Redemption

re·demp·tion
rəˈdem(p)SH(ə)n/
noun
  1. the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.

The next book in my Beach Haven series is A Soul Redeemed, so I wanted to take a look at the word “redemption” before I share a little excerpt from the first chapter.

I like the idea that redemption can also mean being saved from error, not just sin or evil. Every single one of us has erred in life in some way, big or small. We’ve all sinned, too, for that matter, but I doubt that most of us can relate to doing anything that is truly evil. In this book, I wanted to explore some of those errors and the regrets that go with them.

In short, I wanted to give a couple of my favorite supporting characters a chance to redeem themselves.

Jacqueline’s need for redemption is pretty obvious in light of her manipulative behavior in Her House Divided. To be perfectly honest, this character has really been bothering me since the end of that book. I’ve been wanting to tell her story, to explain why she does the horrible things she does. I wanted to face the challenge of somehow getting readers to like an unlikable character.

Ben, though, seems like a pretty nice guy, doesn’t he? The kind, easygoing, laid-back attorney has been sort of an understated comic relief character throughout the series. But what if he has a secret? What if he is the one who is truly in need of redemption?

That was my starting point for A Soul Redeemed.  I am tentatively looking at Friday, July 15 as a release date, but that date is not firm yet.

Ready to check out a sneak peek at Chapter one?

*****

A Soul Redeemed

Ben Jacobs took a deep breath and resisted the urge to kick the door of his car. It wasn’t the car’s fault that he was having a bad morning, after all. He tried shifting his briefcase, the box of doughnuts, the bouquet of flowers, and what remained of his coffee – having spilled half of it down the front of his suit on the drive to work – but still couldn’t manage to free one hand so he could shut the door.

Grunting, he put the box of doughnuts on top of the car and tried again. The box slid down the windshield, flipped over, and promptly landed upside-down on the pavement.

He closed his eyes. Bad enough that he had dumped the doughnuts on the ground; no man could be expected to gaze upon the tragedy of a fresh apple fritter destroyed in such a manner. The cruller and the éclair were acceptable losses on a day like today, but not the fritter.

Ben sighed. He set everything down on the ground and closed the car door with exaggerated care, after which he gathered his things and slowly made his way to his office. He half-expected the sky to open and dump buckets of rain on him just to continue with the whole theme of his morning, but the bright blue May sky remained annoyingly clear and cheerful, almost as though the universe itself were trying to get on his last nerve.

His assistant looked up in surprise when he dropped the flowers on her desk. “Happy birthday, Beverly,” he told her. “There were doughnuts, too, but they didn’t make it.”

“Thank you. My birthday is next month.”

“Of course it is.”

“The flowers are lovely, Ben. This was very sweet of you.” Beverly smiled up at him, taking in the rumpled and stained suit in one sweeping glance. “Spilled your coffee again?”

He nodded.

“And the white stuff on your shoulder?”

“Seagull.”

“Again?”

“Again.”

She chuckled. “Welcome back. I’ve put your mail on your desk,” she told him. “Along with your phone messages. Tiffany has already called twice this morning about the dog. And . . . I’m about to ruin your day a little bit more. There’s someone waiting for you in your office. I told her to wait out here, but she insisted. I’m sorry.”

Ben swore. His assistant was a deceptively tiny, middle-aged woman with the iron will of an army drill sergeant, and he knew from experience that there was only one person who refused to be intimidated by her. If that person was waiting for him in his office, his day was definitely going to continue with its downward trend.

He took yet another deep breath, squared his shoulders, and marched into his office. That’s right, he told himself. My office. Mine. This is my territory, my turf, and I am not going to let Jacqueline Davis push me around.

Jacqueline was seated at his desk rather than in one of the plush brown chairs that were intended for his clients. She was impeccably dressed as usual, in a mint-green dress that played up her porcelain skin and shoulder-length blond hair. There was an elegant grace in the way she moved when she leaned forward to rest her chin on one delicate hand, her lips curving into a humorless smile.

“Running a little late this morning, Ben?”

