at a young age, Tia has lived an opulent but oppressive life in the palace. But her husband has since died and she relishes her newfound independence. When a nobleman is found murdered in the palace, Tia must discover who is responsible for the macabre death, even if her own is freedom threatened.

As the queen plans to wed Tia to yet another prince, the powerful mage Shadir plots to expose the family’s secret and set his own man on the throne. Tia enlists the help of a reluctant Jewish captive, her late husband’s brother Pedaiah, who challenges her notions of the gods even as he opens her heart to both truth and love.

Product Details:
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson; 1 edition (May 1, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 140168680X
ISBN-13: 978-1401686802

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Prologue

Babylon, 570 BC

My name is Nebuchadnezzar. Let the nations hear it!
I am ruler of Babylon, greatest empire on earth. Here in its capital city, I am like a god.
Tonight, as the sun falls to its death in the western desert, I walk along the balconies I have built, overlooking the city I have built, and know there is none like me.
I inhale the twilight air and catch the scent of a dozen sacrifices. Across the city, the smoke and flames lift from Etemenanki, the House of the Platform of Heaven and Earth. The priests sacrifice tonight in honor of Tiamat, for tomorrow she will be wed. Though I have questioned the wisdom of a marriage with the captive Judaeans, tomorrow will not be a day for questions. It will be a day of celebration, such as befits a princess.
Tiamat comes to me now on the balcony, those dark eyes wide with entreaty. “Please, Father.”
I encircle her shoulders in a warm embrace and turn her to the city.
“There, Tia. There is our glorious Babylon. Do you not wish to serve her?”
She leans her head against my chest, her voice thick. “Yes, of course. But I do not wish to marry.”
I pat her shoulder, kiss the top of her head. My sweet Tia. Who would have foretold that she would become such a part me?
“Have no fear, dear one. Nothing shall change. Husband or not, I shall always love you. Always protect you.”
She clutches me, a desperate grip around my waist.
I release her arms and look into her eyes. “Go now. Your mother will be searching for you. Tomorrow will be a grand day, for you are the daughter of the greatest king Babylon has ever seen.”
I use my thumb to rub a tear from her eye, give her a gentle push, and she is gone with a last look of grief that breaks my heart.
The greatest king Babylon has ever seen. The words echo like raindrops plunking on stones. I try to ignore a tickling at the back of my thoughts. Something Belteshazzar told me, many months ago. A dream.
I shake my head, willing my mind to be free of the memory. My longtime Jewish advisor, part of my kingdom since we were both youths, often troubles me with his advice. I keep him close because he has become a friend. I keep him close because he is too often right.
But I do not want to think of Belteshazzar. Tonight is for me alone. For my pleasure, as I gaze across all that I have built, all that I have accomplished. This great Babylon, this royal residence with its Gardens to rival those created by the gods. Built by my mighty power. For the glory of my majesty. I grip the balcony wall, inhale the smoky sweetness again, and smile. It is good.
I hear a voice and think perhaps Belteshazzar has found me after all, for the words sound like something he would say, and yet the voice . . . The voice is of another.
“There is a decree gone out for you, Nebuchadnezzar. Your kingship has been stripped from you.”
I turn to the traitorous words, but no one is there. And yet the voice continues, rumbling in my own chest, echoing in my head.
“You will be driven from men to dwell with beasts. You will eat the herbs of oxen and seven times will pass over you, until you know that the Most High is ruler in the kingdom of men. To whom He wills power, He gives power.”
The tickling is there again, in my mind. I roll my shoulders to ease the discomfort, but it grows. It grows to a scratching, a clawing at the inside of my head, until I fear I shall bleed within.
The fear swells in me and I am frantic now. I rub my eyes, swat my ears, and still the scratching and scraping goes on, digging away at my memories, at my sense of self, of who I am and what I have done, and I stare at the sky above and the stones below and bend my waist and fall upon the ground where it is better, better to be on the ground, and I want only to find food, food, food. And a two-legged one comes and makes noises with her mouth and clutches at me but I understand none of it and even this knowledge that I do not understand is slipping, slipping from me as the sun slips into the desert.
And in the darkness, I am no more.

Chapter 1

Seven years later

The night her husband died, Tia ran with abandon.
The city wall, wide enough for chariots to race upon its baked bricks, absorbed the slap of her bare feet and cooled her skin. She flew past the Ishtar Gate as though chased by demons, knowing the night guard in his stone tower would be watching. Leering. Tia ignored his attention.
Tonight, this night, she wanted only to run.
A lone trickle of sweat chased down her backbone. The desert chill soaked into her bones and somewhere in the vast sands beyond the city walls, a jackal shrieked over its kill. Her exhalation clouded the air and the quiet huffs of her breath kept time with her feet.
Breathe, slap, slap, slap.
They would be waiting. Expecting her. A tremor disturbed her rhythm. Her tears for Shealtiel were long spent, stolen by the desert air before they fell.
Flames surged from the Tower and snagged her attention. Priests and their nightly sacrifices, promising to ensure the health of the city. For all of Babylon’s riches, the districts encircled by the double city walls smelled of poverty, disease, and hopelessness. But the palace was an oasis in a desert.
She would not run the entire three bêru around the city. Not tonight. Only to the Marduk Gate and back to the Southern Palace, where her mother would be glaring her displeasure at both her absence and her choice of pastime. Tia had spent long days at Shealtiel’s bedside, waiting for the end. Could her mother not wait an hour?
Too soon, the Marduk Gate loomed and Tia slowed. The guard leaned over the waist-high crenellation, thrust a torch above his head, and hailed the trespasser.
“Only Tiamat.” She panted and lifted a hand. “Running.”
He shrugged and shook his head, then turned back to his post, as though a princess running the city wall at night in the trousers of a Persian were a curiosity, nothing more. Perhaps he’d already seen her run. More likely, her reputation ran ahead of her. The night hid her flush of shame.
But she could delay no longer. The guilt had solidified, a stone in her belly she could not ignore.
She pivoted, sucked in a deep breath, and shot forward, legs and arms pounding for home.
Home. Do I still call it such? When all that was precious had been taken? Married at fourteen. A widow by twenty-one. And every year a lie.
“I shall always love you, always protect you.”
He had spoken the words on the night he had been lost to her. And where was love? Where was protection? Not with Shealtiel.
The night sky deepened above her head, and a crescent moon hung crooked against the blackness. Sataran and Aya rose in the east, overlapping in false union.
“The brightest light in your lifetime’s sky,” an elderly mage had said of the merged stars. The scholar’s lessons on the workings of the cosmos interested her, and she paid attention. As a princess already married for treaty, she was fortunate to retain tutors.
Ahead, the Ishtar Gate’s blue-glazed mosaics, splashed with yellow lions, surged against the purpling sky, and to its left, the false wooded mountain built atop the palace for her mother, Amytis, equaled its height. Tia chose the east wall of the gate for a focal point and ignored the Gardens. Tonight the palace had already seen death. She needn’t also dwell on madness.
Breathe, slap, slap, slap. Chest on fire, almost there.
She reached the palace’s northeast corner, where it nearly brushed the city wall, slowed to a stop, and bent at the waist. Hands braced against her knees, she sucked in cold air. Her heartbeat quieted.
When she turned back toward the palace, she saw what her mother had done.
A distance of one kanû separated the wide inner city wall from the lip of the palace roof, slightly lower. Tia kept a length of cedar wood there on the roof, a plank narrow enough to discourage most, and braced it across the chasm for her nightly runs. When she returned, she would pull it back to the roof, where anyone who might venture past the guards on the wall would not gain access. Only during her run did this plank bridge the gap, awaiting her return.
Amytis had removed it.
Something like heat lightning snapped across Tia’s vision and left a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth. Her mother thought to teach her a lesson. Punish her for her manifold breaches of etiquette by forcing her to take the long way down, humiliate herself to the sentinel guard.
She would not succeed.
With a practiced eye, Tia measured the distance from the ledge to the palace roof. She would have the advantage of going from a higher to a lower level. A controlled fall, really. Nothing more.
But she made the mistake of looking over, to the street level far below. Her senses spun and she gripped the wall.
She scrambled onto the ledge, wide enough to take the stance needed for a long jump, and bent into position, one leg extended behind. The palace rooftop garden held only a small temple in its center, lit with three torches. Nothing to break her fall, or her legs, when she hit. She counted, steadying mind and body.
The wind caught her hair, loosened during her run, and blew it across her eyes. She flicked her head to sweep it away, rocked twice on the balls of her feet, and leaped.
The night air whooshed against her ears, and her legs cycled through the void as though she ran on air itself. The flimsy trousers whipped against her skin, and for one exhilarating moment Tia flew like an egret wheeling above the city and knew sweet freedom.
This was how it should always be. My life. My choice. I alone control my destiny.
She hit the stone roof grinning like a trick monkey, and it took five running steps to capture her balance.
Glorious.
Across the rooftop, a whisper of white fluttered. A swish of silk and a pinched expression disappeared through the opening to the stairs. Amytis had been waiting to see her stranded on the city wall and Tia had soured her pleasure. The moment of victory faded, and Tia straightened her hair, smoothed her clothing.
“Your skill is improving.” The eerie voice drifted to Tia across the dark roof and she flinched. A chill rippled through her skin.
Shadir stood at the far end of the roof wall, where the platform ended and the palace wall rose higher to support the Gardens. His attention was pinned to the stars, and a scroll lay on the ledge before him, weighted with amulets.
“You startled me, Shadir. Lurking there in the shadows.”
The mage turned, slid his gaze the length of her in sharp appraisal. “It would seem I am not the only one who prefers the night.”
Long ago, Shadir had been one of her father’s chief advisors. Before—before the day of which they never spoke. Since that monstrous day, he held amorphous power over court and kingdom, power that few questioned and even fewer defied. His oiled hair hung in tight curls to his shoulders and the full beard and mustache concealed too much of his face, leaving hollow eyes that seemed to follow even when he did not turn his head.
Tia shifted on her feet and eyed the door. “It is cooler to run at night.”
The mage held himself unnaturally still. Did he even breathe?
As a child, Tia had believed Shadir could scan her thoughts like the night sky and read her secrets. Little relief had come with age. Another shudder ran its cold finger down her back.
Tia lowered her chin, all the obeisance she would give, and escaped the rooftop. Behind her, he spoke in a tone more hiss than speech. “The night holds many dangers.”
She shook off the unpleasant encounter. Better to ready herself for the unpleasantness she yet faced tonight.
Her husband’s family would have arrived by this time, but sweating like a soldier and dressed like a Persian, she was in no state to make an appearance in the death chamber. Instead, she went to her own rooms, where her two slave women, Omarsa and Gula, sat vigil as though they were the grieving widows. They both jumped when Tia entered and busied themselves with lighting more oil lamps and fetching bathwater.
In spite of her marriage to the eldest son of the captive Judaean king, Tia’s chambers were her own. She had gone to Shealtiel when it was required, and only then. The other nights she spent here among her own possessions—silk fabrics purchased from merchants who traveled east of Babylon, copper bowls hammered smooth by city jewelers, golden statues of the gods, rare carved woods from fertile lands in the west. A room of luxury. One that Shealtiel disdained and she adored. She was born a Babylonian princess. Let him have his austerity, his righteous self-denial. It had done him little good.
One of her women stripped her trousers, then unwound the damp sash that bound her lean upper body. Tia stood in the center of the bath chamber, its slight floor depression poked with drainage holes under her feet, and tried to be still as they doused her with tepid water and scrubbed with a scented paste of plant ash and animal fat until her skin stung.
When they had dressed her appropriately, her ladies escorted her through the palace corridors to the chamber where her husband of nearly seven years lay cold.
Seven years since she lost herself and her father on the same day. Neither of them had met death, but all the same, they were lost. Seven years of emptiness where shelter had been, of longing instead of love.
But much had ended today—Shealtiel’s long illness and Tia’s long imprisonment.
She paused outside the chamber door. Could she harden herself for the inevitable? The wails of women’s laments drifted under the door and wrapped around her heart, squeezing pity from her. A wave of sorrow, for the evil that took those who are loved, tightened her throat. But her grief was more for his family than herself. He had been harsh and unloving and narrow-minded, and now she was free. Tia would enter, give the family her respect, and escape to peace.
She nodded to one of her women, and Gula tapped the door twice and pushed it open.
Shealtiel’s body lay across a pallet, skin already graying. The chamber smelled of death and frankincense. Three women attended her husband—Shealtiel’s sister, his mother, and Tia’s own. His mother, Marta, sat in a chair close to the body. Her mourning clothes, donned over her large frame, were ashy and torn. She lifted her head briefly, saw that it was only Tia, and returned to her keening. Her shoulders rocked and her hands clutched at a knot of clothing, perhaps belonging to Shealtiel. His sister, Rachel, stood against the wall and gave her a shy smile, a smile that melded sorrow and admiration. She was younger than Tia by five years, still unmarried, a sweet girl.
“Good of you to join us, Tia.” Her mother’s eyes slitted and traveled the length of Tia’s robes. Tia expected some comment about her earlier dress, but Amytis held her tongue.
“I was . . . detained.” Their gazes clashed over Shealtiel’s body and Tia challenged her with a silent smile. The tension held for a moment, then Tia bent her head.
She was exquisite, Amytis. No amount of resentment on Tia’s part could blind her to this truth. Though Amytis had made it clear that Tia’s sisters held her affections, and though Tia had long ago given up calling her Mother in her heart, she could not deny that her charms still held sway in Babylon. From old men to children, Amytis was adored. Her lustrous hair fell to her waist, still black though she was nearly fifty, and her obsidian eyes over marble cheekbones were a favorite of the city’s best sculptors. Some said Tia favored her, but if she did, the likeness did nothing to stir a motherly affection.
Tia went to Shealtiel’s mother and whispered over her, “May the gods show kindness to you today, Marta. It is a difficult day for us all.” The woman’s grief broke Tia’s heart, and she placed a hand on Marta’s wide shoulder to share in it.
Marta sniffed and pulled away. “Do not call upon your false gods for me, girl.”
Amytis sucked in a breath, her lips taut.
Tia’s jaw tightened. “He was a good man, Marta. He will be missed.” Both of these statements Tia made without falsehood. Shealtiel was the most pious man she had ever known, fully committed to following the exacting requirements of his God.
Marta seemed to soften. She reached a plump hand to pat Tia’s own, still on her shoulder. “But how could the Holy One have taken him before he saw any children born?”
Tia stiffened and brought her hand to her side, forcing the fingers to relax. Marta rocked and moaned on, muttering about Tia’s inhospitable womb. Tia dared not point out that perhaps her son was to blame.
“But there is still a chance.” Marta looked to Amytis, then to Tia. “It is our way. When the husband dies without an heir, his brother—”
“No.”
The single word came from both her mother’s and her own lips as one. Marta blinked and looked between them.
“It is our way.” Marta glanced at Rachel against the wall, as though seeking an ally. “My second son Pedaiah is unmarried yet. Perhaps Tia could still bear a son for Shealtiel—”
“You have had your treaty marriage with Babylon.” Amytis drew herself up, accentuating her lean height. “There will not be another.”
Tia remained silent. Her mother and she, in agreement? Had Amytis watched her languish these seven years and regretted flinging her like day-old meat to the Judaean dogs? Did she also hope for a life with more purpose for Tia now that she had been released? Tia lifted a smile, ever hopeful that Amytis’s heart had somehow softened toward her youngest daughter.
“Jeconiah shall hear of your refusal!” Marta stood, her chin puckering.
Amytis huffed. “Take the news to your imprisoned husband, then. I shall not wait for his retribution.” She seemed to sense the unfairness of the moment and regret her calloused words. “Come, Tia. Let us leave these women to grieve.” She meant it kindly but it was yet another insult, the implication that Tia need not remain for any personal grief.
Tia followed Amytis from the chamber into the hall, her strong perfume trailing. Amytis spun on her, and her heavy red robe whirled and settled. Her nostrils flared and she spoke through clenched teeth.
“By all the gods, Tiamat! For how long will you make our family a mockery?”

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Filed under Blog Tours

Reborn to Be Wild by Ed Underwood

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Reborn to Be Wild

David C. Cook (June 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Audra Jennings of The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ed Underwood oversees the ministries of Church of the Open Door in southern California with Judy, his wife of almost forty years. Still a “Jesus Freak” at heart, Underwood placed his faith in Christ during the Jesus Movement of the late 60s, and his passion in life is to see revival one more time. During his lifetime, Underwood has served as a fireman and a commissioned Army officer, but his passion for revival moved him to enter full-time ministry. Reborn to Be Wild is Underwood’s second book. He wrote his first, When God Breaks Your Heart, after almost dying from a vicious and chronic disease.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $16.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook (June 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1434700178
ISBN-13: 978-1434700179

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Meeting Jesus on the Streets

I don’t have to wonder what it would be like to be a part of a genuine revival. I lived through one in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was there. I didn’t meet Jesus in a church—I met Him on the streets of Bakersfield, California.

If you knew me in those days before I met Jesus, you would never have thought that I would be writing about revival forty years later. Especially if you knew and thought what religious people knew and thought back then.

There was no way the people who knew and believed that stuff would have chosen me to be on their team. I was the guy who didn’t even know that the Bible had books, the one who went to church only because it was Mother’s Day and my grandmother’s church had some type of pack-a-pew-for-Jesus event and my grandmother, Sister Patrick to her friends, was part of it. You didn’t have to worry about me coming to your church because I didn’t want to be there in the first place. I was the guy telling dirty jokes in class and buying beer for my friends, the one who loved it that the teachers couldn’t figure out, “What has happened to Eddie? He used to be such a good boy.”

Well, I wasn’t a good boy anymore and I liked it that way. I hated just about everything having to do with authority, and if you had anything to do with God, you had a lot to do with authority. So I didn’t want to be on your sorry team.

No, if you had anything to do with religion or church or God, you wouldn’t have chosen me to be on your team. You wouldn’t have picked any of my friends either. In your most undisciplined theological imagination, you would never have dreamed that my friends and I had anything to offer “God’s Team.

Fortunately for me, and for them, God doesn’t let religious people choose who gets to be on His team.

I became part of a very special team chosen by God, a handpicked army of revolutionaries who took our culture by storm—thousands of us at the center of the last great revival of American history, the Jesus Movement.

But to understand our revival, you have to know more about us, my generation. I graduated from high school in 1968.

1968

I like Tom Brokaw a lot. His books and documentaries move me because he is more than accurate; he is passionate and honest. When he told the stories of the men who went to war with my dad and the women they left behind, I felt like he was letting others know what I already understood about those boys who gathered into bands of brothers and stared down Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, and Stalin. They were the greatest generation because they saved our skins and didn’t brag about it.

He also wrote about my generation in his book Boom!: Voices of the Sixties. When I read and listen to him it’s like hearing the slightly older brother or very young uncle I never had but always wished for explain what happened to us—to me. How we could be so noble and so screwed up at the same time. So open to ideas but so unbending in our convictions. So full of advice, but so unwilling to listen. So bent on changing the wide, wide world, but so incapable of changing the little worlds around us: our marriages, our families, and our neighborhoods. So full of hope for the future, but so full of anger about the past.

