Lessons from the Coroner’s Office

My latest novel, Mind Games, is available now on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited!

This is the first book in my new Fox County Forensics series and if you enjoy shows like CSI and Rizzoli and Isles, I think you’re gonna love it.

Kelsey is an energetic rookie investigator determined to impress her boss despite struggling with OCD. Zara is the seasoned police officer who reports to Kelsey’s first death scene… and she just so happens to be terrified of dead bodies.

I had a ton of fun researching the forensic side of this romance. I’m lucky enough to have a little bit of personal experience – I interned at my county coroner’s office during high school, worked closely with the chemist and got to watch an autopsy.

But I also relied heavily on my dad for forensic details – he was an investigator for 30 years and he was really enthusiastic about being the ‘subject matter expert’ for Mind Games. I did a formal interview with him to get the basics down, and I thought it would be fun to share his answers!

Check that out below, and check out Mind Games on Amazon today.

What personal protective gear (PPE) do you wear during a standard autopsy?

Normally when doing an autopsy the PPE is linen type gown, plastic apron, gloves, shoe covers, and mask with eye protection. Also, under all of this is scrubs, top and bottom.

How long would it take for the investigation, autopsy and toxicology to be completed?

The autopsy a few hours, investigation at the scene from 1 hour up to 6 or 8 hours depending on complexity of the case. Tox could take a few hours up to a few days depending on what you are looking for. The more common the drug the less time the more exotic the drug the longer it may take. It may be that the drug you are looking for you don’t test in house and you may need to send out a sample for outside testing at a reference lab.

How long for the coroner to make a ruling and close the case?

It could take anywhere from 6 weeks (that’s a short time period), up to months. Again it depends on what you are waiting on. You could be waiting on further drug testing, more investigation, etc. It depends on the answers you get to what info you have requested. For instance you may ask the police to do further investigation depending on what you found at the autopsy. So, if you find blunt trauma on the body and want to know if there is anything at the scene that could have been used to make that mark, you would inform the police and ask them to do more investigation to see if they could find a weapon matching the mark on the body.

Are toxicology reports done for all cases? If not, what prompts the coroner to request it?

Normally tox is not done in all cases as a matter of protocol. But due to the drug epidemic we are in there is more emphasis on tox today than ever before. Tox will always be done in the case where the autopsy does not show a cause of death. Also, tox will be done if the person is a known drug user or there are drugs or drug paraphernalia found at the scene. Or just to rule out a drug overdose. Also, tox may be done as a matter of protocol in homicide cases.

If an investigator got bodily fluids on their clothes at a scene, what would they do?

I don’t think there is any protocol for that (although I may be wrong), but what I would do is to immediately change my clothes upon leaving the scene. And depending on the case, I may destroy the clothing. If the decedent is a high risk of communicable disease I would definitely trash the clothing at the office in a biohazard bag/container.

Can family members request copies of the coroner’s reports?

They can. Reports are public record.

What if the police are still investigating other aspects of the case?

If there is an ongoing investigation the case would not be closed, or signed out. And we would not release anything until it is signed out. We may speak with the family member to try to answer questions. Also, if there is potential litigation, such as in a homicide death we would be very careful in releasing any information including any reports. In that case where a request is made for reports in a homicide case we would confer with the Prosecutors office and let them make the call.

How many officers would respond to a death scene like the one in Mind Games?

Normally you would get the patrol officer responding initially. Then in the case of a death the patrol officer would call the detective bureau and on average 1 or 2 detectives would respond. This would depend on the complexity of the case and size of the police jurisdiction. Larger jurisdictions may have more people on hand to respond.

What about a scene where there’s a home invasion in progress, the suspect is fleeing on foot, there’s one resident injured and another dead? Would the police wait until the suspect was dealt with and the injured resident removed before they called in the death investigator?

Yep, that is usually the way it goes.

What do the police do to assist the investigator at the scene?

Normally the police do a criminal investigation and the ME investigator does a medical legal death investigation. Both sides work together to come to a successful conclusion. The police may answer questions the ME investigator has. For instance, if a gun was involved and it has been moved you may want to know who moved it and why. You may need to know who first found the body and where they are so you can interview them, etc. There are a host of questions you may have for the police regarding the investigation.

Does all evidence go with the investigator to the ME’s office, or does the police take some of it to the station? If it is split up, how do they decide what goes where?

Some goes to the police and some to the ME. This all depends on the jurisdiction. All are different. We usually let the police take any weapon but they are required to bring that weapon to the autopsy. We would take all medications and/or drugs. To decide who takes what that depends on what is going to be done with the evidence. Some evidence will be submitted to the BCI lab, that’s the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. If it’s going to BCI the police would take it because they would submit it. No sense of us taking it then having to receipt it to the police so they can submit it to BCI.

When does the medical examiner (ME) release their evidence to the police?

That depends. If we do fingerprints, hair samples, nail clippings, body fluid collection that is done at the time of autopsy. When the police attend the autopsy we would release that evidence at the end of the autopsy. If the evidence is bloody clothing it needs to be hung up and dried before it can be bagged. If it is bagged wet it will produce mold. This drying process would take a day or two. Once dry we would contact the policed and let them know it can be picked up.

Under what circumstances does the ME retain evidence indefinitely?

Evidence that is retained is usually evidence that we have collected as a matter of protocol and may not be deemed evidence by the prosecutor. For instance we routinely collect Gun Shot Residue (GSR), this is a kit. We collect it routinely in the case if a suicide in case there is any dispute concerning the manner of death in the future. Fingerprints also fall into this category as well as hair samples, nail clippings and biological swabs.

Do all investigators use a communal set of investigation kits or is each investigator issued their own kit?

Our investigators all have their own investigation kit with standard items included. GSR kits, forms, blood tubes, camera, gloves, plastic apron, syringe, needles, etc. Big thanks to my dad for answering the thousand-and-one questions I had, and to everyone who’s been reading and reviewing Mind Games since its launch!

Grab your copy now

I wrote a novel with Anna Cove!

Keep your lover close and your enemy closer… especially if they’re the same person.

Madison Blackstone is a lone wolf thief on a mission to win back the only family she has left. When a rare book surfaces on the black market, it’s just the thing to buy her brother’s love. The only thing is, she has to quit the heist lifestyle to earn his trust. Madison has planned her final job meticulously, but even in her wildest dreams she could never anticipate a rival like Cass.

Cass Hartley is fallen swindler royalty… fallen ever since her foolish heart got her legendary parents caught and jailed. A rare book with a hefty reward to pay back old debts should go a long way to clearing her conscience, and it should be an easy job – if Cass was the only one going after it.

When Cass and Madison meet, it’s inside a bank vault at midnight and they’re both reaching for the same safe deposit locker. Things go sideways fast as crew rivalries, double-crosses and vicious guard poodles foil their plans.

And then there’s the undeniable attraction building between them in tight spaces, dark rooms and adrenaline-fueled adventures. It has Madison questioning her choice to go clean, Cass wondering if she’s falling into the same old traps, and their crews wondering what the heck got into them.

Working together is the only way to get the book, but can they trust each other with the most precious treasure of all – their hearts?

From the bestselling Cara Malone and Anna Cove comes a fun, flirty book heist with twists, turns, and an unexpected romance.

Available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited on March 25th!

Sneak Peek: Fairest

My latest novel, FAIREST, is available now on Amazon. It’s the latest in my contemporary fairy tale series, and while the setting will be familiar if you’ve read Seeing Red and Cinders, it’s a Snow White story that can be read as a standalone novel.

Read the first chapter below.

I can’t believe he took my phone.

That was the detail Luma White was focused on as she sat in the passenger seat of her Audi, hands bound in front of her and a blindfold slipping down around her nose. Her phone – how much of an eighteen-year-old girl could she be? That was what she was most concerned about, but on the other hand, it was easier to fixate on the phone than on everything else.

She’d been in the car for about three hours now. The blindfold – made of some ridiculously silky fabric, definitely not kidnapping-grade – had begun sliding down her nose about an hour into the trip and she was grateful for that. Riding in a car with her eyes shut always made her feel sick, and when her captor noticed that she could see again, she convinced him not to cover her eyes again.

“I’m already lost,” she said. “Isn’t that why you blindfolded me? So I wouldn’t know where we’re going? Mission accomplished.”

The man driving Luma’s car was her stepmother’s bodyguard, Antonio. Slave would have been a more appropriate word for how that woman treated him, but he’d always been nice to Luma.

Well, until today.

At least she was going to get through this without being sick. Silver linings and all that.

They were driving on a narrow, somewhat primitive road with tall, evergreen trees on either side. It was dark thanks to the forest’s dense coverage even though they started driving around noon. Antonio had appeared in the doorway of Luma’s room and told her he needed help running an errand for her father – that was a little unusual, but nothing to raise her suspicions. By the time he was opening the passenger door of Luma’s car for her, telling her they were going to pick up some files at her father’s office, Luma started asking questions.

How did you get my car key? was the first one, but she never got an answer to that.

Once she was in the car, Antonio locked the doors and told her to put the blindfold on. Luma objected, and that’s when things got scary. He’d forced the blindfold over her eyes and she’d spent the first whole hour of the trip frantic.

The errand to her father’s office was a lie and Luma should have seen it coming – Antonio worked for her stepmother, and her father was out of the country. Luma hadn’t even questioned it when Antonio said it was for her father.

If Luma was thinking clearly, she should have been memorizing the turns of the car, paying attention for sounds outside that could help her, and keeping better track of the time. But she’d known Antonio ever since she was a kid – since her stepmother, Tabitha, did her Vogue modeling spread and picked up a stalker in the process. She hired Antonio to keep her safe, and Luma always felt safe around him, too.

Now, she was just scrambling to try and figure out what had changed.

Was he kidnapping her?

“Where are you taking me?” she’d asked before she realized the futility of demanding that sort of information from someone who’d blindfolded her. When she got her wits about her a little more, she asked, “Why do I have to be blindfolded? Did Tabitha ask you to do this? What are you going to do to me?”

