You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
WordVessel Press (September 25, 2012)
***Special thanks to Cathy Bryant for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
You can learn more about her and her books at http://www.CatBryant.com and http://WordVessel.blogspot.com.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
In pursuit of justice, in need of grace . . .
A justice-seeking perfectionist pursues her dream of a perfect life in her hometown of Miller’s Creek, Texas. Sidetracked by the desire to be a prosecuting attorney, Grace Soldano launches into uncharted waters, making herself over to please her boss and mentor. Then a disheveled free spirit turns her perfectly ordered world upside down, challenging the concept of personal goodness. A fall from perfection leaves Grace teetering between vengeance and grace, caught in a deadly crossfire that leaves her dreams in a heap of ashes. Can she learn to joyfully accept the life God has given her–far from perfect–but one completely immersed in His grace?
List Price: $12.99
Paperback: 318 pages
Publisher: WordVessel Press (September 25, 2012)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
A car horn blasted through the summer evening air, followed by tires screeching against pavement and the rancid smell of burning rubber. Grace yanked her head in Mama’s direction. The noisy blast continued as a car bore down on them. Everything went pitch black as Mama’s piercing scream joined her own, followed by a deadly thud.
Heart racing, Grace jerked awake, forcing herself to a sitting position. The same old nightmare. She brought both hands to her face and gulped in air to slow her pounding pulse. Why now? She’d endured the last year of law school and the bar exam without memories of that awful night plaguing her. But now that she was back in Miller’s Creek to work for Tyler, Dent, and Snodgrass as a full-fledged attorney, the dream shattered her sleep for the fourth time in a week.
Grace pulled her hands away from her face—almost afraid to find them dripping with blood—then glanced at the alarm clock on her makeshift nightstand. 5:15 in the morning. She flopped back on the bed and stared at the dark nothingness above her head. There was no way she’d get back to sleep now. Might as well get an early start.
A sudden rush of excitement coursed through her veins. All her hard work had finally paid off. Now it was time to enjoy herself for a change and initiate her life plan, which included a stellar career, new house, Mr. Right, and of course, children.
She removed the band that confined her hair and gave her head a shake. Better to just focus on her career at this point, her best chance at proving her worth—to Papa, to the people of Miller’s Creek, and to Mr. Right, whoever he was.
The cold floor beneath her bare feet sent shivers rippling through her body as she raced down the hallway to the tiny kitchen to make a pot of coffee for Papa. Within a few minutes the coffee machine gurgled and the fresh-brewed aroma permeated every square inch of the house. She was just about to head for a shower when Papa entered.
“You’re up early.” His eyes held questions.
There was no way she’d tell him about the nightmare. No need to cause him worry or pain. “Just excited about this being my first day as an attorney.”
He wandered past her to pull a coffee cup from the cabinet. “It’s all you’ve talked about for weeks.” He droned the words, his voice flat.
Grace rolled her lips between her teeth. It would be nice to have a word of congratulations--anything to recognize her hard work and achievement--but wishing for it wouldn’t make it happen. Instead she sent a sad smile. “I’d better get ready for work.”
She hurried down the hall to the only bathroom in the house and turned on the lights and the little space heater Papa had hung from a nail protruding from the paneled walls. The power cord snaked behind the sink faucet before finding the overloaded outlet—an electrical disaster waiting to happen, but Papa’s way of making do with what he had.
The pipes groaned in protest when she turned on the faucet and waited for the water to get warm. Living with Papa and his stony silence would definitely be the hardest part of her plan, but it would have to do for now. With her brothers and their families now in South Texas, it was her only option.
An hour later, she stepped once more into the kitchen, dressed and ready for work. Grace reached for the spiral notebook that served as her daily planner and checked off the tasks she’d already completed. Start laundry. Check. Make bed. Check. Bible study and prayer. Check.
Millie, the stray cat she’d taken in years ago, butted her head against Grace’s leg, begging for attention. She squatted to scratch the fluffy feline behind the ears. “How’s my kitty?” Grace scooped the cat into her arms and hugged her close. How would she have survived Mama’s death without the perky ears always willing to listen?
