It’s Release Day!

Facebook - Available Now

It’s supposed to be a quick stop at the mall, a last minute errand. To Lia Drake, it doesn’t feel right from the start. Maybe it’s the eerie silence as closing time looms. Maybe it’s the hooded stranger watching her every move. Or maybe she’s just on edge after an emotionally draining day at her job with Child Protective Services.

But within minutes, gunfire peppers the hallways, sending Lia and her husband, John, cowering in a storeroom. Hiding does little good. Footsteps near. Gunshots explode. John’s lifeless body pins Lia to the floor.

Overwhelmed with grief, Lia assumes it’s another random act of violence until police suggest that John had been the target. It doesn’t make sense. John is easy going, funny, and genuinely kind-hearted. She can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like him, yet alone someone who would want to see him dead.

But Lia has demons in her closet that could be to blame.

A quest for answers reveals more than Lia bargained for. Every new detail exposes a suspect with motive to kill. Worse, those details paint an unrecognizable picture of John, revealing a side to him she knew nothing about.

Lia’s desperation lands her in a race for time with John’s increasingly restless killer. It could be a complete stranger, or someone she trusts. If she doesn’t figure it out soon, she’ll become their next victim.

Check it out today!

Buy links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords

Advertisements

Book Tour, Giveaway & Excerpt – AVENGING KISS by Karen Tjebben

Psychological Romantic/Suspense
Date Published:  December 2016
 photo add-to-goodreads-button_zpsc7b3c634.png
Some sins cannot be forgiven. Those must be avenged.
When Aditya Chopra stumbled upon the decimated camp, she vowed to hunt down the men who killed her sister. The stench of burnt flesh and the taste of death in the air haunt her dreams and power her lust for vengeance. She will show no mercy.
The men of Savage Security served their country. They’d done their time in the sandbox and now enjoy their peaceful lives in the States, far from the death and mayhem of war. Will living in peace blind them to the dangerous threat that’s poised to strike?

 

Excerpt

Adita had waited outside the American base, hoping to catch sight of him. His look was very distinct. At six foot four with hair the color of a raging fire, he’d been easy to spot. He’d pulled out of the base with another man in a jeep. The hot wind pulled at his scraggly red hair as he’d laughed at something the other man said.

She’d known where they were going. There was a hotel nearby that catered to Europeans and Americans. It boasted a full bar with live music, decent food, and willing women.

After donning her black garments and niqab, she’d made her way into the hotel. Other than the cameras that covered the entrances and exits, security at the hotel was poor. One only had to get inside to enjoy privacy.

 Adita had entered the hotel a few feet behind the men. As they’d headed towards the bar, she’d walked directly to the bathroom off the lobby. Entering the stall, she’d quickly removed her outer clothes and shoved them into her bag. Then she’d stopped in front of the bathroom mirror to check her appearance. After adjusting her skirt, she’d decided to open another button on her shirt. While he’d get a peek at her cleavage, she’d still look like a respectable woman. Playing a whore gathered too much attention. She’d added a touch of lipstick and powdered her face. And finally, she’d adjusted the Kanzashi Geisha sticks in her hair to make sure it would be easily accessible. Hidden inside the stick was a sharp two-sided blade. It was thin and slid easily from the decorative case. And after one more look in the mirror, she was ready.

She’d walked into the bar with the confidence of a Western woman and noticed Lieutenant Shaw sitting alone at the bar. His friend was dancing with a woman, his hand palming her ass and pulling her close to his body. Adita didn’t waste time. She needed to get to Shaw before he found someone to screw.

She’d slipped onto the bar stool next to him and offered him a shy smile. He’d grinned as he raked his gaze over her. His high-wattage smile had nearly knocked her over. The heat in his gaze as he’d mentally undressed her pleased her. She returned his smile and stared at his muscular arms as she bit into her bottom lip. With that one interaction, she knew that he wanted her. He’d come to the hotel in search of sex, and she didn’t plan to disappoint.

He’d been such an easy target. Arrogant men never realized the threat a woman could pose to them, and she’d tirelessly worked that advantage. They’d quickly exchanged names and engaged in meaningless chatter. But once she’d stroked his knee, he’d taken the bait and asked her to join him in a room.

She’d played coy at first, acting as if she’d needed to think about it. But then he’d leaned in close and whispered in her ear promises of pleasure. And then, as he’d pulled away, he playfully tugged on her earlobe with his teeth. She’d responded by stroking higher on his thigh. That worked for him, and he stood to go back to a room. His pants had tented nicely; apparently it didn’t take much to turn him on.

She’d followed him to a room. He’d unlocked the door and waited for her to enter first. As she’d stood in the entrance, he’d closed the door and turned the bolt. After a dangerous smile, he’d lifted her and pressed her against the wall with his muscular body. She’d instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. In response, he’d rubbed his cock against her center. The pressure of his body against her had lit her up. He knew how to kiss, and Adita realized that fucking him would be fun. So many of the other men she’d entertained cared little about her pleasure. She hadn’t expected much from those lowlifes anyway. But little had they known that there was nothing more erotic than the warmth of your prey’s blood washing over your skin as you take their life.

About the Author

 

Karen Tjebben lives in central North Carolina with her wonderful husband, twin daughters, and two hamsters. When her girls left for kindergarten, Karen discovered that she needed to fill her days with something, and that was the beginning of her writing career. She loves to create worlds filled with unique characters that she hopes will delight and raise goose bumps on her readers. In her free time, she enjoys traveling with her husband and seeing the world through her daughters’ eyes.
Contact Links
RABT Book Tours & PR

 

Read the first chapter!

Ebook Cover

Lia

 He leans against the wall beside Barnes & Noble, a three-dimensional shadow in the dimming light of the mall. His black hoodie conceals his face, yet I feel as if he’s watching us – watching me. I imagine his eyes as dark as his clothing, his glare villainous.

My heart pounds as though I have reason to fear him. It’s ridiculous, really. Probably the result of a day run long and an evening sure to run short.

The rapid click of my heels on the tile flooring seems to echo through the rarely-empty space. Most shoppers have left for the night, but a few stragglers remain, likely those in a last-minute rush. Like me. I glance at the narrow-banded watch on my wrist, gold hands ticking over a shimmering pearl face.