Antonio didn’t respond to any of her questions. He was deadly silent from the driver’s seat, and when Luma’s blindfold began slipping down her nose, she could see that his eyes never strayed from the road ahead. Please just look at me, she thought. What are you doing?

Her last-ditch attempt to snap him out of whatever had overcome him was a threat that sounded weak even to Luma’s own ears. “Wait until my father hears about this.”

“Shut up,” Antonio said. “Please, just keep your mouth shut.

It wasn’t a favorable response, but at least he’d said something. His words sounded almost as pleading as Luma’s own questions, like he was frantically trying to find a way to justify all of this. Tabitha had to be behind it. Of course – Tabitha had always hated her.

So Luma shut up, and she waited.

She tried to be patient and wait for Antonio to come to his senses. He’d do the right thing – she just had to give him time to come to his senses. He’d abducted his boss’s stepdaughter while her husband was out of town on business. Antonio was probably just trying to figure out how to take Luma home without letting her father know what he’d done.

Or rather, what Tabitha had ordered him to do.

It had to be the stupid modeling contract, Luma thought while Antonio drove them deeper and deeper into the woods. Damn it. I don’t even want to be a model.

Tabitha had blown up at her yesterday. She’d gone downtown in the morning to get her lips plumped and the aesthetician had used a new type of filler. Tabitha’s lips had blown up like balloons and she came home looking like she had a pair of plump red hotdogs beneath her nose. They looked painful and she was irritable, and then she’d seen the contract that Luma had left on the desk in her father’s study.

Luma wanted him to review it when he came home from his business trip. She’d never imagined herself as a model, never wanted that kind of attention, but people kept saying she was beautiful and it was a natural fit for her. She’d gone to the modeling agency mostly to humor the agent who kept trying to recruit her, and because she was eighteen now and she still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Why not a model? she thought when they offered her the contract. So she brought it home and promised the agency an answer just as soon as she had a chance to discuss it with her father.

Then Tabitha saw the contract and lost it. Luma had never seen her so angry, actual spittle flying from her over-puffed lips as she slammed the contract down in front of Luma.

“You don’t even want to be a model,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Luma. “You don’t want your trust fund, either. You don’t appreciate anything you’ve got, and it’s all just been handed to you. Ungrateful girl!”

Tabitha hadn’t spoken to Luma since yesterday, but the longer Antonio drove, the more certain she was that this was all Tabitha’s doing. Am I ungrateful? she was wondering for the hundredth time when the car hit a pothole and she could no longer ignore the fullness of her bladder.

“Antonio?” she asked softly.

“Don’t talk,” he said.

“Antonio,” she insisted, trying not to anger him. “I really have to pee. I can’t hold it much longer.”

She looked at him, and for once, he looked back at her. She was begging him, wordlessly. Please. On top of everything else, please don’t put me through the humiliation of wetting myself. He hadn’t listened to anything else she said so far, but the desperation in her eyes was what finally cracked him.

He sniffed, then looked at the clock on the dashboard – probably trying to figure out how far they’d come from the house. Far enough – Luma’s father loved to be in the middle of the action and he’d built his mansion in the center of the city. Luma had never even been this far into the wilderness and it might as well have been a whole other country.

“Fine,” Antonio said. “Hold on a minute.”

“Thank you,” Luma said. “Thank you, Tony.”

He scowled at her. Was that too much, calling him by his nickname? He never minded it before, but he’d never abducted her before, either. Antonio found a dirt road that branched off the two-lane highway and turned onto it. Road was pretty generous, actually – it was barely more than a couple of grooves worn into the dirt. He drove the car just far enough so that it wouldn’t be seen from the road, then turned off the engine.

The passenger door unlocked automatically and Luma reached for the handle, but Antonio locked it again with the push of a button on the driver’s side door. “I’m coming around to get you.”

“Okay,” Luma squeaked. When he opened the door from the outside, he extended his hand to help Luma out – probably more through instinct than anything else. She took his hand, shaking her head so the blindfold fell all the way down to her neck, and she said hopefully, “You know, Tabitha gets in her moods all the time. I bet by the time we drive home, she’ll have forgotten what she was mad about.”

“Do you have to pee or don’t you?” Antonio asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Luma said. “But-”

She wanted to know what he was thinking. There was a wild, cornered look in his eyes that she really didn’t like, and things suddenly felt a whole lot more dire now that the two of them were standing alone in the great silence of the forest.

“Go, then,” he said. “There’s a bush right over there.”

“Okay,” Luma said meekly.

Her bladder really was aching – she’d just finished a pretty big smoothie when Antonio came into her room and she’d been squirming in her seat for quite a while. Trying not to think about how badly she had to go was the only thing that had been distracting her from the awfulness of the situation, but she couldn’t ignore it anymore.

She went behind the bush, the heels of her shoes sinking into the soft earth and pine needles poking her bare legs as she lifted her skirt. Just as she was beginning to feel a bit better – about one thing, at least – she heard the Audi’s engine roar to life.

Oh God, he’s leaving me out here!

Luma rushed to rearrange her skirt and darted out from behind the bush just in time to see Antonio floor the gas pedal. The tires spun in place for a moment, kicking up dirt and moss from the forest floor, and then the car gained traction and Antonio drove it straight into a tree.

“What the hell?” Luma shouted as the hood crumpled slightly and the engine died. A small tendril of steam was rising from the car and Luma ran around to the driver’s side. “Antonio, are you okay?”

She got there just in time for him to open the door – he had to put his shoulder into it since the collision had bent the frame of the car. He got out, unscathed, and Luma looked at him wide-eyed and speechless.

Antonio put his hands on her shoulders, their eyes locking as he said, “Your stepmother ordered me to bring you out here and kill you. I’ve been going over it in my head for the last three hours, trying to imagine a world in which I could do that, and I just can’t.”

Tabitha wants me dead?

A jolt of fear ripped through her, followed by a twinge of relief. Antonio said he couldn’t do it – so where did that leave them? Standing next to the smoking remains of Luma’s car, that was where. No matter what else happened, they weren’t going to be driving out of there.

“Listen carefully,” Antonio said. “You met with the modeling agency yesterday. They sent you on a go-see and that’s where you were going today – you were driving alone, a deer jumped in front of your car and you crashed. You must have been disoriented – maybe you hit your head. You wandered into the woods and no one heard from you again.”

“But Antonio-”

“Tabitha has her eyes on your trust fund,” he continued. “You know that, right?”

“I know she hates getting an allowance from my father,” Luma said, swallowing hard. “But this is about the modeling contract, isn’t it?” He shook his head and Luma had never seen him so serious. “She really wants me dead?”

“I’ve been her right hand for ten years,” Antonio said. “I know her better than anybody and I know when she’s serious about something. Luma, you have to disappear or she will kill you.”

“What about my dad?” she asked. “Let’s call him, or-”

Or the police, she thought.

“I can’t do that,” Antonio said, glancing at the car. “You don’t know what she’s capable of.”

“I think I have some idea,” Luma said, crossing her arms over her chest. She had no phone, no money, and no idea where she was. If she screamed at the top of her lungs right now, no one but the birds and other forest animals would hear her – and Antonio, who’d already made up his mind.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “You really don’t. Trust me, Luma, for your own safety – and mine – you have to let Tabitha think you’re dead. If you come home, she’ll kill you and then she’ll kill me for not doing the job myself.”

Luma’s mouth dropped open as she attempted to process all of this, trying to formulate a response that never materialized.

“Just disappear, Luma,” he said. A tear ran down his cheek and he added, “I’m sorry.”

He turned and started walking back toward the road, and Luma called after him, “Antonio.”

When he turned around, she asked, “Are you planning to walk home?”

“I’ll figure something out,” he said. “So will you.”

Shit. Antonio turned around and headed back up the dirt path to the highway, and Luma just stood in the forest for a minute, trying to wrap her mind around what just happened.

She tilted her head back, feeling a headache coming on. The forest was actually kind of beautiful, shafts of sunlight breaking through the evergreens and highlighting the pine needle-carpeted forest floor.

A bird chirped, unseen, in a tree somewhere close and Luma thought it sounded like a cuckoo. Her high school biology teacher had been obsessed with birdsong and Luma had a lot of them memorized even though she’d rarely heard them in real life. Cuckoos weren’t city birds.

“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” she asked the forest, and because the trees didn’t talk and birds rarely sang their songs in English, she received no answer.

She went over to the car and tried the key in the ignition, but the engine was shot and it wouldn’t turn over. She went through the glove compartment and the trunk, looking for anything that could help her, but she’d never been more than a phone call away from AAA.

The glove compartment held nothing helpful and Luma was all but useless without her phone, anyway.

She was stranded and she had no choice but to start walking. Her heels kept sinking into the loamy forest floor as she picked her way back up the overgrown dirt path and she was actually relieved when she got to a paved road. Her kitten heels weren’t made for hiking, but at least she could get her footing on the road.

At least I’m alive.

That was not a thought she expected to have that day. She kept walking, trying not to focus on all of the questions stretching out on the road in front of her. Where am I going? What will I do when I get there? Do I go to the cops? Will Tabitha retaliate against Antonio – or even my dad – if I do?

They were all unanswerable, insurmountable problems.

And then Luma started to hear pine needles crunching in the forest beside the road. She turned her head and for a fleeting moment, she wondered if Antonio had a change of heart and was coming back for her.

Or coming back to finish the job. Tabitha always did have an otherworldly ability to know when her demands were not being met. She was a woman of means and beauty – or at least she used to be – and it was pretty rare that anyone dared to disobey her. Did Antonio call her after he crashed Luma’s car? Did he cave already and admit that he hadn’t done what Tabitha asked of him?

Then all of those worries dissipated and Luma’s heart arrested in her chest.

A fat black bear was lumbering toward her out of the forest, no more than thirty feet away. It turned its head sideways at her, wondering how it had gotten so lucky that its next meal had delivered itself to the woods. Its mouth opened, a hint of long, sharp teeth poking out from under its lips, and then Luma was running.

