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Researching Columbia by Kat Martin

February 8, 2019 by in category Apples & Oranges by Marianne H. Donley, Guest Posts tagged as , , , , , , ,

Researching Columbia

Sometimes what you think is going to be a great idea for a novel turns out to be a whole lot of work! That’s what happens when you realize the idea you are now in the middle of isn’t going to work the way you thought it would.

In THE CONSPIRACY, I got the idea for a book that started in Texas, moved to the Caribbean, and ended up in Venezuela.  With all the trouble country is having, I thought it would be a great setting for a Romantic Thriller.

Unfortunately, after I was well into the book and started doing the necessary research for that segment of the story, I realized the geography I needed, and the rural setting didn’t exist in Venezuela.

I spent days digging around in South America, looking for a rainforest that could be reasonably reached from the Caribbean island of Aruba. Nothing worked.

The Conspiracy | Kat Martin | A Slice of Orange

Finally, I realized there actually was spot that exactly fit the image in my head. (This happens to writers all the time. No one knows why.) The spot was in Colombia, a place I had no desire to write about, but fit the story exactly.

So I went to work researching a remote area of Columbia accessible from Aruba.

Chase Garrett, the hero of THE CONSPIRACY, with the help of Harper Winston, the woman who hires him to find her missing brother, wind up in extreme danger in the Columbian tropical forest. It’s a very unusual place that required hours of research, but in the end, it was worth it.

I had my work cut out for me, finding which animals, reptiles, and birds lived in the area.  Reading about the customs of the indigenous tribes, and the politic. Rebel armies inhabit the forest, and they don’t like intruders.

The research made THE CONSPIRACY one of the most challenging books I’ve written, but hopefully it’s one of my most interesting. I hope you’ll look for THE CONPIRACY, the first of my Maximum Security series, and that you enjoy. Until next time, very best wishes and happy reading,


Kat Martin | A Slice of Orange
Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura Country Star

New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara where she majored in Anthropology and also studied History. Currently residing in Missoula, Montana with her Western-author husband, L. J. Martin, Kat has written sixty-five Historical and Contemporary Romantic Suspense novels. More than sixteen million copies of her books are in print and she has been published in twenty foreign countries. Her last novel, BEYOND CONTROL, hit both big lists … NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST as well as the USA TODAY BEST-SELLING BOOKS LIST. Kat is currently at work on her next Romantic Suspense.

A selection of books by Kat Martin


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Balancing the Toddler-Mom and Writing Lives—Achievable or Myth? by Melinda S. Collins

November 28, 2018 by in category Guest Posts tagged as , , ,

Balancing | Melinda S. Collins | A Slice of Orange


Balance. My goodness, I have a love/hate relationship with this idea of having enough time for everything in my life—dayjob, daughter and hubby, keeping the home in a semi-state of controlled chaos, reading, writing the next great American novel. Oh, and taking time out for myself so I don’t lose my mind.


Every now and then I’m able to get into a good juggling rhythm. By every now and then I mean about every 1-2 months. Because, Murphy’s Law, if anything can go wrong, it will. Which means one can only wonder whether balance is truly achievable or just a big ‘ole myth.


Over the last few months, I’ve thought quite a lot about my own balancing act, and that lead me to first review the definition via Webster’s online:


Balance [bal-uhns] Noun


  1. A state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.
  2. Something used to produce equilibrium; counterpoise.
  3. Mental steadiness or emotional stability; habit of calm behavior, judgment, etc.


While each of these definitions are on point, that last one is the epitome of my current life goal: creating a habit of calming behavior so I can have mental steadiness and emotional stability.


So now you may be wondering how the hell I’m going to manage that achievement, eh? I hear you. I have a job in the managed healthcare industry that I am very good at and really love (most days), a headstrong, energetic, and fast-growing two-year old daughter (read: stubborn, exhausting, and teething), a wonderful, supportive husband, a home I love but never devote enough time to its upkeep, and a novel I finished 2 years ago that needs heavy revisions so I can finally get it into the inboxes of the dozen agents/editors who’ve requested pages. Amongst all of that, I’ve got additional aspirations for furthering both my managed care and writing careers, expanding our little family (soon-ish), and getting my daughter involved in group activities. Whew! I may have been hit with a little anxiety just typing all that out.


