Excerpts




"Border Danger"
ISBN-13: 978-1515161257 and ISBN-10: 1515161250

by Alice Wootson

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE


      Nita Johnson was tired. Late Friday afternoon on a warm mid-April day, she dragged her weary body back to the dormitory at the Border Patrol Academy in Brownsville, Texas. She tried not to walk like a hobbled horse but found it impossible. The past week seemed a year long.

      Silently, she asked the question that was on her mind more during those days than before: Lord, did I hear you right? Is this where you want me to be? Sometimes people thought they heard God direct them, but it was really their own wants they heard. Stay. The word was so clear she looked around. Nobody was there. Okay. Despite her aches, she relaxed a bit. The written test was grueling, and I thought the physical training up until this week was as hard as it would get. It couldn’t be more difficult than my SWAT training. She shook her head. Boy, was I wrong. That was nothing compared to this past week.

      When her roommate, Rennie, had left three days into the physical training, Nita tried to convince her it would get easier. It was hard at first, but got easier after your body adjusted. Rennie left anyway.

      The first ten weeks lulled Nita into thinking the worse was over, and it would be a downhill glide to graduation.

      She shuffled into her room, gave the door a weak push shut, glanced at the bed, then eased to the floor and stretched out on the carpet. Even her bones were weary. Maybe by tomorrow she’d have strength to get up. Possibly, she’d even have the energy to take a shower.

      She folded her hands across her middle and thought of the person responsible for her condition: Agent Craig Sawyer. He was substituting for Officer Glen Young. The trainees nicknamed him The Resident Torturer.

      His image loomed in her mind and settled into place as if he was standing in front of her. His finely honed features and smooth looks could be at home on the cover of a men’s fashion magazine. On the other hand, he could be mistaken for someone in a corporate setting, at least until you looked at his eyes. Nita frowned. Ruthlessness looked as if it had lived there for a long time. They reminded her of shark’s eyes. Craig Sawyer was one angry man.

      She bent her knees and twisted her legs to one side and her arms to the other. Then she reversed positions. The ache in her muscles proved she was still alive. Dead people didn’t hurt. She stretched her hands over her head until she felt the pull down the length her spine. A few minutes later, she stood.

      She thought of soaking in a tub of hot water, but she wasn’t sure her muscles would lift her out. She opted for a shower. As the water beat on her shoulders and back, she tried to think of a suitable punishment for Agent Sawyer. She gave up when nothing harsh enough came to mind. He didn’t know how blessed he was that she was a Christian.

      She wished she had a way to make the weekend last longer.

      “If this is the best we can get, this country is in bigger trouble than the worst critic claims,” Craig Sawyer said to Glen. He crumpled his paper cup and tossed it into the wastebasket across the room.

      “Man, what are you doing to my class?” Glen frowned. “Even my assistant said he was glad he didn’t have to train under you, and he has a reputation for being the toughest.” Glen shifted his leg on the footstool as if a different position would make the plaster cast that went from his ankle to his knee easier to accept. “When I twisted your arm to take over the training temporarily, I expected to have a group left after I get rid of this thing.” He tapped the cast. “At the rate you’re washing them out, I won’t have a class to go back to.” He glared. “When word gets out, somebody in D.C. is gonna question why we have this brand new training facility in Brownsville but nobody to train. They’ll say the facility in Artesia, New Mexico, is more than enough.”

      “Nothing wrong with New Mexico, but we need a facility here. This area is more populated, and we’re closer to the border. As for your recruits, I’m not doing anything compared to what they’ll meet once they get into the field.” Craig stared at the wall as if he saw something else.

      “They’re not supposed to be able to function in the field yet. They’re only a little more than halfway through training. First, we have to prepare them to operate in the field. That’s why they call this training.” Glen frowned. “You scared away another two this afternoon. Both women. You wouldn’t be practicing a little gender-bias, would you?”

      “You know me better than that.” Craig turned to face him.

      “Yeah, I do.” Glen nodded. “You’re an equal opportunity hard-nosed.”

      “You should have left me in the field where I belong.” Craig crossed his arms across his chest. “You know I function best out there.”