His documentary 1968 with Tom Brokaw takes us through what historians tell us is one of the most tumultuous and decisive years in American history. For twelve months America stood at the crossroads of who we always were and who we might become. The anger fueling the debates over politics, civil rights, feminism, music, and recreational drugs turned to rage in 1968.

In a single summer, terrorists shot and silenced two of the most powerful voices for change when a homegrown Southern bigot gunned down Martin Luther King Jr. for “his people,” and an angry Palestinian from Jerusalem placed a small caliber pistol to the back of Bobby Kennedy’s head and pulled the trigger “for his country.”

Riots broke out; we burned our own neighborhoods and beat our own people over the head with nightsticks. We watched a war on TV in all its gruesome reality and wondered why our boys couldn’t stop the real enemy in their Tet Offensive and why they had to shoot women and children in a tiny hamlet named My Lai. Our brothers were dying in Vietnam and our sisters were burning their bras. Bob Dylan had warned us in 1964, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

They weren’t just a-changin’; they were a-fallin’-apart!

We questioned everything, read the writings of revolutionaries, and decided to start one. Our motto was simple, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” Ours was a revolution of the people, and it happened on the streets of our campuses and cities.

Brokaw brilliantly depicts the political and cultural aspects of the revolution using images and firsthand accounts. Everything he says about the 1960s is true, but there was more—a revolution he never mentions, a revolution that maybe he didn’t see, a revolution that hardly ever made the nightly news on earth but a revolution that was big news in heaven.

It was a revolution of the Spirit of God.

Towards the end of the documentary, Bruce Springsteen says, “The 1960s made room for outsiders and their ideas.”

I was one of those outsiders for whom the spiritual revolution of the sixties made room, and the ideas erupting from our redeemed hearts hit the streets of the campuses and cities of America with the freshest expression of the good news modern man had ever heard.

The Outsiders

It intrigues me that Springsteen used the same word the apostle Paul used to describe those who now find room for their ideas in a revolution—outsiders.

Paul used the Greek term three times to remind Christians of their responsibility to live in a way that “outsiders” (NIV, NASB) or “those outside” (NKJV) would want to know more about Jesus (1 Cor. 5:12; Col. 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:12). Outsider is his technical theological description of people who live outside of God’s mercy and grace. Outsiders were those living in the domain of darkness, outside the borders of the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13).

Even if I didn’t know what the Bible called it, I couldn’t think of a better title for the place we lived before God’s love brought us inside—darkness. The revolution reached into the darkness outside, where we lived:

• Tough, hip neighborhoods where God was for dorky church kids and the only thing we liked about Jesus was that he wore long hair and sandals.

• Busy, preoccupied homes that didn’t have time for the silly charades of religious folk.

• A culture in which grace was when a well-starched family took the booth next to yours in a restaurant, bowed their heads and folded their hands in a way that made everyone around them feel weird.

• Neighborhoods where loyal, lifelong friendships seemed to be unraveling from the pressures of growing up, where mercy was what you called for just before blacking out when the big neighbor kid caught you in his famous “sleeper hold.”

Oh, it was darkness all right. But it didn’t seem dark to us then, before we saw the light. It was just life, our reality, our dark reality. From the core of our blackened souls to the gloomy, immoral rhythms of our everyday lives, to the sinister generational evil we were trying to ignore, we were incapable of knowing anything but darkness.

I think our hopelessness had a lot to do with our revolution that became a revival. From the darkness of our lives, we couldn’t see the light, had never seen it before. We didn’t entertain ideas about how much the light might need us or how it could improve our lives in ways that would enhance our career or get us to heaven when we were through doing what we wanted to do down here. We were blinded by the light.

Before we met Jesus, we were outsiders and we knew it. After we took Him at His word, we were insiders, and we knew that, too. And we knew how we got on the inside. Jesus rescued us from darkness. We couldn’t quote it from memory because we probably didn’t know where to find it in our crisp new American Standard New Testaments, but when we read His words, we knew Peter was talking about us when he said:

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

If you’re going to have a revolution, you need to have new ideas. If you’re going to find new ideas, they will never come from those who are comfortably inside. They come from the outside, from outsiders. Even though we were now inside the borders of the kingdom of the Son of God’s love, the old insiders never did embrace us. To them we would always be outsiders.

It didn’t bother us much. Actually, it didn’t bother us at all. To be totally honest, we dug it. Our hearts were on fire with the love of Christ and we didn’t really trust them with the fire anyway. All they wanted to do was douse it, control it, or worse, take credit for it.

And so we did what outsiders often do, we started a revolution fueled by a passion insiders can’t know… unless they reach out to us. And like revolutions everywhere, our fresh expressions of truth didn’t move along the protected stain-glassed corridors of the institutional church. Our revival happened in the very places that had been deserted by most religious insiders as they watched in horror, threw up their hands, and screamed bloody murder from inside their cloistered fortresses of irrelevance. It happened on the street.

Street Scenes

When I hear most other Christians talk about their spiritual journeys, I’m reminded of how different our stories are. They talk about hearing a powerful sermon and deciding to do this or being at a Christian retreat and realizing that, or the way a Sunday school teacher or youth pastor told them what they needed to hear. The story usually starts at church or some religious event surrounded by Christians.

I didn’t know any people who were Christians, but a lot of the people I did know were becoming Christians. None of it happened at church.

The very first conversation I remember ever having about God was with an old drinking buddy and fellow degenerate. It was during homeroom at South High. Mike, Jim, and I always sat together near the back. That way Miss Beane couldn’t tell that we weren’t discussing our assignments. I can’t remember what we were talking about but I’m sure it had something to do with girls or beer or sports. I’m also sure it had a lot to do with the fact that everyone else around us was stupid. Mike, Jim, and I were smarter than most of our peers and we knew it. We thought we were cooler than everyone else too, but we probably weren’t.

One of us brought up the subject of Bobby. Bobby used to do everything with us. He was our contact at the local grocery store where he stocked shelves. We would give Bobby the money to pay for the massive amounts of beer we needed for the weekend and he would put the money in the cash register before sneaking cases of Coors in bottles out the back door in big toilet paper boxes. We wouldn’t want to steal.

“So what do you think? Is Bobby a Jesus freak? I heard that he’s not going to get us beer anymore.”

Somehow the next comment turned the conversation in a way that amazes me today. I know it happened because I was a part of the discussion, I just can’t believe that we were talking about it.

“Hey, how does this work anyway? If there is a God, then He has to know everything, doesn’t He?”

“Yeah, seems like He should.”

“Okay, if He knows everything, then He must cause everything. Right?”

“Wait a minute. Slow down, what are you getting at?”

“Well, if I’m supposed to somehow accept Jesus, but God already knows what I’m going to decide, because He’s controlling me, then how can He send me to hell if I don’t do it?

“Do what?”

“Accept Him, or Jesus, or whatever it is we’re supposed to do.”

“How can He send anyone to hell? It’s all His fault, isn’t it?”

Mike broke in. “I asked Bobby about that. He said he didn’t know, but he would ask someone. He said the important thing is that we should know that God loves us and that He wants to have a relationship with us.”

Jim and I immediately reacted. “What? Have you been talking to Bobby about this (let me use a better word than we used on that day) … stuff?”

That’s how the revival started, how it began moving. People like Bobby were everywhere. On every football team, in every car club, every drinking buddies club, every neighborhood, every dorm, every locker room, every Spanish, history, and physics class, every cheerleading camp, cruising every strip, sitting in every McDonald’s, every group waiting to catch the next wave at Huntington Beach, every work crew improving trails in the High Sierras, at every family reunion, every wedding, every party, every spirit rally and dance in the school gym. At every event that gathered high school and college students together—there was a Bobby. There was someone who had just discovered the grace and mercy of God and who simply refused to stop talking about Jesus.

The penetration was that broad and that deep. When I think of it now, it absolutely blows me away. We were three pagan kids sitting in our little corner of the universe debating the sovereignty of God and the free will of man!

The critical time in each of our lives was when God came onto our scene, to our street, our homeroom, our team, our dorm. He did this by sending a Bobby. The scenes of my life shifted dramatically as God brought my Bobby to my street.

Scene 1, Home Phone

“Hey Eddie, this is Bobby. I’m on my way out to Phil’s new ranch. He needs me to watch the ranch house for him tonight. He has to work. You want to come with me? I’ll cook you some steaks from the steer we butchered last week.”

Before I said yes, I thought it through. I had heard about this so-called ranch. Phil was the first one to fall for Bobby’s Jesus message, and he was all in. I never saw him in the old places anymore. His girlfriend told people that he broke up with her because he didn’t think that their relationship was “pleasing to God.” Since I knew what they were up to (the same things we were all up to), I had to agree with him on that point. If there was a God, He probably didn’t like the things we were doing with our girlfriends. Phil and a couple of his new Jesus friends had actually rented a ranch outside of town. How they did it, I didn’t know. How do three guys our age rent a whole ranch?

Word on the street was that they got together out there and had Jesus meetings. They would all work together to care for the stock and keep the place up. Guys, girls, all together feeding cows, cleaning stalls, brushing horses, watering crops, washing walls, painting the barn, cooking meals and doing dishes. In the evening, they would all get around a campfire and someone who knew something about Jesus would teach stuff from the Bible and they would all sing Kumbaya and then pray and hug each other.

Anyway, that was what someone told us.

It sounded boring compared to our Friday nights of cruising the strip, getting drunk, and picking up some girls if we got lucky, or getting in a fight with guys from North High if our luck ran out.

But I did hear that some of the best-looking girls in Kern County were there. And Bobby was my friend. I calculated.

What do I have to lose? What could happen on a Tuesday night anyway? Besides, I could use some steak and nobody else will be there. It was a good excuse to get out of the house.

“Okay, Bob. Come on by. But I don’t want to talk about Jesus all the time.”

“I promise, Eddie.”

Scene 2, The Ranch

“Great steak, Bobby. But, I sure could use a beer.”

“Sorry, no beer out here. What do you think of the place?”

“Pretty nice. Feels good to be out here. You come here a lot?”

“Most nights after work at the market. I like getting away. We really have a lot of fun out here, Eddie.”

“You mean at your ‘Jesus Parties’?”

That’s not what we call them. We’re just a bunch of Christians getting together. I’m no different from you, Eddie. Only forgiven …”

“Bobby, you promised,” I stopped him.

“You’re right. Sorry. Oh, I forgot to tell you. Mo’s coming by tonight on his way down to L.A. He’s just crashing here for the night.”

“No problem. Just don’t wake me up when he gets here.”

I had heard about Mo. His real name was Craig and he was Phil’s old friend who used to live in Bakersfield but now lived up north. He went to Chico State and all the Jesus people talked about him like he was the coolest thing since whipped butter. Long hair parted down the middle, drove an MG, talked a lot about philosophy and religion, understood some things about the Bible, and lived in some type of Jesus commune or something. He was a student leader of this “club.” They called it Young Life.

I didn’t want to talk to that character, so I made sure they thought I was asleep when he showed up around midnight. But I listened to this guy and my friend Bobby talk late into the morning. I heard every word. I still tear up today as I write these words telling you what their sentences awakened in my heart that night: a spiritual desire for Jesus more powerful than any sensual desire I had ever experienced.

They were talking about Jesus like they were talking about a friend, only different. They not only admired Jesus, it seemed like Jesus was really a part of their lives. I began to wonder if maybe they had something, if maybe I was missing something, something big, something forever.

Then they began to talk to God about people, some of the people I knew. I guessed that this must be how they prayed. Didn’t sound like any prayer I had ever heard at Grandma Sister Patrick’s little country church. It was just conversation and they weren’t telling God how bad these people were; they were asking Him to help them show these people how much He loved them. They asked God how they could help these people believe in Jesus, how they could tell them about what a difference Jesus was making in their lives.

And then they mentioned me. As far as I knew then, this was the first time anyone had ever talked to God about me in a way that wasn’t bringing up all the stuff I hoped He hadn’t noticed.

I stared at the wall, didn’t move a muscle, and secretly hoped God was listening to them.

The next morning Bobby and I left before Mo stirred.

“You okay, Eddie? Pretty quiet. Did we wake you up last night? We tried not to be loud.”

“No,” I lied. “I’m just thinking about my day.”

No I wasn’t. I was thinking about my night, last night and the rest of my life and beyond. I was deciding that maybe I needed to ask Bobby more about Jesus, that maybe I wanted to meet this guy, Mo, or Craig, or whatever his name was. Maybe I wanted to be able to talk about God and to God in the same way they did.

But not right now, I told myself as we hit the first red light back into town. I needed time to think and room to breathe.

Scene 3, Kern County

I had plenty of time to think, but no room to breathe. I remember the months following the night Bobby and Mo prayed for me at Phil’s ranch as the most miserable months of my life. The darkness was beginning to smother me.

• Larry got killed in Vietnam just a few months after I organized his going-away party, where we all got drunk and told him he was “too ornery to get killed.” No, he wasn’t; I helped carry his casket from the chapel to his grave. And then we all “remembered” his death by having another party in the same place

with the same people. The only difference was that this time we all loaded up in my ’69 GTO and a couple of other muscle cars and went out to Beach Park where the hippies and protestors hung out and beat a couple of them within an inch of their lives. We told ourselves that we did it for Larry and America, but we knew better. We knew we were just being mean because we didn’t know what else to do with the pain.

• My girlfriend, the one I hoped God didn’t know what I was doing with in the backseat of my GTO, met some guy at a ski resort in the Sierras and decided that she wanted to become an Olympic skier and that she needed some “space” to train. Right.

• I launched a very short and unsuccessful career as a petty thief. I felt horrible when we stole stuff from friend’s garages, batteries from tourists’ cars, and hard liquor from anywhere I happened to be when I noticed it on the shelves. I didn’t even want the stuff, but it made me popular with my friends. I gained quite a rep as a reckless dude, until I got caught and spent the night in jail, scared spitless. My dad didn’t say much on the drive home. He just kept looking at me with that, “What happened to my son?” look I was beginning to recognize. I had no answers to that question because I was asking it myself.

• And college? Forget that. All of my smart friends who had been with me in the smart kid’s classes since first grade were off to places like UCLA, USC, and even the Air Force Academy. Me? I was flunking out of the local community college because I spent all my time at the lake water skiing or at the pool hall, honing my “skills” in these two life-success-critical talents.

Kern County was my open-air playground—skiing on pristine lakes in the foothills on weekdays when we were the only boat in the water, hunting quail in the Sierras whenever I felt like it, skipping class and heading to the pool hall where an old guy sold us drinks as if he really believed we were twenty-one. We were living the 1960s dream expressed in the songs we listened to on the radio—we took “surfin’ afaris” whenever we felt like it, drove “country roads” proving that we were “born to be wild,” got lovin’ “eight days a week,” and “lived for today.”

But the dream was turning into a nightmare for me. Especially when I was alone. When I was alone the desperate lyric of the day seemed more appropriate, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

As the suffocating shadows closed in, proving that Simon and Garfunkel didn’t know what they were talking about—that darkness was not my friend—another friend dropped by, a friend whose smile brought a glimmer of light to my dark existence.

Bobby.

Scene 4, Keith’s House

The smell of the sizzling quail filled the house. Mom and Dad were gone somewhere and I was all set to watch something on TV when Bobby walked in the way he used to when we were close. He never knocked because he didn’t need to. My family loved him. He was the only one I ever knew who did that; it was just his way.

He popped in to report that Billy Graham was going to be on TV later and told me I should listen to him. Then, just as quickly as he had arrived, Bobby left. On his way out he said this, “See you, Eddie. If you want to talk, come on by.”

I don’t remember any of what Dr. Graham had to say, but it was enough to get me to drive the few blocks to Bobby’s house for the first time in over a year.

“Bobby, I need to talk to you. I did watch Billy Graham; that’s why I came here tonight. I don’t know what to do. I have to talk to someone.”

Bobby smiled. “I know just how you feel Eddie. I don’t know a lot, but I do know this …”

As my friend explained the core message of the good news that he and my other “Jesus friends” had believed, I knew this was the best news I had ever heard. Bobby quoted the first Bible verse my ears would ever really hear:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

The questions poured from me. Bobby tried to keep up and then held up his hand and said, “Let’s go ask Keith.”

I had never met Keith, but I knew he was talking about Keith Osborn. Keith had quit his job teaching and coaching in a local high school to become the Kern County Young Life Leader. A few months prior, Keith had been the last person I wanted to talk to; now I couldn’t wait.

We drove the few blocks to Keith’s house. His wife met us at the door.

“Keith’s at a club meeting. He should be back soon. Come on in.”

“No,” I offered, “we’ll just wait outside.”

I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to talk more with Bobby about God and Jesus. It didn’t seem like we could do that in some stranger’s living room.

Keith drove up in an old beat-up car. I picture him in my mind today and he looks tired, but I didn’t even notice any of that; I just had to know more about God. Keith was easy to talk to. He smiled when he saw me and said he had been praying for me. I gave Bobby a look that said, “Have you been talking about me to all these Jesus guys?”

He winked and smiled.

Keith took a seat on the curb in front of his house, invited me to sit down next to him, and opened his Bible. I remember it didn’t look like any Bible I had ever seen before—the huge ones on coffee tables in religious homes or the big black ones the people in Sister Patrick’s church carried under their arms. Keith’s Bible was ragged and used, he had scribbled notes all over the pages and underlined a bunch of sentences. Wow, this guy actually reads this, I thought.

Keith began talking about God and Jesus and truth and mercy and a word that I was especially attracted to, grace. He was so gentle, so real, and so different from anyone who had ever talked about God around me before. And it was on that curb in Bakersfield, California, on that summer night, that the Jesus Movement moved into my heart.

This man I had just met asked me to pray with him, and I did. In everyday sentences, I told God that I knew I was a sinner, that I believed Jesus died for my sins, and that I wanted to receive Christ as my Savior. Keith said “Amen,” grabbed me in his arms, hugged me wildly and read from his Bible how the angels were having a party right now because they were so excited that I had become a Christian.

That was the night the light dawned in my heart and the darkness lifted from my life. Like the thousands of others who were meeting Jesus through the Bobbies and Keiths in their lives, I knew I was different. Especially when the darkness tried to hang on, while Jesus pulled me from its death grip.

Scene 5, Jeff’s Car

We called it the “Hole.” It was a huge depression in the desert floor outside of town, a perfect place to party. If you didn’t know it was there, you couldn’t find the source of the rock music blasting from the huge speakers someone wired to their eight-track tape player. If you knew the unmarked way, you would slow down just before you hit the edge of our four- or five-acre crater turned rock concert. As you dropped into a lower gear you would look for a place to park, pull out your drug of choice, depending on whether you were a “juicer” or a “head,” and start partying. The cops couldn’t find us so it got pretty wild.

My new Christian friends had warned me against hanging out with the guys from the neighborhood. They said something about not having “fellowship with darkness.” I had already figured out that fellowship was Christian-talk for friendship but I didn’t see any harm in spending a Friday night with my old buddies at the Hole.

