Friday, October 29, 2010

"The God Hater" by Bill Myers

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 God Hater

Howard Books; Original edition (September 28, 2010)

***Special thanks to Libby Reed, Publicity Assistant, HOWARD BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:




Bill Myers is an author, screenwriter, and director whose work has won more than fifty national and international awards, including the C.S. Lewis Honor Award.

Visit the Book Specific Site.

Visit the author's website.


Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Howard Books; Original edition (September 28, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439153264
ISBN-13: 978-1439153260

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:



Samuel Preston, a local reporter with bronzed skin and glow-in-the-dark teeth, turned to one of the guests of his TV show, God Talk. “So what’s your take on all of this, Dr. Mackenzie?”

The sixty-something professor stared silently at his wristwatch. He had unruly white hair and wore an outdated sports coat.

“Dr. Mackenzie?”

He glanced up, disoriented, then turned to the host who repeated the question. “What are your feelings about the book?”

Clearing his throat, Mackenzie raised the watch to his ear and gave it a shake. “I was wondering . . .” He dropped off, his bushy eyebrows gathered into a scowl as he listened for a sound.

The second guest, a middle-aged pastor with a shirt collar two sizes too small, smiled, “Yes?”

Mackenzie gave up on the watch and turned to him. “Do you make up this drivel as you go along? Or do you simply parrot others who have equally stunted intellects?”

The pastor, Dr. William Hathaway, blinked. Still smiling, he turned back to the host. “I was under the impression we were going to discuss my new book?”

“Oh, we are,” Preston assured him. “But it’s always good to have a skeptic or two in the midst, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Ah,” Hathaway nodded, “of course.” He turned back to Mackenzie, his smile never wavering. “I am afraid what you term as ‘drivel’ is based upon a faith stretching back thousands of years.”

Mackenzie removed one or two dog hairs from his slacks. “We have fossilized dinosaur feces older than that.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Just because something’s old, doesn’t stop it from being crap.”

Dr. Hathaway’s smile twitched. He turned in his chair so he could more fully address the man. “We’re talking about a time honored religion that millions of —”

“And that’s supposed to be a plus,” Mackenzie said, “that it’s religious? I thought you wanted to support your nonsense.”

“I see. Well it may interest you to know that—“

“Actually, it doesn’t interest me at all.” The old man turned to Preston. “How much longer will we be?”

The host chuckled. “Just a few more minutes, Professor.”

Working harder to maintain his smile, Hathaway replied, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re not a big fan of the benefits of Christianity?”

“Benefits?” Mackenzie pulled a used handkerchief from his pocket and began looking for an unsoiled portion. “Is that what the 30,000 Jews who were tortured and killed during the Inquisition called it? Benefits?”

“That’s not entirely fair.”

“And why is that?”

“For starters, most of them weren’t Jews.”

“I’m sure they’re already feeling better.”

“What I am saying is—”

“What you are saying, Mr . . . Mr—”

“Actually, it’s Doctor.”

“Actually, you’re a liar.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Finding an unused area of his handkerchief, Mackenzie took off his glasses and cleaned them.

The pastor continued. “It may interest you to know that—”

“We’ve already established my lack of interest.”

“It may interest you to know that I hold several honorary doctorates.”

“Honorary doctorates.”

“That’s correct.”

“Honorary, as in unearned, as in good for nothing . . . unless it’s to line the bottom of bird cages.” He held his glasses to the light, checking for any remaining smudges.

Hathaway took a breath and regrouped. “You can malign my character all you wish, but there is no refuting the benefits outlined in my new book.”

“Ah yes, the benefits.” Mackenzie lowered his glasses and worked on the other lens. “Like the million plus lives slaughtered during the Crusades?”

“That figure can be disputed.”

“Correct. It may be higher.”

Hathaway shifted in his seat. “The Crusades were a long time ago and in an entirely different culture.”

“So you’d prefer something closer to home? Perhaps the witch hunts of New England?”

“I’m not here to—”

“Fifteen thousand human beings murdered in Europe and America. Fifteen thousand.”

“Again, that’s history and not a part of today’s—”

“Then let us discuss more recent atrocities—towards the blacks, the gays, the Muslim population. Perhaps a dialogue on the bombing of abortion clinics?”

“Please, if you would allow me—”

Mackenzie turned to Preston. “Are we finished here?”

Fighting to be heard, Hathaway continued. “If people will read my book, they will clearly see—”

“Are we finished?”

“Yes, Professor,” Preston chuckled. “I believe we are.”

“But we’ve not discussed my Seven Steps to Successful—”

“Perhaps another time, Doctor.”

Mackenzie rose, shielding his eyes from the bright studio lights as Hathaway continued. “But there are many issues we need to—”

“I’m sure there are,” Preston agreed while keeping an eye on Mackenzie who stepped from the platform and headed off camera. “And I’m sure it’s all there in your book. Seven Steps to—”


***

Annie Brooks clicked off the remote to her television.

“Mom,” Rusty mumbled, “I was watching . . .” he drifted back to sleep without finishing the protest.

She looked down at the five year old and smiled. He lay in bed beside her, his hands still clutching Horton Hears a Who! Each night he’d been reading it to her, though she suspected it was more reciting from memory than reading. She tenderly kissed the top of his head before absent-mindedly looking back to the TV.

He’d done it again. Her colleague and friend—if Dr. Nicholas Mackenzie could be said to have any friends—had shredded another person of faith. This time a Christian, some mega-church pastor hawking his latest book. Next time it could just as easily be a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist. The point was that Nicholas hated religion. And Heaven help anybody who tried to defend it.

She sighed and looked back down to her son. He was breathing heavily, mouth slightly ajar. She brushed the bangs from his face and gave him another kiss. She’d carry him back to bed soon enough. But for now she would simply savor his presence. Nothing gave her more joy. And for that, with or without Nicholas’ approval, Annie Brooks was grateful to her God.


* * * * *


“Excuse me?” Nicholas called from the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car.

The driver didn’t hear.

He leaned forward and spoke louder. “You just passed the freeway entrance.”

The driver, some black kid with a shaved head, turned on the stereo. It was an urban chant, its beat so powerful Nicholas could feel it pounding in his gut. He unbuckled his seat belt and scooted to the open partition separating them. “Excuse me! You—”

The tinted window slid up, nearly hitting him in the face.

He pulled back in surprise, then banged on the glass. “Excuse me!” The music was fainter but still vibrated the car. “Excuse me!”

No response.

He slumped back into the seat. Stupid kid. And rude. He’d realize his mistake soon enough. And after Nicholas’ call to the TV station tomorrow, he’d be back on the streets looking for another job. Trying to ignore the music, Nicholas stared out the window, watching the Santa Barbara lights soften as fog rolled in. Over the years the station’s drivers had always been polite and courteous. Years, as in Nicholas was a frequent guest on God Talk. Despite his general distain for people, not to mention his reclusive lifestyle, he always accepted the producer’s invitation. Few things gave him more pleasure than exposing the toxic nature of religion. Besides, these outings provided a nice change of pace. Instead of the usual stripping away of na├»ve college students’ faith in his classroom, the TV guests occasionally provided a challenge.

Occasionally.

Other than his duties at the University of California Santa Barbara, these trips were his only exposure to the outside world. He had abandoned society long ago. Or rather, it had abandoned him. Not that there was any love lost. Today’s culture was an intellectual wasteland—a world of pre-chewed ideas, politically correct causes, sound bite news coverage, and novels that were nothing more than comic books. (He’d given up on movies and television long ago.) Why waste his time on such pabulum when he could surround himself with Sartre, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche—men whose work would provide more meaningful companionship in one evening than most people could in a lifetime.

Nevertheless, he did tolerate Ari, even fought to keep her during the divorce. She was his faithful companion for over fifteen years, though he should have put her down months ago. Deaf and blind, the golden retriever’s hips had begun to fail. But she wasn’t in pain. Not yet. And until that time, he didn’t mind cleaning up after her occasional accidents or calling in the vet for those expensive house calls. He owed her that. Partially because of her years of patient listening, and partially because of the memories.

The car turned right and entered a residential area. He glanced down to the glowing red buttons on the console beside him. One of them was an intercom to the driver. But, like Herbert Marcuse, the great Neo-Marxist of the 20th Century (and, less popularly, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber of the 1980s) Nicholas mistrusted modern technology as much as he scorned the society that created it. How many times had Annie, a fellow professor, pleaded with him to buy a telephone . . .

“What if there’s an emergency?” she’d insisted. “What if someone needs to call you?”

“Like solicitors?”

“They have Do Not Call lists,” she said. “You can go online and be added to their—”

“Online?”

“Okay, you can write them a letter.”

“And give them what, more personal information?”

“They’d only ask for your phone number.”

“Not if I don’t have one.”