Eight fifty-three. Seven minutes until closing time.

John shuffles beside me, smirking as he notices my panicked glance at the watch. “I bought you that thing so you’d be on time once in a while. Clearly, it didn’t help.”

I’d have been late whether I knew what time it was or not. I couldn’t bring myself to leave work until I knew that Jailyn Adams would be safe and cared for. Six years old, so small, heartbroken. She’d have received the best of care with or without me, but I was there when her world fell apart. The least I could do was stay with her until her temporary guardian arrived.

It’s the part of my job I hate most, having to pull a child from their home. Regardless of what they’ve been through – in Jailyn’s case, a world of serious neglect blurred in a fog of drug abuse – it’s the only life they know. I wanted to be a Social Worker to do good for others, but in that moment, when pure fear and agony pours from those little bodies, it feels like the worst of wrongs.

John nudges me with his elbow, a smirk still on his face. “What? No comeback?”

Every night I’m thankful to come home to my husband, to the twinkle in his eyes and quick wit that never fails to clear my head of a difficult day. Lately, I need it more than ever. Confusion and self-doubt cloud every decision I attempt to make, encircling me in a stifling ring of anxiety. It’s a far cry from the confidence I once possessed, but also a necessary evil. Some mistakes shouldn’t be made in the first place, yet alone repeated.

Trust your gut, always.

Never again.

I grab John’s hand and pull. “Less talking, more walking. We’ve got to hurry.”

Despite the warmth of my husband’s hand and the July heat still clinging to my skin from outside, a shiver curls up my spine. The mall lighting seems to dim, eerily dark in the absence of music, chatter, and hundreds of bodies passing through. It puts even more of a rush in my step, a subconscious need to get out of here.

Or maybe it’s the creep outside the bookstore causing me to feel the need to flee. Why is he wearing a hoodie on such a hot day, anyhow? I glance over my shoulder, hoping to see that he’s gone and relax, but he still stands there, his shadowed face pointing in my direction. I can’t tell whether he has facial hair or not, a narrow or round face, or if his skin is light or dark.

Stop it, Lia. It’s nothing.

But can I be sure? I don’t know anything about him. His wife or girlfriend could’ve just left him for another man, pushing him to seek revenge. Maybe I remind him of her or John of her lover. Maybe he knows who I am, or at least, where I work. He may have recently had a child removed. He could be a mental hospital escapee, a sociopath set on stalking, if not murdering the first person he sees. Me.

The possibilities seem endless, flitting through my mind in a blurring whir.

What I don’t consider is the most likely scenario of all: He is only standing there, oblivious to my existence.

“Would’ve been silly to buy the shoes at the same time as the dress,” John says. “Can’t you just wear black or something?”

Without slowing my pace, I shoot him a glance. “The dress is pink Champaign. Black would look ridiculous. Leila will notice if the shade is off, yet alone the color. She wants her day to be perfect.” My sister is ever the perfectionist, bordering on OCD.

John keeps my pace, but rolls his eyes.

I speak before he has the chance. “Besides, it’s a wedding, not a funeral.”

“Matter of perception,” he says. “The poor sap getting stuck with Leila might beg to differ.”

I nudge his elbow, shoot him my shocked face, the wide-eyed, O-shaped mouth, I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that look. The truth is, he’s right. We don’t refer to her as Princess Leila for nothing.

I swing in the door of Frivolous Footwear, the shop Leila insisted would have the shoes I’m looking for. Of course, that was a few months ago, when I was supposed to get them.

“I confirmed it. They have a store right in Duluth and the shoes are in stock.”

Right in Duluth. Where I work. Where John’s office is. Not where I live, though. Once we’re finished here, it will be another forty-five minutes before I can kick off my shoes and relish in the comfort of home.

At the office they ask why John and I don’t move into the city – the state, for that matter – and save the daily commute. I wouldn’t give up my small town, northern Wisconsin home on the shores of Sandy Lake for any amount of convenience. Other people visit the quaint town for a summer getaway, but for us it’s like we’re on vacation every time we return home.

John laughs. “You know I’m just kidding. I’m sure Leila’s last two husbands were the problem, not her.”

I spot a row of pumps and head down the aisle, bright and soft colors mingling into a brilliant rainbow of footwear. My head shoots right to left, my eyes searching for the right shade. I don’t let it slow my comeback, though. “They could say the same for us.”

He shrugs. “Second marriage for both of us. Not third. There’s a difference.”

The vibe in the shop is more unnerving than in the corridor, the small space abandoned of all shoppers except for us, half of the overhead lights turned off as if to emphasize that I need to hurry up and get out.

A girl with a name badge pinned to her shirt peers down the aisle and runs a hand through her dark hair. I do a double take, verify that it isn’t my own daughter looking at me. This girl’s complexion is a bit darker than Kara’s and she looks younger, but the way she holds her head – slightly high, a likeable confidence – with long hair sweeping her shoulders, she could be my daughter.

I once had hair like that, a shiny coffee mane absent of the gray that would eventually dull its appearance. Thank God for hair dye and the salon. If only the other signs of age would be as easy to cover.

The girl steps into the aisle. “Is there something I can help you with? My boss is getting ready to close up.”

I glance at my watch again. Five minutes. “I’ll be out in plenty of time.” I reach for my purse, pry it open, pull out a silky swatch, and hold it out to her. “I’m looking for something in this color.”

The girl bites her lip. “I think we have…” She glances over her shoulder, then turns and walks away from me. “Over here.”

I follow her into the next aisle and spot three potential matches lined beside each other, darkest to lightest. I take the swatch back from her and hold it against each of the shoes. Same shade, but too dark. Still too dark, but close. A shade off and too light.

“Carlee?” A voice calls from the front of the store.

The girl turns her head, then looks back at me. “We really need to close now. Can…”

“Is this all of them?” I ask before she has a chance to ask me to leave.

She nods, so I grab the closest match to my dress. Leila will have to get over it. It’s enough that I agreed to suffer the humiliation of squeezing my menopausal belly into a much-too-tight dress. Besides, as her three-time maid of honor, I matched perfectly the first two times. So I’m a little off this time.

