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A “Cowboy” Moment

Excerpt from “Cowboy” by Staci Stallings…

Fatigue hit Ashton hard as he pulled up next to the small establishment winking an OPEN sign. For the first ten seconds after he killed the engine, he considered simply calling Meredith and asking her to come get him. But as he sat and the quiet came around him, the thought that he didn’t want to have to deal with her—or anyone else ran through him. For a few more minutes, he just wanted to be alone, and this looked like as good a place to do that as any. He glanced out the window to the light shining from the plate glass door out into the darkness. Warm. Somehow it looked so warm, and he felt so very cold.

It took everything he had to get the car door open. His head hurt, his eyes hurt, his body hurt. Everything hurt. Maybe he should call Meredith, he thought as he stepped out and right into the middle of an ice-cold rainwater puddle. With a jerk he yanked his foot out, but the muddy water seeped through the holes in his shoe just the same. Trying not to feel the chill oozing through the fabric of his sock, he pulled himself out of the car, making sure to miss the puddle the second time. Once standing, he started slowly across the puddle-strewn lot for the door. However, the wind whipped the icy droplets of rain seemingly right through him. When they found his all-but unprotected body and his neck, all thoughts other than getting inside vanished. In a dead run, he crossed the lot and stumbled inside.

“Nice night,” the waitress at the counter said.

Ashton brushed the cold ice water drops off his shirt and shivered. “I’d hate to see a bad one.” He stomped his feet on the ground, sending mud and water scattering in little fans on the mat and across the hard tile floor.

She grabbed a menu. “One?”

It took a moment to process the question as he brushed at his cap and neck. “Oh, uh, yeah,” he said, glancing up. “One.”

“Right this way.”

Without question he followed her across the diner to a corner booth. He reached up and repositioned the cap on his head, cupping the bill of it in one hand.

She stopped at the back booth cornered by a wall and a window. “This okay?”

“Fine.” He slid into the seat.

With a smile he barely saw, she laid the menu on the table. “I’ll bring you some water.”

“All right.” When she stepped away, he squeezed his eyes closed to shut out the fatigue flooding over him and shivered again. “Tell you what…”

She stopped short and turned back.

He forced his eyes open as he ran his hands down his now-wet jeans. “Just bring me some coffee.”

This smile at least made it to her face. “Coffee it is.”

He looked down at the menu under his fingertips. Although it had been several hours since he’d eaten anything, eating right now just didn’t seem appealing. He tilted his head to one side and then the other, trying to work out the kinks that were going nowhere.

“Here you go.” With a small clink, she set the coffee cup in front of him and filled it.

Gratefully, he glanced up. “Thanks.” But before his gaze managed to get to hers, the pain slashed through him again and pulled his gaze down lest she see.

For one second and then two she stood there. “I’ll take your order when you’re ready. Let me know.”

“Oh, okay.” His hands found the warmth of the cup. It felt wonderful. He didn’t really know how, but he knew she had walked away. Slowly he lifted the cup and took a sip. It was the most wonderful thing he’d ever tasted in his life.

Beth watched him from her perch at the counter. Something about him gripped the middle of her soul. Maybe it was the slump of his shoulders as he bent over the cup, or maybe it was the ache on his face. Whatever it was, her gut told her that he was in trouble. Big trouble.

Sitting in this diner so far away from everything he had come to know was like sitting outside his body and looking in, and for the most part, Ashton didn’t like anything he saw. It wasn’t the clothes—it was the shell of the man inside them. Being here felt so familiar. He’d been in many all-night diners driving back from gigs in far away towns.

He let his mind drift back to those days when playing for a couple hundred people was a good night, when making enough money to get the band to the next stop was a major accomplishment. Slowly his mind traced back through the band. Greg, James, Evan. All friends he’d somehow lost track of during his climb to the top. All friends he’d sat with in places just like this one, dreaming of living the life he now found himself in. But dreaming about this life now seemed totally absurd. It was more like a nightmare.

“Refill?” she asked, materializing in the front of the table.

He looked up into her smiling face and pushed the cup over to her. “Sure.”

She refilled it without ever losing the smile. “You ready to order?”

“Oh umm… I’m not really hungry.” He reached down and raked one hand down the side of his jeans. Then he glanced up into her smiling blue eyes, and all motion stopped.

“That’s okay,” she said softly. “Enjoy your coffee.”

“T-thanks,” he said, and she retreated back to her seat at the counter.

In a way it was odd, he thought as he dragged his attention back to the coffee cup, sitting here in what could at least pass as being in public—and not being mobbed or even asked for an autograph. Anymore he couldn’t go anywhere without constant chaos surrounding him.  Everyone wanted autographs. Everyone.

He remembered the first autograph he’d ever signed. It was at one of the broken down bars he’d played so long ago he no longer remembered its name. The young girl had sat in the front row clapping and cheering after every song. After the second set, she’d come up and asked him for his autograph. It had been the first of many. His mind drifted back to that minute as the present ceded control to the past.

“My autograph?” he’d asked in disbelief never seriously thinking anyone would want his name on a piece of paper. “What for?”

Her soft, satiny face framed a smile that melted his heart. “That way when you become a big star, I can say I knew you when.”

In the present he smiled at that. He hadn’t thought of that conversation in a very long time.

“Oh, well, okay,” he had said as professionally as he knew how at the time. “Who should I make this to?”

“Just make it to Sharon.”

His heart filled with the memory, and before he could stop them, the tears in his heart were on his lashes. He swallowed and knotted his forehead to keep them from falling. She was so beautiful. He could see her standing there in the dim bar light. Right from the start she’d been his biggest fan—never wavering in her belief in him or his music. She had been with him every step of the way, and now she was gone, and he would never hear her voice or smell her perfume or see her smile or feel her touch again. Like a tidal wave the pain washed over him.

“’Nother refill?” the voice standing above him asked, and he looked at her before he thought better of it.

Beth saw the tears and the crushed, pain-filled look instantly.

“Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” she asked as concern for this tattered stranger traced through her. “Maybe there’s someone I can call, or…”

But he just shook his head and tried to smile. “No.” He looked back down at his empty coffee cup. “I’m all right.”

With pursed lips, she refilled his cup and set it down in front of him. “I’ll be right back.”

And she disappeared again. Ashton squeezed his eyes closed to stop the tears, but there were too many, and they had been held back for too long. Slowly, his head bent over the steaming cup in front of him, and he gave up. How could he ever have known that night as he’d looked at Sharon the first time how quickly it would all end? How could he ever have seen how much the top resembles the bottom when you have no one to share it with?

It was true, he had people around him 24 hours a day, and yet he had never been so lonely in his life. Suddenly the rain-soaked accident scene began to look rather good compared with going back and facing the emptiness his life had become. Barry and his checklists, Meredith and her constant demands. They said they cared, but they really didn’t. They would be gone in a flash if anything ever happened to him.

He’d had only one true friend in his life, and now she was gone.

“Here,” the waitress said, suddenly standing at the edge of his table again. When he looked up, confusion overtook everything else. With a twist of the plate in her hand, she set it down in front of him. “I know you said you weren’t hungry, but I think it would be good if you just had something to eat.”

His gaze fell to it. “But…”

“It’s okay,” she said with a smile. “Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me.”

“But…” he began again looking through the blur of tears at her and then to the scrambled eggs, sausage and toast now lying before him.

“No, buts. Now, eat.” She pointed to the food. “I’ll get you some more coffee.”

In utter disbelief and confusion, he watched her walk back to the counter.

Beth couldn’t explain it exactly, but she wanted to do something for this poor, lost soul who had stumbled in from the rain looking for a warm cup of coffee and a place to cry. She’d been there. Running, climbing the invisible railing between life and death, wanting only for the pain to end. It was no place to be. She smiled when she got back to the table. “Here you go.”

He looked at her as if she might disappear if he blinked. “You really don’t have to do this, you know.”

Her gentle laugh jumped from her heart. “It’s okay. You look like you need a good meal… and maybe somebody to talk to?”

He ducked his head as she picked up his cup and refilled it.

“So, there’s your meal,” she continued never losing the softness in her voice, “and if you need somebody to listen, I’m here.”

Carefully she set the cup on the table and looked at him, waiting for some sign that he wanted to come back over the railing, but he didn’t move. Then in a breath he looked up from the table and right into her eyes. The deep brown of his eyes held only pools of pure anguish.

Ashton knew the second their gazes met that he should look away or she would know everything, but for some reason he couldn’t. His brain scrambled trying to remember the last time anyone had looked at him like that. Offering only and not expecting anything in return.

“Well,” she said softly, “I just thought I’d offer.”

“Oh.” His senses crashed back to him. “I’m… I’m sorry. Where’re my manners? Please, have a seat.”

She hesitated.

“Please,” he repeated, indicating the other side of the booth.

After only a second more, she slid gracefully into the other side and set the coffee pot down between them. “All right.”

He watched her intently, knowing in his heart she must be some kind of apparition that was going to disappear if he took his gaze off of her again.

She smiled at him and pointed to the plate he had forgotten. “Your eggs are getting cold.”

