HAPPY BLACK FRIDAY … which, pardon the slam, is only “happy” for me if I’m NOT at a mall! Don’t get me wrong — I truly admire the die-hard shoppers who brave the crazy crowds, but I’m definitely not one of them. Uh, except for today, that is, when my “shopping” was both “happy” and “crazy” — uh, “crazy” expensive, that is, shopping for a wedding dress for my daughter.
But, OH, what joy for a mother — to see that precocious three-year-old go from twirling in a blue, lacey tutu … to a young woman of twenty-five, whirling in front of a bridal shop mirror! Just one more reason to give thanks to the Almighty the day after Thanksgiving … and the day after that … and after that …
So, after a wonderful afternoon shopping with my daughter following a fabulous Thanksgiving when we fixed two turkeys for 30 people, I find myself contented and happy, yes, but also a wee bit too tuckered out to write a Journal Jot. Which means you luck out — something else to be thankful for!! — because instead of me writing a book today, I will post an excerpt from a book instead.
And … since my Review Contest for my recent release A Love Surrendered ends November 30th (see details on my CONTEST tab where you can win having a character named after you in my next book Love at Any Cost, a signed copy of that book and a $50 gift card … or where even one review enters you into a random drawing of Love at Any Cost), I thought it might be appropriate to share one of my favorite scenes in A Love Surrendered instead.
To set the scene up, our hero Prohibition Agent Steven O’Connor is part of a speakeasy raid where he discovers our young and innocent heroine is a bit tipsy after her best friend’s older sister spiked her Dr. Pepper without her knowledge. He saves her from the police paddy wagons, of course … but not without giving her a piece of his mind first.
I hope you enjoy the excerpt and may your thanksgiving continue throughout the weekend and well beyond!
The diner was empty except for a booth of teenagers at the far end horsing around and a couple with eyes only for each other. Bing Crosby’s velvet voice crooned from a jukebox in the corner, lending a cozy intimacy to a place that smelled of burgers and chicken fried steak.
“What are we doing?” she asked, voice hoarse and husky as if she were a chain smoker.
“Getting some coffee into you before I take you home. Trust me, you’re in no condition to face Aunt Eleanor right now.” He steered her into a brown padded booth before taking a seat on the other side, its polished maple table scarred and etched with initials and hearts.
“Thank you,” she whispered again, hands and eyes fused to the purse in her lap.
He leaned in with elbows flat, his voice softer than before. “Annie . . . look at me.”
She shook her head, a shimmering curtain of silky blonde hair falling over one eye, making her appear both innocent and sexy all at the same time.
Puffing out a sigh, he reached to lift her chin. “I need you to look at me, Annie, please?”
A frail heave quivered through her and she slowly looked up, eyes spidered with red.
“Why did you go there tonight?” he said quietly.
Her throat shifted before she answered. “P-peggy said J-joanie and the others wanted to take me out for my b-birthday, but I thought they just meant d-dinner . . . at a nice restaurant.” Tears flooded her eyes. “I . . . didn’t know . . . it would be a speakeasy, Steven, I s-swear.”
“I believe you,” he said, relief seeping out on a quiet sigh. He sat back and folded his arms, head cocked as he studied her through slatted eyes. “But why did you drink the booze?”
“Hi, folks, what’ll it be tonight?” A waitress too perky for the way Steven felt pulled a pencil from behind her ear and a pad from her apron pocket, brows arched in question.
“Two cups of coffee, please, as hot and strong as it comes.” He squinted at the menu, encased in a plastic holder on the wall of the booth, then glanced at Annie. “You hungry?”
She shook her head and he ignored her response, ordering two hamburgers, two orders of French fried potatoes, a piece of peach pie, and a glass of milk. “Cream in your coffee?”
“Please,” she said quietly, fingers fiddling with the leather fringe on the flap of her purse.
He smiled at the waitress. “One black, one cream.”
“Coming right up.” Miss Perky tucked the pencil back in her ear and disappeared.