Mom would get a kick out of it, this unspoken stand I’m taking against Leila. If she could join us. If she was in her right mind. If the doctors didn’t think she’d now have more bad days than good thanks to the dementia devouring her brain.

The thought causes my throat to constrict, the all too familiar emotion choking off my breath. Mom may be physically alive, but the presence of body cannot replace the presence of heart and mind. She doesn’t speak lately, doesn’t even seem to hear. I miss the sound of her voice, even when she wasn’t sure which of her daughters I was or if I was her daughter at all.

I swallow to open my throat and hand the shoe to Carlee. “Could you see if you have these in an eight? I’ll try them on fast and be out of your way.”

The girl bites her lip again, but nods, rushing toward the back of the store. I sit on a plush bench along the wall and slip my shoe off, readying myself for when the shoes arrive.

I look around, taking in the children’s shoes in the aisle beside me. Little girls’ shoes. Like Jailyn would wear. Her face flashes in my mind, red cheeks, puffy eyes, streaming tears that will haunt me long after they’ve dried.

It attacks me again, that churning in my stomach, increasing heart rate, and cold sweat beading on my skin. If I was wrong, if Jailyn’s circumstances weren’t what I thought them to be…

I take a deep breath, blink the images away. I wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t have been. The physical evidence removed by police proves it. This time.

John stands in front of me, hands stuffed in the pockets of his black dress pants. His royal blue button-up shirt brings out the brilliance of his eyes, the gray streaks in his dark hair complementing the distinguished appearance. He looks every part of the pharmaceutical scientist that he is, save the crooked smirk on his face.

“It’s your fault we’re here,” I bite out before he can comment. “If you hadn’t booked such an early flight, I’d be able to take care of this in the morning.”

He laughs, points to himself. “My fault? Would you rather drive to Florida?”

I press my lips into a line to suppress a smile. We have this humor in our relationship, a way that seems to make everything, even a late night shoe emergency, seem fun. It’s such a far cry from my last marriage, every moment so serious, tense.

John shakes his head, bends down, kisses me. “Fine, I’ll take the blame this time.” He kisses me again. “But only because you’re cute when you’re crazy.”

I feel the tension bleed from me, the effect of his warm lips. “You call this crazy?”

He shrugs. “Well, not as crazy as Leila.” He wrinkles his brow. “Tell me again why we’re going to this wedding?”

I play-slap his arm. For the past two weeks he’s been making up forgotten business meetings, unheard of illnesses, and a variety of appointments to get out going with me. I only waved him off. He may not admit it, but the truth is that he’d never send me off to deal with Bridezilla on my own. He too supportive for that. He’s my rock, the one person I know I can always count on for anything. “Because she’s my sister. Whether I like it or not.”

“Could be worse,” he says. “At least Mitch isn’t going with us.” His voice lowers, the pain of a father-son argument bleeding through.

I tip my head, unsure of what to say. I know how much it hurts John to have his only child angry with him. They’re usually so close, practically inseparable. There’s more to it, though, and I know this is what John worries about. Although I won’t admit it to John, I’m a little worried, too.

John sits next to me, exhaling slowly, deflating. “I’ve never seen him so mad.”

I’ve seen Mitch this mad before, even angrier. John has seen it, too. He just doesn’t want to allow himself to remember those days, the unwarranted outbursts, Mitch locking himself in his room, the constant fear over his safety and unspoken musings over ours.

But that was a long time ago. Mitch is a different person now, confident, sweet, stable. He’s just…off. Today. A one-time thing, surely.

John shakes his head. “He ran to Maggie, for Christ’s sake! He never does that.”

Maggie. The woman who gave birth to Mitch. That’s where her parenting ended.

I rest my hand on his thigh and squeeze. “He’s a smart, good boy. He’ll get over it. Everything will be…”

A loud bang echoes from within the mall.

John jumps from the bench and looks toward the front of the store, his back to me. Voices echo off the walls, angry shouts. Then another bang.

John spins back to me. “A gun.” He grabs my hand, pulls me to my feet and toward the back of the store, one shoe on, the other still resting on the floor beside the bench. I limp, lopsided without the other heel. He keeps me close to him, maneuvering through rows of shoes to the counter.

A woman around my age, her hair rolled into a neat, loose bun appears from behind the counter and I guess that she’s the boss, the one in a hurry to close. Her gaze shoots to the front of the store.

Another series of bangs, loud, echoing, one right after another.

“Back here!” The woman says as she runs behind the counter. John follows, pulling me into a storage room lined with metal shelving and boxes.

Bang. Bang, bang.

Closer this time.

John guides me to the corner of the room, behind a shelf of shoe boxes that towers over my head. He leans against the wall, pulls me close to him, wrapping his arms around me as if to shield me from the spray of bullets somewhere outside of the store.

He must feel the way my heart pounds, throbbing against the wall of my chest. “It’ll be okay,” he whispers in my ear. “Whatever is happening is out there.” He nods toward the store exit. “We’re safe.”

I nod, chew on my lip. What he says makes sense, but then why don’t I feel safe?

The answer crashes in on me, an image recreated from moments ago: The man in the hoodie.

Is he to blame for this? Were there others posted throughout the mall, all dressed in black, waiting to strike? Maybe I’d been right to fear him, a psychic voice in my head warning me.

The next bang is even closer, possibly right outside of the store. I whimper slightly, turn and bury my face in John’s chest, try to find comfort in the familiar scent of his cologne. He squeezes me tighter.

My head dizzies with my racing heart, my ears ringing, but not loudly enough to drown the sound of approaching footsteps.

“John!” I whisper, but it comes out in panicked shrill.

He holds his finger to his lips. “Shh.” He gently pulls me to the floor, both of us crouching as if reducing our height will make us invisible to the madmen out there. The cold, damp concrete seeps through the thin fabric of my dress, chilling my skin.

The steps grow closer, louder.

The next bang slices through my ears as if the bullet has pierced my head.

I pinch my eyes shut, squeeze John’s arm. The footsteps don’t stop. John rises slightly, wrapping my body with his own, shielding me.

The footsteps pause, a false moment of relief.

“Back here.” The voice is deep, like a roll of thunder.