He looked down to where she was pointing and laughed. “Oh, yeah.” He glanced back across the table to make sure she was still there and then picked up his fork and stabbed it into the one mound of eggs. The first three forkfuls were in his mouth before he had a chance to think again. He was starving, and he hadn’t even realized it.

“So, you work the graveyard shift?” he asked between bites as she sat on her side folding and unfolding the edge of a napkin between her finger and her thumb.

“No, I’m mostly a day girl,” she said off-handedly, “but Harry needed help tonight, so I came in.”

“That’s nice of you.” He stabbed another forkful of eggs. “With the rain and all, I mean.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, well we’ve had a couple of waitresses out this week with this and that, so I fill in when I can.”

He nodded as he took a bite of sausage. As he chewed, the air began to return to his lungs.

“So, what brings you out on a night like this?” she asked, treading on each word carefully.

The memory of his flight from the arena played back in his mind, and Ashton forced himself to swallow the sausage. He took a long drink of coffee to wash it down. “I was just out driving.” Appetite gone, he stared at the plate in front of him. “I just kinda ended up here.”

She nodded, and the wave of a curl at her temple swayed. “I’ve been there before. Sometimes the best thing to do is get away—to clear your head so you can think straight again.”

“Yeah,” he said, staring at the eggs without really seeing them.

“You’re not from around here. Are you?” she asked, surveying him for mere moments at a time.

“No.” He didn’t look up. “I’m originally from Montana, but right now…” He stabbed into the eggs just to have something to do. “Well, I’m pretty much here and there these days.”

The napkin edge crinkled under her fingers. “You been driving long?”

“Too long,” he said, thinking of the hours upon hours he’d spent on that road. City after city until he wasn’t even sure which city he was in anymore.

“Must be hard being out there all alone.”

He nodded and forced himself to swallow another bite of eggs as she watched. “Yeah. Sometimes it feels like the road’s the only home I have anymore,” he said as much to himself as to her.

“It can get that way.” Her gaze never moved from him. He felt it although his gaze was on the plate in front of him. “When my husband died, all I wanted to do was run.”

When he looked up, he found himself staring at the part in her hair. For a moment she let that statement settle, then she looked across the diner and then back at him. The sadness in her gaze washed over him.

She smiled obviously forcing the words out. “And I did for awhile—run, I mean. I ran—just packed up and took off. I wasn’t really thinking, you know? All I knew was I had to get away from the pain.” Her gaze drifted over to the counter as her face scrunched on the memories. “But the road can be a weird place when you’re running from something. The harder I tried to run, the more the pain followed me. It followed me all the way to Miami.” She raked in air, then forced it down her throat and held his gaze. “That’s where I found myself sitting in a hotel room thinking I’d just be better off if I ended it all right there.”

At that moment he knew she was an angel, and he couldn’t have torn his gaze from her face if the sky had fallen at his feet.

However, the admission sent her gaze skittering. “I kept telling myself it was the only way, that I just couldn’t run anymore. I was tired of running, and I was tired of hurting. In fact, you know… I was just plain tired.” The story seemed to lose steam in the memories.

He nodded as he gazed across the table. Tired. It was a feeling he had come to know very well in the past few months.

She reached up and scratched the back of her neck just under the fall of loose curls that started at her head and cascaded down the sides of her face. “I was sitting there getting ready to end it all, and….” Her monologue drifted into silence, and the fight it was taking to get the words out was clear.

He shook his head searching her countenance trying desperately to figure out where this was going.

Then, with the smallest of laughs her gaze found his again. “A maid came in.”

“A maid?” he asked as his eyebrows knitted in confusion.

“Yeah.” She laughed, louder this time. “She was there to change the sheets or something, but I’ll tell you what, she took one look at me and forgot all about those sheets. She didn’t know me. We’d never even met before, but I know for a fact she saved my life that day. She showed me that running doesn’t help, and neither will killing yourself.”

“Yeah?” he asked sarcastically as he repositioned himself in the booth. “Then what does?”

Her eyes turned to soft orbs of gentleness. “Letting other people help you through it.”

The burden of fatigue and heartbreak he’d been carrying for months pulled his gaze to the table just as the bells at the door jingled. Although he never looked up, he heard her slide from the booth.

“Finish your breakfast.” She pointed to his plate. “If you need someone to listen, all you have to do is ask.”

And with that she left his booth to go help the other customers.

Let others help, he thought sarcastically. Yeah, right.

He couldn’t trust anyone with this pain.  He couldn’t let them in. Besides, they didn’t want to listen—not really. They wanted him to say everything was fine and keep going as though nothing in the world had happened. They wanted him to be Ashton Raines, superstar, and as far as what happened to the real Ashton Raines, they couldn’t care less.

Loneliness descended on him again, and his whole body slumped toward the table with the weight of it. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep himself upright. All he wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep forever.

If he could just think of one friend. One real person he could call, one real person he could talk to.

“If you need someone to listen, I’m here,” he heard her words again in the depths of his soul, and he looked up to see if she was actually standing there. But she was across the restaurant helping someone else.

“I can’t tell her.” He shook his head and clutched the top of his cap, rolling it down around his face at the absurdity of the very thought. “I don’t even know her.”

Then his gaze lit on the all-but empty plate in front of him. She had given him a meal and asked for nothing in return. She had shared a piece of her heart with him and expected nothing. It was by far the greatest act of kindness he’d experienced in a long time. He looked down at the empty coffee cup, closed his eyes, and raised it off the table. “Miss, could I get a refill?”

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A “Deep In the Heart” Moment

An excerpt from Staci Stallings’ “Deep in the Heart”

“And now you’d better get that car moved before Jeffrey has a cardiac.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Something told her she would be saying that a lot now. Pleading with her heels to cooperate long enough to get her back to the car and then back here, Maggie hurried out. The early afternoon Texas sun beat down on the outside surroundings. After having been in the comfort of the mansion’s air conditioning, the combination of humidity and heat hit Maggie like two fists.

She got in the car and took her first real breath. “Oh, thank You, Jesus.” Except for the unceremonious stumble into the hired hand, the interview had gone as well as she could’ve hoped for. “Ugh. How clumsy can you be, Maggie? That was a good one.” Forcing herself not to think about it, she pumped the accelerator and twisted the key to get the little car started. Then she carefully backed up so she could go down the back drive as Mrs. Ayer had instructed.

With a frustrated swipe, Maggie pushed the trail of loose strands of hair from her face and then blew them back up when they didn’t stay. Carefully she drove around the house, which was enormous no matter which angle it was seen from. Her heart pounded in her ears as the car slipped into the grove of hulking trees. Trees seemed to be everywhere. Somehow she had expected them to dissipate beyond the mansion, but if anything, they got more massive and thicker the farther she drove.

“Did she say right or left?” Intensely Maggie scanned the areas on either side of the driveway that had narrowed to a trail. “This is great. I get lost on my first day.”

Then just ahead, off to the right, through the knot of trees, she caught sight of the place. When she got closer, Maggie sucked in a gasp of air. If this was the guesthouse, they certainly treated their guests very, very well. Sporting orange-tan brick with blue-gray accents, the house had a bevy of inlets and cutouts. There were enormous windows, and wraparound accents at the corners, and an inlet door that looked like it alone cost the half the national debt. “Wow.”

Wide-eyed in awe but trying to keep her mind on her present mission, Maggie surveyed the small hill of a lawn, the flowerbeds, and every inlet for some clue as to where she was supposed to park. She turned her gaze up the trail. Surely there was a garage somewhere. “Oh, Jesus. Help.” The trail dovetailed with a small perpendicular drive just beyond the house, and carefully she turned there, hoping maybe this was right. In fact, there was a garage, but the moment she pulled up to it, she had second thoughts. What if someone needed in or out of that garage? If she was parked in the way, that would be a problem.

Twisting her mouth as she tried to find an answer to this dilemma, her heart jumped into her throat when her gaze caught movement in her driver’s side mirror. Fear jerked her head around just in time for her to see the hired hand with the blue bandana sticking out from under the ratty cowboy hat come striding up the side of her car. For a moment she felt better, but it was only for a moment because the reality of being out here alone with no knowledge of the terrain if trouble struck with a guy who felt like the Rock of Gibraltar did nothing to calm her nerves.

She swallowed hard. Very cautiously she reached up and locked her door, praying the others were already locked.

“Hey,” he said when he got to her window. His easy smile spread across his face as she rolled down her window just far enough not to be rude. “Fancy meeting you here.”

It was impossible not to notice his biceps, which looked like massive tree trunks streaming down from the ripped-off sleeves of his denim shirt. In a fight, she would lose without him even trying.

“Hi.” Panic smashed into her, and her lungs constricted around it. “Umm… Mrs. Ayer said I could park here, but I’m not sure where she meant.” Anxiety had never meant what it did at that moment.

“Oh, she did. Did she? Well, that figures.” He laughed, which threw her incomprehension devices into full-throttle. “Na. It’s okay. Swing around back here. We can put it in the barn.”

Maggie nodded although no real signals were getting to her brain. She rolled up the window and backed onto the driveway so she could follow him down the increasingly narrow trail. From behind, he was all denim, save for the bent, straw cowboy hat and those arms. “Oh, dear God, I don’t know about this. Please tell me if I should be doing this.” But as far as she could tell, God was not giving her any other options.