And so the argument continued off and on for years . . . as gift occasions came and went, as his closet gradually filled with an impressive collection of telephones. One thing you could say about Annie Brooks, she was persistent—which may be why he put up with her company, despite the fact she doted over him like he was some old man who couldn’t take care of himself. Besides, she had a good head on her shoulders, when she chose to use it, which meant she occasionally contributed something of worth to their conversations.

Then, of course, there was her boy.

The car slowed. Having no doubt learned the error of his ways, the driver was turning around. Not that it would help him keep his job. That die had already been cast. But the car wasn’t turning. Instead, it pulled to the curb and came to a stop. The locks shot up and the right rear door immediately opened. A man in his early forties appeared—strong jaw, short hair, with a dark suit, white shirt, and black tie.

“Good evening, Doctor.” He slid onto the leather seat beside him.

“Who are you?” Nicholas demanded.

The man closed the door and the car started forward. “I apologize for the cloak and dagger routine, but—”

“Who are you?”

He flipped open an ID badge. “Brad Thompson, HLS.”

“Who?”

“Homeland Security Agent Brad Thompson.” He returned the badge to his coat pocket.

“You’re with the government?”

“Yes sir, Homeland Security.”

“And you’ve chosen to interrupt my ride home because . . .”

“Again, I apologize, but it’s about your brother.”

Nicholas stared at him, giving him no satisfaction of recognition.

“Your brother,” the agent repeated, “Travis Mackenzie?”

Nicholas held his gaze another moment before looking out the window. “Is he in trouble again?”

“Has he contacted you?”

“My brother and I seldom communicate.”

“Yes, sir, about every eighteen months if our information is correct.”

The agent’s knowledge unsettled Nicholas. He turned back to the man. “May I see your identification again?”

“Pardon me?”

“Your identification. You barely allowed me to look at it.”

The agent reached back into his suit coat. “Please understand this is far more serious than his drug conviction, or his computer hacking, or the DUIs.”

Nicholas adjusted his glasses, waiting for the identification.

The agent flipped open his ID holder. “We at HLS are very concerned about his involvement—”

Suddenly, headlights appeared through the back window, their beams on high. The agent looked over his shoulder, then swore under his breath. He reached for the intercom, apparently to give orders to the driver, but the town car was already beginning to accelerate.

“What’s the problem?” Nicholas asked.

The car turned sharply to the left and continued picking up speed.

“I asked you what is happening,” Nicholas repeated.

“Your brother, Professor. Where is he?”

The headlights reappeared behind them, closing in.

“You did not allow me to examine your identification.”

“Please, Doctor—”

“If you do not allow me to examine your identification, I see little—”

“We’ve no time for that!”

The outburst stopped Nicholas as the car took another left, so sharply both men braced themselves against the seat.

The agent turned back to him. “Where is your brother?”

Once again the lights appeared behind them.

Refusing to be bullied, Nicholas repeated, “Unless I’m convinced of your identity, I have little—”

The agent sprang toward him. Grabbing Nicholas’ shirt, he yanked him to his face and shouted, “Where is he?!”

Surprised, but with more pride than common sense, Nicholas answered. “As I said—”

The agent’s fist was a blur as it struck Nicholas’ nose. Nicholas felt the cartilage snap, knew the pain would follow. As would the blood.

“WHERE IS HE?”

The car turned right, tires squealing, tossing the men to the other side. As Nicholas sat up, the agent pulled something from his jacket. There was the black glint of metal and suddenly a cold gun barrel was pressed against his neck. He felt fear rising and instinctively pushed back the emotion. It wasn’t the gun that concerned him, but the fear. That was his enemy. If he could focus, rely on his intellect, he’d have the upper hand. Logic trumped emotion every time. It was a truth that sustained him through childhood, kept him alive in Vietnam, and gave him the strength to survive in today’s world.

The barrel pressed harder.

When he knew he could trust his voice, he answered, “The last time I saw my brother was Thanksgiving.”

The car hit the brakes, skidding to a stop, sliding Nicholas off the seat and onto his knees. The agent caught himself, managing to stay seated. Up ahead, through the glass partition, Nicholas saw a second vehicle racing toward them—a van or truck, its beams also on high.

The agent pounded the partition. “Get us out of here.” he shouted at the driver. “Now!”

The town car lurched backward. It bounced up a curb and onto a front lawn. Tires spun, spitting grass and mud, until they dug in and the vehicle took off. It plowed through a hedge of junipers, branches scraping underneath, then across another lawn. Nicholas looked out his side window as they passed the first vehicle which had been behind them, a late model SUV. They veered back onto the road, snapping off a mailbox. Once again the driver slammed on the brakes, turning hard to the left, throwing the vehicle into a 180 until they were suddenly behind the SUV, facing the opposite direction. Tires screeched as they sped off.

The agent hit the intercom and yelled, “Dump the Professor and get us out of here!”

The car continued to accelerate and made another turn.

Pulling Nicholas into the seat and shoving the gun into his face, the agent shouted, “This is the last time I’m asking!”

Nicholas’ heart pounded, but he kept his voice even. “I have already told you.”

The man chambered a round. But it barely mattered. Nicholas had found his center and would not be moved. “I have not seen him in months.”

“Thanksgiving?”

“Yes.”

The car made another turn.

“And?”

Nicholas turned to face him. “We ate a frozen dinner and I sent him away.”

The agent searched his eyes. Nicholas held his gaze, unblinking. The car took one last turn, bouncing up onto an unlit driveway, then jerked to a stop. There was no sound, except the pounding music.

“Get out,” the agent ordered.

Nicholas looked through the window. “I have no idea where we—”

“Now.”

Nicholas reached for the handle, opened his door and stepped outside. The air was cold and damp.

“Shut the door.”

He obeyed.

The town car lunged backward, lights off. Once it reached the road it slid to a stop, changed gears and sped off. Nicholas watched as it disappeared into the fog, music still throbbing even after it was out of sight. Only then did he appreciate the pain in his nose and the warm copper taste of blood in his mouth. Still, with grim satisfaction, he realized, he had won. As always, logic and intellect had prevailed.



My Thoughts

This was a great read! I was held captivated with the idea of a computer program that could run each philosophical theory and show (not by the programmer's choice) that these humanistic views would fail in the end. To come up with a solution that these programmers were trying so hard to avoid, made this a most delicious read. The ending, although quite predictable, had a nice surprise twist to it. Truly an enjoyable book!!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"An Amish Christmas" by Cynthia Keller - Book Review




An Amish Christmas
Author: Cynthia Keller
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 9780345523785
Genre: Fiction, Christmas

About the Book: (from the back cover)

"Meg Hobart has everything: a happy marriage to a handsome, successful husband, a beautiful home in Charlotte, North Carolina, and three wonderful children. But it all comes crashing down around her the day she learns that her husband, James, has been living a lie—and has brought the family to financial ruin. Penniless and homeless, the Hobarts pack up what little they still possess and leave behind their golden life for good. But it’s not the material things Meg finds herself mourning. Instead, she misses the certainty that she should remain married to James, who has betrayed her trust so thoughtlessly. Worse, she is suddenly very aware of just how spoiled her children have become. Meg wonders what her family has really sacrificed in their pursuit of the American dream.


A frightening twist of fate forces the Hobarts to take refuge with a kind Amish family in Pennsylvania, where they find themselves in a home with no computers, no cell phones, nothing the children consider fashionable or fun. Her uncooperative brood confined to the Amish world of hard work and tradition, their futures entirely uncertain, Meg fears she can never make her family whole again.


Celebrating life’s simplest but most essential values, packed with laughter and tears, this is a story of forgiveness and the power of love. You will never forget the special moment in time that is An Amish Christmas."






My Thoughts:

I was excited to have the chance to read this book. I'm a sucker for Christmas stories as I love that warm and cozy feeling I get from reading them.

This book had great potential. The storyline was quite good:  a materialistic family loses everything and learns the value of family, community and forgiveness. Sadly, the story itself didn't appear to be well researched, but something just pulled out of the author's imagination.

The time line just didn't work. One cannot lose things as quickly as stated. The husband is out of work 3 months and all is gone, yet his wife knows what is paid up and what is not, and there's never been an issue that the mortgage wasn't paid. There were many discrepancies like this one throughout the book.

The Amish were another issue for me. The author crossed different orders and different Amish groups. The use of yellow curtains and yellow on a bed wouldn't happen with any of the PA Amish that I know. Stated later in the book, there is a comment that they only use the dark colors for the quilts. Again, there were many more discrepancies like this one.

Although this was created to be a feel good Christmas story, the lack of attention to details made me more annoyed than anything else.

