Monday, May 31, 2010

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


A Tailor-Made Bride

Bethany House (June 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Karen Witemeyer for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Karen Witemeyer holds a master's degree in psychology from Abilene Christian University and is a member of ACFW, RWA, and the Texas Coalition of Authors. She has published fiction in Focus on the Family's children's magazine, and has written several articles for online publications and anthologies. Tailor-Made Bride is her first novel. Karen lives in Abilene, Texas, with her husband and three children.


Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Bethany House (June 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0764207555
ISBN-13: 978-0764207556

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Prologue

San Antonio, Texas—March 1881
“Red? Have you no shame, Auntie Vic? You can’t be buried in a scarlet gown.”

“It’s cerise, Nan.”

Hannah Richards bit back a laugh as Victoria Ashmont effectively put her nephew’s wife in her place with three little words. Trying hard to appear as if she wasn’t listening to her client’s conversation, Hannah pulled the last pin from between her lips and slid it into the hem of the controversial fabric.

“Must you flout convention to the very end?” Nan’s whine heightened to a near screech as she stomped toward the door. A delicate sniff followed by a tiny hiccup foreshadowed the coming of tears. “Sherman and I will be the ones to pay the price. You’ll make us a laughingstock among our friends. But then, you’ve never cared for anyone except yourself, have you?”

Miss Victoria pivoted with impressive speed, the cane she used for balance nearly clobbering Hannah in the head as she spun.

“You may have my nephew wrapped around your little finger, but don’t think you can manipulate me with your theatrics.” Like an angry goddess from the Greek myths, Victoria Ashmont held her chin at a regal angle and pointed her aged hand toward the woman who dared challenge her. Hannah almost expected a lightning bolt to shoot from her finger to disintegrate Nan where she stood.

“You’ve been circling like a vulture since the day Dr. Bowman declared my heart to be failing, taking over the running of my household and plotting how to spend Sherman’s inheritance. Well, you won’t be controlling me, missy. I’ll wear what I choose, when I choose, whether or not you approve. And if your friends have nothing better to do at a funeral than snicker about your great aunt’s attire, perhaps you’d do well to find some companions with a little more depth of character.”

Nan’s affronted gasp echoed through the room like the crack of a mule skinner’s whip.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Miss Victoria called out as her niece yanked open the bedchamber door. “You’ll have my money to console you. I’m sure you’ll recover from any embarrassment I cause in the blink of an eye.”

The door slammed shut, and the resulting bang appeared to knock the starch right out of Miss Victoria. She wobbled, and Hannah lurched to her feet to steady the elderly lady.

“Here, ma’am. Why don’t you rest for a minute?” Hannah gripped her client’s arm and led her to the fainting couch at the foot of the large four-poster bed that dominated the room. “Would you like me to ring for some tea?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, girl. I’m not so infirm that a verbal skirmish leaves me in want of fortification. I just need to catch my breath.”

Hannah nodded, not about to argue. She gathered her sewing box instead, collecting her shears, pins, and needle case from where they lay upon the thick tapestry carpet.

She had sewn for Miss Victoria for the last eighteen months, and it disturbed her to see the woman reduced to tremors and pallor so easily. The eccentric spinster never shied from a fight and always kept her razor-sharp tongue at the ready.

Hannah had felt the lash of that tongue herself on several occasions, but she’d developed a thick skin over the years. A woman making her own way in the world had to toughen up quickly or get squashed. Perhaps that was why she respected Victoria Ashmont enough to brave her scathing comments time after time. The woman had been living life on her own terms for years and had done well for herself in the process. True, she’d had money and the power of the Ashmont name to lend her support, but from all public reports—and a few overheard conversations—it was clear Victoria Ashmont’s fortune had steadily grown during her tenure as head of the family, not dwindled, which was more than many men could say. Hannah liked to think that, given half a chance, she’d be able to duplicate the woman’s success. At least to a modest degree.

“How long have you worked for Mrs. Granbury, Miss Richards?”

Hannah jumped at the barked question and scurried back to Miss Victoria’s side, her sewing box tucked under her arm. “Nearly two years, ma’am.”

“Hmmph.” The woman’s cane rapped three staccato beats against the leg of the couch before she continued. “I nagged that woman for years to hire some girls with gumption. I was pleased when she finally took my advice. Your predecessors failed to last more than a month or two with me. Either I didn’t approve of their workmanship, or they couldn’t stand up to my plain speaking. It’s a dratted nuisance having to explain my preferences over and over to new girls every time I need something made up. I’ve not missed that chore.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Hannah’s forehead scrunched. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Victoria Ashmont might have just paid her a compliment.

“Have you ever thought of opening your own shop?”

Hannah’s gaze flew to her client’s face. Miss Victoria’s slate gray eyes assessed her, probing, drilling into her core, as if she meant to rip the truth from her with or without her consent.

Ducking away from the penetrating stare, Hannah fiddled with the sewing box. “Mrs. Granbury has been good to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to set some of my earnings aside. It will be several years yet, but one day I do hope to set up my own establishment.”

“Good. Now help me get out of this dress.”

Dizzy from the abrupt starts, stops, and turns of the strange conversation, Hannah kept her mouth closed and assisted Miss Victoria. She unfastened the brightly colored silk, careful not to snag the pins on either the delicate material of the gown or on Miss Victoria’s stockings. Once the dress had been safely removed, she set it aside and helped the woman don a loose-fitting wrapper.

“I’m anxious to have these details put in order,” Miss Victoria said as she took a seat at the ladies’ writing desk along the east wall. “I will pay you a bonus if you will stay here and finish the garment for me before you leave. You may use the chair in the corner.” She gestured toward a small upholstered rocker that sat angled toward the desk.

Hannah’s throat constricted. Her mind scrambled for a polite refusal, yet she found no excuse valid enough to withstand Miss Victoria’s scrutiny. Left with no choice, she swallowed her misgivings and forced the appropriate reply past her lips.

“As you wish.”

Masking her disappointment, Hannah set her box of supplies on the floor near the chair Miss Victoria had indicated and turned to fetch the dress.

She disliked sewing in front of clients. Though her tiny boardinghouse room was dim and lacked the comforts afforded in Miss Victoria’s mansion, the solitude saved her from suffering endless questions and suggestions while she worked.

Hannah drew in a deep breath. I might as well make the best of it. No use dwelling on what couldn’t be changed. It was just a hem and few darts to compensate for her client’s recent weight loss. She could finish the task in less than an hour.

Miss Victoria proved gracious. She busied herself with papers of some kind at her desk and didn’t interfere with Hannah’s work. She did keep up a healthy stream of chatter, though.

“You probably think me morbid for finalizing all my funeral details in advance.” Miss Victoria lifted the lid of a small silver case and extracted a pair of eyeglasses. She wedged them onto her nose and began leafing through a stack of documents in a large oak box.

Hannah turned back to her stitching. “Not morbid, ma’am. Just . . . efficient.”

“Hmmph. Truth is, I know I’m dying, and I’d rather go out in a memorable fashion than slip away quietly, never to be thought of again.”

“I’m sure your nephew will remember you.” Hannah glanced up as she twisted the dress to allow her better access to the next section of hem.

“Sherman? Bah! That boy would forget his own name if given half a chance.” Miss Victoria pulled a document out of the box. She set it in front of her, then dragged her inkstand close and unscrewed the cap. “I’ve got half a mind to donate my estate to charity instead of letting it sift through my nephew’s fingers. He and that flighty wife of his will surely do nothing of value with it.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “But they are family, after all, and I suppose I’ll no longer care about how the money is spent after I’m gone.”

Hannah poked her needle up and back through the red silk in rapid succession, focused on making each stitch even and straight. It wasn’t her place to offer advice, but it burned on her tongue nonetheless. Any church or charitable organization in the city could do a great amount of good with even a fraction of the Ashmont estate. Miss Victoria could make several small donations without her nephew ever knowing the difference. Hannah pressed her lips together and continued weaving her needle in and out, keeping her unsolicited opinion to herself.

She was relieved when a soft tapping at the door saved her from having to come up with an appropriate response.

A young maid entered and bobbed a curtsy. “The post has arrived, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Millie.” Miss Victoria accepted the envelope. “You may go.”

The sound of paper ripping echoed in the quiet room as Miss Victoria slid her letter opener through the upper edge of the flap.

“Well, I must give the gentleman credit for persistence,” the older woman murmured. “This is the third letter he’s sent in two months.”

Hannah turned the dress again and bent her head a little closer to her task, hoping to escape Miss Victoria’s notice. It was not to be. The older woman’s voice only grew louder and more pointed as she continued.

“He wants to buy one of my railroad properties.”

Hannah made the mistake of looking up. Miss Victoria’s eyes, magnified by the lenses she wore, demanded a response. Yet how did a working-class seamstress participate in a conversation of a personal nature with one so above her station? She didn’t want to offend by appearing uninterested. However, showing too keen an interest might come across as presumptuous. Hannah floundered to find a suitably innocuous response and finally settled on, “Oh?”

It seemed to be enough, and Miss Victoria turned back to her correspondence as she continued her ramblings.

“When the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway out of Galveston started up construction again last year, I invested in a handful of properties along the proposed route, in towns that were already established. I’ve made a tidy profit on most, but for some reason, I find myself reluctant to part with this one.”

An expectant pause hung in the air. Keeping her eyes on her work, Hannah voiced the first thought that came to mind.

“Does the gentleman not make a fair offer?”

“No, Mr. Tucker proposes a respectable price.” Miss Victoria tapped the handle of the letter opener against the desktop in a rhythmic pattern, then seemed to become aware of what she was doing and set it aside. “Perhaps I am reticent because I do not know the man personally. He is in good standing with the bank in Coventry and by all accounts is respected in the community, yet in the past I’ve made my decision to sell after meeting with the buyer in person. Unfortunately, my health precludes that now.”

“Coventry?” Hannah seized upon the less personal topic. “I’m not familiar with that town.”

“That’s because it’s about two hundred miles north of here—and it is quite small. The surveyors tell me it’s in a pretty little spot along the North Bosque River. I had hoped to visit, but it looks as if I won’t be afforded that opportunity.”

Hannah tied off her thread and snipped the tail. She reached for her spool and unwound another long section, thankful that the discussion had finally moved in a more neutral direction. She clipped the end of the thread and held the needle up to gauge the position of the eye.

“What do you think, Miss Richards? Should I sell it to him?”

The needle slipped out of her hand.

“You’re asking me?”

“Is there another Miss Richards in the room? Of course I’m asking you.” She clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Goodness, girl. I’ve always thought you to be an intelligent sort. Have I been wrong all this time?”

That rankled. Hannah sat a little straighter and lifted her chin. “No, ma’am.”

“Good.” Miss Victoria slapped her palm against the desk. “Now, tell me what you think.”

If the woman was determined to have her speak her mind, Hannah would oblige. This was the last project she’d ever sew for the woman anyway. It couldn’t hurt. The only problem was, she’d worked so hard not to form an opinion during this exchange, that now that she was asked for one, she had none to give. Trying not to let the silence rush her into saying something that would indeed prove her lacking in intellect, she scrambled to gather her thoughts while she searched for the dropped needle.

“It seems to me,” she said, uncovering the needle along with a speck of insight, “you need to decide if you would rather have the property go to a man you know only by reputation or to the nephew you know through experience.” Hannah lifted her gaze to meet Miss Victoria’s and held firm, not allowing the woman’s critical stare to cow her. “Which scenario gives you the greatest likelihood of leaving behind the legacy you desire?”

Victoria Ashmont considered her for several moments, her eyes piercing Hannah and bringing to mind the staring contests the school boys used to challenge her to when she was still in braids. The memory triggered her competitive nature, and a stubborn determination to win rose within her.

At last, Miss Victoria nodded and turned away. “Thank you, Miss Richards. I think I have my answer.”

Exultation flashed through her for a brief second at her victory, but self-recrimination soon followed. This wasn’t a schoolyard game. It was an aging woman’s search to create meaning in her death.

“Forgive my boldness, ma’am.”

Her client turned back and wagged a bony finger at Hannah. “Boldness is exactly what you need to run your own business, girl. Boldness, skill, and a lot of hard work. When you get that shop of yours, hardships are sure to find their way to your doorstep. Confidence is the only way to combat them—confidence in yourself and in the God who equips you to overcome. Never forget that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Feeling chastised and oddly encouraged at the same time, Hannah threaded her needle and returned to work. The scratching of pen against paper replaced the chatter of Miss Victoria’s voice as the woman gave her full attention to the documents spread across her desk. Time passed swiftly, and soon the alterations were complete.

After trying the gown on a second time to assure a proper fit and examining every seam for quality and durability, as was her custom, Victoria Ashmont ushered Hannah down to the front hall.

“My man will see you home, Miss Richards.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Hannah collected her bonnet from the butler and tied the ribbons beneath her chin.

“I will settle my account with Mrs. Granbury by the end of the week, but here is the bonus I promised you.” She held out a plain white envelope.

Hannah accepted it and placed it carefully in her reticule. She dipped her head and made a quick curtsy. “Thank you. I have enjoyed the privilege of working for you, ma’am, and I pray that your health improves so that I might do so again.”

A strange light came into Miss Victoria’s eyes, a secretive gleam, as if she could see into the future. “You have better things to do than make outlandish red dresses for old women, Miss Richards. Don’t waste your energy worrying over my health. I’ll go when it’s my time and not a moment before.”

Hannah smiled as she stepped out the door, sure that not even the angels could drag Miss Victoria away until she was ready to go. Yet underneath the woman’s tough exterior beat a kind heart. Although Hannah didn’t fully understand how kind until she arrived home and opened her bonus envelope.

Instead of the two or three greenbacks she had assumed were tucked inside, she found a gift that stole her breath and her balance. She slumped against the boardinghouse wall and slid down its blue-papered length into a trembling heap on the floor. She blinked several times, but the writing on the paper didn’t change, only blurred as tears welled and distorted her vision.

She held in her hand the deed to her new dress shop in Coventry, Texas.




Chapter One

Coventry, Texas—September 1881
“J.T.! J.T.! I got a customer for ya.” Tom Packard lumbered down the street with his distinctive uneven gait, waving his arm in the air.