The bear emerged onto the road, looking like it didn’t mind chasing down its dinner. Luma ran as fast as her feet would carry her, and when one of her heels fell off, she barely gave it a thought. She limped a few steps and then kicked off the other shoe, hardly losing speed.

She made it about fifteen yards away and then a second bear emerged from the woods, standing in front of her. If a bear could speak, this one would have said, Gotcha.

Are you freaking kidding me? Luma thought.

When the bear in front of her growled, she ducked off the open road and through a tangle of what turned out to be pricker bushes. They cut into her bare arms and legs, but Luma fought her way through them. Her stepmother put a hit on her, her father was away on business, and Antonio had just smashed her car. She was not about to be eaten by bears on top of everything else.

Luma didn’t turn around to find out if the bears were giving chase. She didn’t acknowledge the pain of each pine needle stabbing into the tender soles of her feet, or the scratches and pinpricks of blood covering her arms and legs. She just ran until her lungs burned and her thighs ached, until she had to stop or else she’d fall down in exhaustion.

When she finally did stop, leaning against a tree and panting to catch her breath, Luma looked back. There was no bear, and there was no visible path back to the road. She couldn’t see the road at all anymore, and she couldn’t even say with any certainty which direction she’d come from.

“I’m lost,” she said to the forest, tears springing to her eyes. “I am lost in the woods.”

She might not have spent much time in the forest before, but Luma knew from her schooling that it went on for hundreds of miles. People got lost in the forest every year, some of them died, and Luma was no Girl Scout.

She sank to the ground, her skirt riding up her thighs as more pine needles jabbed into her skin. She put her head back against the tree and her long black hair snagged against the rough bark. She looked up. The only thing she had going for her was the fact that it was spring, the days were getting longer, and she still had a good five hours of daylight left – not that she had any idea what to do with it.

Then, above the tall trees, she noticed a thin tendril of smoke in the distance.

Luma watched it for a minute or two, expecting it to disappear, but it persisted – it was a sign of life and her best shot at survival. She got up, brushed the pine needles off her skin, where they were stuck to her by a thin sheen of sweat, and started walking.

Limping was more like it, and she winced with every step. Her shoes were lying on the side of the road, or perhaps had become the bear’s new chew toys. She had no choice but to pin all her hopes on that tendril of smoke.

If she was lucky, it was the smoke from someone friendly’s fireplace.

What she found, at least an hour and many, many painful pine needles later, was a cottage in a clearing. It was all by itself in the woods, no sign of civilization nearby, and the smoke trail Luma had followed was coming from a large brick structure outside the cottage. It was about six feet square – a fireplace of some sort, closed on all sides with a large steel plate on the front that looked like a door, plus a chimney on top.

“Hello?” Luma called. Her voice echoed softly against the trees but no one answered.

She left the fireplace and walked around to the cottage door. Someone had swept the dirt around the perimeter of the building, a welcome reprieve from the pine needles that had rendered Luma’s feet numb.

She knocked on the door, waited and listened for a minute, then called, “Hello? Is anyone home?”

No one answered. Luma tried to peek in the windows, but they were covered with a film of dirt and she couldn’t see inside. If it wasn’t for the smoking fireplace, she would have thought the cottage was abandoned.

She knocked again, then tried the doorknob.

It turned easily and the door swung inward. Luma called again, “Hello? I’m sorry to intrude, but I could really use some help.”

There was still no answer, and she glanced back toward the forest, then down at her own scraped and dirty limbs. It was either stay outside and risk another encounter with that bear, or go inside and hope the cottage had a telephone. At the very least, she could get cleaned up and dig the pine needles out of her feet.

Luma inched her way inside.

Read FAIREST on Amazon now

Bonus Scenes: Labor of Love

My novel, LABOR OF LOVE, is available now on Amazon. In the latest novel in my bestselling Lakeside Hospital medical romance series, pediatrician Lily meets visiting obstetrician Mercedes. They know from the start their relationship has an expiration date, so what’s the harm in a little fling?

Read a bonus scene below.

The following is a deleted scene from my latest novel. In it, Mercedes is helping her mother clean out her house and struggling with guilt after discovering a secret – her mother has been without running water for some time.

Mercedes didn’t have the promise of a date with Lily to distract her that weekend, so she had no choice but to finally make her way home.

It still took her until Sunday morning to work up the nerve, but she got up, dressed in the plainest clothes she’d brought to Illinois – a bulky hoodie and an old pair of jeans that were so worn that she didn’t consider them appropriate for public use anymore, plus a pair of running shoes that had outlived their purpose a few months ago but were still good for wading through her mother’s hoarder house.

She arrived around eleven, full of caffeine and resentment, and walked up the unstable porch steps to ring the bell. The wood gave under her feet with every step, rotting no doubt after years of neglect, and Mercedes added that to her list of gripes.

I know she wouldn’t let you in the house, Jewel, but could you not have fixed up the porch, or sent Michael over to do it? She thought while she waited for her mom to come to the door.

This wouldn’t be Mercedes’ first time seeing her since she came back to Evanston. She’d been sufficiently shamed after her first dinner with Jewel to call their mother on her way home that evening, and she’d taken her mom out to eat a few times since then.

Twenty years had taken their toll on her. The woman Mercedes remembered had been imposing, with a big personality and a temper that could turn on you when you least expected it – especially if you broke one of her cardinal rules and told someone the family secret. The woman that pulled Mercedes into a hug outside the Arby’s in her neighborhood – refusing to eat anywhere nicer or travel into the city – was thin and the flesh around her neck hung more loosely than it used to.

She was getting older – nearing seventy – and it was hard to see all those years piled on at once.

She still had that personality though, and that temper. When Mercedes told her the reason she was back in Evanston, and that she intended to help her clean up her house, her mother had pounded one fist on the cheap pressboard table they were eating at and said, “You’re not getting rid of my stuff.”

“Mom, you don’t have running water,” Mercedes said, catching herself midway through the sentence and lowering her voice so no one in the restaurant around them would hear. “It’s not sanitary.”

“No, it’s not,” she’d insisted. “What do you think they did a few hundred years ago? They got by.”

“They got cholera,” Mercedes said. “This is non-negotiable. I came all the way out here from Seattle and I had to stop my research to take care of this for you.”

“You’re turning this into a bigger deal than it is,” her mother had said. “I’ve gotten by just fine for the last two years-”

Two years?” Mercedes said, and this time she wasn’t able to keep her voice down.

She wanted to stand up right then and there and throw her hands up. How could anyone survive two years without running water. A thousand questions ran through her mind, and most of them were hygiene related. Do I really want to know? She thought, but she was here now. She was in it.

“Jewel didn’t say it had been that long,” Mercedes said, forcing calmness into her voice. She’d gone to the hospital’s library and picked up some literature on hoarding after her conversation with Jewel, and spent the last month pouring over everything she could get her hands on. The more she read, the grimmer she felt about the whole trip, but getting hysterical wasn’t going to help anyone.

“She doesn’t know,” her mother said. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell her.”

Great, another secret.

“How can she not know?” Mercedes asked.

“I may have fibbed,” her mother said. “When she found out about the toilet not working, I told her it had just been a week or so. She was getting so upset, and she’s got so much on her plate already – I didn’t want to add another thing.”

But let’s just pile it all on me, Mercedes thought. Because I’ve got nothing better to do than clean up your messes – literally.

She took a deep breath and said, “I’m here for one reason – to help you get your water turned back on so that Jewel doesn’t go into a downward spiral. She’s really upset about all of this, and I want to make sure your living environment is safe. That’s all the skin I have in this game – I don’t care how much stuff you have as long as we can make a path to whatever a plumber needs to access to fix the water. Can we make a deal? I won’t throw out anything more than I need to, and you’ll let me do what I have to do.”

That was a lot more generous than Mercedes was actually feeling – she wanted to evict her mother for a week, back a dumpster right up to the house and start flinging stuff out the windows. This was the best compromise she had in her.

“Okay,” her mother had said. Then she picked up a curly fry, popped it into her mouth, and asked Mercedes about her research as if the 700-pound elephant in the room had up and disappeared.

And that was what brought Mercedes to her childhood home on a bright Sunday morning, waiting for her mother to open the door so she could assess the magnitude of the task.

Opening the door turned out to be more of a process than Mercedes expected. First, she heard her mother moving around inside the house, then the door opened an inch or so and stuck.

“Hold your horses,” her mom said through the crack, giving another yank on the door.

Mercedes felt panic rising in her throat. Was it really that bad? “Do you have stuff piled in front of the door, Mom? That’s a fire hazard.”

“No,” she said. “It’s just that there was some water damage and the door swelled. When it’s cold, it’s hard to open.”

Relief washed over her. That was another problem that she’d need to fix before she went back to Seattle, but at least it was a normal one. “Do you want me to push?”

“No,” her mother said. “You’ll knock me over. I’m almost there.”

She gave another good yank and the door popped open, squeaking against the doorframe. Mercedes’ mother had to look behind her to take a step backward and then around the door, pushing the screen door open for her.

Mercedes looked inside the house for the first time in two decades and all the air rushed out of her lungs. For a moment, even though she was standing in the fresh air and objectively, she could feel a cool breeze on her cheeks, there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world. She looked past her mother and saw that the living room had disappeared, swallowed under twenty years of stuff.

The pathways that Mercedes remembered, plenty wide enough to get from room to room, had shrunk to thin little spaces no wider than five inches in some places, and there was just heaps and heaps of stuff stacked everywhere, some of it approaching the ceiling. The couch had disappeared a long time ago, from the looks of it, and the TV was buried as well.

“Don’t judge,” her mother said as she stepped back and made room for Mercedes.

Mercedes just gave her a withering look as she came inside. She knew she’d get farther with her mother if she put on a fake smile and pretended that what she saw didn’t absolutely horrify her, but that intrusive thought had come back, vivid as ever. My mother is mentally ill.

Jewel tried to warn her about how the house had changed. Even if Mercedes had listened, no words could have prepared her for this. She wasn’t sure whether to cry or laugh or be sick.

“Where do you sit?” she asked, gesturing to where the couch used to be. It was probably best to stick to mundane topics right now – anything else would be too much.