Jeff promised he wouldn’t tell Bobby I was going out there with him. I was already learning how to be a hypocrite. And besides, what would a few beers and some laughs with my buddies hurt? I never wanted to become some holy nutcase.

I tried to have fun like before, but it just didn’t take. I had another beer and danced with some pretty girls to see if that would help. It just got worse.

I walked over to Jeff’s Malibu, sat on the hood and talked about Jesus with a guy I had only met a few times. I remember thinking as I talked about Christ that I was becoming a Bobby. I also remember deciding that I didn’t care.

My most distinct memory from that night was leaving the Hole riding shotgun in Jeff’s car with a buzz on from the alcohol and hearing God say plainly, You don’t belong here anymore. This is not your life; there’s nothing here for you. Your future is with me.

I never looked back.

I made mistakes and still committed a lot of sins, including many of the same sins I was committing before I met Jesus. But I always knew that it wasn’t the real me, or the new me, doing these things. That was just the old me messing up on the way to my real future, the one I really wanted, my future with Jesus.

You Say You Want a Revolution

We said we wanted revolution and that we wanted to change the world. John Lennon sang about it. We immortalized it.

Tom Brokaw tells us now that some things changed for good and some things changed for worse. As I said earlier, I think he’s correct in everything he says, but he missed the most significant world change, the most lasting revolution of the 1960s.

It didn’t start in Berkeley or at Woodstock. It began in Southern California with the Bobbies of Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, Venice, and Westwood. It spilled over the mountains, as the Bobbies came home to places like Bakersfield, Santa Barbara, and Chico. It was a revolution that happened on the streets, but it was a revolution of the heart.

We called it the Jesus Movement, and it consumed us. Only one word accurately describes what it was—revival. If you’re a Christian, you’re already thinking about what you hope is coming next. There is a question in your heart that you hope I’m going to answer. You want to know if there was a pattern, a path to follow toward revival.

For years my answer to that was always, “No, it just happened. God just did it.” My wife, Judy, changed my mind when she said, “Honey, when I read 2 Corinthians 4:15, it makes me think of when we came to Christ in Bakersfield.”

For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. (2 Cor. 4:15)

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly understood something so perfectly that you were able to say what you felt so intensely with absolute clarity? Something you always had to get out of your soul but you just couldn’t find the words, and then it unfolds and the words just flow from your lips, and as you hear yourself, you’re thinking, That’s it!

I had one of those moments in our living room that day just before breakfast when Judy read 2 Corinthians 4:15. The apostle Paul had condensed everything that happened to us in the Jesus Movement into one sentence: “The grace God planted in our hearts spread through the many and caused thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.”

That’s it. That’s the path to revival.

When I checked 2 Corinthians 4:15 in my favorite paraphrase, The Message, I was really fired up because it divided the path to revival into three progressive steps:

We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life. Just like the psalmist who wrote, “I believed it, so I said it,” we say what we believe. And what we believe is that the One who raised up the Master Jesus will just as certainly raise us up with you, alive. Every detail works to your advantage and to God’s glory: more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise! (2 Cor. 4:13–15 MSG)

There it is, the path to revival: more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise! Grace, People, Praise.

If you want to change the world for Christ, if you want to start a spiritual revolution, it all begins with grace, and lots of it.

More and More Grace

The only starting point is grace, pure and free. If you want revival, you must embrace grace, or it’s not Christianity. Grace sets Christianity apart from all other religions. It’s what makes our message good news.

Years ago a group of British thinkers on comparative religion furiously debated whether one belief set Christianity apart from other world religions. C. S. Lewis wandered in late, took a seat, and asked, “What’s the rumpus about?” When they told him they were trying to determine Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Without hesitation he replied, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”3

It’s grace. Would you say that? Without hesitation? If not, you’re not ready for revival. Whether you met Jesus in the Jesus Movement like me or you’re an emergent Christian or you’re a believer anywhere in between who’s asking God to use you to make a revival-difference in this world, you have to get this straight.

Only those who are willing to join God in risking grace by extending it to sinners without hesitation or compromise will know the spontaneous spiritual joy that sparks spiritual revolution.

Undeserved, unending, unearned, unconditional, uncontrollable, unblinking, unbound, undefiled, undeniable, unequivocal, unfaltering, unhinging, unlimited, unmistakable, unprecedented, unsettling—grace—God’s gift of life to all who believe in His Son, unheard of anywhere else but in Christ.

To us, grace was so much more than a theological doctrine. It was the air we breathed and the new reality of our existence. We never thought for one minute that we were walking a path of measuring up to God. We knew we were walking a path of trusting God. Those two paths never lead in the same direction. One leads to a world of failure, defeat, and misery; the other leads to a world of strength, victory, and joy.

The ones on the path of measuring up never invited us along. Even if they did, we would have told them what they could do with their religious selves. The ones on the path of trusting couldn’t contain the message of grace or the joy in their hearts. And so, like my friend Bobby, they invited us to trust God with them … and we did.

If you were there, you remember when your Bobby came to your street and the moment the light of Christ began to shine in the darkness. But that’s not all you remember. You remember how it felt, the adventure of living on the edge of a powerful movement of God. And you know that you want to feel that way again.

If you’re a Christian but you weren’t there and the institutional church has yet to anesthetize your heart, perhaps you’re reading about something you would love to experience. Maybe you never even thought of yourself as someone who could be part of a revival.

By the time you finish reading this book, you will know that it can happen again. You will understand that in order to get a clear picture of revival you don’t need to strategize, analyze, contextualize, or market Jesus the way some leaders are telling you today. For revival, you simply need to get back on the path of grace, the path wild revolutionaries walk, the path of trusting God. Then, you will look at the streets of your life and imagine what would happen if you decided to be a Bobby.

That’s what we did. As soon as we met Jesus on the streets by hearing His message of grace, we couldn’t keep it quiet—more and more grace. Every detail worked to God’s glory as more and more people praised God as we took Jesus to the streets.

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Ransome’s Crossing (The Ransome Trilogy) by Kaye Dacus

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

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A Tailor-Made Bride by Karen Witemeyer

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

A Tailor-Made Bride

Bethany House (June 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Karen Witemeyer for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Karen Witemeyer holds a master’s degree in psychology from Abilene Christian University and is a member of ACFW, RWA, and the Texas Coalition of Authors. She has published fiction in Focus on the Family’s children’s magazine, and has written several articles for online publications and anthologies. Tailor-Made Bride is her first novel. Karen lives in Abilene, Texas, with her husband and three children.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Bethany House (June 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0764207555
ISBN-13: 978-0764207556

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Prologue

San Antonio, Texas—March 1881
“Red? Have you no shame, Auntie Vic? You can’t be buried in a scarlet gown.”

“It’s cerise, Nan.”

Hannah Richards bit back a laugh as Victoria Ashmont effectively put her nephew’s wife in her place with three little words. Trying hard to appear as if she wasn’t listening to her client’s conversation, Hannah pulled the last pin from between her lips and slid it into the hem of the controversial fabric.

“Must you flout convention to the very end?” Nan’s whine heightened to a near screech as she stomped toward the door. A delicate sniff followed by a tiny hiccup foreshadowed the coming of tears. “Sherman and I will be the ones to pay the price. You’ll make us a laughingstock among our friends. But then, you’ve never cared for anyone except yourself, have you?”

Miss Victoria pivoted with impressive speed, the cane she used for balance nearly clobbering Hannah in the head as she spun.

“You may have my nephew wrapped around your little finger, but don’t think you can manipulate me with your theatrics.” Like an angry goddess from the Greek myths, Victoria Ashmont held her chin at a regal angle and pointed her aged hand toward the woman who dared challenge her. Hannah almost expected a lightning bolt to shoot from her finger to disintegrate Nan where she stood.

“You’ve been circling like a vulture since the day Dr. Bowman declared my heart to be failing, taking over the running of my household and plotting how to spend Sherman’s inheritance. Well, you won’t be controlling me, missy. I’ll wear what I choose, when I choose, whether or not you approve. And if your friends have nothing better to do at a funeral than snicker about your great aunt’s attire, perhaps you’d do well to find some companions with a little more depth of character.”

Nan’s affronted gasp echoed through the room like the crack of a mule skinner’s whip.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Miss Victoria called out as her niece yanked open the bedchamber door. “You’ll have my money to console you. I’m sure you’ll recover from any embarrassment I cause in the blink of an eye.”

The door slammed shut, and the resulting bang appeared to knock the starch right out of Miss Victoria. She wobbled, and Hannah lurched to her feet to steady the elderly lady.

“Here, ma’am. Why don’t you rest for a minute?” Hannah gripped her client’s arm and led her to the fainting couch at the foot of the large four-poster bed that dominated the room. “Would you like me to ring for some tea?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, girl. I’m not so infirm that a verbal skirmish leaves me in want of fortification. I just need to catch my breath.”

Hannah nodded, not about to argue. She gathered her sewing box instead, collecting her shears, pins, and needle case from where they lay upon the thick tapestry carpet.

She had sewn for Miss Victoria for the last eighteen months, and it disturbed her to see the woman reduced to tremors and pallor so easily. The eccentric spinster never shied from a fight and always kept her razor-sharp tongue at the ready.

Hannah had felt the lash of that tongue herself on several occasions, but she’d developed a thick skin over the years. A woman making her own way in the world had to toughen up quickly or get squashed. Perhaps that was why she respected Victoria Ashmont enough to brave her scathing comments time after time. The woman had been living life on her own terms for years and had done well for herself in the process. True, she’d had money and the power of the Ashmont name to lend her support, but from all public reports—and a few overheard conversations—it was clear Victoria Ashmont’s fortune had steadily grown during her tenure as head of the family, not dwindled, which was more than many men could say. Hannah liked to think that, given half a chance, she’d be able to duplicate the woman’s success. At least to a modest degree.

“How long have you worked for Mrs. Granbury, Miss Richards?”

Hannah jumped at the barked question and scurried back to Miss Victoria’s side, her sewing box tucked under her arm. “Nearly two years, ma’am.”

“Hmmph.” The woman’s cane rapped three staccato beats against the leg of the couch before she continued. “I nagged that woman for years to hire some girls with gumption. I was pleased when she finally took my advice. Your predecessors failed to last more than a month or two with me. Either I didn’t approve of their workmanship, or they couldn’t stand up to my plain speaking. It’s a dratted nuisance having to explain my preferences over and over to new girls every time I need something made up. I’ve not missed that chore.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Hannah’s forehead scrunched. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Victoria Ashmont might have just paid her a compliment.

“Have you ever thought of opening your own shop?”

Hannah’s gaze flew to her client’s face. Miss Victoria’s slate gray eyes assessed her, probing, drilling into her core, as if she meant to rip the truth from her with or without her consent.

Ducking away from the penetrating stare, Hannah fiddled with the sewing box. “Mrs. Granbury has been good to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to set some of my earnings aside. It will be several years yet, but one day I do hope to set up my own establishment.”

“Good. Now help me get out of this dress.”

Dizzy from the abrupt starts, stops, and turns of the strange conversation, Hannah kept her mouth closed and assisted Miss Victoria. She unfastened the brightly colored silk, careful not to snag the pins on either the delicate material of the gown or on Miss Victoria’s stockings. Once the dress had been safely removed, she set it aside and helped the woman don a loose-fitting wrapper.

“I’m anxious to have these details put in order,” Miss Victoria said as she took a seat at the ladies’ writing desk along the east wall. “I will pay you a bonus if you will stay here and finish the garment for me before you leave. You may use the chair in the corner.” She gestured toward a small upholstered rocker that sat angled toward the desk.

Hannah’s throat constricted. Her mind scrambled for a polite refusal, yet she found no excuse valid enough to withstand Miss Victoria’s scrutiny. Left with no choice, she swallowed her misgivings and forced the appropriate reply past her lips.

“As you wish.”

Masking her disappointment, Hannah set her box of supplies on the floor near the chair Miss Victoria had indicated and turned to fetch the dress.

She disliked sewing in front of clients. Though her tiny boardinghouse room was dim and lacked the comforts afforded in Miss Victoria’s mansion, the solitude saved her from suffering endless questions and suggestions while she worked.

Hannah drew in a deep breath. I might as well make the best of it. No use dwelling on what couldn’t be changed. It was just a hem and few darts to compensate for her client’s recent weight loss. She could finish the task in less than an hour.

Miss Victoria proved gracious. She busied herself with papers of some kind at her desk and didn’t interfere with Hannah’s work. She did keep up a healthy stream of chatter, though.

“You probably think me morbid for finalizing all my funeral details in advance.” Miss Victoria lifted the lid of a small silver case and extracted a pair of eyeglasses. She wedged them onto her nose and began leafing through a stack of documents in a large oak box.

Hannah turned back to her stitching. “Not morbid, ma’am. Just . . . efficient.”

“Hmmph. Truth is, I know I’m dying, and I’d rather go out in a memorable fashion than slip away quietly, never to be thought of again.”

“I’m sure your nephew will remember you.” Hannah glanced up as she twisted the dress to allow her better access to the next section of hem.

“Sherman? Bah! That boy would forget his own name if given half a chance.” Miss Victoria pulled a document out of the box. She set it in front of her, then dragged her inkstand close and unscrewed the cap. “I’ve got half a mind to donate my estate to charity instead of letting it sift through my nephew’s fingers. He and that flighty wife of his will surely do nothing of value with it.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “But they are family, after all, and I suppose I’ll no longer care about how the money is spent after I’m gone.”

Hannah poked her needle up and back through the red silk in rapid succession, focused on making each stitch even and straight. It wasn’t her place to offer advice, but it burned on her tongue nonetheless. Any church or charitable organization in the city could do a great amount of good with even a fraction of the Ashmont estate. Miss Victoria could make several small donations without her nephew ever knowing the difference. Hannah pressed her lips together and continued weaving her needle in and out, keeping her unsolicited opinion to herself.

She was relieved when a soft tapping at the door saved her from having to come up with an appropriate response.

A young maid entered and bobbed a curtsy. “The post has arrived, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Millie.” Miss Victoria accepted the envelope. “You may go.”

The sound of paper ripping echoed in the quiet room as Miss Victoria slid her letter opener through the upper edge of the flap.

“Well, I must give the gentleman credit for persistence,” the older woman murmured. “This is the third letter he’s sent in two months.”

Hannah turned the dress again and bent her head a little closer to her task, hoping to escape Miss Victoria’s notice. It was not to be. The older woman’s voice only grew louder and more pointed as she continued.

“He wants to buy one of my railroad properties.”

Hannah made the mistake of looking up. Miss Victoria’s eyes, magnified by the lenses she wore, demanded a response. Yet how did a working-class seamstress participate in a conversation of a personal nature with one so above her station? She didn’t want to offend by appearing uninterested. However, showing too keen an interest might come across as presumptuous. Hannah floundered to find a suitably innocuous response and finally settled on, “Oh?”

It seemed to be enough, and Miss Victoria turned back to her correspondence as she continued her ramblings.

“When the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway out of Galveston started up construction again last year, I invested in a handful of properties along the proposed route, in towns that were already established. I’ve made a tidy profit on most, but for some reason, I find myself reluctant to part with this one.”

An expectant pause hung in the air. Keeping her eyes on her work, Hannah voiced the first thought that came to mind.

“Does the gentleman not make a fair offer?”

“No, Mr. Tucker proposes a respectable price.” Miss Victoria tapped the handle of the letter opener against the desktop in a rhythmic pattern, then seemed to become aware of what she was doing and set it aside. “Perhaps I am reticent because I do not know the man personally. He is in good standing with the bank in Coventry and by all accounts is respected in the community, yet in the past I’ve made my decision to sell after meeting with the buyer in person. Unfortunately, my health precludes that now.”

“Coventry?” Hannah seized upon the less personal topic. “I’m not familiar with that town.”

“That’s because it’s about two hundred miles north of here—and it is quite small. The surveyors tell me it’s in a pretty little spot along the North Bosque River. I had hoped to visit, but it looks as if I won’t be afforded that opportunity.”

Hannah tied off her thread and snipped the tail. She reached for her spool and unwound another long section, thankful that the discussion had finally moved in a more neutral direction. She clipped the end of the thread and held the needle up to gauge the position of the eye.

“What do you think, Miss Richards? Should I sell it to him?”

The needle slipped out of her hand.

“You’re asking me?”

“Is there another Miss Richards in the room? Of course I’m asking you.” She clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Goodness, girl. I’ve always thought you to be an intelligent sort. Have I been wrong all this time?”

That rankled. Hannah sat a little straighter and lifted her chin. “No, ma’am.”

“Good.” Miss Victoria slapped her palm against the desk. “Now, tell me what you think.”

If the woman was determined to have her speak her mind, Hannah would oblige. This was the last project she’d ever sew for the woman anyway. It couldn’t hurt. The only problem was, she’d worked so hard not to form an opinion during this exchange, that now that she was asked for one, she had none to give. Trying not to let the silence rush her into saying something that would indeed prove her lacking in intellect, she scrambled to gather her thoughts while she searched for the dropped needle.

“It seems to me,” she said, uncovering the needle along with a speck of insight, “you need to decide if you would rather have the property go to a man you know only by reputation or to the nephew you know through experience.” Hannah lifted her gaze to meet Miss Victoria’s and held firm, not allowing the woman’s critical stare to cow her. “Which scenario gives you the greatest likelihood of leaving behind the legacy you desire?”

Victoria Ashmont considered her for several moments, her eyes piercing Hannah and bringing to mind the staring contests the school boys used to challenge her to when she was still in braids. The memory triggered her competitive nature, and a stubborn determination to win rose within her.

At last, Miss Victoria nodded and turned away. “Thank you, Miss Richards. I think I have my answer.”

Exultation flashed through her for a brief second at her victory, but self-recrimination soon followed. This wasn’t a schoolyard game. It was an aging woman’s search to create meaning in her death.

“Forgive my boldness, ma’am.”

Her client turned back and wagged a bony finger at Hannah. “Boldness is exactly what you need to run your own business, girl. Boldness, skill, and a lot of hard work. When you get that shop of yours, hardships are sure to find their way to your doorstep. Confidence is the only way to combat them—confidence in yourself and in the God who equips you to overcome. Never forget that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Feeling chastised and oddly encouraged at the same time, Hannah threaded her needle and returned to work. The scratching of pen against paper replaced the chatter of Miss Victoria’s voice as the woman gave her full attention to the documents spread across her desk. Time passed swiftly, and soon the alterations were complete.

After trying the gown on a second time to assure a proper fit and examining every seam for quality and durability, as was her custom, Victoria Ashmont ushered Hannah down to the front hall.

“My man will see you home, Miss Richards.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Hannah collected her bonnet from the butler and tied the ribbons beneath her chin.

“I will settle my account with Mrs. Granbury by the end of the week, but here is the bonus I promised you.” She held out a plain white envelope.

Hannah accepted it and placed it carefully in her reticule. She dipped her head and made a quick curtsy. “Thank you. I have enjoyed the privilege of working for you, ma’am, and I pray that your health improves so that I might do so again.”