So yeah, how the hell am I going to manage all of this? Well, luckily that wonderful husband I’ve mentioned has committed to my dreams in the same way I have, because in order for me to obtain the balance I need, his foundation of love and support will be invaluable (I’m also providing the same to him for his dreams). And because of that, I can confidently share my top five tips for balancing the writing and mom life while keeping your sanity… cause it’s not a myth. smile


  • Know your priorities. For me, family will always come first, no matter what. As long as my family is happy, loved, and functioning, everything else in my life is a bonus. This is where my dayjob comes into play as well, because my pay check greatly contributes to the roof over my family’s heads and the healthy, homemade meals they get every evening.
  • Goals are a non-negotiable. Without an end goal in mind, you cannot create a roadmap to achieving that said goal. Part of my 2019 goals includes making myself accountable to not only my family, but a critique partner. Next month I will send them my writerly goals for the first quarter of 2019, then I will sit down and create my roadmap for meeting those goals by the end of March. Then rinse and repeat for quarters two, three, and four. *smile*
  • Schedules are a necessary evil. Without a schedule, all you have are the destinations (goals). So in order to say you know how to achieve your goals, you need preplanned, dedicated, uninterrupted work time. For me that means every Saturday from 7am to 4pm is sacred. I work between forty and fifty hours any given week, and my boss will tell you that in that time I complete the work of 1.5 people. This means that during the week it’s very hard to do anything writerly unless it’s a simple beta read, because, let’s be honest, by the time dinner and bath time are done and the kid’s in the bed fast asleep, it’s nearly 8:30 and I’m t-minus one hour away from passing out myself. So as long as I have dedicated time to work on my writing, I can allow the chaos of family life to overtake my weeknights without worry.
  • A solid support system is key. In order to even stick to the schedule you’ve set, you need a support system that’ll not only make sure the toddler’s fed, changed, entertained, and safe, but also remind you they are sacrificing their time in order for you to have those few, precious hours. Lately my husband and I split our weekends: I have Saturday until 4 and he has Sunday until 4, after that time on both days we spend time with our daughter together. Each Saturday he’ll tell me to get my writing done, which is both a wonderful support and reminder that he’s counting on me to use my time wisely. And not just him but the critique partners who then take their time to review my work and provide invaluable feedback.
  • Be accountable to yourself, first and foremost. None of the above will work if you are not going to be accountable to yourself. After all, the main person you’re letting down by not achieving your goals is YOU. I’ve learned this the hard way, over and over again and, truth be told, I’m sick and tired of setting goals and never being able to check them off as complete, because I know that eventually what’ll happen is ten years will go by without a damn thing accomplished and I’ll be nothing but regretful and disappointed in myself. And that’s not the example I want to set for my daughter.




Celebrate. Every. Accomplishment.


When my kid actually follows instructions and puts away all the canned food she stacked throughout the kitchen? cheers REWARD.

When she lets me drop her off at daycare without a five-star, soap-opera-worthy dramatic meltdown. cheers REWARD.

And here’s my favorite: When she actually pees in her potty vs the bathroom floor? cheers REWARD.


Seriously. The reward system works, and it’s not just for kids. Even as adults, celebrating every accomplishment, no matter how small, sends a signal somewhere in our brain that then keeps us motivated to do more. To reach higher. To push ourselves beyond our limits because we can do this!


Because I need to drink my own Kool-Aid on this one, here are the writerly accomplishments I’m going to celebrate this week, as they will push me into the next project like nothing else:

  • I am a two-time Lawson Academy Immersion Grad. This means I not only participated and stuffed my brain with a ton of amazing craft lessons via online classes, but I immersed myself in those lessons for 5 days with Margie Lawson and small group of like-minded writers.
  • My second novel, Retribution, placed first in its category in the 2013 MCRW Melody of Love contest.
  • My latest novel, Case of Magic, has a dozen requests from the editors/agents I’ve pitched to at conventions.
  • My first venture into the short story world, One Night in December, will be released as part of an amazing anthology, Once Upon the Longest Night, on December 21st—the Winter Solstice, aka the longest night of the year. (How brilliant is that?)


‘Scuse me a second while I fix a celebratory cocktail.


Ok, so in closing… while I’ve been cooking on the things I need to do to obtain balance in my life, trust me when I say that it wasn’t until these last few weeks that my eyes were opened WIDE. Because of that, my drive to hold fast to these tips, follow and incorporate them every day has only grown ten-fold. And if I can make someone else’s life a little easier by sharing my hard-learned balancing lessons? Well, that’s a cherry on top of the messy cake known as my life. J



Happy writing! cheers

melinda | Melinda S. Collins | A Slice of Orange




Melinda S. Collins

Paranormal & Urban Fantasy Author

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Writing Dialogue by Kat Martin

May 24, 2018 by in category Apples & Oranges by Marianne H. Donley, Guest Posts, Spotlight tagged as , , , , , , , ,

Writing Dialogue | Kat Martin | A Slice of Orange

One of the questions I’m commonly asked is how do you write dialogue?  No question, dialogue between characters can be tricky.  Each character has a unique voice that is distinct from others in the book.