“Why are you here?” he asked. “Don’t you have some orphans to evict or something?”

“That’s on this afternoon’s schedule. I cleared this morning’s schedule so I could meet with you.”

“Fantastic. Beverly already told you that I have no interest in representing you,” he said. “Besides, you have an attorney, and you don’t need me.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. Please, sit down so we can discuss my situation.”

“You’re . . . in my chair, Jacqueline.”

Her laugh scraped on his nerves. She stood and strolled around to the front of his desk like a spoiled housecat strutting in front of a captive audience, and he couldn’t keep his gaze from sweeping up and down her trim figure and appreciating what he saw.

She was a tall woman, her eyes almost even with his when she stopped directly in front of him. There was a triumphant gleam in her eyes that told him she had noticed exactly where he had been looking.

 

Preview: Their Love Rekindled!

Okay, guys, it’s the home stretch. Their Love Rekindled is going to be released on Friday, November 20!

I am so excited about the way this one has turned out. I even surprised myself with a few of the plot twists. Like the rest of the books in this series, Their Love Rekindled is a standalone story that can be read with or without the others. There are, however, a few familiar names and faces making a cameo appearance or two.

I’m ready to share a sneak peek here, although I am a bit nervous about introducing my new characters to the world. Here’s the book’s description as it will show up on the Amazon page:

Everyone in Beach Haven thought Aaron and Cassie were the perfect couple. Right up until Cassie eloped with Aaron’s best friend, that is.

Now, ten years later, Cassie has been widowed and Aaron is asked to come home and speak at a memorial in her late husband’s honor. He’s got to find a way past his anger and hurt to forgive his old friend, but he doesn’t expect to find that his feelings for Cassie are stronger than ever.

Cassie never expected to see Aaron again, especially since he’s made a life for himself in Texas all these years. She’s got no choice but to keep her distance from him because she knows he’ll never be able to forgive her if he ever finds out the truth she’s been hiding from him. But how can she keep her distance when just seeing him brings back all of the old memories of what they once shared?

Since Chapter One will be available in the “Look Inside” when the book goes live on Amazon, I’ve decided to share a different part. The following scene takes place a few chapters in, when things start to heat up in the kitchen.

***

She whirled. “Why are you here, Aaron?”

“Supper. Your son invited me, remember?”

“No, I mean why are you here in Beach Haven? Why did you come back? And when are you leaving?”

He shrugged. “My sister called me last week and said she needed help taking care of Mom after the surgery and her infection and everything. I took a leave of absence from work and got here as fast as I could, but now . . .”

She waited.

“Mom’s not as bad as they made it sound,” he admitted. “They tricked me. They want me to speak about Mikey at the fundraiser. Mom has this crazy idea that I need to make some kind of peace with his memory. I wasn’t going to do it, to be honest. I planned on getting right back in my car first thing tomorrow and heading back to Texas.”

“Good. Have a safe trip.” She watched the surprised grin pop up on his face, as though there was something funny about her rudeness.

“I said I wasn’t going to do it. Now, I’m thinking about it.”

“Well, don’t. Don’t think about it at all.”

Absently, Aaron picked up a dishtowel and started drying the bowls she had washed. “I don’t want to hate him anymore, Cass,” he finally said. “Or you. You two were my best friends, and I loved you both. I just can’t . . . I can’t get past . . . I feel like I need to stay and say my good-bye to Mikey. I missed his funeral, but I can do this much for him.”

She reached out to take the towel from him, and their hands touched. Her fingertips tingled at the contact.

He was hurting; that much was plain to see. She’d had a year to accept Mikey’s sudden death, but Aaron had somehow managed to avoid dealing with it until now. No matter what had happened between the three of them or how many years had gone by without speaking, the two men had been like brothers. She could see his struggle between grief and anger written clearly on his face.

Without thinking about it, she reached up with her other hand to touch his face. Closing his eyes, he leaned into the warmth of her touch, and she caught her breath as the tingle turned into a jolt of electricity that flared through her entire body.