Despite my terror, I can’t help wondering who he is looking for. Carlee? The owner? Maybe they had reason to close the store in a hurry. Or maybe it’s just another sign of a world gone bad. Another shooting, more innocent lives lost.

I hold my breath, pray that mine isn’t one of them.

The next bang I feel as much as hear, vibrations shooting through me as if I’d been the one to pull the trigger. I peer out from beneath John’s elbow, see a pair of black clad feet nearing. They stop, the toes awkwardly pointing inward, pigeon-like.

Another bang. Then two more.

John’s body slumps, pinning me beneath him. A sticky, warm liquid dribbles onto my cheek. I want to scream, but I can’t even breathe.

Coming May 18th, 2019!
Goodreads badge add plus

 

 

What’s Next?

Coming May 18, 2019

Ebook Cover

I’m your lover and your best friend.

We share a life, but do you know who I am?

It’s supposed to be a quick stop at the mall, a last minute errand. To Lia Drake, it doesn’t feel right from the start. Maybe it’s the eerie silence as closing time looms. Maybe it’s the hooded stranger watching her every move. Or maybe she’s just on edge after an emotionally draining day at her job with Child Protective Services.

But within minutes, gunfire peppers the hallways, sending Lia and her husband, John, cowering in a storeroom. Hiding does little good. Footsteps near. Gunshots explode. John’s lifeless body pins Lia to the floor.

Overwhelmed with grief, Lia assumes it’s another random act of violence until police suggest that John had been their target. It doesn’t make sense. John is easy going, funny, and genuinely kind-hearted. She can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like him, yet alone someone who would to see him dead.

But Lia has demons in her closet that could be to blame.

A quest for answers reveals more than Lia bargained for. Every new detail exposes a suspect with motive to kill. Worse, those details paint an unrecognizable picture of John, revealing a side to him she knew nothing about.

Lia’s desperation lands her in a race for time with John’s increasingly restless killer. It could be a complete stranger, or someone she trusts. If she doesn’t figure it out soon, she’ll become their next victim.

Check back next week for sneak peek at the first chapter!

OUR LITTLE LIES by Sue Watson – 3 of 5 Stars

41040396

Nobody is perfect, especially not Marianne’s husband, Simon, the surgical whiz and object of every woman’s desires. On the outside, Marianne has it all – a beautiful home, 3 wonderful children, Simon’s love and adoration. Behind closed doors, well, let’s just say that nothing is what it seems.

OUR LITTLE LIES is heartbreaking story of emotional abuse, deception, and the people caught up in the games of one man’s ego trip. I found myself able to connect to the characters, buy into the premise of the plot, and turning the pages in hopes that this horrible man would get what he deserves.

While I enjoyed the read, a few issues kept me from fully falling captive to the story.

For the first half of the book I was frustrated by repetition, the incredibly weak nature of the protagonist (not to mention her blindness) and the slow-ish pacing of events. I felt that more time was spent declaring Simon’s greatness than moving the story forward. As it turns out, this is for good reason as it plays into the protagonist’s mental state, however a better view of that early on would’ve saved the frustration.

It’s obvious from the start that Simon isn’t who he seems. That in itself isn’t a problem, but I had a hard time understanding what all these other women see in him. I think that maybe if Simon’s mistreatment of Marianne had been held off until a little later in the book and we could’ve spent more time seeing how wonderful he was to her early in their relationship, I could’ve developed that image of awesomeness that had every woman and their mother swooning. I would have liked to believe for a bit that just maybe Simon wasn’t the problem.

The pace really picked up after the 50% mark and Marianne blossomed from weak and helpless to a picture of strength, determination, and vengeance. I found myself cheering for her and hoping that her efforts would expose the true Simon. I could drum up sympathy for Marianne instead of screaming at her in my head, but even more for her step-daughter, Sophie. I felt for that poor girl from the start and loved that Marianne cared just as much for Sophie as she did her biological sons.

I was certain I had the final twist figured out, but Ms. Watson proved me way off base! I love it when that happens, but I had a difficult time believing this one. Not because it seems impossible, but because the prior pages seemed to be lacking the kind of foreshadowing needed to make it all ring true. A few more hints throughout could have created a dynamic punch.

I may have been able to make sense of it and accept it, but the story fell apart after that, slipping into a long expose from the culprit in a delivery that didn’t match the character. The who, what, when, where, why, and how came out, but felt like an info dump to get the story over with.

Overall, I did enjoy the read, but felt like too many issues took away the wow factor.

 

 

Excerpt from THROW THE KEY

Paperback Cover

(Available October 6, 2018)

Chapter One

August 5, 7:00 p.m.

My husband didn’t even greet me when I answered the phone. “I’m coming to get you and the kids.” He sounded rushed, almost panicked, and his deep voice squeaked as if puberty had returned.

My three-year-old son sat on the kitchen floor in front of me, banging on a stainless steel pot with a wooden spoon. I pulled my cell from my mouth and cupped it with my hand. “Please be quiet, Jack. Mommy is on the phone.”

He kept beating the pot, his head jerking from side to side as he belted out a made-up song. “I want to play all da-a-ay, I want to play all day…”

Cute as could be with big chocolate eyes, smooth cherubic cheeks, and dark hair the shade of his eyes. Picture perfect, actually, the kind of child on television and in magazines. But if he had been my first, I probably wouldn’t have had Emma, so quiet and poised, the exact opposite of her brother. Thank goodness. As much as I love the little guy, I never could have kept up with two of him.

I plugged a finger in my ear, paced to the French doors, pulled them open, and stepped onto the cobblestone patio off the kitchen. “Eric? Sorry, Jack is…”

“Jenna, just listen.” Prickles stung my skin, tiny pins jabbing my flesh. “We need to go away. For a while.” His words were clipped, the steadiness in his voice forced.

“What? Why? What is wrong?”

Eric paused. “I need you to pack everything we’re going to need for the next couple weeks or so. Whatever you can fit into four suitcases. No more.”

“A couple weeks? I can’t. Lucy…” Even though I quit my job as a speech pathologist a few years ago, I continued to work with Lucy a few times a week. She needed me in so many ways. I couldn’t just leave her, especially without having a chance to talk to her about it first. She’d be heartbroken, has already suffered through more than any child should know.