“Oh, I don’t use this room much anymore,” her mother said. Her tone was so casual, as if what she was looking at didn’t match what Mercedes saw at all. She just shrugged and said, “I mostly hang out in my bedroom.”

Mercedes tried to take another deep breath, but the air wasn’t good inside the house. There were so many years and layers of dust, and stuff was stacked against every wall, blocking the air vents. It’s okay. You can breathe – not well, but you can breathe, she told herself to keep from panicking. In the back of her mind, she noted the vents as another problem.

“Let’s just deal with the water for right now, okay?” she said. “Which toilet is the broken one? Upstairs?” “Well,” her mother said, looking bashfully at a stack of magazines near her feet. “It’s not so much the toilet – I know that’s what I told Jewel, but I just didn’t want to alarm her.”

She should be alarmed,” Mercedes said, feeling the urge to grab her mother by the shoulders and shake her as she added, you should be alarmed, too! But she was doing a pretty good job maintaining her composure so far and it would be a shame to ruin that streak now. “Sorry. What’s the actual problem with the water?”

“It’s the main,” her mother said. “Two winters ago, we had a cold snap and as best I can figure it, the pipe going from the street into the basement froze. It was old anyway, and ever since then if I turn on the water, it leaks like a sieve, so I just had to turn it off.”

Mercedes closed her eyes. “How much water damage was there? Is there mold, too?”

“No, no,” her mother said. “Nothing like that. I cleaned it all up. I’m not one of those filthy people that can’t clean up after themselves – you know that, baby. I just have a lot of stuff.”

Mercedes nodded. It was the understatement of the century, but in some small way she was right – the house could have been a lot worse. “Can we get to the basement from inside?”

“Yeah, I keep the stairs clear,” her mother said. “Come on.”

She led her through the living room, both of them having to turn sideways and squeeze past a mountain of storage tubs at one point. It was like exploring a landscape that Mercedes was once familiar with, only to find that everything was not quite the same as she left it. The house she’d known as a kid was still here, just magnified by a factor of at least ten.

They went through the kitchen, having to take a circuitous route around the dining table that Mercedes and Jewel used to eat their Pop Tarts at every morning before the school bus came. Now, the table was no longer visible, and its perimeter had grown by several feet where her mother had stacked boxes upon boxes of every type of kitchen gadget and small appliance imaginable, as well as at least twenty gallons of bottled water.

Well, that’s what she’s doing for water, Mercedes thought. She noted that the refrigerator was inaccessible and didn’t sound like it was plugged in, and she saw a single foot of counter space that was cleared, with paper plates and bags of plastic flatware stacked near it.

“Is that where you eat?” she asked.

“It’s where I prepare my meals,” her mother answered. “I eat in my room.”

I don’t want to see it, she thought, spontaneously adopting it as her mantra to get them both through this ordeal with a minimal amount of trauma. I don’t need to know. Then they walked past the stove, which Mercedes nearly missed because there looked to be a year’s worth of newspapers stacked on top of it.

“Mom! That is so dangerous,” she said, reaching for the newspapers to move them… somewhere.

“It’s fine,” her mother said, waving her hand dismissively. “That range hasn’t worked in years.”

“How do you cook?” Mercedes asked before she could help herself.

“I eat fresh fruit and veggies, mostly. I follow a raw diet,” her mother said, puffing out her chest like she was proud of herself.

Except for the curly fries and roast beef sandwiches, Mercedes said, but she let it slide. “Let’s just get downstairs, okay?”

The basement was unfinished, just one big room the same size as the 1,000-square foot house above. It was a damn good thing the house wasn’t any bigger or else the problem would just be more insurmountable. The basement had been a wreck even back when Mercedes lived at home. It was the first place to become a disorganized storage unit for her mother’s unchecked collecting and Mercedes remembered taking Jewel down there when they were in elementary school, excavating their way through the maze of junk as if they were treasure hunters.

It had been fun back then because sometimes they really did find a treasure in all the stuff – a toy they’d forgotten about, or a Christmas present their mother had lost track of and forgot to give them. Those were the good old days when Mercedes had no idea that wasn’t normal.

She followed her mother slowly down the stairs – there was a narrow path there just like everywhere else – and saw that the junk level in the basement had risen by about two feet, coming up to her waist when her feet finally found firm concrete. Her mother headed toward the water shut-off and Mercedes stood at the base of the stairs, frozen for a moment.

She looked at the joists above her head, trying to decide if they were sagging. How many more years of stuff could this house hold before the first floor became the basement, taking her mother with it as it fell?

And she was just wading through the mess, oblivious to the weight of it all – above her, around her, because of her.

Mercedes was leaning significantly closer to the sob end of the spectrum and away from be sick, although she hadn’t discounted that possibility. She spotted the furnace in the opposite corner from where her mother was and asked, “Does your heat still work?”

“Yes,” her mother said.

“Really?” she asked. It was like interacting with a child, and she wasn’t sure she’d be convinced until her mother actually turned on the furnace to demonstrate it.

“Yes,” her mother said, testy this time.

Mercedes started to pick her way across the basement in the direction of the furnace. She had to see it for herself. The stuff was piled much more chaotically down here, and she found herself climbing over things for most of the journey – good thing she was wearing her oldest jeans and worn-out sneakers.

“You don’t have to look at it,” her mother snapped from across the room. “What are you, an HVAC technician?”

“No,” Mercedes grumbled under her breath while her back was to her mother. “But I do have a vested interest in you not setting yourself on fire.” It took her a couple minutes to get to the furnace and then she turned around, snapping at her mother, “There are cardboard boxes stacked all around this thing!”

“Those are the Christmas decorations,” her mother explained, making her way to Mercedes’ corner of the basement. “They go up right after Thanksgiving so they wouldn’t be there when the furnace kicks on.”

“If you don’t mind, I’m not going to take any chances,” Mercedes said, grabbing the nearest box.

“Put that down,” her mother said, climbing more frantically toward her. “You said you weren’t going to move anything today.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Mercedes said. “But this is a ridiculous fire hazard. Your whole damn house is a fire hazard and if you’ve got yourself barricaded in your bedroom like I’m imagining, you’d never get out in time. I’m moving these boxes.”

“Stop,” her mother demanded. “I didn’t give you permission to come in here just to let you ransack my house.”

“I can’t possibly make it any messier than it already is,” Mercedes snapped at her, setting the box down hard on the first flat surface she could find – the washing machine. Nobody’s going to be using that anytime soon, she thought as she grabbed another box.

“I know where all the stuff is,” her mother said. “If you move it, I won’t be able to find it.”

She tried to wrestle the next box out of Mercedes’ hands and Mercedes snatched it away and stacked it on top of the washer, too. She could hear the panic in her mother’s voice, and she knew from all the literature she’d read that this wasn’t the way to handle someone like her. She was making it all worse, but it was either cry, vomit, or focus all of her energy on getting those damn cardboard boxes away from the fucking furnace.

When her mother tried to bar Mercedes from picking up the next box, she shoved her away. Her mother stumbled back a few steps, her heel caught on some piece of junk or another – probably a toy that should have been pitched or donated decades ago – and she sat down hard on the pile.

Mercedes and her mother just looked at each other for a long minute, sizing each other up, and then Mercedes turned back to her task and her mother crossed her arms in front of her chest like a pouting toddler, watching her work and making sure she didn’t move a single thing that wasn’t necessary.

It took Mercedes almost half an hour to clear a two-foot space around the furnace. Half of that time was just trying to find places to stack the boxes that wouldn’t cause a cave-in, but she got there eventually, and then she turned back to her mother.

“There,” she said with finality. “Nothing got thrown away – just moved. The furnace is safe now, and I’m not even going to look at the water main today. We’re going to have to clear a path to it before a repairman can come and do something about it, and I don’t have the energy to think about that right now. Do you need anything else from me today?”

“No,” her mother said. Her arms were still crossed in front of her chest and she still sounded like a petulant child.

Mercedes gritted her teeth and brushed past her. “I’ll call you in a couple days and we’ll come up with a game plan.”

She left her mother pouting in the basement and got out of the house as fast as she could. By the time she was finally on the front porch again, she was breathing heavily, leaning more toward the being sick end of things. She had to stop and put her hands on her knees, taking a few long, deep breaths. Fresh air never felt so good filling her lungs and she couldn’t seem to get enough of it.

My mother is mentally ill, and I haven’t been here.

When she could breathe again, she got in her rental car and drove away as fast as she could. Seattle had never felt farther away.

Did you enjoy this book? Please take a moment to leave a review – they mean a lot to me and to fellow lesfic readers who are looking for their next read.

Sneak Peek: Labor of Love

My latest novel, LABOR OF LOVE, is available now on Amazon. In the latest novel in my bestselling Lakeside Hospital medical romance series, pediatrician Lily meets visiting obstetrician Mercedes. They know from the start their relationship has an expiration date, so what’s the harm in a little fling?

Read the first chapter below.

“Now’s the moment I think you’ve all been waiting for,” the Chief of Medicine said, his voice reverberating into the podium microphone.

He was a short, portly man in his sixties, and he’d been nice enough when Mercedes approached him about a temporary job. Most chiefs wouldn’t be interested in a doctor who opened her request with, I’ll only be in town for six months, but Dr. Ross didn’t bat an eye – he happily hired her on as a visiting obstetrician.

No doubt, her reputation was a contributing factor in his willingness.

That was why Dr. Ross had called a full-blown staff meeting to introduce Mercedes to the rest of the Lakeside Hospital staff, although by the looks on everyone’s faces – tired and impatient at seven in the morning – she thought there was a chance Dr. Ross was overestimating her reputation. She was, indeed, a big deal in obstetrics, but why should the entire staff of a mid-sized hospital in Illinois know or care about her?

Mercedes was sitting in a padded, rigid-backed chair at the front of the room, six rows of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff behind her. She straightened her posture and put on a smile as the chief introduced her.