This book was supplied by the publisher through the Early Readers program for me to honestly review.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Key Lime Pie" by Josi Kilpack - Virtual Book Tour & Review

Key Lime Pie banner

Key Lime Pie

Title: Key Lime Pie
Author: Josi Kilpack
Publisher: Desert Book
ISBN: 9781606418130
Genre: Mystery, Culinary Mystery, Cozy Mystery

About Key Lime Pie

(from back cover):
"When Sadie Hoffmiller’s new friend, Eric Burton, receives word that his missing daughter’s body may have been found in Florida, he immediately packs his bags, but Sadie is determined to stay home and prove to everyone that she is not a busybody.

But when she senses Eric is hiding something, Sadie is compelled to take action. Before she knows it, she’s in the heart of Miami, trying to piece together a trail littered with broken relationships, mysterious strangers, and forged documents that might just provide Eric the answers he’s been desperately searching for—or reveal a truth he may not be ready to face.

Sadie must also face a difficult question: Where is her heart leading her? Onward into Eric’s adventurous arms? Or back home to the stable and steady Pete Cunningham? If only love was as easy as following a recipe.

Once again, Sadie finds herself in the company of some colorful characters and on the hunt for some good old-fashioned southern cooking. But despite the drama and intrigue, all Sadie really wants is to go home . . . as soon as she does just one more thing."

My Thoughts:

Josie Kilpack has done it again! Sadie is back and this time she has a love interest and around that interest lies a mystery just begging to be solved with Sadie's help.

This is my second book of the "Culinary Mysteries" by Mrs. Kilpack and the more I read of this series, the more I want! I love Sadie's character. She is a middle aged busy body who is also a clean freak and a culinary snob. Well, maybe snob is a bit harsh, but she is one that critiques the food she eats and many times decides she can do a better job. If not, she begs for the recipe, and writes it down in her "little black book".

Sadie has a way of getting the necessary information to help solve each mystery. If she can't get someone to talk, she's found that food usually loosens the tongue. Sadie also has a way of getting herself into trouble. She's a lovable yet sometimes annoying character that you can't help but enjoy. She's funny, witty, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

A nice plus to the book are the recipes. If Sadie is eating, cooking or discussing a certain dish, you are most likely to find the recipe at the end of that chapter. If you haven't read one of these delightful Culinary Mysteries, make sure to add at least one to your reading list. They are truly a fun read and a nice bonus is you can start anywhere in the series. The books do mention past events, but you don't get the feeling of being lost and missing out.

These mysteries will be enjoyed by those that like cozy mysteries, Miss Silver mysteries or anyone that just wants a nice fun read.

About Josi Kilpack


Josi Kilpack

Josi S. Kilpack grew up hating to read until her mother handed her a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond when she was 13. From that day forward, she read everything she could get her hands on and accredits her writing “education” to the many novels she has “studied” since then. She began writing her first novel in 1998, while on bedrest with a pregnancy, and never stopped.

Key Lime Pie is Josi’s twelfth novel, and the fourth book in the Sadie Hoffmiller Culinary Mystery Series. The other novels in the series are: Lemon Tart (Book 1),  English Trifle (Book 2), Devil’s Food Cake (Book 3). While the books all feature Sadie Hoffmiller as the main character, they stand alone in regard to plot and can be read as a set or as individual titles. Josi currently lives in Utah with her husband, four children, one dog and varying number of chickens.

For more information about Josi, you can visit her website at www.josiskilpack.com or her blog at www.josikilpack.blogspot.com

Book was provided through the Pump Up Your Book program for me to honestly review.

Highland Blessings by Jennifer Hudson Taylor

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:


Highland Blessings

Abingdon Press (May 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Jennifer Hudson Taylor for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Jennifer Hudson Taylor is the author of historical and contemporary Christian fiction set in Europe and the Carolinas. Her fiction has won awards in the American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis Contest. Her debut novel, Highland Blessings, will be released May 2010. Other works have appeared in national publications, such as Guideposts, Heritage Quest Magazine, Everton’s Genealogical Publishers, and The Military Trader. Jennifer graduated from Elon University with a B.A. in Journalism. When she isn't writing, Jennifer enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, genealogy, and reading. She resides with her husband and daughter in the Charlotte area of NC.


Visit the author's website.




Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Abingdon Press (May 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1426702264
ISBN-13: 978-1426702266

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Prologue
Scotland 1463

Cedric MacPhearson knew he was going to die, but he glanced up at the low clouds brewing into a storm and raised a fist, determined he would last until one of his sons found him. The survival of his clan depended upon it. And as ornery and stubborn as he had been all his life, no one would believe he had agreed to a peaceful settlement with the MacKenzies if he died, least of all his sons.

Beads of sweat broke along his brow as he struggled to remain conscious, mentally listing every black deed he had ever committed and then muttering a whispered prayer for each one. As the MacPhearson chieftain, Cedric’s word had been the unquestioned law. He had always thought himself a fair man with a firm ruling hand. Now as he prepared to meet his Maker, he wasn’t so sure. It was imperative that he complete one last goodwill before he closed his eyes forever.

The restless wind twirled faster, rustling scattered leaves around him. The cool air was a comfort, giving him a feeling of being lifted high and floating away as the pain in his chest faded to numbness. Lightning flashed silently, highlighting a lone rider approaching at top speed.

Rumbling thunder echoed in Cedric’s ears, drowning out the sound of a winded destrier pulled short and his son’s voice calling to him. Cedric’s head was gently lifted into the lad’s lap and tenderly cradled in youthful hands, strong with promise. Bryce, his middle son, peered down at him with intelligent, gray eyes full of concern.

“Da! What happened to ye?” He reached over and carefully lifted Cedric’s bloody tunic. Moisture gathered in his eyes at the sight of the large sword wound slightly below Cedric’s heart. “Likely, the villain got yer lungs.” His voice sounded like a man, but it shook with desperation. He looked deeply into Cedric’s eyes with painful certainty. “Who did this to ye?”

“A MacKenzie warrior struck me down. I came from signing the peace settlement with Birk MacKenzie, so I wasn’t expecting an attack.”

“I’ll kill the MacKenzie responsible!”

Cedric could hear the anger in his son’s voice and knew a century-old vengeance
coursed through his veins. Pride swelled in Cedric’s battered chest, and he was pleased that he hadn’t missed this opportunity to give his final command and say good-bye. He clutched his son’s shirt in his fist.

“Listen, lad. Birk MacKenzie didn’t order this. Even now he doesn’t know.”

The effort to speak quickly drained his energy and made his chest feel heavy. What blood had not drained from his body began to fill his lungs, and breathing became increasingly difficult. With a concentrated effort he motioned to his pocket and took a labored breath.

“Get paper.” His hoarse whisper brought blood to his mouth.

***


Bryce shuddered. Knowing time was of the essence, he frantically searched his father’s clothes and found a piece of paper. He unfolded it and scanned the signed documents.

Denial was on the tip of his tongue, when he looked at his father with defeat.
“Pro-mise . . . ye’ll . . . make E-van . . . hon-or . . . my word.”

A flicker of apprehension pierced him. He was uncomfortable making a promise of a life-long commitment for his elder brother, and even more afraid to spend these precious moments arguing with his dying father.

With the last of his strength, Cedric grabbed his wrist. “Pro-mise!” More blood spewed from his lips as the clouds opened with rain. Lightning struck and thunder roared.

Bryce bent forward, hating the entrapment of death he saw in his father’s eyes, and cradled his father to him. “Da, don’t die!” Tears blended with the downpour of rain. Cedric’s cold fingers squeezed. Out of desperation Bryce yelled over the storm. “I promise! I promise!”

He couldn’t bear the thought of his father dying without granting his last request.
Cedric released his wrist, and Bryce knew he was gone. Tears were difficult to shed. He couldn’t ever remember a time in his childhood when he allowed one to slip from his eye.

Now, alone in the storm, a lad of ten and four, Bryce grieved for his loss and a promise he prayed he could keep.

Chapter One
April 1473

Akira MacKenzie willed her knees not to fail her. She watched Gregor Matheson’s blond head disappear through the astonished crowd that slowly parted for him. He would have made her a perfect husband, but now he deserted her, placing her safety in jeopardy once again.

She swallowed the rising lump in her throat and straightened her shoulders. Akira clasped her hands in front of her and turned to face the expectant gazes of her Scottish clan. Hushed murmurs flowed through the crowd until one by one their voices faded into the restless wind.

“`Twill be no wedding this day.” She allowed her strong voice to echo over her kinsmen. The earth vibrated, and thunder rumbled in the distance. Akira paused, but naught seemed amiss. Green hills and hidden valleys lay undisturbed, draped with wildflowers and tall grass that rippled in the gentle breeze. Strands of golden-red hair lifted from her shoulder and brushed against her face. She whisked a wayward lock from her eyes.