“I’m sorry. We have to.” He didn’t sound sorry. If anything, he sounded like the Eric I’ve come to know lately. To the point. Distracted. Disinterested. A far cry from the man I married.

I could hear my own breath huffing over the line. “Why?”

Another pause, short this time. “Lock the doors and the windows. Turn on the security system. Stay in the house and keep the kids with you. Don’t talk to anyone. Do you understand?”

Why wouldn’t he answer my question? “Eric, you have to tell me what’s going on. You can’t just…”

“I’m sorry. Really. Lock up, turn the security system on, and pack.”

“But…”

“I’m in the Lance, getting ready for take-off.”

His plane? Had we grown so far apart that I didn’t know my own husband left in an airplane that morning?

Then again, he hadn’t known where I’d gone either.

I tried to think, picture the morning, but it blurred with every other day, the goodbyes ranging from a half-hearted kiss on the cheek to the distant click of a door. I didn’t allow myself to think too far back, remember the long, warm kisses, loving embraces, and playful touches.

“I’ll be home in a couple hours. Be ready. Stay inside until I get there. Don’t even come out to the hangar.”

The hangar was so close, right across the street. “Eric…”

He hung up.

I stood on the cobblestone with the phone still pressed to my ear. My heart pulsed in my throat, constricting it, allowing only wisps of oxygen through. I stared past the patio, the potted geraniums, and the fire pit into the forest.

Lock the doors and windows…don’t talk to anyone.

A violent shudder rattled my body. I scanned the forest twice. Was someone lurking in the shelter of the trees? I didn’t know who or what to be afraid of – or why I should be afraid at all – yet I felt cold despite the sticky August air.

Eric, should’ve given me an explanation, a clue, anything.

With a silent gasp, I jerked the phone from my ear and examined it as if I expected a rabid creature to slither from beneath the screen. Maybe Eric didn’t explain because he couldn’t. Maybe he feared our phones were bugged.

The phone felt like fire in my hands, scorching my skin, driving me to toss it across the yard and get the device and whoever may have been listening as far away as possible. I didn’t do it, though, tried to calm my mind, think logically, breathe.

My cell was always with me. Except for Eric and the kids, no one could’ve done anything to it. I allowed my arm to relax at my side, the phone still in my hand. If anyone’s phone was bugged, it was Eric’s.

I checked the forest again. I didn’t see anything, just the soft shadows of evening settling over the foliage. If anyone was out there, they couldn’t be too far. The wooded land only ran so deep before butting up to the Newman’s property. It gave us enough privacy and distance, but they were close enough that I never felt alone. Until now. Miles seemed to stretch between my home and the nearest soul. I swallowed hard, looked to the ground but even the yard took on a life of its own, breathing in hushed tones.

I shot my gaze next door. Greg Callaghan, an old friend of my father’s, lived beyond a row of Arborvitaes and through a patch of mature maples. At night I could see bits of light poking through the branches, but it was still too bright out. Was he home? Could I call out if I needed him?

Don’t talk to anyone.

But why?

I stood alone on my corner lot, a row of green to my left and forested outcroppings to my right. Prime property for Chicago’s North Shore, but it suddenly felt like an island, its natives on the hunt for me.

I chewed on my lip, the deep green of the forest fading, images blurring together like a Monet.

Realization pulsed through me, an electric zing through my veins.

Eric had mentioned that he was onto a major story that would give his career a boost. He bragged that it would take him from suburban reporter to the Chicago Tribune. Had he uncovered something that put him in danger? More specifically, had he uncovered something that put the kids and me in danger?

I glanced behind me, through the French doors that led to the kitchen. I could still hear the muffled banging of wood on steel, Jack’s squeaky voice filling the void between strikes.

Jack and Emma. Why was I standing out here staring into the woods?

I strode toward the glass, catching my reflection. Just those few minutes in the humid air had managed to wilt my hair, the brown mass lifeless. I pulled the door open, stepped inside, locked the door behind me, and set my phone on the counter.

“I want to play all da-a-ay…” Jack sang at the top his lungs, accompanied by his makeshift drum. I walked over to him and squatted beside him onto the Brazilian cherry flooring, my legs weak and my hands trembling.

It didn’t matter that I knelt right in front of him, he bellowed as if he needed the volume for me to hear. The banging of the pot throbbed behind my eyes. I reached for the wooden spoon and lifted it from his chubby hand. “Okay, that’s enough for now, buddy.”

His mouth puffed into a frown, his dark hair slightly disheveled from swinging his head about. I ran my hand over it to smooth it. “But I want to play all day.” He crossed his arms.

I cleared my throat, hoping to steady my voice. “I need you to help me with something, okay?”

“Help with what, Mama?” He looked down at the pot still propped between his legs.

I slid the spoon across the floor behind me, pulled my hands together in a shaky steeple, and forced a wide smile. “We’re going to go on a trip!” I didn’t mean for my voice to slip, but it did.

Jack didn’t seem to notice. He cocked his head. “A trip?”

“Yes, a vacation. Daddy is on his way home to pick us up in his plane. We’re going to leave tonight.”

Jack smiled widely and pushed himself to his feet, kicking the pot aside. “Tonight?”

“Yep, tonight!”

He jumped up and down and clapped his hands. He tugged on my hand as if to pull me from the floor. “We tell Emma?”

My fake smile started to hurt my cheeks and the deep breaths did little to calm my heart rate. I didn’t want the kids to sense a problem. There was no point in causing them panic. “Sure.”

Jack tipped his head to the side, his deep brown eyes studying me, so warm and caring despite his young age. He inherited that compassionate gaze from Eric. I could only hope that it wouldn’t fade from my son like it had my husband.

Jack’s smile straightened. “Mama sad?”

I blinked. My eyes stung and a tear slipped onto my cheek. I hadn’t even noticed it there, had been too busy avoiding hyperventilation. I squeezed Jack. “Of course not. We’re going on a trip!”

Jack smiled and jumped. “Tell Emma!”

I got up off the floor. “Yes, let’s go tell Emma. I just have to check a few things first.” I picked up the pot and spoon, absently setting them on the counter beside a vase full of yellow roses. The kind of flowers Eric used to bring me. The flowers I now bought myself.