He slipped an arm around her waist and drew her closer. His body felt warm and firm against hers; she longed to slip her hand inside his shirt and run her fingers across the muscles of his chest, to seek out the familiarity of the body she had once known so well. For an instant, she could almost hear the pounding of the waves and moaning of the foghorn as she remembered again the way their bodies had moved together so long ago in the tiny room of the old North Pier lighthouse.

His lips brushed hers, tentatively at first but growing more insistent. She responded, her tongue meeting his as he pulled her even closer. Their bodies still fit together perfectly, just ast they always had. She could feel his arousal pressed against her and she wanted to feel more of him, even though the logical part of her mind was shouting at her to stop.

Aaron touched her cheek and pulled away suddenly, looking down at the wetness on his fingertips. Embarrassed, she brushed away the tears she hadn’t even realized she had shed.

“Cassie –“ he whispered.

Just then, they both heard Trevor’s footsteps stomping across the room upstairs. The boy was obviously still unhappy about being forced to do his homework, and he was going to let everyone know exactly how he felt about it.

Pull yourself together! She scolded herself. “You need to leave, Aaron. Go back to your mom’s house, and go back to Texas. The fire chief can speak about Miguel at the talent show. You really shouldn’t be here.”

Aaron looked up at the ceiling and then back down at her. The tenderness she had seen in his eyes was gone, replaced by a cold, calculating gaze that she had never seen before.

“I’ll go back to Mom’s tonight, “ he told her. “But I’m not going back to Texas until I find out if Trevor is my son or not. If I have to get a court order for a paternity test, I will. But one way or another, I’m staying in Beach Haven until I find out the truth.”

Their Love Rekindled: Cover Reveal

Well, it’s taken a bit longer than I had anticipated, but I’m almost ready to release the third book in my Beach Haven series: Their Love Rekindled.

If you’ve read Her House Divided and His Heart Aflame, you may remember a young firefighter named Miguel “Mikey” Garcia, who died tragically in the line of duty. My newest book tells the story of those he left behind– specifically, his widow Cassie. It’s a story of healing, of forgiveness, and learning to love again.

My first two books were set on the beach in summer, so it only seemed natural that this one should explore the raw beauty and power of the lake in winter. Personally, it’s my favorite time of year to visit the beach; I wanted to share that appreciation of a Lake Michigan winter through the eyes of Cassie and her former flame, Aaron.

I’ll be sharing a “sneak peek” at one of the chapters soon, but for now, I’m thrilled to share the cover with you. Once again, I went with Jessica Richardson at CoverBistro.com, and I am really pleased with the results. As always, she did a fabulous job.

Their Love Rekindled 1 print

So, whaddya think?

Good Morning!

It’s ten a.m., and I’m sitting at the computer in my jammies. I’ve lost count of how many cups of coffee I’ve inhaled, or how many times I’ve thought about taking a break only to push the thought aside and keep writing until the kids wake up and need me. Don’t judge me for letting them sleep in; it’s summer vacation.

I’m hungry. My ankles are swollen. I really have to pee.  And let’s face it; I’m pretty sure I stink.

This is not my fault.

I blame the writing workshop I attended last night. The instructor has been talking about plotting and structure, and I don’t remember ever feeling so driven to hurry home and write. I was home by eight, and I figured I could “burn the midnight oil” to make a lot of progress before going to bed. I felt like a real writer, like an artist starving to create a masterpiece. Yessir, I had a real fire in my belly.

Have I mentioned that I also have kids? More specifically, kids with nothing in their bellies.

My seven year-old greeted me on his bike at the foot of the driveway, surrounded by a posse of small people on similar bikes. “I’m hungry,” he announced as soon as I stepped out of my friend’s car.

“Didn’t your brother feed you?”

“Nope.”

My sixteen year-old sat on the couch, reading. “Is there a reason you chose not to feed your little brother any supper tonight?” I asked.

Shrug. “It’s not supper time yet.”

“Son, it’s after eight.”

“He never said he was hungry.”