Since I’ve never been particularly good at description, letting the characters tell the story is my favorite way to craft a novel.

Of course there has to be narration, ways to move the story forward and set the scene.  A lot of writers simply have a different way of telling a tale, maybe through a single character’s actions and observations or just a majority of narrative.  But if you want to move the book forward through dialog, here are a few helpful tricks.

First, enter the scene late and leave early.  Readers don’t want to hear “How are you?”  “I am fine.”

Second, once the characters start talking, let them talk—you can always delete or alter the conversation later.  But the fun is in hearing what the characters have to say.

Third, something I’m careful about, try not to overwork unfinished sentences.  “What do you mean you didn’t—“  Or “I don’t think you should—“ What?  Readers can’t read minds.  Yes, this is how people talk in real life, but your job is to make it sound like real conversation while it’s actually more fleshed out, easier to understand.

Fourth, be sure to use contractions to make the character’s speech sound more real.  Unless you have a character who says things like “I cannot do that,” use “can’t” or “won’t,” or “don’t” or whatever.

So now that you know some of tricks, you just have to listen to your characters and get them talking in your head—which I think is at least partly determined by how you describe them.

Once I sat in front of the post office with the car windows rolled up and tried to hear the voice of every person walking out.  It was amazing—no two voices sounded the same!  A strange story but true.

So listen to the voices in your head.  That’s my best advice.  And just keep writing.  It gets easier as you go along.



Summer Adventure | Kat Martin
Bestselling author Kat Martin is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara where she majored in Anthropology and also studied History. Currently residing with her Western-author husband, L. J. Martin, in Missoula, Montana, Kat has written sixty eight Historical and Contemporary Romantic Suspense novels.  More than sixteen million copies of her books are in print and she has been published in twenty foreign countries. Her last novel is BEYOND CONTROL, which will be released May 29th.






Beyond Control | Kat Martin | A Slice of Orange




Victoria Bradford and her four-year old daughter are on the run from Tory’s abusive ex-fiancé.   Seventy miles north of Dallas, the Iron River Ranch is pretty much nowhere, exactly what Josh Cain wanted when he came back from Afghanistan.  Big skies, quiet nights, no trouble.

When Tory shows up with her adorable little girl, Josh realizes he is in for trouble of the most personal kind. But Josh has seen trouble before, and he doesn’t scare easy. Not when “accidents” start happening around the ranch. Not when Tory’s best friend is abducted.  Not even when he realizes their troubles are only the tip of the iceberg.

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To CELEBRATE the release of BEYOND CONTROL, enter Kat’s new contest for a chance to win a KINDLE FIRE 7″ Display, Wi-Fi, 8 GB and a Kindle copy of AGAINST THE WINDAGAINST THE FIRE and AGAINST THE LAW.

Special Contest runs from May 1, 2018 through June 30, 2018.


Monthly Contests

For MAY, Kat Martin is giving away to THREE winners a copy of both INTO THE FURY and MIDNIGHT SUN.

For JUNE, Kat Martin is giving away to THREE winners a copy of both INTO THE FIRESTORM and SEASON OF STRANGERS.

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Tempted by a Texan, Book Four in Mindy Neff’s Texas Sweethearts

May 8, 2018 by in category Apples & Oranges by Marianne H. Donley, Guest Posts, Spotlight tagged as , , ,

Tempted by a Texan | Mindy Neff | A Slice of Orange

Welcome to Hope, Texas home of the Texas Sweethearts—where gossip’s hotter than three-alarm chili and even the good guys wear black. 


This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from Tempted by a Texan, book four in the Texas Sweethearts series by Mindy Neff.


Tempted by a Texan

Mindy Neff


Chapter One



Becca Sue Ellsworth’s arms felt empty. It was an ache that went clear to her soul.

From her apartment window above her bookshop and antiques boutique, Becca’s Attic, she gazed out at Main Street, darkened now except for streetlamps casting shadowy arcs over the two-lane road. There was no traffic. The diagonal parking spaces in front of the sidewalks were deserted. Hope Valley was one of those small Southern towns that rolled up the sidewalks at dusk.

A deep sense of aloneness pressed against her chest. She’d just spent the evening with her three best friends—more affectionately known as the Texas Sweethearts—and their families. She wasn’t normally given to envy, and it made her feel small to covet her girlfriends’ children, pregnancies and happy families.