She turned to Father Mike for encouragement. He stood in a brown robe gathered with a rope cord tied at the waist around his thin frame. Holding a small book in the crook of his arm, he shook his graying head. His aging face held laugh lines around the corners of his eyes and mouth, but today his wrinkles were pulled into a sad frown. His soft brown eyes settled upon her with understanding. Akira wanted to run weeping into his arms, but she held herself still.
More thunder rumbled and grew closer.

“’Tis the MacPhearsons!” A lone woman cried in alarm, pointing past where Akira stood on the grassy knoll.

Panic slashed through her clansmen, and they scattered to find shelter behind her father’s
castle gates. Unarmed MacKenzies sought their weapons before the riders reached them. Expecting a wedding celebration, few were prepared for battle.

Akira turned. The thunder she had heard was an army of warriors descending upon them. A savage barbarian riding a fierce gray stallion charged toward her, his army in quick pursuit. Together, the lead warrior and stallion embodied power. He led them as befit a king, but when his gaze fixed on Akira, her blood ran cold.

The MacPhearson chief wanted his bride. Akira hated her fear of him as it took root and gripped her insides.

“Lord, give me strength,” she murmured.

She would not run. No, she would stand and wait for him. If it was peace he wanted, then peace she would give him. She’d be calm, meet his gaze, and remind him of the letter her father received six months ago from the MacPhearson chief saying he would not honor the betrothal their parents had pledged years ago when she and Evan MacPhearson were children. Accepting it as the insult it was, Akira’s father granted his permission for her to wed a man of her choice. She had chosen Gregor Matheson, but now she realized even that had been a mistake.

Her brother Gavin broke through the madness and grabbed Akira’s arm, propelling her toward the castle gates. The sound of horses’ hooves pounding into the earth grew louder. One gray stallion ruptured forth, his rider targeting her. Knowing Gavin held no weapon to defend them, she fretted for his life and tried to wrench herself free.

“Run, Gavin! Run!” she yelled above the chaos.

Gavin wouldn’t leave her. He struggled to pull her along, but her heavy satin gown caught under her feet, nearly tripping her. While most wedding gowns of her clanswomen were of varying colors, Akira had wanted to look like a white dove. The front was simple, but elegant, with no beads or trim. The long sleeves widened at the wrists and the skirt portion draped over her figure like a long tapestry.

“Hurry, lass!” he urged as the material ripped.

The stallion’s labored breathing almost pulsed down her back. Her skin crawled with tiny prickles. The dark rider would soon overtake them. Jerking free of Gavin’s hold, she again urged her brother to safety.

“Leave me, Gavin.” Tears of despair threatened to snap her control. “I’ll not have ye die at the hand of a MacPhearson because of me.”

“Nay. Never!” Gavin protested.

The MacPhearson warrior bent, and his heavy fist slammed against Gavin’s jaw. Her brother landed several feet back. Iron fingers gripped her waist. The MacPhearson tightened his hold across her middle as he pulled her backward and up onto the horse. Akira screamed and kicked, lashing out blindly against him. He fought her with one hand while he guided his charger forward. The reins almost tumbled from his hand, and he lunged to grab them. His hard elbow rammed her cheek in the process.

“Don’t fight me, lass,” he roared. “Or else the blood of innocent men will be upon yer head!”
His words cut into her like a blade, and she ceased her struggles as he threw her over his lap and across the racing animal’s back. Akira believed him. A MacPhearson could have no compassion in a heart as black as death.

“How dare ye, MacPhearson!” Akira’s father bellowed behind them. She stole a glance through her tumbling hair. He ran after them with a fist raised in mid-air. He roared another promise of revenge before bending over his knees to catch his breath. Her father shook his graying head in disbelief.

“I love ye, Da,” she whispered, committing his image to memory.

The forest swallowed them, and for hours the MacPhearsons kept their fast pace. Akira tried to calm her heaving stomach, but it continued to twirl as she lay over his lap. The ride would have been much more tolerable had she been able to sit on her backside. Instead, her stomach suffered from the jarring of the stallion’s movements. The nausea finally overtook her, and she vomited.

They stopped. Left with no other recourse, she tried to wipe her mouth with her hand.

The warrior ripped off part of his plaid hanging over his tunic that reached down to his knees like a long shirt and belted at the waist. He wet it with water from his flask and offered it to her. His plaid of red and gray colors fell forward, and he shoved it back over his shoulder. Since the MacPhearsons lived in a different region, their plaids were made by a different weaver from the MacKenzies. Akira’s clan often wore plaids of blue and green.

She lifted her gaze to his menacing glare. Akira trembled in spite of her silent resolve not to fear him, for he looked as if he wanted to beat her, and she felt certain it wasn’t beneath him.
He leaned forward, thrusting the material in her face. “Take it and clean yerself,” he demanded, as if the sight of her disgusted him.

Grimacing, she looked down at his leg covered with her sickness. Her cheeks grew warm. He deserved what he had gotten for throwing her on his stallion and hauling her off like a prize he had won.

“Lass, don’t make me repeat myself.” His lack of patience was quite evident in his tone, but even more so as he shoved the damp material in her face.

Akira snatched it out of his hand and glared back, momentarily forgetting her danger.
“Ye blunderin’ fool, ’tis yer own fault it happened. Ye got no more than ye deserved.”

He leaned forward, his nose barely an inch from hers, and she leaned back as far as she dared without toppling off his stallion. His dark gray eyes turned black, and a vein pulsed rapidly in his neck as he stared down at her.

Once again her temper and boldness had gotten the better of her. Lord, help bridle me tongue, she silently prayed. Deciding she had pushed him far enough, Akira gripped his leg while she stroked the damp cloth over his skin in hopes of diverting his attention from her angry outburst. He flinched at her touch. She dropped his leg with a questioning gaze.
“I told ye to clean yerself, not me.”

“I’m not quite as messy.” She turned back to her task.

He lifted her from the stallion and dropped her on her unsteady feet. It took her a moment to recover. When she did, she found herself staring at her captor’s chest. Tall for a woman, Akira wasn’t used to a man’s height equaling her own, but this MacPhearson was a giant. His massive shoulders blocked the sun’s rays, filtering through the trees.

He bound her hands with a leather strap, pulling the knot secure against the flesh around the fine bone of her wrists. She noticed his skin was a shade or two darker than hers.

Akira stole the moment to study his profile. Shoulder-length hair the color of potted soil framed an authoritative, square face. His gray eyes were sharp and purposeful as he tended to his task. Up close he appeared more handsome than barbaric. His bronze face bore a recent shave.
The bridge of his nose smoothed over his face to striking, high cheekbones. He radiated confidence, but she sensed a stubborn streak hid behind his determined expression.

As he towered over her, she felt a rare fear and trembled. His hands gentled, and his voice softened.

“I’m sorry I was so rough with ye. I didn’t mean for my elbow to hit yer cheek.” He pulled the leather tighter, making her wince. “I apologize for this inconvenience, but I must see to it that ye canna escape.”

He stepped back, rubbing his chin in thoughtful concentration as if contemplating what to do with her. “Ye’re no ordinary woman.” He crossed his arms and circled Akira, observing her. She could feel the heat of his blazing gaze travel the length of her. “Any other woman would have fled.” He paused in front of her and looked into her eyes. “`Twas as if ye were determined to stand yer ground and wait for me until that man encouraged ye to run.” He raised a black eyebrow. “Why?”

“They’re my family and clansmen. If ye were coming to claim yer bride, then I was the one ye wanted, not them.”

“So ye’re a courageous lass. Willing to sacrifice yerself for their lives. Is that the way of it then?” He spoke in a firm, yet gentle tone. He touched her swelling cheek with the back of his knuckles. Akira flinched from the uncharacteristic gesture. He dropped his hand.

“Regardless of what ye think, I’m not in the habit of mistreating women.” He looked at her intently, his eyes almost willing her to believe him.

She stared over his shoulder at the dark forest, refusing to relieve him of his guilt—if he was human enough to feel any. “My brother did naught to ye. Why did ye hit him?”

“Yer brother would have interfered and caused a massacre of yer people. I had no wish for that to happen, so I took the only option I had. I took care of him before he could strike me and my men retaliate on my behalf.”

Akira stepped back in disbelief. She craned her neck to see into his dark gray eyes. “’Twas not the only option. He could still be unconscious this verra moment.”

He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest as if she were trying his patience. “I assure ye, lass, yer brother will be fine. I didn’t hit him hard.”

She leaned up on her tiptoes. “Then my eyes must have been deceiving me, for ye
knocked him plumb out.”

“Aye, that I did.” He grinned with pride as white, even teeth flashed in contrast to his dark profile. “But the blow will not cause any lasting effects, I assure ye.”

“There’s not a guilty bone in yer body.” A lock of golden-red curls fell forward covering her right eye. She reached up with her bound hands and tossed her long tresses over her shoulder. “Ye had no right to take me from my family.”