At the end of the drive, mercifully, the trees broke their hold on the surroundings, and she drove out into a clearing and down a gravel road over to the building he had called a barn, but like everything else here, ‘barn’ didn’t quite do it justice. He swung the two doors open and stepped back so she could drive in.

Crossing from outside to in, the darkness enveloped her eyes so that it took her longer than it would’ve seemed necessary to make it safely into the building. Once inside, she shoved the car into park and then had to corral her fear to gather enough courage to open the door. “Oh, God, be with me. I’m asking here.” Busying herself, lest he see just how scared she was, Maggie got out, went to the back, and unlocked the trunk. With a heave she pulled her lone suitcase out, praying it wouldn’t fall apart at her feet.

“Oh, here. Let me get that for you.” He reached out for it even as he stood at the door that stood open.

“No. I can get it.” She tried to swing it out of his reach, but with a soft smile and a wink he took it anyway.

“It’s half a mile back to the house,” he said. “In this heat you’ll be French fried by the time you carry this thing all the way back.”

Her heart was beating so loudly, her brain didn’t have a chance to put up a logical argument, so she nodded, ducked her head, and stepped past him. The bright sunshine beyond the door attacked her eyes, and she squinted as he closed the barn door behind them. Everything in her wanted to take that suitcase back and run, but barring humiliating herself against his strength again, she saw no way to do that. The gravel at her feet was playing havoc with her heels, and she fought to keep her balance and stay up with his strides as they started up the incline to the guesthouse.

He wasn’t tall exactly. Maybe a couple inches taller than her but no more than that. But the solidity of everything about him swept the air from her lungs just the same.

“So, you work here?” she asked, willing her voice to stay steady even as her shoes threatened to pitch her into the sharp white rocks at her feet just as they had pitched her into him at the mansion. The thought made her ears burn.

“Yeah. As little as possible.” There was that smile again, and if she hadn’t been so nervous, it might have had a chance to do serious work on her insides. “I run the stable operation up the way.”

“Stable?” Her brain was having trouble processing anything.

“Horses.”

“Oh.”

They made it back up to the trees, and uneasiness pushed into her consciousness again. She looked around, and the trees seemed thicker now, closing in on her, blocking all escape routes.

“I hear you’re gonna be on the pay roll too,” he said.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am.”

“Well, you must be downright impressive. Most of the time they won’t let anyone within shooting distance of this place that doesn’t have security clearance from the Pentagon.”

They had made it to the main road and headed back to the mansion. Crossing in front of it now, the guesthouse was even more impressive going by slowly—if that was possible. Maggie fought not to gawk at it, but it wasn’t easy. “I passed my background check, and I had a personal reference from the Dean of Early Childhood Development at A&M Kingsville.” She sounded like she was defending herself, and she hated that.

“Impressive.” And he actually sounded impressed. “So, you’re from Kingsville then?”

“Del Rio.” Her heel picked that moment to twist out from under her. “Ugh.” Thankfully, she caught her own balance this time, but it was a close save. “These stupid shoes.”

Skeptically he surveyed her feet. “They don’t make walking look all that easy or that safe.”

“Tell me about it.” She continued walking although he had slowed down in deference to her struggle.

Shaking his head, he pressed his lips together in earnest concern. “Why don’t you take them off? You’re gonna kill yourself on that last quarter up the hill.”

“Oh, yeah. Like I’m going to walk into the Ayer mansion barefoot. That should make a really great first impression.” Sarcasm dripped from her spirit. Who would even make such a dumb suggestion?

He glanced behind them. “Well, nobody comes down this road but me. They ain’t gonna see you anyway, and besides, I’ll warn you before we get too close.”

Maggie still wasn’t so sure, but her ankles were starting to protest rather loudly. “Okay, fine.” She reached down for one shoe but had to scoot her other foot around to keep her balance. She reached out for something solid and met his arm coming the other way.

Smooth skin under her palm ripped sanity away from her. How in the world had she gotten here? Sweat beaded out of her back, and she was quite sure it had nothing to do with the humidity. Quickly she removed first one shoe and then the other. When they were off and she was once again on solid footing, she had to admit it was a good idea, even if her breathing was no longer working properly.

“You got it?” he asked, eyeing her seriously.

“Yeah.” She forced a knot of a smile on her face and started walking. The pavement would’ve been burning hot had it not been shaded by the millions of leaves above them. Just then a breeze swept through the branches and right over them. “Ah.” The sigh of relief was automatic.

“So, you’re an early childhood education major?” he asked as they made their way back up the road. It didn’t take long to understand what he meant about that last quarter of a hill. If it was any steeper than this part, she was in trouble.

“Yeah. I graduated in December. This is the first permanent thing I found.”

“Well, we’re glad to have you. I’m sure Pete and Izzy will keep you on your toes.”

The question of how familiar he seemed in referring to the children traced through her, but before she could voice that thought, he looked at her, and that scattered her thoughts like the pieces of a shattering window.

“So, are you up for the 24-hour thing? Most people hear that and go running for the exits.”

She shrugged, and it took a solid breath to beat the sadness in her chest down. “I like the idea of having a roof over my head. It’s worth a little work to have that.”

He nodded, head down, concentrating on walking. When she looked over at him, she fought not to notice how rugged and tanned his face was. In fact, with that face and that body, he looked like he belonged nowhere else other than out in nature, taming some wild beast. His whiskers were more than a five o’clock shadow. They were a dark emphasis to the sheer masculinity of the rest of him. With a glance he caught her looking at him and smiled. Lines of amusement appeared on either side of his face. “What?”

“Oh. Nothing.” She ripped her gaze away from him. “I just hope I don’t do anything to mess this up.”

When he looked at her again, the smile that was already beginning to get to her was a soft and encouraging. “I think you’ll be just fine.”

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A “Coming Undone” Moment

An excerpt from Coming Undone…

Ragged.  That was a good word to describe Dr. Warren’s “family.”  It wasn’t a family.  Just one guy, and Kathryn wished she had thought to ask a few more questions.  As they walked down the hall, Dr. Vitter in front, her in the middle, and the guy behind her, she sank into prayer because that was all she could think to do.  God had better show up for this one because she was definitely out of her league.  He looked just barely this side of death himself.

In the office, Dr. Vitter motioned toward the little couch on the far wall, and Kathryn accepted his invitation.  When she was seated, she watched Mr. Warren sit on the other side, gaze down, looking like he might fall off the earth if someone didn’t hold onto him.  She smiled softly, hoping her compassion was evident and not condescending.  It was then that she realized Dr. Vitter was not planning to stay.

“Take as long as you need,” he said, and with that, he turned and hustled out, closing the door behind him.

Oh, help, God! her heart screamed into the abyss where she was now staring.  She looked over at the guy who looked positively ripped to pieces.  Where to start and how?  Words failed her. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your first name.”

When he looked up, his blue-green eyes were filled with a pleading for her to do something, anything someone hadn’t already thought of.  “Uh, Ben.  Ben Warren.”

She nodded, wishing she could do or say something to take away the immense pain in his distraught eyes.  “Mr. Warren…”

“Please, call me Ben,” he said with the saddest of smiles.

“Ben,” she said softly, “I’m sorry about what’s happened.”  The words stopped because compassion choked the rest from her chest.  She had learned not to force herself to keep talking in such situations.  Time was a stabilizer that rushing simply couldn’t match.  “Dr. Vitter said you’re considering hospice care for your father.”

Ben’s dark eyebrows arched in slight sarcasm.  “I guess.”  He exhaled and put his elbows on his knees and his hands to his mouth.  “I don’t really know what I’m doing to be honest with you.  All of this… stuff is totally new to me.  I don’t know what’s best.  I don’t even know what’s worst at this point.”

She watched him, her emotional radar searching for any and all signals that would guide her words.  “I take it you will be the one to make the decision.”

“Yeah.” He laughed a hollow laugh.  “Lucky me, huh?”

Kathryn didn’t push it.  He was working this out in his head and his heart, and she had to let him in his way, in his time.

When he looked at her, there were a myriad of questions in his eyes.  “Um, can I ask you some things?  I mean, they didn’t really tell me much about your… program.”

“Certainly.  Ask whatever you want.”

Ben swallowed hard and let his gaze fall to the floor at his feet.  It was brown.  That registered. He was glad something did.  Words were becoming harder and harder to come by and harder to say without breaking down completely. “Um, well, I take it from what Dr. Vitter said that once Dad is transferred… there, that’s pretty much it.  Right? I mean he won’t get any care after that.”

“If you mean do we put him in a dark room and wait for the end, no that’s not what we do.” Her voice was soft and very kind. “We feel we’re a place that can provide the needed transition time for your father and for the family.  Hospitals are wonderful for those who are going to survive, but they are not great places to die.”

Die.  Man, he hated that word, but he nodded anyway even though his gaze was still firmly on the floor. 

“The staff and machines and keeping the family at bay are just not conducive to giving everyone the time they need to say good-bye,” Ms. Walker continued. “We don’t make you say good-bye on a schedule.  The schedule is whatever you set.  You come when you want, stay as long as you like, leave when you’re ready. It’s totally up to you.”