Oh, it wasn’t as though she begrudged them their happiness. She just wanted a piece of it for herself.

Younger by six months than Sunny, Donetta and Tracy Lynn, Becca had recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday. The magic number, it seemed, when a woman’s biological clock began to gong like a cowbell being beaten by a sledgehammer.

The incessant reminder was almost deafening.

She didn’t have the money for artificial insemination, which Tracy Lynn had tried. And she didn’t have a husband like Sunny and Donetta—and, of course, Tracy Lynn. Tracy Lynn had practically been forced into a marriage of convenience, which had ultimately turned out to be her heart’s every dream come true.

Sighing, Becca looked past her own reflection in the window and caught a glimpse of movement below. Her heart jumped into her throat, and with a silent yelp, she quickly ducked behind the silky Priscilla curtains.

Colby Flynn.

The streetlight illuminated him as he walked down the sidewalk and paused outside his law office, which was right across the street from Becca’s Attic. He started to insert the key, then turned suddenly, looking directly up at Becca’s window.

She hit the wall beside the window with a thud, flattening her back against the blue forget-me-nots speckled across the antique wallpaper, and held her breath. It was a wonder she hadn’t wet her pants.

That was all she needed—to get caught staring at her ex-boyfriend.

Lord, the man could still make her heart bump against her ribs. More so lately. And all because of a silly promise made when they were both drunk on their butts.

Shoot, he probably didn’t even remember. It’d been seven years.

They’d dated, even tried living together for a couple of months one summer when Colby took a semester off from law school, but they’d soon found out that they were total opposites who drove each other nuts. She’d been a scatterbrained free spirit. He’d been a neatnik, stuffy

sort who hadn’t appreciated the fact that clothes lying about on the floor was an excellent way to preserve the life of the carpet.

Maybe she’d scared him off. At twenty-three, she’d been going through her I-want-to- get-married-and-have-babies phase. Colby was set on building a future in the field of law, not housekeeping. He’d told her he couldn’t give her what she wanted, that he had to let her go so she could find someone else who could fulfill her dream, give her the things she deserved— commitment and family.

Even now a wave of embarrassment washed over her as she recalled the pitiful plea in her voice: “What if that doesn’t happen? I’m all that’s left of my family, Colby. What if I turn thirty someday and haven’t found my soul mate?”

“You will turn thirty,” he’d teased. “And I’m sure a smarter man than me will have snapped you up way sooner than that.” “But what if?” she’d persisted.

“Then we’ll have a baby together,” he’d said, wiping the tears from her face, her alcohol- induced misery clearly too much for him to resist. “No strings attached. You’ll have your family, I’ll take care of the finances.”

Well, her birthday had already passed. And because Colby’s office was right across the street from her shop and apartment, she was hyperaware of his comings and goings. Every time it looked as though he might make the trek across the street, an adrenaline surge nearly knocked her to her knees.

Did he remember?

Neither of them had ever mentioned the words they’d said to each other seven years ago, words that made sense in the midst of an alcoholic haze, but could only be deemed ridiculous in the sober light of day.

Several times lately, though, when their paths crossed, Colby had given her a teasing, flirtatious wink and a knowing look.

What was up with that? And what in the world did it mean? She was becoming a wreck obsessing over it.

Gathering her nerve, Becca carefully inched to the side and sneaked a peek out the window. Colby was no longer on the sidewalk and a light inside his office indicated he’d gone in.

Both relief and disappointment washed over her.

Criminy, Becca Sue. Get a grip.

Most likely, she was merely projecting her own wishes onto Colby—thinking his overt glances in her direction carried undertones of their youthful baby pact.

Annoyed with herself at the silliness, she crossed the room, climbed into bed and snatched up a knitting magazine from her nightstand.

Neither she nor Colby would consider hopping in the sack just to produce a child and then go on their respective ways.

Besides, Colby Flynn had broken her heart. Oh, sure, she’d made a point of not letting him know that. She’d been determined to act sophisticated, to play off their breakup as no big deal, insisting they continue their friendship—which they had, albeit as slightly distant friends.

Sadly, she would never easily trust a man with her heart again. Especially Colby Flynn.

She flipped through the pages of the knitting magazine. It was the fall edition and she couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for trendy hat and sweater patterns when the temperature outside this week had barely made it below seventy degrees. In Becca’s opinion, it was silly to send out the fall issue of a publication in the middle of June.