Jericho “J.T.” Tucker stepped out of the livery’s office with a sigh and waited for his right-hand man to jog past the blacksmith and bootmaker shops. He’d lost count of how many times he’d reminded Tom not to yell out his business for everyone to hear, but social niceties tended to slip the boy’s notice when he got excited.

It wasn’t his fault, though. At eighteen, Tom had the body of a man, but his mind hadn’t developed quite as far. He couldn’t read a lick and could barely pen his own name, but he had a gentle way with horses, so J.T. let him hang around the stable and paid him to help out with the chores. In gratitude, the boy did everything in his power to prove himself worthy, including trying to drum up clientele from among the railroad passengers who unloaded at the station a mile south of town. After weeks without so much as a nibble, it seemed the kid had finally managed to hook himself a fish.

J.T. leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and slid a toothpick out of his shirt pocket. He clamped the wooden sliver between his teeth and kept his face void of expression save for a single raised brow as Tom stumbled to a halt in front of him. The kid grasped his knees and gulped air for a moment, then unfolded to his full height, which was nearly as tall as his employer. His cheeks, flushed from his exertions, darkened further when he met J.T.’s eye.

“I done forgot about the yelling again, huh? Sorry.” Tom slumped, his chin bending toward his chest.

J.T. gripped the kid’s shoulder, straightened him up, and slapped him on the back. “You’ll remember next time. Now, what’s this about a customer?”

Tom brightened in an instant. “I gots us a good one. She’s right purty and has more boxes and gewgaws than I ever did see. I ’spect there’s enough to fill up the General.”

“The General, huh?” J.T. rubbed his jaw and used the motion to cover his grin.

Tom had names for all the wagons. Fancy Pants was the fringed surrey J.T. kept on hand for family outings or courting couples; the buggy’s name was Doc after the man who rented it out most frequently; the buckboard was just plain Buck; and his freight wagon was affectionately dubbed The General. The kid’s monikers inspired a heap of good-natured ribbing amongst the men who gathered at the livery to swap stories and escape their womenfolk, but over time the names stuck. Just last week, Alistair Smythe plopped down a silver dollar and demanded he be allowed to take Fancy Pants out for a drive. Hearing the pretentious bank clerk use Tom’s nickname for the surrey left the fellas guffawing for days.

J.T. thrust the memory from his mind and crossed his arms over his chest, using his tongue to shift the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “The buckboard is easier to get to. I reckon it’d do the job just as well.”

“I dunno.” Tom mimicked J.T.’s posture, crossing his own arms and leaning against the livery wall. “She said her stuff was mighty heavy and she’d pay extra to have it unloaded at her shop.”

“Shop?” J.T.’s good humor shriveled. His arms fell to his sides as his gaze slid past Tom to the vacant building across the street. The only unoccupied shop in Coventry stood adjacent to Louisa James’s laundry—the shop he’d tried, and failed, to purchase. J.T.’s jaw clenched so tight the toothpick started to splinter. Forcing himself to relax, he straightened away from the doorpost.

“I think she’s a dressmaker,” Tom said. “There were a bunch of them dummies with no heads or arms with her on the platform. Looked right peculiar, them all standin’ around her like they’s gonna start a quiltin’ bee or something.” The kid chuckled at his own joke, but J.T. didn’t join in his amusement.

A dressmaker? A woman who made her living by exploiting the vanity of her customers? That’s who was moving into his shop?

A sick sensation oozed like molasses through his gut as memories clawed over the wall he’d erected to keep them contained.

“So we gonna get the General, J.T.?”

Tom’s question jerked him back to the present and allowed him to stuff the unpleasant thoughts back down where they belonged. He loosened his fingers from the fist he didn’t remember making and adjusted his hat to sit lower on his forehead, covering his eyes. It wouldn’t do for the kid to see the anger that surely lurked there. He’d probably go and make some fool assumption that he’d done something wrong. Or worse, he’d ask questions J.T. didn’t want to answer.

He cleared his throat and clasped the kid’s shoulder. “If you think we need the freight wagon, then we’ll get the freight wagon. Why don’t you harness up the grays then come help me wrangle the General?”

“Yes, sir!” Tom bounded off to the corral to gather the horses, his chest so inflated with pride J.T. was amazed he could see where he was going.

Ducking back inside the livery, J.T. closed up his office and strode past the stalls to the oversized double doors that opened his wagon shed up to the street. He grasped the handle of the first and rolled it backward, using his body weight as leverage. As his muscles strained against the heavy wooden door, his mind struggled to control his rising frustration.

He’d finally accepted the fact that the owner of the shop across the street refused to sell to him. J.T. believed in Providence, that the Lord would direct his steps. He didn’t like it, but he’d worked his way to peace with the decision. Until a few minutes ago. The idea that God would allow it to go to a dressmaker really stuck in his craw.

It wasn’t as if he wanted the shop for selfish reasons. He saw it as a chance to help out a widow and her orphans. Isn’t that what the Bible defined as “pure religion”? What could be nobler than that? Louisa James supported three kids with her laundry business and barely eked out an existence. The building she worked in was crumbling around her ears even though the majority of her income went to pay the rent. He’d planned to buy the adjacent shop and rent it to her at half the price she was currently paying in exchange for storing some of his tack in the large back room.

J.T. squinted against the afternoon sunlight that streamed into the dim stable and strode to the opposite side of the entrance, his indignation growing with every step. Ignoring the handle, he slammed his shoulder into the second door and ground his teeth as he dug his boots into the packed dirt floor, forcing the wood to yield to his will.

How could a bunch of fripperies and ruffles do more to serve the community than a new roof for a family in need? Most of the women in and around Coventry sewed their own clothes, and those that didn’t bought ready-made duds through the dry-goods store or mail order. Sensible clothes, durable clothes, not fashion-plate items that stroked their vanity or elicited covetous desires in their hearts for things they couldn’t afford. A dressmaker had no place in Coventry.

This can’t be God’s will. The world and its schemers had brought her to town, not God.

Horse hooves thudded and harness jangled as Tom led the grays toward the front of the livery.

J.T. blew out a breath and rubbed a hand along his jaw. No matter what had brought her to Coventry, the dressmaker was still a woman, and his father had drummed into him the truth that all women were to be treated with courtesy and respect. So he’d smile and doff his hat and make polite conversation. Shoot, he’d even lug her heavy junk around for her and unload all her falderal. But once she was out of his wagon, he’d have nothing more to do with her.

———

Hannah sat atop one of her five trunks, waiting for young Tom to return. Most of the other passengers had left the depot already, making their way on foot or in wagons with family members who'd come to meet them. Hannah wasn’t about to let her belongings out of her sight, though—or trust them to a porter she didn’t know. So she waited.

Thanks to Victoria Ashmont’s generosity, she’d been able to use the money she’d saved for a shop to buy fabric and supplies. Not knowing what would be available in the small town of Coventry, she brought everything she needed with her. Including her prized possession—a Singer Improved Family Model 15 treadle machine with five-drawer walnut cabinet and extension leaf. The monster weighed nearly as much as the locomotive that brought her here, but it was a thing of beauty, and she intended to make certain it arrived at the shop without incident.

Her toes tapped against the wooden platform. Only a mile of dusty road stood between her and her dream. Yet the final minutes of waiting felt longer than the hours, even years, that preceded them. Could she really run her own business, or would Miss Ashmont’s belief in her prove misplaced? A tingle of apprehension tiptoed over Hannah’s spine. What if the women of Coventry had no need of a dressmaker? What if they didn’t like her designs? What if . . .

Hannah surged to her feet and began to pace. Miss Ashmont had directed her to be bold. Bold and self-confident. Oh, and confident in God. Hannah paused. Her gaze slid to the bushy hills rising around her like ocean swells. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” The psalm seeped into her soul, bringing a measure of assurance with it. God had led her here. He would provide.

She resumed her pacing, anticipation building as fear receded. On her sixth lap around her mound of luggage, the creak of wagon wheels brought her to a halt.

A conveyance drew near, and Hannah’s pulse vaulted into a new pace. Young Tom wasn’t driving. Another man with a worn brown felt hat pulled low over his eyes sat on the bench. It must be that J.T. person Tom had rambled on about. Well, it didn’t matter who was driving, as long as he had the strength to maneuver her sewing machine without dropping it.

A figure in the back of the wagon waved a cheerful greeting, and the movement caught Hannah’s eye. She waved back, glad to see Tom had returned as well. Two men working together would have a much easier time of it.

The liveryman pulled the horses to a halt and set the brake. Masculine grace exuded from him as he climbed down and made his way to the platform. His long stride projected confidence, a vivid contrast to Tom’s childish gamboling behind him. Judging by the breadth of his shoulders and the way the blue cotton of his shirt stretched across the expanse of his chest and arms, this man would have no trouble moving her sewing cabinet.

Tom dashed ahead of the newcomer and swiped the gray slouch hat from his head. Tufts of his dark blond hair stuck out at odd angles, but his eyes sparkled with warmth. “I got the General, ma’am. We’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.” Not wasting a minute, he slapped his hat back on and moved past her.

Hannah’s gaze roamed to the man waiting a few steps away. He didn’t look much like a general. No military uniform. Instead he sported scuffed boots and denims that were wearing thin at the knees. The tip of a toothpick protruded from his lips, wiggling a little as he gnawed on it. Perhaps General was a nickname of sorts. He hadn’t spoken a word, yet there was something about his carriage and posture that gave him an air of authority.

She straightened her shoulders in response and closed the distance between them. Still giddy about starting up her shop, she couldn’t resist the urge to tease the stoic man who held himself apart.

“Thank you for assisting me today, General.” She smiled up at him as she drew near, finally able to see more than just his jaw. He had lovely amber eyes, although they were a bit cold. “Should I salute or something?”

His right brow arced upward. Then a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth told her he’d caught on.

“I’m afraid I’m a civilian through and through, ma’am.” He tilted his head in the direction of the wagon. “That’s the General. Tom likes to name things.”

Hannah gave a little laugh. “I see. Well, I’m glad to have you both lending me a hand. I’m Hannah Richards.”

The man tweaked the brim of his hat. “J.T. Tucker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tucker.”

He dipped his chin in a small nod. Not a very demonstrative fellow. Nor very talkative.

“Lay those things down, Tom,” he called out as he stepped away. “We don’t want them to tip over the side if we hit a rut.”

“Oh. Wait just a minute, please.” There was no telling what foul things had been carted around in that wagon bed before today. It didn’t matter so much for her trunks and sewing cabinet, but the linen covering her mannequins would be easily soiled.

“I have an old quilt that I wrapped around them in the railroad freight car. Let me fetch it.”

Hannah sensed more than heard Mr. Tucker’s sigh as she hurried to collect the quilt from the trunk she had been sitting on. Well, he could sigh all he liked. Her display dummies were going to be covered. She had one chance to make a first impression on the ladies of Coventry, and she vowed it would be a pristine one.

Making a point not to look at the liveryman as she scurried by, Hannah clutched the quilt to her chest and headed for the wagon. She draped it over the side, then climbed the spokes and hopped into the back, just as she had done as a child. Then she laid out the quilt along the back wall and gently piled the six dummies horizontally atop it, alternating the placement of the tripod pedestals to allow them to fit together in a more compact fashion. As she flipped the remaining fabric of the quilt over the pile, a loud thud sounded from behind, and the wagon jostled her. She gasped and teetered to the side. Glancing over her shoulder, she caught sight of Mr. Tucker as he shoved the first of her trunks into the wagon bed, its iron bottom scraping against the wooden floor.

The man could have warned her of his presence instead of scaring the wits out of her like that. But taking him to task would only make her look like a shrew, so she ignored him. When Tom arrived with the second trunk, she was ready. After he set it down, she moved to the end of the wagon.

“Would you help me down, please?”

He grinned up at her. “Sure thing.”

Hannah set her hands on his shoulders as he clasped her waist and lifted her down. A tiny voice of regret chided her for not asking the favor of the rugged Mr. Tucker, but she squelched it. Tom was a safer choice. Besides, his affable manner put her at ease—unlike his companion, who from one minute to the next alternated between sparking her interest and her ire.

She bit back her admonishments to take care as the men hefted her sewing machine. Thankfully, they managed to accomplish the task without her guidance. With the large cabinet secured in the wagon bed, it didn’t take long for them to load the rest of her belongings. Once they finished, Tom handed her up to the bench seat, then scrambled into the back, leaving her alone with Mr. Tucker.

A cool autumn breeze caressed her cheeks and tugged lightly on her bonnet as the wagon rolled forward. She smoothed her skirts, not sure what to say to the reticent man beside her. However, he surprised her by starting the conversation on his own.

“What made you choose Coventry, Miss Richards?”

She twisted on the seat to look at him, but his eyes remained focused on the road.

“I guess you could say it chose me.”

“How so?”

“It was really a most extraordinary sequence of events. I do not doubt that the Lord’s Providence brought me here.”

That got a reaction. His chin swiveled toward her, and beneath his hat, his intense gaze speared her for a handful of seconds before he blinked and turned away.

She swallowed the moisture that had accumulated under her tongue as he stared at her, then continued.

“Two years ago, I was hired by Mrs. Granbury of San Antonio to sew for her most particular clientele. One of these clients was an elderly spinster with a reputation for being impossible to work with. Well, I needed the job too badly to allow her to scare me away and was too stubborn to let her get the best of me, so I stuck it out and eventually the two of us found a way to coexist and even respect each other.

“Before she died, she called me in to make a final gown for her, and we fell to talking about her legacy. She had invested in several railroad properties, and had only one left that had not sold. In an act of generosity that I still find hard to believe, she gave me the deed as a gift, knowing that I had always dreamed of opening my own shop.”

“What kept her from selling it before then?” His deep voice rumbled with something more pointed than simple curiosity.

A prickle of unease wiggled down Hannah’s neck, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint the cause.

“She told me that she preferred to meet the buyers in person, to assess their character before selling off her properties. Unfortunately, her health had begun to decline, and she was unable to travel. There had been a gentleman of good reputation from this area who made an offer several times. A Mr. Tuck…”

A hard lump of dread formed in the back of Hannah’s throat.