Something akin to hope brushed his heart, and he picked up his gaze.  “No five minute visits every two hours starting at eight and ending at eight?”

She smiled clearly getting the reference.  “No, you do what works for you.  We have round the clock staff who specialize in end-of-life issues.  We can help you through not just your father’s transition, but we can point you to services that can smooth life out as you go forward as well.”

His shoulders relaxed as he let out a slow, choppy breath.  As he looked at her, the need to tell someone how overwhelmed he was overtook him.  He looked down quickly trying to squelch it.  However, even after several long seconds, he couldn’t.  “I’m… Uh, I’ve never dealt with anything like this before.  I feel like I’m in the dark with no idea which way to even go.”

“You’re not alone. Most people feel like that,” she said like the touch of an angel’s wings.  “Believe me, no one feels equal to this one.  What you have to understand is that you’re not being judged.  You get through it in the best way you can. You just have to learn to be really gentle with yourself.  That helps.”

He laughed that hollow laugh again.

She joined him.  “Well, it’s pretty much a learned skill.  We’re all so programmed to think we have to know what to do and what to say that when we don’t, we feel like utter failures.  I know.  I’ve been there.”  Her eyes were soft as was her smile.  “But this is not some kind of competition.  It’s not a pass or fail test.  It’s doing your best and giving yourself the space to do it the way that makes the most sense for you.”

“So you think I should sign the papers.”

“That’s not my decision.  I haven’t seen the medical reports.  What I want you to know is that our facility is not some draconian echo chamber.  We really do care, and we want to help when you’re ready.”

A moment more and Ben nodded.  At least he’d stopped looking only at the floor.  That was something.  And he was calm—at least on the outside.  She had seen families screaming and yelling at one another in these situations.  This was definitely better although she could tell he was struggling mightily to get through this minute to the next.  

He stood from the little sofa and offered her his hand.  “Ms. Walker, thank you very much.”

She shook his hand.  “You’re welcome.  And for the record, it’s Kathryn.”

“Kathryn.”  There was almost a smile there.  “That was my grandmother’s name.”

“Really?” She tilted her head in surprise.  “Most people call me Kate, but I really prefer Kathryn.  I don’t know why.  It sounds more old-style Hollywood or something.”  With a saucy smile, she tossed her blonde locks over her shoulder as if she was anywhere near as glamorous as those ladies.  “Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?”

This laugh made it all the way up to his eyes.  They were nice eyes, kind of a hazy bluish-green. “That she can.  That she can.”

After a moment the laughter fell away from her.  “But really, if you need anything, here’s my card.” She slipped it from her pocket and handed it to him. “Just call anytime.  Of course, I’m not the only one on staff, so if I’m not there, Clyde or Yvonne will be able to help also.”

He took the card and looked at it for a long, long moment.  When he looked up again, there was genuine gratefulness in his eyes.  “Thank you.”

Her only wish was that she could do more.  “You’re welcome.”

After she left, Ben went down to the cafeteria, got some coffee, and found a little corner to disappear into.  It was only three in the afternoon, but it felt like midnight-thirty.  He took a sip of the coffee and set the cup on the table.  Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out her card.  Kathryn Walker, St. Anthony’s Hospice, Social Worker.

Who signed up for a job like that?  He would run for the hills.  Slowly he turned the card over and over in his fingers.  What to do?  She didn’t make it sound as horrible as he had envisioned, and yet a good salesman could sell anything.  True, she didn’t seem like a pushy salesperson.  But it was her job to make her facility seem as user-friendly as possible.  He thought it through again and took another drink.

It wouldn’t hurt to check the place out.  At least then he could give Dr. Vitter a logical reason why he wasn’t going to take that option.  Downing the last of the coffee, he grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket.  With a hard blink, he forced himself to dial the number correctly.  As it rang, he realized she probably wasn’t even back yet.

“St. Anthony’s Hospice, this is Kathryn.”

His heart snagged on the softness of her voice.  He spun the phone’s speaker down to his mouth. “Uh, yeah.  Kathryn? This is Ben Warren.  I just talked to you?”

“Oh, yes.  Ben.  Did you need something else?”

“Um, well, yeah. Kind of. Um, I was wondering if maybe I could come over and see the… facility.”  There were certain words he just couldn’t utter.

“Oh, well, sure.  Of course.  Do you want to come now?”

Now?  Now was a little soon.  His spirit recoiled at the thought.  He’d long before given up the nursing home route on his sales trek through the city.  There were just some things he did not want to subject himself to.  “Uh, well, I don’t want to bother you.  I’ve already taken up so much of your time…”

“Oh, it’s not a problem.  Tell you what, I’ll meet you by the elevators on the neurology floor.  Will that work?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sure.” 

“I’ll be there in five.”

“Okay.” 

And she was gone.  Only then did reality occur to him. What was he thinking?  He wasn’t anywhere near the elevators on the neurology floor.  He jumped up, nearly knocking the chair to the ground.  Two doctors from the table near him glanced his direction.  He quickly resettled the chair, ditched the cup, and headed out.

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Cowboy Chapter 1

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2010

~*~*~*~

To all those who think that love has let them down…

Please never stop believing in love’s power to heal all things.

In God’s eyes, the light of hope shines eternal

where love is concerned… and so it is for you.

 ~*~*~*~

Chapter 1

“You’re never going to believe who’s coming to Denver!” Lynn Isley squealed as she streaked into the empty restaurant from the kitchen doors.

Standing at the cash register counting change, Beth McCasland barely even looked up. “Who?”

Lynn dropped her voice conspiratorially although there wasn’t a single soul in the place to overhear her anyway. “Ashton Raines!”

“65.82.” Beth dumped the pennies back in the register and frowned. “Ashton Raines?  Isn’t he that country singer?”

That country singer?” Lynn asked in disbelief as she tied her blue-and-white Harry’s All-Night Diner apron around her waist. “Are you kidding me? Ashton Raines is the country singer. He not only won Male Vocalist of the Year three years in a row, he won Entertainer of the Year last year and Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and… Beth!”

Somewhere just past one of the ‘of the Years’ Beth had tuned Lynn out.

“What?” She looked up from the drawer innocently, and when she saw the look on Lynn’s face, she repeated, “What?”

“Where’d you go?”

“The drawer’s ten cents off.” Beth looked back at it in consternation. “What do you think we should we do?”

Lynn shook her head. “Who cares?”

“I do.” A moment of thought and Beth pulled a dime out of her own pocket and dropped it into the register.

In disbelief, Lynn surveyed her friend, her dark eyes flashing. “What’d you do that for?”

Beth shrugged and slammed the drawer. “It’s either that or hear Harry yell for two hours.”

“But…” Lynn began just as the bell on the front door sounded.

“Customers,” Beth said, indicating the door and signaling that the conversation was over with one word. She tucked a wayward blonde wavy-curl behind her ear, grabbed three menus, and started toward the door without bothering to wait for Lynn to so much as exhale.

“Ashton, what in the world are you doing up there?” Barry Braxton yelled to the stonewashed jean-clad figure leaning perilously over the edge of the top row of bleachers.

“These bleachers have to be up by seven,” Ashton yelled back over the din of workers surrounding him without so much as looking down at his manager.

“They will be,” Barry called, “but if you fall, we won’t be needing them anyway.”

Irritation at being treated like a three-year-old crawled through Ashton’s chest as he twisted the wrench on the bolt he was working on with three more quick jerks. “I’m not going to fall, Barry.”

“Well, why don’t you come on down anyway?” Barry set his hands on the rolls of excess weight just beneath his off-brown, button up shirt. “Really. There’s no reason for you to be up there. I’m sure the crew can get it.”

“Look around you, Bare.” Ashton waved the wrench angrily. “We go on in three hours. Does it look like they’re going to be ready?”

Barry shook his balding head in disgust. He really couldn’t argue with that as much as he obviously wanted to. With the concert set to start in three hours, Ashton knew his manager would’ve preferred him to be in his dressing room getting ready rather than tightening bolts on the bleachers for their latest venue. However, here he was twisting bolt after bolt tighter and tighter, wrenching his anger and frustration into them as if that would somehow make everything better.

After a full thirty seconds Barry stalked off leaving his golden egg hanging off the edge of a set of bleachers that looked like it might fall any second. Ashton didn’t so much as watch him leave. Barry, of all people, knew Ashton’s stubborn streak ran a mile deep and just as wide. And the fact that he had acquired a death wish in the last year didn’t help matters.

Trying not to think lest the memories swarm him again, he bent his head and body into the work. If he could just keep working, keep moving, keep going, somehow he would find a way past the hurt. If he didn’t, Humpty Dumpty would look easy to put back together by comparison.

“So, do you want to go?” Lynn asked as she walked up to the counter where Beth stood during a slight lull in the afternoon lunch chaos.

“Go where?” Beth asked, tallying up three tickets at the same time.

Lynn leaned on the counter. Her freckled arms created a triangle with her waist. “The concert.”

Wishing Lynn would leave her alone so she could concentrate, Beth bit the pink lipstick of her bottom lip. “What concert?”

“Hello, Beth…? Is anybody in there?” Lynn waved her hand in the air.