      “Yeah, I know, Craig, but right now we need you here.” Glen leaned forward. “I don’t need to tell you how short-handed we are. We need these new agents like years ago. That’s how long we’ve been telling the guys with the power. Even if all who started with the present class survived training, we’d still be short-handed. We couldn’t afford to delay the rest of their training until I could finish it myself.” He glared at Craig. “Of course, you keep this up, and our numbers will be where they were before the class reported eleven weeks ago.” “Listen, my friend, you knew me a long time before you recommended me for this. You knew I’d be tough on them.” ?

      “Tough, yeah. Impossible is another thing.”

      “If they can’t cut it, we need to find out now. They need to find out before they get out there.” Craig moved to the apartment window and stared out.

      “True, but they thought they were signing on for the Customs/Border Patrol Agency, not a suicide mission.” Both men stopped moving. It seemed as if the room were holding its breath. Finally, Glen broke the spell. “Sorry,” he said quietly. “Man, that was a poor choice of words.”




"Border Love"
ISBN 9781940099651

Brooke Hudson drew her gun and crouched behind a thick bush, grateful for the tropical climate of Brownsville, Texas. She pressed her face so close to the ground that she could smell the musty odor of the rotting leaves that covered this section of land.

The footsteps that caused her to take cover came closer. Birds scattered from the ground into the air announcing the path of the person approaching her. The steps were slow, but the person didn't try to keep quiet. Brooke frowned.

Even illegal intruders who got lost knew to move quietly. She shifted softly until she faced the sound. Unless they were armed and didn't care if they encountered anybody.

She thought of a week ago when an officer's body was found thirty miles north of where she was now. She pulled her mind back to the sounds, eased behind a vine-covered tree, and waited.

When the noise was almost on top of her, she stood with her back against a tree and aimed her gun at the direction of the sound coming through the brush. She waited and watched. A final thrashing through a thick clump in front of her sent a ground squirrel scampering across the tiny clearing and brought the person almost out of cover.




"Snowbound With Love"

Charlotte couldn't take her gaze from his firm body as he walked over to the glowing coals of last night's fire and laid several logs on them. That majestic body had given her more pleasure than she could ever imagine. She stretched beneath the covers. Her muscles were sore from the new task she had given them, but she felt so . . . She smiled and sighed. So satisfied.

Tyler returned to her. He picked up his clothes and sat on the edge of the couch as the fire licked at the fresh wood as if grateful for its fresh meal.

"I know it is unromantic," he continued, "but I'm starved." He smiled. "For food." His smile widened. "For the body."

"Me, too." Charlotte smiled back.

"I'll give you first dibs on the bathroom." He brushed the hair from her forehead. "It's the least I can give you after the wonderful gift you gave me."

Charlotte hesitated in her shyness to let him see her body. He had traveled over it but he hadn't seen her. She took a deep breath and sat up clutching the quilt to her. She swallowed hard and opened her hands. The quilt formed a puddle around her hips as if she were a gemstone in a display case.




"Home for Christmas"

Jeff unfolded the letter again and reread it as if afraid the words had changed in the last two minutes. And maybe hoping that they had. He swallowed hard. Hope and fear about the same thing fought inside him; each trying to be the bigger. Ridiculous. He had a choice in this. He could say no. He sighed. But he wouldn't. He had wanted this since his mom had given him his first book of science experiments for his third birthday. He smiled. He had tried to be enthusiastic when she gave him the book instead of the video game he had begged for. After the messes he had made in the kitchen she had probably been sorry she hadn't bought the game instead.

He ran a finger over the letterhead. Had she dreamed this for him when she bought him a chemistry set the next Christmas? He shook his head. He doubted that she allowed herself to hope that much for him. He looked at the letter again, straightened a corner, then slipped it back into the envelope.

"Are you almost ready?" His mom came to his bedroom door. She brushed a hand down the front of her blue skirt. "You're going to be late."

"I'm ready."

"You don't think you should have told her before today?" She frowned. "You didn't change your mind about going, did you?"

"I can't change my mind about that. It seems like I've been hoping for this chance my whole life." He pushed the letter into his back pocket. "I can't change my mind."

"Maybe you should have talked it over with Sheila when you decided to apply for that job."

"I wasn't sure I'd get it. Competition for jobs in that area of the space agency is tough. I didn't see any reason to tell Sheila. I knew she'd be upset, so why upset her when it might be for nothing?"