After a few more minutes, she set aside the magazine and turned out the light. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, the barely perceptible smell of animals from the area’s horse and cattle ranches wafted in the gentle breeze, shifted the gauzy curtains at her window, and mingled with the lemon verbena scent of her linens. What would probably seem like an odd combination of odors to others was actually comforting to Becca Sue. With every breath, she felt wrapped in a sense of the familiar, in generational roots that went as far back as the defenders of the Alamo.

What was Colby doing at his office so late at night? she wondered. Darla Pam Kirkwell, Hope Valley’s self-appointed busybody, had mentioned that she’d heard he was leaving town, but then, Darla Pam loved to gossip and stir up trouble and her information was not always reliable.

Becca gave a start when she heard a noise coming from downstairs. A crash.

“Darn it, Trouble!” She threw back the bed sheet and got up. The silly cat was always getting into something he shouldn’t. Trouble lived up to his name nicely—although Becca should have tacked on the middle name of Klepto. Over the past few months, her cat had actually been stealing things from the neighbors! Shiny hair clips from Donetta’s salon, spoons from Anna’s Café, trinkets from the hardware store and saddle shop…it was starting to get embarrassing.

The cat was either going to get arrested or Becca would have to take her to a shrink. Perhaps she ought to rethink the kitty doors she’d installed. Clearly the little menace needed less freedom.

“I swear, Trouble, if you’ve broken any of my prize collectibles, I’ll take you to jail myself.”

Without bothering to put on a robe, Becca opened the door at the top of the steep staircase that led to her shop below and flicked on the light switch. The single, low-wattage bulb didn’t even have the courtesy to give a pop to let her know it was burned out. It simply didn’t come on.

No problem. She knew the layout of the building by heart, right down to the last creaky board, and she always kept a flashlight behind the cash register in case of major storms or power outages.

Besides, she was all too aware that Colby was right across the street, and since she rarely pulled the shades over the front windows, she didn’t particularly want to turn on the store lights. That would make Becca’s Attic the equivalent of a lighted aquarium, and Becca the parading fish.

Her bare feet made only a whisper of sound on the wood treads. She counted thirteen steps, then reached for the crystal knob she knew was right in front of her on the door at the bottom of the stairs.

She expected the shrill of squeaky hinges.

She did not expect the blinding pain when something slammed into her side. Or the next blow that buckled her knees.

* * *


Colby Flynn sealed another carton of law books and carried it to the growing stack piled neatly by the front door. He still had three weeks before he was scheduled to relocate to Dallas, but there was a lot of packing to do. He hadn’t realized how much stuff he’d accumulated since he’d been back in Hope Valley.

He also hadn’t realized how stupidly melancholy he’d feel about leaving his hometown and friends.

He touched the corkboard hanging on the wall by the front entrance. It was overflowing with lawyer jokes, some written on pieces of scrap paper, all of them held in place by colorful pushpins. Nearly everyone who crossed this threshold and saw the wall art ended up coming back and pinning their own joke to the board. Over the years, the collection had become vast.

This was his one and only concession to clutter.

Granted, he’d tried organizing the contents of the corkboard in the beginning, but it had been a losing battle. So he’d given in and let his friends have their fun—a difficult concession for a guy who’d attended military school and had organization burned into his brain.

Although some of the paper was yellowed with age, and the board looked like a scrap hoarder’s mess, Colby hated to part with the thing.

But this wasn’t the sort of art appropriate for the tastefully elegant walls of the Wells and

Steadman law firm, soon to be Wells, Steadman and Flynn.

Leaving the corkboard where it was for the time being, he pushed the stack of packing boxes against the baseboard and turned to see what else needed doing. A flash of light caught his eye and he paused.

For a minute he thought his tired eyes were playing tricks on him. He could have sworn he saw a beam of light coming from Becca’s shop, which had been dark for quite a while now. Her upstairs apartment lights had switched off almost an hour ago—yes, damn it, he reminded himself, he’d noticed.

Moving his law practice to the building across from Becca’s Attic last year had been both heaven and torture. Heaven because he got to see Becca’s cute little body sashaying in and out day after day.

And torture because he had to watch her cute little body sashaying in and out day after day—knowing he’d tossed away any chance of actually touching or holding her.

Although his regret was deep, he still believed that he’d done the right thing seven years ago by letting her go. She was a woman who deserved commitment, steadiness and roots.

Because of his family’s track record, those were the things in life he feared most—along with failure.

The narrow beam glanced off the darkened window again. Why would Becca be prowling around with a flashlight at midnight? Why not just turn on the lights?