“Believe as ye wish.” He shrugged. “I may have taken ye against yer will, but I never commit harm unless I’m forced.” He placed a finger under her chin and tilted her face.

Her mind whirled in a daze. Akira purposely closed her heart to any generosity he might bestow upon her. “Gavin gave ye no reason to hit him. I hope I do naught to force yer mistreatment of me before ye return me to my family.” The sarcasm in her voice overshadowed her fear.

A sudden frown perplexed his otherwise perfect face, and she sensed a change in his demeanor. In one fluid motion, he lifted her upon his stallion. This time she was properly seated as he mounted up behind her. He urged the beast beneath them forward, signaled to his men, and they were again on their way. Akira had nearly forgotten that others were present to witness their exchange.

Under the circumstances, he set a much slower pace than she would have anticipated, knowing the MacKenzies could be following close behind. They traveled a good distance in silence.

After a long while had passed, he bent toward her ear. “I’m sorry.”

His warm breath floated over the skin at her nape, and she fought the urge to shudder. His apology stunned her speechless. Warriors did not apologize, least of all to bound prisoners or to women.

“Whether ye believe me or not, I do not mistreat women. And the blow to yer cheek wouldn’t have happened if ye hadn’t put up such a struggle.”

Akira remained silent. How was she supposed to have responded while being kidnapped away from her family and all that she held dear? She had no idea what to expect. All she knew was that she depended upon the Lord to give her sufficient grace to get through whatever she would be forced to endure at their hands.

“I see ye’ve naught else to say.” Disappointment carried in his voice.

She arched an eyebrow. He expected friendly conversation while he carted her halfway across the country against her will and kept her in bonds? “What would ye have me say?” She turned sideways in the saddle. “I can only wonder at what ye plan to do with me. Should I beg for mercy in hopes ye’ll spare my life? Or should I wait ’til ye’ve no more use for me?” She straightened away from him.

He chuckled. “I appreciate the ideas.”

“Why not take me home now before my da comes after me and more blood is shed?”

He tensed as if her words had struck some deep chord within him. “Believe me, lass, more bloodshed is not my intention. I took ye because I had to and that’s the end of it.”

Akira wisely remained silent. The man seemed to contradict even his own character. He didn’t want her to believe him a barbarian, yet he had ridden onto MacKenzie land with warriors and carted her off against her will, thrown across his lap like a sack of potatoes. Then he bound her wrists with a leather strap and tried to convince her that he was a caring gentleman with good manners. There could only be one explanation. The man was daft.

* * *


They rode well into the night. Bryce’s heavily muscled arms shielded her from branches and other brush in their path. They came to a clearing and Bryce halted. “We’ll camp here for the night. There’s a small brook beyond those trees.” He gestured to the right. He called two men over. “Backtrack and station yerselves to keep watch. I want to know of the first sign of a MacKenzie.”

Before she could object, large hands circled her waist and lifted her down. “Follow me.” He turned on his heel, leaving her with no choice but to do as directed. He led her into the dark woods, and she wanted nothing more than to turn and run the other way. Twigs cracked beneath the weight of their footsteps. An owl hooted in the distance. A small animal shifted and darted through the leaves. She wondered if it was a rabbit. Crickets sang around them. Akira rubbed her arms in discomfort and crouched close to his back to avoid the leaves and limbs he shoved aside.

They reached the brook, and he motioned for her to kneel beside him. She bent and watched him remove more of his plaid. He dipped it into the water and brought it against her face.
She jerked at the cold contact. What was this about?

“I merely want to bathe yer face.”

She leaned back. “Nay!”

His hands fell to his sides, still holding his wet plaid in one hand. “I can see the swelling and darkness just below yer eye, even in the moonlight.”

As if brought on by his words, the skin under her left eye tightened and grew numb. Her fingers inched to her cheek as she stared at him. He was stern with his men and they rushed to do his bidding. A man did not earn that kind of respect and power with a gentle nature. They feared him, and they wanted his approval. She could see it in their faces when they looked at him. Admiration shone in their expression.

“Ye’ve no reason to fear me, unless ye plan to make it so,” he interrupted her thoughts. “I’ll treat ye with all the respect owed and due a lady, but heed my warning: Don’t anger me by trying to escape. There is naught I despise worse than distrust and betrayal.”

Akira stood to her full height, prepared to challenge him. “As yer prisoner I owe ye no trust or loyalty.”

He rose beside her. “Consider yerself warned. ’Twould ease yer fear of me.”

He lowered his voice, and she sensed his tone carried great meaning.

“I’m not afraid. I simply wish ye not to touch me.” She hoped her tone carried the contempt she felt.

“As ye wish.” He stepped closer, pointing a finger in her face. “But I warn ye. Ye’ll remain bound, for I’ll not give ye the opportunity to flee. If ye eat, I shall feed ye. If ye
wash, I shall help ye. Ye belong to my brother, and I trust no one else save Balloch.”

Akira stood still, stunned. He was not the MacPhearson clan chief? She belonged to his brother? “Yer not Evan MacPhearson?”

“I am Bryce MacPhearson, the middle son.” He grinned. “I see ye’ve managed to remember the name of the man ye should have been saying yer vows to when I found ye, instead of that oaf ye were about to commit yerself to.”

He started to turn from her, but she gripped his arm. “Gregor is not an oaf. Though that is the best I can describe of ye.” She felt almost breathless. “What lies do ye speak? Evan MacPhearson sent my father a letter saying he had no intention of wedding me.”

“I speak no lies. The letter was a mistake.” He turned his full attention toward Akira and placed his hands on his hips, towering over her. “And as to a better description of me, do ye really lack that much imagination, lass? If this Gregor deserves such defense, then where was the brave groom when I found ye?”

Akira hated the truth of his words. Shivers ran up her spine, and she consciously tried to shake them off, but his last question brought her blood to a boil. Her thoughts turned to the humiliating scene. Warmth crept up her neck and into her face.

“Perhaps he was a wee bit late?” he taunted.

She refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing how much his words hurt. “Maybe he knew how miserable I could make his life, which would be my full intention if yer brother were to succeed in wedding me.”

His lips twisted into a sardonic grin. “As laird, Evan is only performing his duties by wedding ye. Marriages of convenience occur every day. I doubt he plans to spend enough time with ye to allow ye to wreak havoc in his life.”

“I haven’t agreed to wed Evan. And ye know naught of Gregor to throw insults in his absence.” She hated the fact that she felt forced to take up for Gregor. He did not deserve her loyalty any more than the MacPhearsons.

“I know enough.” His gray eyes grew darker and his voice a bit louder.

“What do ye know of him?”

“Enough.”

“If I must hear these accusations against him, then tell me.”

He reached for her, and not knowing his intention, she flinched. His palm rested on the side of her face, surprisingly as gentle as a breeze. “I know he is a complete fool to give ye up.” His voice broke to a husky whisper.

Akira blinked, wondering if she had heard him correctly. “Then I suppose yer brother would be an even greater fool, because me da received Evan’s letter releasing me from the betrothal agreement just six months past.”

Bryce’s expression didn’t change. “He is the fool of all fools.” He turned and walked away.

Akira followed him.

“Did he send ye for me?” She wanted to know if she was an unwelcome necessity in Evan’s life.

“Ye’ll know soon enough.”

Akira caught up with him and tugged on his arm. She needed answers. “Why didn’t he
take me?”

He shook off her arm. “Ye’ll sleep close by me.”

“I think not.” She turned from him and stomped off in the other direction, only to realize she still desired to know more about Evan MacPhearson. “Why did he not come for me himself?”

Bryce turned from her, rubbing his palm against his forehead. He walked past his men and pulled his furs from his stallion and threw them at her feet. “Here, sleep on those. ’Tis enough to cover ye.”

“My da will come for me.”

“I expect he will.” Bryce walked over to a tree, sat, leaned against the trunk and folded his arms over his knees.

“Ye plan to sleep that way?”

“Aye.” He let his head drop against the hard bark.

“Ye look uncomfortable.” She frowned in his direction. “But, I care not.” She assured him. “I’ll be home with me family in the comfort of me own bed soon.”

Akira brushed aside a few twigs and spread out her furs as best she could with her hands still bound. Then she crawled on top of the furs and brought one end over her. The chill had not bothered her as yet, but the night air promised dropping temperatures. The day had been warm for April and the first time it had not rained in days. It was a good omen for her wedding day—or so she had thought. An image of Gregor appeared in her mind, and sadness closed around her heart. The pain of his rejection hurt more than she cared to think on. She stifled a sob that nearly escaped her throat.

***


A muffled sound brought Bryce’s head up. He studied Akira’s feminine form under the moonlight. Her hair sprawled over her arms like silver ribbon. She sighed uncomfortably and shuffled around, restless.