The back door swung open. Dressed in his heavy brown coveralls, Papa entered, and brought with him a gust of cold air and the smell of cows. He didn’t say a word, but ambled past her to the kitchen sink to wash his hands, his dirty work boots clomping against the old wooden floor, his face devoid of a smile.
She wrinkled her nose, dropped Millie to the floor, and brushed cat hair from her black skirt. Long gone were the hopes that her father would be proud of her for becoming an attorney. “Through with the chores?”
He continued to wash his hands without looking her way.
Grace forced her hurt feelings aside, her mouth suddenly dry. She should be used to his emotional distance by now. “Papa, I know you don’t approve of me being an attorney, but—”
He held up one hand for silence, his back still to her, water dripping down his sleeve. “Enough, Graciela. I don’t want to discuss this anymore. You made up your mind to disrespect my wishes long ago.”
His displeasure hanging like dead weight around her neck, Grace blinked back tears and picked up her old book bag. It was way too early, but she might as well go to work. She’d grab a pastry at Granny’s Kitchen on the way. No, on second thought, it wouldn’t hurt to skip breakfast. That way she’d save money and inch toward losing those last few pounds she’d gained while studying for the bar. Without another word to Papa, she slipped out of the house, climbed in the battered old farm truck, and headed to the office.
A late autumn fog engulfed downtown Miller’s Creek, and the two- and three-story hewn-stone buildings rose above the mist, silent sentinels observing the march of time. The buildings had seen over a century of use, and thanks to the grant bestowed on the town while she was in high school, had been lovingly restored to their former glory.
Though early November was a little early for Christmas decorations, Miller’s Creek had them up well ahead of time for the tourists who would pour into the historic town square for shopping. Already the old-timey street lamps were festooned with lighted wreaths, while greenery draped the Victorian gazebo and lights twinkled from Christmas trees placed throughout the square.
Gravel crunched beneath the pickup tires as she pulled into the parking lot of Tyler, Dent, and Snodgrass and turned off the headlights. She let herself in the back door and flipped the switch. As the fluorescent fixture flickered on and hummed, her earlier joy dissipated. This should be a celebration—the day for which she’d toiled to bring purpose from her pain—but somehow it felt common and ordinary. No balloons or flowers. No party. No pat on the back or word of congratulations.
She shook of the self-pity and moved to her cubicle to make sure everything was in its place, then instinctively pulled a Bible from her bag and ran her hand over the well-worn cover.
Lord, You know how my heart hurts this morning. I miss Mama and I don’t know what to say to Papa. Help me be all You want me to be. Lead me in Your Way. Give me an open heart and mind to receive Your truth.
As she thumbed through the whispering onion-skin pages, her Bible fell open to Romans. A verse she’d underlined some time before caught her attention. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
Enough grace to stand in. Was it even humanly possible to be a person of grace? She slanted her lips as she pondered the question, but finally gave her head a shake. True grace was motivated by the purest love, and maybe it was just her, but she doubted she could ever love someone that much.
The thought troubled her. God commanded her to love others as she loved herself, but some people made that seem impossible. Maybe something inside her was broken and malfunctioning. Perhaps her childhood left her incapable of loving like she was supposed to.
She jumped at the unexpected noise then sat motionless, her ears tuned to the tiniest noise. More thumps sounded from the basement.
Her pulse raced at the possibility of an intruder. In Miller’s Creek at this hour of the morning? Not likely. Maybe Andy had spent the night in the basement apartment because of working late. She stood and tiptoed to the narrow stairs leading to the basement. That wasn’t likely either, especially with a newborn at home.
The noise continued. “Andy?” Grace made her way down the darkened steps. If it wasn’t him, at least maybe her voice would scare away a potential burglar.
She glided noiselessly across the large carpeted room. “Andy? Is that you?” Grace jiggled the door knob of the small studio apartment. Locked. Now what?