He didn’t like the suspicions that came to mind. Curse of the profession—he’d been privy to way too many cases involving crimes where people stole from others because they were too damn lazy to go out and make their own money; or they were such slaves to drugs that their jo bs weren’t enough to fund their habit and they had to take what didn’t belong to them.

Well, by God, nobody was going to steal from Becca Sue. Not if he had anything to say about it.

He removed a Colt .45 handgun from the file cabinet and stuffed it in the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. Leaving his office, he sprinted across the street and slipped into the alley that led to the back entrance.

The door to her shop was ajar.

His heart lodged right up under his Adam’s apple and his mouth went dry. He slid the

Colt from his jeans and checked the safety.

Using his knuckles so he wouldn’t sully any potentially incriminating fingerprints with his own, he eased the door open the rest of the way and crept inside, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness.

Nothing moved. No sound.

He could hear his own breath loudly in his ears. A sixth sense told him he wasn’t alone.

Simultaneously, he heard a moan and the sound of a car engine roaring to life. The moan was female and coming from inside. The pitch of the vehicle’s muffler indicated it was accelerating away. Fast.

He slammed his hand against the wall, groping in the dark for the light switch. The side of his palm brushed the toggle and fluorescent lights blinked on, illuminating half the store.

Oh, man. Becca lay in a crumpled heap just beyond the stairwell doorway.




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Rescued by a Rancher by Mindy Neff

April 8, 2018 by in category Apples & Oranges by Marianne H. Donley, Guest Posts, Spotlight tagged as , , ,

Rescued by a Rancher | Mindy Neff | A Slice of Orange

Welcome to Hope, Texas home of the Texas Sweethearts—where gossip’s hotter than three-alarm chili and even the good guys wear black. 


This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from Rescued by a Rancher , book three in the Texas Sweethearts series by Mindy Neff.


Rescued by a Rancher

Mindy Neff

Chapter One

Sometimes a woman had to take charge of her own destiny. Tracy Lynn Randolph was doing just that.

Above her, puffy clouds cast huge shadows over the Texas hills, the sky so blue it almost hurt to look at it. A brisk November wind ruffled the spiky seed pods on the sweet -gum tree, scattering little sticker balls over the lawn and onto the steps of the redbrick courthouse.

Even if it hadn’t been such a glorious afternoon, nothing could have dampened Tracy Lynn’s mood. Her smile far outshone any smile she’d perfected in the dozen or so beauty pageants she’d entered in her youth. She pressed a hand to her chest as if to contain her giddy excitement.

Pausing at the base of the Hope Valley courthouse steps, she closed her eyes and sent her thoughts heavenward.

Mama, are you watching? I’m finally starting on my dream. Our dream.

Her heart squeezed and her throat ached as she remembered the words her mother had uttered just hours before succumbing completely to the aggressive ovarian cancer that had been draining the life from her once-vibrant body for the past eight months.

“Give Daddy grandbabies,” Mama had said, her voice weak yet steady. “You were the only child I was able to have, and he so wanted a big family.”

“I will, Mama. Before I’m thirty.”

In those last few weeks they’d planned Tracy Lynn’s future—a future her mother, Chelsa, would never see, the fairy-tale wedding she would never attend. They’d even chosen names for the grandbabies, whose sweet, warm bodies her mother would never rock in her arms.

Those had been the very best weeks of Tracy Lynn’s life. And the very worst.

Ten years had gone by since her mom had died. Tracy Lynn had truly believed she’d be married long before she turned twenty-five—a reasonable assumption since she’d never lacked for dates.

But Prince Charming hadn’t arrived.

So she’d decided to go on without him.

Granted, she hadn’t actually met the deadline she’d so confidently promised her mother, but she was darn close. Next month, on Christmas Eve, she’d be turning thirty.

Before that auspicious day, though, she would be able to tell her dad that he was going to be a grandpa. The thought of Hope Valley Mayor Jerald Randolph bouncing his grandbaby on

his knee was enough to make Tracy Lynn laugh out loud.

She looked up as her dad pushed through the glass doors of the courthouse. He was a handsome man at fifty-nine, his dark hair graying at the temples, giving him a distinguished look. He was also still quite slim, due in part to his restless energy.

Jerald Randolph didn’t know how to relax; he had to be going somewhere or doing something all the time.

She waved and jogged up the half-dozen steps to meet him on the wide landing and give him a hug. “Hey, Daddy.”

His frown was both apologetic and confused as he pecked her on the cheek. “Did I forget an appointment, honey?”

“No. But I have some great news, and I couldn’t wait to share it.”