I allowed myself a precious second to take in the cheerful petals, relish in the peace of the sight. Yellow roses had been my favorite as far back as I could remember, symbolizing everything beautiful and right about the world. That’s how I saw them, what the brilliant petals and deep perfume aroma meant to me.

It also meant something else to me, something entirely opposite of peace. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Yellow roses had been mom’s favorite, too.

“I could really use you now, Mom,” I muttered under my breath. How I longed for her calm manner, comforting smile, and encouraging words.

But all I had was my three-year-old, his precious face staring up at me, trusting me to take care of him, keep him safe. I held my hand out to him. “Come with me.”

Jack grabbed on tightly and toddled beside me in more of a dance than a walk. “I’m going on a tri-i-ip. I’m going on a trip.” His voice boomed as loudly as before.

I moved as quickly as I could with Jack bopping beside me. I checked the window over the kitchen sink. Locked. I stepped past the cherry cabinets to the sliding patio door at the other end of the kitchen. Not locked. I flipped the lock, tested it, and made my way to the family room, past a family portrait taken just after Emma’s birth. Eric had insisted on that photo. He’d been so excited to have a family started and wanted the moment preserved.

I steadied my hands to flip the lock on the family room window, Jack’s song still bouncing between the walls, piercing my temples. I suspected a story at the root of Eric’s call, but I wasn’t sure if he told me what he’d been working on. He could’ve shared every detail and I would’ve simply nodded, my eyes not meeting his, too many other things rushing through my mind. He brought it on himself when he didn’t put his family first. He said I didn’t get it, but it was Eric who would never understand.

Jack drifted from my side, pulling my arm as we approached the living room window. His song stopped as he looked from the television to the couch. I tugged him, hoping the motion would be enough to get his focus back.

I checked the latches on the windows, and moved toward the dining room. With a jerk, Jack pulled his hand from mine, his bare feet pattering over the carpeting, carrying him back to the window. “Jack…come on.” I walked over to him, reached for his hand. “We have to pack.”

He pressed his nose against the window, his finger pointing. “I want my ball.”

I looked out the window. On the opposite side of the sidewalk, Jack’s large red ball sat beneath the branch of a bush.

“Not now. We have to hurry.”

He wiggled away from me, his feet stomping, cheeks reddening. “I want it!”

I didn’t have time for a tantrum. Lock the doors and windows. Turn on the security system. “Daddy is going to be here soon. We have to pack your things.”

“I wanna pack my ball!”

“It won’t fit in your suitcase, but if you’re good, maybe we can grab it on the way out.” I reached for Jack, but he squirmed away and ran toward the foyer. “Jack!” I called, taking off after him. My heart beat faster, harder. I didn’t know what lurked around each corner, yet alone beyond the doors.

At the front door, Jack twisted the knob with both hands. I scooped him up and propped him on my hip, despite his kicking feet and blood curdling shriek. “Do you want to go on the trip?” My words rattled as they escaped my throat.

Jack nodded back at me, his arms crossed, eyebrows knit. Another expression of Eric’s, this one much too recently familiar.

“Then you need to stay with me. Do you understand?”

He surrendered with a grumpy nod.

I bounced him slightly. “Okay, good. Let’s finish up down here so we can go tell Emma.”

I backtracked to the library and then made my way through the dining room, the television room, and back to the foyer. Still three more rooms to go, and it was only the first floor. I loved this big house. It had been a second home to my dad before he signed it over to us because of lack of use. I loved it so much that I kept it over his mansion after he died. Suddenly it seemed too big, as if there was no way I’d make it to every room in time.

But in time for what?

I moved faster, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I headed for the staircase. He started singing again, his mouth much too close to my ear. Song or no song, I was not going to set him down again. I grasped the banister and headed up the stairs. My feet moved in a labored jog, my memory attempting the same. What had Eric been working on?

The danger could be over something else, though. It didn’t have to be a story. My pace slowed, my legs heavy, rubbery. Could Eric have been involved in… What? Eric was as straight-laced as me, maybe more. But he had been gone a lot lately. I wouldn’t have known where he was. I didn’t even know he’d left in his plane this morning.

Thoughts buzzed through my mind like a swarm of bees in a shaken hive. I thought of an angered mistress’ spouse, a vengeful reader who thought Eric portrayed them in bad light, even possible involvement in a drug ring.

I continued up the stairs, Jack’s feet bouncing against my thigh, his weight burning my arms. Nothing criminal fit Eric, but I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t having an affair. The thought made me cringe, betrayal, loss, and even guilt colliding in my heart. It wasn’t the first time it crossed my mind.

I bit my lip, didn’t want to think about it. I doubted it had anything to do with the danger we faced, anyhow. That was what I needed answers to.

I paused and shifted Jack to my other hip.  It had to be a story and it angered me to even think about it. Eric didn’t need to work. We had the inheritance from my high-profile, defense attorney father to live off of. He could’ve spent his days doing the things he loved, actually living like I tried to do. Instead he insisted on working.

“I need to make my own way, Jen.”

Whatever.

I understood the need to do something worthwhile. I did that too, continued as a speech pathologist in a very part time, volunteer capacity. I had satisfaction and freedom, a balanced life that Eric was suddenly jerking me away from as if I had no responsibilities at all. Lucy needed me. I couldn’t just disappear.

I really needed to focus, get up the stairs.

“I’m going on a tri-i-ip.”

At the top of the stairs, I gently turned Jack’s face to mine and put my finger to my lips. “Shh, you’re going to ruin the surprise for Emma.”

Jack threw his hand over his mouth and nodded dramatically, his eyes wide.

I rounded the balcony and headed to the master bedroom. I’d finish locking the windows upstairs before I went to Emma’s room. At seven-years-old, my examination of the house would cause her to suspect something that Jack wouldn’t. The French doors in my bedroom leading to a small balcony had been left unlocked, so I flipped the lock into place.

I moved quickly through each bedroom, but in the guest room I stopped so suddenly it caused Jack to tense. The window hung all the way open. I know I hadn’t opened it. The air conditioning had been on for the past week and there was no way I’d have given the excessive humidity an inlet. Jack couldn’t have opened it. The window was over the bed. He would’ve had to have climbed onto it to reach the window and the comforter sat undisturbed. Emma couldn’t reach either.