“Oh dear. Don’t tell me you’re that Mr. Tucker?”



My Review: Take a livery man who wants a piece of property in the town he has lived in, enter a dressmaker who inherits the property from her former employer. Add to it that he thinks all dress finery is nothing but a way for people to try and be better than each other in church. The sparks, and humor fly as Hannah begins her business in Coventry, especially when J.T.'s sister comes to Hannah for a dress. Don't miss this one it is a perfect summer read! I highly recommend it!

Wondering if Church Attendance IS WORTH IT!

It seems with each passing week I am discouraged more and more after Sunday's service. Yet today took the cake! A lot of you know that me and my daughter moved from VA almost a year ago because I was getting a divorce, and we're now in Idaho. Idaho is neither of our choices but we've made the best of it. The youth group at this church is a far cry from one that I was involved in, or any of my girls. There is a lot of drama, the kids act worse than the non churched kids. The youth pastor has no control over them. On Friday my daughter went to spend the night at one of the girl's home's and a bunch of the other girls were going to be there. My daughter is 13 weeks pregnant, she is 17, and planning on giving the baby up for adoption. She is mature beyond her years. She realizes the mistake she made and is doing what is best for the baby. The girl's home that she went to was sent away to a youth ranch for troubled teens because her parents couldn't handle her, and she was just home for the weekend. This girl said to my daughter over some stupid TV show as channels were being flipped "you should've thought about that the first time" referring to her being pregnant. Kristian was so upset she came home. Today at church I made it a point to speak to this girl's parents about her comment and not only was my daughter accused of something she didn't do, there was no apology or anything. Instead I got told by the father because in talking to him in the foyer as he told me that Kris was acting inappropriate and wanted to watch The History of Sex, and I said that doesn't sound like my daughter, and your going to say something about my kid when you lost your church because you were addicted to drugs, and you had to send your daughter away because you couldn't control her? I don't think you have anything to say to me. He stormed off saying that he forgave me and hoped God would too. And I was like what? I haven't done anything wrong. My daughter was wronged by your daughter, and you can't even make her take responsibility.
Church is suppose to be a safe place, a place where people should feel comfortable to be themselves and not feel like they have to twist and turn themselves into a pretzel to fit into someone's mold.
There was more that happened that I didn't write here. It wasn't my plan to have a knock down drag out fight with this man. In fact I wanted to talk to the young girl's mother, but she refused to talk to me, so he came out into the foyer, after conferring with his daughter to get their story straight. Up until that point he had no idea what was going on.
At this point I don't know that I will be attending Sunday services for awhile. I just don't see a point. There are just too many fake and phony people and I'd rather stay at home. I mean why get up and get ready to go and be around people who could careless? They don't take responsibility for their actions. Everyone else is to blame. The lies they tell, they may as well be Satan himself. I know this sounds harsh, it's just the truth. In the last 18 months I have worked very hard to rid myself of drama, lies, and people that create it, and I surely don't want to be around it on a regular basis. It is just too stressful for me. Today definitely was over the top!

~Character~

Friday, May 28, 2010

This week, the

Christian Fiction Blog Alliance

is introducing

A Matter Of Character

Zondervan (May 25, 2010)

by

Robin Lee Hatcher



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Robin Lee Hatcher discovered her vocation as a novelist after many years of reading everything she could put her hands on, including the backs of cereal boxes and ketchup bottles. The winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in Christian Fiction (Whispers from Yesterday), the RITA Award for Best Inspirational Romance (Patterns of Love and The Shepherd's Voice), two RT Career Achievement Awards (Americana Romance and Inspirational Fiction), and the RWA Lifetime Achievement Award, Robin is the author of over 50 novels, including Catching Katie, named one of the Best Books of 2004 by the Library Journal.

Robin enjoys being with her family, spending time in the beautiful Idaho outdoors, reading books that make her cry, and watching romantic movies. She is passionate about the theater, and several nights every summer, she can be found at the outdoor amphitheater of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, enjoying Shakespeare under the stars. She makes her home outside of Boise, sharing it with Poppet the high-maintenance Papillon


ABOUT THE BOOK

It's 1918, and Daphne McKinley, heiress to a small fortune, has found contentment in the town of Bethlehem Springs, Idaho. But Daphne has a secret.

A series of dime novels loosely based on local lore and featuring a nefarious villain known as Rawhide Rick has enjoyed modest popularity among readers. Nobody in Bethlehem Springs knows the man behind the stories ... except Daphne.

When newspaperman Joshua Crawford comes to town searching for the man who sullied the good name of his grandfather, Daphne finds herself at a crossroads, reassessing the power of her words, re-thinking how best to honor her gifts, and reconsidering what she wants out of life.

Robin is conducting a contest for the new book. Join in the fun HERE.

If you would like to read the Prologue and first Chapter of A Matter Of Character, go HERE.

My Review: I now live in Idaho, and I'm not a fan of it! The weather stinks! There is NO BEACH! I could go on but I wont. Yet Robin's historical books about Idaho make place not seem so dull, or lifeless. I know I am painting a pretty blan picture of Idaho but I've had the pleasure of living other places and Idaho just doesn't cut it for me. So listen to me when I say that Robin's book A Matter of Character brings color, and excitement to the little state of Idaho. I highly recommend this book.

The Last Christian Reviewed

Thursday, May 27, 2010




A.D. 2088.

Missionary daughter Abigail Caldwell emerges from the jungle for the first time in her thirty-four years, the sole survivor of a mysterious disease that killed her village. Abby goes to America, only to discover a nation where Christianity has completely died out. A curious message from her grandfather assigns her a surprising mission: re-introduce the Christian faith in America, no matter how insurmountable the odds.

But a larger threat looms. The world's leading artificial intelligence industrialist has perfected a technique for downloading the human brain into a silicon form. Brain transplants have begun, and with them comes the potential of eliminating physical death altogether—but at what expense?

As Abby navigates a society grown more addicted to stimulating the body than nurturing the soul, she and Creighton Daniels, a historian troubled by his father's unexpected death, become unwitting targets of powerful men who will stop at nothing to further their nefarious goals. Hanging in the balance—the spiritual future of all humanity.

My Review: This was a very different book. It was interesting and quite heavy in subject matter. It definitely isn't for someone looking for a "happy" ending or wanting everything tied up in a neat little package. I did enjoy it. I would recommend it to the guys in your life, they will love it!

Broken

This week, the


Christian Fiction Blog Alliance


is introducing


Broken


FaithWords (May 25, 2010)


by


Travis Thrasher






ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



It was during third grade after a teacher encouraged him in his writing and as he read through The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis that Travis decided he wanted to be a writer. The dream never left him, and allowed him to fulfill that dream of writing fulltime in 2007.



Travis Thrasher is the author of numerous works of fiction, including his most personal and perhaps his deepest work, Sky Blue, that was published in summer of 2007. This year he has to novels published, Out of the Devil’s Mouth, and a supernatural thriller, Isolation.



Travis is married to Sharon and they are the proud parents of Kylie, born in November, 2006, and Hailey, a Shih-Tzu that looks like an Ewok. They live in suburban Chicago.



Stop by and visit Travis at his Blog where you can sign up to follow him on Facebook and Twitter!



ABOUT THE BOOK



Laila had it all--love, family, wealth, and faith. But when her faith crumbles, her world falls apart and Laila finds herself living an empty, dangerous life as a call girl in Chicago.



When she is threatened, Laila shoots and kills a client in self-defense, sending herself into a spiral of guilt and emptiness. Six months later, she is trying to move on, but she's haunted by the past. She hasn't told anyone about the man she killed, and she's still estranged from her family.



When she is approached by a stranger who says he knows what she did, Laila has no choice but to run. But the stranger stays close behind, and Laila begins having visions of the man she killed. Little does she know she's being hounded by something not of this world, something that knows her deepest, darkest secret.

Scared and wandering, will Laila regain her trust in God to protect her from these demons? Or will her plea for salvation come too late?





If you would like to read the first chapter of Broken, go HERE.

My Review: Travis Thrasher has once again written a book that will not only take you on a rollercoaster ride, but will touch your heart! This is definitely a must read!

Review God's Promises For Girls

Tuesday, May 25, 2010




Book Description
An easy way to help young girls see God’s promises and how they can rely on His love in their daily lives.

The promise verses in this book are selected from the best-selling International Children’s Bible® to offer comfort and encouragement when a girl is feeling afraid, lonely, worried, angry, dissatisfied, discouraged, sad, rebellious, impatient, or sick . . . and when they need reassurance of God’s protection, love, forgiveness, help . . . and that He listens when they pray. It’s a great way for children to hide God’s Word in their hearts.

Sample text: Monsters. Spiders. Being alone. Do any of these things make you feel afraid? When you start to feel fear, hold on tight to these words: God promises to take your fear away!

"So don’t worry, because I am with you. Don’t be afraid, because I am your God. I will make you strong and will help you. I will support you with my right hand that saves you." Isaiah 41:10


My Review: This is a really sweet book for girls. This book is brightly illustrated and has references in the back so you can look up specific issues to find a promise. I am a gramma and I originally thought that I would save this and give it to my 2 yr old granddaughter and I may. However my 17 yr old daughter is pregnant and is giving the baby up and if the baby is a girl I will send this book on with the baby to the parents who adopt her. This would be a great book for any girl. I highly recommend it!

The Bachelorette ~ Ali gets Her Turn

Monday, May 24, 2010

So tonight began Ali's quest to find true love. I must say she has slim pickins. Out of the guys she kept here are my faves.



This is Jesse, and he is a General Contractor from Missouri

This is Roberto, he is an Insurance Agent from S.C. and what I really liked about him was when he asked for alone time with her he was a gentleman, he talked to her in spanish, talked about his parents long marriage, and then taught her how to Salsa dance. It was super sweet and romantic.


Justin is an entertainment wrestler from Canada, and I like him because the "guys" don't! They think he's there to promote his career and it is so stupid! He's not like Wes in the fact that his career is up and going so they really showed their immaturity and jealousy!


It amazes me at how men can be such drama queens! I swear! Stay tuned for weekly updates!

Frenzy

This week, the


Christian Fiction Blog Alliance


is introducing


Frenzy


Thomas Nelson (May 18, 2010)


by


Robert Liparulo






ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Robert Liparulo is a former journalist, with over a thousand articles and multiple writing awards to his name. His first novel, Comes a Horseman, released to critical acclaim. Each of his subsequent thrillers—Germ, Deadfall, and Deadlock—secured his place as one of today’s most popular and daring thriller writers.



He is known for investing deep research and chillingly accurate predictions of near-future scenarios into his stories. In fact, his thorough, journalistic approach to research has resulted in his becoming an expert on the various topics he explores in his fiction, and he has appeared on such media outlets as CNN and ABC Radio.



Liparulo’s visual style of writing has caught the eye of Hollywood producers. Currently, three of his novels for adults are in various stages of development for the big screen: the film rights to Comes A Horseman. were purchased by the producer of Tom Clancy’s movies; and Liparulo is penning the screenplays for GERM and Deadfall for two top producers. He is also working with the director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Holes) on a political thriller. Novelist Michael Palmer calls Deadfall “a brilliantly crafted thriller.” March 31st marked the publication of Deadfall’s follow-up, Deadlock, which novelist Gayle Lynds calls, “best of high-octane suspense.”



Liparulo’s bestselling young adult series, Dreamhouse Kings, debuted in 2008 with House of Dark Shadows and Watcher in the Woods. Book three, Gatekeepers, released in January 2009, and number four, Timescape, in July 2009, and number five, Whirlwind in December 2009. The series has garnered praise from readers, both young and old, as well as attracting famous fans who themselves know the genre inside and out. Of the series, Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine says, “I loved wandering around in these books. With a house of so many great, haunting stories, why would you ever want to go outside?”



With the next two Dreamhouse books “in the can,” he is currently working on his next thriller, which for the first time injects supernatural elements into his brand of gun-blazing storytelling. The story is so compelling, two Hollywood studios are already in talks to acquire it—despite its publication date being more than a year away. After that comes a trilogy of novels, based on his acclaimed short story, which appeared in James Patterson’s Thriller anthology. New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry calls Liparulo’s writing “Inventive, suspenseful, and highly entertaining . . . Robert Liparulo is a storyteller, pure and simple.” He lives with his family in Colorado.



Visit Robert Liparulo's Facebook Fan page: http://www.facebook.com/LiparuloFans







ABOUT THE BOOK



Their destiny is to fix history. Their dream is to get home.



When you live in a house that's really a gateway between past and present, you have to be ready for anything. It's a painful fact the Kings have faced since moving to Pinedale eight days ago. Desperately trying to rescue their mother from an unknown time and place, brothers Xander and David have lunged headlong into the chaos of history's greatest--and most volatile--events. But their goal has continually escaped their grasp.



And worse: Finding Mom is only a small part of what they must do, thanks to the barbaric Taksidian. His ruthless quest to sieze their house and its power from them has put not only the family, but all of mankind, in grave danger.



Somehow, the key to it all hinges on Uncle Jesse's words to the boys: "Fixing time is what our family was made to do." But how can they fix a world that has been turned updisde down--much less ever find their way home?



At long last, the secrets of the house and the King family are revealed in the stunning conclusion to this epic series.



If you would like to read the Prologue and first Chapter of Frenzy, go HERE.



Sign up for the Frenzy Newsletter HERE.


What a great series this has been! I have loved each and every one of these books! I have to say that Robert out did himself on this one. I highly recommend this series to all YA, and those not young adults! It is high octaine, full throttle read! If you haven't read this series go out and get it - start with the first book and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

CHOICES . . . cHoICeS . . .C h O i C e S ! ! ! !

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One thing that bugs me is to hear women gripe about how the U.S. Military ruins their plans because they can't be with their significant other, or worse yet to listen to them complain about not getting sex. SERIOUSLY! I am a former Navy wife, was married to a Navy man for over 20 yrs, and it's what you sign up for if it's not what you want then guess what DON'T DO IT! I mean you have no reason to complain when you know exactly what you're getting yourself into. If they can't handle it at a girlfriend level what is going to happen when they're married, because it gets WORSE! For me it just seems utterly ridiculous to put yourself out there in that way because you are just showing that you can't handle it. I'm not saying that being a military wife is easy because it's not it takes a very special woman that can do it, however if it's not something that you don't think you can handle then don't get involved with a military man. He needs someone that can handle changes on a dime, and can roll with punches. Not someone who is going to whine and cry because plans got tanked, hasn't heard from him or can't talk to him, deployment got moved up or extended. These things happen. It's part of military life. I am super serious when I say don't even get involved if you don't THINK you have the tenacity to go the distance.