"Jeff, you were number one in your class."

"Every college graduating class has a number one, Mom."

"Not with a double major in math and chemistry." She sighed. "No use discussing it now. It's done."

"Yes, it's done." He adjusted his tie as if it wasn't already in the correct position, then walked toward the door. "I'm ready."

"Not quite." Hs mom walked past him and picked up his cap and gown from the bed. "Who's going to look after my handsome son when I'm not around?" She placed the gown on his arm, but carried the cap herself. "Maybe we can find a foster mom for you."

"I think twenty-two is too old for the foster-care system."

She brushed her hands along his shoulders, smoothing the already smooth jacket. "Then maybe we can find you a keeper. You can place a want ad in the paper when you get your first paycheck. ‘Help Wanted: guardian for genius who would forget his head and feet if The Good Lord hadn't seen fit to attach them to his body." She stood on tiptoe, tugged at his shoulder until he bent down, and kissed his cheek.

"I love you, too, Mom." Jeff kissed her forehead as he did every evening. He grinned at her.

His mother, a wide smile on her face, gently wiped away the lipstick she had left on his cheek. "I don't want Sheila to think some other girl is giving her competition." She stepped back and stared at him. "I'm not sure waiting to tell her was the smartest thing you ever did." she shrugged. "It's your business." She glanced at her watch. "We'd better go. Mrs. Baker and her daughters will be here any minute and we can't keep them waiting."

Jeff followed his mom from the room. He watched her stand there looking out the screen door.

It was right to wait to tell Sheila. Tonight they would slip away from his party and go to the bench in the pocket garden at the end of the block. He'd sit her down and hand her the letter. He'd explain why he hadn't told her before. He'd make her understand what an honor it was to be offered the job. She'd see how important it was to him. She knew that to turn down the job would be giving up his life's dream.

He shook his head. One of my dreams. Marrying Sheila is the other.

"They're here."

Jeff followed her out the door. I'm not giving up one for the other. I can have both.

He got into the car. Sheila has to understand.




"Ready to take a Chance"

Shana, suffering from the flu, took a deep breath and forced herself out of her car. The only way she got her body to move was to imagine herself snuggled in her bed. The bare white wicker porch furniture had lost the blue cover she had placed over it in November. She didn't have the energy to care. Maybe next week she could fix it. Or next month. If she lived that long. She unlocked the heavy carved door and pushed it open. "Elli…." She never finished his name.

Soft, slow music drifted down the stairs and forced her words to stay inside of her. Nina Simone's husky voice crooning about love filled the wide downstairs hall and squeezed against Shana. Elliot's voice, joined with a giggle from somebody who didn't belong here, followed the music that had found her.

Uh-uh. She shook her head and the pain reminded her why she had come home early. A new kind of pain joined it. No way. I must be hallucinating. He wouldn't dare. Slowly she climbed the stairs clutching the banister as if afraid it would leave her if she let it go.

She tightened her leg muscles so she could stay on her feet. The flu had nothing to do with the weakness in her legs right now, nor the feeling inside her that felt as if a fist was wrapped around her stomach and squeezing.

She reached the wide second floor hall and stared at the door, but right now her ears were more important than her eyes. Murmurs skipped from the bedroom. Two voices. Coming from her bedroom.

She leaned against the wall. She didn't want to move, and not because of the flu. She wanted to wait until the sounds went away and it was as if they had never happened. Then she took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

She felt as if she had stumbled into a cliché from a soap opera.

"What-What are you doing home?" Elliot's sputtering words sounded as if she was the one at fault. Shana stared at the bed as if she needed more time for the image to etch in her mind. As if it wasn't already fastened in place permanently. She glanced at the woman on her side of the bed.

She had seen the young blond before. Here in this house. Elliot had invited this woman, Ingrid, his graduate assistant, to their open house last Christmas. Shana hadn't known the welcome she had extended to Ingrid had included her husband and her bed.

Ready to Take a Chance, by Alice Wootson Kimani Press, available November 28, 2006




"Perfect Wedding"

"That's was so beautiful." Dana sighed as she stared at the final scene of the latest episode of a new reality show. She leaned back and sighed again. "So perfect. So ideal."

