Courage, Strength, and Unconditional Love

What is the ultimate gift?

Cool off with a frosty New Year’s Eve Chapter One excerpt from The Garden Collection, a story of courage, strength, and unconditional love.  I’ve posted the New Year’s Eve Prologue to this sweet romance a few years ago. If you prefer to start there, here’s the LINK.  Enjoy.

 

Friday, December 31st – Present Day

Standing behind the counter at Mason’s Diner, Brianna Carlson waited for Henry Mason to pass her orders through the grill window. The breakfast and lunch crowd had her running. Now, the late lunchers filled only three of the ten stools at the counter and two of the eight booths along the windows.

Her half-sister Chloe’s paper snowflakes covered all of the windows as if another blizzard had hit town. Multi-color Christmas lights blinked around the window frames. By the cash register next to the counter, a two-foot-high fake Christmas tree held so many of Chloe’s homemade ornaments the patrons couldn’t see the branches.

Catching her breath, Brianna stared at the poster behind the register and smiled. Lucy had suggested Bree put her own doodle sketches to good work and enter the competition to design the New Year’s Eve Gala poster. Out of one hundred applicants, she won. She had drawn dark snowy woods where the old trees have snarled branches. The trees’ arthritic fingers reach for the sparkling red box with a bright white bow that illuminates the small clearing. The caption reads What is the Ultimate Gift?

Bree was proud of herself and so were the regulars at the diner. They celebrated her excitement by encouraging her to attend the gala. As the winner, she received one hundred dollars and a ticket to the party. She had saved her money for three weeks to buy a dress with matching purse and shoes.

“Bree, your order’s up,” Henry yelled from behind the grill. She saw only his eyes and the top of his bandana-covered baldhead through the open window.

The retired men along the counter chuckled. “Are you daydreaming again, Cinderella?” Charlie asked as he took off his baseball cap that had covered his thinning gray fringe.

Blushing, she laughed. “Maybe I’ll find my Prince Charming tonight,” she replied, picking up the BLT and cheeseburger platters.

George unrolled his silverware from his napkin. “Are you ever going to tell us what’s in the red box from your poster?”

She set Charlie’s BLT in front of him and grabbed the ketchup from under the counter. “What do you think is in the box?” she asked, handing George the bottle for his burger and fries.

“Money?” George asked.

“How about keys to a yacht?” Charlie added.

“I know what’s in the box,” Chloe said from the end of the counter. Her long brown hair in a thick braid matched her big sister’s. Chloe bit into a French fry and grinned.

“Well, my sweet one, please share with us,” Bev Mason said from behind the cash register. With her wrinkled smile, she played the elder matron with ease.

Chloe looked at her. “Can I tell them?”

Bree laughed and nodded. “I always thought it was obvious,” she said, absently touching her gold locket tucked under her Mason’s Diner t-shirt.

“Tell us right now,” George demanded. He winked at Chloe as he wiped his mouth.

“It’s love, sillies. I can’t believe you never guessed it.”

“Oh, and you’re a genius?” Bev asked

“I’ve gotten all excellent marks so far in first grade,” Chloe stated.

Brianna nodded. “You have a lot of wonderful tutors,” she said, glancing at her work family.

Chloe had grown up on that stool. They had put her name on it. Bree felt blessed that Bev and Henry let her work and care for Chloe at the same time. Over the years, the regulars had taken turns keeping her occupied. She and Chloe had many aunts and uncles.

As the men teased Chloe that they had made her smart, Officer Eddie Kent stomped his feet inside the door. In his dark blue uniform and auburn crew cut, he sat at the opposite end of the counter. Having known Eddie since they were in kindergarten, Bree greeted him with his usual glass of milk.

“It’s not ready yet?” he asked.

She frowned. “I wasn’t sure you were working today. I’ll get right on it.”

Bree quickly entered the kitchen and helped Henry with the order of rare steak and scrambled eggs with a side of raw onions and garlic toast. Eddie ate it every day he worked. Superstitious about his job, he said it kept him safe. For the last year, that’s all he ate. She carefully set his plates in front of him. She had learned not to stand too close afterward.

“Bree, don’t worry. I’m here if you need anything,” Eddie said, reaching for the knife.

“What?”