A strange light came into Miss Victoria’s eyes, a secretive gleam, as if she could see into the future. “You have better things to do than make outlandish red dresses for old women, Miss Richards. Don’t waste your energy worrying over my health. I’ll go when it’s my time and not a moment before.”

Hannah smiled as she stepped out the door, sure that not even the angels could drag Miss Victoria away until she was ready to go. Yet underneath the woman’s tough exterior beat a kind heart. Although Hannah didn’t fully understand how kind until she arrived home and opened her bonus envelope.

Instead of the two or three greenbacks she had assumed were tucked inside, she found a gift that stole her breath and her balance. She slumped against the boardinghouse wall and slid down its blue-papered length into a trembling heap on the floor. She blinked several times, but the writing on the paper didn’t change, only blurred as tears welled and distorted her vision.

She held in her hand the deed to her new dress shop in Coventry, Texas.

Chapter One

Coventry, Texas—September 1881
“J.T.! J.T.! I got a customer for ya.” Tom Packard lumbered down the street with his distinctive uneven gait, waving his arm in the air.

Jericho “J.T.” Tucker stepped out of the livery’s office with a sigh and waited for his right-hand man to jog past the blacksmith and bootmaker shops. He’d lost count of how many times he’d reminded Tom not to yell out his business for everyone to hear, but social niceties tended to slip the boy’s notice when he got excited.

It wasn’t his fault, though. At eighteen, Tom had the body of a man, but his mind hadn’t developed quite as far. He couldn’t read a lick and could barely pen his own name, but he had a gentle way with horses, so J.T. let him hang around the stable and paid him to help out with the chores. In gratitude, the boy did everything in his power to prove himself worthy, including trying to drum up clientele from among the railroad passengers who unloaded at the station a mile south of town. After weeks without so much as a nibble, it seemed the kid had finally managed to hook himself a fish.

J.T. leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and slid a toothpick out of his shirt pocket. He clamped the wooden sliver between his teeth and kept his face void of expression save for a single raised brow as Tom stumbled to a halt in front of him. The kid grasped his knees and gulped air for a moment, then unfolded to his full height, which was nearly as tall as his employer. His cheeks, flushed from his exertions, darkened further when he met J.T.’s eye.

“I done forgot about the yelling again, huh? Sorry.” Tom slumped, his chin bending toward his chest.

J.T. gripped the kid’s shoulder, straightened him up, and slapped him on the back. “You’ll remember next time. Now, what’s this about a customer?”

Tom brightened in an instant. “I gots us a good one. She’s right purty and has more boxes and gewgaws than I ever did see. I ’spect there’s enough to fill up the General.”

“The General, huh?” J.T. rubbed his jaw and used the motion to cover his grin.

Tom had names for all the wagons. Fancy Pants was the fringed surrey J.T. kept on hand for family outings or courting couples; the buggy’s name was Doc after the man who rented it out most frequently; the buckboard was just plain Buck; and his freight wagon was affectionately dubbed The General. The kid’s monikers inspired a heap of good-natured ribbing amongst the men who gathered at the livery to swap stories and escape their womenfolk, but over time the names stuck. Just last week, Alistair Smythe plopped down a silver dollar and demanded he be allowed to take Fancy Pants out for a drive. Hearing the pretentious bank clerk use Tom’s nickname for the surrey left the fellas guffawing for days.

J.T. thrust the memory from his mind and crossed his arms over his chest, using his tongue to shift the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “The buckboard is easier to get to. I reckon it’d do the job just as well.”

“I dunno.” Tom mimicked J.T.’s posture, crossing his own arms and leaning against the livery wall. “She said her stuff was mighty heavy and she’d pay extra to have it unloaded at her shop.”

“Shop?” J.T.’s good humor shriveled. His arms fell to his sides as his gaze slid past Tom to the vacant building across the street. The only unoccupied shop in Coventry stood adjacent to Louisa James’s laundry—the shop he’d tried, and failed, to purchase. J.T.’s jaw clenched so tight the toothpick started to splinter. Forcing himself to relax, he straightened away from the doorpost.

“I think she’s a dressmaker,” Tom said. “There were a bunch of them dummies with no heads or arms with her on the platform. Looked right peculiar, them all standin’ around her like they’s gonna start a quiltin’ bee or something.” The kid chuckled at his own joke, but J.T. didn’t join in his amusement.

A dressmaker? A woman who made her living by exploiting the vanity of her customers? That’s who was moving into his shop?

A sick sensation oozed like molasses through his gut as memories clawed over the wall he’d erected to keep them contained.

“So we gonna get the General, J.T.?”

Tom’s question jerked him back to the present and allowed him to stuff the unpleasant thoughts back down where they belonged. He loosened his fingers from the fist he didn’t remember making and adjusted his hat to sit lower on his forehead, covering his eyes. It wouldn’t do for the kid to see the anger that surely lurked there. He’d probably go and make some fool assumption that he’d done something wrong. Or worse, he’d ask questions J.T. didn’t want to answer.

He cleared his throat and clasped the kid’s shoulder. “If you think we need the freight wagon, then we’ll get the freight wagon. Why don’t you harness up the grays then come help me wrangle the General?”

“Yes, sir!” Tom bounded off to the corral to gather the horses, his chest so inflated with pride J.T. was amazed he could see where he was going.

Ducking back inside the livery, J.T. closed up his office and strode past the stalls to the oversized double doors that opened his wagon shed up to the street. He grasped the handle of the first and rolled it backward, using his body weight as leverage. As his muscles strained against the heavy wooden door, his mind struggled to control his rising frustration.

He’d finally accepted the fact that the owner of the shop across the street refused to sell to him. J.T. believed in Providence, that the Lord would direct his steps. He didn’t like it, but he’d worked his way to peace with the decision. Until a few minutes ago. The idea that God would allow it to go to a dressmaker really stuck in his craw.

It wasn’t as if he wanted the shop for selfish reasons. He saw it as a chance to help out a widow and her orphans. Isn’t that what the Bible defined as “pure religion”? What could be nobler than that? Louisa James supported three kids with her laundry business and barely eked out an existence. The building she worked in was crumbling around her ears even though the majority of her income went to pay the rent. He’d planned to buy the adjacent shop and rent it to her at half the price she was currently paying in exchange for storing some of his tack in the large back room.

J.T. squinted against the afternoon sunlight that streamed into the dim stable and strode to the opposite side of the entrance, his indignation growing with every step. Ignoring the handle, he slammed his shoulder into the second door and ground his teeth as he dug his boots into the packed dirt floor, forcing the wood to yield to his will.

How could a bunch of fripperies and ruffles do more to serve the community than a new roof for a family in need? Most of the women in and around Coventry sewed their own clothes, and those that didn’t bought ready-made duds through the dry-goods store or mail order. Sensible clothes, durable clothes, not fashion-plate items that stroked their vanity or elicited covetous desires in their hearts for things they couldn’t afford. A dressmaker had no place in Coventry.

This can’t be God’s will. The world and its schemers had brought her to town, not God.

Horse hooves thudded and harness jangled as Tom led the grays toward the front of the livery.

J.T. blew out a breath and rubbed a hand along his jaw. No matter what had brought her to Coventry, the dressmaker was still a woman, and his father had drummed into him the truth that all women were to be treated with courtesy and respect. So he’d smile and doff his hat and make polite conversation. Shoot, he’d even lug her heavy junk around for her and unload all her falderal. But once she was out of his wagon, he’d have nothing more to do with her.

———

Hannah sat atop one of her five trunks, waiting for young Tom to return. Most of the other passengers had left the depot already, making their way on foot or in wagons with family members who’d come to meet them. Hannah wasn’t about to let her belongings out of her sight, though—or trust them to a porter she didn’t know. So she waited.

Thanks to Victoria Ashmont’s generosity, she’d been able to use the money she’d saved for a shop to buy fabric and supplies. Not knowing what would be available in the small town of Coventry, she brought everything she needed with her. Including her prized possession—a Singer Improved Family Model 15 treadle machine with five-drawer walnut cabinet and extension leaf. The monster weighed nearly as much as the locomotive that brought her here, but it was a thing of beauty, and she intended to make certain it arrived at the shop without incident.

Her toes tapped against the wooden platform. Only a mile of dusty road stood between her and her dream. Yet the final minutes of waiting felt longer than the hours, even years, that preceded them. Could she really run her own business, or would Miss Ashmont’s belief in her prove misplaced? A tingle of apprehension tiptoed over Hannah’s spine. What if the women of Coventry had no need of a dressmaker? What if they didn’t like her designs? What if . . .

Hannah surged to her feet and began to pace. Miss Ashmont had directed her to be bold. Bold and self-confident. Oh, and confident in God. Hannah paused. Her gaze slid to the bushy hills rising around her like ocean swells. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” The psalm seeped into her soul, bringing a measure of assurance with it. God had led her here. He would provide.

She resumed her pacing, anticipation building as fear receded. On her sixth lap around her mound of luggage, the creak of wagon wheels brought her to a halt.

A conveyance drew near, and Hannah’s pulse vaulted into a new pace. Young Tom wasn’t driving. Another man with a worn brown felt hat pulled low over his eyes sat on the bench. It must be that J.T. person Tom had rambled on about. Well, it didn’t matter who was driving, as long as he had the strength to maneuver her sewing machine without dropping it.

A figure in the back of the wagon waved a cheerful greeting, and the movement caught Hannah’s eye. She waved back, glad to see Tom had returned as well. Two men working together would have a much easier time of it.

The liveryman pulled the horses to a halt and set the brake. Masculine grace exuded from him as he climbed down and made his way to the platform. His long stride projected confidence, a vivid contrast to Tom’s childish gamboling behind him. Judging by the breadth of his shoulders and the way the blue cotton of his shirt stretched across the expanse of his chest and arms, this man would have no trouble moving her sewing cabinet.

Tom dashed ahead of the newcomer and swiped the gray slouch hat from his head. Tufts of his dark blond hair stuck out at odd angles, but his eyes sparkled with warmth. “I got the General, ma’am. We’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.” Not wasting a minute, he slapped his hat back on and moved past her.

Hannah’s gaze roamed to the man waiting a few steps away. He didn’t look much like a general. No military uniform. Instead he sported scuffed boots and denims that were wearing thin at the knees. The tip of a toothpick protruded from his lips, wiggling a little as he gnawed on it. Perhaps General was a nickname of sorts. He hadn’t spoken a word, yet there was something about his carriage and posture that gave him an air of authority.

She straightened her shoulders in response and closed the distance between them. Still giddy about starting up her shop, she couldn’t resist the urge to tease the stoic man who held himself apart.

“Thank you for assisting me today, General.” She smiled up at him as she drew near, finally able to see more than just his jaw. He had lovely amber eyes, although they were a bit cold. “Should I salute or something?”

His right brow arced upward. Then a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth told her he’d caught on.

“I’m afraid I’m a civilian through and through, ma’am.” He tilted his head in the direction of the wagon. “That’s the General. Tom likes to name things.”

Hannah gave a little laugh. “I see. Well, I’m glad to have you both lending me a hand. I’m Hannah Richards.”

The man tweaked the brim of his hat. “J.T. Tucker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tucker.”

He dipped his chin in a small nod. Not a very demonstrative fellow. Nor very talkative.

“Lay those things down, Tom,” he called out as he stepped away. “We don’t want them to tip over the side if we hit a rut.”

“Oh. Wait just a minute, please.” There was no telling what foul things had been carted around in that wagon bed before today. It didn’t matter so much for her trunks and sewing cabinet, but the linen covering her mannequins would be easily soiled.

“I have an old quilt that I wrapped around them in the railroad freight car. Let me fetch it.”

Hannah sensed more than heard Mr. Tucker’s sigh as she hurried to collect the quilt from the trunk she had been sitting on. Well, he could sigh all he liked. Her display dummies were going to be covered. She had one chance to make a first impression on the ladies of Coventry, and she vowed it would be a pristine one.

Making a point not to look at the liveryman as she scurried by, Hannah clutched the quilt to her chest and headed for the wagon. She draped it over the side, then climbed the spokes and hopped into the back, just as she had done as a child. Then she laid out the quilt along the back wall and gently piled the six dummies horizontally atop it, alternating the placement of the tripod pedestals to allow them to fit together in a more compact fashion. As she flipped the remaining fabric of the quilt over the pile, a loud thud sounded from behind, and the wagon jostled her. She gasped and teetered to the side. Glancing over her shoulder, she caught sight of Mr. Tucker as he shoved the first of her trunks into the wagon bed, its iron bottom scraping against the wooden floor.

The man could have warned her of his presence instead of scaring the wits out of her like that. But taking him to task would only make her look like a shrew, so she ignored him. When Tom arrived with the second trunk, she was ready. After he set it down, she moved to the end of the wagon.

“Would you help me down, please?”

He grinned up at her. “Sure thing.”

Hannah set her hands on his shoulders as he clasped her waist and lifted her down. A tiny voice of regret chided her for not asking the favor of the rugged Mr. Tucker, but she squelched it. Tom was a safer choice. Besides, his affable manner put her at ease—unlike his companion, who from one minute to the next alternated between sparking her interest and her ire.

She bit back her admonishments to take care as the men hefted her sewing machine. Thankfully, they managed to accomplish the task without her guidance. With the large cabinet secured in the wagon bed, it didn’t take long for them to load the rest of her belongings. Once they finished, Tom handed her up to the bench seat, then scrambled into the back, leaving her alone with Mr. Tucker.

A cool autumn breeze caressed her cheeks and tugged lightly on her bonnet as the wagon rolled forward. She smoothed her skirts, not sure what to say to the reticent man beside her. However, he surprised her by starting the conversation on his own.

“What made you choose Coventry, Miss Richards?”

She twisted on the seat to look at him, but his eyes remained focused on the road.

“I guess you could say it chose me.”

“How so?”

“It was really a most extraordinary sequence of events. I do not doubt that the Lord’s Providence brought me here.”

That got a reaction. His chin swiveled toward her, and beneath his hat, his intense gaze speared her for a handful of seconds before he blinked and turned away.

She swallowed the moisture that had accumulated under her tongue as he stared at her, then continued.

“Two years ago, I was hired by Mrs. Granbury of San Antonio to sew for her most particular clientele. One of these clients was an elderly spinster with a reputation for being impossible to work with. Well, I needed the job too badly to allow her to scare me away and was too stubborn to let her get the best of me, so I stuck it out and eventually the two of us found a way to coexist and even respect each other.

“Before she died, she called me in to make a final gown for her, and we fell to talking about her legacy. She had invested in several railroad properties, and had only one left that had not sold. In an act of generosity that I still find hard to believe, she gave me the deed as a gift, knowing that I had always dreamed of opening my own shop.”

“What kept her from selling it before then?” His deep voice rumbled with something more pointed than simple curiosity.

A prickle of unease wiggled down Hannah’s neck, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint the cause.

“She told me that she preferred to meet the buyers in person, to assess their character before selling off her properties. Unfortunately, her health had begun to decline, and she was unable to travel. There had been a gentleman of good reputation from this area who made an offer several times. A Mr. Tuck…”

A hard lump of dread formed in the back of Hannah’s throat.

“Oh dear. Don’t tell me you’re that Mr. Tucker?”

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Filed under Blog Tours

The Overseer by Conlan Brown blog tour

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Overseer (Firstborn (Realms))

Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)

***Special thanks to Anna Coelho Silva | Publicity Coordinator, Book Group | Strang Communications for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


By the end of his sixteenth year Conlan Brown had completed his first novel, his first stage play, and his first year of college. Brown now holds a Master’s degree in Communication and lives on Colorado’s Front Range where he is working on his next book. He enjoys video editing, film scores, and developing high octane, thought provoking fiction that turns pages and excites the senses.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1599799553
ISBN-13: 978-1599799551

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Screams rang out from the rain-soaked street. Feeling the horror rise, Hannah fell to her knees in the pounding deluge, hands touching the ragged edges of the craterlike pothole.

The impact of the car splashing into the pothole. Thunder. Lightning. Rain. A trunk opening. Three teens. Terrified, screaming, kicking. Eyes begging for help. Hands slapping, punching bloodied mouths. Frightened girls torn from the car—thrown to the wet street. A needle— Bodies going limp. Thrown into another car. Tires shrieking into the stormy night. One man remaining in the street. The tattoo—a dragon.

Thunder cracked as the images disappeared with the flash. Lifting her head, she looked around, the thick spring storm churning around her.

The screams.

Already gone from the world—but the street remembered— and Hannah could still hear them calling out from the past. She was their only hope now—the one person who realized that these girls had been conned and taken. The only person who could follow a trail snaking backward through the past— a trail that had gone cold to the negligent, rain-drenched world.

Hannah Rice looked to her right and saw the liquor store. That was where he had gone—the man with the dragon tattoo.

Just through those doors. Hannah breathed in with resolve and walked toward the lights of the liquor store—

—toward the dragon.

Hannah pushed the soaked hood of her sweatshirt off her head and looked around.

She had never been in a liquor store before. The floor was white like a supermarket—but none of the same sweet, homey smells were here. No bread or fruit. Simply rows of metal racks, stocked with a forest of bottles. The sounds of clinking glass and cooler doors opening and closing filled her ears. An older man in a plaid shirt and a wiry blond beard approached the door, looking her up and down out of the corner of his eye.

For being in a seedy part of New Jersey, the store was big and fairly clean. Hannah looked around, waiting for someone to realize that she was only twenty and have her sent from the premises in handcuffs and a swirl of red and blue lights. The only looks she received were lecherous at best. She pulled her jean jacket close, pressing the metal buttons into place with little pops that seemed to echo through the cavernous room.

“Can I help you find something?” a jockish-looking guy in his midtwenties asked from behind the counter.

She shook her head, embarrassed. “No, thank you.” She moved to the far end of the store, looking down the aisles as she walked.

No one realized she was too young to be here, or else no one cared. She watched the aisles change as she moved along, shifting from colorful bottles of flavored rum with shirtless cabana boys adorning their labels to the dark glass of the wines.

Hannah wasn’t unfamiliar with alcohol. Half the reason she’d left college was because of her roommate’s drunken binges in which she had brought so many of her friends over to

party. It reminded Hannah of all the nights she had spent in the dorm lounge, studying subjects she didn’t understand, sleeping on couches she resented being on. It was the next day’s cleanup, inevitably left to Hannah, that had taught her to recognize various forms of alcohol bottles and the hazards of a hungover roommate.

Her grandfather had left her enough money to get whatever degree she wanted, wherever she wanted it, but she had chosen a medium-sized state college to start out. The idea had been simple: get her core classes out of the way, and buy herself some time to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. After she gave up on college, she moved to New Jersey to be near the Firstborn and enrolled in an online program. Distance learning at her own pace better suited the lifestyle she had grown to accept: following dark trails through back alleys. The ongoing searches for—

—the dragon.

It was always jarring to see her visions in the flesh. She was a Prima—gifted with hindsight, the ability to see the past. And the past tended to have the good sense to stay in the past and fade away to the naked eye and the observing world. But there he stood inthe middle of the aisle—fifteen feet away—comparing labels on vodka bottles. His arms bare, short black hair wet. A blue short-sleeved T-shirt and green cargo pants. The tattoo

curled up his arm, its tail resting against the back of his hand, its scaly body coiling around the man’s arm like an anaconda, the dragon’s head poised to strike like a hooded cobra, a forked tongue lashing out from beneath a spray of flame.