I glanced over my shoulder, shifted my eyes fast enough to make me dizzy. Had someone slipped into the house?

Jack started singing again, sending my heart into my throat. I held my free hand to my chest. “Jack, the surprise,” I reminded him, once again raising my finger to my lips.

“Oops!” He slapped his hand over his mouth.

I stepped closer to the bed, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I examined the cream colored carpeting and nightstand near the window. Nothing seemed out of place and the carpet still looked freshly vacuumed. I squinted, inspecting the window. The screen was locked in place. I reached up, slapped the window shut and secured the latch. No one could’ve come in. If they had, I’d at least have seen a footprint. Maybe Eric had opened it before I last vacuumed and I didn’t notice.

The logic did nothing to calm me.

I stepped into the hallway and made my way to Emma’s room, wishing my hands would steady before I got to her. Surely, she’d notice.

I tapped on Emma’s bedroom door and then slowly pushed it open. She rested against a pillow on her bed, her fingers sliding over a tablet. Princess, the white Persian kitten we’d given her for her birthday, snuggled on her lap. Emma looked at me as we stepped inside.

I set Jack down and he ran over to her and jumped on the bed. “Emma, we’re going on a trip! Daddy’s coming to pick us up right now!” Startled, Princess hissed and then jumped to the floor.

Emma started to reach for the cat, but turned to me, her smile wide and eyes shining. “Really, Mom?”

I tried to act excited and hoped the red had faded from my eyes. “Yes, really!”

Emma sat up straight and held her hands together, her shoulder-length blonde hair bobbing. “Where are we going?”

Good question. Just play the game, Jenna. “I have no idea. Daddy said it was a surprise!”

Emma squealed. “Maybe Disney World?” She’d wanted to return to the happiest place on earth since we left there two years earlier. Jack would have no memory of the trip, having been just a year old and spending the week in a stroller. We’d planned to return there someday, but I doubted Eric was whisking us off to any such place now. By the way he sounded on the phone, I pictured a secret hideaway in the middle of nowhere.

I cocked my head. “Well, I don’t know about that. Wherever it is, I’m sure we’ll have fun.”

“Can Princess come?”

Another good question. If I couldn’t talk to anyone, how could I arrange for someone to take care of the cat? We couldn’t just leave her here for two weeks. I nodded to Emma. “I don’t see why not.” Eric wouldn’t be pleased, but I didn’t care.

“Yay!” Emma slipped from her bed to the floor, straightened her pink flowered t-shirt, and gingerly limped toward the kitten. “Did you hear that, Princess? We’re going on a trip and you get to come, too!” It triggered another round of song from Jack.

“Okay, Jack. Enough. We know.”

He smirked at me.

Emma ambled toward me, dragging her left leg. Her hip always bothered her most after she’d been still for a while. So many tests and Irritable Hip was the only diagnosis the doctors could come up with. Nothing seemed to be wrong with her. They said she’d outgrow it. I hoped it would happen soon. She’d been dealing with it for five years now.

“Okay,” I said, holding my hands up to get their attention. “I need both of you to listen carefully. Daddy is planning on being here in just a couple hours. We need to pack fast.”

Jack ran for the door. “Where are you going, buddy?”

“To pack my stuff.”

Keep the kids with you.

I waved my hand, motioning for him to come back. “Let’s make this fun. Why don’t we take turns helping each other pack?”

“I wanna go first!” Jack squealed.

I glanced at Emma. She rolled her eyes, more hazel than brown like mine. “Just let him, Mom.” She leaned into me, held her hand next to her mouth as she whispered, “Maybe then he’ll shut up.”

I nodded and winked at her. “Okay, Jack gets to go first.” I still needed the luggage from the basement storage room. I also had to flip on the security system from the panel in the master bedroom, but I couldn’t do that until I knew that everything was locked in the basement. I should’ve thought to check that before coming up here.

“Before we can help Jack pack, we need to go downstairs to get our suitcases. Why don’t you both come help me.” I turned to Emma and took a glimpse at her leg. She might not be ready for a trip down the stairs.

I glanced to the window and then back to my daughter. “Do you think your hip is okay or should we wait a minute?”

Emma walked back and forth across her room a few times. “I’m okay.”

“You must have been up recently?” She never moved quickly this soon. It could take up to an hour before she felt capable of taking the stairs.

Emma nodded, squeezing Princess in her arms. She followed behind me with Jack marching behind both of us. I moved slowly in case Emma had problems. She gripped the railing, taking each step slowly, favoring her hip while hugging Princess to her chest.

I paused. I could’ve left her in her room, let her walk it off for a bit while I checked the basement. Jack could have stayed with her, too. I’d be able to move faster on my own, make sure the house was as secure as I could make it. We weren’t too far down to turn back.

But, I thought of the open guest bedroom window. It was better that they stayed with me. Just in case.

I moved slowly down the stairs, allowing Emma time to recover after each step. We made our way to the main floor and then down a second flight of stairs to the finished basement. We passed through the recreation room, past the air hockey table, and to the storage room. I flipped the light and quickly retrieved our bags.

Jack took his own suitcase, and Emma reached for hers with her free hand. Princess dangled from her other arm, seemingly oblivious to her position. I closed the door to the storage room, both kids behind me. “I just need to check the locks down here. Gotta make sure everything is locked up tight before we leave.”

When I felt confident that every lock was latched, we made our way back up to Jack’s room. “Okay, Jack, pick out your favorite clothes. As many as you can fit into your bag.”

I paused, looking at my kids. The security system still had to be turned on, but I couldn’t let Emma see that. She’d know something wasn’t right. I normally only turned it on before I went to bed or when we left the house, if I remembered to turn it on at all.

There was a panel in my bedroom at the other end of the hallway. I’d be fast. I’d been through the whole house and no one was here. “I just have to check on something, okay?”

Jack didn’t answer. He scrambled to his dresser, tossing aside different shirts in search of his favorites, his song beginning again.

Emma plugged her ears. “Mom, can you tell him to stop?” She dropped onto the bed with her kitten.

“Jack,” I held a finger over my lips. “Let’s do this quietly, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispered loudly. In the same loud whisper, he resumed singing.