REVIEW This Fine Life

Friday, May 21, 2010







It is the summer of 1959 and Mariette Puttnam has just graduated from boarding school. When she returns to her privileged life at home, she isn't sure where life will take her. More schooling? A job? Marriage? Nothing feels right. How could she know that she would find the answer waiting for her in the narrow stairwell of her father's apparel factory, exactly between the third and fourth floors?

In this unique and tender romance, popular author Eva Marie Everson takes you on a journey through the heart of a young woman bound for the unknown. Discover the joys of new love, the perseverance of deep friendship, and the gift of forgiveness that comes from a truly fine life.

My Review: Having just read the description I received from Baker publishing and I agreed to read and review it, I had no more information than that and boy was I surprised. This was more than a romance it was really a book about a girl who had to grow up and make decisions for herself. It was based in the late 50's and early 60's, in the south, and the expectations put on Marietta were not what she wanted for herself. I really enjoyed every part of this book. There was nothing that I didn't like. I highly recommend it and give it a lighthouse and shine a light on it for pointing a path to God!

Predator

This week, the
Christian Fiction Blog Alliance


is introducing


Predator
Zondervan (May 25, 2010)


by


Terri Blackstock






ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Terri Blackstock’s books have sold six million copies worldwide. Her suspense novels often debut at number one on the Christian fiction best-seller lists, and True Light, published last year, was number one of all Christian books—fiction and non-fiction. Blackstock has had twenty-five years of success as a novelist.



In 1994 Blackstock was writing for publishers such as HarperCollins, Harlequin and Silhouette, when a spiritual awakening drew her into the Christian market. Since that time, she’s written over thirty Christian titles, in addition to the thirty-two she had in the secular market. Her most recent books are the four in her acclaimed Restoration Series, which includes Last Light, Night Light, True Light and Dawn’s Light. She is also known for her popular Newpointe 911 and Cape Refuge Series.



In addition to her suspense novels, she has written a number of novels in the women’s fiction genre, including Covenant Child, which was chosen as one of the first Women of Faith novels, and her Seasons Series written with Beverly LaHaye, wife of Tim LaHaye.



Blackstock has won the Retailer’s Choice Award and has appeared on national television programs such as The 700 Club, Home Life, and At Home Live with Chuck and Jenny. She has been a guest on numerous radio programs across the country and the subject of countless articles. The story of her personal journey appears in books such as Touched By the Savior by Mike Yorkey, True Stories of Answered Prayer by Mike Nappa, Faces of Faith by John Hanna, and I Saw Him In Your Eyes by Ace Collins.







ABOUT THE BOOK



The murder of Krista Carmichael's fourteen-year-old sister by an online predator has shaken her faith and made her question God's justice and protection. Desperate to find the killer, she creates an online persona to bait the predator. But when the stalker turns his sights on her, will Krista be able to control the outcome?



Ryan Adkins started the social network GrapeVyne in his college dorm and has grown it into a billion-dollar corporation. But he never expected it to become a stalking ground for online Predators. One of them lives in his town and has killed two girls and attacked a third. When Ryan meets Krista, the murders become more than a news story to him, and everything is on the line.



Joining forces, he and Krista set out to stop the killer. But when hunters pursue a hunter, the tables can easily turn. Only God can protect them now.



Enter the Terri Blackstock iPad CONTEST: http://www.terriblackstock.com/contests/.



If you would like to read the first chapter of Predator, go HERE.



Watch the book trailer video!



Thursday, May 20, 2010

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


The Overseer (Firstborn (Realms))

Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)

***Special thanks to Anna Coelho Silva | Publicity Coordinator, Book Group | Strang Communications for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



By the end of his sixteenth year Conlan Brown had completed his first novel, his first stage play, and his first year of college. Brown now holds a Master's degree in Communication and lives on Colorado's Front Range where he is working on his next book. He enjoys video editing, film scores, and developing high octane, thought provoking fiction that turns pages and excites the senses.


Visit the author's website.





Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1599799553
ISBN-13: 978-1599799551

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Screams rang out from the rain-soaked street. Feeling the horror rise, Hannah fell to her knees in the pounding deluge, hands touching the ragged edges of the craterlike pothole.


The impact of the car splashing into the pothole. Thunder. Lightning. Rain. A trunk opening. Three teens. Terrified, screaming, kicking. Eyes begging for help. Hands slapping, punching bloodied mouths. Frightened girls torn from the car—thrown to the wet street. A needle— Bodies going limp. Thrown into another car. Tires shrieking into the stormy night. One man remaining in the street. The tattoo—a dragon.


Thunder cracked as the images disappeared with the flash. Lifting her head, she looked around, the thick spring storm churning around her.


The screams.


Already gone from the world—but the street remembered— and Hannah could still hear them calling out from the past. She was their only hope now—the one person who realized that these girls had been conned and taken. The only person who could follow a trail snaking backward through the past— a trail that had gone cold to the negligent, rain-drenched world.


Hannah Rice looked to her right and saw the liquor store. That was where he had gone—the man with the dragon tattoo.


Just through those doors. Hannah breathed in with resolve and walked toward the lights of the liquor store—


—toward the dragon.



Hannah pushed the soaked hood of her sweatshirt off her head and looked around.


She had never been in a liquor store before. The floor was white like a supermarket—but none of the same sweet, homey smells were here. No bread or fruit. Simply rows of metal racks, stocked with a forest of bottles. The sounds of clinking glass and cooler doors opening and closing filled her ears. An older man in a plaid shirt and a wiry blond beard approached the door, looking her up and down out of the corner of his eye.


For being in a seedy part of New Jersey, the store was big and fairly clean. Hannah looked around, waiting for someone to realize that she was only twenty and have her sent from the premises in handcuffs and a swirl of red and blue lights. The only looks she received were lecherous at best. She pulled her jean jacket close, pressing the metal buttons into place with little pops that seemed to echo through the cavernous room.


“Can I help you find something?” a jockish-looking guy in his midtwenties asked from behind the counter.


She shook her head, embarrassed. “No, thank you.” She moved to the far end of the store, looking down the aisles as she walked.


No one realized she was too young to be here, or else no one cared. She watched the aisles change as she moved along, shifting from colorful bottles of flavored rum with shirtless cabana boys adorning their labels to the dark glass of the wines.


Hannah wasn’t unfamiliar with alcohol. Half the reason she’d left college was because of her roommate’s drunken binges in which she had brought so many of her friends over to

party. It reminded Hannah of all the nights she had spent in the dorm lounge, studying subjects she didn’t understand, sleeping on couches she resented being on. It was the next day’s cleanup, inevitably left to Hannah, that had taught her to recognize various forms of alcohol bottles and the hazards of a hungover roommate.


Her grandfather had left her enough money to get whatever degree she wanted, wherever she wanted it, but she had chosen a medium-sized state college to start out. The idea had been simple: get her core classes out of the way, and buy herself some time to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. After she gave up on college, she moved to New Jersey to be near the Firstborn and enrolled in an online program. Distance learning at her own pace better suited the lifestyle she had grown to accept: following dark trails through back alleys. The ongoing searches for—


—the dragon.


It was always jarring to see her visions in the flesh. She was a Prima—gifted with hindsight, the ability to see the past. And the past tended to have the good sense to stay in the past and fade away to the naked eye and the observing world. But there he stood inthe middle of the aisle—fifteen feet away—comparing labels on vodka bottles. His arms bare, short black hair wet. A blue short-sleeved T-shirt and green cargo pants. The tattoo

curled up his arm, its tail resting against the back of his hand, its scaly body coiling around the man’s arm like an anaconda, the dragon’s head poised to strike like a hooded cobra, a forked tongue lashing out from beneath a spray of flame.


The man looked up from the bottles, turning his head— toward her . . .


Hannah dropped back around the corner. A sting of panic nipped at her heart. She waited a moment—her pulse and breath slowing as she pulled herself together. She looked back.


Gone.


She moved down the aisle to where the man had been and passed, heading to the end of the aisle. She stopped and turned her head, looking for him.


Nowhere.


Hannah moved fast, looking down the aisles once again, coming to the end of the rows. She must have lost him somewhere in the—


She saw him at the front of the store, at the cash register, the boy behind the counter stuffing a bottle of vodka into a perfectly sized brown paper sack. The man with the tattoo reached into his pocket, pulled out a thick roll of bills, and slid one from beneath the tight hold of the rubber band that encircled them. The boy hit a button on the cash register, and the man with the tattoo turned, walking toward the door.


“Hey, Dominik,” the boy called after him, “do you want your change?”


Dominik simply waved a dismissive hand and pushed through the front door, back into the rain.


Pushing the glass door open, Hannah followed, plunging into the downpour. Her eyes scanned the cars in front of her parked diagonally to the storefront. A set of lights flashed on toward the far right end of the row—a black luxury sedan—the engine humming, the wipers swishing away a wide swath of pooling water as the man in the driver’s seat lifted his eyes—


Dominik.


His dragon-clad shoulder moved, putting the car into drive. The vehicle slid backward out of its space, through the veil of rain, past the unnatural glow of the liquor store’s neon lights, and then slipped into darkness.


Her one lead. The one trail. The only chance to find the girls. And he was getting away. For a split second Hannah did none of her own thinking. Her feet took off, rushing into the night, as the car pulled parallel to the street. The brake lights lit up. The backup lights dimmed. The car began to drive away.


Her first thought was to chase after, screaming, shouting, demanding he stop. Her next thought was to memorize his license plate number. Hannah’s eyes squinted into the darkness, but the lights surrounding the license plate were all burnt out. Nothing to see but darkness.


The red taillights, glowing like the eyes of the dragon on Dominik’s arm, glared at her through the onslaught of falling droplets. Turning the corner, leaving her in the street—alone.


“Lord,” she stammered to herself. She could feel her panic rise at not knowing what to do. But now was not the time to focus on problems or obstacles. Now was not the time to feel or do. Now was the time to clear her mind. To be. To be what she had been called to—


Hannah turned her attention to the end of the block, where she had parked her car. That was where she needed to get. To think past the problem and to move effortlessly with the solution.


Wet and cold, she thrust her hand into her pocket, reaching for her car keys. Suddenly she was at the car door, her hand holding the key, the key in the door. The old door to the station wagon groaned as she pulled it open and climbed in. She turned the key, and the engine sputtered.


“Not now,” she whimpered, pushing down on the pedal, feeding the engine gas. A moment of whirring, then—



The engine went dead. She’d flooded it. The old jalopy did it all the time, but this was the worst possible—


Hannah stopped. Gathered herself. She had to get past the

Chapter 1


creams rang out from the rain-soaked street.

Feeling the horror rise, Hannah fell to her knees in the

pounding deluge, hands touching the ragged edges of the

craterlike pothole.



The impact of the car splashing into the pothole.

Thunder. Lightning. Rain.

A trunk opening.

Three teens. Terrified, screaming, kicking.

Eyes begging for help.

Hands slapping, punching bloodied mouths.

Frightened girls torn from the car—thrown to the wet street.

A needle—

Bodies going limp.

Thrown into another car.

Tires shrieking into the stormy night.

One man remaining in the street.

The tattoo—a dragon.



Thunder cracked as the images disappeared with the flash.

Lifting her head, she looked around, the thick spring storm

churning around her.


The screams.


Already gone from the world—but the street remembered—

and Hannah could still hear them calling out from the past.

She was their only hope now—the one person who realized

that these girls had been conned and taken. The only person

who could follow a trail snaking backward through the past—

a trail that had gone cold to the negligent, rain-drenched

world.


Hannah Rice looked to her right and saw the liquor store.

That was where he had gone—the man with the dragon tattoo.


1







The Overseer


Just through those doors. Hannah breathed in with resolve and

walked toward the lights of the liquor store—


—toward the dragon.



Hannah pushed the soaked hood of her sweatshirt off her head

and looked around.


She had never been in a liquor store before. The floor was

white like a supermarket—but none of the same sweet, homey

smells were here. No bread or fruit. Simply rows of metal racks,

stocked with a forest of bottles. The sounds of clinking glass

and cooler doors opening and closing filled her ears. An older

man in a plaid shirt and a wiry blond beard approached the

door, looking her up and down out of the corner of his eye.


For being in a seedy part of New Jersey, the store was big

and fairly clean. Hannah looked around, waiting for someone

to realize that she was only twenty and have her sent from the

premises in handcuffs and a swirl of red and blue lights. The

only looks she received were lecherous at best. She pulled her

jean jacket close, pressing the metal buttons into place with

little pops that seemed to echo through the cavernous room.


“Can I help you find something?” a jockish-looking guy in

his midtwenties asked from behind the counter.


She shook her head, embarrassed. “No, thank you.” She moved

to the far end of the store, looking down the aisles as she walked.


No one realized she was too young to be here, or else no one

cared. She watched the aisles change as she moved along, shifting

from colorful bottles of flavored rum with shirtless cabana boys

adorning their labels to the dark glass of the wines.


Hannah wasn’t unfamiliar with alcohol. Half the reason

she’d left college was because of her roommate’s drunken

binges in which she had brought so many of her friends over to

party. It reminded Hannah of all the nights she had spent in the

dorm lounge, studying subjects she didn’t understand, sleeping



on couches she resented being on. It was the next day’s cleanup,

inevitably left to Hannah, that had taught her to recognize

various forms of alcohol bottles and the hazards of a hungover

roommate.


Her grandfather had left her enough money to get whatever

degree she wanted, wherever she wanted it, but she had chosen a

medium-sized state college to start out. The idea had been simple:

get her core classes out of the way, and buy herself some time to

figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. After she gave

up on college, she moved to New Jersey to be near the Firstborn

and enrolled in an online program. Distance learning at her own

pace better suited the lifestyle she had grown to accept: following

dark trails through back alleys. The ongoing searches for—


—the dragon.