Perhaps she should call the ranch to see what Andy wanted her to do. She started back across the open space toward the staircase to place the call. But before she’d made it even halfway, the overhead lights sputtered on.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Gracie Mae.”
She spun around, one hand to her pounding heart, a tinny taste in her mouth. Matt?
He leaned against a wall, one stout leg crossed casually over the other, his arms overlapped. An enigmatic expression rested in his sandy brown eyes, and though his hair was damp from a recent washing, his rumpled T-shirt and jeans looked as if he’d slept in them. In the time since she’d seen him last, he’d cut his hair so short there was no evidence of the curls she’d always admired, and he’d buffed up, more muscular and lean than before.
Grace squashed the motherly instincts that rose within her at the sight of his wrinkled clothes. That’s what landed her in trouble with him the first time, and she wouldn’t fall for it again. A man like Matt, one with wanderlust in his blood, wasn’t the one for her. “What are you doing here?”
He released a short laugh. “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that question?”
“I passed the bar and—”
“Yeah, Andy told me. Congrats.” He made his way to where she stood and came to a stop a few uncomfortable feet away. “But that still doesn’t explain why you’re here so early.”
She shrugged and turned toward the stairs. “Couldn’t sleep. See you around.”
Before she reached the first step, Matt blocked her way, the soft scent of shampoo clinging to his damp hair.
“Still running away from me?” Though he spoke the words softly, his tawny eyes held a challenge.
Her hands balled into fists. A million retorts built up behind her clenched lips, but she held them at bay. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing that his words affected her in the least. With great effort, she uncurled her fingers. “Nope. Just going back to my desk to get started on some work.”
His posture went slack, and he sent an apologetic grin. “Sorry. Let me start over. Had breakfast yet?”
A rumble sounded from her stomach. “If that’s an invitation, I accept.” The reckless words were out before she had time to reconsider. What was she thinking? She’d shut this door over two years ago, a door that needed to stay shut. Nonetheless, she’d agreed to breakfast, and she’d follow through to prove she wasn’t running away.
They crossed the room together, and Grace threw out a question to fill the silence. “Have you been working out?”
“Yep. Even joined the wrestling team at school. It’s been good for me.”
Grace followed Matt into the apartment and glanced around. In characteristic messy-Matt style, a spread-out newspaper, microwave popcorn bag, and an almost-empty glass sat on the coffee table, while a pillow and blanket hung off the couch. A duffel bag on the floor spewed its contents, bringing an odd rush of disappointment. “Just in town for one night?” Typical.
“Don’t really know at this point.” He offered no further explanation, but moved to the kitchenette fridge and removed the makings for an omelet. “So what’s next for you?” With deft movements, he prepared the meal, the chopped onions burning her eyes. “Last I heard you were going to get your career going before looking for your soul mate. Still searching for Mr. Perfect?” His voice held a hint of bitterness.
She lowered her gaze. “Look, Matt, about our conversation two years ago. It wasn’t personal. I just needed to focus on one thing at a time. My law school had to come first.”
“Agreed. As I recall, I never tried to suggest otherwise.”
“No, but I sensed you wanted more from me than I was prepared to give at the time.”
He seemed to accept the answer. “But you have to admit, I don’t exactly fit the image in your head.”
Grace froze. How was she supposed to answer that? “And what image is that?”
“Smart, well-groomed, wealthy, professional, handsome.”
Her eyebrows rose. He’d pretty much nailed her must-have list on the head. In fact, he’d perfectly described one of Andy’s new partners, Jason Dent. The only problem was that guys like Jason didn’t give girls like her a second glance.
A knowing smile touched the corners of Matt’s mouth, but to his credit, he dropped the subject. “So you still haven’t told me why you’re here at such an early hour.”
“That’s because you didn’t ask nicely.”
His boyish chortle took her by surprise and set off unexplainable emotions. He glanced up from the cutting board. “True. How’s this? Nice to see you again, Gracie. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this so early?”