The man looked up from the bottles, turning his head— toward her . . .

Hannah dropped back around the corner. A sting of panic nipped at her heart. She waited a moment—her pulse and breath slowing as she pulled herself together. She looked back.

Gone.

She moved down the aisle to where the man had been and passed, heading to the end of the aisle. She stopped and turned her head, looking for him.

Nowhere.

Hannah moved fast, looking down the aisles once again, coming to the end of the rows. She must have lost him somewhere in the—

She saw him at the front of the store, at the cash register, the boy behind the counter stuffing a bottle of vodka into a perfectly sized brown paper sack. The man with the tattoo reached into his pocket, pulled out a thick roll of bills, and slid one from beneath the tight hold of the rubber band that encircled them. The boy hit a button on the cash register, and the man with the tattoo turned, walking toward the door.

“Hey, Dominik,” the boy called after him, “do you want your change?”

Dominik simply waved a dismissive hand and pushed through the front door, back into the rain.

Pushing the glass door open, Hannah followed, plunging into the downpour. Her eyes scanned the cars in front of her parked diagonally to the storefront. A set of lights flashed on toward the far right end of the row—a black luxury sedan—the engine humming, the wipers swishing away a wide swath of pooling water as the man in the driver’s seat lifted his eyes—

Dominik.

His dragon-clad shoulder moved, putting the car into drive. The vehicle slid backward out of its space, through the veil of rain, past the unnatural glow of the liquor store’s neon lights, and then slipped into darkness.

Her one lead. The one trail. The only chance to find the girls. And he was getting away. For a split second Hannah did none of her own thinking. Her feet took off, rushing into the night, as the car pulled parallel to the street. The brake lights lit up. The backup lights dimmed. The car began to drive away.

Her first thought was to chase after, screaming, shouting, demanding he stop. Her next thought was to memorize his license plate number. Hannah’s eyes squinted into the darkness, but the lights surrounding the license plate were all burnt out. Nothing to see but darkness.

The red taillights, glowing like the eyes of the dragon on Dominik’s arm, glared at her through the onslaught of falling droplets. Turning the corner, leaving her in the street—alone.

“Lord,” she stammered to herself. She could feel her panic rise at not knowing what to do. But now was not the time to focus on problems or obstacles. Now was not the time to feel or do. Now was the time to clear her mind. To be. To be what she had been called to—

Hannah turned her attention to the end of the block, where she had parked her car. That was where she needed to get. To think past the problem and to move effortlessly with the solution.

Wet and cold, she thrust her hand into her pocket, reaching for her car keys. Suddenly she was at the car door, her hand holding the key, the key in the door. The old door to the station wagon groaned as she pulled it open and climbed in. She turned the key, and the engine sputtered.

“Not now,” she whimpered, pushing down on the pedal, feeding the engine gas. A moment of whirring, then—

The engine went dead. She’d flooded it. The old jalopy did it all the time, but this was the worst possible—

Hannah stopped. Gathered herself. She had to get past the

Chapter 1

creams rang out from the rain-soaked street.

Feeling the horror rise, Hannah fell to her knees in the

pounding deluge, hands touching the ragged edges of the

craterlike pothole.

The impact of the car splashing into the pothole.

Thunder. Lightning. Rain.

A trunk opening.

Three teens. Terrified, screaming, kicking.

Eyes begging for help.

Hands slapping, punching bloodied mouths.

Frightened girls torn from the car—thrown to the wet street.

A needle—

Bodies going limp.

Thrown into another car.

Tires shrieking into the stormy night.

One man remaining in the street.

The tattoo—a dragon.

Thunder cracked as the images disappeared with the flash.

Lifting her head, she looked around, the thick spring storm

churning around her.

The screams.

Already gone from the world—but the street remembered—

and Hannah could still hear them calling out from the past.

She was their only hope now—the one person who realized

that these girls had been conned and taken. The only person

who could follow a trail snaking backward through the past—

a trail that had gone cold to the negligent, rain-drenched

world.

Hannah Rice looked to her right and saw the liquor store.

That was where he had gone—the man with the dragon tattoo.

1

The Overseer

Just through those doors. Hannah breathed in with resolve and

walked toward the lights of the liquor store—

—toward the dragon.

Hannah pushed the soaked hood of her sweatshirt off her head

and looked around.

She had never been in a liquor store before. The floor was

white like a supermarket—but none of the same sweet, homey

smells were here. No bread or fruit. Simply rows of metal racks,

stocked with a forest of bottles. The sounds of clinking glass

and cooler doors opening and closing filled her ears. An older

man in a plaid shirt and a wiry blond beard approached the

door, looking her up and down out of the corner of his eye.

For being in a seedy part of New Jersey, the store was big

and fairly clean. Hannah looked around, waiting for someone

to realize that she was only twenty and have her sent from the

premises in handcuffs and a swirl of red and blue lights. The

only looks she received were lecherous at best. She pulled her

jean jacket close, pressing the metal buttons into place with

little pops that seemed to echo through the cavernous room.

“Can I help you find something?” a jockish-looking guy in

his midtwenties asked from behind the counter.

She shook her head, embarrassed. “No, thank you.” She moved

to the far end of the store, looking down the aisles as she walked.

No one realized she was too young to be here, or else no one

cared. She watched the aisles change as she moved along, shifting

from colorful bottles of flavored rum with shirtless cabana boys

adorning their labels to the dark glass of the wines.

Hannah wasn’t unfamiliar with alcohol. Half the reason

she’d left college was because of her roommate’s drunken

binges in which she had brought so many of her friends over to

party. It reminded Hannah of all the nights she had spent in the

dorm lounge, studying subjects she didn’t understand, sleeping

on couches she resented being on. It was the next day’s cleanup,

inevitably left to Hannah, that had taught her to recognize

various forms of alcohol bottles and the hazards of a hungover

roommate.

Her grandfather had left her enough money to get whatever

degree she wanted, wherever she wanted it, but she had chosen a

medium-sized state college to start out. The idea had been simple:

get her core classes out of the way, and buy herself some time to

figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. After she gave

up on college, she moved to New Jersey to be near the Firstborn

and enrolled in an online program. Distance learning at her own

pace better suited the lifestyle she had grown to accept: following

dark trails through back alleys. The ongoing searches for—

—the dragon.

It was always jarring to see her visions in the flesh. She was

a Prima—gifted with hindsight, the ability to see the past. And

the past tended to have the good sense to stay in the past and

fade away to the naked eye and the observing world. But there he

stood in the middle of the aisle—fifteen feet away—comparing

labels on vodka bottles. His arms bare, short black hair wet.

A blue short-sleeved T-shirt and green cargo pants. The tattoo

curled up his arm, its tail resting against the back of his hand,

its scaly body coiling around the man’s arm like an anaconda,

the dragon’s head poised to strike like a hooded cobra, a forked

tongue lashing out from beneath a spray of flame.

The man looked up from the bottles, turning his head—

toward her . . .

Hannah dropped back around the corner. A sting of panic

nipped at her heart. She waited a moment—her pulse and breath

slowing as she pulled herself together. She looked back.

Gone.

She moved down the aisle to where the man had been and

passed, heading to the end of the aisle. She stopped and turned

her head, looking for him.

Nowhere.

Hannah moved fast, looking down the aisles once again,

coming to the end of the rows. She must have lost him somewhere

in the—

She saw him at the front of the store, at the cash register, the

boy behind the counter stuffing a bottle of vodka into a perfectly

sized brown paper sack. The man with the tattoo reached into

his pocket, pulled out a thick roll of bills, and slid one from

beneath the tight hold of the rubber band that encircled them.

The boy hit a button on the cash register, and the man with the

tattoo turned, walking toward the door.

“Hey, Dominik,” the boy called after him, “do you want your

change?”

Dominik simply waved a dismissive hand and pushed

through the front door, back into the rain.

Pushing the glass door open, Hannah followed, plunging

into the downpour. Her eyes scanned the cars in front of her

parked diagonally to the storefront. A set of lights flashed on

toward the far right end of the row—a black luxury sedan—the

engine humming, the wipers swishing away a wide swath of

pooling water as the man in the driver’s seat lifted his eyes—

Dominik.

His dragon-clad shoulder moved, putting the car into drive.

The vehicle slid backward out of its space, through the veil of

rain, past the unnatural glow of the liquor store’s neon lights,

and then slipped into darkness.

Her one lead.

The one trail.

The only chance to find the girls.

And he was getting away.

For a split second Hannah did none of her own thinking. Her

feet took off, rushing into the night, as the car pulled parallel

to the street. The brake lights lit up. The backup lights dimmed.

The car began to drive away.

Her first thought was to chase after, screaming, shouting,

demanding he stop. Her next thought was to memorize his

license plate number. Hannah’s eyes squinted into the darkness,

but the lights surrounding the license plate were all burnt

out. Nothing to see but darkness.

The red taillights, glowing like the eyes of the dragon on

Dominik’s arm, glared at her through the onslaught of falling

droplets. Turning the corner, leaving her in the street—alone.

“Lord,” she stammered to herself. She could feel her panic

rise at not knowing what to do. But now was not the time to

focus on problems or obstacles. Now was not the time to feel or

do. Now was the time to clear her mind. To be. To be what she

had been called to—

Hannah turned her attention to the end of the block, where

she had parked her car. That was where she needed to get. To

think past the problem and to move effortlessly with the solution.

Wet and cold, she thrust her hand into her pocket, reaching

for her car keys. Suddenly she was at the car door, her hand

holding the key, the key in the door. The old door to the station

wagon groaned as she pulled it open and climbed in. She turned

the key, and the engine sputtered.

“Not now,” she whimpered, pushing down on the pedal,

feeding the engine gas. A moment of whirring, then—

The engine went dead. She’d flooded it. The old jalopy did it

all the time, but this was the worst possible—

Hannah stopped. Gathered herself. She had to get past the

moment. She had to find her strength—a strength that could

only come from God.

She took a long, deliberate draw of air, letting it fill her lungs

in a cool cloud that expanded inside her chest. Somewhere in

the distant reaches of her mind she felt her body act, working

with the world around her—neither rushed nor distracted—to

bring the car to life.

She turned the key again. The engine growling, she fed it gas.

Hannah’s foot came down in a steady push, feeding the car,

and she took off into the night—

—chasing after him.

Her car sped to the end of the block—a stop sign ahead.

Her attention snapped to the right—the direction Dominik

had gone.

Nothing.

Hannah rolled into the street, peering through the rain—and

then she felt where he had been. She was on the trail again.

The wipers sloshed, thumping beads of water away from the

glass.

Dominik yawned. It was getting late, and he was getting

tired of work. He’d stayed sober as long as the new girls were at

the storage house, but now that they were being moved, he was

ready to drink again.

He eyed the jostling bottle of vodka in the passenger seat,

ready for the familiar burn of alcohol in his chest. Dominik

missed Russian vodka—the stuff that had been cheaper than

water during the cold war. He was hardly a connoisseur, but he

knew that American vodka tasted different to him. He was told

that good vodka had neither taste nor smell. But who cared?

Just so long as it kept him warm—a lesson he had learned in

prison twenty years ago.

He thought about the girls and how much money they would

bring. Altogether, maybe three thousand dollars in Ukraine.

Here? More. But it wasn’t enough. Dominik wanted a line of

cocaine—the stuff he’d gotten used to as a teenager when the

iron curtain fell. But for now, vodka would have to do.

Dominik reached out, steering with his forearm. He held the

neck of the bottle in one hand and twisted the cap with the

other.

He took a slug. The same amount would have sent most

Americans into a hacking fit. Dominik didn’t flinch as the

stinging liquid seared his throat, filling him with a glowing

sense of well-being. He felt good. Safe. But not overly safe. He

looked in the rearview mirror, double-checking for cops.

A single set of lights behind him, moving in quickly. Much

too quickly. He screwed the cap back on the bottle, stuffing it

in the armrest.

Thoughts of a cop watching him throw back a mouthful of

hard liquor as he passed by filled Dominik’s head. Was he being

followed?

There was an alley ahead. He signaled left. The car behind

him signaled a left-hand turn as well. Dominik cranked the

wheel hard right, and a spray of filthy water splashed up against

the windows of his car as he hit the accelerator and raced down

an alleyway. His eyes shot upward, toward the rearview mirror.

The car behind him screeched past the turn, then slammed its

brakes, laying rubber and a wake of erupting rainwater. The

car pulled into reverse, pulling perpendicular to the alley for a

moment, its silhouette fully revealed.

A beige station wagon?

The following car’s front end nosed toward the alley. The

headlights, which had been shrinking with distance, stabilized

in size, then began to grow.

Dominik didn’t signal; he simply grabbed the wheel and

yanked to the left. Water crashed against the passenger window

as the car fishtailed, his foot pressing hard into the gas—jetting

down a dark street.

He nearly spun in his seat to look back. This was insane. His

heart was racing. His face red and sweaty. Who was this person

following him? In a station wagon? Not the police. Someone

trying to steal their latest shipment? It simply didn’t make sense.

But whoever they were, they weren’t trained in following people

with subtlety. And in the rain, he’d lost them for sure.

Dominik took another turn, just to be safe. Then another.

He took a deep breath and relaxed, pulling onto a familiar

street. Whoever they were, he’d lost them.

His eyes lifted again, just out of paranoia, certain he wouldn’t

see anything except . . .

A beige station wagon?

This had to be dealt with.

Hannah watched Dominik’s car through the swishing of wiper

blades as his sedan took a slow, ambling turn to the right, pulling

into another alleyway. She followed him into the darkness of the

alley. The front end of her car slammed down hard then rebounded

from the chasm-like pothole her front tire had dropped into.

She couldn’t see a thing in this darkness except the red taillights

up ahead and—

Brake lights.

Dominik’s car stopped suddenly fifty yards ahead. The

driver’s side door flew open, and a burly figure dashed away

from the car—the door hanging open. Hannah stopped her car,

leaving the distance unfilled.

What was he doing? She sat in her car. Waiting.

It was like the stories of road rage she heard, where one driver

would get out to confront another—only to have someone get

shot in the middle of the street.

Hannah peered into the darkness, gripping her steering

wheel. She closed her eyes, trying to reach out—

There was nothing to feel. Not here anyway.

She bit her lip, considered for a moment, then turned off her

car, taking her keys. She wanted her keys—that was certain.

Fear would have been the natural response, but envy filled

her mind. Envy for the Domani and the Ora, people like Devin

Bathurst and John Temple, who could see the present and the

future. Others had told her not to envy the other orders and

their gifts, that she had been given exactly what she was meant

to have and that she had to make the best of it. But she missed

the proactive way that John and Devin could use to approach

the uncertainty of the world. The Prima were a stabilizing

force—a means of keeping everyone grounded and remembering

the truths that proactive working so often forgot. But

none of that changed the fact that she was in the moment now,

groping in the blind spots of her gift.

Hannah opened the car door and stepped into the rain, looking

around. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Hannah walked toward

the car ahead, the interior lights illuminating the leather interior.

She stopped, listening for any sound she could hear—only the

thumping rain. Another set of steps closer. She stared into the

vacant interior, looking for a person who simply wasn’t there,

and her eyes wandered to the center partition, hanging slightly

ajar. It had been where he’d stored his—

Vodka.

A thick, heavy bottle, pulled from its cubby.

Gripped by the neck like a club.

Dominik, slipping into the darkness, waiting for his moment

to . . .

Hannah spun as Dominik ejected himself from his hiding

place in the dark, bottle in hand, raised over his head.

She thought fast, throwing herself into the car’s open door.

The bottle came down on the roof of the car and blasted apart in

a shower of shards and cascading liquor. She threw herself at the

passenger’s door, scrambling for the handle. She looked back.

He was behind her, hurling his body through the same open

door she had come through, grasping the steering wheel with

his left hand for support, clutching the razor-sharp remains of

a pungent vodka bottle in his right.

The survival instinct kicked in; the self-defense classes triggered

her response.

She lashed out with her leg like a battering ram, her heel

smashing into Dominik’s clavicle, just below the throat. He

made a pinched hacking sound as his body hurled to the side,

slamming into the dashboard. A hiking boot would have been

ideal, but a kick of any kind could be fatal, even in her tennis

shoes, if she meant it, held nothing back, and lashed out with

the vicious intention to cause serious trauma.

She kicked again and again—his head snapped back like a

melon as her foot connected with his face. Her hands searched

frantically for the door handle she’d lost track of in the furious

exchange—fingertips catching on the outline, hand grasping.

Dominik was recovering. Covering his face with his left hand, he

reached out with the razorlike bottle with the other, like a shield.

Hannah flung her body into the door as she pulled the handle.

She felt her body tumble to the hard, wet pavement beyond. She

looked back in time to see Dominik coming down at her, bottle

in hand. She kicked his descending arm away, and the bottle

exploded against the ground. Dominik reached for her body,

trying to hold her down. She felt the car keys, still in her hand,

clutched them like a dagger, and came down hard on Dominik’s

arm. He winced, recoiling. She lashed out for his face, searching

for his neck.

He threw himself back against the car, evading Hannah’s

swinging attack, then stood.

Hannah pushed herself away, trying to keep her distance.

And then he ran.

Dominik rushed toward the end of the alley, water spattering

against his face and arms.

Who was this woman? This girl? She’d followed him. Knew

where he was going and what he was doing. She had to know

about his business. She wasn’t FBI. Police? Maybe.

No. That wasn’t likely. She was too young for either. She was

obviously trained in following people—but not with subtlety.

Her mistakes were too glaring—too inexperienced.

Surveillance for someone else was his only thought. Someone

who wanted to rip off their shipment. It happened all the time

with drug trafficking. Why not in this business too?

Dominik made a sharp right, ducking into a trashy, overgrown

backyard, shoving past a metal trash can. He had to fix

this or it was going to cost him his head.

Hannah tore after Dominik.

Her one lead. Her only chance of finding these girls. She

couldn’t let him get away.

She turned the corner fast, running through someone’s backyard,

chasing after as fast as she could, Dominik’s form merely

a dark blotch against the impossible conditions of night and

drizzle.

He was ahead, crossing another yard, leaping a short

chain-link fence. Hannah pushed herself, gaining slightly. She

approached the fence, hands stinging as the cold, rain-soaked

metal ripped at her bare hands. She hurtled the fence and

continued her pursuit.

Dominik rushed across the street, dodging between parked

cars, knocking over a boxy plastic trash can, sending garbage

spilling. Hannah dodged to the left, losing time from the

circuitous route, but it was less than she would have lost from

fighting the obstacle she’d been presented with.

Her feet splashed through puddles as she forced herself

forward, chasing as fast as she could. From yard to yard, across

another street, low-hanging branches snapping at her face. A

tall wooden fence, knotted and old. Dominik clambered over

the fence. Hannah followed, charging toward the obstacle,

hands digging in as she made her way to the top—throwing

her body over the other side. Her feet connected with something

she didn’t expect—a trash can—and she lost her balance,

hitting the grassy lawn with a painful lurch.

