When Strawberries Bloom, by Linda Byler

About the Book:
A romance novel by an Amish writer, based on true experiences!

New love and even more questions enter Lizzie Glick’s life in When Strawberries Bloom, the second novel in this series written by an Amish writer and based on true life experiences.Lizzie’s dream of teaching school has finally come true. She loves the brand-new school building, the sound of the children singing, and the independence she has in the classroom. Even the occasionally unruly boys can’t ruin the excitement she feels each morning when she starts the school day.

But at home things are in turmoil again. What do Dat’s sudden health problems mean for the future of their farm? And what about Lizzie’s future? Emma and Mandy are so certain that Joshua and John are their perfect matches, but Lizzie doesn’t know what to think about Stephen and how he might fit into her life.What will Lizzie decide? Will she continue to teach school? Or will she give up that dream so that her wish for marriage and a family can come true?

About the Author:
Linda Byler is an active member of the Amish church. She writes about the culture and convictions of Amish society with accuracy, insight, compassion and candor. She reveals well rounded people with the same hopes and dreams and wants and needs as “Englishers”. The only difference between the cultures is the faith-based tenants used for measuring and meeting those needs.

My Thoughts:
When Strawberries Bloom is book 2 in the Lizzie Searches for Love Series. I reviewed book one, Running Around (And Such) here.  You’ll note that I was hoping this book would be better.  Alas. It was not.  In fact, it has taken me these many long weeks to finish it because I would keep putting it down and forgetting to pick it back up again.

Technically Ms. Byler’s writing is flawless.  And her prose, though simple and straight forward in nature, has some sparkling moments.  The problem with this story is that it isn’t a story yet.  Unlike the first book, the reader has very little reason to connect because too many of the scenes are narrative overviews rather than actual character interaction.  I know Linda Byler is a woman of God.  I know He wouldn’t let her work be in vain.  These stories will likely bless more people than I can imagine, but I will forever mourn that they didn’t get the audience they could have if Linda Byler had had a decent editor and better writing support.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from FSB Associates. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

In His Image

Father, I come before you now longing to know you better. As I read your Word today, as I approach you in prayer, reveal not just your truth to me, but tune my heart to beat with yours.

Draw me close and make me more like you. Help me to see through your eyes, to think your thoughts, to act according to your wisdom, compelled by your call to love.  Amen (p.144)

The In His Image Devotional Bible NLT sets itself apart from many other devotional Bibles by not directing our energies toward being better men, women, spouses, princesses, fathers, mothers, or prayer warriors, but by focusing us on who God is, and educating us on what it means to live in his image.  We all know if we only focus on God and live in obedience to his command, we will become better men, women, spouses, etc., what we don’t know is what that should look like!  This Bible points the way.

I want to tell you, I received this Bible quite some time ago and should have done the review long ago, but the In His  Image Devotional Bible fit my current Bible study so well that I put it with my study materials instead of on my review shelf. If I hadn’t been reviewing my reading records, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to remember — not because this Bible is forgettable, but because it fit my study needs so well I thought of it as part of the set!

Special Features:

  • New Living Translation
  • God’s Character (articles that expand on God’s attributes in conjunction with scripture readings to provide us with a clearer understanding of God’s character)
  • Book Introductions (highlight the Divine Attributes central to each theme)
  • Prayerful Readings (devotionals designed to help us quiet our hearts and listen to God)
  • Prayerful Reading Index (which allows you to focus on an follow each of God’s 15 divine attributes all the way through the Bible, study them in Biblical sequence or one at a time)
  • Response to God (articles that look at the attributes of God)
  • Response to God Article Index (helps us focus on applying the truth about God and his character to our everyday lives)
  • God’s Names & Titles (the meaning behind them)
  • God’s Names and Title Index (follow all references to one name or title through the Bible)
  • Divine Attributes Master Index (for a full scope and sequence view of God)
  • In His Image Reading Guide (all 327 devotionals listed from Genesis to Revelation to help us seek God on a daily basis 6 days a week for a year)

I have the hardback version of the Bible.  It has a silky-smooth matte finish with raised, high-gloss lettering.  The spine is cloth bound and well sewn.  The type-face is a good size, easy to read and is printed on off-white, lightweight, yet substantial paper. The main text is in black while book titles, chapters and other headings are in blue.  Everything about this book is quality.

Note: The purpose of the notes and inserts in this Bible are not to better acquaint you with the time, the culture, the topography, or the tradition of Biblical times.  This Bible is dedicated to bringing us closer to God.  Even though this is not a study Bible per se, it is a book that belongs in every disciple’s study library.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Tyndale House Publishers.  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Two Tickets to The Christmas Ball, by Donita K. Paul

My Thoughts:
I am so sorry I didn’t get this book review to you before Christmas, but this book went through a long and arduous mail journey to get to me.  It arrived in a battered and bruised package that had been shored up with tape along the way.  It bore several postal stamps including one from Alaska and note saying the carton was damaged in transit but no contents were lost or destroyed.