On the television screen, the newlyweds were still pressed together in a kiss that promised happily ever after. As if that wasn't perfect enough, Hawaiian music, played sweetly on a steel guitar, swelled in the background. As wonderful as if was, the whole scenario failed to make Dana forget that she was living in Philadelphia trying to survive another hard, cold winter. She shivered as if Hawaii's warm climate made the Philadelphia temperature drop another fifteen degrees. Usually her imagination was great. Right now it was failing her. She stared at the television screen as if hoping to find it hiding there.

The camera pulled back a bit and the credits rolled as if the words were overdue for an appointment a long way off. Still the couple remained locked in a kiss.

Dana sighed yet again. A wistful look filled her face.

"Just look at that. They get a beautiful wedding, including the dress for the bride and the bride's maids, at no cost to them. Most of all, they get an all-expense paid honeymoon in Hawaii. Two weeks in Hawaii. In the winter, no less, if that's when the winning couple wants to go. Who wouldn't want to go to Hawaii in the winter? Actually, who wouldn't want to go to Hawaii any time?" She pushed the off button of the remote and turned to Cathy, her best friend. "Why can't I have that? What's wrong with me that I can't have that?"

"You can have that," Cathy said. "If you win the contest for the next ‘Perfect Wedding'." She stared at Dana. "Of course, there's the teensy matter of finding a husband-to-be. I'd say the lack of one is what's wrong with you. At least in this case. We'll deal with your other faults at another time."

"The word is fiancé, not groom-to-be." Dana glared at her long-time best friend.

"Girlfriend, there's a huge distance between knowing what he's called and having one." Cathy dodged the throw pillow that Dana decided to have live up to its name.

"Do you know that I have always wanted to go to Hawaii?"

"No." Cathy showed mock surprise. "How could I possibly know that? Let's see; maybe it could be the fact that you have made me watch every single documentary and each and every movie ever made in the history of the movie industry that mentioned our fiftieth state? Or was I supposed to get a clue from the fact that every month or so you bring home a handful of brochures with pictures of pineapples, exotic flowers and spectacular sunsets over perfect beaches. The last time you even had a whole pineapple and a honest-to-goodness coconut still in the shell. Each time, the next thing you do is start counting your change and bank account? Is that how I should know?"

"Not only sarcasm from you, but caustic sarcasm. I don't know why I put up with you."

"Well, let's see:" Cathy held up her hand and folded one finger down. "a) I put up with you, b)we've been friends since kindergarten, c) nobody else will understand your craziness, d) nobody else will listen to your lame-brained plans, e) …."

"Okay, okay." Dana held up her hands. "Don't go teacher on me. That was a rhetorical statement."

"I can't help but go ‘teacher'. Not only is it in my blood, it's also the reason for my paycheck. Besides, I'm good at what I do. Ask my students." Cathy, a smug look on her face, set her nearly empty bowl of popcorn on the coffee table and crossed her arms across her chest.

"They're second graders. They don't know any better. Now, if you had sixth graders like I do, you'd have to prove yourself every period of everyday as you try to get through their ‘teach me' challenges." Dana ate one final handful of popcorn and placed her bowl beside Cathy's. She sighed. "You think maybe we can get second jobs?"

"What I think is that it takes all of my energy to get through the one job I already have. Those little kids wear you out. I'm sure the big kids do the same to you." Cathy stood. "Hey, look. I like Hawaii, too, and I'd love to go there some day, but I'm not obsessing over it the way some people I know are."

"You talking about me?"

"If the shoes fit I hope they match one on my outfits so I can borrow them." She grinned. "I'd better go. I have those math papers to grade. I want to see how good I am at what I do." She laughed as she took her bowl and glass to the kitchen and rinsed them. Dana followed her. She leaned against the counter and sighed.

"Cathy, when we were young, did you ever think that this would be it when we grew up? Usually in bed every weekday night, including Friday, right after the eleven o'clock news? Did you dream that your big excitement on the weekend would be staying up until after midnight to watch a movie on tape?"

"Uh, uh." Cathy shook her head. "I expected my own version of Prince Charming to have found me by now, put that beautiful glass slipper on my foot and carried me off to his castle where we'd live happily ever after. The problem is that there's never a prince around when you need one." She grinned and shook her head. "Ain't that just like a man anyway? He's probably somewhere watching some sports game on television and lost track of time." They walked toward the door.