“So . . . ,” he said, a bit more bite in his tone, “I’m going to ask you again—why did you drink tonight? Was that whole spiel about you turning back to God just a put-on?”
Her head shot up in a flash of green eyes. “No, of course not! I meant every word.”
He planted arms on the table, hands loosely clasped and eyes pensive. “Then why?”
Color burnished her cheeks and she shifted, clearly ill at ease as her hands shrank to her lap. “You won’t believe me.”
“Try me,” he said, lips flat.
She drew in a deep breath and peeked up, the color heightening in her face. “I think Erica may have spiked my drink, only I didn’t know it.”
“You didn’t know it,” he repeated dully, his suspicion on the rise once again. His voice edged toward curt. “You didn’t taste it? Smell it? Feel woozy when the booze took effect?”
“See? I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” she said with a jut of her chin, temper obviously prickled. “And no, I didn’t smell or taste it, and by the time I suspected anything, it was too late.”
“What kind of drink was it?” He waited while she paused, his eyes narrowing a tad.
She swallowed hard. “Dr Pepper.”
“Did you see Erica or anyone pour anything in?”
“No, of course not,” she said in a huff. “Do you really think I would drink it if I did?”
“I don’t know, Annie,” he said leaning back against the booth with a fold of his arms. “You’re not exactly the most honest girl I know.”
The green eyes blinked wide. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
His smile went stiff as his anger resurged, every syllable as pointed as the look in his eyes. “I don’t know, you tell me . . . Susannah-Grace-Kennedy.” A muscle twitched in his jaw. “And while you’re at it, why don’t you give me an update on how my old girlfriend’s doing?”
“Here you go, two coffees—one cream, one black, both piping hot. The burgers are about up, so I’ll be back in a jiff.” The waitress set the coffees and utensils down before flitting away.
Annie didn’t move or blink while she stared in her cup, crimson bleeding into her cheeks.
His coffee spilled when he jerked up his mug, the liquid scalding his fingers like her deception scalded his temper. “You have nothing to say?”
A knot jerked in her throat and she looked up, almost a square to her shoulders as she steeled her jaw. “I was wrong, Steven, I should have told you. But I never expected—” She lowered her gaze to blow on her coffee, obviously in an effort to stall.
“Never expected what?” he asked sharply, glaring over the rim of his cup. She took a timid sip while a full range of emotions flickered across her beautiful face, from hesitation and worry, to vulnerability and shame. And something deeper that raced his pulse and tightened his gut all at the same time.
She drew in a deep breath before forging on, her gaze finally rising to meet his. “I never expected to . . .” Her voice trailed off until it was barely audible. “Fall in love with you,” she said quietly, the truth hovering in the air like the steam from the coffee.
She may as well have tossed it in his face—it burned all the same. His jaw went as firm as his will. “You’re not in love with me, Annie.”
A frail sigh withered from her lips while a sheen of sadness welled in her eyes. “I wasn’t sure either,” she whispered, “until you kissed me that night when you took Glory and me home.”
He bent forward, palms clutching the table and his tone so harsh and cutting, he saw her flinch. “That was a mistake.”
“Yes,” she whispered, tears giving way to glints of anger, “it was, Steven, because that night you planted the seed of hope that someday you might feel for me what I feel for you.”
He slammed his fist on the table, spilling his coffee. “Blast it, Annie, you’re too young.”
“That’s just an excuse, and we both know it.”
His mouth went slack. “For the love of all that’s decent—you’re Maggie’s kid sister! Do you really think I can do this with you?”
She hoisted her chin, blinking back her tears. “I not only think you can, I think you do, but you’re too stubborn to admit it.”
He gaped, shaking his head as he dropped back in the seat, arm draped over the top. His lips parted in a hard smile meant to convey his disbelief. “You’re out of your mind, kid, you know that? Drink your coffee,” he ordered, “the alcohol’s still muddling your brain.”
She did what he said, eyes averted and manner calming as if every drink she took braced her for battle. When she finished, she carefully laid the mug down and folded her hands neatly on the table, looking for all her eighteen years and tear-splotched face as if she were the adult and he was the pie-eyed kid on a bender. “What are you afraid of, Steven?” she whispered.