She looked up. Dominik was already making his way over the

far fence at the other end of the yard. Hannah leapt to her feet.

The back door to the home opened, and a young boy—maybe

ten—watched her rush at the fence.

“Mom! There’s someone in the backyard!”

Hannah ignored the boy, throwing herself at the next fence,

pulling herself into place with her arms, tossing a leg over the

fence, hitting the ground with a splash on the other side. She

pushed herself up from the muddy puddle, covered in dirt, and

gave chase once more as Dominik turned a corner. She came to

the gate in the fence. Locked. Hannah slammed her shoulder

into the gate, sending it flying open, propelling her into the

front yard.

Rain covered her face, and she wiped the thick drops from

her eyes. Her head turned hurriedly, side to side. He was

nowhere to be seen.

What had happened? How had she lost him? He must have

taken a different turn.

She walked into the street, looking around in all directions.

This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t let this happen. The

girls were too young—thirteen at most. She couldn’t let this

happen to them. She couldn’t let them disappear into the night.

Hannah pushed her hands through her soaked hair, trying

to think. She needed to know where he had gone.

A set of headlights rolled toward her, a sharp honk on the

horn, and she stepped out of the car’s way, the vehicle rolling

lazily past.

The world was going on as usual. She was failing her charge,

and the world didn’t even know enough to care.

She needed to pick up the trail again. She needed to see the

past. A vision of where he had gone. She needed a magic wand

to wave, to bring her the sight she needed.

But it didn’t work like that.

Hannah looked up at the rainy sky. “God?” she beseeched. “I

can’t do this. I can’t find them. I need You and Your sovereign

power and…”

No. She scolded herself. It’s like people to go to God, thinking

they had something to say—yammering to an almighty God

who formed the world from the palm of His hand. How like her

to think that florid prayers somehow pleased God.

No, it was not her place to talk. It was her place as a creation

of God to do something else . . .

“Listen,” she whispered to herself.

She closed her eyes and listened to the rain, her thoughts

filled with her calling and mission.

No. She scolded herself again. Listening wasn’t done only

with the ears but also with the mind and the heart.

She cleared her mind. Focused on her breathing. Focused on

God.

The rain thundered in her ears, every droplet exploding

against every surface of metal, asphalt, and grass. Each sound

blurred into the other in a cacophony of white noise.

Listen, she said to herself in her mind.

The drops faded toward the background, only a thumping

rhythm of a select few drops tapping out an erratic beat. Bit by

bit the rhythm thinned, only a few proud beats pounding out a

pedantic march.

Listen, she said to herself again, her body relaxing.

A single droplet of rain made a tiny plinking impact.

Then silence. The world without time. Where she wasn’t

hurried or forced into action.

Listen, she thought again. And then she heard.

Dominik’s shoes thudding against the path . . .

Leading away . . .

His ragged breath wheezing—

Removing him from the scene.

The cries of the girls reverberating in his mind—

Remembering the thud of blows.

The ringing slaps to tender faces—

The sobs pounding into his brain.

The house that he had been working from.

Creaking from the strain.

The place he was returning to.

Thunder rocked the air as Hannah’s eyes opened, lifting to

the house in front of her. A sigh of anguish escaped her lips.

There.

Hannah quietly grasped the doorknob and felt the door swing

lazily inward, left ajar by someone before her. Stepping into

the house as quietly as possible, she paused. If he was in the

house still, she didn’t want him to know. Not yet. There would

be a moment soon, when she had something to report, that she

would need to call the police to finish this. But visions of the

past weren’t evidence enough. She needed to find the girls. To

know for certain they were here before she did something that

might spook Dominik.

She moved into the living room. Shoddy furniture bulleted

with holes. An ashtray on the coffee table filled to the brim with

dark ash and cigarette butts. The whole place reeked of stale

smoke. Magazines littered the remaining surface of the coffee

table—like a doctor’s waiting room.

Men, sitting in the living room—each waiting their turn.

A quick thump reverberated through her chest. These had

been different girls, before the ones Hannah was looking for.

Older—Russian? It wasn’t any easier to consider.

Her stomach churned, and she stepped into the next room—

the kitchen. No signs of cooking or supplies. No one lived here.

At least no one ate here.

Hannah looked at the table—a sprawling forest of vials,

needles, alcohol, and soda bottles. She picked up a container of

medicine, reading the label.

Flunitrazepam. Whatever that was.

There was a smacking sound, and Hannah turned. The back

door hung open, the screen door slapping loudly in the rainy

wind.

Dominik exiting out the back.

She thought about following him—but this was what she was

looking for. This was where they’d brought the girls—she could

feel it. If she was going to find the girls, she was going to have to

do it here.

There was a set of stairs near the hallway, leading up. It felt

right, like this was the way they had taken the girls.

The girls, Hannah thought. She didn’t even know their

names. But that wasn’t how this worked. She wasn’t called out

of personal obligation. She was called to help them because it

was her purpose.

Hannah reached the top of the stairs, looking around. There

was a set of three bedrooms lining the hallway. She stepped

toward one with the door ajar. The door pushed aside easily,

revealing a virtually empty room.

An old mattress lay in the middle of the room, filthy blankets

thrown across it in twisting heaps.

And suddenly Hannah saw the horrible truth of what had

been happening here.

Dominik kicked open the door to the shed, scowling into the

darkness as the spring rain shower assaulted the tin roof in a

reverberating frenzy. He shoved the lawn mower to the side,

ripping a canvas tarp away from a stack of tools. The cold canvas

twisted with a kind of whiplash as its soggy corners tried to

double over onto the shell of hard cloth that had molded itself

to the stack of tools.

A toolbox scattered with a rough toss, and it hit the floor

somewhere to the right with a raucous clatter. He kicked a bag

of screws out of the way, and the contents went spilling in a

deluge of tinkling barbs.

There.

Dominik grabbed the gas can by the handle and gave it a

forceful jiggle. Half a can’s worth of gasoline sloshed inside the

container, undulating on a swishing axis that caused the whole

can to swing in a wide arc.

It was enough to do the job. To get rid of as much evidence

as he could before whoever that girl was could find her way

back here. Dominik hated the place anyway, all the time he’d

spent there minding the shop while the others stayed in the big

house across town. He wouldn’t miss it.

It would be obvious that it was arson. The investigators might

even find some of the things they had been hiding, but with luck

they’d be out of the state by the time anything was found—and

the merchandise would be out of the country by then. And it

wouldn’t be traced back to them. They’d made sure the lease

wasn’t in any of their names.

Dominik reached into his pocket, found the metal object,

removed it from his pocket, and flicked the cap open. His thumb

spun on the back of the lighter, checking to see if there was

enough fuel.

A tiny flame leapt upward, then was dashed out by the snapping

of the cap back over it. He walked back toward the house in

the rain.

Hannah backed away from the bedroom door, stumbled into the

wall, and slid to the floor. Her body shook as she ran her hands

over her head, trying to blot it all out of her head. So many girls

had been brought through here. So much pain. And suffering.

And hopelessness. So many monsters lurking in the shadows.

The walls remembered what had happened here—and they

were closing in.

“O God,” she stammered in agonized prayer, mind freewheeling

with the torment of it all.

And she felt something else: another calling—

She looked up at the ceiling and saw the wide hatch leading

to the attic. A padlock dangled open at the end of a swinging

latch that had been left undone.

She reached upward, and the trapdoor snapped downward as

she grabbed at the string, tugging, the ladder sliding downward

with a gentle pull. Hannah stepped onto the bottom rung and

moved upward, compelled by purpose but delayed by dread.

She lifted her head into the attic. The floor was covered in

brown carpet; drenched in dust that made her cough. Hannah

lifted herself into the darkness. Tiny fingers of light glowed

through the slits between the boards covering the one tiny

window at the far end. The hatch below her swung gently

upward, pulled back into position by creaking springs.

Her hands groped for a moment as she stood, hunched in

the low space. A dangling string brushed her fingertips, and she

tugged. The lightbulb snapped on from an overhead fixture, and

she looked around.

She thought she might never start breathing again.

Both sides of the attic were lined with bunk beds, chicken

wire surrounding them in tightly fastened grids that filled in the

gaps between small metal struts. Hinged doors with padlocks

locked every set of beds, making each its own tiny prison.

Lurid underwear hung from hooks and littered the floor.

Dirty clothes were piled in the corner.

Hannah walked to one of the beds, its door hanging open,

and looked in. Sitting on yellowed sheets was a ratty stuffed

bear with one eye missing. She picked up the bear and looked

it over as a hot tear ran down Hannah’s face as she saw the face

of the girl who had clung to this bear—

Maybe fourteen years old.

The bear fell from her hands and hit the floor.

Whoever these people were—she would stop them.

Wherever the girls were that they had taken—she would find

them.

Then she heard something.

Petroleum-scented splashes of gasoline washed across the walls

and tables as Dominik slung the can in all directions. He set

the can down for a moment and rummaged under the sink for

a trash bag. Quickly he swept the drugs off the table into the

plastic and pulled the tethers shut with a swift yank. He set the

bag near the door, stuffed his cell phone between his shoulder

and ear, and reached for the gas can again.

“Hello?” a female voice said in Dominik’s native language.

“Do you know who she is?” Dominik replied in the same

language as he soaked the curtains in gasoline.

“Who?”

“The girl that followed me. She knew where I was and where

I was going.”

“What are you talking about?”

Dominik sloshed more gasoline onto the living room carpet,

sending a splash across the back of a ratty recliner. “Some

girl—midtwenties maybe. She found me in the liquor store. She

followed me. Chased me back to the house.”

“You ran away from a girl?”

“Shut up, Misha.” He grunted. “She came out of nowhere.

She knew where I was and where I was going. She must have

been watching us for days.” He moved up the stairs, spilling a

trail of gas.

“What are you going to do about it?”

Dominik let the last drops trickle from the can, dousing

a pile of sheets in the bedroom, then tossed the can into the

corner. “I’m closing down the storefront.”

“Use the gas can in the shed. Burn it down.”

“I’ve already started.”

“Good. Get going, and get out of there.” There was a click,

and the line went dead.

Dominik felt the lighter in his pocket as he moved toward

the stairs, then stopped. A creaking in the ceiling from the attic

above. He looked at the trapdoor in the ceiling, slightly ajar.

Another creak and the distinct sound of footsteps overhead.

He eyed the padlock dangling from the hatch—an overt

violation of fire code if he wasn’t mistaken—but the reasons for

that seemed more useful than ever.

Hannah took another step back.

Someone was in the house.

They were down there, but there was no way to know for certain

if they’d heard her. She wanted to get away from the hatch—away

from the center of the noise she’d heard. There had been the sound

of someone talking. It wasn’t English. Russian maybe.

She herself had been kidnapped just over a year before.

Nothing as hideous as this—but it had still left its mark on

her—a lingering fear, almost a dread, hung over her like a

cloud. She’d chosen to face it head-on, to walk straight into the

blackness alone. Now she feared it would engulf her.

There was a clattering sound near the far wall and a funny

smell.

She took another step back.

Footsteps moved toward the hatch—then stopped just below.

What were they doing down there?

Hannah turned, looking at the boarded window. Was it a

way out? Maybe she could tear the boards away. The hinges on

the hatch squeaked with a minute adjustment.

Were they coming up here? To grab her? To kill her?

Hannah forced herself to stop it. To let go of the questions.

To silence her mind. Her life really could be in danger, but this

time she could choose to do something. To take control. She was

not tied up or caged, and she would not let fear paralyze her. She

could act.

Then she heard it.

A click.

She thought of the window. A moment of quiet, then footfalls

moving down the stairs. They were leaving.

Hannah moved to the hatch, putting a hand on the thick wood.

It didn’t budge. She shoved. It wouldn’t move. She stomped.

She was trapped.

Dominik heard a loud thump strike the attic entrance. They’d

figured out that it was locked. There was another thump. They’d

specifically reinforced the hatch to keep the girls from knocking

it open if they ever had the guts to try. The padlock would hold,

and the thick bolts would stay in place.

He kicked the back door open and stood in the threshold.

The lighter came open with a snap.

His thumb rolled across the wheel, and a thin blade of flame

conjured itself up from the metal casing. He shielded the tiny

flame for a moment, then tossed it into a puddle of gasoline.

There was a split second where nothing happened—Dominik

froze, worried that the puddle had drowned the fire. Then it

spread in a violent blossom, devouring the surrounding air with

an audible howl. The house caught ablaze in a matter of seconds,

fire consuming up the stairs.

Dominik pulled on a jacket he’d taken from one of the closets

and zipped it as he walked away.

Hannah knew something wasn’t right.

She couldn’t have explained how, but something had changed.

The smell—the pungent aroma that had been rising from below—

suddenly seemed to vanish, replaced by something else.

Then she recognized the smell that had been. And her eyes went

wide as she realized what the new smell was that had replaced it.

Greenish smoke slithered up from the cracks around the

attic hatch. The smell was foreign—not like campfire smoke

with its earthen richness, but the putrid scent of melting plastic

and burning synthetics.

Then the floor started to get warm.

Fire travels up, she thought. Heat rises. Smoke rises. There

was nowhere further up to go. She was at the tip of the spear.

She turned to the window, tugging at the boards that covered

it—the rain smacking down just beyond.

The amount of smoke doubled in seconds, filling the attic

with an acrid cloud. No fire yet. Just smoke. Her eyes stung,

pinpricks stabbing at her tear ducts. Hot tears slid involuntarily

down her warming face. It was all happening so fast. It

reminded her of the fire safety videos she’d seen in elementary

school, depicting how a cigarette in a trash can could send a

house into an unrecoverable blaze in less than two minutes.

Arson could work so much faster.

She hacked and coughed, fingers digging into the boards,

pulling at the wood. She lifted her foot, giving a solid kick that

split the boards, crushing the glass beyond. Hannah grabbed

the loose pieces and pulled them free, revealing the window.

Street light poured in through the rapidly thickening smoke.

Rain tapped at the spiderwebbed glass. The whole window was

little more than a slit. Less than six inches. She would never fit.

It had been boarded up purely to keep light out.

Her lungs seized, fighting to keep out the dark haze. Her

body convulsed with a violent cough. Heat permeated her.

Hannah coughed once more, then lifted her leg, jamming

her heel into the tiny window, sending beads of glass splashing

outward. It wasn’t big enough for her to get out, but it was big

enough to let a little air in.

She shoved her face to the opening and pulled in a lungful of

the chilled air beyond. Then she pulled the jacket off her back

and put it to her mouth. She crouched down, moved back into

the prisonlike room, and searched for the trapdoor. Found it.

Her hands worked at the latch, pulled. Nothing. There had to be

some way to get out.

The blurring of her vision worsened, tears and smoke clawing

at her eyes.

She coughed. Her body felt heavy and unwieldy. She tried to

adjust her body with her right arm, but all the strength seemed

to be slipping out of her. Fighting hurt so much. Moving sapped

her energy. The searing floor suddenly seemed welcoming.

Her body started to relax, curling into a ball. The unrelenting

stinging in her eyes suddenly seemed unbearable.

Her eyelids shut.

The attic suddenly seemed far away. Her mind slipped into silence. The kind of silence she could try so hard to cultivate in

times of trouble now seemed so easy. Everything that seemed to

worry faded, and rather than doing she was simply . . .

Being.

She could feel the past again.

Before it had been such a horrible place. When others had

lived here. When family pictures and Christmas ornaments

had been stored here in cardboard boxes. And then the old

occupants moved out and others moved in—the ones who had

perverted this place to be something else. Rolling carpet over

the plywood, not bothering to nail it to the rafters.

Hannah’s eyes snapped open, and she stumbled toward the

window for a life-saving breath of cool air. Then she dropped to

the floor and grasped at the carpet, pulling the shaggy covering

loose. She reached for the floor, pulling at the boards, only to

realize that she was standing on the edge.

Hannah moved and gave another pull—the heat was overwhelming.

The plywood pulled away, clattering to the side as she

tossed it.

Rafters—a few feet apart—partitioned themselves between

sections of pink insulation. It looked like cotton candy, she

thought.

Her hesitation lasted only a second, and then she jumped,

feet first toward insulation.

The world seemed to freeze.

Then her body crashed through the billowy pink insulation,

smashing through the thin layer of sheet rock, and she felt herself

hurtling through the gray smoke toward the carpet one floor

below.

She landed with a thud, losing her balance as her body

slammed into the wall.

The heat enveloped her, blasting at her like a furnace, smoke

stabbing at her eyes. Hannah looked up and saw the window

at the far end of the hall. She pulled her jacket tight against

her face and rushed forward, trying to stay low. Moments later

she was at the window, the glass fogged over with a greasy

black smear from the heat and smoke. Then she saw the gas

can, tossed at the floor below it, fire clinging to the outside wall

where gas dribbled down.

A kick could break the glass—but glass shards would slice

her leg to unrecognizable ribbons if she tried. She took a smoky

breath and reached for the can with her jacket, grabbing the

handle. Her body swung, then released the metal container.

The smoke-fogged glass exploded outward and skittered

across the sloping roof that covered the back porch.

She threw herself through the window—arms and legs catching

on the fragile teeth of glass that remained, her body landing on

glass shards that pricked her skin. She rolled uncontrollably

down the roof, then slammed into the soggy grass below.

Hannah looked up at the blazing house—bleeding, burned,

and weak.

Her eyes fluttered shut, only to open again after several

minutes, and she found herself on the other end of the yard,

farther from the flames. She was looking up at a man with long

dark hair, in a black coat. Rain rolled off him as he said something

to her. His lips moved, but she didn’t hear anything.

And then the world faded to black. only come from God. She took a long, deliberate draw of air, letting it fill her lungs in a cool cloud that expanded inside her chest. Somewhere in the distant reaches of her mind she felt her body act, working with the world around her—neither rushed nor distracted—to bring the car to life.

She turned the key again. The engine growling, she fed it gas.

Hannah’s foot came down in a steady push, feeding the car, and she took off into the night—

—chasing after him.

Her car sped to the end of the block—a stop sign ahead.

Her attention snapped to the right—the direction Dominik had gone.

Nothing.

Hannah rolled into the street, peering through the rain—and then she felt where he had been. She was on the trail again.

The wipers sloshed, thumping beads of water away from the glass. Dominik yawned. It was getting late, and he was getting tired of work. He’d stayed sober as long as the new girls were at the storage house, but now that they were being moved, he was

ready to drink again.

He eyed the jostling bottle of vodka in the passenger seat, ready for the familiar burn of alcohol in his chest. Dominik missed Russian vodka—the stuff that had been cheaper than water during the cold war. He was hardly a connoisseur, but he knew that American vodka tasted different to him. He was told that good vodka had neither taste nor smell. But who cared? Just so long as it kept him warm—a lesson he had learned in prison twenty years ago.

He thought about the girls and how much money they would bring. Altogether, maybe three thousand dollars in Ukraine. Here? More. But it wasn’t enough. Dominik wanted a line of cocaine—the stuff he’d gotten used to as a teenager when theiron curtain fell. But for now, vodka would have to do.