"Mine must be hanging out with him." Dana put her hand on her hip. "I sure hope their game doesn't go into overtime. They're taking too long as it is." Dana laughed as she opened the door to let Cathy out. "See you in the morning. My turn to drive."

"Same time, same station as today."




"Aloha Love"

Jeanine Stewart sat in the pilot's seat. The flight was over and the chopper sat on the ground, but she didn't move. Normally the slowing whirr of the chopper's blades helped her unwind, but not today. Today she waited for her common sense to replace the outrage and fear that filled her.

The blades quit and, without looking, Jeanine knew they slumped at rest. She took a deep breath, grabbed her papers and climbed out of the cockpit.

As she shoved the door shut, she wished it had a more car-door-slamming thud. She shook her head. It wouldn't have helped.

The sun easing itself to the Hilo horizon didn't help her mellow, either. In fact, if it needed more heat she had tons to spare. Jeanine wasn't angry. She was mad.

For somebody only five feet five, her strides were surprisingly long as her steps quickly ate up the tarmac to the hanger.

"Nate." Her voice lifted over the hum of a few active engines on the closest table, but not because she had planned it that way. "Where the devil are you?"

"Here." A big muscular man came from the small office at the rear. "What's your problem this time?" He added more dirty oil from his hands to the already full rag that he was holding.

"It's the same problem as the last time and the time before that. And it's not just my problem. It's yours, too." Even if every engine on every one of the five long tables lining the hangar had been running, Nate would have heard her. "Something is still wrong with that chopper."

"Look. I've gone over that engine more thoroughly than any other one that we got. Nothing's wrong except that it's showing it's age." He stared at her. "You must be suffering from PMS or something."

"Oh, no, no, no." Jeanine shook her head. "I know you didn't go there." She shifted her papers to one hand and pointed toward the parking lot. "Not with your mid-life crisis parked out there disguised as a red Porsche convertible."

I'm too young for a mid-life crisis."

"That's not what your face says."

They held a staring standoff for a few seconds. Then Jeanine spoke again.

"Look. I know you've gone over it, but I tell you something is wrong. It stalled on me again. I thought I was going down over one of the valleys. I don't want my headstone to say, ‘She Was Right'. Will you check it again or do I have to become a mechanic and fix it myself?"

"I've forgotten more about those birds than you'll ever know. What I know didn't all come from school."

"I hope what you've forgotten isn't what you need to fix that chopper."

"All right, Little Lady. I'll check it again, but I think it's all in your head."

Little Lady? Jeanine opened her mouth to say something, then closed it. I'm not wasting any more time on him. He said he'd check it again. I'll quit while I'm ahead.




"Kindred Spirits"

Early afternoon Alana Duke glared at the dashboard clock and maneuvered her Hyndai in front of a cab stopped at the curb in front of the arrival section of the Philadelphia International Airport. She turned off the motor, took a deep breath, then got out of the car. She barely noticed the snowflakes drifting down and the light covering already on the ground.

Rush hour," she muttered. Whoever used that name for snail-pace traffic had a mean sense of humor. She took a deep breath. "Yvette has to get her luggage so she won't be ready yet, anyway." Alana sighed as a security guard approached her. "I'll only be a couple of minutes, I swear," she explained to him. "I'm going just inside the door."

She pulled out her driver's license to show him who she was and hoped that would persuade him to let her leave her car. He stared from the badges to her, scanned her face, then moved his attention back to the license. Much longer and Yvette will be out here and I won't have to beg him.

I'm a reporter." She glanced inside the building once more before pulling out her newspaper ID. "Maybe this will help. A few minutes, that's all I need." He stared at the ID for a while longer and then back at her before he spoke. "That's all I can give you." He pointed a good distance away to the sign marking the beginning of Terminal B. "When I come back this way, if you're still here, I'll have to ticket you." He shrugged. "I still might get into trouble for this."

"Thanks," Alana flung over her shoulder as she hurried to the doors that swished open. She started into the terminal, then went back to the car. Snowflakes, no longer timid, marched down before finding a place to land. It was becoming harder for them to find a space not already taken. Alana barely noticed.