The vision of her face, swollen and blue, made him squirm with regret. He had not meant to hurt her, and he despised his carelessness.

“Blunderin’ idiot!” he muttered under his breath.

“Are ye troubled?” The hope in her voice almost made him chuckle as she rolled over on her side and sat up on her elbow. The furs slipped from her shoulder. Akira’s silhouetted form shivered against the cool air settling in around them. Bryce looked away and shifted again to ease his discomfort.

“Nay.” He dropped his chin on his folded arms.

She continued to stare at him a moment longer before she lay back down to rest.

He let his head fall back against the bark of the tree and looked up at the outline of the branches and leaves above. Footsteps and twigs broke. Balloch plopped down beside him.
“The lady’s a beauty, is she not?” Balloch whispered.

“Aye, she is at that. In a few days she’ll hate me when she learns the truth.” For some reason, that realization bothered him. What should he care of her hatred for him? He wasn’t the one destined to wed her, but it bothered him nonetheless. As she prayed aloud for her family, her safety, and a swift return home, guilt plagued him.

When she prayed that God would soften his heart, Bryce could stand no more. He turned to Balloch. “Keep an eye on her. I’ll be back.”

In one fluid motion he stood and walked away from camp. Safely out of hearing, Bryce looked up at the clear bright stars.

“Lord, Vicar Forbes says to honor yer mother and yer father. I’m only trying to do so.” He sighed heavily, wondering if God would hear him after what he had done today. “I really do want peace between our clans. I’m tired of all the bloodshed. Show me how to keep my promise without causing another war.”

No answer came from the Almighty. Bryce dropped his head in shame. While he had never been an overly religious man, he had no desire to anger his Maker. Had he gone too far this time?




"Highland Blessings" is one of those books you can snuggle up with and escape to another time and place. Jennifer Hudson Taylor's prose captured the essence of the highlanders and made it impossible to put down.

The main characters, Akira and Bryce, were two that not only captured my heart, but had my empathy as they tried their hardest to create and keep peace between the two rival clans. They were both strong, but each had a tender side that made them believable and memorable.

This has to be one of my favorite books of the year, if not all time. It's powerful, has a good moral to the story, and contains a great amount of faith. This one comes highly recommended!!!!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Two Tickets to the Christmas Ball" by Donita K. Paul - FIRST Wild Card Tour & Review

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:

WaterBrook Press (October 5, 2010)
***Special thanks to Ashley Boyer and Staci Carmichael of Waterbrook Multnomah for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Expertly weaving together fantasy, romance and Biblical truths, Donita K. Paul penned the best-selling, fan-favorite DragonKeeper Chronicles series. After retiring early from teaching, she began a second career as an award-winning author and loves serving as a mentor for new writers of all ages. And when she’s not putting pen to paper, Donita makes her home in Colorado Springs and enjoys spending time with her grandsons, cooking, beading, stamping, and knitting.


Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press (October 5, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307458997
ISBN-13: 978-0307458995

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Christmas. Cora had been trying to catch it for four years. She scurried down the sidewalk, thankful that streetlights and brightly lit storefronts counteracted the gloom of early nightfall. Somewhere, sometime, she’d get a hold of how to celebrate Christmas. Maybe even tonight.

      With snowflakes sticking to her black coat, Christmas lights blinking around shop windows, and incessant bells jingling, Cora should have felt some holiday cheer.

      And she did.

      Really.

      Just not much.

      At least she was on a Christmas errand this very minute. One present for a member of the family. Shouldn’t that count for a bit of credit in the Christmas-spirit department?

      Cora planned out her Christmas gift giving in a reasonable manner. The execution of her purchasing schedule gave her a great deal of satisfaction. Tonight’s quest was a book for Uncle Eric—something about knights and castles, sword fights, shining armor, and all that.

      One or two gifts purchased each week from Labor Day until December 15, and her obligations were discharged efficiently, economically, and without the excruciating last-minute frenzy that descended upon other people…like her three sisters, her mother, her grandmother, her aunts.

      Cora refused to behave like her female relatives and had decided not to emulate the male side of the family either. The men didn’t buy gifts. They sometimes exchanged bottles from the liquor store, but more often they drank the spirits themselves.

      Her adult ambition had been to develop her own traditions for the season, ones that sprouted from the Christianity she’d discovered in college. The right way to celebrate the birth of Christ. She avoided the chaos that could choke Christmas. Oh dear. Judgmental again. At least now she recognized when she slipped.

      She glanced around Sage Street. Not too many shoppers. The quaint old shops were decked out for the holidays, but not with LED bulbs and inflated cartoon figures.

      Since discovering Christianity, she’d been confused about the trappings of Christmas—the gift giving, the nativity scenes, the carols, even the Christmas tree. Every year she tried to acquire some historical background on the festivities. She was learning. She had hope. But she hadn’t wrapped her head around all the traditions yet.

      The worst part was shopping.

      Frenzy undid her. Order sustained her. And that was a good reason to steer clear of any commercialized holiday rush. She’d rather screw red light bulbs into plastic reindeer faces than push through a crowd of shoppers.

      Cora examined the paper in her hand and compared it to the address above the nearest shop. Number 483 on the paper and 527 on the building. Close.

      When she’d found the bookstore online, she had been amazed that a row of old-fashioned retailers still existed a few blocks from the high-rise office building where she worked. Truthfully, it was more like the bookstore found her. Every time she opened her browser, and on every site she visited, the ad for the old-fashioned new- and used-book store showed up in a banner or sidebar. She’d asked around, but none of her co-workers patronized the Sage Street Shopping District.

      “Sounds like a derelict area to me,” said Meg, the receptionist. “Sage Street is near the old railroad station, isn’t it? The one they decided was historic so they wouldn’t tear it down, even though it’s empty and an eyesore?”

      An odd desire to explore something other than the mall near her apartment seized Cora. “I’m going to check it out.”

      Jake, the security guard, frowned at her. “Take a cab. You don’t want to be out too late over there.”

      Cora walked. The brisk air strengthened her lungs, right? The exercise pumped her blood, right? A cab would cost three, maybe four dollars, right?

      An old man, sitting on the stoop of a door marked 503, nodded at her. She smiled, and he winked as he gave her a toothless grin. Startled, she quickened her pace and gladly joined the four other pedestrians waiting at the corner for the light to change.

      Number 497 emblazoned the window of an ancient shoe store on the opposite corner. She marched on. In this block she’d find the book and check another item off her Christmas list.

      Finally! “Warner, Werner, and Wizbotterdad, Books,” Cora read the sign aloud and then grasped the shiny knob. It didn’t turn. She frowned. Stuck? Locked? The lights were on. She pressed her face against the glass. A man sat at the counter. Reading. How appropriate.

      Cora wrenched the knob. A gust of wind pushed with her against the door, and she blew into the room. She stumbled and straightened, and before she could grab the door and close it properly, it swung closed, without the loud bang she expected.

      “I don’t like loud noises,” the man said without looking up from his book.

      “Neither do I,” said Cora.

      He nodded over his book. With one gnarled finger, he pushed his glasses back up his nose.

      Must be an interesting book. Cora took a quick look around. The place could use stronger lights. She glanced back at the clerk. His bright lamp cast him and his book in a golden glow.

      Should she peruse the stacks or ask?

      She decided to browse. She started to enter the aisle between two towering bookcases.

      “Not there,” said the old man.

      “I beg your pardon?” said Cora.

      “How-to books. How to fix a leaky faucet. How to build a bridge. How to mulch tomatoes. How to sing opera. How-to books. You don’t need to know any of that, do you?”

      “No.”

      “Wrong aisle, then.” He placed the heavy volume on the counter and leaned over it, apparently absorbed once more.

      Cora took a step toward him. “I think I saw a movie like this once.”

      His head jerked up, his scowl heavier. He glared over the top of his glasses at the books on the shelves as if they had suddenly moved or spoken or turned bright orange.

      “A movie? Here? I suppose you mean the backdrop of a bookstore. Not so unusual.” He arched an eyebrow. “You’ve Got Mail and 84 Charing Cross Road.”

      “I meant the dialogue. You spoke as if you knew what I needed.”

      He hunched his shoulders. The dark suspenders stretched across the faded blue of his shirt. “Reading customers. Been in the business a long time.”

      “I’m looking for a book for my uncle. He likes castles, knights, tales of adventure. That sort of thing.”

      He sighed, closed his book, and tapped its cover. “This is it.” He stood as Cora came to the desk. “Do you want me to wrap it and send it? We have the service. My grandson’s idea.”

      Cora schooled her face and her voice. One of the things she excelled in was not showing her exasperation. She’d been trained by a dysfunctional family, and that had its benefits. She knew how to take guff and not give it back. Maintaining a calm attitude was a good job skill.