“Kent! I will explain it,” Chief Mason said, taking up the entire doorway.

Brianna looked at Cameron Mason, the Chief of Rushing for the last ten years. With his bushy brown mustache, he reminded her of a young Sam Elliott from the Western movies. He had the deep voice like him, too. All he needed was a cowboy hat. Bev and Henry were proud of him and his profession although Bev hoped he’d marry soon. She wanted grandbabies.

Bree thought of him as an overly protective big brother. Since she didn’t have a car or a license for that matter, he’d give them a ride occasionally across town to their tiny loft apartment. He also lectured her on safety. She and Chloe paid attention to all of his rules.

Chief Mason smoothed down his thick mustache with his thumb and finger and pointed her to the end booth. His business-like manner unnerved her. With a hand over her stomach, she sat.

He stopped Chloe from jumping off her stool. “Stay put. I want to talk to Bree in private.”

“Cam, what’s wrong?” she asked as he sat across from her.

“I just found out Wayne got parole.”

She gasped. “When?”

“He’ll be released tomorrow. Because of overcrowding, he’s being let out earlier than I had expected. There was nothing I could do.”

“Oh, God.” She placed her shaking hands on her lap. Chloe stared at her reaction. “Do you think he’ll come back here?” she whispered.

“I honestly don’t know. Follow my rules, Bree. They’ll keep you safe. If you see him anywhere in town, call my cell,” he said, pulling out his card.

She stopped him. “I still have it memorized.”

Cam nodded and left for the kitchen to talk to his father. She stared out the window at the two fresh inches of snow. What should she do? Wayne’s letters from prison promised to take Chloe away from her. She had no legal rights. Could he come back and reclaim his daughter? She would not let that happen. He would never lay a hand on Chloe. Bree had taken the brunt for years so he wouldn’t hurt her.

Chloe knew next to nothing about her father. Bree had told her that he was in jail because he had hurt them. Bree had preached taking responsibility for your actions since Chloe could talk.

Chloe thought it was like being grounded for doing something naughty. That pretty much summed it up. Although Bree didn’t think Wayne would learn anything from the experience except more contempt toward her for putting him there. He would return to make her suffer. She had to leave. She jumped as Chloe slid in next to her.

“Bree, what’s the matter?

She hugged her. “Nothing for you to worry about, my sweet Clover,” she said, nudging her out of the booth. “I have to get back to work.”

While she made plans in her head, she absently cleared the tables. While carrying the tub of dirty dishes, she banged her shin into the metal cart behind the counter. The tub crashed to the floor. Plates and mugs shattered. With tears in her eyes, she rushed to clean the mess. This usually happened when she was stressed or tired. With partial blindness in her left eye and a limp from a healed broken leg, her coordination sometimes made her clumsy.

Eddie Kent laughed as he finished his meal. “Bev, have you run out of plates yet?”

Bree looked up at her. “I’m sorry.”

Bev smiled. “Honey, it’s an hour past your shift. We know it’s not your fault. Why don’t you and Chloe take off? Tonight’s the big night.”

As she put the last broken plate in the tub, she slid it to the side and stood. Charlie grinned and asked, “You’ll save me a dance?”

“I’m first in line. She promised me yesterday,” George added.

Bree smiled as they tried to cheer her up. “Only if you can recognize me. It’s a masquerade ball after all.”

She helped Chloe with her coat, hat, and mittens. Stepping outside, she took a deep breath. They would make a run for it. They’d hide, and Wayne would eventually give up looking. With a purpose, she reached for her sister’s hand.

“Bree, do you want a ride?” Eddie asked, absently patting the gun at his side.

Resisting the urge to wrinkle her nose at his horrid breath, she shook her head. “We have errands. Thank you though.”

Bree gently tugged Chloe’s hand down the street. They had three stops before she dropped Chloe off with Lucy, who was recuperating from a sprained ankle. Luckily, the stops were in order of the direction they were going. Chloe shuffled her boots through the snow on the sidewalk and sang “Let it Snow.”

After closing out her savings account with one hundred and twenty-six dollars, she pulled open the door to the pawnshop. The stifling heat hit them in the face as they wiped their boots on the rug just inside the door. She spotted Gus Fuller wearing a Santa hat. He had played Santa at the diner’s Christmas party. With a long white beard, he fit the part perfectly.