This is the child I have entrusted with his brother’s safety while I work. Honor Student, National Honor Society member, general overachiever academically speaking, but apparently a bit lacking in common sense when it comes to child care. I may have to re-think this particular arrangement.

Out came the Foreman grill and burgers, plates and buns. Thirty minutes later, they’d been fed and the youngest was begging to be allowed to go back outside for s’mores at the neighbor’s bonfire. Which, of course, resulted in a sticky child in dire need of a bath, despite the fact that this child is terrified of my bathtub because he believes the rust stains are bloodstains. Every time he gets a bath at my house, he is absolutely convinced that something is going to climb out of the drain and kill him, so I have to stay in the bathroom with him for the entire bath to ensure his safety.

At one point, I also had to start texting my wayward daughter, who had taken my car to work nearly twelve hours earlier and apparently vanished from the face of the planet. Or at least outside of the calling area. Otherwise, she would surely have called or texted to let me know where she was and whether or not she was safe.

Shortly after learning that the Princess was safe but forgetful, I got a giggly phone call from a friend who thinks she has found me the perfect man. There was talk of a blind date with a handsome acupuncturist she met in the hot tub at the local wellness center; however, she doesn’t know his name or anything about him beyond the fact that he is “book smart” and has some distinguished gray at the temples. She wants me to come with her on the next family night so I can meet him, but somehow I don’t think I’ll be feeling my most attractive in a bathing suit, in a hot tub, or meeting a man who just may want to stick needles in me.

So what it boils down to is that I didn’t even get a chance to look at my computer until this morning, and I have been kicking butt ever since.  Their Love Rekindled is finished in rough draft, but I’ve made the decision to go back through and apply what I’ve learned in the workshop. I’ve been doing some restructuring, cutting, re-writing and –I hope – improving upon what I had already created.  I feel like I’m making it so much stronger, so much more coherent.

I had originally planned on releasing this one at the end of July, but now I want to push that back a bit. I want to make it the absolute best book it can be, and that’s going to take a little longer. I am going to aim for Labor Day Weekend, and I plan on sharing my first chapter here within the next few weeks just to give you all a taste of what to expect.

I’m also seeing a lot of things I wish I had done differently in my other books, although I’m not really sure whether I’m going to go back and make changes or not. To be honest, I’m sort of feeling ready to put my Beach Haven series aside for a while and dive into the new series that’s been percolating for a while.  It’s about three childhood friends, a fortune-teller, and the idea of Love and Destiny.

I’m thinking about making one of the characters an overworked, overstressed single mom who works four part-time jobs while writing romance novels and falling in love with a handsome acupuncturist after a chance meeting in a hot tub.

Or maybe it’s just time for me to switch to decaf.

Leo

There’s a new guy in my life, and he is amazing. He’s got gorgeous golden hair and big brown eyes that are exactly the color of melted chocolate, and I am just blown away by the utter adoration I see in those eyes whenever he looks at me.

When our eyes meet, it’s almost like he can’t get to me fast enough. He can’t wait to get his paws on me and cover me with wet, eager kisses.  Sometimes, at night, he stands under my bedroom window and calls out to me, forcing me to open the window and hiss at him to hush before he wakes the whole street.

He can never be mine, though. He belongs to another woman. That’s right; I have become something I never thought I could be. I am the Other Woman.

But it’s all right, because Leo is sort of a hound. A real dirty dog.

Actually, more of Golden Retriever mix. Leo is my neighbor’s new dog, and I really don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that he is obsessed with me. He’s been known to jump into my car and perch on the passenger seat with an expectant look on his face, as if to say, “Hey, baby, where’re we going?” He dodges past me and into my home to sit in the middle of my living room, and I swear he looks like he’s saying, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!”

Although his young owner is terribly embarrassed by his behavior, I have to admit that I’m kind of enjoying it. I miss the dog that I left behind with my ex-husband, so it’s always nice to be able to shower a little bit of affection on someone else’s dog once in a while. But more than that, it’s refreshing to have some attention and yes, adoration, from a male of any species at this point in my life.