“I’d like to welcome Dr. Mercedes Stone to the Lakeside family,” Dr. Ross said. “She’s a native Illinoisan who comes to us by way of Seattle, where she’s been doing some very exciting research on preventative measures against preeclampsia. We’re fortunate to have her talents at Lakeside for the next six months before she returns to Seattle. Dr. Stone, would you like to say a few words?”

Mercedes stood, running her hands down the front of her thighs to smooth the wrinkles from her pants. Approaching a podium was nothing new for her, nor was addressing a large crowd. Ordinarily, though, she was sharing her research with her colleagues at high-profile medical conferences – not introducing herself to a hospital staff in a town she never expected to return to.

Lord, get me back to Seattle soon, she thought as she approached the microphone and put on a smile.

“Thank you, Dr. Ross,” she said.

The chief was definitely overestimating her reputation outside of her specialty – there were a lot of blank faces staring back at her. It was early – or for those just getting off the night shift, late – and her audience looked sleepy, their eyes glazed. That was another thing Mercedes wasn’t used to – when she gave talks about her research, the doctors in the audience were always on the edges of their seats, fascinated with her work.

Most of these people were shift nurses, orderlies, and doctors outside her specialty – they probably didn’t even know the name Mercedes Stone until five minutes ago.

“I’m looking forward to working with the obstetrics department here,” she said – a lie. All she wanted was to go back to her real life, and the research she’d had to put on hold, but she was stuck in Evanston.

And there was nothing she could do about that.

She talked for a few minutes about her background – fancy colleges, a prestigious residency, and a coveted fellowship that sure felt like it was all for nothing now that she was right back where she came from. She kept it short – the first rule of public speaking was to know your audience, after all – but there was one face in the crowd that stood out.

There was a woman sitting in the front row, leaning slightly forward in her chair and looking at Mercedes with glossy, golden brown eyes like a tiger’s eye gemstone. She wore a long white coat with a pretty floral dress beneath it, and her dark skin reminded Mercedes of the color of rich caramel.

Mercedes recognized her.

Lily Thomas, a pediatrician who was making a name for herself in the treatment of adolescent burn patients. Their professional circles had intersected a few times over the last few years, although they’d never had occasion to speak, and it was at a conference that Lily first caught Mercedes’ eye. She’d been giving a talk about a new debridement method that she’d had success with, and in addition to being intelligent and driven, Mercedes couldn’t help but notice Dr. Thomas was a very attractive woman.

By the end of her short, introductory speech, Mercedes found herself talking almost exclusively to her. Dr. Thomas was the only one in the audience who was listening anyway, and Mercedes took great joy in observing the way the color in her cheeks deepened the longer Mercedes maintained eye contact with her.

So Lakeside Hospital might be fun after all.


When Dr. Ross dismissed the meeting, it was like a stampede of staff charging out of the conference room. Mercedes was no stranger to the workings of a hospital – all of these people had patients to see, or families to go home to, or beds to crash into. They cared about those things much more than the new obstetrician on the team, and she didn’t blame them.

Mercedes, on the other hand, had thirty minutes to kill before her orientation meeting with the head of her department. She also had a powerful craving for a good, hot cup of coffee.

She weaved her way through the crowd to a long table spread with every type of pastry and breakfast beverage imaginable. That was the real draw of early-morning staff meetings, and a lot of people were snagging donuts and paper cups of coffee on their way out the door.

Mercedes grabbed a paper cup, too, and started filling it from one of the coffee carafes as doctors and nurses breezed by her with the pastries they’d earned for their attendance.

“Mercedes?” someone said behind her, a soft and friendly voice that made her eager to turn around.

When she did, she found Lily Thomas standing nervously in front of her. She stuttered, “Err, Dr. Stone. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to presume-”

“Nonsense,” Mercedes said, setting down her coffee and holding out her hand. “You should call me Mercedes – I’m sure our departments will be intermingling quite a bit…”

“Our departments?” Lily asked as she took Mercedes’ hand. Her grip was surprisingly firm – Mercedes had expected something a little limper based on the admiring schoolgirl look in Lily’s eyes.

“Pediatrics and obstetrics,” Mercedes explained. “In a hospital this size, they’re practically the same department, right?”

Something fiery flashed in Lily’s eyes – pride, maybe? As she released Mercedes’ hand, she said, “I didn’t know you knew who I was.”

“Lily Thomas,” Mercedes said, taking particular pleasure in the obviously smitten look in her new coworker’s eyes. Now the only question was, did Lily have a professional crush on her work, or was it something more? It would be a fun diversion to find out. She continued, “You’re doing important work in burn patient care and I read your paper in The Journal of Pediatrics last winter. You’re a force to be reckoned with, Dr. Thomas.”

“Lily,” she said, glancing at the buffet table. It was pretty much picked over, but she found a plain cake donut and bit into it, then with charmingly stuffed cheeks, she said, “We’re not that small, though. Lakeside is ranked number three in the area, and our cardiology and surgical departments are among the best in the country.”

“And the pediatrics department?” Mercedes asked, taking a sip of her coffee.

“We’ve got Lurie Children’s Hospital to compete with in Chicago, but we’re slowly but surely making a name for our pediatric burn center,” Lily said, and the look in her eyes that time was definitely pride. She polished off the cake donut, making short work of it, then said, “If you don’t mind my asking, why did you come back to Illinois? You were in the middle of such important research.”

Mercedes set her jaw, irritation bubbling up in her involuntarily like it had every time she thought about her work lately.

“I was,” she said. Her research partner, Dr. Knowlton, had said putting the study on hold would jeopardize the findings. Mercedes had exchanged some harsh words with him about that, because he was right and she had to leave Seattle anyway. “I hope to get back home before the patients in our trial start to give birth, but you know how unpredictable pregnancy can be – multiply that by twenty-five patients.”

She gave a little laugh to keep from screaming at the frustration of it all, and noticed a worry line forming on Lily’s forehead. It was there for just a second, then gone again.

“Anyway,” Mercedes said, “I had some family matters to attend to here, and Dr. Ross was kind enough to grant me privileges at Lakeside because I can’t stand not working.”

“Oh,” Lily said, her expression clouding slightly. “I hope everything’s okay.”

“Sure,” Mercedes said. “Thanks.”

There was no good answer to that, so she just occupied herself with another sip of coffee while she surreptitiously studied Lily a little more. There was no ring on her finger, and the looks she kept giving Mercedes – up through her eyelashes, a seductive move that never failed to turn her to putty in a pretty girl’s hands – were not suggestive of the presence of a girlfriend or, God forbid, a boyfriend.

Lily looked away first, grabbing a paper cup and pouring herself some orange juice. Mercedes couldn’t help poking a little fun. “OJ, really? I thought all doctors had caffeine in their blood.”

“Orange juice is healthier,” Lily said. She glanced at a large, fashionable watch on her wrist and said, “I have to get upstairs to begin my shift now. I just wanted to introduce myself to you, but I guess that wasn’t necessary after all.”

She gave Mercedes a crooked little smile that was definitely flirtatious and Mercedes grinned back at her. She had just about decided that Lily would prove to be another good distraction from her troubles while she was here.

“It was nice to meet you, Dr. Thomas,” she said.

“I look forward to working with you,” Lily said, her cheeks coloring once again as she turned and headed for the door.

Bonus Scenes: When Stars Align

My latest novel, WHEN STARS ALIGN, is available now on Amazon. It’s a slow-burning second chance romance between a larger-than-life rock star and a former swimmer who needs a reason to dream again.

Read a bonus scene below.

The following is a deleted scene from my latest novel. In it, Nat has gone back to LA momentarily and the distance forces her to find new ways to bond with Christy.

Nat and Christy spent the week texting each other while Nat worked feverishly to get the Scarlet Begonias’ online presence up and running. She worked hard on creating social media profiles, an intro video for their new YouTube channel, and branding for the band. She also booked them studio time and a photographer to take publicity shots. And through all of that, Nat had her phone by her side, waiting for any little time that Christy had to give her.

That turned out to be quite a bit, and Nat was pleased to find that Christy was in a flirtatious mood all week long.

“What’s gotten into you?” she asked one day when Christy called to ask about the next time she’d be in Westbrook.

“Nothing,” Christy said. “Is it a crime to miss you?”

“Certainly not, but I didn’t know I meant this much to you,” Nat said.

“Of course you do,” Christy said. “Come see me.”

Nat smiled and couldn’t resist the urge to tease Christy a little bit. “I don’t know if I can. Airfare costs are pretty high and Clive wants me in a meeting with my record exec at the end of the week to touch base.”

“This is the twenty-first century,” Christy said. “Can’t you do that online, Skype him from my bed or something?”

Nat’s lips curled into a smile. “Well, you really are feeling feisty.”

“Just get to Ohio,” Christy said. “We need to talk.”

Nat continued to play hard to get for the rest of the week, primarily because it was so much fun to see Christy getting riled up, and when Saturday finally came, she looked up the Westbrook Wolverines’ swim meet schedule online and decided to surprise Christy at the meet. It would be a fun little nod to their first meeting – or their first re-meeting, as the case may be.

The Wolverines were finally swimming at their home pool so Nat took an Uber from the airport, making one pit stop to get Christy her favorite coffee, and then heading to Westbrook and finding her way to the high school’s sports complex.

The bleachers were just beginning to fill up with parents and the kids were warming up on the sidelines. Nat snuck up behind Christy, tapping her on the shoulder and then pressing a latte into her hand when she turned around.

“It’s from the Daily Grind,” she said. “I figured you could use some good caffeine.” Christy barely even acknowledged the coffee, her eyes sparkling with excitement as she took in Natalie’s presence.

“You’re here,” she said. “You didn’t tell me you were coming.”

“Is that okay?” Nat asked, even though she could see in Christy’s eyes that it was. “I wanted to surprise you.”

Christy grinned devilishly and grabbed Nat by the hand. “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?” Nat asked as Christy pulled her along the length of the swimming pool. They went into the locker room, which was mostly empty by now. Christy made an abrupt turn, tugging Nat along with her as she went into the coach’s office. She dropped the horizontal blinds over the window, then pressed Nat up against the door so hard and so suddenly that she nearly dropped her latte.