She unlocked the car door, grabbed the heavy jacket from the passenger side and ran back to the terminal, ignoring the white spots forming on her and the ground.

Once inside, she eased between groups standing as if waiting for something to begin, and scanned the crowd for her sister. Had every plane decided to arrive at the same time?

Finally she found a small clearing, stood on tiptoe and slowly looked around again.

"Yvette." She waved at what seemed to be a familiar figure, hiked her purse back up on her shoulder, shifted the jacket to her other arm and ran toward Baggage Carousel A. Suddenly she hit a puddle and slid as if on a surfboard. She tried to keep her purse in place, the jacket from falling into the water and herself upright.

Just as she resigned herself to a sprained wrist, scrapped knees and being covered with the dirty, cold water pooled around her, a pair of strong hands grabbed her.

"Careful," a deep voice said in her ear as she was clasped against a chest that felt like a wall ; a comforting, living wall;

"Sorry, I...." Alana said.

"Hey, Big Sis." Alana turned and smiled as Yvette stopped a few feet in front of her. In spite of the puddles, Yvette let her luggage drop to the floor. The two young women closed the space between them and wrapped their arms around each other. Finally they allowed space between them again.

"I saw your antics. Some people will go to extremes to make some space around them." She frowned. "You are all right, aren't you?"

"Yeah." Alana smiled and turned around. "Thanks. You saved.…" Her words faded as her gaze met an empty space. She looked around and frowned. "Where did he go?"

Yvette looked around also. "If he wasn't already wearing street clothes, I'd say to find a phone booth so he could change clothes." She shrugged and looked back at Alana. "What happened anyway?"

"I discovered that cars aren't the only things that can hydroplane." She looked around again. "You didn't see where he went, did you? I didn't have a chance to thank him."

"All I saw was a glimpse of his back." Yvette wiggled her eyebrows. "A broad, solid-looking back." She released an exaggerated sigh. "Made me wish I had seen him from the front. As Mama says, 'Mercy'. Did his face live up to my expectations?"

"You haven't changed a bit."

"Thank you."

"That wasn't a compliment."

"Sure it was. Did it?"

"Did what?"

"How did he look?"

"I don't know. I didn't see his face."

"How could you not see his face?"

"I was busy trying not to embarrass myself and add to my dry cleaning bill. I felt him hold me and then you came over."

"That's right. Blame me for your missed opportunity." Alana glanced around as Yvette continued. "I'm sure he realizes that you appreciate not having filthy water all over your suit." She sighed. "It's just as well he's gone. Sisters fighting over a man would not be a pretty sight. You would be a story instead of writing one." She frowned. "Where's your coat? Don't you know it's winter?"

"Not officially for another few days. Come on." Alana hurried through the crowd.




"Escape to Love"

...Angela walked down the hall. The light was on in Mr. Hunter's office, but that wasn't unusual.He often had late meetings, although Angela didn't understand why running a beer distributorship wasso complicated. She shrugged. He was the boss and it wasn't any of her business. Her job was to run theoffice.

She grabbed the disk, slipped it into her bag, and went to wait for an elevator. She smiled whenthe light came on over first one and then another right after.

"Nick must be making his rounds." Her smile widened. "At least I'll be gone before he can teaseme about the building owner charging me rent for living here."

She thought about the elderly security guard as the elevator doors slid open and she steppedinside.

Nick had been working here when she started four years ago. He was the grandfather she neverhad and often kept her mind from the fact that she had no family.

The doors opened on the first floor, but Angela didn't get out. Instead she groaned and leanedagainst the wall. If it was true that people get more forgetful as they get older, in about ten years;at the ripe old age of thirty-six; she wouldn't be able to remember her own name.

She thought for about ten seconds then pushed the button to take her back up. That other folderwouldn't do her any good on her desk. She needed it so she could finish her paper this weekend.

Angry voices, hurled from Mr. Hunter's office, reached her while she was still halfway down thehall. Sounds separated into words as she got closer to the private door that allowed him to leave withoutgoing through the reception area where her desk stood. She walked closer.

"How did you think you could get away with something like this? Did you think Mr. Franks wouldn'tfind out? You think he's stupid or something?"

"No. No. I-I just ran into a bind. I'll pay it back, I swear. Every penny of it. I'm good for it.I just need a little time."