God, I hate being single.

I was never very good at dating, even when I was younger. I was always self-conscious about something, whether it was my weight or my lack of experience with men or the fact that I am just not a very sophisticated person. I once dated a really, really rich guy and spent every date worrying about whether or not I was using the right fork. He was a very sweet man, but so far out of my league that it could never have worked.

So here I am, single and nearly fifty years old, and I write romance novels.  Could I be any more of a living cliché? Well, maybe if I get a few cats.

I think that’s why I tend to write about average people. The characters in my novels are not billionaires or heiresses or even corporate VIPs, although I enjoy reading books with those type of characters. I write about people like me. People who work as hairdressers and teachers or mechanics and worry about making the mortgage. I write about people who are searching for something in life, but not necessarily love; I try to write about people who are looking for a spot to land, a place to call home, a life that fits. And, of course, since I write romance novels, they always find love while searching for something else.

So far, my characters are also healing, physically or emotionally, because that’s where I’ve been in my own life these past few years.  Whether it was Tara recovering from her car accident, Lisa moving on after her divorce, or Maggie learning to follow through, I’ve tried to write about women who find love because they grow and heal; I don’t ever want to create the kind of female characters who have to be rescued by a man in order to be complete.  The flipside of this is my desire to create male characters that are also in need of healing and/or personal growth. Ethan needs to let go of his bitterness and anger, Sean needs to grow up and make a decision for himself, and Daniel needs to let go of his fantasy woman so he can get to know the real woman he is falling for.

I believe in love. I believe it’s every bit as necessary as food or water or air. I believe I’ll find it again, and that’s why I write romance novels despite my being single.

I think that’s also why I’m struggling so much with Their Love Rekindled. Cassie Garcia is a single mom, a widow trying to repair her life after losing her firefighter husband in Her House Divided. She is a woman with many secrets and a responsibility to protect her dead husband’s reputation in a small town full of whispers and gossip. In this book, I’m trying to show another side of the cozy little town I’ve built in the rest of my series.

I love Cassie. She’s a great character to write.

Her love interest, however, is giving me trouble. He’s her first love, a teenage romance coming home after being gone for too many years.  He’s a soldier and . . . that’s it. I wanted to give him PTSD or some horrible war injuries, but everything I write just comes out clichéd and melodramatic. Overused. Been there, done that, read the book and saw the movie.

So I think my soldier is going to go back overseas for a while, at least until my next book. Cassie’s high school sweetheart is still coming home to rekindle a few things, but his wounds are from a different type of battle. While Cassie has closed off her emotions in order to focus on her goals, Aaron is a lost soul searching for answers to questions he has spent years trying not to ask.

I like Aaron. He’s a good guy, but a bit of an asshole.

My Beach Haven stories have been all about people finding a place to belong in a warm, loving community. It’s about a small town that’s more like a family. Their Love Rekindled is about the uglier side of small-town life, with the gossip and judgment that sometimes come with everyone knowing everyone else’s business. In the end, the question isn’t as much about Cassie and Aaron rekindling their love for one another as it is about rekindling their love for their home town.

And . . . now I’m excited about it again. Someday, I may write about a billionaire who comes in to rescue the damsel in distress. I may write a historical romance set in the old Wild West. I don’t know where I’m going or what kind of things I may write someday, and I’ll never say never about any kind of topic or character. But for right now, I’m happy writing about men and women in a small town; I’m happy writing about average people like me, people who have a lot of growing and healing to do on the way to finding love.

And one of those characters, somewhere along the line, is going to have a dog named Leo.

Sneak Peek: His Heart Aflame

When published my first book ten months ago, I had very little idea what I was doing.  It was definitely an impulsive decision to self-publish through Amazon rather than submit it to a traditional publisher.  And let’s be honest; I was aiming for Harlequin but sort of got in a huff after participating in their So You Think You Can Write contest.  I wasn’t sure whether to be mad at them or disappointed in myself, so instead I self-published with absolutely no plans for marketing or promotion.