It was always jarring to see her visions in the flesh. She was

a Prima—gifted with hindsight, the ability to see the past. And

the past tended to have the good sense to stay in the past and

fade away to the naked eye and the observing world. But there he

stood in the middle of the aisle—fifteen feet away—comparing

labels on vodka bottles. His arms bare, short black hair wet.

A blue short-sleeved T-shirt and green cargo pants. The tattoo

curled up his arm, its tail resting against the back of his hand,

its scaly body coiling around the man’s arm like an anaconda,

the dragon’s head poised to strike like a hooded cobra, a forked

tongue lashing out from beneath a spray of flame.


The man looked up from the bottles, turning his head—

toward her . . .


Hannah dropped back around the corner. A sting of panic

nipped at her heart. She waited a moment—her pulse and breath

slowing as she pulled herself together. She looked back.


Gone.


She moved down the aisle to where the man had been and




passed, heading to the end of the aisle. She stopped and turned


her head, looking for him.


Nowhere.


Hannah moved fast, looking down the aisles once again,

coming to the end of the rows. She must have lost him somewhere

in the—


She saw him at the front of the store, at the cash register, the

boy behind the counter stuffing a bottle of vodka into a perfectly

sized brown paper sack. The man with the tattoo reached into

his pocket, pulled out a thick roll of bills, and slid one from

beneath the tight hold of the rubber band that encircled them.

The boy hit a button on the cash register, and the man with the

tattoo turned, walking toward the door.


“Hey, Dominik,” the boy called after him, “do you want your

change?”


Dominik simply waved a dismissive hand and pushed

through the front door, back into the rain.


Pushing the glass door open, Hannah followed, plunging

into the downpour. Her eyes scanned the cars in front of her

parked diagonally to the storefront. A set of lights flashed on

toward the far right end of the row—a black luxury sedan—the

engine humming, the wipers swishing away a wide swath of

pooling water as the man in the driver’s seat lifted his eyes—


Dominik.


His dragon-clad shoulder moved, putting the car into drive.

The vehicle slid backward out of its space, through the veil of

rain, past the unnatural glow of the liquor store’s neon lights,

and then slipped into darkness.


Her one lead.


The one trail.


The only chance to find the girls.


And he was getting away.


For a split second Hannah did none of her own thinking. Her



feet took off, rushing into the night, as the car pulled parallel

to the street. The brake lights lit up. The backup lights dimmed.

The car began to drive away.


Her first thought was to chase after, screaming, shouting,

demanding he stop. Her next thought was to memorize his

license plate number. Hannah’s eyes squinted into the darkness,

but the lights surrounding the license plate were all burnt

out. Nothing to see but darkness.


The red taillights, glowing like the eyes of the dragon on

Dominik’s arm, glared at her through the onslaught of falling

droplets. Turning the corner, leaving her in the street—alone.


“Lord,” she stammered to herself. She could feel her panic

rise at not knowing what to do. But now was not the time to

focus on problems or obstacles. Now was not the time to feel or

do. Now was the time to clear her mind. To be. To be what she

had been called to—


Hannah turned her attention to the end of the block, where

she had parked her car. That was where she needed to get. To

think past the problem and to move effortlessly with the solution.


Wet and cold, she thrust her hand into her pocket, reaching

for her car keys. Suddenly she was at the car door, her hand

holding the key, the key in the door. The old door to the station

wagon groaned as she pulled it open and climbed in. She turned

the key, and the engine sputtered.


“Not now,” she whimpered, pushing down on the pedal,

feeding the engine gas. A moment of whirring, then—



The engine went dead. She’d flooded it. The old jalopy did it

all the time, but this was the worst possible—


Hannah stopped. Gathered herself. She had to get past the

moment. She had to find her strength—a strength that could

only come from God.


She took a long, deliberate draw of air, letting it fill her lungs



in a cool cloud that expanded inside her chest. Somewhere in

the distant reaches of her mind she felt her body act, working

with the world around her—neither rushed nor distracted—to

bring the car to life.


She turned the key again. The engine growling, she fed it gas.


Hannah’s foot came down in a steady push, feeding the car,

and she took off into the night—


—chasing after him.


Her car sped to the end of the block—a stop sign ahead.


Her attention snapped to the right—the direction Dominik

had gone.


Nothing.


Hannah rolled into the street, peering through the rain—and

then she felt where he had been. She was on the trail again.



The wipers sloshed, thumping beads of water away from the

glass.


Dominik yawned. It was getting late, and he was getting

tired of work. He’d stayed sober as long as the new girls were at

the storage house, but now that they were being moved, he was

ready to drink again.


He eyed the jostling bottle of vodka in the passenger seat,

ready for the familiar burn of alcohol in his chest. Dominik

missed Russian vodka—the stuff that had been cheaper than

water during the cold war. He was hardly a connoisseur, but he

knew that American vodka tasted different to him. He was told

that good vodka had neither taste nor smell. But who cared?

Just so long as it kept him warm—a lesson he had learned in

prison twenty years ago.


He thought about the girls and how much money they would

bring. Altogether, maybe three thousand dollars in Ukraine.

Here? More. But it wasn’t enough. Dominik wanted a line of

cocaine—the stuff he’d gotten used to as a teenager when the

iron curtain fell. But for now, vodka would have to do.


Dominik reached out, steering with his forearm. He held the

neck of the bottle in one hand and twisted the cap with the

other.


He took a slug. The same amount would have sent most

Americans into a hacking fit. Dominik didn’t flinch as the

stinging liquid seared his throat, filling him with a glowing

sense of well-being. He felt good. Safe. But not overly safe. He

looked in the rearview mirror, double-checking for cops.


A single set of lights behind him, moving in quickly. Much

too quickly. He screwed the cap back on the bottle, stuffing it

in the armrest.


Thoughts of a cop watching him throw back a mouthful of

hard liquor as he passed by filled Dominik’s head. Was he being

followed?


There was an alley ahead. He signaled left. The car behind

him signaled a left-hand turn as well. Dominik cranked the

wheel hard right, and a spray of filthy water splashed up against

the windows of his car as he hit the accelerator and raced down

an alleyway. His eyes shot upward, toward the rearview mirror.

The car behind him screeched past the turn, then slammed its

brakes, laying rubber and a wake of erupting rainwater. The

car pulled into reverse, pulling perpendicular to the alley for a

moment, its silhouette fully revealed.


A beige station wagon?


The following car’s front end nosed toward the alley. The

headlights, which had been shrinking with distance, stabilized

in size, then began to grow.


Dominik didn’t signal; he simply grabbed the wheel and

yanked to the left. Water crashed against the passenger window

as the car fishtailed, his foot pressing hard into the gas—jetting

down a dark street.


He nearly spun in his seat to look back. This was insane. His

heart was racing. His face red and sweaty. Who was this person

following him? In a station wagon? Not the police. Someone

trying to steal their latest shipment? It simply didn’t make sense.

But whoever they were, they weren’t trained in following people

with subtlety. And in the rain, he’d lost them for sure.


Dominik took another turn, just to be safe. Then another.


He took a deep breath and relaxed, pulling onto a familiar

street. Whoever they were, he’d lost them.


His eyes lifted again, just out of paranoia, certain he wouldn’t

see anything except . . .


A beige station wagon?


This had to be dealt with.


Hannah watched Dominik’s car through the swishing of wiper

blades as his sedan took a slow, ambling turn to the right, pulling

into another alleyway. She followed him into the darkness of the

alley. The front end of her car slammed down hard then rebounded

from the chasm-like pothole her front tire had dropped into.


She couldn’t see a thing in this darkness except the red taillights

up ahead and—


Brake lights.


Dominik’s car stopped suddenly fifty yards ahead. The

driver’s side door flew open, and a burly figure dashed away

from the car—the door hanging open. Hannah stopped her car,

leaving the distance unfilled.


What was he doing? She sat in her car. Waiting.


It was like the stories of road rage she heard, where one driver

would get out to confront another—only to have someone get

shot in the middle of the street.


Hannah peered into the darkness, gripping her steering

wheel. She closed her eyes, trying to reach out—


There was nothing to feel. Not here anyway.


She bit her lip, considered for a moment, then turned off her

car, taking her keys. She wanted her keys—that was certain.


Fear would have been the natural response, but envy filled

her mind. Envy for the Domani and the Ora, people like Devin

Bathurst and John Temple, who could see the present and the

future. Others had told her not to envy the other orders and

their gifts, that she had been given exactly what she was meant

to have and that she had to make the best of it. But she missed

the proactive way that John and Devin could use to approach

the uncertainty of the world. The Prima were a stabilizing

force—a means of keeping everyone grounded and remembering

the truths that proactive working so often forgot. But

none of that changed the fact that she was in the moment now,

groping in the blind spots of her gift.


Hannah opened the car door and stepped into the rain, looking

around. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Hannah walked toward

the car ahead, the interior lights illuminating the leather interior.


She stopped, listening for any sound she could hear—only the

thumping rain. Another set of steps closer. She stared into the

vacant interior, looking for a person who simply wasn’t there,

and her eyes wandered to the center partition, hanging slightly

ajar. It had been where he’d stored his—


Vodka.


A thick, heavy bottle, pulled from its cubby.


Gripped by the neck like a club.


Dominik, slipping into the darkness, waiting for his moment

to . . .


Hannah spun as Dominik ejected himself from his hiding

place in the dark, bottle in hand, raised over his head.


She thought fast, throwing herself into the car’s open door.

The bottle came down on the roof of the car and blasted apart in

a shower of shards and cascading liquor. She threw herself at the

passenger’s door, scrambling for the handle. She looked back.


He was behind her, hurling his body through the same open

door she had come through, grasping the steering wheel with

his left hand for support, clutching the razor-sharp remains of

a pungent vodka bottle in his right.


The survival instinct kicked in; the self-defense classes triggered

her response.


She lashed out with her leg like a battering ram, her heel

smashing into Dominik’s clavicle, just below the throat. He

made a pinched hacking sound as his body hurled to the side,

slamming into the dashboard. A hiking boot would have been

ideal, but a kick of any kind could be fatal, even in her tennis

shoes, if she meant it, held nothing back, and lashed out with

the vicious intention to cause serious trauma.


She kicked again and again—his head snapped back like a

melon as her foot connected with his face. Her hands searched

frantically for the door handle she’d lost track of in the furious

exchange—fingertips catching on the outline, hand grasping.

Dominik was recovering. Covering his face with his left hand, he

reached out with the razorlike bottle with the other, like a shield.


Hannah flung her body into the door as she pulled the handle.

She felt her body tumble to the hard, wet pavement beyond. She

looked back in time to see Dominik coming down at her, bottle

in hand. She kicked his descending arm away, and the bottle

exploded against the ground. Dominik reached for her body,

trying to hold her down. She felt the car keys, still in her hand,

clutched them like a dagger, and came down hard on Dominik’s

arm. He winced, recoiling. She lashed out for his face, searching

for his neck.


He threw himself back against the car, evading Hannah’s

swinging attack, then stood.


Hannah pushed herself away, trying to keep her distance.


And then he ran.


Dominik rushed toward the end of the alley, water spattering

against his face and arms.


Who was this woman? This girl? She’d followed him. Knew

where he was going and what he was doing. She had to know

about his business. She wasn’t FBI. Police? Maybe.


No. That wasn’t likely. She was too young for either. She was

obviously trained in following people—but not with subtlety.

Her mistakes were too glaring—too inexperienced.


Surveillance for someone else was his only thought. Someone

who wanted to rip off their shipment. It happened all the time

with drug trafficking. Why not in this business too?


Dominik made a sharp right, ducking into a trashy, overgrown

backyard, shoving past a metal trash can. He had to fix

this or it was going to cost him his head.


Hannah tore after Dominik.


Her one lead. Her only chance of finding these girls. She

couldn’t let him get away.


She turned the corner fast, running through someone’s backyard,

chasing after as fast as she could, Dominik’s form merely

a dark blotch against the impossible conditions of night and

drizzle.


He was ahead, crossing another yard, leaping a short

chain-link fence. Hannah pushed herself, gaining slightly. She

approached the fence, hands stinging as the cold, rain-soaked

metal ripped at her bare hands. She hurtled the fence and

continued her pursuit.


Dominik rushed across the street, dodging between parked

cars, knocking over a boxy plastic trash can, sending garbage

spilling. Hannah dodged to the left, losing time from the

circuitous route, but it was less than she would have lost from

fighting the obstacle she’d been presented with.


Her feet splashed through puddles as she forced herself

forward, chasing as fast as she could. From yard to yard, across

another street, low-hanging branches snapping at her face. A

tall wooden fence, knotted and old. Dominik clambered over

the fence. Hannah followed, charging toward the obstacle,

hands digging in as she made her way to the top—throwing

her body over the other side. Her feet connected with something

she didn’t expect—a trash can—and she lost her balance,

hitting the grassy lawn with a painful lurch.


She looked up. Dominik was already making his way over the

far fence at the other end of the yard. Hannah leapt to her feet.


The back door to the home opened, and a young boy—maybe

ten—watched her rush at the fence.


“Mom! There’s someone in the backyard!”


Hannah ignored the boy, throwing herself at the next fence,

pulling herself into place with her arms, tossing a leg over the

fence, hitting the ground with a splash on the other side. She

pushed herself up from the muddy puddle, covered in dirt, and

gave chase once more as Dominik turned a corner. She came to

the gate in the fence. Locked. Hannah slammed her shoulder

into the gate, sending it flying open, propelling her into the

front yard.


Rain covered her face, and she wiped the thick drops from

her eyes. Her head turned hurriedly, side to side. He was

nowhere to be seen.


What had happened? How had she lost him? He must have

taken a different turn.


She walked into the street, looking around in all directions.


This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t let this happen. The

girls were too young—thirteen at most. She couldn’t let this

happen to them. She couldn’t let them disappear into the night.

Hannah pushed her hands through her soaked hair, trying

to think. She needed to know where he had gone.


A set of headlights rolled toward her, a sharp honk on the

horn, and she stepped out of the car’s way, the vehicle rolling

lazily past.