Emma rolled her eyes. At least it was a little less annoying. I stepped across the hall toward my bedroom. I’d move fast. I knew I had to. Despite my rush, I welcomed the break from the kids, the moment to stop my fake smile and excited words.

As I stepped into my room, the anxiety bled from me. My heart pounded as if I’d just run a marathon and my breathing returned to quick gasps. My arms hurt from my efforts to keep them from shaking in front of the kids so for the moment, I let them go, watched them tremble at my sides.

That moment was all I would have. I stepped to the wall beside my closet, searched the security panel, selected the right setting, and punched in the code. Now I just had to keep Jack and Emma away from the windows and doors. Easier said than done, especially without scaring them.

Despite the four windows in my bedroom, it began to darken in the eerie orange sunset. An amber glow highlighted the down comforter on my bed. Just that morning, I’d woken beneath it with Eric by my side, each of us in a hurry to get away from the other. At least, I assumed he couldn’t wait to get away from me. If that wasn’t the case, whoever called him at the crack of dawn must have convinced him otherwise.

It took little to separate us, so unlike when we first met in a creative writing course at Northwestern. Back then, we looked for every excuse to spend our free time together.

“Do you have some time to help me with a stanza tonight?” I’d ask him, really just wanting to be with him, but also enjoying the inspiration for my poetry.

He never declined and it wasn’t like I had to ask often. Eric usually beat me to it. “Coffee tonight? My plot is weak and it would really help to bounce it off you.”

We fell for each other fast and hard, each of us no longer needing an excuse to spend time with the other. Now, it felt as if nothing could keep us together.

I looked away from the bed. It was time to get back to the kids and play calm again.

I paused. Silence. Jack was never quiet for long.

The next sound I heard was my heart pulsing in my ears.

I sprang for the door to get to my kids, but stopped with a start.

A rumble.

And then a shrilling scream. “Mama!”

Jack.

© Copyright 2018 Christine Barfknecht, All Rights Reserved

THREE DAYS MISSING by Kimberly Belle – 4 of 5 stars

Three Days Missing: A Novel of Psychological Suspense by [Belle, Kimberly]
It’s a nightmare for any parent. When Kat Jenkins sends her young son, Ethan, on an overnight school trip, her biggest fear is that bully, Sammy Huntington, will torment her borderline-genius and somewhat awkward son. It’s her worst case scenario until police knock on the door in the middle of the night to tell her that Ethan is missing. He vanished. No one saw anything.

The high level of suspense kept me turning the pages! A variety of well developed characters brought to their knees by the unthinkable sucked me in immediately and never let go. Ms. Belle hooked me with THE MARRIAGE LIE and certainly didn’t disappoint with this psychological thriller.

I would have liked for the “why” of the story to come back to Kat and Ethan rather than the way it played out, but the disappointment was a small price to pay for the thrill of the ride.

I don’t want to go into to detail and spoil the ending, but I have to add that I absolutely loved the short chapter at the end. A revelation I didn’t see coming coupled with a deep sense of satisfaction wrapped the book up nicely.

All in all, a really great read!

 

 

 

The Inspiration Behind APPLE OF MY EYE

Ebook Cover

The first version of APPLE OF MY EYE was written a long time ago. Seriously, I think it’s been more than 10 years. It had a different title, different plot, heck it was even a different genre. I submitted the original manuscript to a handful of agents and one of them was kind enough to give me feedback. I don’t remember everything he said, but he included a letter grade so that I knew where I stood in the grand scheme of quality. He gave me a B-. Ugh.

Coming from an agent who sees thousands of manuscripts each year, maybe that wasn’t too bad, but to me it said one thing – not good enough. I knew I’d need an A+ to get representation, yet alone publication.

I dried my tears, put the manuscript on the shelf, studied the agent’s comments closely, and moved onto another story. My mind traveled back to that last project, but with time came clarity. I knew that as it was, it would never make it. There were just too many flaws and the plot as a whole wasn’t as plausible as it needed to be. I filed the idea permanently. Well, most of it.

More time passed and with every project I attempted to start, I found myself going back to APPLE OF MY EYE (then titled BEYOND THE BRINK). I thought of different ways I could rework it, but none of them grabbed me like they should. After giving it enough thought, I realized that it wasn’t the story nagging at me, it was one key element – the setting.

The story takes place in the small, southern Ohio town of Jackson, a place from my childhood. When I was growing up my family moved several times and no place grew on me quite this little town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Picture lush rolling hills, friendly welcoming faces, and a festival that seemed to draw the support of the whole community.

I admit, my impressions may be skewed by the fact that I was child at the time, but it seemed that everything in the town revolved around its annual Apple Festival. I remember the hours my mom spent making pies (which were sold in a booth to support the school I attended, just like in the book), my school constructing a float, and the thrill of riding on that float in the festival parade. I remember spending long days roaming the blocked-off streets of Jackson, playing carnival games, waiting for my turn on the rides, and bingeing on carnival food. I remember masses lining the streets to watch the parade and the need to get there early to claim a section of sidewalk.

The festival went on for almost a full week and still continues every September. The build up to it gave a feeling similar to an impending Christmas morning, but when the carnival rolled out of town and the booths were torn down for the year, a sense of emptiness smothered the town. We couldn’t wait until it was time to start it all over again the next year.

I was 14 years old when I moved away from Jackson, but no other place from my past has quite the same hold on me. I felt this incredible pull to bring those memories to life and what better way than through fiction? Maybe my original manuscript needed to be scrapped, but that too-important-to-me setting still held promise. I constructed an entirely new plot, eliminated a slew of characters, and created several replacements. I was on my way. BEYOND THE BRINK was dead, but APPLE OF MY EYE was very much alive.

Of course, the story is entirely fictional and truth be told, so is much of the setting. Street names are fake, any businesses or buildings mentioned were constructed only in my mind, and no characters or situations bear any resemblance to real life people. Still, the idea for APPLE OF MY EYE was born entirely from a setting close to my heart.

Despite being a work of pure fiction, some bits of reality are often a great addition and you’ll find that I was careful to preserve a few details in the book.

What are those details and how are they used in the story? Check back next week to find out!