Bree sighed. “I need to talk to Gus for a moment. Do you want to wander around?” Chloe nodded and headed for the stack of board games while Bree met him at the counter. “I’d, uh, like to see what I can get for this,” she said, slipping her precious locket over her head.

Gus turned it in his hand. “This is a high-end piece. I’d say it’s worth about two grand. I can only give you five hundred, but Donovan’s Jewelry may give you more.”

She groaned. Robert had spent too much money on her. Her eyes started to water. She quickly wiped her face. This is about responsibility and survival not sentimental trinkets. She took the locket back from him and stared at it. She wore it all the time and touched it often. She was surprised the etched ivy hadn’t worn off. Finally nodding, she set it back on the counter. She had to protect Chloe. As she tucked the money into her wallet, Chloe joined her with a magic kit.

“Bree, do we have extra for this? It’s three dollars,” Chloe said.

Gus smiled. “It’s yours for a hug.”

Chloe laughed and ran around the counter. After paying with a hug, she kissed his cheek and tugged his beard. “Thanks, Gus.”

With slouched shoulders, Brianna moved toward the door.

“Bree, take care of yourself,” Gus said quietly.

She wanted to grab her locket and run. Instead, she limped out the door. There would be no turning back.

The bus station had one last departure at five tonight for Chicago. She didn’t think they’d have time to pack so she opted for the ten o’clock trip tomorrow morning. She wanted to be selfish and go to the gala. Her one last hurrah.

Continue reading The Garden Collection on AMAZON

New Year’s Eve Romance

To celebrate my December 31st birthday, my New Year’s Eve romance, The Garden Collection, is on SALE for $0.99 until 12/31/19.  In this story, Robert Donovan learns that home is where his heart is.

THE GARDEN COLLECTION on AMAZON

I took a single defining moment from my childhood to create a story with the theme about the energy of words and how they affect us. You can read that embarrassing story here.

A few words of encouragement can stay with you for a lifetime.

Robert and Brianna’s childhood friendship grew into respect for each other and their ideas.  Robert gave her the confidence to stand up for herself.  Brianna helped him see his artistic potential and encouraged him to travel for his inspiration.  He found it in the letters she wrote.

BRIANNA CARLSON, an optimistic realist, appreciates the little things in life.  Working at the local diner in their wintry rural town in West Michigan, she pushes the stress of caring for her half-sister, CHLOE, aside focusing instead on the unconditional love she gives and receives.

Her best friend’s brother, ROBERT DONOVAN, regally proper and polished, balances his business acumen with his artwork for his family’s jewelry store.

In THE GARDEN COLLECTION, a Cinderella-esque romance, Brianna receives news that her abusive step-father will be released from prison.  She’s terrified he’ll come back to hurt Chloe this time.  She decides to leave town.

After traveling the world, Robert returns home and discovers Brianna had lied in every letter she sent.  She never received any of his. Before he can demand answers, she disappears without Chloe.  As Robert learns about Brianna’s life during his absence, he sets out to find her and convince her to trust him again.

Grab a copy of The Garden Collection, write a review, and/or share this post.  I appreciate your support. Thank you. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

New Year’s Home

Born on December 31st, I was considered “Daddy’s Little Deduction”.  (I’m glad as a baby I could help the family out. Ha.)  To celebrate my birthday this year, my New Year’s Eve romance, The Garden Collection, is on SALE for $0.99 until 1/3/19.  In this story, Robert Donovan learns that home is where his heart is.

Please grab your copy, write a review, and/or share this post.  I appreciate your help getting the word out. Thank you.

THE GARDEN COLLECTION on AMAZON

A few words of encouragement can stay with you for a lifetime.

Robert and Brianna’s childhood friendship grew into respect for each other and their ideas.  Robert gave her the confidence to stand up for herself.  Brianna helped him see his artistic potential and encouraged him to travel for his inspiration.  He found it in the letters she wrote.

BRIANNA CARLSON, an optimistic realist, appreciates the little things in life.  Working at the local diner in their wintry rural town in West Michigan, she pushes the stress of caring for her half-sister, CHLOE, aside focusing instead on the unconditional love she gives and receives.