That did it. “You want to know what I’m afraid of?” he demanded. “I’m afraid of this—some kid still wet behind the ears thinking it’s smart to fool around with a guy like me.”
“I have no intention of ‘fooling around’ with you,” she said quietly, the strength of her words belying the softness of her tone. “No matter how I feel about you.”
He stared open-mouthed, heat scalding his neck at the audacity of her statement. His pride prickled. Who did she think she was? Women threw themselves at him all the time. For pity’s sake, her own sister threw herself at him! And she thought she’d be different? He folded arms on the table and leaned in. “Don’t be so sure, little sister,” he said, a trace of anger in a voice that was husky and low. “You Kennedys don’t have the best track record, you know.”
He heard the sharp catch of her breath and took satisfaction in the blush that broiled her cheeks. And then she opened fire like one of Capone’s thugs, gunning him down with a flash of her eyes. “Well, this is a different Kennedy, Agent O’Connor, and a different sister, and you know what? I think you’re running scared. You can deny your feelings all you want, but the truth is, you kissed me—not once, but twice, not to mention interfering in my life at every turn—”
“Interfering in your life?” His voice rose along with his blood pressure.
She defied him with a hard thrust of her chin, eyes glittering. “Yes, first with Billy Brubaker, then Joe and Dale Brannock, and now Eddie tonight when you dragged me away.”
“Dragged-you-away?” He blinked, barely able to believe he was wasting good breath arguing with a kid who was obviously as thick as she was tipsy. “I should have let them throw your carcass in jail, you brainless brat, and then you’d be Aunt Eleanor’s problem, not mine.”
“Exactly,” she snapped, as if he’d just proven her point. “But you didn’t. You risked your job and your reputation to haul me out of there tonight, so if we’re going to talk ‘brainless,’ Agent O’Connor, then I suggest you look in the mirror, because unless I miss my guess, you are one dim-witted man with his head in the sand.”
Miss Perky chose that moment to light on the booth, as welcome as a plague of locusts. “Here you go—two burgers, two orders of French fried potatoes, a slab of peach pie, and a glass of milk.” She dazzled them with a grin. “Anything else?”
Steven forced a smile, jaw clenched so tight his teeth ached. “Just the check.”
“Sure thing.” She placed the bill on the table and patted it for good measure. “Enjoy!”
Grinding his jaw, he grabbed his burger and bit in hard, singeing Annie with a glare.
She didn’t seem to notice, annoying him to no end. Lips pursed, she carefully cut her burger in half and took a dainty bite while perusing the menu with apparent fascination.
Halfway through his sandwich, he expelled a noisy breath. “Why are we arguing?”
She turned, chin elevated and brows raised. “Because you’re dim-witted and scared?”
He hurled his half-eaten burger on the plate. “Don’t start with me, Annie.”
“All right, Steven, how ’bout I finish with you instead? Just because I’m in love with you doesn’t mean you can bully me around like some . . . some snot-nosed kid fresh off the farm.”
“You are some snot-nosed kid fresh off the farm,” he hissed.
“Fine. Have it your way. There are plenty of guys who see me otherwise.”
A harsh laugh erupted from his throat. “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen the kind of jokers you attract. Like that clown tonight with his hands all over you.”
She pushed her burger away, the anger in her tone matching her eyes. “He-was-consoling-me, you dimwit, and at least he’s man enough to take a chance on a girl that he likes.”
Her statement barbed, discharging his temper with another stony smile. “Sure, why not when he knows he can get what he wants?”
Her breath hitched, and he regretted the words the moment they left his mouth, but it was too late. Her face sagged from anger into hurt. Chin trembling, she silently rose, hands shaking while she groped for her purse.
“Annie, look, I’m sorry—”
Taking a step forward, she hauled off and slapped him so fast he never saw it coming, bells clanging in his skull as loudly as those from the door when it slammed hard behind her.