      She tried a friendly smile and addressed the salesclerk.

      “I want to look at it first and find out how much it costs.”

      “It’s the book you want, and the price is eleven dollars and thirteen cents.”

      Cora rubbed her hand over the cover. It looked and felt like leather, old leather, but in good repair. The book must be ancient.

      “Are you sure?” she asked.

      “Which?” the old man barked.

      “Which what?”

      “Which part of the statement am I sure about? It doesn’t matter because I’m sure about both.”

      Cora felt her armor of detachment suffer a dent. The man was impossible. She could probably order a book online and get it wrapped and delivered right to her uncle with less aggravation. But dollar signs blinked in neon red in her mind as she thought how much that would cost. No need to be hasty.

      Curtain rings rattled on a rod, and Cora looked up to see a younger version of the curmudgeon step into the area behind the counter.

      The younger man smiled. He had the same small, wiry build as the older version, but his smile was warm and genuine. He looked to be about fifty, but his hair was still black, as black as the old man’s hair was white. He stretched out his hand, and Cora shook it.

      “I’m Bill Wizbotterdad. This is my granddad, William Wizbotterdad.”

      “Let me guess. Your father is named Will?”

      Bill grinned, obviously pleased she’d caught on quickly. “Willie Wizbotterdad. He’s off in Europe collecting rare books.”

      “He’s not!” said the elder shop owner.

      “He is.” Bill cast his granddad a worried look.

      “That’s just the reason he gave for not being here.” William shook his head and leaned across the counter. “He doesn’t like Christmas. We have a special job to do at Christmas, and he doesn’t like people and dancing and matrimony.”

      Bill put his arm around his grandfather and pulled him back. He let go of his granddad and spun the book on the scarred wooden counter so that Cora could read the contents. “Take a look.” He opened the cover and flipped through the pages. “Colored illustrations.”

      A rattling of the door knob was followed by the sound of a shoulder thudding against the wood. Cora turned to see the door fly open with a tall man attached to it. The stranger brushed snow from his sleeves, then looked up at the two shop owners. Cora caught them giving each other a smug smile, a wink, and a nod of the head.

      Odd. Lots of oddness in this shop.

      She liked the book, and she wanted to leave before more snow accumulated on the streets. Yet something peculiar about this shop and the two men made her curious. Part of her longed to linger. However, smart girls trusted their instincts and didn’t hang around places that oozed mystery. She didn’t feel threatened, just intrigued. But getting to know the peculiar booksellers better was the last thing she wanted, right? She needed to get home and be done with this Christmas shopping business. “I’ll take the book.”

      The newcomer stomped his feet on the mat by the door, then took off his hat.

      Cora did a double take. “Mr. Derrick!”

      He cocked his head and scrunched his face. “Do I know you?” The man was handsome, even wearing that comical lost expression. “Excuse me. Have we met?”

      “We work in the same office.”

      He studied her a moment, and a look of recognition lifted the frown. “Third desk on the right.” He hesitated, then snapped his fingers. “Cora Crowden.”

      “Crowder.”

      He jammed his hand in his pocket, moving his jacket aside. His tie hung loosely around his neck. She’d never seen him looking relaxed. The office clerks called him Serious Simon Derrick.

      “I drew your name,” she said.

      He looked puzzled.

      “For the gift exchange. Tomorrow night. Office party.”

      “Oh. Of course.” He nodded. “I drew Mrs. Hudson. She’s going to retire, and I heard her say she wanted to redecorate on a shoestring.”

      “That’s Mrs. Wilson. Mrs. Hudson is taking leave to be with her daughter, who is giving birth to triplets.”

      He frowned and began looking at the books.

      “You won’t be there, will you?” Cora asked.

      “At the party? No, I never come.”

      “I know. I mean, I’ve worked at Sorenby’s for five years, and you’ve never been there.”

      The puzzled expression returned to Serious Simon’s face. He glanced to the side. “I’m looking for the how-to section.”

      Cora grinned. “On your left. Second aisle.”

      He turned to stare at her, and she pointed to the shelves Mr. Wizbotterdad had not let her examine. Mr. Derrick took a step in that direction.

      Cora looked back at the shop owners and caught them leaning back in identical postures, grins on their faces, and arms crossed over their chests.

      Bill jerked away from the wall, grabbed her book, rummaged below the counter, and brought out a bag. He slid the book inside, then looked at her. “You didn’t want the book wrapped and delivered?”

      “No, I’ll just pay for it now.”

      “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to look around some more?” asked Bill.

      “Right,” said William. “No hurry. Look around. Browse. You might find something you like.”

      Bill elbowed William.

      Simon Derrick had disappeared between the stacks.

      William nodded toward the how-to books. “Get a book. We have a copy of How to Choose Gifts for Ungrateful Relatives. Third from the bottom shelf, second case from the wall.”

      The statement earned him a “shh” from his grandson.

      Cora shifted her attention to the man from her office and walked a few paces to peek around the shelves. “Mr. Derrick, I’m getting ready to leave. If you’re not coming to the party, may I just leave the gift on your desk tomorrow?”

      He glanced at her before concentrating again on the many books. “That’s fine. Nice to see you, Miss Crowden.”

      “Crowder,” she corrected, but he didn’t answer.

      She went to the counter and paid. Mr. Derrick grunted when she said good-bye at the door.

      “Come back again,” said Bill.

      “Yes,” said William. “We have all your heart’s desires.”

      Bill elbowed him, and Cora escaped into the blustering weather.

      She hiked back to the office building. Snow sprayed her with tiny crystals, and the sharp wind nipped her nose. Inside the parking garage, warm air helped her thaw a bit as she walked to the spot she leased by the month. It would be a long ride home on slippery roads. But once she arrived, there would be no one there to interrupt her plans. She got in the car, turned the key, pushed the gearshift into reverse, looked over her shoulder, and backed out of her space.

      She would get the gift ready to mail off and address a few cards in the quiet of her living room. There would be no yelling. That’s what she liked about living states away from her family. No one would ambush her with complaints and arguments when she walked through the door.

      Except Skippy. Skippy waited. One fat, getting fatter, cat to talk to. She did complain at times about her mistress being gone too long, about her dinner being late, about things Cora could not fathom. But Cora never felt condemned by Skippy, just prodded a little.

_

      Once inside her second-floor apartment, she pulled off her gloves, blew her nose, and went looking for Skippy.

      The cat was not behind the curtain, sitting on the window seat, staring at falling snow. Not in her closet, curled up in a boot she’d knocked over. Not in the linen closet, sleeping on clean towels. She wasn’t in any of her favorite spots. Cora looked around and saw the paper bag that, this morning, had been filled with wadded scraps of Christmas paper. Balls of pretty paper and bits of ribbon littered the floor. There. Cora bent over and spied her calico cat in the bag.

      “Did you have fun, Skippy?”

      The cat rolled on her back and batted the top of the paper bag. Skippy then jumped from her cave and padded after Cora, as her owner headed for the bedroom.

      Thirty minutes later, Cora sat at the dining room table in her cozy pink robe that enveloped her from neck to ankles. She stirred a bowl of soup and eyed the fifteen packages she’d wrapped earlier in the week. Two more sat waiting for their ribbons.

      These would cost a lot less to send if some of these people were on speaking terms. She could box them together and ship them off in large boxes.

      She spooned chicken and rice into her mouth and swallowed.

The soup was a tad too hot. She kept stirring.

      She could send one package with seven gifts inside to Grandma Peterson, who could dispense them to her side of the family. She could send three to Aunt Carol.

      She took another sip. Cooler.

      Aunt Carol could keep her gift and give two to her kids. She could send five to her mom…

      Cora grimaced. She had three much older sisters and one younger. “If Mom were on speaking terms with my sisters, that would help.”

      She eyed Skippy, who had lifted a rear leg to clean between her back toes. “You don’t care, do you? Well, I’m trying to. And I think I’m doing a pretty good job with this Christmas thing.”

      She reached over and flipped the switch on her radio. A Christmas carol poured out and jarred her nerves. She really should think about Christmas and not who received the presents. Better to think “my uncle” than “Joe, that bar bum and pool shark.”

      She finished her dinner, watching her cat wash her front paws.

      “You and I need to play. You’re”—she paused as Skippy turned

a meaningful glare at her—“getting a bit rotund, dear kitty.”

      Skippy sneezed and commenced licking her chest.

      After dinner, Cora curled up on the couch with her Warner, Werner, and Wizbotterdad bag. Skippy came to investigate the rattling paper.

      Uncle Eric. Uncle Eric used to recite “You Are Old, Father William.” He said it was about a knight. But Cora wasn’t so sure. She dredged up memories from college English. The poem was by Lewis Carroll, who was really named Dodson, Dogson, Dodgson, or something.