The bells on the front door jingled. Without bothering to uphold her end of the conversation, Beth stepped around the counter. “I’ll be right back.” She heard Lynn growl in frustration, but there were other things in the world far more important than concerts and having fun. On top of that priority list was eeking out a living. She met the two customers at the door. “Good afternoon. Would you like a booth or a table?”

Ashton heard the familiar music the second it poured down from the enormous speakers three levels above him. The roar of the crowd that followed the music never ceased to amaze him. On the outside he looked ready—calm, cool, professional, but inside he was a disaster waiting to happen. This was the hardest part of every show. Right now she would’ve been with him, holding his hand right to the stage steps, telling him good luck, and kissing him. What he wouldn’t have given for one more kiss.

He could feel her even now, and every part of him wanted nothing more than to walk away from it all—walk away and never come back. Without her, everything had become too hard, too draining, too overwhelming. Just as the pain threatened to take him over the edge, he heard it—the four notes—his cue, and in with one giant shove, he stuffed all the hurt back down and stepped up the stairs and onto the stage as the entire arena exploded in lights, music, and screaming around him. In fact, it was so loud that not one person in the entire arena heard his heart snap right down the middle.

“You going home?” Lynn asked as Beth grabbed her coat from the rack.

She slid her arms into the warmth of the wool, knowing how the early April chill in Colorado could seep into a person despite all their best efforts. “Yeah, Tori should be here any time now, and I’ve got to stop at my parents’ to get Kenzie.”

“How’s she doing?” Lynn asked with genuine concern.

“Oh, growing like a weed.” Beth laughed softly and pushed the blonde curl that never quite made it into the clip at the back of her head from the edge of her face. No matter how many clips she used, she could never quite get her hair to stay up through a full eight-hour shift. “I can’t believe she’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall.”

“No kidding.” Lynn’s concern sank on the sigh that went through Beth. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Beth ducked so her friend couldn’t see the real answer. “It just hard sometimes.” Buttoning the coat was a good excuse not to look up.

“I know, but I’m sure Kevin would be proud of how well she’s done.”

Beth smiled through the ache, which stabbed viciously into her heart. She grabbed her things from the counter. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, you take care—and drive careful.”

“I will.”

Lynn watched her friend go. It had to be hard to go home every night with a child and all alone at the same time. Worse, the only places Beth ever went were her parents’ house, the diner, and home. The only time she ever went out was when Lynn forced her to, and it had been far too long since their last outing.

The radio behind her crackled. “KGRC, is proud to welcome Ashton Raines to The Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado on June 12th…”

The concert. Somehow she would find a way to talk her friend into going. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

“Hey, great show, Ashton,” Barry said, slapping him on the back the second he descended into backstage after the second encore.

Ashton forced a smile onto his face. “Thanks.”

“We’ve got some people backstage,” Barry continued as though Ashton hadn’t heard all this a million times before.

“There he is!” someone from down the hall yelled, and in a breath he was crushed by a sea of fans.

Overwhelming numbness took over as he accepted the pieces of paper being shoved in his face. Over and over he signed a name that no longer seemed to even belong to him. It was everywhere. On T-shirts, CD jackets, programs, in lights above the entrance to every auditorium door he walked through.

As he signed the name yet another time, it occurred to him that somehow he had lost everything—not even his own name was his anymore. He wasn’t Ashton Raines, and yet if he wasn’t Ashton Raines, who was he, and when he had ceased to exist as a real person?

“That’s enough!” Barry held his hands up, forcing his way through the crowd to make a path for Ashton to follow. “We appreciate you all coming out! Thank you! Thank you!”

Somehow Ashton followed his manager, somehow his feet worked, somehow… and yet if he had to explain just how, he would never have been able to.

Beth lay on Kenzie’s bed, the book in one hand, Kenzie resting on the other arm. “‘Open the door,’ the prince commanded, and the guards obeyed. When the door opened, there stood Katrina in her dress of rags. ‘Hello,’ said the prince kindly. ‘Hello,’ Katrina said. ‘May I have this dance?’ the prince asked, holding out his hand to her. She took it, and they danced the whole night away. The end.”

Beth closed the book and then looked down and smiled. Kenzie. The soft little face. The rosy cheeks. The most beautiful child in the world. Her last precious gift from Kevin. At times it seemed she was almost past the pain, and then at other times, like tonight, the thought of going to a bed devoid of his spirit threatened to fling her into a pit of despair.

Five years. Five long years, and still she missed him, and at that moment, watching their daughter sleep, the soft baby blonde curls fanned out on the pink pillow, she knew she would miss him forever.

“We’ve got some new material in,” Barry said as Ashton put his feet up on the coffee table, leaned his head back against the couch, and closed his eyes. “Meredith thinks one of them is a keeper.”

“Hmm.”

“Anyway, I thought maybe tomorrow on the way to Atlanta we could give it a once over—just to see what you think,” Barry continued, going over his checklist. “The concert in Tucson sold out yesterday in under two hours. They’re thinking about adding a second show. What do you think?”

“Fine,” Ashton said without ever opening his eyes.

The to-do list went silent. “Ken called. He’s wondering how you’re doing.”

Ashton was really tired of answering this already age-old question.

“How are you doing?” Barry asked pointedly. “Really?”

Slowly Ashton exhaled—knowing full well that the truth and what Barry wanted to hear were two totally different things. “You know me, Bare.” He opened his eyes to a reality he now hated.

“Yes, I do, and I’m not the only one who’s worried about you.”

Ashton smiled at that. Barry was worried all right—for himself mostly.

“I’m fine.” With no small amount of effort, Ashton pulled himself off the couch. “Just a little tired.”

Barry followed him up off the couch without taking his gaze off him.

“What time are we pulling out in the morning?” Ashton asked, stretching slowly, the starched shirt he still wore from the concert stuck in weird angles to the dried sweat on his back.

“Ten.”

“Then I’d better get my beauty rest.” Ashton yawned. “I’d hate to be sick for Atlanta.”

“Yeah,” Barry said unenthusiastically. “I’ll be here to get you around nine-thirty?”

“I’ll be ready.” Ashton followed Barry to the door. “And I promise we’ll go over the new stuff tomorrow.”

“That’s great.”

He held the door open for his manager. “Well, good night, Bare.”

“Night,” Barry said, but the closing door cut off the word.

Ashton exhaled and let his eyelids fall shut. It was true he was tired, but this tired had nothing to do with his work on stage. This tired was something he had never experienced in his life until now. It had nothing to do with sleep and everything to do with the hole he found every time he looked into his heart. He shook his head to clear it of the disturbing thoughts and went to take a shower.

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Deep In the Heart, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“Please, baby, please, just get me through these gates and up to that front door,” Maggie Montgomery pleaded with her ’77 Chevette even as her gaze took in the enormous circle drive that led its winding way up a hill to the cream mansion with the stately pillars beyond. “Oh, Lord, what am I doing here? This has got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever gotten myself into.”

Trying not to think about how her beat-up navy blue two-door looked on the grounds that were perfectly manicured right down to the yellow and red rosebushes, Maggie steered the car around the concrete that was edged with white stones the size of her dresser back in her dorm room. At the apex of the circle, she put the car in park and heaved a sigh that might well be her last.

With a push she resettled her glasses on her nose, grabbed her two-page resume and shouldered the door open. “Just breathe,” she told herself as she stood on legs wobbly from the three-hour car drive. Pine Hill, Texas and the Ayer Mansion seemed a million miles from Gold Dust Drive in Del Rio. It was still Texas, but the similarities stopped there.

Of course, she was in her best dress, a floral print that was a size too big. That was better than the heels, which were at least two sizes too big. They were the best Mrs. Malinowski could do on ten minutes notice. The grace of God alone had gotten Maggie this far, and truth be told, she wasn’t at all sure how much longer His patience with her would hold out.

“Listen, Holy Spirit, I know I’m probably over my quota by now, but please… Please, let me get this. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t.” The remaining two dollars in her purse crossed her mind, pulling her spirit down. Defiantly she squared her shoulders and pulled herself to her full five feet, seven inches.

Every step was pushed on by a prayer. The six wide steps up to the front door nearly did her in, but finally, after 17 years of struggling just to survive, she was here—one knock away from something more than a minute-by-minute existence.

She reached up and rang the doorbell. The wait was worse than the walk. Nervousness raked her hand up her purse strap. Seconds slid by, but nothing happened. What now? Should she ring it again? She looked back at her car and fought the fear and desperation rising in her.

Just before she bolted from the whole idea outright, the door clicked and then opened. On the other side stood a small, Hispanic woman dressed head-to-toe in white.

“Hello,” Maggie said, corralling her purse strap even as she held out her other hand. “I’m here about the nanny position.”

“Doesn’t anyone know how to follow a simple order anymore?” the bellowing, jowl-ridden, over-paunched, balding man at the desk fumed, shaking his head even as he continued to make notes. “I built a whole company, put in oil wells across this state—Midland, West Texas, South Texas—even three in the Gulf, and now my own son can’t get one simple solitary task carried out without messing it up.”

“Dad, it’s not that big of a deal. Q-Main and Transistor will be ready for the track in two weeks. We just need a little more time with Dragnet. He’s not where he needs to be yet.” Keith Ayers fought the urge to shift in his chair. Laid back and nonchalant was by far his best bet with his father. That much he had learned so long ago, he couldn’t clearly remember when it had happened.