I’ve learned an awful lot during those ten months, but the next few days are going to show whether I’ve learned enough to make a difference or not.  My newest effort is scheduled for release in five days, and I am so keyed up about it that I may not sleep between now and then.

I’m pretty much guaranteed to eat mass quantities of chocolate.

There will probably be wine involved as well.

Aw, hell, forget the “probably.”  We all know there’s going to be wine involved.

At any rate, His Heart Aflame will be available on Saturday, December 20 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, CreateSpace, and iBooks.  It’s available for pre-order right now, and Her House Divided, Book #1 in my Beach Haven series, is now available at all of those same outlets.

Just to tempt you all just a little bit (and maybe to pat myself on the back just a tad), I’d like to share Chapter One right here in my blog.  Please enjoy!

Chapter One

Sean Jackson knew better than to drive in this condition. He was an experienced First Responder who had worked more than his fair share of accident scenes created by idiots who didn’t think they were too tired to drive. He knew first-hand that driving tired could be just as dangerous as driving drunk, but here he was, tired beyond all belief, driving his exhausted self home down a dark stretch of road and calling himself every name in the book.

He opened the window to let in the fresh air and a few drops of rain, and turned up the volume of the vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd he always played when he was exhausted after a fire call. Just a few more miles, and he’d be home safely. A few more miles, and he’d be able to take a long, hot shower and fall into his nice soft bed for at least a few hours.

Until it was time to go to work, or until some idiot started another grass fire.

He groaned out loud. Normally, he could handle the pressure of a full-time job and his work as a volunteer firefighter. But there had been a rash of grass fires over the past few weeks that had pushed him to the point where he just wasn’t sure how much longer he could continue doing both. He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept more than two or three hours at a stretch.

Sean wished he had a cup of coffee in the truck with him. He was beyond the point where caffeine was going to do him any good, but at least the warmth and steam would help keep his eyes open. He blinked rapidly and cleared his throat, ready to start singing along with Gimme Three Steps until he realized that he was too tired to remember the words.

He was just going to have to pull over on the shoulder and sleep it off right there in the front seat. That was all there was to it. He was just too damned exhausted to drive those last few miles. All he had to do was round the curve on County Road 388, where the shoulder widened out and gave a nice smooth spot to park and—

The woman came out of nowhere.

He had a split second to take in the fact that she wore something white that seemed to glow in his headlights. He caught a glimpse of a pale face and wide terrified eyes, and then he was spinning out of control on the wet pavement as he jerked the wheel to the left. He pumped the brakes and swore, not sure if he was angrier at himself for driving when his reflexes were this slow, or at that stupid woman for running down a dark country road at four o’clock in the morning.

He wasn’t sleepy any more.

He finally fought the truck to a stop on the wrong side of the road, facing the opposite direction. He sat there for a moment, breathing deeply.

There had been no thud. He hadn’t hit the woman. At least, he didn’t think he had. Sean jumped out and ran around front to examine the front of his truck. No new dents, no blood, no sign of any kind of impact. He hadn’t hurt anyone.

But where was she? He reached under the seat for his flashlight and Detroit Tigers baseball cap. Pulling the hat brim down low to keep the rain out of his eyes, he ventured into the darkness and aimed the light towards the woods.

“Miss?” he called. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?”

Silence.

“I can help you. I’m with the Beach Haven Fire Department. Miss?”

He thought he heard something behind him, but it was just the metallic clang of raindrops hitting his truck. Really could have used this rain an hour ago to help put out the grass fire, he thought. Not doing me much good now.

He crossed the road and peered intently into the trees. He did not want to go in there. It wasn’t exactly a jungle wilderness full of dangerous beasts, but he didn’t care to come up against beasts of the non-dangerous sort in the wee hours of the morning on a lonely country road. Still, it was his responsibility to look for the woman, damn it.

The very stupid woman who enjoyed running out in front of moving vehicles on dark rainy nights. He had a few choice words for her when he found her.