The world was going on as usual. She was failing her charge,

and the world didn’t even know enough to care.


She needed to pick up the trail again. She needed to see the

past. A vision of where he had gone. She needed a magic wand

to wave, to bring her the sight she needed.


But it didn’t work like that.


Hannah looked up at the rainy sky. “God?” she beseeched. “I

can’t do this. I can’t find them. I need You and Your sovereign

power and...”


No. She scolded herself. It’s like people to go to God, thinking

they had something to say—yammering to an almighty God

who formed the world from the palm of His hand. How like her

to think that florid prayers somehow pleased God.


No, it was not her place to talk. It was her place as a creation

of God to do something else . . .


“Listen,” she whispered to herself.


She closed her eyes and listened to the rain, her thoughts

filled with her calling and mission.


No. She scolded herself again. Listening wasn’t done only

with the ears but also with the mind and the heart.


She cleared her mind. Focused on her breathing. Focused on

God.


The rain thundered in her ears, every droplet exploding

against every surface of metal, asphalt, and grass. Each sound

blurred into the other in a cacophony of white noise.


Listen, she said to herself in her mind.


The drops faded toward the background, only a thumping

rhythm of a select few drops tapping out an erratic beat. Bit by

bit the rhythm thinned, only a few proud beats pounding out a

pedantic march.


Listen, she said to herself again, her body relaxing.

A single droplet of rain made a tiny plinking impact.

Then silence. The world without time. Where she wasn’t


hurried or forced into action.

Listen, she thought again. And then she heard.

Dominik’s shoes thudding against the path . . .

Leading away . . .

His ragged breath wheezing—

Removing him from the scene.

The cries of the girls reverberating in his mind—

Remembering the thud of blows.

The ringing slaps to tender faces—

The sobs pounding into his brain.

The house that he had been working from.

Creaking from the strain.

The place he was returning to.


Thunder rocked the air as Hannah’s eyes opened, lifting to

the house in front of her. A sigh of anguish escaped her lips.


There.



Hannah quietly grasped the doorknob and felt the door swing

lazily inward, left ajar by someone before her. Stepping into

the house as quietly as possible, she paused. If he was in the

house still, she didn’t want him to know. Not yet. There would

be a moment soon, when she had something to report, that she

would need to call the police to finish this. But visions of the

past weren’t evidence enough. She needed to find the girls. To

know for certain they were here before she did something that

might spook Dominik.


She moved into the living room. Shoddy furniture bulleted

with holes. An ashtray on the coffee table filled to the brim with

dark ash and cigarette butts. The whole place reeked of stale

smoke. Magazines littered the remaining surface of the coffee

table—like a doctor’s waiting room.


Men, sitting in the living room—each waiting their turn.


A quick thump reverberated through her chest. These had

been different girls, before the ones Hannah was looking for.

Older—Russian? It wasn’t any easier to consider.


Her stomach churned, and she stepped into the next room—

the kitchen. No signs of cooking or supplies. No one lived here.

At least no one ate here.


Hannah looked at the table—a sprawling forest of vials,

needles, alcohol, and soda bottles. She picked up a container of

medicine, reading the label.


Flunitrazepam. Whatever that was.


There was a smacking sound, and Hannah turned. The back

door hung open, the screen door slapping loudly in the rainy

wind.


Dominik exiting out the back.


She thought about following him—but this was what she was

looking for. This was where they’d brought the girls—she could

feel it. If she was going to find the girls, she was going to have to

do it here.


There was a set of stairs near the hallway, leading up. It felt

right, like this was the way they had taken the girls.


The girls, Hannah thought. She didn’t even know their

names. But that wasn’t how this worked. She wasn’t called out

of personal obligation. She was called to help them because it

was her purpose.


Hannah reached the top of the stairs, looking around. There

was a set of three bedrooms lining the hallway. She stepped

toward one with the door ajar. The door pushed aside easily,

revealing a virtually empty room.


An old mattress lay in the middle of the room, filthy blankets

thrown across it in twisting heaps.


And suddenly Hannah saw the horrible truth of what had

been happening here.



Dominik kicked open the door to the shed, scowling into the

darkness as the spring rain shower assaulted the tin roof in a

reverberating frenzy. He shoved the lawn mower to the side,

ripping a canvas tarp away from a stack of tools. The cold canvas

twisted with a kind of whiplash as its soggy corners tried to

double over onto the shell of hard cloth that had molded itself

to the stack of tools.


A toolbox scattered with a rough toss, and it hit the floor

somewhere to the right with a raucous clatter. He kicked a bag

of screws out of the way, and the contents went spilling in a

deluge of tinkling barbs.


There.


Dominik grabbed the gas can by the handle and gave it a

forceful jiggle. Half a can’s worth of gasoline sloshed inside the

container, undulating on a swishing axis that caused the whole

can to swing in a wide arc.


It was enough to do the job. To get rid of as much evidence

as he could before whoever that girl was could find her way

back here. Dominik hated the place anyway, all the time he’d

spent there minding the shop while the others stayed in the big

house across town. He wouldn’t miss it.


It would be obvious that it was arson. The investigators might

even find some of the things they had been hiding, but with luck

they’d be out of the state by the time anything was found—and

the merchandise would be out of the country by then. And it

wouldn’t be traced back to them. They’d made sure the lease

wasn’t in any of their names.


Dominik reached into his pocket, found the metal object,

removed it from his pocket, and flicked the cap open. His thumb

spun on the back of the lighter, checking to see if there was

enough fuel.


A tiny flame leapt upward, then was dashed out by the snapping

of the cap back over it. He walked back toward the house in

the rain.



Hannah backed away from the bedroom door, stumbled into the

wall, and slid to the floor. Her body shook as she ran her hands

over her head, trying to blot it all out of her head. So many girls

had been brought through here. So much pain. And suffering.

And hopelessness. So many monsters lurking in the shadows.


The walls remembered what had happened here—and they

were closing in.


“O God,” she stammered in agonized prayer, mind freewheeling

with the torment of it all.


And she felt something else: another calling—


She looked up at the ceiling and saw the wide hatch leading

to the attic. A padlock dangled open at the end of a swinging

latch that had been left undone.


She reached upward, and the trapdoor snapped downward as

she grabbed at the string, tugging, the ladder sliding downward

with a gentle pull. Hannah stepped onto the bottom rung and

moved upward, compelled by purpose but delayed by dread.


She lifted her head into the attic. The floor was covered in

brown carpet; drenched in dust that made her cough. Hannah

lifted herself into the darkness. Tiny fingers of light glowed

through the slits between the boards covering the one tiny

window at the far end. The hatch below her swung gently

upward, pulled back into position by creaking springs.


Her hands groped for a moment as she stood, hunched in

the low space. A dangling string brushed her fingertips, and she

tugged. The lightbulb snapped on from an overhead fixture, and

she looked around.


She thought she might never start breathing again.


Both sides of the attic were lined with bunk beds, chicken

wire surrounding them in tightly fastened grids that filled in the

gaps between small metal struts. Hinged doors with padlocks

locked every set of beds, making each its own tiny prison.


Lurid underwear hung from hooks and littered the floor.

Dirty clothes were piled in the corner.


Hannah walked to one of the beds, its door hanging open,

and looked in. Sitting on yellowed sheets was a ratty stuffed

bear with one eye missing. She picked up the bear and looked

it over as a hot tear ran down Hannah’s face as she saw the face

of the girl who had clung to this bear—


Maybe fourteen years old.


The bear fell from her hands and hit the floor.


Whoever these people were—she would stop them.


Wherever the girls were that they had taken—she would find

them.


Then she heard something.



Petroleum-scented splashes of gasoline washed across the walls

and tables as Dominik slung the can in all directions. He set

the can down for a moment and rummaged under the sink for

a trash bag. Quickly he swept the drugs off the table into the

plastic and pulled the tethers shut with a swift yank. He set the

bag near the door, stuffed his cell phone between his shoulder

and ear, and reached for the gas can again.


“Hello?” a female voice said in Dominik’s native language.


“Do you know who she is?” Dominik replied in the same

language as he soaked the curtains in gasoline.


“Who?”


“The girl that followed me. She knew where I was and where

I was going.”


“What are you talking about?”


Dominik sloshed more gasoline onto the living room carpet,

sending a splash across the back of a ratty recliner. “Some

girl—midtwenties maybe. She found me in the liquor store. She

followed me. Chased me back to the house.”


“You ran away from a girl?”


“Shut up, Misha.” He grunted. “She came out of nowhere.

She knew where I was and where I was going. She must have

been watching us for days.” He moved up the stairs, spilling a

trail of gas.


“What are you going to do about it?”


Dominik let the last drops trickle from the can, dousing

a pile of sheets in the bedroom, then tossed the can into the

corner. “I’m closing down the storefront.”


“Use the gas can in the shed. Burn it down.”


“I’ve already started.”


“Good. Get going, and get out of there.” There was a click,

and the line went dead.


Dominik felt the lighter in his pocket as he moved toward

the stairs, then stopped. A creaking in the ceiling from the attic

above. He looked at the trapdoor in the ceiling, slightly ajar.

Another creak and the distinct sound of footsteps overhead.


He eyed the padlock dangling from the hatch—an overt

violation of fire code if he wasn’t mistaken—but the reasons for

that seemed more useful than ever.


Hannah took another step back.


Someone was in the house.


They were down there, but there was no way to know for certain

if they’d heard her. She wanted to get away from the hatch—away

from the center of the noise she’d heard. There had been the sound



of someone talking. It wasn’t English. Russian maybe.


She herself had been kidnapped just over a year before.

Nothing as hideous as this—but it had still left its mark on

her—a lingering fear, almost a dread, hung over her like a

cloud. She’d chosen to face it head-on, to walk straight into the

blackness alone. Now she feared it would engulf her.


There was a clattering sound near the far wall and a funny

smell.


She took another step back.


Footsteps moved toward the hatch—then stopped just below.

What were they doing down there?


Hannah turned, looking at the boarded window. Was it a

way out? Maybe she could tear the boards away. The hinges on

the hatch squeaked with a minute adjustment.


Were they coming up here? To grab her? To kill her?


Hannah forced herself to stop it. To let go of the questions.

To silence her mind. Her life really could be in danger, but this

time she could choose to do something. To take control. She was

not tied up or caged, and she would not let fear paralyze her. She

could act.


Then she heard it.


A click.


She thought of the window. A moment of quiet, then footfalls

moving down the stairs. They were leaving.


Hannah moved to the hatch, putting a hand on the thick wood.

It didn’t budge. She shoved. It wouldn’t move. She stomped.


She was trapped.



Dominik heard a loud thump strike the attic entrance. They’d

figured out that it was locked. There was another thump. They’d

specifically reinforced the hatch to keep the girls from knocking

it open if they ever had the guts to try. The padlock would hold,

and the thick bolts would stay in place.


He kicked the back door open and stood in the threshold.


The lighter came open with a snap.


His thumb rolled across the wheel, and a thin blade of flame

conjured itself up from the metal casing. He shielded the tiny

flame for a moment, then tossed it into a puddle of gasoline.


There was a split second where nothing happened—Dominik

froze, worried that the puddle had drowned the fire. Then it

spread in a violent blossom, devouring the surrounding air with

an audible howl. The house caught ablaze in a matter of seconds,

fire consuming up the stairs.


Dominik pulled on a jacket he’d taken from one of the closets

and zipped it as he walked away.


Hannah knew something wasn’t right.


She couldn’t have explained how, but something had changed.

The smell—the pungent aroma that had been rising from below—

suddenly seemed to vanish, replaced by something else.


Then she recognized the smell that had been. And her eyes went

wide as she realized what the new smell was that had replaced it.


Greenish smoke slithered up from the cracks around the

attic hatch. The smell was foreign—not like campfire smoke

with its earthen richness, but the putrid scent of melting plastic

and burning synthetics.


Then the floor started to get warm.


Fire travels up, she thought. Heat rises. Smoke rises. There

was nowhere further up to go. She was at the tip of the spear.


She turned to the window, tugging at the boards that covered

it—the rain smacking down just beyond.


The amount of smoke doubled in seconds, filling the attic

with an acrid cloud. No fire yet. Just smoke. Her eyes stung,

pinpricks stabbing at her tear ducts. Hot tears slid involuntarily

down her warming face. It was all happening so fast. It

reminded her of the fire safety videos she’d seen in elementary

school, depicting how a cigarette in a trash can could send a

house into an unrecoverable blaze in less than two minutes.


Arson could work so much faster.


She hacked and coughed, fingers digging into the boards,

pulling at the wood. She lifted her foot, giving a solid kick that

split the boards, crushing the glass beyond. Hannah grabbed

the loose pieces and pulled them free, revealing the window.


Street light poured in through the rapidly thickening smoke.

Rain tapped at the spiderwebbed glass. The whole window was

little more than a slit. Less than six inches. She would never fit.

It had been boarded up purely to keep light out.


Her lungs seized, fighting to keep out the dark haze. Her

body convulsed with a violent cough. Heat permeated her.


Hannah coughed once more, then lifted her leg, jamming

her heel into the tiny window, sending beads of glass splashing

outward. It wasn’t big enough for her to get out, but it was big

enough to let a little air in.


She shoved her face to the opening and pulled in a lungful of

the chilled air beyond. Then she pulled the jacket off her back

and put it to her mouth. She crouched down, moved back into

the prisonlike room, and searched for the trapdoor. Found it.

Her hands worked at the latch, pulled. Nothing. There had to be

some way to get out.


The blurring of her vision worsened, tears and smoke clawing

at her eyes.


She coughed. Her body felt heavy and unwieldy. She tried to

adjust her body with her right arm, but all the strength seemed

to be slipping out of her. Fighting hurt so much. Moving sapped

her energy. The searing floor suddenly seemed welcoming.

Her body started to relax, curling into a ball. The unrelenting

stinging in her eyes suddenly seemed unbearable.


Her eyelids shut.


The attic suddenly seemed far away. Her mind slipped into silence. The kind of silence she could try so hard to cultivate in

times of trouble now seemed so easy. Everything that seemed to

worry faded, and rather than doing she was simply . . .


Being.


She could feel the past again.