      “He wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” she said. “There’s a cat in the story, but not as fine a cat as you. He smiles too much.”

      Skippy gave her a squint-eyed look.

      Cora eased the leather-bound book out of the bag. “The William I met at the bookstore qualifies for at least ancient.”

      She put the book in her lap and ran her fingers over the embossed title: How the Knights Found Their Ladies.

      She might have been hasty. She didn’t know if Uncle Eric would like this. She hefted the book, guessing its weight to be around four pounds. She should have found a lighter gift. This would cost a fortune to mail.

      Skippy sniffed at the binding, feline curiosity piqued. Cora stroked her fur and pushed her back. She opened the book to have a peek inside. A piece of thick paper fell out. Skippy pounced on it as it twirled to the floor.

      “What is it, kitty? A bookmark?” She slipped it out from between Skippy’s paws, then turned the rectangle over in her hands. Not a bookmark. A ticket.


Admit one to the Wizards’ Christmas Ball

Costumes required

Dinner and Dancing

and your Destiny


      Never heard of it. She tucked the ticket in between the pages and continued to flip through the book, stopping to read an occasional paragraph.

      This book wasn’t for Uncle Eric at all. It was not a history, it was a story. Kind of romantic too. Definitely not Uncle Eric’s preferred reading.

      Skippy curled against her thigh and purred.

      “You know what, cat? I’m going to keep it.”

      Skippy made her approval known by stretching her neck up and rubbing her chin on the edge of the leather cover. Cora put the book on the sofa and picked up Skippy for a cuddle. The cat squirmed out of her arms, batted at the ticket sticking out of the pages, and scampered off.

      “I love you too,” called Cora.

      She pulled the ticket out and read it again: Wizards’ Christmas Ball. She turned out the light and headed for bed. But as she got ready, her eye caught the computer on her desk. Maybe she could find a bit more information.


I adore Christmas stories. They are cozy, sweet and have a touch of magic and wonderment to them. Every year, as the weather chills down and snow starts to sputter, I start itching to snuggle with a cup of hot chocolate, a Christmas novel and wrap up in my favorite afghan.

"Two Tickets to the Christmas Ball" is a wonderful story that contains all the elements that makes a Christmas story great for me: the tone is cozy, it has that air of magic, and two people that deserve good things happening to them. Throw in unexplained events, a Christmas Ball, an evil sister, and it ended up being the perfect story!!

Donita K. Paul's storyline was wonderful. It was magical yet still realistic and her characters, especially Sandy, were wonderful. They quickly found a place in my heart. Just thinking about them makes me smile.

This book is going to be a permanent part of my Christmas collection, and will be read year after year. If you love Christmas stories, or just love a heartwarming romance with a magical spark, then this is definitely the book for you!!!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Free Christian Fiction E-Books

In my inbox this morning, I found two exciting emails. One from Barnes & Noble stating that the long awaited update for NOOK will be released sometime around the end of next month. It indicated that they have listened to what NOOK owners want, and this update will make page turning faster, a customized B&N library organization, password protection, and an improved search - just to name a few. I'm looking forward to this update, just to be able to customize my library!! Everything else is an added plus.

The second email was from CBD and it was also focused on e-books. It spurred me to start looking for new free books from my favorite sellers. Here are the new goodies I found today:

Chosen Ones - Book 1 of the Aedyn Chronicles by Alister McGrath. Suggested age: 8-12. You can get this free from CBD, Barnes & Noble and Amazon


About the Book: (from CBD)

"The land of Aedyn is a paradise beyond all imagining. But when this paradise falls, strangers from another world must be called to fight for the truth. Peter and Julia never suspected that a trip to their grandparents' home in Oxford would contain anything out of the ordinary. But that was before Julia stumbled upon a mysterious garden that shone on moonless nights. It was no accident that she fell into the pool, pulling her brother along with her, but now they're lost in a strange new world and they don't know whom they can trust. Should they believe the mysterious, hooded lords? The ancient monk who appears only when least expected? Or the silent slaves who have a dark secret of their own? In a world inhabited by strange beasts and magical whisperings, two children called from another world will have to discover who they truly are, fighting desperate battles within themselves before they can lead the great revolution."

The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown. This e-book is free from Barnes & Noble, CBD and Amazon.

About the Book: (from CBD)

"Set in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States, The Malacca Conspiracy is a bone-chilling tale of terrorism on the high seas, of political assassination and nuclear brinkmanship. And for Zack and Diane---your favorite JAG characters from Don Brown's popular Navy Justice Series---a story of hope for a longstanding romance that is now or never. When a dastardly plot is hatched in the Malaysian seaport of Malacca to attack civilian oil tankers at sea, to drive up the price of crude oil futures, and to assassinate the Indonesian president and use fat windfall profits to finance a nuclear attack against American cities, Navy JAG officers Zack Brewer and Diane Cocernian reunite in a sizzling race against the clock to foil the conspiracy before disaster strikes. But as President Mack Williams sends ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet towards the Malacca Straights to reassert control over the sea lanes, will Navy JAG officers Zack Brewer and Diane Colcernian survive this dangerous and final high-stakes drama of life and death? You won't be able to put this thriller down until you find out."

Never Blame the Umpire by Gene Fehler. Suggested age: 9-12. This ebook can be found free at: Barnes & Noble, Amazon and CBD.

About the Book: (from CBD)

"How do you trust God when tragedy strikes? Kate is having the best summer a sports-loving eleven-year-old could possibly have. Baseball. Tennis. And to top it off, Kate has just started a three-week class where she's discovering a new love: poetry. Then comes the news that tears Kate's world apart. In her close-knit family, Kate has always felt God's love and protection. But how can she trust God now? Do sports or poetry matter when tragedy strikes? In Kate's darkest hour, her mother's faith shines its brightest, helping Kate to see that life is still beautiful and God is still good. Always, no matter what."

The Choice: Lancaster County Secret Series #1 by Suzanne Woods Fisher. This e-book can be found free at Barnes & Noble and Amazon

About the Book: (from Amazon)

"With a vibrant, fresh style Suzanne Woods Fisher brings readers into the world of a young Amish woman torn between following the man she loves--or joining the community of faith that sustains her, even as she questions some of the decisions of her elders. Her choice begins a torrent of change for her and her family, including a marriage of convenience to silent Daniel Miller. Both bring broken hearts into their arrangement--and secrets that have been held too long. Filled with gentle romance, The Choice opens the world of the Amish--their strong communities, their simple life, and their willingness to put each other first. Combined with Fisher's exceptional gift for character development, this novel, the first in a series, is a welcome reminder that it is never too late to find your way back to God."

Mozart's Sister by Nancy Moser. This e-book is free at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

About the Book (from Borders)

"Nannerl Mozart's early days seem to be the stuff of fairy tales--traveling far and wide, performing piano concerts with her younger brother, Wolfgang, before the crowned heads of Europe. But behind the glamour lurk dark difficulties--the hardship of travel, agonizing bouts of illness, and the constant concern over money. Their father, Leopold, is driven by a desire to bring his son's genius to the attention of the world. But what about Nannerl? Is she not just as talented? In a world where women's choices are limited, what hope does she have of ever realizing her own dreams? In this lovingly crafted novel, author Nancy Moser brings to life one of history's hidden heroines."

Naomi and Her Daughters: A Novel by Walter Wangerin. This e-book can be found free at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CBD

About the Book: (from Amazon)

"From master storyteller Walter Wangerin, Jr. comes this familiar biblical saga told in a fresh, transfixing way. You'll feel you've never heard it before! Melding historical accuracy with imaginative detail, Wangerin uses the biblical books of Judges and Ruth to explore themes of love, faith, grief and community set against a backdrop of war and political instability.The widow Naomi grieves the deaths of her two adult sons after the shocking murder of a beloved adopted daughter, while pondering her responsibilities toward her Moabite daughters-in-law. Ancient Israel is in chaos. When her daughter-in-law, Ruth, begs to return to Israel with Naomi, events are set in motion that will change the course of history.But wait...this isn't the tame, flannel graph story you heard in Sunday School. In the tradition of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent and Elissa Elliott's Eve: A Novel of the First Woman, Wangerin imbues his tale with strong female characters and an earthy realism that gives the timeless Old Testament narrative so much power. You'll find echoes of contemporary issues throughout: deceit, heartbreak, loss, war, and, of course, the power of love. Naomi's combined strength and tenderness becomes the pivot upon which a nation turns; her decisions ultimately lead to the founding of the family lineage of Jesus Christ.Breathtaking descriptions, shocking violence, and inspirational courage make this spellbinding novel by a beloved award-winning author a story you won't soon forget. It's the perfect novel for your book group, and a satisfying read for those who love thoughtful biblical fiction."

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