To her chagrin, a traitorous laugh bubbled out. She cut it short and shrugged. “I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I decided to come to work.”
A frown wrinkled his brow. “How come you couldn’t sleep?”
She hesitated, considering how best to answer his question. Might as well tell him the truth. He’d always been good at dragging it out of her anyway. “Nightmare.”
The lines on his forehead grew deeper. “Same one?”
She averted her gaze and nodded.
“Have it often?”
“Not as often as I used to, but for some reason it’s woken me up several times this week.”
He whisked the eggs into a frothy mixture and poured it into the sizzling skillet, but didn’t speak for a moment, as if thinking through her comment. “Might be the stress of starting a new job.”
“But it’s not really a new job. I’ve worked for Andy off and on since I graduated from high school. You, of all people, should know that.”
A wry grin curled one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, but now you’re an attorney. That worrying you any?”
She deliberated on the question. Drat! He’d done it again. How could he always discern what was bothering her?
“That’s it, isn’t it?”
The self-satisfied smirk on his face gave Grace the urge to whop him upside the head. “So what? That’s what you’re learning how to do, isn’t it? Figure out what’s eating people?”
“Yep.” He added the omelet toppings, and folded it over effortlessly. “Now the next question. Why does it bother you so much that I figured it out?”
Grace seethed inwardly. Why indeed? Maybe because it made her feel like she needed him, and she didn’t want to need him.
He moved next to her, the hot skillet out in front, and stopped, his face inches from hers, his eyelids half-closed. “Don’t worry, Gracie Mae. It’s okay that someone has you figured out. Trust me, it’s a good thing.”
“I don’t think anyone has ever been able to make me as angry as you do, Matt Tyler. Ever!” Grace pelted the words through tight lips then moved toward the door.
Once more, he blocked her way, holding the simmering omelet, the tantalizing aroma teasing her nostrils. “There you go again, running away.”
Rage exploded within, but no way would she dare give him the privilege of being right. She sent a close-mouthed smile she didn’t feel and turned to take a seat at the small table.
Matt tossed a pot holder to the table and set the pan on it, then procured two plates and glasses from the cabinet. “Still like chocolate in your milk?”
Yes, but he didn’t have to know it. “No. I’ve outgrown that childish habit.”
He cocked one eyebrow and poured two glasses of milk, dousing his with a healthy dose of chocolate syrup.
Grace turned her head and looked the other way, fighting her chocolate craving by reminding herself how much she hated her thunder thighs.
Matt took a long slurp from his glass, then released a satisfied sigh and licked his lips. “Man, there’s nothing better than ice-cold chocolate milk.” He sat his glass on the table and divided the omelet before delivering a portion to each plate. “Mind if I bless the food?”
“Not at all.” She bowed her head. At least one part of his life seemed headed in the right direction.
After he finished the prayer, Grace pulled a napkin from the holder and laid it in her lap, then forked into the omelet, cheese squeezing out from between the fluffy layers. A few minutes later she wiped her mouth and glanced up to see Matt staring at her with the same indecipherable look in his eyes.
“So if you woke up early, why didn’t you eat breakfast at your house?” Matt took another swig of milk, his eyes never leaving her face.
“No reason, really.” She shifted in her seat. At least none she wanted him to know.
“Your dad still pressuring you?”
“What do you mean?” Grace scooted her chair away from the table and stood with her plate to carry it to the sink.
Matt took hold of her arm as she whisked by. “Running away again?”
She jerked her elbow away. “No. Just cleaning up my dishes.”
“I’ll take care of it later. Have a seat.”
Grace unwillingly acquiesced. “Papa means well. We just have different opinions of what I should do with my life.”
He studied her face for a long, uncomfortable minute, like he wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure he should say it. Finally, he widened his eyes and changed the subject. “So back to the attorney thing. Any thoughts on why it’s bothering you?”
“Matt, you’re not a therapist yet, and I’m certainly not your client. Don’t feel like you have to analyze me and figure out all my issues. Nor should you feel obliged to fix me.”