Before it had been such a horrible place. When others had

lived here. When family pictures and Christmas ornaments

had been stored here in cardboard boxes. And then the old

occupants moved out and others moved in—the ones who had

perverted this place to be something else. Rolling carpet over

the plywood, not bothering to nail it to the rafters.


Hannah’s eyes snapped open, and she stumbled toward the

window for a life-saving breath of cool air. Then she dropped to

the floor and grasped at the carpet, pulling the shaggy covering

loose. She reached for the floor, pulling at the boards, only to

realize that she was standing on the edge.


Hannah moved and gave another pull—the heat was overwhelming.

The plywood pulled away, clattering to the side as she

tossed it.


Rafters—a few feet apart—partitioned themselves between

sections of pink insulation. It looked like cotton candy, she

thought.


Her hesitation lasted only a second, and then she jumped,

feet first toward insulation.


The world seemed to freeze.


Then her body crashed through the billowy pink insulation,

smashing through the thin layer of sheet rock, and she felt herself

hurtling through the gray smoke toward the carpet one floor

below.


She landed with a thud, losing her balance as her body

slammed into the wall.


The heat enveloped her, blasting at her like a furnace, smoke

stabbing at her eyes. Hannah looked up and saw the window

at the far end of the hall. She pulled her jacket tight against

her face and rushed forward, trying to stay low. Moments later

she was at the window, the glass fogged over with a greasy

black smear from the heat and smoke. Then she saw the gas

can, tossed at the floor below it, fire clinging to the outside wall

where gas dribbled down.


A kick could break the glass—but glass shards would slice

her leg to unrecognizable ribbons if she tried. She took a smoky

breath and reached for the can with her jacket, grabbing the

handle. Her body swung, then released the metal container.


The smoke-fogged glass exploded outward and skittered

across the sloping roof that covered the back porch.


She threw herself through the window—arms and legs catching

on the fragile teeth of glass that remained, her body landing on

glass shards that pricked her skin. She rolled uncontrollably

down the roof, then slammed into the soggy grass below.


Hannah looked up at the blazing house—bleeding, burned,

and weak.


Her eyes fluttered shut, only to open again after several

minutes, and she found herself on the other end of the yard,

farther from the flames. She was looking up at a man with long

dark hair, in a black coat. Rain rolled off him as he said something

to her. His lips moved, but she didn’t hear anything.


And then the world faded to black. only come from God. She took a long, deliberate draw of air, letting it fill her lungs in a cool cloud that expanded inside her chest. Somewhere in the distant reaches of her mind she felt her body act, working with the world around her—neither rushed nor distracted—to bring the car to life.


She turned the key again. The engine growling, she fed it gas.


Hannah’s foot came down in a steady push, feeding the car, and she took off into the night—


—chasing after him.


Her car sped to the end of the block—a stop sign ahead.


Her attention snapped to the right—the direction Dominik had gone.


Nothing.


Hannah rolled into the street, peering through the rain—and then she felt where he had been. She was on the trail again.



The wipers sloshed, thumping beads of water away from the glass. Dominik yawned. It was getting late, and he was getting tired of work. He’d stayed sober as long as the new girls were at the storage house, but now that they were being moved, he was

ready to drink again.


He eyed the jostling bottle of vodka in the passenger seat, ready for the familiar burn of alcohol in his chest. Dominik missed Russian vodka—the stuff that had been cheaper than water during the cold war. He was hardly a connoisseur, but he knew that American vodka tasted different to him. He was told that good vodka had neither taste nor smell. But who cared? Just so long as it kept him warm—a lesson he had learned in prison twenty years ago.


He thought about the girls and how much money they would bring. Altogether, maybe three thousand dollars in Ukraine. Here? More. But it wasn’t enough. Dominik wanted a line of cocaine—the stuff he’d gotten used to as a teenager when theiron curtain fell. But for now, vodka would have to do.


Dominik reached out, steering with his forearm. He held the neck of the bottle in one hand and twisted the cap with the other.


He took a slug. The same amount would have sent most Americans into a hacking fit. Dominik didn’t flinch as the stinging liquid seared his throat, filling him with a glowing

sense of well-being. He felt good. Safe. But not overly safe. He looked in the rearview mirror, double-checking for cops.


A single set of lights behind him, moving in quickly. Much too quickly. He screwed the cap back on the bottle, stuffing it in the armrest.


Thoughts of a cop watching him throw back a mouthful of hard liquor as he passed by filled Dominik’s head. Was he being followed?


There was an alley ahead. He signaled left. The car behind him signaled a left-hand turn as well. Dominik cranked the wheel hard right, and a spray of filthy water splashed up against the windows of his car as he hit the accelerator and raced down an alleyway. His eyes shot upward, toward the rearview mirror. The car behind him screeched past the turn, then slammed its brakes, laying rubber and a wake of erupting rainwater. The car pulled into reverse, pulling perpendicular to the alley for a moment, its silhouette fully revealed.


A beige station wagon?


The following car’s front end nosed toward the alley. The headlights, which had been shrinking with distance, stabilized in size, then began to grow.


Dominik didn’t signal; he simply grabbed the wheel and yanked to the left. Water crashed against the passenger window as the car fishtailed, his foot pressing hard into the gas—jetting down a dark street.


He nearly spun in his seat to look back. This was insane. His heart was racing. His face red and sweaty. Who was this person following him? In a station wagon? Not the police. Someone trying to steal their latest shipment? It simply didn’t make sense. But whoever they were, they weren’t trained in following people with subtlety. And in the rain, he’d lost them for sure.


Dominik took another turn, just to be safe. Then another.


He took a deep breath and relaxed, pulling onto a familiar street. Whoever they were, he’d lost them.


His eyes lifted again, just out of paranoia, certain he wouldn’t see anything except . . .


A beige station wagon?


This had to be dealt with.


Hannah watched Dominik’s car through the swishing of wiper blades as his sedan took a slow, ambling turn to the right, pulling into another alleyway. She followed him into the darkness of the alley. The front end of her car slammed down hard then rebounded from the chasm-like pothole her front tire had dropped into.


She couldn’t see a thing in this darkness except the red taillights up ahead and—


Brake lights.


Dominik’s car stopped suddenly fifty yards ahead. The driver’s side door flew open, and a burly figure dashed away from the car—the door hanging open. Hannah stopped her car, leaving the distance unfilled.


What was he doing? She sat in her car. Waiting.


It was like the stories of road rage she heard, where one driver would get out to confront another—only to have someone get shot in the middle of the street.


Hannah peered into the darkness, gripping her steering wheel. She closed her eyes, trying to reach out—


There was nothing to feel. Not here anyway.


She bit her lip, considered for a moment, then turned off her car, taking her keys. She wanted her keys—that was certain.


Fear would have been the natural response, but envy filled her mind. Envy for the Domani and the Ora, people like Devin Bathurst and John Temple, who could see the present and the future. Others had told her not to envy the other orders and their gifts, that she had been given exactly what she was meant to have and that she had to make the best of it. But she missed the proactive way that John and Devin could use to approach the uncertainty of the world. The Prima were a stabilizing force—a means of keeping everyone grounded and remembering the truths that proactive working so often forgot. But none of that changed the fact that she was in the moment now, groping in the blind spots of her gift.


Hannah opened the car door and stepped into the rain, looking around. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Hannah walked toward the car ahead, the interior lights illuminating the leather interior.


She stopped, listening for any sound she could hear—only the thumping rain. Another set of steps closer. She stared into the vacant interior, looking for a person who simply wasn’t there, and her eyes wandered to the center partition, hanging slightly ajar. It had been where he’d stored his—


Vodka.


A thick, heavy bottle, pulled from its cubby.


Gripped by the neck like a club.


Dominik, slipping into the darkness, waiting for his moment to . . .


Hannah spun as Dominik ejected himself from his hiding place in the dark, bottle in hand, raised over his head.


She thought fast, throwing herself into the car’s open door. The bottle came down on the roof of the car and blasted apart in a shower of shards and cascading liquor. She threw herself at the passenger’s door, scrambling for the handle. She looked back.


He was behind her, hurling his body through the same open door she had come through, grasping the steering wheel with his left hand for support, clutching the razor-sharp remains of a pungent vodka bottle in his right.


The survival instinct kicked in; the self-defense classes triggered her response.


She lashed out with her leg like a battering ram, her heel smashing into Dominik’s clavicle, just below the throat. He made a pinched hacking sound as his body hurled to the side, slamming into the dashboard. A hiking boot would have been ideal, but a kick of any kind could be fatal, even in her tennis shoes, if she meant it, held nothing back, and lashed out with the vicious intention to cause serious trauma.


She kicked again and again—his head snapped back like a melon as her foot connected with his face. Her hands searched frantically for the door handle she’d lost track of in the furious exchange—fingertips catching on the outline, hand grasping. Dominik was recovering. Covering his face with his left hand, he reached out with the razorlike bottle with the other, like a shield.


Hannah flung her body into the door as she pulled the handle. She felt her body tumble to the hard, wet pavement beyond. She looked back in time to see Dominik coming down at her, bottle in hand. She kicked his descending arm away, and the bottle exploded against the ground. Dominik reached for her body, trying to hold her down. She felt the car keys, still in her hand, clutched them like a dagger, and came down hard on Dominik’s arm. He winced, recoiling. She lashed out for his face, searching for his neck.


He threw himself back against the car, evading Hannah’s swinging attack, then stood.


Hannah pushed herself away, trying to keep her distance.


And then he ran.


Dominik rushed toward the end of the alley, water spattering against his face and arms.


Who was this woman? This girl? She’d followed him. Knew where he was going and what he was doing. She had to know about his business. She wasn’t FBI. Police? Maybe.


No. That wasn’t likely. She was too young for either. She was obviously trained in following people—but not with subtlety. Her mistakes were too glaring—too inexperienced.


Surveillance for someone else was his only thought. Someone who wanted to rip off their shipment. It happened all the time with drug trafficking. Why not in this business too?


Dominik made a sharp right, ducking into a trashy, overgrown backyard, shoving past a metal trash can. He had to fix this or it was going to cost him his head.


Hannah tore after Dominik.


Her one lead. Her only chance of finding these girls. She couldn’t let him get away.


She turned the corner fast, running through someone’s backyard, chasing after as fast as she could, Dominik’s form merely a dark blotch against the impossible conditions of night and drizzle.


He was ahead, crossing another yard, leaping a short chain-link fence. Hannah pushed herself, gaining slightly. She approached the fence, hands stinging as the cold, rain-soaked metal ripped at her bare hands. She hurtled the fence and continued her pursuit.


Dominik rushed across the street, dodging between parked cars, knocking over a boxy plastic trash can, sending garbage spilling. Hannah dodged to the left, losing time from the circuitous route, but it was less than she would have lost from fighting the obstacle she’d been presented with.


Her feet splashed through puddles as she forced herself forward, chasing as fast as she could. From yard to yard, across another street, low-hanging branches snapping at her face. A tall wooden fence, knotted and old. Dominik clambered over the fence. Hannah followed, charging toward the obstacle, hands digging in as she made her way to the top—throwing her body over the other side. Her feet connected with something she didn’t expect—a trash can—and she lost her balance, hitting the grassy lawn with a painful lurch.


She looked up. Dominik was already making his way over the far fence at the other end of the yard. Hannah leapt to her feet.


The back door to the home opened, and a young boy—maybe ten—watched her rush at the fence.


“Mom! There’s someone in the backyard!”


Hannah ignored the boy, throwing herself at the next fence, pulling herself into place with her arms, tossing a leg over the fence, hitting the ground with a splash on the other side. She pushed herself up from the muddy puddle, covered in dirt, and gave chase once more as Dominik turned a corner. She came to the gate in the fence. Locked. Hannah slammed her shoulder into the gate, sending it flying open, propelling her into the front yard.


Rain covered her face, and she wiped the thick drops from her eyes. Her head turned hurriedly, side to side. He was nowhere to be seen.


What had happened? How had she lost him? He must have taken a different turn.


She walked into the street, looking around in all directions.


This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t let this happen. The girls were too young—thirteen at most. She couldn’t let this happen to them. She couldn’t let them disappear into the night. Hannah pushed her hands through her soaked hair, trying to think. She needed to know where he had gone.


A set of headlights rolled toward her, a sharp honk on the horn, and she stepped out of the car’s way, the vehicle rolling lazily past.


The world was going on as usual. She was failing her charge, and the world didn’t even know enough to care.


She needed to pick up the trail again. She needed to see the past. A vision of where he had gone. She needed a magic wand to wave, to bring her the sight she needed.


But it didn’t work like that.


Hannah looked up at the rainy sky. “God?” she beseeched. “I can’t do this. I can’t find them. I need You and Your sovereign power and...”


No. She scolded herself. It’s like people to go to God, thinking they had something to say—yammering to an almighty God who formed the world from the palm of His hand. How like her to think that florid prayers somehow pleased God.


No, it was not her place to talk. It was her place as a creation of God to do something else . . .


“Listen,” she whispered to herself.


She closed her eyes and listened to the rain, her thoughts filled with her calling and mission.


No. She scolded herself again. Listening wasn’t done only with the ears but also with the mind and the heart.


She cleared her mind. Focused on her breathing. Focused on God.


The rain thundered in her ears, every droplet exploding against every surface of metal, asphalt, and grass. Each sound blurred into the other in a cacophony of white noise.


Listen, she said to herself in her mind.


The drops faded toward the background, only a thumping rhythm of a select few drops tapping out an erratic beat. Bit by bit the rhythm thinned, only a few proud beats pounding out a pedantic march.


Listen, she said to herself again, her body relaxing. A single droplet of rain made a tiny plinking impact. Then silence. The world without time. Where she wasn’t hurried or forced into action. Listen, she thought again. And then she heard. Dominik’s shoes thudding against the path . . . Leading away . . .His ragged breath wheezing— Removing him from the scene. The cries of the girls reverberating in his mind— Remembering the thud of blows. The ringing slaps to tender faces— The sobs pounding into his brain. The house that he had been working from. Creaking from the strain. The place he was returning to.


Thunder rocked the air as Hannah’s eyes opened, lifting to the house in front of her. A sigh of anguish escaped her lips.