Dominik reached out, steering with his forearm. He held the neck of the bottle in one hand and twisted the cap with the other.

He took a slug. The same amount would have sent most Americans into a hacking fit. Dominik didn’t flinch as the stinging liquid seared his throat, filling him with a glowing

sense of well-being. He felt good. Safe. But not overly safe. He looked in the rearview mirror, double-checking for cops.

A single set of lights behind him, moving in quickly. Much too quickly. He screwed the cap back on the bottle, stuffing it in the armrest.

Thoughts of a cop watching him throw back a mouthful of hard liquor as he passed by filled Dominik’s head. Was he being followed?

There was an alley ahead. He signaled left. The car behind him signaled a left-hand turn as well. Dominik cranked the wheel hard right, and a spray of filthy water splashed up against the windows of his car as he hit the accelerator and raced down an alleyway. His eyes shot upward, toward the rearview mirror. The car behind him screeched past the turn, then slammed its brakes, laying rubber and a wake of erupting rainwater. The car pulled into reverse, pulling perpendicular to the alley for a moment, its silhouette fully revealed.

A beige station wagon?

The following car’s front end nosed toward the alley. The headlights, which had been shrinking with distance, stabilized in size, then began to grow.

Dominik didn’t signal; he simply grabbed the wheel and yanked to the left. Water crashed against the passenger window as the car fishtailed, his foot pressing hard into the gas—jetting down a dark street.

He nearly spun in his seat to look back. This was insane. His heart was racing. His face red and sweaty. Who was this person following him? In a station wagon? Not the police. Someone trying to steal their latest shipment? It simply didn’t make sense. But whoever they were, they weren’t trained in following people with subtlety. And in the rain, he’d lost them for sure.

Dominik took another turn, just to be safe. Then another.

He took a deep breath and relaxed, pulling onto a familiar street. Whoever they were, he’d lost them.

His eyes lifted again, just out of paranoia, certain he wouldn’t see anything except . . .

A beige station wagon?

This had to be dealt with.

Hannah watched Dominik’s car through the swishing of wiper blades as his sedan took a slow, ambling turn to the right, pulling into another alleyway. She followed him into the darkness of the alley. The front end of her car slammed down hard then rebounded from the chasm-like pothole her front tire had dropped into.

She couldn’t see a thing in this darkness except the red taillights up ahead and—

Brake lights.

Dominik’s car stopped suddenly fifty yards ahead. The driver’s side door flew open, and a burly figure dashed away from the car—the door hanging open. Hannah stopped her car, leaving the distance unfilled.

What was he doing? She sat in her car. Waiting.

It was like the stories of road rage she heard, where one driver would get out to confront another—only to have someone get shot in the middle of the street.

Hannah peered into the darkness, gripping her steering wheel. She closed her eyes, trying to reach out—

There was nothing to feel. Not here anyway.

She bit her lip, considered for a moment, then turned off her car, taking her keys. She wanted her keys—that was certain.

Fear would have been the natural response, but envy filled her mind. Envy for the Domani and the Ora, people like Devin Bathurst and John Temple, who could see the present and the future. Others had told her not to envy the other orders and their gifts, that she had been given exactly what she was meant to have and that she had to make the best of it. But she missed the proactive way that John and Devin could use to approach the uncertainty of the world. The Prima were a stabilizing force—a means of keeping everyone grounded and remembering the truths that proactive working so often forgot. But none of that changed the fact that she was in the moment now, groping in the blind spots of her gift.

Hannah opened the car door and stepped into the rain, looking around. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Hannah walked toward the car ahead, the interior lights illuminating the leather interior.

She stopped, listening for any sound she could hear—only the thumping rain. Another set of steps closer. She stared into the vacant interior, looking for a person who simply wasn’t there, and her eyes wandered to the center partition, hanging slightly ajar. It had been where he’d stored his—

Vodka.

A thick, heavy bottle, pulled from its cubby.

Gripped by the neck like a club.

Dominik, slipping into the darkness, waiting for his moment to . . .

Hannah spun as Dominik ejected himself from his hiding place in the dark, bottle in hand, raised over his head.

She thought fast, throwing herself into the car’s open door. The bottle came down on the roof of the car and blasted apart in a shower of shards and cascading liquor. She threw herself at the passenger’s door, scrambling for the handle. She looked back.

He was behind her, hurling his body through the same open door she had come through, grasping the steering wheel with his left hand for support, clutching the razor-sharp remains of a pungent vodka bottle in his right.

The survival instinct kicked in; the self-defense classes triggered her response.

She lashed out with her leg like a battering ram, her heel smashing into Dominik’s clavicle, just below the throat. He made a pinched hacking sound as his body hurled to the side, slamming into the dashboard. A hiking boot would have been ideal, but a kick of any kind could be fatal, even in her tennis shoes, if she meant it, held nothing back, and lashed out with the vicious intention to cause serious trauma.

She kicked again and again—his head snapped back like a melon as her foot connected with his face. Her hands searched frantically for the door handle she’d lost track of in the furious exchange—fingertips catching on the outline, hand grasping. Dominik was recovering. Covering his face with his left hand, he reached out with the razorlike bottle with the other, like a shield.

Hannah flung her body into the door as she pulled the handle. She felt her body tumble to the hard, wet pavement beyond. She looked back in time to see Dominik coming down at her, bottle in hand. She kicked his descending arm away, and the bottle exploded against the ground. Dominik reached for her body, trying to hold her down. She felt the car keys, still in her hand, clutched them like a dagger, and came down hard on Dominik’s arm. He winced, recoiling. She lashed out for his face, searching for his neck.

He threw himself back against the car, evading Hannah’s swinging attack, then stood.

Hannah pushed herself away, trying to keep her distance.

And then he ran.

Dominik rushed toward the end of the alley, water spattering against his face and arms.

Who was this woman? This girl? She’d followed him. Knew where he was going and what he was doing. She had to know about his business. She wasn’t FBI. Police? Maybe.

No. That wasn’t likely. She was too young for either. She was obviously trained in following people—but not with subtlety. Her mistakes were too glaring—too inexperienced.

Surveillance for someone else was his only thought. Someone who wanted to rip off their shipment. It happened all the time with drug trafficking. Why not in this business too?

Dominik made a sharp right, ducking into a trashy, overgrown backyard, shoving past a metal trash can. He had to fix this or it was going to cost him his head.

Hannah tore after Dominik.

Her one lead. Her only chance of finding these girls. She couldn’t let him get away.

She turned the corner fast, running through someone’s backyard, chasing after as fast as she could, Dominik’s form merely a dark blotch against the impossible conditions of night and drizzle.

He was ahead, crossing another yard, leaping a short chain-link fence. Hannah pushed herself, gaining slightly. She approached the fence, hands stinging as the cold, rain-soaked metal ripped at her bare hands. She hurtled the fence and continued her pursuit.

Dominik rushed across the street, dodging between parked cars, knocking over a boxy plastic trash can, sending garbage spilling. Hannah dodged to the left, losing time from the circuitous route, but it was less than she would have lost from fighting the obstacle she’d been presented with.

Her feet splashed through puddles as she forced herself forward, chasing as fast as she could. From yard to yard, across another street, low-hanging branches snapping at her face. A tall wooden fence, knotted and old. Dominik clambered over the fence. Hannah followed, charging toward the obstacle, hands digging in as she made her way to the top—throwing her body over the other side. Her feet connected with something she didn’t expect—a trash can—and she lost her balance, hitting the grassy lawn with a painful lurch.

She looked up. Dominik was already making his way over the far fence at the other end of the yard. Hannah leapt to her feet.

The back door to the home opened, and a young boy—maybe ten—watched her rush at the fence.

“Mom! There’s someone in the backyard!”

Hannah ignored the boy, throwing herself at the next fence, pulling herself into place with her arms, tossing a leg over the fence, hitting the ground with a splash on the other side. She pushed herself up from the muddy puddle, covered in dirt, and gave chase once more as Dominik turned a corner. She came to the gate in the fence. Locked. Hannah slammed her shoulder into the gate, sending it flying open, propelling her into the front yard.

Rain covered her face, and she wiped the thick drops from her eyes. Her head turned hurriedly, side to side. He was nowhere to be seen.

What had happened? How had she lost him? He must have taken a different turn.

She walked into the street, looking around in all directions.

This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t let this happen. The girls were too young—thirteen at most. She couldn’t let this happen to them. She couldn’t let them disappear into the night. Hannah pushed her hands through her soaked hair, trying to think. She needed to know where he had gone.

A set of headlights rolled toward her, a sharp honk on the horn, and she stepped out of the car’s way, the vehicle rolling lazily past.

The world was going on as usual. She was failing her charge, and the world didn’t even know enough to care.

She needed to pick up the trail again. She needed to see the past. A vision of where he had gone. She needed a magic wand to wave, to bring her the sight she needed.

But it didn’t work like that.

Hannah looked up at the rainy sky. “God?” she beseeched. “I can’t do this. I can’t find them. I need You and Your sovereign power and…”

No. She scolded herself. It’s like people to go to God, thinking they had something to say—yammering to an almighty God who formed the world from the palm of His hand. How like her to think that florid prayers somehow pleased God.

No, it was not her place to talk. It was her place as a creation of God to do something else . . .

“Listen,” she whispered to herself.

She closed her eyes and listened to the rain, her thoughts filled with her calling and mission.

No. She scolded herself again. Listening wasn’t done only with the ears but also with the mind and the heart.

She cleared her mind. Focused on her breathing. Focused on God.

The rain thundered in her ears, every droplet exploding against every surface of metal, asphalt, and grass. Each sound blurred into the other in a cacophony of white noise.

Listen, she said to herself in her mind.

The drops faded toward the background, only a thumping rhythm of a select few drops tapping out an erratic beat. Bit by bit the rhythm thinned, only a few proud beats pounding out a pedantic march.

Listen, she said to herself again, her body relaxing. A single droplet of rain made a tiny plinking impact. Then silence. The world without time. Where she wasn’t hurried or forced into action. Listen, she thought again. And then she heard. Dominik’s shoes thudding against the path . . . Leading away . . .His ragged breath wheezing— Removing him from the scene. The cries of the girls reverberating in his mind— Remembering the thud of blows. The ringing slaps to tender faces— The sobs pounding into his brain. The house that he had been working from. Creaking from the strain. The place he was returning to.

Thunder rocked the air as Hannah’s eyes opened, lifting to the house in front of her. A sigh of anguish escaped her lips.

There.

Hannah quietly grasped the doorknob and felt the door swing lazily inward, left ajar by someone before her. Stepping into the house as quietly as possible, she paused. If he was in the house still, she didn’t want him to know. Not yet. There would be a moment soon, when she had something to report, that she would need to call the police to finish this. But visions of the past weren’t evidence enough. She needed to find the girls. To know for certain they were here before she did something that might spook Dominik.

She moved into the living room. Shoddy furniture bulleted with holes. An ashtray on the coffee table filled to the brim with dark ash and cigarette butts. The whole place reeked of stale smoke. Magazines littered the remaining surface of the coffee table—like a doctor’s waiting room.

Men, sitting in the living room—each waiting their turn.

A quick thump reverberated through her chest. These had been different girls, before the ones Hannah was looking for. Older—Russian? It wasn’t any easier to consider.

Her stomach churned, and she stepped into the next room— the kitchen. No signs of cooking or supplies. No one lived here. At least no one ate here.

Hannah looked at the table—a sprawling forest of vials, needles, alcohol, and soda bottles. She picked up a container of medicine, reading the label.

Flunitrazepam. Whatever that was.

There was a smacking sound, and Hannah turned. The back door hung open, the screen door slapping loudly in the rainy wind.

Dominik exiting out the back.

She thought about following him—but this was what she was looking for. This was where they’d brought the girls—she could feel it. If she was going to find the girls, she was going to have to do it here.

There was a set of stairs near the hallway, leading up. It felt right, like this was the way they had taken the girls.

The girls, Hannah thought. She didn’t even know their names. But that wasn’t how this worked. She wasn’t called out of personal obligation. She was called to help them because it was her purpose.

Hannah reached the top of the stairs, looking around. There was a set of three bedrooms lining the hallway. She stepped toward one with the door ajar. The door pushed aside easily, revealing a virtually empty room.

An old mattress lay in the middle of the room, filthy blankets thrown across it in twisting heaps.

And suddenly Hannah saw the horrible truth of what had been happening here.

Dominik kicked open the door to the shed, scowling into the darkness as the spring rain shower assaulted the tin roof in a reverberating frenzy. He shoved the lawn mower to the side, ripping a canvas tarp away from a stack of tools. The cold canvas twisted with a kind of whiplash as its soggy corners tried to double over onto the shell of hard cloth that had molded itself to the stack of tools.

A toolbox scattered with a rough toss, and it hit the floor somewhere to the right with a raucous clatter. He kicked a bag of screws out of the way, and the contents went spilling in a deluge of tinkling barbs.

There.

Dominik grabbed the gas can by the handle and gave it a forceful jiggle. Half a can’s worth of gasoline sloshed inside the container, undulating on a swishing axis that caused the whole can to swing in a wide arc.

It was enough to do the job. To get rid of as much evidence as he could before whoever that girl was could find her way back here. Dominik hated the place anyway, all the time he’d spent there minding the shop while the others stayed in the big house across town. He wouldn’t miss it.

It would be obvious that it was arson. The investigators might even find some of the things they had been hiding, but with luck they’d be out of the state by the time anything was found—and the merchandise would be out of the country by then. And it wouldn’t be traced back to them. They’d made sure the lease wasn’t in any of their names.

Dominik reached into his pocket, found the metal object, removed it from his pocket, and flicked the cap open. His thumb spun on the back of the lighter, checking to see if there was enough fuel.

A tiny flame leapt upward, then was dashed out by the snapping of the cap back over it. He walked back toward the house in the rain.

Hannah backed away from the bedroom door, stumbled into the wall, and slid to the floor. Her body shook as she ran her hands over her head, trying to blot it all out of her head. So many girls had been brought through here. So much pain. And suffering. And hopelessness. So many monsters lurking in the shadows.

The walls remembered what had happened here—and they were closing in.

“O God,” she stammered in agonized prayer, mind freewheeling with the torment of it all.

And she felt something else: another calling—

She looked up at the ceiling and saw the wide hatch leading to the attic. A padlock dangled open at the end of a swinging latch that had been left undone.

She reached upward, and the trapdoor snapped downward as she grabbed at the string, tugging, the ladder sliding downward with a gentle pull. Hannah stepped onto the bottom rung and moved upward, compelled by purpose but delayed by dread.

She lifted her head into the attic. The floor was covered in brown carpet; drenched in dust that made her cough. Hannah lifted herself into the darkness. Tiny fingers of light glowed through the slits between the boards covering the one tiny window at the far end. The hatch below her swung gently upward, pulled back into position by creaking springs.

Her hands groped for a moment as she stood, hunched in the low space. A dangling string brushed her fingertips, and she tugged. The lightbulb snapped on from an overhead fixture, and she looked around.

She thought she might never start breathing again.

Both sides of the attic were lined with bunk beds, chicken wire surrounding them in tightly fastened grids that filled in the gaps between small metal struts. Hinged doors with padlocks locked every set of beds, making each its own tiny prison.

Lurid underwear hung from hooks and littered the floor. Dirty clothes were piled in the corner.

Hannah walked to one of the beds, its door hanging open, and looked in. Sitting on yellowed sheets was a ratty stuffed bear with one eye missing. She picked up the bear and looked it over as a hot tear ran down Hannah’s face as she saw the face of the girl who had clung to this bear—

Maybe fourteen years old.

The bear fell from her hands and hit the floor.

Whoever these people were—she would stop them.

Wherever the girls were that they had taken—she would find them.

Then she heard something.

Petroleum-scented splashes of gasoline washed across the walls and tables as Dominik slung the can in all directions. He set the can down for a moment and rummaged under the sink for a trash bag. Quickly he swept the drugs off the table into the plastic and pulled the tethers shut with a swift yank. He set the bag near the door, stuffed his cell phone between his shoulder and ear, and reached for the gas can again.

“Hello?” a female voice said in Dominik’s native language.

“Do you know who she is?” Dominik replied in the same language as he soaked the curtains in gasoline.

“Who?”

“The girl that followed me. She knew where I was and where I was going.”

“What are you talking about?”

Dominik sloshed more gasoline onto the living room carpet, sending a splash across the back of a ratty recliner. “Some girl—midtwenties maybe. She found me in the liquor store. She followed me. Chased me back to the house.”

“You ran away from a girl?”

“Shut up, Misha.” He grunted. “She came out of nowhere. She knew where I was and where I was going. She must have been watching us for days.” He moved up the stairs, spilling a trail of gas.

“What are you going to do about it?”

Dominik let the last drops trickle from the can, dousing a pile of sheets in the bedroom, then tossed the can into the corner. “I’m closing down the storefront.”

“Use the gas can in the shed. Burn it down.”

“I’ve already started.”

“Good. Get going, and get out of there.” There was a click, and the line went dead.

Dominik felt the lighter in his pocket as he moved toward the stairs, then stopped. A creaking in the ceiling from the attic above. He looked at the trapdoor in the ceiling, slightly ajar.

Another creak and the distinct sound of footsteps overhead.

He eyed the padlock dangling from the hatch—an overt violation of fire code if he wasn’t mistaken—but the reasons for that seemed more useful than ever.

Hannah took another step back.

Someone was in the house.

They were down there, but there was no way to know for certain if they’d heard her. She wanted to get away from the hatch—away from the center of the noise she’d heard. There had been the sound of someone talking. It wasn’t English. Russian maybe.

She herself had been kidnapped just over a year before. Nothing as hideous as this—but it had still left its mark on her—a lingering fear, almost a dread, hung over her like a cloud. She’d chosen to face it head-on, to walk straight into the blackness alone. Now she feared it would engulf her.

There was a clattering sound near the far wall and a funny smell.

She took another step back.

Footsteps moved toward the hatch—then stopped just below. What were they doing down there?

Hannah turned, looking at the boarded window. Was it a way out? Maybe she could tear the boards away. The hinges on the hatch squeaked with a minute adjustment.

Were they coming up here? To grab her? To kill her?

Hannah forced herself to stop it. To let go of the questions. To silence her mind. Her life really could be in danger, but this time she could choose to do something. To take control. She was not tied up or caged, and she would not let fear paralyze her. She could act.

Then she heard it.

A click.

She thought of the window. A moment of quiet, then footfalls moving down the stairs. They were leaving.

Hannah moved to the hatch, putting a hand on the thick wood. It didn’t budge. She shoved. It wouldn’t move. She stomped.

She was trapped.

Dominik heard a loud thump strike the attic entrance. They’d figured out that it was locked. There was another thump. They’d specifically reinforced the hatch to keep the girls from knocking it open if they ever had the guts to try. The padlock would hold, and the thick bolts would stay in place.

He kicked the back door open and stood in the threshold.

The lighter came open with a snap.

His thumb rolled across the wheel, and a thin blade of flame conjured itself up from the metal casing. He shielded the tiny flame for a moment, then tossed it into a puddle of gasoline.