Their lips pressed together, then their bodies, and Nat had no further questions about how Christy’s body would feel after an absence of fifteen years. Her free hand found the curve of Christy’s hip, just as perfect in her hand as always, and Christy’s thigh slid between Nat’s legs. Her breathing intensified and after a moment in which she totally lost sense of herself, her surroundings and her purpose, Christy pulled away and Nat let out an uncharacteristic giggle.

“So I take it you like surprises?”

“I do when they involve you showing up unexpectedly,” Christy said. “I’ve been waiting far too long to do that, but unfortunately I don’t have time for much more.” She checked her wristwatch and said, “The meet’s about to begin.”

“Damn the meet,” Nat said with another laugh.

She grabbed Christy’s hand and pulled her into another long, passionate kiss. She never wanted to let her go.

Did you enjoy this book? Please take a moment to leave a review – they mean a lot to me and to fellow lesfic readers who are looking for their next read.

Sneak Peek: When Stars Align

My latest novel, WHEN STARS ALIGN, is available now on Amazon. It’s a slow-burning second chance romance between a larger-than-life rock star and a former swimmer who needs a reason to dream again.

Read the first chapter below:

“Your last album was good,” Nick said, his hands on the arms of his executive chair, giving him the aura of a Bond villain. “Maybe even great, Natalie.”

Nat sat in an overstuffed, impossibly expensive leather couch across from the president of her record label and waited for the but. After fifteen years of working with Nick Fox – as well as his predecessors – at Golden Child Records, Nat was getting pretty good at anticipating the buts and she knew this was going to be a big one. She glanced at her agent, Clive, who was sitting in a matching leather loveseat and giving her a look she knew well – don’t jump to anything drastic.

We’ll see, she thought.

She gave Nick a small smile, acknowledging the compliment, then took a sip from the caramel latte that Nick’s assistant, Angie, automatically brought her at the beginning of every meeting. Sometimes it was good to be a rock star.

Nick leaned forward, his tie falling across his large mahogany desk, and said, “But you know every artist is only as good as their last album. It’s been nine months since Starlet Express dropped. We need to get you out on tour again, and I’m really hoping you came here to tell me you have a dozen new songs to lay down for your next album.”

Nat set her cup down on a glass coffee table in front of her and folded her hands patiently in her lap. This was far from the first time she’d had this conversation with Nick. It seemed like every time she made the trip up to this ivory tower, it was because he wanted more from her – more tour dates, another album, a hotter single.

After a decade and a half, Nat was getting tired of this old song and dance.

“You know how much I love my fans,” she said. “And I do have some songs brewing.” She glanced at Clive, who gave her a knowing look. After her very public breakup with Zoe Asher, whatever songs came out of her next would most definitely not be mushy love ballads. Nat turned back to Nick, ready to deliver a but of her own. “But I was on the road 315 days last year, and 294 the year before that. You’re running me ragged.”

“That’s the price of fame,” Nick said. “I don’t know what to tell you. If you want to continue being Nat Butler, rock goddess, you gotta get out there and light up those stages.”

“Maybe we can work out a deal where Nat spends the first few months of the new year in the studio,” Clive suggested. He’d been working with Nat since her first album, Dreamcatcher, and he could always spot her moods a mile away. He was in damage control mode already.

“I’m not asking for more studio time,” Nat said. “I don’t want to renew my contract.”

The room went silent as Nick and Clive both struggled to comprehend the bomb Nat had just dropped. The words came out of her mouth more or less unplanned, but as soon as she said them, it felt like a weight had lifted off her chest.

Nat was turning thirty-nine this year and she had more than a few gray hairs streaked through her brunette locks. She loved the music. She loved the adrenaline rush of stepping onstage in a sold-out arena to the deafening roar of thousands of her fans. She loved the pretty groupies. But she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life on tour and the longer she sat in Nick’s fancy office on the twentieth floor, the more sure she was that she wanted out – at least for a while.

“You’ve been with Golden Child Records since you were twenty-four,” Nick said.

“Yeah, that’s kind of my point,” Nat answered. “It’s time for a change.”

“Do you know how much money Golden Child has poured into you in the last fifteen years?” Nick asked, beginning to grow red around the collar. He was clenching his jaw as he leaned across his desk again and asked, “What are you going to do, go across town and sign with Empire?”

“No,” Nat said. “I don’t know what I want to do. I just know I don’t have the energy to go on another world tour right now. And for the record, Nick, my music has earned back every marketing dollar you’ve ever thrown at me. You wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep me right now if it didn’t.”

“Okay,” Clive said, putting up his hands to stop their argument. He put on his mediator’s hat like a good agent and said, “Nat’s contract isn’t officially up for another forty-five days. Why don’t we all take a little time to think about our options and come back to talk about it closer to the date?”

“I’m not going to want to tour any more in forty-five days than I do now,” Nat said.

“And I’m not going to have enough time to start promoting the show if we leave it to the last minute,” Nick objected.

“You know what you haven’t had in a long time?” Clive asked Nat. “A vacation. Do you remember what that word means?”

She smirked. “Barely.”

“I bet it would help,” Clive said. “Why don’t we let Nat reset for a little while, then we’ll come back in, let’s say, three weeks and talk again?”

“Four,” Nat said.

“Fine,” Nick agreed. “Take a month and do what you have to do. But I want to hear some new songs from you when you come back, ready to sign that contract – I’d like to get your next album ready in time for Golden Child’s fifty-year anniversary promotions in the spring.”

He always had a talent for bluntness. A lot of people in the music industry had a way of talking in platitudes and vagaries, obscuring what they really meant and letting it hit you in the elevator down to the parking garage. Nick always let Nat know where she stood, and usually that was a good thing.

“Good,” Clive said, turning to Nat. “Does that work for you?”

They were both staring expectantly at her and suddenly Nat felt like the pop divas that she’d been privately mocking for the last fifteen years. She smiled and softened her demeanor. She’d gotten what she wanted, after all. “Yes, a month sounds like a much-needed respite.”


On her way out of the office, Nat handed her empty coffee cup to Angie. The girl was a blonde, in her early twenties, always humming a new tune under her breath, and she fangirled big-time whenever Nat came into the office.

“The caramel latte was good,” Nat said with a wink. “Thank you.”

She was in a good mood and today she couldn’t help playing into the doe-eyed looks that Angie always gave her. It was hard to tell if there was anything more to it than simple musical admiration, but Nat had, on occasion, enjoyed the fantasy of seducing Angie.

Of course, she would never actually do it – part of the reason Nat had enjoyed such a long and successful career was her strict policy of never shitting where she ate, and that included flirting with her label exec’s administrative assistant.

“You’re welcome Miss Butler,” the girl said, batting her lashes at Nat. Yeah, she wants me, Nat thought as Angie added, “I’ve had a lot more practice with the espresso machine since the last time you came for a meeting.”

“Your talents are wasted here, Angie,” Nat said. “Maybe one day Mr. Fox will realize you’re good for more than just lattes.”

Nat had had plenty of conversations with the girl while waiting for her appointments. Nick always liked to keep her waiting for at least a few minutes, and Nat was always blown away with the depth of Angie’s musical knowledge. She knew all Nat’s favorites, from Janis Joplin to the Velvet Underground, as well as all the new bands burning it up on YouTube – from the Frequent Flyers to The Hero’s Journey.

Angie’s cheeks colored and Nat wondered if the look she’d given her had been a little too suggestive. Time to reel it in.

“You ready?” Clive asked as he walked with her to the elevators at the other end of the lobby.

“Yeah,” Nat said.

Clive called the elevator and they stepped inside, and as soon as the doors slid shut behind them, he snapped, “What the hell was that?”

Nat shrugged. “I was just having a little fun with her. I do think Nick is wasting her talent by making her answer phones and get coffee, though.”

Clive rolled his eyes and said, “I wasn’t talking about Angie. Could you not have given me a heads up that you were going to try to drop your contract before we walked into that meeting?”

“I’m sorry,” Nat said. Clive was right – she’d practically ambushed him, but it hadn’t exactly been a planned maneuver. “I didn’t go in there meaning to cause trouble. You know how tired I’ve been, with the last tour overseas and everything that happened with Zoe. You’re right, though – I do need a break.”

“I just wish you’d given me some indication you were going to do that,” Clive said, irritation still edging all of his words. “I’m your agent and I can’t help you if you keep me in the dark.”

“Did you know that Dick Dale is eighty-one years old and still touring?” Nat asked. “The man is the king of the surf guitar and he can’t stop touring or he won’t be able to pay his medical bills. I don’t want that to be me, Clive.”

“You’re thirty-eight,” Clive said. He let out a sigh as the elevator came to a stop on the parking level, then asked, “So, what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know yet,” Nat said thoughtfully. “But thanks for the vacation.”

“You’re welcome,” Clive said grudgingly. “You’ve got some serious soul-searching to do this month, girlie. I’m always just a call away.”

“Thanks,” Nat said. Then they parted ways and she practically floated to her Lexus parked at the end of the row. She was scared and optimistic all at once. Nat couldn’t remember the last time she’d had more than a couple of days off, and now an entire month stretched before her in which she would need to figure out her next move.

WHEN STARS ALIGN is available now on Amazon

Sneak Peek: Cinders

My latest novel, CINDERS, is available now on Amazon. It’s a contemporary adaptation of Cinderella with a hot firefighter and the high-society princess she’s been pining over for years. When a fire breaks out in the princess’s garden, Cinders finally gets the chance to make her move.

The painting was one of those abstract deals.

He’d been standing in front of it for the last thirty minutes and he’d be damned if he could make anything out of it. There were colorful paint splatters and a few geometric shapes. For a minute or two, he thought he saw a duck in the bottom right corner, but it was just a bunch of nonsense shapes. Pieces of paper cut and pasted randomly onto the canvas, then splattered with more gobs of meaningless paint.

The longer he stared at it, the more certain it seemed that the artist was mocking him and his fruitless search for the hidden message within the painting.

Sure, let me waste half an hour of my day looking at this fucking thing, he thought, trying to figure out what you’re saying to me. Really, it’s just a great big middle finger pointed directly at me.