Her best friend’s brother, ROBERT DONOVAN, regally proper and polished, balances his business acumen with his artwork for his family’s jewelry store.

In THE GARDEN COLLECTION, a Cinderella-esque romance, Brianna receives news that her abusive step-father will be released from prison.  She’s terrified he’ll come back to hurt Chloe this time.  She decides to leave town.

After traveling the world, Robert returns home and discovers Brianna had lied in every letter she sent.  She never received any of his. Before he can demand answers, she disappears without Chloe.  As Robert learns about Brianna’s life during his absence, he sets out to find her and convince her to trust him again.

THE GARDEN COLLECTION: Prologue

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Tuesday, December 31st

When the side door to the singlewide trailer slammed shut, Brianna Carlson sighed with relief. In her cramped bedroom, she bounced her eleven-month-old half-sister, Chloe, on her hip to keep her quiet. Her mom and Wayne had argued all afternoon. The fight had escalated, and they blamed her.

While she waited for the door to jar the trailer again, she gazed into the mirror propped on top of her worn dresser. Between caring for Chloe and getting ready, it had taken two hours to style her hair into a loose bun with long brown ringlets. Now, strands of it fell around her heart-shaped face.

She picked up the paper cup next to her brush. She had wanted to put the tiny silk rosebuds throughout. Not now, and it would take forever to comb out the hairspray.

Sidestepping the crib wedged between the wall and her bed, she listened at the door. She slowly cracked it open. The dark wood paneling and water-stained ceiling tiles trapped the tension along with the lingering scent of cigarette smoke. The drawn shades with frayed edges mimicked her hidden life.

Bree didn’t hear her stepfather; she saw her torn pale pink princess dress draped over his greasy plaid recliner. Well, that just confirmed it. She wasn’t leaving tonight. After shifting Chloe to her other hip, she checked the dress. Maybe she could repair it.

When she heard the refrigerator door open and the clink of beer bottles, she winced and hugged her sister closer to her chest. Chloe seemed to sense her anxiety and whimpered as they faced Wayne Miller. His sweat-stained t-shirt uncovered his hairy gut as he chugged his beer from the kitchen doorway.

He rubbed his stubble and belched. “Jesus, Bree. You just couldn’t watch the baby for one night? You pushed her over the edge. She ain’t coming back this time.”

“I watch the baby every night. I wanted to go to the New Year’s Eve Ball with Lucy.”

“Now, nobody’s going,” he said.

“It’s not my fault. I asked months ago.”

His hand clenched into a fist. She braced herself and turned the baby away. The full force of his fist smashed into her cheek. The sharp pain shot through her head and down her neck as he wrenched it to the side. A flash of light behind her eyes blinded her. She would have fallen to the floor, but the back of the shabby sofa kept her upright. Afraid of dropping Chloe, she gripped her tighter. Her sister wailed, and Bree’s eye swelled.

“It is your fault,” he growled, before depositing his empty bottle on the counter with the others.

With blurred vision, she staggered back to her bedroom. When the side door slammed shut, she blew out a breath. That was her fault. She should have waited a while longer. Gently bouncing her sister, Bree hummed to keep herself from sobbing.

With her stepdad gone for the night and her mom gone for good, the thick tension dissipated within their dumpy trailer at Hilton’s Trailer Park in Rushing, Michigan. Chloe immediately stopped crying and wrapped her tiny arms around Bree’s neck.

In the kitchen, Brianna reached for a bag of peas from the freezer. “Don’t worry, my sweet Clover. I’ll never leave you.”

Slightly dizzy, Bree sat at the kitchen table and turned the baby around. Chloe grabbed the spoon from the edge of the round table while Bree held the peas against her cheek. She cringed from the cold pain. The side of her face throbbed. Closing her eyes, she frowned at the disappearing possibilities.

“No use waiting any longer,” she said, taking the end of the spoon out of Chloe’s mouth.

She set the baby in her playpen and handed her the bag of peas. Chloe stuck a corner into her mouth and smiled as it numbed her sore gums. Brianna dialed her best friend, Lucy Donovan, who lived in the big house on the hill next to the golf course.

“Bree, are you ready? How do the roses look in your hair? Robert will pick you up at seven-thirty. He has your ticket.”

“Well, he can let someone else have it. I can’t go,” she replied, forcing herself not to cry.