There was a split second where nothing happened—Dominik froze, worried that the puddle had drowned the fire. Then it spread in a violent blossom, devouring the surrounding air with an audible howl. The house caught ablaze in a matter of seconds, fire consuming up the stairs.

Dominik pulled on a jacket he’d taken from one of the closets and zipped it as he walked away.

Hannah knew something wasn’t right.

She couldn’t have explained how, but something had changed. The smell—the pungent aroma that had been rising from below— suddenly seemed to vanish, replaced by something else.

Then she recognized the smell that had been. And her eyes went wide as she realized what the new smell was that had replaced it.

Greenish smoke slithered up from the cracks around the attic hatch. The smell was foreign—not like campfire smoke with its earthen richness, but the putrid scent ofmelting plastic and burning synthetics.

Then the floor started to get warm.

Fire travels up, she thought. Heat rises. Smoke rises. There was nowhere further up to go. She was at the tip of the spear.

She turned to the window, tugging at the boards that covered it—the rain smacking down just beyond.

The amount of smoke doubled in seconds, filling the attic with an acrid cloud. No fire yet. Just smoke. Her eyes stung,

pinpricks stabbing at her tear ducts. Hot tears slid involuntarily down her warming face. It was all happening so fast. It reminded her of the fire safety videos she’d seen in elementary school, depicting how a cigarette in a trash can could send a house into an unrecoverable blaze in less than two minutes.

Arson could work so much faster.

She hacked and coughed, fingers digging into the boards, pulling at the wood. She lifted her foot, giving a solid kick that split the boards, crushing the glass beyond. Hannah grabbed the loose pieces and pulled them free, revealing the window.

Street light poured in through the rapidly thickening smoke. Rain tapped at the spiderwebbed glass. The whole window was little more than a slit. Less than six inches. She would never fit. It had been boarded up purely to keep light out.

Her lungs seized, fighting to keep out the dark haze. Her

body convulsed with a violent cough. Heat permeated her.

Hannah coughed once more, then lifted her leg, jamming her heel into the tiny window, sending beads of glass splashing outward. It wasn’t big enough for her to get out, but it was big enough to let a little air in.

She shoved her face to the opening and pulled in a lungful of the chilled air beyond. Then she pulled the jacket off her back and put it to her mouth. She crouched down, moved back into the prisonlike room, and searched for the trapdoor. Found it. Her hands worked at the latch, pulled. Nothing. There had to be some way to get out.

The blurring of her vision worsened, tears and smoke clawing at her eyes.

She coughed. Her body felt heavy and unwieldy. She tried to adjust her body with her right arm, but all the strength seemed to be slipping out of her. Fighting hurt so much. Moving sapped her energy. The searing floor suddenly seemed welcoming. Her body started to relax, curling into a ball. The unrelenting stinging in her eyes suddenly seemed unbearable.

Her eyelids shut.

The attic suddenly seemed far away. Her mind slipped into silence. The kind of silenceshe could try so hard to cultivate in times of trouble now seemed so easy. Everything that seemed to worry faded, and rather than doing she was simply . . .

Being.

She could feel the past again.

Before it had been such a horrible place. When others had lived here. When family pictures and Christmas ornaments had been stored here in cardboard boxes. And then the old occupants moved out and others moved in—the ones who had perverted this place to be something else. Rolling carpet over the plywood, not bothering to nail it to the rafters.

Hannah’s eyes snapped open, and she stumbled toward the window for a life-saving breath of cool air. Then she dropped to the floor and grasped at the carpet, pulling the shaggy covering loose. She reached for the floor, pulling at the boards, only to realize that she was standing on the edge.

Hannah moved and gave another pull—the heat was overwhelming. The plywood pulled away, clattering to the side as she tossed it.

Rafters—a few feet apart—partitioned themselves between sections of pink insulation. It looked like cotton candy, she thought.

Her hesitation lasted only a second, and then she jumped, feet first toward insulation.

The world seemed to freeze.

Then her body crashed through the billowy pink insulation, smashing through the thin layer of sheet rock, and she felt herself hurtling through the gray smoke toward the carpet one floor below.

She landed with a thud, losing her balance as her body slammed into the wall.

The heat enveloped her, blasting at her like a furnace, smoke stabbing at her eyes. Hannah looked up and saw the window at the far end of the hall. She pulled her jacket tight against her face and rushed forward, trying to stay low. Moments later she was at the window, the glass fogged over with a greasy black smear from the heat and smoke. Then she saw the gas can, tossed at the floor below it, fire clinging to the outside wall

where gas dribbled down.

A kick could break the glass—but glass shards would slice her leg to unrecognizable ribbons if she tried. She took a smoky breath and reached for the can with her jacket, grabbing the handle. Her body swung, then released the metal container.

The smoke-fogged glass exploded outward and skittered across the sloping roof that covered the back porch.

She threw herself through the window—arms and legs catching on the fragile teeth of glass that remained, her body landing on glass shards that pricked her skin. She rolled uncontrollably down the roof, then slammed into the soggy grass below.

Hannah looked up at the blazing house—bleeding, burned, and weak.

Her eyes fluttered shut, only to open again after several minutes, and she found herself on the other end of the yard, farther from the flames. She was looking up at a man with long

dark hair, in a black coat. Rain rolled off him as he said something to her. His lips moved, but she didn’t hear anything.

And then the world faded to black.

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Darlington Woods by Mike Dellosso

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Darlington Woods

Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)

***Special thanks to Anna Coelho Silva | Publicity Coordinator, Book Group | Strang Communications for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Mike now lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Jen, and their three daughters. He is a regular columnist for AVirtuousWoman.org, was a newspaper correspondent/columnist for over three years, has published several articles for The Candle of Prayer inspirational booklets, and has edited and contributed to numerous Christian-themed Web sites and e-newsletters. Mike is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers association, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, the Relief Writer’s Network, and FaithWriters, and plans to join International Thriller Writers once published. He received his BA degree in sports exercise and medicine from Messiah College and his MBS degree in theology from Master’s Graduate School of Divinity.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 281 pages
Publisher: Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1599799189
ISBN-13: 978-1599799186

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Present day

As he pressed his beat-up Ford down an uneven stretch of asphalt, Rob Shields had death on his mind. His own. The void within him had grown to colossal proportions, opening its gaping black maw and swallowing any hope or happiness he once had. Lost forever. No chance of return. Death welcomed him, enticed him, drew him in with its easy ways and comfortable charm.

Oh, he knew he would never do it. Taking his own life had a certain appeal to it, held a certain freedom that his bleak outlook on life longed for, but it took a much braver— or dumber—man than he to actually pull it off. But still he wanted, maybe needed, to pretend he was as serious as murder. And that meant it was time to see the house. If he was to fantasize about putting an end to his journey, he at least wanted to see the place that had promised a better life. Just one visit, one look, would satisfy him.

He glanced over at the empty passenger seat then into the rearview mirror at the vacant spot in the backseat. Kelly would be jabbering about what beautiful country this was.

“Look at the wildflowers. Oh, I love wildflowers.”

And little Jimmy would be singing away to his MP3 player, getting the lyrics all wrong.

Man, he missed them.

A familiar sadness overcame him, and he once again thought of his own death. He couldn’t bear to live without them any longer . . .

Life had become a great burden, an endless source of sadness. Every day was lived in despair. Unhappiness and discontent had become his bedfellows. He would see the

house, allow himself one evening of pleasant dreams about what could have been, then return to Massachusetts to live out the rest of his life in isolated misery. And in his mind,

that in itself was a form of suicide. A living death.

Rob depressed the accelerator, and the odometer needle climbed nearer to seventy. On the horizon, heat devils performed an arrhythmic dance, and the sun-scorched

blacktop appeared to be glossed with mercury. The road cut through pastureland like a hardened artery. To his right, a handful of horses stood motionless, their noses to the ground. To his left, the land stretched out like a green sea, undulating slowly to an even tempo.

Mayfield had to be no more than an hour away, but the fuel

gauge said he needed gas now. Up ahead, an elderly man in a ball cap was on both knees working his garden. Rob slowed the car and stopped beside him. The older gent turned his body slowly, revealing a patch over one eye.

Rob leaned across the center console and spoke loudly. “Where’s the nearest gas station?”

The old man cupped one hand around his ear and raised his eyebrows.

Rob said it louder. “Where’s the nearest gas station?”

The man nodded in the direction Rob had been traveling. “’Bout a mile down the road. Shell station on the left.”

“Thanks,” Rob said, and he pulled away. In the rearview mirror he could see the man watch him for a moment then return to his garden.

Exactly one mile down the road Rob steered into a cracked-asphalt lot and up to an old-style analog gas pump, the kind with the rotating numbers. He didn’t even know those kind still existed. The station had seen better days. From the sun-bleached Shell sign to the grime-coated plate-glass window of the little convenience store to the scarred and faded blacktop, everything spoke of neglect. This was one outpost time had forgotten.

Rob got out of the car and noticed the handwritten sign on the pump: Pre-pay inside. Management.

Walking across the lot, he could feel the day’s heat radiating through the soles of his shoes. A little bell chimed when he opened the door. A thin, fair-skinned man with shoulder-length hair nodded at him from behind the counter.

“Thirty in gas,” Rob said, reaching for his wallet.

The clerk punched some buttons on the register and said, “Thirty.”

Rob paid him. “How far to Mayfield?”

The clerk looked up. “Where?”

“Mayfield.”

After a quick shrug, “Fifty, sixty miles.” He looked like he wanted to say more, so Rob waited. “Not much in Mayfield.”

“A house,” Rob said.

“Your house?”

“Should have been.” Then he turned and left. The bell chimed again on his way out.

At the pump, Rob unscrewed the fuel cap and inserted the nozzle. Jimmy always loved to squeeze the trigger.

“Can I pull the trigger, Daddy?”

That’s what he called it, a trigger. He’d pretend the nozzle was a cowboy gun. Thoughts of his son flooded Rob’s mind, and he did nothing to stop them. Now was a time for remembering, for soaking up every good feeling and every fond image left to enjoy.

When the rolling numbers hit seventeen dollars, a quick movement caught Rob’s attention. He jerked his head up and toward the side of the store where a stand of shrubs sat quiet and motionless. Then he heard it, a muffled giggle, and his breath caught in his throat. He knew that giggle. Knew it like the sound of his own voice. The movement was there again. An image ran from the shrubs to the rear of the store and out of sight. The nozzle snapped off and fell to the ground with a solid clunk. Rob knew that run too, the shortened stride, the slightly exaggerated pumping of the arms. He could feel his heart thudding all the way down to his fingertips.

It was Jimmy. His little buddy.

Crossing the lot in large walking strides at first, then a run, Rob rounded the building fully expecting to find his son, Jimmy, red-faced with brown hair matted to his forehead,

waiting in a crouch to scare him.

“I got you, Daddy!”

Instead, all he found were a few rusted-out fifty-gallon drums, a stack of dry-rotted tires, and a haphazard pile of rebar. His breathing rate had quickened from the short sprint, and beads of sweat now popped out on his forehead and upper lip. He wiped them away with the sleeve of his T-shirt.

He walked the length of the building, scanning the field of

knee-high grass behind it. “Jimmy?”

But no answer came. Not even a rustle of grass. And no giggle.

“Jimmy,” Rob said in a normal volume, more to himself than the phantom of his son that had haunted him now for going on two months. The visions—the psychologist called

them hallucinations—had come frequently at first, sometimes as much as once a day, then grew more sporadic. Until now, he hadn’t had one for over two weeks. At first,

Rob was convinced there was a purpose to them, a meaning. Maybe they even meant Jimmy was still alive, waiting for his daddy to find him and rescue him. Maybe. The psychologist disagreed. Rob thought he was a quack and stopped attending the weekly sessions.

Scolding himself for once again allowing his frazzled imagination to dupe him, Rob returned to his car like a man taking his final stroll down the long corridor to the electric

chair. The sun’s heat now seemed more intense, and his shirt clung to his back and chest.

He picked the nozzle up from the ground and balanced it in his hand.

“Can I pull the trigger, Daddy?”

Every time he pumped gas he’d think of Jimmy. It was one of those little things that would haunt him the rest of his life. But it was a haunting he welcomed. After squeezing out the rest of his thirty bucks, Rob returned the nozzle to the pump, opened the car door, and was hit by a breath of heat.

Sitting in his car was like hanging out in an oven, but Rob did not turn the ignition. The air outside was still and the heat sweltering. Sweat seeped from his pores, wetting the front of his shirt. He thought of the image of his son and that familiar gait and noticed his hands were trembling. Tears formed in his eyes, blurring his vision.

“Jimmy.” He said the name again, as if it were some holy word that could cross the span of the finite and infinite and bring his little boy back. He wanted to hold him, bury his

face in Jimmy’s hair, and draw in the smell of sweat and cookies.

“I like how you smell, Daddy. You smell like a daddy.”

Wiping the tears from his eyes, Rob started the car, pulled away from the pump, and headed east toward Mayfield.

As he drove, the empty seats beside and behind him burned like hot coals. As much as he tried, he could not dismiss the memory of Kelly reaching over and placing a graceful hand on his thigh, her hair rippling in the wind, a smile stretched across her face. Nor could he stop glancing in the rearview mirror, half hoping to see Jimmy bouncing against the back of the seat.

Rob slapped at the steering wheel. He knew he was going mad, that the solitude of the last three months had nearly driven him over the edge and blurred the line between reality and fantasy. And he was obsessing again. He had to think of something else, so he turned his mind to the house his great-aunt Wilda had left him. He’d never seen the place, had never even met Wilda. But when he found out he was the sole heir to the house, his mother raved about how much Kelly and Jimmy would love the place. That was six months ago.

Before his world got flipped on its head and everything went to pot.

Before he went insane and entertained thoughts of death. The boy and his mommy walk back to the car to clean his hands. He’s been working on a candy apple for some time, and it’s creating quite the mess. Daddy told them he’d meet them at the lemonade stand. Lemonade is great for a warm day, he said. The grass in the parking area is brown and ground into the dry dirt from everyone walking and driving on it. His mommy is holding his clean hand and singing a Sunday school song about Joshua and the battle of Jericho. The boy is still thinking about the eagle the man behind the table was holding. He never knew eagles were so big. And when it looked at him, it seemed to see right past his skin and into his insides. They had other things at the stand too—an owl with big yellow eyes, a couple different kinds of snakes, and an aquarium full of toads—but the eagle was his favorite. He wondered what it would be like to be able to fly like an eagle, way up in the sky where no one could bother you, seeing the whole world at once.

“Here we are,” Mommy says. Their car looks extra clean because Daddy washed it just before they left. The black paint looks like a dark mirror and makes him look funny, like one of those curvy mirrors at the carnival.

Mommy opens the trunk and leans over into it, looking for the napkins. It reminds him of a poem about a crocodile with a toothache. He wishes he could remember all the words. Something about the crocodile opening so wide and the dentist climbing inside, then SNAP! Mommy always claps her hands real hard at that part, and it always makes him jump.

A man comes up behind Mommy. He’s wearing dirty old blue jeans and a tight black T-shirt. His face is big and round, and there are a lot of little scars on his cheeks. His eyes are placed real close together and pushed back into his head. With his shaggy hair and large face, the boy thinks he looks like a head of cabbage.

“Excuse me,” the man says. He reaches out to touch Mommy’s hip then looks at the boy.

Mommy jumps and stands up fast. She turns around and looks at the man, crossing her arms in front of her. She seems nervous. “Yes?”

Cabbage Head looks nervous too. He pushes his hand through his hair, and the boy notices the sweat on his forehead. It makes his hair wet where it comes out of the skin. “It’s your husband—”

Now Mommy looks scared. “Wha–what’s wrong?” Her voice shakes.

“I need you to come with me.” He looks at the boy with those deep eyes then back at Mommy. “The boy can stay here at the car. We’ll only be a minute.”

Mommy bites her lower lip and looks around. She kneels beside the boy. She looks real scared and is breathing fast. Her hands are shaking, and she’s still biting her lower lip. “Stay here, OK? Don’t leave the car. I’ll be right back. Don’t leave the car.”

She hugs the boy then kisses him on the cheek. Opening the back door of the car, she motions for the boy to get in. “Remember, stay here. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back for you soon.” She closes the door, blows him a kiss, and leaves with Cabbage Head. The boy watches as they walk away and disappear behind a trailer.

It doesn’t take long for it to get too hot to stay in the car. He opens the door and slides out, staying low to the ground so no one will see him. He leans against the car, but the black metal is too hot. So he sits Indian-style on the ground next to the back tire and picks at the grass. He wonders what could be wrong with Daddy. Did he have a heart attack or get cancer? Mr. Davies next door got cancer last year and died. This scares the boy. Maybe Daddy’s just lost and the man needs Mommy to help find him. He thinks about the man and his deep eyes. They were like the eagle’s eyes. Something about them didn’t look right, though. The boy feels like if he looked at them long enough he’d see things that would give him nightmares for a very long time. And they would see things in him too.

It seems like a long time of sitting by the tire and picking at brown grass before the boy hears footsteps coming, the sound of dry grass crunching like stale potato chips. He stands and looks around, hoping it’s Mommy. But Cabbage Head is coming toward him, alone. Where’s Mommy? Is she with Daddy, and the man is coming to take him to them?

Cabbage Head comes close. He’s sweating even worse now, and his hair looks like it has been messed up. He offers the boy his hand, a big meaty thing that looks like a bear’s paw. “C’mon, son. You must come with me.”

“Where’s my mom?” the boy asks. He notices his own voice is shaking.

“She’s fine. She wants me to bring you to her.”

The boy can tell the man is lying. He wants to run away but is afraid he’ll never find Mommy or Daddy on his own. “Where is she?”

Cabbage Head closes his hand and opens it again. His wide palm is all shiny with sweat. “Come. She’s waiting for you.”

There’s no way the boy is going to hold the man’s hand. He turns to run but the man catches him by the arm. “Oh, no, you don’t. You’re coming with me.”

The boy tries to holler, but the man’s sweaty hand is over his mouth, pressing so hard it hurts. The boy has never known what it is like to be so scared. He’s sure Cabbage Head is going to kill him, or worse, keep him alive but never allow him to see his mommy or daddy again.

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The Secret Holocaust Diaries

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister

Tyndale House Publishers (March 4, 2010)

***Special thanks to Vicky Lynch of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nonna Bannister was a young girl when World War II broke into her happy life. She went from an idyllic early-twentieth-century Russian childhood, full of love and comforts, to the life of a prisoner working in labor camps—though she was not a Jew—eventually bereft of her entire family. But she survived the war armed with the faith in God her grandmother taught her and a readiness to start a new life. She immigrated to America, married, and started a family, keeping her past secret from everyone. Though she had carried from Germany the scraps of a diary and various photographs and other memorabilia, she kept it all hidden and would only take it out, years later, to translate and expand her writings. After decades of marriage, Nonna finally shared her secret with her husband . . . and now he is sharing it with the world. Nonna died on August 15, 2004.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers (March 4, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414325479
ISBN-13: 978-1414325477

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

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