"Mr. Franks, he said he can't trust you no more."

"Look. Let me talk to him. Okay? It won't take long. Just let me talk to him."

"Mr. Franks said not to bother him with this no more. He said he's through with it."The air waited for Mr. Hunter to take his turn talking, but he didn't make a sound."Sorry," the man continued. "Nothing personal. You know how it is. I got a job to do."

Angela hesitated. This wasn't the first time that heated words had spewed from Mr.Hunter's office. One time, during a particularly loud argument, she went in to see if he wasall right. He yelled at her and told her to go back to her work. Her feet felt as if they weremoving through thick mud.

She could see Mr. Hunter through the partly opened door. He took a step backward.She watched as the other man came into view; toward Mr. Hunter. She had never seen him before. A chillrippled through her, but she shook it off. It must be okay for him to be here. Nick wouldn't have lethim in unless Mr. Hunter had said it was all right, would he?

All she wanted was to get her work from her desk and leave. That's what she should do;get the folder and leave. Still she stood, as if riveted in place, watching a play and she had tosee what would happen next.

Just get the folder and leave. Get it and get out of here.

She didn't. Another shiver rippled through her. Monday she'd look for another job.

Something wasn't right here. She had kind of felt it for a while, but the work wasn't hardand there wasn't much of it and the pay was good, so she had ignored her instincts. Now shecould no longer convince herself that everything was okay.

She watched as the man reached into his pocket. He took a step toward Mr. Hunter. Whenhis hand came out with a gun, Angela couldn't move. Mr. Hunter's words kept coming, but Angeladidn't know what he said. All of her concentration was focused on the other man's hand. She stayedin place as he fastened something onto the gun barrel.

Three soft thuds bursting through the narrow opening of the door freed her from her spot.She drew in a hard, loud breath and backed away from the door, slowly at first. Then she turned and ran;knowing her sneaks let her run fast, but knowing that sneaks didn't really let you sneak.

Mr. Hunter's door crashed open against the wall but Angela didn't turn around.

"Hey. Wait a minute." The man's words flew at her and pushed her to go faster. A thudchipped the plaster from a spot on the wall as she turned the corner and ran into the hallwayleading to the elevators.

"Come back here. Let's talk about this." His voice followed her. The anger was hidingunder his words, but she heard it.

Angela dashed the short distance and into the open elevator. She fastened herself tothe side, wishing she were smaller. She pressed the 'Close Door' button and continued to push iteven as the doors obeyed her. A thud smacked through the door and a small hole appeared in it andthe back wall just as the elevator started down.

The man's shouts reached her as the elevator took her away from him. The last thing sheheard was a string of curse words.

"Hurry, hurry," she urged the elevator as if her words would make it go faster.

The elevator stopped on the first floor and she squeezed through the doors before theyfully opened. Nick would help her. She dashed toward his desk. He had a gun. The chair stared at her.

"Nick. Where are you?" Angela walked forward a few more inches as if, if she got closer,he would magically appear. She stopped when she saw a trickle of red oozing across the floor, comingfrom behind the desk. The hum of the other elevator slipped into the air.

Angela glanced at the front door, which suddenly seemed miles away. The outside worldlooked tantalizing close, but she didn't have time to go behind the desk, buzz the door open andget out before the elevator finished its trip. Even if she did, where would she go? It was too farto the corner and this section of center city Philadelphia was deserted at night. The creaks and humof the elevator grew louder.

She ran away from the desk, around the corner and down the hallway. She was near the nextcorner when the sound of the elevator door opening shoved into her running pushing her to go faster.

She pulled at the first door. Locked. She ran to another. The same. The back exit was toofar away and the hallway was too straight. And every door was locked. She shivered as she prayed.

"No sense running." Hard words stabbed into the air. "Ain't nobody here but us, but yousaw that didn't you?" He was still around the corner, but his voice was getting close, looking for her.

"Look. I know Tim Hunter didn't pay you nothing much. How ‘bout we make a deal? I know wecan work something out."

I can imagine what kind of a deal he has in mind.

She hesitated, but not to consider his offer. Then she ran a few more steps down the halland pulled the fire alarm.

Bells blared, but they didn't drown out the man's curses or his running footsteps comingtoward her. He was still around the corner, but not for long. A few more seconds and....