The tiny foam board plaque hanging on the wall at the bottom right corner of the canvas seemed to prove his suspicions. It had the artist’s name and the title of the piece printed on it.

Anthony Rosen. “Two Lovers at Dusk,” 2018. Enamel on canvas.

Yeah, as if that clears things up, he smirked, looking again for anything even remotely resembling a pair of lovers… or anything humanoid at all. Lovers, my ass.

There was nothing there. It was all inside the charmed mind of Anthony Rosen, and yet here he was, with his so-called artwork hanging in the Grimm Falls Museum of Art. Anyone could make something as unintentional as this. It was a Jackson Pollock with a few extra scraps of paper glued on for good measure.

Hell, he thought, even I could do something this terrible.

What made Anthony Rosen so special?

He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and his fingers found a small cylinder in his right pocket. He slid his thumb along the plastic casing until he found the metal wheel at the top of the lighter. The metal was slick and warm beneath his touch, and even though he’d only just picked it up this morning, he’d already gotten into the habit of rubbing it like a worry stone.

Well, back into the habit.

He hadn’t bought a pack of smokes in three years because everyone knew they were killers.

Not great for job hunting, either – a lot of companies won’t even look at you twice if you show up to your interview smelling like an ashtray. All they see is insurance money going up like so much smoke.

But this morning was different. When he walked up to the counter at the gas station where he stopped for a cup of coffee every day, he pointed to the Winston Lights on the rack behind the clerk. “The gold pack,” he’d told her, and just like that, it was as if he’d never quit. Of course, he needed to buy a lighter to go with the cigarettes, so he snatched one from the Bic display and slid it across the counter to her.

He was tearing the cellophane off the cigarette pack before he was even out of the gas station. He was so itchy for a smoke, he left his coffee cup on the counter and didn’t figure out his mistake for another twenty minutes. But that first, long inhale never tasted better, even if it did make him cough and hack a bit.

And then he’d come to look at “Two Lovers at Dusk” – really look at it, because up until today, he hadn’t been able to see a thing. Now that he was here, the lighter wheel was begging to be flicked.

He looked around, but there weren’t many people in the museum at this hour. It was the middle of a weekday and besides the group of third graders who had marched obediently and disinterestedly through the Grimm Falls Local Artists exhibit twenty minutes ago, he was alone.

He had to admit it was satisfying to see how little those kids cared about Anthony Rosen and his featured artwork. When they showed up, he stepped aside and watched them. Did a nine-year-old give any more fucks about abstract expressionism than he did?

Turns out, no.

They walked past the paintings in the exhibit room in an orderly line that had been orchestrated by a teacher who seemed determined to get this over with. Some of them glanced at “Two Lovers at Dusk,” and some didn’t even bother.

He had a crazy urge to hold out his hand for a high-five from those kids. They knew ego and favoritism when they saw it. Then the kids were gone, moved on to another exhibit hall, and it was just him and the painting again.

And the lighter.

He hadn’t seen so much as a docent in the last five minutes – it was all too perfect. Like the universe wanted him to show Anthony Rosen where he really stood.

He took out the lighter and flicked the wheel once, not hard enough to ignite the flame but enough to let off a thrilling spark. It felt good, like scratching an itch. Same as that first cigarette this morning.

The four he’d smoked since then didn’t taste quite as good as the first, but that was to be expected. How much could you really ask of a pack of smokes?

The itch came back stronger this time. All he wanted was a little taste – a tiny bit of relief. It felt good to buy that pack of Winstons on impulse this morning, and where had he ever gotten by ignoring his impulses, playing by the rules?

Nowhere fast.

He flicked the lighter again, letting the flame catch this time. His heart was pounding and he could feel every nerve ending in his body spring to life, on high alert.

He reached forward and touched the flame to the bottom corner of the canvas, right next to Anthony Rosen’s foam board plaque. He just wanted to singe it, to leave his mark. If a disaster like this got a little bit blackened, nobody would even notice, right?

The flame licked across the bottom of the canvas and he blew on it, but it didn’t go out. The fire really loved the enamel paint and it kept spreading across the front of the painting.

He could have blown harder, or used the sleeve of his jacket to smother the flame. Hell, there was a fire extinguisher mounted to the wall not more than twenty paces away. But as he watched the orange fire bubbling up the paint and eating Anthony Rosen’s smugness, he felt calm. The way the fire danced along the bottom of the canvas frame was almost elegant.

He watched for a minute, entranced, and when smoke began to curl up toward the sprinkler system, he stuffed the lighter back into his pocket and walked away. He ducked into a nearby exhibit on pointillism and a few seconds later, a docent shuffled briskly up the hall.

“Fire!” she yelled, her voice cracking with panic.

Then the museum director ran up the hall, his fingers twisted into his thinning hair as he told the docent, “Call the fire department!”

He heard the sound of the fire extinguisher being yanked off the wall, and the whoosh of chemicals as it obliterated the flames and what was left of the painting. Inside the pointillism exhibit, he slid his hand back into his pocket, stroking the lighter wheel once more. An unexpected smile formed on his lips. Today was a great day to pick up smoking again.

CINDERS is available now on Amazon

Bonus Scenes: Love Trauma

Krys Stevens is the best trauma doctor at Lakeside Hospital. She runs the ER like a finely choreographed dance, she has coworkers she calls friends, and she’s a superstar at the free clinic where she volunteers. What more could an ambitious young doctor want? One day, a patient arrives in the ER intubated with a ballpoint pen and changes everything – that’s how Krys meets Darcy, a former combat medic and a woman after her own heart.

My latest novel, LOVE TRAUMA, is available now on Amazon. Read the bonus scenes below.

Krys and Lily attend the girls’ graduation

“Sorry,” Krys said as Lily made her way across the narrow bleachers of the stadium. She had a barely visible limp and Krys didn’t remember it until Lily was most of the way there. “I could have come to you.”

“It’s no problem,” Lily answered with a smile. “Are you here to watch Chloe graduate?”

“Yeah. Ivy and Megan, too,” Krys said.

“I don’t know them very well,” Lily said. “Chloe’s going to be starting her residency in my department next week, though.”

“Ivy is Chloe’s partner,” Krys said. “I’m mentoring her this year, although she’s had a lot more say in that relationship than I have.” Krys laughed nervously, then added, “And I know Megan from her first year of medical school when we worked together on a special project. She and Chloe used to be roommates.”

“Oh, wow,” Lily said. “I had no idea you were all so connected.”

“If you’re working with Chloe, I’m sure she’ll loop you in, too,” Krys said, laughing again. God, what was with her? It was like her brain stopped working whenever she was outside of the hospital and she had to turn on the social side of her personality. It was always a rough transition because she didn’t do it very often. “Anyway, are you here with someone? Because we could sit together if you want.”

“I came alone,” Lily said, “and I appreciate the offer.”

They sat down and Lily proved to be much more easy-going than Krys. The conversation flowed smoothly as long as Krys let Lily do the talking, and for the next half hour, they waited for the stadium to fill up and the ceremony to begin.

“I don’t really see you around the hospital much,” Lily said. “You’re a resident, right?”

“Yeah, in the ER,” Krys said. “Truth be told, I hardly ever leave the department.”

“That would explain it,” Lily answered. “Well, I would advise you to work on that. I know you didn’t come all the way out to Northwestern for a lecture from a Lakeside attending, but it’s very important to get a little variety in your life. You don’t want to burn out.”

“There’s no danger of that,” Krys said. “I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere but the ER. I’m having withdrawal just from being here today.”

Lily laughed and kept the conversation going with chitchat about the hospital, then she told Krys about her most recent family vacation with her parents and brothers, and finally, the ceremony began. *** After the graduation ceremony, Krys and Lily went to the reception where the medical school graduates were being honored. Krys stuck close to Lily, preferring the comfort of a familiar person, until she saw Megan and her fiancée, Alex. Lily broke off to find Chloe and congratulate her, and Krys went to talk to Megan.

It wasn’t long at all before the conversation turned from graduation to the other big event in Megan’s life – the wedding that was coming up in just a few short weeks. Krys had gotten her save the date in the mail a month ago and she was still fretting over whether she wanted to show up stag, so she hadn’t mailed it back yet.

Alex didn’t waste any time teasing Krys about that fact. She took Megan’s hand and smiled at her as she said, “It’ll be here before we know it.” Then she turned to Krys and said, “It would really help if a certain someone would RSVP so we can finalize the seating charts.”

Krys gave her an apologetic look, but Megan jumped in to take the heat off her.

“That reminds me,” she said, a grin turning up one corner of her mouth. “I wanted to ask you whether you would like to do a reading at the ceremony.”

“Me?” Krys asked.

“Yeah,” Megan said. “We’ve gotten to be good friends over the last couple of years. I’d love for you to say something at the wedding.”

“Are you sure you’re not just trying to fish for an answer about my plus one?” Krys asked. “Because I’m just trying to figure out if I want chicken or fish.”

Megan laughed, then said, “Bring a date, don’t bring a date – just come and enjoy yourself.”

“Okay,” Krys said. “And I’d be honored to do a reading.”

“We better go find my parents,” Megan said. “My little brother’s probably eating the school into bankruptcy by now.”

She and Alex excused themselves and Krys looked around the tent. She found Ivy and Chloe standing with Lily at a bar table not far away, so she went over and joined them.

“Hey,” she said as Chloe threw her arms around her. “Congratulations to you both.”

“Thank you,” Chloe said with an enormous grin. Krys leaned over and hugged Ivy, too, and that hug was a little more awkward because neither of them were the touchy-feely type.

“You two both looked so professional up there on the stage,” Krys said. “I bet your parents are extremely proud of you.”

“My parents and sister came all the way from Portland to see me today,” Chloe said. She was positively beaming as she glanced around the tent. “I think my dad’s still pestering the dean. I should probably rescue her from him.”

“I’m sure she’s used to it by now,” Lily said. “So I know what’s next for Chloe – she’s coming to work with me. What about you, Ivy?”