One-on-one, head-to-head confrontation had never gotten them anywhere. He clasped his dirt-stained hands in front of him and set his stubble-strewn jaw. His dad was tough, but horses weren’t his specialty. They were Keith’s.

Racing a thoroughbred, especially one with as much promise as Dragnet before it was ready was the best way he knew to ruin one permanently. No amount of blustering changed the fact that Dragnet simply wasn’t ready. “I talked to Ike this morning. He’s thinking we can bring Dragnet up for a real race sometime in July.”

His father exhaled hard, clearly not pleased with the assessment. “I paid $250,000 for that animal, and I don’t like watching my investments sit around eating me out of house and home.”

The fact that house and home weren’t exactly in jeopardy crossed Keith’s mind, but he wisely chose not to say that. “Would you prefer to sink a $250,000 investment by racing him too soon? Trust me on this one, Dad, a little patience now could hold out big rewards later.”

His father scowled, his expression sinking into his jowls. “I didn’t build a billion dollar empire on patience.” Then he nodded. “You’ve got two months.”

May?  That was too soon, but it was all Keith would get, and he knew it. “I’ll tell Ike.” He started to stand and felt his father stand as well. Never. Never a good sign. “Uh, I know my way out.”

“Yes, but you also know your way back in. That’s what concerns me.” The laugh that accompanied the statement tried to pass it off as a joke, but it felt more like a knife to Keith.

His father followed him right to the door and out. “So, have you heard from Dallas? How’s she doing at Yale? Law school going okay?”

In the hallway Keith replaced his beat up, loose straw cowboy hat back over the blue bandana stretched across his head. “Good,” Keith answered with the obligatory nod. “She should be back for Spring Break. Graduation’s in May. Hayden & Elliott after she passes the bar.”

“To infinity and beyond. I like that,” his father said with the first smile Keith had seen from him all afternoon. At the staircase that wound to the upper floors, his father stopped, looked up it, and smiled. “Well. Well.”

Keith’s gaze followed his father’s up the carpeted-just-so steps, and although he first noticed his stepmother next to the railing, he stopped dead when he saw the young lady descending between her and the wall.

“Of course you will get time off occasionally,” his stepmother, Vivian, said. Her suit dress was perfectly pressed all the way up to the ruffled collar that ringed her neck like a flower. That was Vivian, always impeccable lest anyone see she wasn’t perfect. “However, I need you to realize that this is basically a 24 hour, seven day a week job.”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am. That’s not a problem,” the young lady with the mesmerizing head of chestnut brown hair which was falling out of the clip she had in the back of her head said. She pulled the strap of her purse up onto her shoulder. She was coming down, trying to keep her gaze on Vivian out of respect and attention, but she clearly could’ve used the banister Vivian was using as her own. The descent was anything but graceful, more halting and awkward. In fact, she was having so much trouble keeping up with everything that it was two steps from the bottom before the young lady with the dark glasses and cascading tresses even noticed there were others watching her descent. Her glance from Vivian to the two men standing at the bottom threw her attention from the concentration she was obviously exerting to get down the stairs for one moment too long.

As Keith watched, one step from the bottom, disaster struck. He saw it as it happened, but it was like it was in slow motion. She stepped down with her left foot, but her shoe planted awkwardly in the plush carpet. Her ankle turned, and like a puppet falling to the stage, her body pitched forward with a jerk.

“Ahh!” Her scream lasted all of two seconds—the exact amount of time it took for him to realize what was happening and reach out to snag her downward motion, which would’ve pitched her unceremoniously to the hardwood floor of the entryway had he not stepped between her and certain humiliation.

“Oh, watch…!” It was all he got out before she thwacked into him. “Ugh!” The impact of her body on his didn’t so much as move him although it was significant enough to jar her glasses askew. It was only the clasp of his hands on her arms that kept her from bouncing off of him and ending her descent on the floor next to him anyway. When her unscheduled tumble came to a complete stop, she was sprawled across him from his shoulder to his arms, which supported her without effort. In fact it felt more like holding a weightless butterfly than anything.

“Oh! Oh my gosh! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Mortified, she yanked herself upright away from him although she looked as unhinged from the encounter as he felt. His insides were dancing with amusement and fascination as he watched her disentangle herself from him and wobble on the uncooperative shoe once more.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She was standing, readjusting her dress, her glasses, herself. “I don’t know why I’m so clumsy today. I…”

“Are you all right?” Keith asked, gazing at her as if he’d just fallen under an angel’s spell. His hands stayed out to catch her again if need be.

“Yeah… Yes. I’m fine.” Perturbed with herself, the young lady shook her head quickly and resumed her attempt to look like she belonged there, which she didn’t. At all. And somehow, he kind of liked that.

He smiled at her, but she was clearly doing her best not to look at him. “You sure?” But she had resumed her concentration on Vivian.

“Conrad,” Vivian said with no small amount of a frown at the ineptitude of her current interviewee, “this is the young lady I told you about. Maggie Montgomery. She’s come about the nanny position.”

“Oh, yes,” Keith’s father said. He extended his hand to her, which she shook even as she continued to fight to get herself under control. “It’s nice to meet you Ms. Montgomery.”

“I have explained to Maggie,” Vivian continued, “that she is on a six month probation period. Anything not up to our standards during that time will be cause for immediate termination.”

Maggie’s gaze fell to the stairs, but she pulled her head up and looked right at Mr. Ayer with a forced smile.

“And that’s acceptable to you?” his father asked.

“Yes, sir. It is.” She looked like a proud filly with her chin up and her hazel eyes flashing determination.

“I suppose you will need two weeks to let your current employer know you are leaving,” Vivian said with a sigh, and Keith couldn’t help but notice the dramatics. She should’ve been an actress.

“Oh,” Maggie said, and he heard the note of concern. “No, Ma’am. I can start as soon as you need me to.” She pulled her fingers up through her purse strap. “I can start now… if that works for you.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Ayer said. “That’s what I like. Someone who can make decisions.”

“You don’t mind starting today?” Vivian couldn’t hide the pitch of excitement.

Maggie turned to her. “Right now is fine if that’s what you need.”

She was intriguing, mesmerizing, captivating. And yet just why that was, Keith couldn’t accurately tell. She was nothing like the girls he’d been out with. They with their debutant good looks and impeccable manners. No, this one, this Maggie Montgomery, looked more like a nervous, high-strung pony. Proud and strong, and determined not to be broken by anyone.

“Well, then,” Vivian said smartly. “Let’s go meet the children.”

“Good luck, Ms. Montgomery,” his father said, extending his hand to help her down the last step. “It’s nice to have you.”

All the air had gone right out of the room as Keith’s gaze followed her down the hallway and out of sight in the direction of the children’s wing of the estate.

“What’re you still doing here?” his father asked, surveying him. “I thought you had horses to train.”

“I’m on it.” With that, he exited the main house and descended the front steps. There in the driveway sat a car that Keith couldn’t even be sure still ran. It looked like it would be a better fit for a junkyard than in front of his parents’ house. As he started past it, the thought occurred to him that it belonged to her. Her. Maggie Montgomery.

“Well, it will be an interesting two weeks anyway.” With a knowing smile, he strode on. He shook his head at his own joke. They never lasted more than two weeks. Never.

In fact, he wouldn’t have lasted more than two weeks but for the simple fact that they couldn’t get rid of him. He was a member of the family—whether they liked it or not.

“This is Peter,” Mrs. Ayer said, indicating the small boy with the blond hair, sitting at the table coloring slowly. “And this is Isabella.” She picked the little girl with the bright blond curls up into her arms.

“Hello, little one.” Maggie reached a hand out to the soft little face. “You are a sweetie-pie.”

Mrs. Ayer slid the little girl back to the ground and planted her hands on her hips. “Dinner is promptly at 6 p.m. They are to be dressed and ready no later than 5:30. Inez will be able to fill you in on the rest of their schedules.”

Maggie nodded, taking in the information with the sense that even perfection wouldn’t be good enough.

“If you’d like some time to get settled, I can get Inez to watch the children for a few more minutes.”

“Oh, no. I think I’m fine.” Then she remembered. “But I do need to move my car. It’s still out front.”

Mrs. Ayer sighed with disapproval. “Very well. You may park it over at the guesthouse. It’s just through the back, down the lane, and off to the right.”

“It’ll only take me a few minutes,” Maggie said, trying to assure her new employer that she was competent enough to handle all of this.

“You may as well bring your suitcases in as well. Your room will be at the top of these stairs, right next to the children’s rooms.”

“I’m sure I can find it.”

“Inez!” Mrs. Ayer called out the door.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Maggie couldn’t clearly tell how the maid had been able to answer so quickly. It was as if she had materialized there from thin air.

“Please watch the children while Ms. Montgomery gets her things settled.”

Inez bowed slightly. “Very good, Ma’am.”

Once more Mrs. Ayer surveyed Maggie, and the fact that she didn’t believe this would ever work traced through Maggie’s consciousness. “If you need anything else, let Inez know.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And now you’d better get that car moved before Jeffrey has a cardiac.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Something told her she would be saying that a lot now. Pleading with her heels to cooperate long enough to get her back to the car and then back here, Maggie hurried out. The early afternoon Texas sun beat down on the outside surroundings. After having been in the comfort of the mansion’s air conditioning, the combination of humidity and heat hit Maggie like two fists.