“No! Bree! You got permission months ago. What happened?”

“Apparently they forgot. You go and have fun. I want to hear all about it tomorrow.”

“I think it sucks, especially on your birthday.”

“My birthday isn’t until tomorrow so it doesn’t count.” She grimaced as she touched her puffy cheek.

“We were pretending that it was your Sweet Sixteen Coming Out party,” Lucy pouted.

“It’s not a big deal. There’s always next year.”

“All right, well, we’re having a family dinner for Robert tomorrow before he leaves. You can come and bring Chloe, too.”

“Sure, Lucy. Call me tomorrow.”

Bree wouldn’t go. She’d get too many sympathetic looks from Lucy’s family. Paul and Marta Donovan welcomed her into their home, but she caught the glimpses. She was the scruffy kitten they fed on their back doorstep.

Lucy had been her best friend since kindergarten. She didn’t care that Bree wore clothes from Goodwill. They bonded over each other’s hair. Bree was fascinated with Lucy’s short blond curls, and Lucy liked to brush Bree’s thick brown mane like her dolls. Bree didn’t mind. It was soothing and quite funny that someone envied her.

Through the years, Lucy tried every type of expensive shampoo to make her blond hair stronger and longer. She jokingly begged her for the secret. Bree’s secret was a ninety-nine cent bottle of Suave shampoo and her dad’s genetics. He had a thick head of hair. That’s what she was told anyway. He left when she was four. A distant memory now. She wallowed in self-pity for a few more minutes and then saw Chloe covered in mashed peas.

“Oh, Clover. What have you done?” Chloe smiled and held out a pea for her. Bree laughed and lifted her out of the playpen. “You made a mess. I hope they were good.”

Chloe shoved one into Bree’s mouth and giggled. Her mood lightened as her sister fed her the mashed peas off her shirt, her arms, her hair. While she took her time cleaning Chloe and the peas, she thought about the party.

For the last month, she imagined that it was in honor of her sixteenth birthday. She had saved her money from her part-time job at Mason’s Diner and had found the dress at a second-hand store. She loved the frilly pink ruffles. Now, her ripped dress lay across the recliner.

While Chloe played in her clean playpen, Bree hung her pink pretty in the closet. After one last look, she sighed. She had hoped to dance with Lucy’s brother, Robert. Five years younger, she’d had a crush on him since she was in the fifth grade.

Years ago, Robert had picked her and Lucy up after school. He had just gotten his driver’s license and wanted to show off his new car. As she and Lucy walked toward him, one of the boys in her class made fun of her watercolor artwork and tore it in half. After yelling at the boy, Robert said he liked the picture. He had asked for it and had carefully put the ripped pieces next to his seat as if a priceless possession. She had never felt so proud to have someone like her art. She would always remember that feeling and has secretly loved him ever since.

She smiled. Her imagination usually exceeded her reality. She figured it’s supposed to work that way. With her friend’s play by play, she could still enjoy the party. Lucy’s bubbly personality and dramatic views amused her. Lucy lived in a happy mystical world.

With another sigh, she returned to the living room and picked up the baby. “Okay, my sweet Clover, it’s time for bed. Tomorrow is a new year full of hope and adventure.”

As the ache permeated through the rest of her body, she slowly sat in the rocker and hummed to her fussy sister. She loved the quiet trailer. For an hour, she held Chloe while she slept in her arms. Chloe needed her, and Bree promised to be there for her, always. Her little sister would never feel her pain.

Hearing a tap on the side door, she looked up. Robert peeked through the glass. She wiggled her finger for him to come in. He carefully opened the door so as not to wake the baby.

He had just graduated college with degrees in both business and art and would be leaving for Italy tomorrow. He wanted to travel to find authentic art designs for Donovan’s Jewelry, his family’s business.

In a black tuxedo with pale pink shirt and bow tie, he had slicked back his light brown hair into a short ponytail. His green eyes narrowed. His jaw clenched.

She flinched. “Robert, I’m sorry. Lucy was supposed to tell you I couldn’t go,” she quickly whispered.

“What the hell happened to your eye?”