There.



Hannah quietly grasped the doorknob and felt the door swing lazily inward, left ajar by someone before her. Stepping into the house as quietly as possible, she paused. If he was in the house still, she didn’t want him to know. Not yet. There would be a moment soon, when she had something to report, that she would need to call the police to finish this. But visions of the past weren’t evidence enough. She needed to find the girls. To know for certain they were here before she did something that might spook Dominik.


She moved into the living room. Shoddy furniture bulleted with holes. An ashtray on the coffee table filled to the brim with dark ash and cigarette butts. The whole place reeked of stale smoke. Magazines littered the remaining surface of the coffee table—like a doctor’s waiting room.


Men, sitting in the living room—each waiting their turn.


A quick thump reverberated through her chest. These had been different girls, before the ones Hannah was looking for. Older—Russian? It wasn’t any easier to consider.


Her stomach churned, and she stepped into the next room— the kitchen. No signs of cooking or supplies. No one lived here. At least no one ate here.


Hannah looked at the table—a sprawling forest of vials, needles, alcohol, and soda bottles. She picked up a container of medicine, reading the label.


Flunitrazepam. Whatever that was.


There was a smacking sound, and Hannah turned. The back door hung open, the screen door slapping loudly in the rainy wind.


Dominik exiting out the back.


She thought about following him—but this was what she was looking for. This was where they’d brought the girls—she could feel it. If she was going to find the girls, she was going to have to do it here.


There was a set of stairs near the hallway, leading up. It felt right, like this was the way they had taken the girls.


The girls, Hannah thought. She didn’t even know their names. But that wasn’t how this worked. She wasn’t called out of personal obligation. She was called to help them because it was her purpose.


Hannah reached the top of the stairs, looking around. There was a set of three bedrooms lining the hallway. She stepped toward one with the door ajar. The door pushed aside easily, revealing a virtually empty room.


An old mattress lay in the middle of the room, filthy blankets thrown across it in twisting heaps.


And suddenly Hannah saw the horrible truth of what had been happening here.



Dominik kicked open the door to the shed, scowling into the darkness as the spring rain shower assaulted the tin roof in a reverberating frenzy. He shoved the lawn mower to the side, ripping a canvas tarp away from a stack of tools. The cold canvas twisted with a kind of whiplash as its soggy corners tried to double over onto the shell of hard cloth that had molded itself to the stack of tools.


A toolbox scattered with a rough toss, and it hit the floor somewhere to the right with a raucous clatter. He kicked a bag of screws out of the way, and the contents went spilling in a deluge of tinkling barbs.


There.


Dominik grabbed the gas can by the handle and gave it a forceful jiggle. Half a can’s worth of gasoline sloshed inside the container, undulating on a swishing axis that caused the whole can to swing in a wide arc.


It was enough to do the job. To get rid of as much evidence as he could before whoever that girl was could find her way back here. Dominik hated the place anyway, all the time he’d spent there minding the shop while the others stayed in the big house across town. He wouldn’t miss it.


It would be obvious that it was arson. The investigators might even find some of the things they had been hiding, but with luck they’d be out of the state by the time anything was found—and the merchandise would be out of the country by then. And it wouldn’t be traced back to them. They’d made sure the lease wasn’t in any of their names.


Dominik reached into his pocket, found the metal object, removed it from his pocket, and flicked the cap open. His thumb spun on the back of the lighter, checking to see if there was enough fuel.


A tiny flame leapt upward, then was dashed out by the snapping of the cap back over it. He walked back toward the house in the rain.



Hannah backed away from the bedroom door, stumbled into the wall, and slid to the floor. Her body shook as she ran her hands over her head, trying to blot it all out of her head. So many girls had been brought through here. So much pain. And suffering. And hopelessness. So many monsters lurking in the shadows.


The walls remembered what had happened here—and they were closing in.


“O God,” she stammered in agonized prayer, mind freewheeling with the torment of it all.


And she felt something else: another calling—


She looked up at the ceiling and saw the wide hatch leading to the attic. A padlock dangled open at the end of a swinging latch that had been left undone.


She reached upward, and the trapdoor snapped downward as she grabbed at the string, tugging, the ladder sliding downward with a gentle pull. Hannah stepped onto the bottom rung and moved upward, compelled by purpose but delayed by dread.


She lifted her head into the attic. The floor was covered in brown carpet; drenched in dust that made her cough. Hannah lifted herself into the darkness. Tiny fingers of light glowed through the slits between the boards covering the one tiny window at the far end. The hatch below her swung gently upward, pulled back into position by creaking springs.


Her hands groped for a moment as she stood, hunched in the low space. A dangling string brushed her fingertips, and she tugged. The lightbulb snapped on from an overhead fixture, and she looked around.


She thought she might never start breathing again.


Both sides of the attic were lined with bunk beds, chicken wire surrounding them in tightly fastened grids that filled in the gaps between small metal struts. Hinged doors with padlocks locked every set of beds, making each its own tiny prison.


Lurid underwear hung from hooks and littered the floor. Dirty clothes were piled in the corner.


Hannah walked to one of the beds, its door hanging open, and looked in. Sitting on yellowed sheets was a ratty stuffed bear with one eye missing. She picked up the bear and looked it over as a hot tear ran down Hannah’s face as she saw the face of the girl who had clung to this bear—


Maybe fourteen years old.


The bear fell from her hands and hit the floor.


Whoever these people were—she would stop them.


Wherever the girls were that they had taken—she would find them.


Then she heard something.



Petroleum-scented splashes of gasoline washed across the walls and tables as Dominik slung the can in all directions. He set the can down for a moment and rummaged under the sink for a trash bag. Quickly he swept the drugs off the table into the plastic and pulled the tethers shut with a swift yank. He set the bag near the door, stuffed his cell phone between his shoulder and ear, and reached for the gas can again.


“Hello?” a female voice said in Dominik’s native language.


“Do you know who she is?” Dominik replied in the same language as he soaked the curtains in gasoline.


“Who?”


“The girl that followed me. She knew where I was and where I was going.”


“What are you talking about?”


Dominik sloshed more gasoline onto the living room carpet, sending a splash across the back of a ratty recliner. “Some girl—midtwenties maybe. She found me in the liquor store. She followed me. Chased me back to the house.”


“You ran away from a girl?”


“Shut up, Misha.” He grunted. “She came out of nowhere. She knew where I was and where I was going. She must have been watching us for days.” He moved up the stairs, spilling a trail of gas.


“What are you going to do about it?”


Dominik let the last drops trickle from the can, dousing a pile of sheets in the bedroom, then tossed the can into the corner. “I’m closing down the storefront.”


“Use the gas can in the shed. Burn it down.”


“I’ve already started.”


“Good. Get going, and get out of there.” There was a click, and the line went dead.


Dominik felt the lighter in his pocket as he moved toward the stairs, then stopped. A creaking in the ceiling from the attic above. He looked at the trapdoor in the ceiling, slightly ajar.

Another creak and the distinct sound of footsteps overhead.


He eyed the padlock dangling from the hatch—an overt violation of fire code if he wasn’t mistaken—but the reasons for that seemed more useful than ever.


Hannah took another step back.


Someone was in the house.


They were down there, but there was no way to know for certain if they’d heard her. She wanted to get away from the hatch—away from the center of the noise she’d heard. There had been the sound of someone talking. It wasn’t English. Russian maybe.


She herself had been kidnapped just over a year before. Nothing as hideous as this—but it had still left its mark on her—a lingering fear, almost a dread, hung over her like a cloud. She’d chosen to face it head-on, to walk straight into the blackness alone. Now she feared it would engulf her.


There was a clattering sound near the far wall and a funny smell.


She took another step back.


Footsteps moved toward the hatch—then stopped just below. What were they doing down there?


Hannah turned, looking at the boarded window. Was it a way out? Maybe she could tear the boards away. The hinges on the hatch squeaked with a minute adjustment.


Were they coming up here? To grab her? To kill her?


Hannah forced herself to stop it. To let go of the questions. To silence her mind. Her life really could be in danger, but this time she could choose to do something. To take control. She was not tied up or caged, and she would not let fear paralyze her. She could act.


Then she heard it.


A click.


She thought of the window. A moment of quiet, then footfalls moving down the stairs. They were leaving.


Hannah moved to the hatch, putting a hand on the thick wood. It didn’t budge. She shoved. It wouldn’t move. She stomped.


She was trapped.



Dominik heard a loud thump strike the attic entrance. They’d figured out that it was locked. There was another thump. They’d specifically reinforced the hatch to keep the girls from knocking it open if they ever had the guts to try. The padlock would hold, and the thick bolts would stay in place.


He kicked the back door open and stood in the threshold.


The lighter came open with a snap.


His thumb rolled across the wheel, and a thin blade of flame conjured itself up from the metal casing. He shielded the tiny flame for a moment, then tossed it into a puddle of gasoline.


There was a split second where nothing happened—Dominik froze, worried that the puddle had drowned the fire. Then it spread in a violent blossom, devouring the surrounding air with an audible howl. The house caught ablaze in a matter of seconds, fire consuming up the stairs.


Dominik pulled on a jacket he’d taken from one of the closets and zipped it as he walked away.


Hannah knew something wasn’t right.


She couldn’t have explained how, but something had changed. The smell—the pungent aroma that had been rising from below— suddenly seemed to vanish, replaced by something else.


Then she recognized the smell that had been. And her eyes went wide as she realized what the new smell was that had replaced it.


Greenish smoke slithered up from the cracks around the attic hatch. The smell was foreign—not like campfire smoke with its earthen richness, but the putrid scent ofmelting plastic and burning synthetics.


Then the floor started to get warm.


Fire travels up, she thought. Heat rises. Smoke rises. There was nowhere further up to go. She was at the tip of the spear.


She turned to the window, tugging at the boards that covered it—the rain smacking down just beyond.


The amount of smoke doubled in seconds, filling the attic with an acrid cloud. No fire yet. Just smoke. Her eyes stung,

pinpricks stabbing at her tear ducts. Hot tears slid involuntarily down her warming face. It was all happening so fast. It reminded her of the fire safety videos she’d seen in elementary school, depicting how a cigarette in a trash can could send a house into an unrecoverable blaze in less than two minutes.


Arson could work so much faster.


She hacked and coughed, fingers digging into the boards, pulling at the wood. She lifted her foot, giving a solid kick that split the boards, crushing the glass beyond. Hannah grabbed the loose pieces and pulled them free, revealing the window.


Street light poured in through the rapidly thickening smoke. Rain tapped at the spiderwebbed glass. The whole window was little more than a slit. Less than six inches. She would never fit. It had been boarded up purely to keep light out.


Her lungs seized, fighting to keep out the dark haze. Her

body convulsed with a violent cough. Heat permeated her.


Hannah coughed once more, then lifted her leg, jamming her heel into the tiny window, sending beads of glass splashing outward. It wasn’t big enough for her to get out, but it was big enough to let a little air in.


She shoved her face to the opening and pulled in a lungful of the chilled air beyond. Then she pulled the jacket off her back and put it to her mouth. She crouched down, moved back into the prisonlike room, and searched for the trapdoor. Found it. Her hands worked at the latch, pulled. Nothing. There had to be some way to get out.


The blurring of her vision worsened, tears and smoke clawing at her eyes.


She coughed. Her body felt heavy and unwieldy. She tried to adjust her body with her right arm, but all the strength seemed to be slipping out of her. Fighting hurt so much. Moving sapped her energy. The searing floor suddenly seemed welcoming. Her body started to relax, curling into a ball. The unrelenting stinging in her eyes suddenly seemed unbearable.


Her eyelids shut.


The attic suddenly seemed far away. Her mind slipped into silence. The kind of silenceshe could try so hard to cultivate in times of trouble now seemed so easy. Everything that seemed to worry faded, and rather than doing she was simply . . .


Being.


She could feel the past again.


Before it had been such a horrible place. When others had lived here. When family pictures and Christmas ornaments had been stored here in cardboard boxes. And then the old occupants moved out and others moved in—the ones who had perverted this place to be something else. Rolling carpet over the plywood, not bothering to nail it to the rafters.


Hannah’s eyes snapped open, and she stumbled toward the window for a life-saving breath of cool air. Then she dropped to the floor and grasped at the carpet, pulling the shaggy covering loose. She reached for the floor, pulling at the boards, only to realize that she was standing on the edge.


Hannah moved and gave another pull—the heat was overwhelming. The plywood pulled away, clattering to the side as she tossed it.


Rafters—a few feet apart—partitioned themselves between sections of pink insulation. It looked like cotton candy, she thought.


Her hesitation lasted only a second, and then she jumped, feet first toward insulation.


The world seemed to freeze.


Then her body crashed through the billowy pink insulation, smashing through the thin layer of sheet rock, and she felt herself hurtling through the gray smoke toward the carpet one floor below.


She landed with a thud, losing her balance as her body slammed into the wall.


The heat enveloped her, blasting at her like a furnace, smoke stabbing at her eyes. Hannah looked up and saw the window at the far end of the hall. She pulled her jacket tight against her face and rushed forward, trying to stay low. Moments later she was at the window, the glass fogged over with a greasy black smear from the heat and smoke. Then she saw the gas can, tossed at the floor below it, fire clinging to the outside wall

where gas dribbled down.


A kick could break the glass—but glass shards would slice her leg to unrecognizable ribbons if she tried. She took a smoky breath and reached for the can with her jacket, grabbing the handle. Her body swung, then released the metal container.


The smoke-fogged glass exploded outward and skittered across the sloping roof that covered the back porch.


She threw herself through the window—arms and legs catching on the fragile teeth of glass that remained, her body landing on glass shards that pricked her skin. She rolled uncontrollably down the roof, then slammed into the soggy grass below.


Hannah looked up at the blazing house—bleeding, burned, and weak.


Her eyes fluttered shut, only to open again after several minutes, and she found herself on the other end of the yard, farther from the flames. She was looking up at a man with long

dark hair, in a black coat. Rain rolled off him as he said something to her. His lips moved, but she didn’t hear anything.


And then the world faded to black.




My Review: I enjoyed the first one, but I didn't like this one that well. Don't go on my take though, you might like it.