She got in the car and took her first real breath. “Oh, thank You, Jesus.” Except for the unceremonious stumble into the hired hand, the interview had gone as well as she could’ve hoped for. “Ugh. How clumsy can you be, Maggie? That was a good one.” Forcing herself not to think about it, she pumped the accelerator and twisted the key to get the little car started. Then she carefully backed up so she could go down the back drive as Mrs. Ayer had instructed.

With a frustrated swipe, Maggie pushed the trail of loose strands of hair from her face and then blew them back up when they didn’t stay. Carefully she drove around the house, which was enormous no matter which angle it was seen from. Her heart pounded in her ears as the car slipped into the grove of hulking trees. Trees seemed to be everywhere. Somehow she had expected them to dissipate beyond the mansion, but if anything, they got more massive and thicker the farther she drove.

“Did she say right or left?” Intensely Maggie scanned the areas on either side of the driveway that had narrowed to a trail. “This is great. I get lost on my first day.”

Then just ahead, off to the right, through the knot of trees, she caught sight of the place. When she got closer, Maggie sucked in a gasp of air. If this was the guesthouse, they certainly treated their guests very, very well. Sporting orange-tan brick with blue-gray accents, the house had a bevy of inlets and cutouts. There were enormous windows, and wraparound accents at the corners, and an inlet door that looked like it alone cost the half the national debt. “Wow.”

Wide-eyed in awe but trying to keep her mind on her present mission, Maggie surveyed the small hill of a lawn, the flowerbeds, and every inlet for some clue as to where she was supposed to park. She turned her gaze up the trail. Surely there was a garage somewhere. “Oh, Jesus. Help.” The trail dovetailed with a small perpendicular drive just beyond the house, and carefully she turned there, hoping maybe this was right. In fact, there was a garage, but the moment she pulled up to it, she had second thoughts. What if someone needed in or out of that garage? If she was parked in the way, that would be a problem.

Twisting her mouth as she tried to find an answer to this dilemma, her heart jumped into her throat when her gaze caught movement in her driver’s side mirror. Fear jerked her head around just in time for her to see the hired hand with the blue bandana sticking out from under the ratty cowboy hat come striding up the side of her car. For a moment she felt better, but it was only for a moment because the reality of being out here alone with no knowledge of the terrain if trouble struck with a guy who felt like the Rock of Gibraltar did nothing to calm her nerves.

She swallowed hard. Very cautiously she reached up and locked her door, praying the others were already locked.

“Hey,” he said when he got to her window. His easy smile spread across his face as she rolled down her window just far enough not to be rude. “Fancy meeting you here.”

It was impossible not to notice his biceps, which looked like massive tree trunks streaming down from the ripped-off sleeves of his denim shirt. In a fight, she would lose without him even trying.

“Hi.” Panic smashed into her, and her lungs constricted around it. “Umm… Mrs. Ayer said I could park here, but I’m not sure where she meant.” Anxiety had never meant what it did at that moment.

“Oh, she did. Did she? Well, that figures.” He laughed, which threw her incomprehension devices into full-throttle. “Na. It’s okay. Swing around back here. We can put it in the barn.”

Maggie nodded although no real signals were getting to her brain. She rolled up the window and backed onto the driveway so she could follow him down the increasingly narrow trail. From behind, he was all denim, save for the bent, straw cowboy hat and those arms. “Oh, dear God, I don’t know about this. Please tell me if I should be doing this.” But as far as she could tell, God was not giving her any other options.

At the end of the drive, mercifully, the trees broke their hold on the surroundings, and she drove out into a clearing and down a gravel road over to the building he had called a barn, but like everything else here, ‘barn’ didn’t quite do it justice. He swung the two doors open and stepped back so she could drive in.

Crossing from outside to in, the darkness enveloped her eyes so that it took her longer than it would’ve seemed necessary to make it safely into the building. Once inside, she shoved the car into park and then had to corral her fear to gather enough courage to open the door. “Oh, God, be with me. I’m asking here.” Busying herself, lest he see just how scared she was, Maggie got out, went to the back, and unlocked the trunk. With a heave she pulled her lone suitcase out, praying it wouldn’t fall apart at her feet.

“Oh, here. Let me get that for you.” He reached out for it even as he stood at the door that stood open.

“No. I can get it.” She tried to swing it out of his reach, but with a soft smile and a wink he took it anyway.

“It’s half a mile back to the house,” he said. “In this heat you’ll be French fried by the time you carry this thing all the way back.”

Her heart was beating so loudly, her brain didn’t have a chance to put up a logical argument, so she nodded, ducked her head, and stepped past him. The bright sunshine beyond the door attacked her eyes, and she squinted as he closed the barn door behind them. Everything in her wanted to take that suitcase back and run, but barring humiliating herself against his strength again, she saw no way to do that. The gravel at her feet was playing havoc with her heels, and she fought to keep her balance and stay up with his strides as they started up the incline to the guesthouse.

He wasn’t tall exactly. Maybe a couple inches taller than her but no more than that. But the solidity of everything about him swept the air from her lungs just the same.

“So, you work here?” she asked, willing her voice to stay steady even as her shoes threatened to pitch her into the sharp white rocks at her feet just as they had pitched her into him at the mansion. The thought made her ears burn.

“Yeah. As little as possible.” There was that smile again, and if she hadn’t been so nervous, it might have had a chance to do serious work on her insides. “I run the stable operation up the way.”

“Stable?” Her brain was having trouble processing anything.

“Horses.”

“Oh.”

They made it back up to the trees, and uneasiness pushed into her consciousness again. She looked around, and the trees seemed thicker now, closing in on her, blocking all escape routes.

“I hear you’re gonna be on the pay roll too,” he said.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am.”

“Well, you must be downright impressive. Most of the time they won’t let anyone within shooting distance of this place that doesn’t have security clearance from the Pentagon.”

They had made it to the main road and headed back to the mansion. Crossing in front of it now, the guesthouse was even more impressive going by slowly—if that was possible. Maggie fought not to gawk at it, but it wasn’t easy. “I passed my background check, and I had a personal reference from the Dean of Early Childhood Development at A&M Kingsville.” She sounded like she was defending herself, and she hated that.

“Impressive.” And he actually sounded impressed. “So, you’re from Kingsville then?”

“Del Rio.” Her heel picked that moment to twist out from under her. “Ugh.” Thankfully, she caught her own balance this time, but it was a close save. “These stupid shoes.”

Skeptically he surveyed her feet. “They don’t make walking look all that easy or that safe.”

“Tell me about it.” She continued walking although he had slowed down in deference to her struggle.

Shaking his head, he pressed his lips together in earnest concern. “Why don’t you take them off? You’re gonna kill yourself on that last quarter up the hill.”

“Oh, yeah. Like I’m going to walk into the Ayer mansion barefoot. That should make a really great first impression.” Sarcasm dripped from her spirit. Who would even make such a dumb suggestion?

He glanced behind them. “Well, nobody comes down this road but me. They ain’t gonna see you anyway, and besides, I’ll warn you before we get too close.”

Maggie still wasn’t so sure, but her ankles were starting to protest rather loudly. “Okay, fine.” She reached down for one shoe but had to scoot her other foot around to keep her balance. She reached out for something solid and met his arm coming the other way.

Smooth skin under her palm ripped sanity away from her. How in the world had she gotten here? Sweat beaded out of her back, and she was quite sure it had nothing to do with the humidity. Quickly she removed first one shoe and then the other. When they were off and she was once again on solid footing, she had to admit it was a good idea, even if her breathing was no longer working properly.

“You got it?” he asked, eyeing her seriously.

“Yeah.” She forced a knot of a smile on her face and started walking. The pavement would’ve been burning hot had it not been shaded by the millions of leaves above them. Just then a breeze swept through the branches and right over them. “Ah.” The sigh of relief was automatic.

“So, you’re an early childhood education major?” he asked as they made their way back up the road. It didn’t take long to understand what he meant about that last quarter of a hill. If it was any steeper than this part, she was in trouble.

“Yeah. I graduated in December. This is the first permanent thing I found.”

“Well, we’re glad to have you. I’m sure Pete and Izzy will keep you on your toes.”

The question of how familiar he seemed in referring to the children traced through her, but before she could voice that thought, he looked at her, and that scattered her thoughts like the pieces of a shattering window.

“So, are you up for the 24-hour thing? Most people hear that and go running for the exits.”

She shrugged, and it took a solid breath to beat the sadness in her chest down. “I like the idea of having a roof over my head. It’s worth a little work to have that.”

He nodded, head down, concentrating on walking. When she looked over at him, she fought not to notice how rugged and tanned his face was. In fact, with that face and that body, he looked like he belonged nowhere else other than out in nature, taming some wild beast. His whiskers were more than a five o’clock shadow. They were a dark emphasis to the sheer masculinity of the rest of him. With a glance he caught her looking at him and smiled. Lines of amusement appeared on either side of his face. “What?”