She shushed him as Chloe stirred. She had forgotten about it until now. It ached, but she was used to her stepfather’s fist and her mother’s hand. He folded his arms and waited. She stood stiffly. Not seeing clearly, she banged her shin into the coffee table. Biting her lip to keep from gasping aloud, she put the baby in the crib. She cracked the door and turned to face him.

“I’m sorry you made the trip here for nothing,” she whispered.

“Did Wayne do that?”

She nodded. He lightly lifted her chin for a better look at her eye. Her pain lessened. His concern touched her. She didn’t dare say anything for fear of crying. He growled and tugged her hand toward the kitchen. After sitting her in the chair, he retrieved the half bag of mashed peas that had refrozen into a hard block.

“What happened?” he asked in a slightly calmer tone.

She pressed the bag against her cheek and shook her head.

“I’m going to give him his own black eye,” he said.

“Please, don’t. It’ll only make things worse,” she replied.

“I’ll call Chief Mason,” he said, pulling his cell from his pocket. “Wayne can rot in jail.”

She sighed. “For a couple of days? Then what? I’ll be fine.”

She hoped she’d be fine. She wasn’t sure what would happen now with her mom gone. She’d have to rely on Wayne until she graduated high school. Maybe she could pick up more hours at the diner. And what about Chloe? Who would watch her while she went to school and work?

Sitting across from her, he stared. She broke the long silence. “You’re going to miss the party,” she said.

“You think I care about the damn party now? Can you even see out of your eye?”

“I have the other one.” She smiled. The fact that he was mad made her feel better.

“It’s not funny, Anna.”

“Don’t call me that.” She tossed the clump of re-thawed peas in the trash. After pushing the empty bottles and a full ashtray back from the edge of the countertop, she leaned against it.

“Why? It’s your name. Bree is too flaky and whimsical. Anna is grown up and fits your personality better.”

“Like an elderly aunt?”

He laughed. “Like a sixteen year old who’s taking good care of her sister.”

She wanted to tell him about her situation but held back. Why bring him down? What good would it do? He was leaving for an adventure tomorrow. Hiding her frown, she retrieved a small tatty ring box from her purse. She handed it to him.

He grinned. “Are you proposing?”

“Certainly not, I’m a mess. It’s a going-away present. Just promise to save it for the plane.”

“You’re not coming to dinner tomorrow?” he asked as he slipped it into his tuxedo pocket. When she shook her head, he held out a slightly larger sparkling red box. “Then Happy Birthday.”

She gaped as he set it in her cupped hands. The lovely box had a bright white bow on the top. The tag read To Anna from Robert.

He laughed. “Anna, it’s not a snake. It won’t bite.”

“Thank you,” she whispered as she carefully lifted the top. She caught her breath. “Oh my, it’s stunning but way too expensive. I can’t accept this.” She held out the box for him.

“Of course, you can,” he replied, taking the gold heart locket out of the box. Swirls of etched ivy covered the front and back. A heart-shaped emerald gleamed in the center. He placed the chain over her head and stood back to admire it. “It’ll match your one green eye,” he said with a grin.

Her hand trembled as she touched it. “It’s the nicest gift I’ve ever gotten.” It was actually the only gift. Born to alcoholic parents on January first had its drawbacks. They slept off the hangovers for the full day. “But it’s too much, Robert.”

“If you want to make it even, you can write to me at the villa.”

“I can do that.”

“I’ll expect a letter every few weeks that’s at least two pages long. You can fill me in on Lucy’s antics,” he said, reaching for her hand. “This is my big chance to prove myself. You understand, right?”

She nodded and held her other hand over her locket. “Thank you,” she whispered again.

Taking a step closer, he leaned down and kissed her. Her mind went numb, but her toes tingled. She didn’t want him to stop. He gently pulled her against him. She parted her lips letting him taste her. His tongue sent a wave of warmth throughout her body. She didn’t realize kissing was a pain reliever. Her cold body wanted to hide in the safety of his embrace.

“Robert. Please. Don’t leave me, too,” she silently begged.

He let her go and played with a long ringlet by her ear. “Oh, Anna, even with one eye, you’re still the prettiest girl I know. I’ll miss you,” he said, before leaving.

Standing alone in the middle of the room, she closed her eyes. A profound sadness settled over her heart. She wept.

 

To read more about Robert and Brianna’s romance, click on this LINK to get your copy of The Garden Collection.