After a trip like that one would expect a rollicking read and that is indeed what I got.  Two Tickets to The Christmas Ball is a fun story: a little fantasy for ambiance, a little humor, a lot of Christ, the true spirit of Christmas, and one very human Pixie who is wise beyond her years. If you’d like to hold on to the Christmas Spirit just a little while longer, I highly recommend this book.  I read it while curled up in front of the fireplace on Christmas Day.  It was a sweet and wonderful treat.

Donita K. Paul has long been a favorite author of mine.  Her stories are seeped in magic and adventure, yet strongly grounded in faith and the two go together quite well.   Her characters always grow in wisdom, learning about themselves, the world around them and the nature of God, and do so in the natural progression of the story.  I’ve yet to read a Donita K. Paul book I didn’t like, and I’ve read quite a few.

About the book:

Can mysterious matchmaking booksellers bring two lonely hearts together in time for Christmas?
In a sleepy, snow-covered city, Cora Crowder is busy preparing for the holiday season. Searching for a perfect gift, a fortuitous trip to Warner, Werner, and Wizbotterdad’s (a most unusual bookshop) leads to an unexpected encounter with co-worker Simon Derrick. And the surprise discovery of a ticket for a truly one-of-a-kind Christmas Ball.

Every year, the matchmaking booksellers of the Sage Street bookshop host an enchanting, old-fashioned Christmas Ball for the romantic matches they’ve decided to bring together.

This year, will Simon and Cora discover a perfect chemistry in their opposite personalities and shared faith? Or will the matchmakers’ best laid plans end up ruining everything this holiday?

Read Chapter One:

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.

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.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Maverick Heart, by Loree Lough

My thoughts:
Loree Lough is an excellent writer and there was much to like about Maverik Heart, but it wasn’t Levee’s and Dan’s love story that most held my attention.  I found the stories of the secondary characters in this book much more compelling and entertaining.  Dan and Levee took far too long to get together and beyond their first few meetings I found their “romance” highly unromantic and spark-less.

Levee was an interesting character and well written.  I found myself agreeing with Dan that he didn’t really deserve her.  I truly don’t know what Levee saw in Dan besides his masculine beauty, although I am quite aware of why Dan was taken with Levee.  Another complaint I have — and not a small one — the couple never exchanges, “I love yous.”  Levee did say she loved the house Dan built for her.  Dan did say he wanted Levee.  That isn’t the same.  To me a romance novel totally falls flat with out exchanged I love yous.

If you are already a Loree Lough fan you’ll likely find this isn’t one of your favorite Lough books.  If you aren’t already a Loree Lough fan, please don’t let this be the first book you read of hers.  She is an outstanding storyteller who has won many well-deserved awards.  I truly hate having to write a less than sparkling review for Maverick Heart since I usually love Loree Lough books.

~*~

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:

Maverick Heart

Whitaker House (January 4, 2011)

***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Loree Lough is a well-known and beloved Christian romance writer who has published over 75 books, 65 short stories, and hundreds of magazine, newspaper, and Internet articles. A tireless advocate of the inspirational fiction genre, she’s recognized as a leader in the field and is a sought-after speaker at writing seminars and workshops. Loree is a regular contributor to a variety of publications for writers, a columnist for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and keeps in touch with readers through her website and blog, The Lough Down, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Shoutlife.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (January 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1603742263
ISBN-13: 978-1603742269

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

May 1888

Somewhere along the San Antonio Road

“You behave as though you’re the first woman to have a miscarriage!” Liam scolded Levee. “Pull yourself together. Can’t you see you’re making everyone miserable?”

That had been three days ago, but the memory of it still stung like the gritty, windblown Texas dust. Levee huddled in a corner of the stagecoach and prayed that her husband wouldn’t notice her tears. She’d never been the type to wallow in self-pity, but was it too much to ask her husband to show some warmth and compassion? As a doctor, he should have been able to acknowledge that her reaction to losing the baby was perfectly normal.

Frowning, she tucked her lace-trimmed handkerchief back into her purse—a mistake, for Liam saw and correctly guessed that she’d been crying. Again.

“You’ll never get over it if you don’t at least try to put it out of your mind,” he grumbled.

The impatience and disappointment in his voice hurt almost as much as his earlier reprimand, and Levee heaved a sigh. Oh, if only she could put it out of her mind!

Maybe he had a point. Maybe thirty-four days of grieving her lost baby had been enough. As one of the first women in the country to earn a nursing degree, Levee understood the mental and physical aftereffects of a miscarriage. But could melancholia explain why she felt her husband was too preoccupied about opening his new clinic in Mexico to mourn the loss of yet another baby?