“Can you tell me in three minutes or less? You caught me on the way to a meeting.”

“I know. I called Alice and she itemized your schedule.” His secretary knew more about him than anyone else. Tracy Lynn had hoped to get her father alone so they could celebrate in private, but the man was a workaholic—had been all her life—and she’d learned to catch him when she could, often obliged to fall into step beside him as he rushed from one place to the next, conducting his mayoral duties or handling his commercial real estate investment business.

“That’s why I wanted to intercept you this afternoon, so you’d be the first to know. It’s all I can do not to climb the flagpole and shout it to the world.”

He gave her an indulgent smile. “In the interest of decorum, why don’t you just tell me and I’ll pass along whatever it is at the school-board meeting. That’d be a lot more effective. Those folks can spread news faster than a minnow can swim a dipper.”

Although he was smiling at her, she noticed that he looked pale, tired. But her fabulous announcement would perk him up for sure.

She took a breath, felt her eyes mist from happiness.

“You’re going to be a grandfather, Dad.”

He looked at her in confusion.

“I’m pregnant.”

Dead silence met her words. Instead of the awe and exuberant hug she’d expected, his smile faded and his facial muscles went rigid.

A sparrow hopped off a nearby brick planter, then darted away in a flutter of wings. Somewhere, a woodpecker hammered his beak into bark in search of supper, the staccato sound matching the rhythm of Tracy Lynn’s heart.

Dread began to gather beneath her sternum as she waited for him to respond. Although they were the only two standing on the steps, he glanced around as if checking to see if anyone might have overheard her announcement.

This wasn’t the proud reception she’d expected. He appeared…embarrassed. “Daddy?” she prompted. “Aren’t you excited?”

Gripping her upper arm, he pulled her to one side of the landing, next to the iron bench and metal ash can county employees used during smoke breaks.

“What do you mean, you’re pregnant?” The question was a harsh demand. His gaze darted to her stomach, then back to her face. “Did you think this was good news? You’re not even married, Tracy Lynn.”

“Oh, Daddy.” She smiled and shook her head. “That’s not an issue in this generation.” “You damned well better believe it is in my generation! It’s vitally important for our

family to keep up a good image. If I run for senator, you can be sure my opponent will dig deep in our backyard, searching for old bones we can’t bury. My God, girl, you know how gossip is in a small town.”

“But this is good gossip. There’s no need to hide my pregnancy or the existence of my child.” The sting of rejection swarmed in her stomach like angry bees. She was both bewildered and terrified.

For the first time in her life, she wasn’t Daddy’s perfect girl. And she didn’t know quite how to react.

Jerald reached for his handkerchief and mopped his brow. “Who’s the father?”

“No one…” The gray pallor of his skin worried her, cutting off her explanation. He was breathing heavily, and she’d never seen him sweat so profusely. “Daddy? What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I asked you a question, girl. I—” He opened his mouth to continue, but his face contorted in pain. To her everlasting horror, he clutched his chest, and before her brain could signal her to reach out and catch him, he collapsed at her feet, his back scraping against the iron bench as he went down.

“Oh, my God! Daddy! Somebody, help!” She wasn’t sure if she managed to yell loud enough for anyone inside the courthouse to hear. Her purse slid off her shoulder as she dropped to her knees beside him.

She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. She felt as though she was having a nightmare—this couldn’t be happening! Every bit of first-aid training she’d ever learned—she’d needed it to care for her mother and later to work at the senior center—flew right out of her head.

“Don’t do this to me, girl.” He wheezed and gasped for breath. “I can’t have my daughter pregnant and not married. Tell me. We’ll make everything right. I need to know who fathered this baby—”

“I did, sir.”

Tracy Lynn turned quickly to see who had spoken. Lincoln Slade—bad-boy-turned- rancher. She watched, heart in her throat, as Linc bent down, loosened Jerald’s shirt buttons, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Now, let’s calm down and leave this discussion until later.”

Tracy Lynn was so distraught she could hardly think past the fact that her strong, youthful father was lying at the top of the courthouse steps gasping for breath. In some rational part of her mind, she noted that Linc already had his cell phone against his ear.

Oh, God. Hers was in her purse. She hadn’t even thought—

“I need rescue in front of the courthouse,” Linc said into the phone. “Patients name is Jerald Randolph. Early sixties. Appears to be a heart attack. Tell the paramedics that if they look out their door, they’ll see us.”

She glanced down the street.  It felt as though the fire station was ten miles away instead of a mere block.

“Do you have any aspirin, babe?”