If he found her. “Come on, help a guy out here,” he shouted. “It’s wet and I’m tired and I just want to go home. I’m not in the mood for Hide and Seek.” The smell of smoke and sweat arose from his clothes as the rain soaked through to his skin, and the tap-tap-tap of his headache was quickly becoming more of a bang-bang-bang against the inside of his skull.

He skidded down the slight incline from the shoulder of the road into the trees. Damn, it was dark. No moon, no stars, just heavy clouds and too many trees bursting with an abundance of late-spring leaves. The flashlight beam seemed pitifully insignificant, swallowed up by the night.

Ahead of him, a pair of tiny yellow eyes glittered his light. He swallowed and forced himself to take another step, nearly jumping out of his skin when his shirt caught on a tree branch.

Sean took a deep breath and told himself to calm down. You’ve been in the woods in the dark before, he scolded himself. Camping, hunting — hell, the whole department was out here just a couple months ago looking for body parts after that train/pedestrian accident. This is nothing compared to that. Man up.

Determined, he pushed aside a pine branch, only to have it slip out of his grasp and give him a wet slap in the face.

Okay, time to re-think this. He was basically getting his butt handed to him by the wet, dark woods, and he was armed with a flashlight and a lifelong familiarity with the area. Was it really possible that a woman in a big, bulky dress was slipping around silently in these same woods without a light? He shined the light around again, looking for flashes of white or pieces of fabric caught on the same kind of branches that had torn his t-shirt, but saw nothing. He then stood perfectly still and listened.

Nothing but rain hitting the leaves with increasing intensity.

There is no one else out here, he realized.

Which meant one of two things: Either the mystery woman had vanished into thin air, or he had imagined her. Neither answer really appealed to him, but he decided that he’d rather solve the mystery from somewhere safe and warm. And preferably dry. He turned and slogged his way back through the trees and scrambled back up the incline to the road.

He was surprised to see the tailgate of his truck hanging open. That was strange; he remembered shoving his gear bag in there under the tonneau cover when they’d cleared the scene, but he could have sworn he’d latched it. He shined the light inside to satisfy himself that his things were still there, nodding when he saw the vague outlines of his belongings, and slammed it shut before climbing back into the seat.

Damn, he was tired. So tired that he’d driven all this way with his tailgate hanging open, which could have cost him his all of the gear and tools he kept stowed in the back of his truck. So tired that he had imagined seeing a strange woman in white running down a lonely country road in the middle of the night.

I wouldn’t be this tired if I did this full-time, he thought. Sure, the pros worked several days in a row, but they got to go off-duty afterward. They didn’t have to work two jobs, either. And full-time professional firefighters seemed to earn a certain degree of respect that volunteers just didn’t get. Sean thought about the interview he’d gone to earlier in the week in a Grand Rapids suburb and wondered for the hundredth time what he would do if they actually offered him the job.

One thing he knew for sure: no full-time fire department was going to hire him if they knew he was seeing imaginary women on rainy country roads.

He had to have imagined her. He so wiped out that he was hallucinating. That was the only possible explanation. It certainly made more sense than some crazy lady running around in a white dress in the middle of the night and then disappearing without a trace. It made more sense, but it wasn’t comforting to realize that he had almost wrecked his truck over a fatigue-induced hallucination.

Get a grip, Jackson. Go home, get some rest, and don’t ever mention this to anyone.

Right. He put the truck in gear, turned it around, and cranked up the volume just as Sweet Home Alabama started. It was enough to get him home, where he pulled into his attached garage and stumbled toward the door to his home. He knew he should hang his wet gear and make a few phone calls to let people know he was going to be late for work, but he just didn’t care.

He stepped out of his boots on his way through the door and started shucking wet clothes on his way to the bedroom. All thoughts of taking a shower were gone, replaced by visions of a soft pillow and a comfortable bed. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a little voice was trying to remind him that he stunk, and that his bedding was going to stink, too; he firmly told the annoying little voice to shut the hell up and collapsed face-down on top of the quilted comforter.

Sure was a pretty hallucination, he thought, and then he was out.