“I’ll be at Lakeside, too,” Ivy said. “They have one of the best neurosurgery programs in the country and I’ll be happy to soak up as much of that experience as I can while I work through my general surgery residency. By the time I’m ready to dive into my subspecialty, hopefully I will have made myself indispensable to the chief of surgery and I’ll have my pick of programs.”

“You’re already wonderful and Dr. Isaac loves you,” Chloe said. Ivy rolled her eyes like she didn’t believe her, but she smiled and put her arm around Chloe’s waist.

“Thanks, babe,” she said and gave her a quick kiss, looking mildly embarrassed on account of their audience.

Lily, Krys and Darcy say goodbye to Malik

Bella’s was a pub in the heart of Evanston. Krys had passed it dozens of times on her way back and forth across the city from the hospital to the clinic, but she’d never gone inside. Darcy told her it was good – a hangout that she and her friends used to like when she was much younger – and more importantly, it was only a few doors down from the funeral home.

They went inside to wait for Lily to finish paying her respects, and in the meantime, they found a table. Krys and Darcy were part-way through their first glasses of wine. Krys was feeling a little loose from it, which should have helped make the conversation flow a little easier, but she was distracted with thoughts of the wake.

“Thanks for inviting me,” Lily said as she sat down at the table. “Are you sure I’m not intruding?”

“Not at all,” Darcy said. “We were glad to see a familiar face at the funeral home.”

Their waiter came to the table and took Lily’s drink order. When he was gone again, Krys asked Lily, “Do you go to all your patients’ calling hours?”

Lily smiled softly and said, “Well, thankfully it doesn’t come up that often, but I try to pay my respects when it does.”

“And do you think it helps you get over the loss?”

“Not get over it, exactly,” Lily said, “but it’s a healthy reminder of how serious our work is.”

The waiter came back with her drink and they sat in stillness for a few minutes. Darcy steered the conversation away from Malik eventually and Krys downed the rest of her wine then ordered another. It was strange to be at a little boy’s wake one minute, then drinking in a bar and talking about totally unrelated things in the next.

I guess this is life. This is how we move on.

“So you two have been going out for a couple of months now, right?” Lily asked. “Since Megan and Alex’s wedding?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “It’s been about a month and a half.”

“That’s sweet,” Lily said. “You two seem complementary.”

Darcy laughed and said, “Is that a nice way of saying that opposites attract?”

“Not at all,” Lily said. “You seem to be cut from the same cloth.”

“What about you?” Darcy asked. “We saw you chatting up that pretty girl at the wedding – Alex’s cousin, right? Was there a spark?”

“Alex’s friend from EMT school,” Lily corrected. She took a big gulp from her glass and seemed very interested in something across the room as she said, “No, nothing came of it. She was nice and we went on one date, but there was no chemistry.”

“That’s too bad,” Darcy said.

Krys smirked, taking note of the look in Darcy’s eyes, and told Lily, “She’s trying to think of who else she can hook you up with now. She may not look the type, but she’s just as hopelessly romantic as Chloe.”

“What’s wrong with wanting my friends to be happy?” Darcy asked. “Nothing,” Krys said, wrapping Darcy’s arm around her shoulder and snuggling into her. The effects of the wine were beginning to make themselves known, making her feel warm and sleepy. The pain of mourning was still there, but she had to admit it was a little easier to handle when she was surrounded by people she cared about.

“Don’t hook me up,” Lily said, sliding her finger contemplatively around the rim of her glass. “I do want a relationship – someday. But I’m in no rush to find Ms. Right.”

Did you enjoy this book? Please take a moment to leave a review – they mean a lot to me and to fellow lesfic readers who are looking for their next read.

Bonus Scenes: Trail Magic

They say love can move mountains. Kit’s a free spirit and Raven’s a lone wolf. When opposites attract on the Appalachian Trail, the result is magical. My latest novel, TRAIL MAGIC, is available now on Amazon.

Read the bonus scenes below.

Kit and Raven in the restaurant

Raven laughed, a hint of nervousness in her tone, then she looked out the window beside their diner booth. The mountains rose up in the distance, not too far away, and Kit took the opportunity to admire Raven’s profile.

Then Raven looked back at her and changed the subject.

“Well, it seems like you know my whole life story by now,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me about yours.”

“That can’t be your whole life story,” Kit pointed out. “You were the one who got mad the other day because you thought I was reducing you to your cancer diagnosis, and yet here you are, doing the same thing to yourself.”

“That’s fair,” Raven agreed. “That was my life for a couple of years and it felt like forever, but it’s not everything.”

“So tell me more,” Kit said.

“You’re deflecting,” Raven said with a smirk. “I asked you first.”

“Hmm, where do I begin?” Kit asked, thinking. She had already told Raven that the reason she was on the trail was because she lost her girlfriend and her job on the same day, but she hadn’t gone into details about either of those events yet. And, like Raven, she felt that they were not the only defining moments of her life – they were just the most recent and obvious indicators of who she was beyond the trail.

“Parachute doesn’t have anything to say,” Raven teased. “That’s got to be a first.”

“Meanie,” Kit said. Then she added, “Okay, I’ve got something. So, I’m 34 years old and for the last five years, I haven’t held a job for more than six months. I work through a temp agency to do temporary work. I used to lie to myself and say it was because the economy is bad. Ever since I got out here, though, I’ve been questioning that idea, remembering why I started doing temp work in the first place.”

“Oh yeah?” Raven asked.

“Yeah, and you’re partially to blame for that realization,” Kit said, taking another healthy bite of her burger. “That nickname you gave me – you really hit the nail on the head.”

“So you think a life of shiftlessness and nomadism is no longer for you?” Raven asked.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Kit said. “But I am starting to wonder what the upper limit of youthful exuberance is. Until I met you, I thought of myself just like Dodger in his buddies. But I’m not really like them anymore, and I’m definitely older than them.”

“Nah, 34 is young. You’re still a baby,” Raven teased her. “Me, on the other hand – I could practically be your mother.”

“Don’t say that,” Kit said, wincing and holding her hand up. “No, you could not. Especially when you look at me the way you do.”

“What way is that?” Raven asked, setting her hand on the table where it would be easy for Kit to reach across and take it. She leaned forward, intrigued.

“The way you’re looking at me right now,” Kit said, a half-smile spreading across her lips. She leaned in closer to match Raven’s posture and said quietly, “Like you want to climb over the table and kiss me.”

Raven sat back and laughed, then said, “Oh, you are bold.”

“I leap before I look,” Kit said with a shrug. “You said it yourself – I’m Parachute.”

Raven and Kit reconnect

Kit was walking by herself – something that she absolutely hated – when she saw a familiar face on the trail ahead of her.

“Raven?” she shouted.

Kit had been hiking alone for two days, trying to figure out what exactly she’d done to make Raven hike ahead without her. It was a new concept for Kit – taking responsibility for something that didn’t seem at first glance to have anything to do with her. Raven had been angry about that stupid apple, blaming Kit when the Highlands ponies ate her afternoon snack, and she never quite got out of that funky mood.

She hiked ahead of Kit all afternoon and when Kit arrived at the shelter where they were supposed to stay that night, Raven wasn’t there.

Kit figured she’d seen the last of Raven and she spent the next two days feeling lonely and confused.

She was surprised when she saw Raven on the trail ahead, and relieved when Raven smiled at her.

She could have been angry, or annoyed that Kit had caught up to her. Instead, she jogged up the trail to meet Kit, looking like she was feeling just as uncomfortable about the whole separation.

“Where did you go?” Kit asked, trying not to sound too hurt. They’d never formally agreed to hike together, so she had no right to expect Raven to wait for her, but she’d been shocked when she found out Raven had hiked on without her.

“It was an accident,” Raven said, although Kit didn’t detect a significant amount of sincerity in her voice.

Raven didn’t even believe her own lie, and Kit certainly didn’t believe it.

“You have every mile of this trail memorized. I bet you could tell me the historical significance of that rock over there, and you accidentally hiked past our shelter?”

Raven looked down at her shoes.

“Well, not accidental in that sense,” she said. “That part was pretty impulsive. I just needed a break, and I regretted it pretty much the moment I walked away.”

“So have you had enough of a break from me yet?” Kit asked. “Or was this meeting accidental too?”

“No,” Raven said. “I’ve been looking for you all day. Look, I’m really sorry. I just have a lot riding on this trip and I started thinking I couldn’t get what I needed with you distracting me.”

“I wasn’t trying to distract you,” Kit said. “I thought we were getting to know each other. I thought we liked each other.”

“I do like you,” Raven said. She took Kit in her arms, pulling her not quite into a hug and leaving that space between their chests that she insisted upon. Then she let go and said, “That was the whole problem. I’m out here trying to discover the new Raven, the post-cancer Raven, and instead, all I’ve been thinking about is how amazing you are.”

Kit couldn’t help but smile.

“Well, excuse me for being awesome,” she said, making Raven smile, too. Then she asked, “So, did you decide that I’m not a distraction after all?”

“Oh, you are definitely a distraction,” Raven said, putting her hand in Kit’s. “But the last couple of days taught me that you are a distraction that I want by my side. Can you forgive me?”

“Yeah,” Kit said. “I think I can find it in my heart.”

They kissed and then Kit pulled away and said, “Oh! I think I have something that’ll make you happy.”

She set her pack down on the ground and rooted around in it until she found her food bag, producing a couple of ripe, juicy red apples.

She handed them to Raven and said, “I hitched into town and resupplied yesterday. There was a fruit stand that made me think of you.”

“Thanks,” Raven said. “Sorry I overreacted on the Highlands.”

“It’s okay,” Kit said. “We all get a little hangry sometimes.”

Raven laughed, grateful for Kit’s levity, then packed the apples in her bag. She stood up and said, “I just spent an entire day backtracking in the hopes of finding you, so shall we get back on schedule?”

“I knew you were gonna say that,” Kit said with an exaggerated groan. “Yeah, let’s get hiking.”

Did you enjoy this book? Please take a moment to leave a review – they mean a lot to me and to fellow lesfic readers who are looking for their next read.