“Oh. Nothing.” She ripped her gaze away from him. “I just hope I don’t do anything to mess this up.”

When he looked at her again, the smile that was already beginning to get to her was a soft and encouraging. “I think you’ll be just fine.”

Read Deep in the Heart on Kindle or Nook!

Buy it now…

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Robyn Lockhart: Hero or Villain?

The following is a feature story in the James Madison High School Chronicle on the recent controversial suspension of one of the student body’s newest members and Chronicle reporter, Robyn Lockhart.  It is not intended to influence the investigation into the incidents surrounding Miss Lockhart one way or the other.  It is only to give the students the chance to see the different sides of the story and decide for themselves.

Robyn Lockhart

Hero or Villain?

If given the chance, don’t call James Madison senior Robyn Lockhart brave.

Upon hearing that word, she will tell you, repeatedly, that moving from her former small town in Iowa to the big city took all of her courage before she ever even made it to James Madison.

“The truth is I didn’t want to come here,” Lockhart said in an interview from her home pending the investigation into the incidents leading to her suspension.  “When my parents split up, it was my mom who wanted to move here.  I was just part of the baggage she happened to bring along.”

However, it wasn’t long after her arrival in these halls that Lockhart began to make her mark through her stories in the Chronicle.

“Robyn Lockhart?” Principal Findley said.  “Yes. Yes. Of course I know her, but I’d rather not discuss the circumstances surrounding her status at the present time.  We will just wait to find out what the investigation uncovers.  Beyond that I have no comment.”

Others, however, were more willing to come to Lockhart’s defense.

“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Tucker, Chronicle advisor, said.  “Robyn Lockhart is nothing but an asset to this school.  She put herself on the line to get the administration to pay attention to the problems we’re having–not just once but several times.

“In fact, I’ve not met a more compassionate, concerned student in all my time here.  Robyn will stand up for what she believes in even if her very best friends are questioning how smart she is to do that.  Take Sean Hudson for example.  The other day in class the two of them got into this heated exchange over a poem that would have left a presidential candidate winded.

“If you ask me, James Madison needs more Robyn Lockharts rather than suspending the one we’ve got.”

Nevertheless, when this Chronicle reporter caught up with Chad Mayes, a James Madison senior and one of Lockhart’s reported friends, a different side of the story emerged.

“I’m not one to point fingers and think bad of people,” Mayes said.  “But when you see the evidence I saw in that hallway after that fight, well, what’s a guy to think, you know?  What is it they say, ‘Who are you going to believe–me or your lying eyes?’  Yeah. Evidence like I saw doesn’t lie no matter how much you might want it to.”

However, the longer one follows this story, the more angles one finds.  For instance, Kathryn Layton, a reporter with the Chronicle and reportedly one of Lockhart’s best friends, provided a very different take than Mayes who is her boyfriend.

“Robyn is no thief.  I can tell you that,” Kat, a James Madison senior, said.  “I don’t know how it happened, but I was there when it all went down at the school that night.  I’ll tell you this, Robyn did not do what they are accusing her of doing.  She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.  I know Robyn Lockhart.  I trust Robyn Lockhart.  She is my friend.  You cannot tell me any of this was her fault.”

So, who is the real Robyn Lockhart?  Is she a thief or a hero who fights for justice and right?

“Don’t even go there with that whole villain story line,” Sean Hudson, Lockhart’s other good friend (obviously despite the flare-up in Mr. Tucker’s class), said.  “Robyn is a good person.  In fact, she is the best person I know.  She went into that school building the day after the break-in.  Why?  Because the students of James Madison deserve better than they’re getting right now that’s why.  She went in there, knowing she might get into trouble and knowing she was walking into a minefield.  But she went in.  For me and for you.  For all of us because she was trying to get to the bottom of all the junk that’s been happening around here.

“And if you’re wondering, the answer is yes.  I am talking about the break-in, but I’m talking about so much more than that.  I’m talking about the incident at the gym last February and the countless stolen items and instances of bullying that nobody wants to talk about.  Robyn may be just another student in the hallways, but she is a student who cares more about this school than most of us who have been here for years.  So put that in your little paper and give Robyn a break for once already.  She doesn’t deserve all the nasty, hateful things people have been saying about her.”

So who is Robyn Lockhart?  Innocent small town girl?  Or dangerous thief and fomenter of trouble at James Madison?  We will leave that up to you and the investigators to decide.

Read:   The Price of Silence  by Staci Stallings

What if you stand up to evil and no one stands with you?

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“Dreams by Starlight” from Rick’s Reviews

Rick’s Reviews

Normally I don’t review high school productions.  First of all, they are rarely, if ever, what I would call even mildly entertaining.  Usually mind-numbingly awful, incredibly boring, and a complete waste of time are far closer. For the most part, they feature a few kids scrambling for lines and forgetting their cues.  And who other than parents and teachers wants to endure that?

That’s not to say there is not a time and place for high school productions. They are very worthy for training up our next set of entertainers, but for me and this column, they are normally persona non grata.

I suppose that’s why I’m so surprised to be writing this particular column today.  It was not on my schedule.  I had no plans to write this review last week, and my editor may be somewhat surprised as well when I turn this in.

However, I must give credit where it’s due.  Over the weekend, I went (okay, I was dragged) to my niece’s high school play, “Don’t Listen to the Fates.”  Said niece had a small part, but my sister is a big part of my life, so I went, preparing to suffer through the evening and not much more.

What I found instead was a fully-engaging experience that I still can’t quite get out of my head.  The entire cast was magnificent, but I give special kudos to the leads.  Jaylon Quinn and Camille Wright were perfectly cast as the lovers that fate can’t quite figure out what to do with.

The premise of the three-act was boilerplate at best.  Hot girl dumps guy.  Guy wants to get even.  Guy asks out hot girl’s shy and quiet sister, and then finds said sister much more to his liking.  As plots go, not exactly my style, but less-than-horrible I suppose if you’re into the romance genre of entertainment.

But what grabbed at least this viewer’s attention was the depth and feeling Quinn and Wright brought to their scenes–especially when they were on stage together.  In fact, in a real way, this viewer forgot this was a play, on a stage, in a musty auditorium.  Maybe that’s sappy, but the truth is, I was caught up, feeling for Hawk (Quinn’s character) as he moved from selfish egotist to compassionate, caring friend, unveiling as he went a depth to the character not even the playwright could full have captured without this particular actor embodying the part.

And Wright… I don’t even know where to begin to capture the brilliance of her shining light on the stage.  Show-stealer is an understatement. Those who have been reading these reviews for very long know I don’t go for silly sentimental hogwash that portends to tug at our heartstrings when in reality it tugs our lunch back up, but Wright as Lauren had me cheering from my seat when she dumped Hawk for using her.  Moreover, she had me wiping a tear when she reappeared on stage, alone, and distraught after the break-up.

There was a part of me, (maybe it’s the new dad of a baby girl thing who can ever tell?) that wanted to go up and hug her–right after knocking Hawk’s block off for hurting her like that.

Suffice it to say, this reviewer was very impressed with the acting chops displayed by these marvelously talented young thespians.  I will tell you this much:  I have thought about and relived scenes from that play in my heart and in my head more over this past weekend than I have any movie I have seen in quite some time.

Maybe it was my mood.  Maybe it was the night.  Maybe no one else thought it was at all remarkable. Who knows?  But for one small moment in time I literally held my breath for the final kiss.

And it did not disappoint.

Read more of Jaylon Quinn and Camille Wright’s story in “Dreams by Starlight,” Book 1 of The Dreams Series by Staci Stallings

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Staci Stallings on Kindle & Nook

By:  Staci Stallings

The Good News:  Staci’s books are showing up on Kindle and Nook formats in droves!  Check out the titles available:

Cowboy
Lucky
Dreams by Starlight
Reunion
A Work in Progress
A Little Piece of Heaven
A Light in the Darkness
The Price of Silence
Coming Undone

More coming soon… watch the Spirit Light Books blog for new book announcements:  Bible Studies, novels, Reflections on Life, and God HELP! books.

The Bad News:  For now Spirit Light Works will be on hiatus until further notice.  Thanks for sharing the journey with me!

Peace,

Staci

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So, what did you think?

By:  Staci Stallings

One of the hardest things for an author is that writing is such a one-way experience.  You work for hours, days, months, sometimes even years to get a story “just right.”  Then you put it out there for others to read.  Oh, sure, sometimes you get comments here and there (I love those, by the way), and sometimes you might even get to have a whole conversation with someone who’s read one of your books.

But most of the time you’re left wondering if anyone even liked it.  What were the highlights to them, did they hold their breath at one point, or was the book so forgetable that ten minutes after they read it, they couldn’t tell you what it was about.

So, today because I’m still trying to decide what to do next, I’m going to be a little selfish and ask that you answer a few short questions about the books in Spirit Light Works (you can be as specific as you want or as general as you want–your choice!).

1)  What has been your favorite Spirit Light Works book so far?  Why?

2)  Who was your favorite character?  Why?

3)  Who was your least favorite character?  Why?

4)  What have you learned (if anything) from the books?

5)  Would you be willing to spread the word about Spirit Light to your family and friends and get them to sign up?

I would love to know and hear what you think!

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