“I have Tylenol.” She snatched up her purse, dumping the contents on the cement. “Will that work? Wait. Maybe I’ve got—“

Linc swore.

Her head jerked up, fear ripping at her insides.

Her father’s eyes had rolled back in his head.

His chest wasn’t moving.

Linc dropped the phone and went into action.

Paralyzed by shock, Tracy Lynn stared as he checked her father’s pulse, his breathing, then shook him and shouted his name. Only seconds passed before he tilted back her daddy’s head, breathed deeply into his mouth, then began CPR compressions.

“Breathe for him, Trace,” Linc said. “I’ll pause on ten. Come on, now. Get it together.” Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely position her father’s chin.

“And nine, and ten,” Linc counted. “Now!”

Tears streaming down her cheeks, she tried to blow air into her father’s mouth, but terror and anguish made her own breath shallow. She choked on a sob, didn’t even have enough air in her lungs to lift his chest.

“Damn it, Tracy Lynn. Snap out of it!” Linc resumed chest compressions, palms cupped, counting even as he shouted at her. “This isn’t about you. Princess. Now breathe for him or kiss him goodbye!”

Tears dripping onto her father’s face, she did as she was told, Linc’s forceful words finally penetrating her stupor. Between Linc’s compressions, she transferred her breath into her father’s lungs for what seemed like hours.

At last sirens screamed from half a block away. Tracy Lynn wondered why in heaven’s name the paramedics hadn’t just grabbed their gear and run the short distance.

As she bent to cover his mouth once more, Jerald took a breath. His eyes opened and he looked around wildly as though he had no idea how he’d ended up lying on the cold concrete.

Paramedics appeared at her elbow. One of them was Damian Stoltz. She’d dated him a couple of years ago, but things hadn’t worked out between them.

She felt Linc’s hands on her, urging her to her feet, shifting her out of the way so the medics would have room to work. Her body trembled and her teeth chattered, more from fear than the chilly afternoon air.

“You did just fine, babe,” Linc said, drawing her against his side, his hands chafing her arms, her back, bringing warmth to thaw the icy shock.

She shook her head, didn’t deserve his bolstering. She’d been worse than useless, frozen in blind terror when she should have acted. “He wasn’t breathing. His heart stopped. Linc, what if—“

“Shh. He’s in good hands now.”

The other paramedic was Mason Lowe, who she’d also dated. Thank heaven she remained friends with guys when the relationships didn’t work. She’d never seen Damian or Mason so serious and efficient.

Or Linc, either.

She leaned into his warmth. He’d only been back in Hope Valley for four months, showing up the day his brother, Jackson Slade, had married Sunny Carmichael—who happened to be the town’s veterinarian and one of Tracy Lynn’s best friends.

“I’m so glad you were here,” she said.

He didn’t respond. Lincoln Slade was one of those men who could be stingy with words. Just when she thought her nerves were about to get a reprieve, there was a scurry of

activity and a volley of words between Damian and Mason.

“V-fib,” Damian said. “Charging to two hundred joules.”

Daddy! Tracy Lynn automatically lunged forward, but Linc hooked his arm around her waist and held her back.

“What’s wrong? What are they doing?” She could hear the fear in her voice as she struggled against Linc’s hold. “Let me go. I need to see what’s happening.”

“Shh.” He pressed his mouth to her hair near her ear. “Let the professionals do their work, babe.”

Her fingernails dug into the sleeve of his brown suede jacket, his arm remaining as taut as a safety harness around her middle. One of the monitors on the ground emitted an escalating whine. A discarded wrapper, ripped open in haste, skipped away with the wind, tumbling across the courthouse lawn.

“Everybody stay back,” Mason said, quickly checking to ensure their compliance. “I’m clear,” he said. “You’re clear. Everybody’s clear. Shocking at two hundred joules.”

Tracy Lynn realized what was going on a bare instant before the defibrillator paddles sent an audible jolt through her father’s body, a jolt that lifted his upper body right off the ground. “Nothing!” Mason reported. “Charging again to three hundred.”

She couldn’t watch. Twisting in Linc’s arms, she rested her forehead against his chest and gripped the lapels of his sheepskin-lined suede jacket, horribly aware of her own moan as the second shock, then a third reverberated behind her.

Linc’s hand cupped the back of her head, applying firm and steady pressure, his other hand stroking the length of her back over her cashmere sweater. His hold was both comforting and protective, shielding her whether she wanted him to or not.

If she’d been capable of speech, she would have told him that there was no danger of her stealing a look.

She couldn’t bear to watch another parent die before her eyes.


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