She turned the doorknob of the janitor's closet and almost fell over when it opened.She gave thanks as she darted inside. Bless Jesse for not locking it. She eased it shut behindher and ran her hand along, first below, then above the knob. No bolt. She knew there was nological reason for putting a bolt on the inside of a closet door, but she wished somebody hadbeen illogical just this once.

She stood still, barely breathing, afraid to move; afraid of bumping into something inthe dark. The footsteps slowed outside the door. Angela slowly wrapped her hand around the knoband pulled it toward her, trying to do an imitation of a bolt. She closed her eyes and prayed thatshe was doing a good job.

Sirens wailed closer and closer. One more string of curses hurled from the man, thenfootsteps ran away from outside the closet door and faded toward the back of the building.Still Angela stood where she was; afraid to breathe deeply; afraid he'd come back; afraid.

The sound of shattering glass filled the air outside her space. The mix of many voicesand weighty footsteps reached her.

She took a deep, wobbly breath, gave another silent prayer, and dared to leave her sanctuary.




"To Love Again"

(After Cindy and Marc decided to pretend to be involved so their mothers will leave them alone.)

"Hi, Cindy." His soft, deep words tugged at her insides. His words, coupled with the way he looked in his olive green sports shirt and dark green pants, were devastating. Cindy fought the chaos running rampant through her.

"I know this isn't my house, but come on into the living room," Helen said when neither one ofthe young people moved.

Helen and Jean watched as Marc eased Cindy to him and kissed her on the cheek. Cindy stood as if the area rug under her feet had changed into a pool of quick-drying cement. She never heard Helen or Jean gasp and then sigh. If Marc hadn't wrapped his hand around her shoulder and squeezed, she might still have been there when it was time to go open the store on Monday morning. Of course, the feeling coursing through her at the warmth coming from him and spreading through her where their sides touched, didn't make her think about going to work. Visions of another setting swayed in her mind.

"Let me help you in the kitchen." Marc smiled and she felt herself getting more lost.

He should have saved that smile for when we're alone. She smiled back, then frowned and blinked. Pretend. This is all pretend; a play for our mothers. She tried to convince herself of that. Her frown deepened. Then why does it feel so real? She tried to take a step away from him, but his hand on her arm tightened. She sighed. She really didn't want to move away from him, anyway.




"Trust in Me"

Avery turned the corner of the building and stopped. That must be her. He looked at the young woman sitting on the top step, but he couldn't see her face. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her middle as if she was in pain. She was staring at the ground as if she found something interesting there to look at. At least she's on time. Score one for her.

He walked toward her. Her head jerked up as she heard him. She looked his way and scrambled to her feet. "I'm Avery Washington." He held out his hand.

She brushed hers down the side of her slacks and reached a hand to him. It got lost in his. He saw her swallow hard. That didn't fit with the assurance her stylish suit should have given her. He frowned again and she swallowed hard again.

"I-I'm Linda Durard. Marian Green told me you might have a job for me."

"Let's go inside." Avery unlocked the door and stepped inside. He caught a whiff of gardenias as she passed by him. If she needs a job so badly, how could she afford perfume that would take a big chunk of the salary I can afford to pay? He frowned. Which designer perfume uses gardenias as the dominant scent?

In his other life he used to know things like that. The fashionable women who liked to hang around professional athletes always wore the latest, most expensive scents. One whiff was all he used to need to identify the perfumes and often the regular who wore it. He shook his head. Things like that used to be important to him, but that was a world ago; back before he got his priorities straight. What kind of priorities did this woman have?

"This way." His glare slid off her. May as well get this over with quickly so he could get to his work. Why had he let Marian talk him into this?

Linda followed him down the hall as he turned on lights along the way. It wasn't cold, but she shivered. His look said she was wasting her time even coming inside. Why had he changed his mind? What had she done wrong? They hadn't even talked about her skills and qualifications, yet. All she did was introduce herself. He didn't know anything about her except what Marian had told him. What had changed his mind?

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I just have to make him change it back. I have to have this job. The center needed her. All she had to do was convince him of that.

"In here." Avery unlocked the door to his office and opened it. Linda stepped passed him. This time she didn't look at him. She didn't want to see the look that said she may as well save her time and breath and go home.




(Home)