His eyes widened again, registering hurt. “Just trying to help.”
She took in the sincerity inscribed on his face. Why did he have to be so darn likeable? Grace raised her gaze momentarily, focused on a cobweb dangling from the ceiling. And how was she supposed to talk about this with the brother of her boss? “It’s not easy to explain.”
“Okay, but you’d better not breathe a word of this to Andy.”
A teasing light flickered in his eyes. “If you’re not a client, then you have no client privileges.”
Grace wadded her napkin and tossed it at him.
He caught it effortlessly in mid-air and laughed.
She pointed a finger at him. “I mean it, Matt. Promise.”
“Okay, okay.” He waved his hands, chest high, in surrender.
She inhaled a deep breath, the lingering smell of breakfast still in the air, and rubbed her arms. “You know I’ve wanted to be an attorney ever since Mama died.”
“Yeah. Go on.”
“I just didn’t see it working out this way. I thought I’d be a prosecutor.”
“So you feel like you’re working for the wrong side of the law?”
Grace nodded. “I love Andy like a brother, and owe him so much. I wouldn’t be an attorney if it weren’t for him.”
“But you feel obligated to work for him when your passion is to put the bad guys behind bars.”
“Exactly.” She gave her head a shake at the conundrum. “And I don’t know what to do about it.”
Matt placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his laced fingers. “Maybe you’re looking at it all wrong, Gracie. You’re focused on the situation rather than why you feel the way you do. Have you stopped to think about why you want to be a prosecutor?”
The reason flew into her brain instantly, and she straightened. “I guess for Mama, to keep someone else from going through this, and to achieve justice for others.”
“To avenge her death?” The question was half-whispered, but even then sounded cold, almost un-Christian. “Don’t overthink it, Gracie.” Matt’s tone held warning. “I see your brain spinning from here. Don’t try to assign meaning and morality to your motivation. Just accept it and move on from there.”
“But it does explain my nightmare.” The agitation in her voice surprised her. “Don’t you see? It’s as if Mama’s trying to remind me of that night so I’ll make the right decision. Maybe I need to look for a different position, one that’ll put me on the prosecution. Maybe I’m not cut out to defend guys I don’t completely trust.”
“Whoa, girl, you’re gonna strip some gears bouncing around that fast.” He stood and moved to the sink with his plate, nabbing hers as he passed. “When it comes to life, A plus B doesn’t always equal C. It’s just a jumping off place. Give it some time.”
There it was again. Matt and his “lo que será, sera”-approach to life. “You would say that. You want me to work for Andy. He’s your brother.”
The dishes Matt carried crashed into the sink, and he made a quick trip back to the table. “That’s not at all why I said what I did. Just think through things a little more carefully. I don’t believe your mother’s trying to communicate with you from the grave, and neither do if you think through it.” He softened his demeanor. “But the dilemma you’re facing is enough to make you dream about the accident.”
“Think through it? That’s the best advice you can give? A minute ago you were telling me not to overthink.”
An exasperated sigh fell from his lips. He squatted near her chair, enclosed her hands with his own, and gazed up into her eyes. “Gracie. It’s me, remember? I know you. Don’t stress and worry about making the right decision. Pray about it. You belong to God. He’ll put you where He wants you.” His smile grew tender. “And I have no doubt that you’ll be an awesome attorney, no matter which side of the courtroom you sit on.”
Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked furiously to keep them at bay. How good it felt to have someone offer encouragement—to remind her God was in control—even if it were Matt. She lowered her gaze to collect herself before glancing back up at him. “Thanks.”
He helped her to her feet and moved close to embrace her in a hug, the scent of his cologne toying with her frazzled emotions.
Grace sidestepped and reached for her glass. There was no way she’d let this move past a friendly level. He was more than likely here for a short time. Then he’d be off chasing his fantasies once more.
She deposited the glass in the stainless steel sink with a clunk. Besides, she had her life plan to think of—a plan that didn’t include a gypsy like Matt.