Like it or not, they would arrive in Mexico in a matter of days. Chihuahua, of all places, where she didn’t know a soul, and the people spoke a language she didn’t understand. Where, according to Boston newspapers, outlaw gangs roamed the—

“Hold on to your hats, folks!” the driver bellowed. “Bandits, ridin’ in hard and fast!”

Amid the thunder of horses’ hooves and the report of gunfire, their fellow passenger, who’d introduced himself only as Mack, calmly unholstered two six-shooters. “You got a gun, doc?” he asked Liam as he peeked out through the leather window covering.

Liam clutched his black medical bag tight to his chest. “Yes, but—”

“Then you’d best get ’er loaded and cocked. There’re three of them and five of us. We might just have us a fightin’ chance”—he fixed his brown eyes on Levee—“if you can shoot.”

Just as she opened her mouth to confess that she’d never so much as held a gun, one of the stagecoach drivers cut loose a bloodcurdling scream. Quick as a blink, his body hurtled past the window and hit the ground with a sickening thump.

With a trembling hand, Levee clutched her throat, and Mack groaned. “Make that four of us.” He spun the chamber of the second revolver and, after pulling back the hammer with a click, wrapped the fingers of Levee’s other trembling hand around the grip. “Just aim and pull the trigger, and keep on doing that till you’re out of bullets.”

“B-but how will I know when I’m out of—”

“Are you two God-fearin’ Christians?”

She heard Liam’s dry swallow. “I don’t know what that has to do with anything,” he muttered.

Mack glared at him. “If you want to get out of this mess alive, you’d best start prayin’. Pray like you’ve never prayed—”

His warning was cut short by male voices shouting and terrified horses trumpeting. Gears and brakes screeched as the coach came to a jolting halt.

Then, a deadly hush rode in on a cloud of dust.

The door nearest Levee flew open with a bang. “Throw them guns into the dirt,” growled a masked gunman.

When Liam slid his revolver back into his doctor’s bag, Mack gave a slight nod, then tossed his own pistol out the door. Taking his other gun back from Levee, he uncocked it and flung it to the ground, too.

The bandit raised his rifle barrel higher. “Git on outta there, one at a time, and don’t try no funny business, neither.”

Levee climbed down first, followed by Liam. So much for Mack coming up with a last-minute scheme to save us, she thought as he joined them in the shade of the coach.

A few yards away, two more bandits sat in their saddles. The smooth baritone and well-enunciated syllables of the tallest didn’t fit the rudeness of his words: “Gather anything of value you find on their person or in their valises,” he told the rifleman. And then, using his chin as a pointer, he said to the man to his left, “You. Fetch the money.”

Their immediate obedience made it clear that this man was one to be reckoned with. Levee’s heart beat harder as his cohorts carried out his orders, but it wasn’t until the strongbox hit the ground with a loud clang that she noticed the other stagecoach driver, hanging like a half-empty flour sack over the armrest of his seat. She could almost hear Mack thinking, And now we’re down to three. Their only hope was the tiny pistol hidden in Liam’s bag. But even if by some miracle the cowboy managed to retrieve it, would it be enough to disarm all three thieves?

The second bandit fired one round, demolishing the heavy iron lock on the strongbox. If he noticed Levee’s tiny squeal of fright or Liam’s gasp of shock, it didn’t show. “Must be fifty thousand dollars in here!” he said, pawing through the contents. He gave a rousing “Yee-haw!” and saluted his leader. “All’s I can say is, you sure know how to pick ’em, Frank!”

“Shut up, fool!” bellowed the rifle-toting robber. “Now we’ll hafta kill ’em, so’s they won’t be able to tell the rangers they was robbed by the Frank Michaels Gang!”

The Frank Michaels Gang? Why did that sound so familiar? Levee’s question was quickly extinguished by a sickening admission: in her twenty-two years of life, she’d never given a thought to how she might leave this earth. Until now.

“No need to get your dander up,” Mack drawled. “Y’all just keep right on helpin’ yourselves to everything we’ve got. Think of us as the three wise monkeys. We didn’t see a thing or hear a thing, and we won’t speak a thing, either.”

“That’s right,” Liam quickly agreed, “even if the Texas Rangers ask questions—an unlikely event, since we don’t plan to seek them out.”

Levee looked up at her husband, unable to decide which surprised her more: the fact that he’d opened his mouth or that he’d opened his medical bag. But in one beat of her hammering heart, his hand disappeared inside it. In the next, his puny revolver dangled from his fingertips. “I think you boys should—”

One shot rang out, and even before its echo fell silent, Liam slumped to the ground. “No-o-o!” Levee wailed, dropping to her knees. She cradled his head in her lap and, for the first time since graduating from the New England Hospital for Women, regretted her nursing degree. Because one look at the bloody wound in the middle of his chest told her that although he wasn’t dead yet, he soon would be.

Liam gasped for breath. “I—I wanted to—give them—the gun,” he sputtered, “to p-prove we—c-could be trusted—”

“Hush, now,” she whispered, finger-combing dark curls from his forehead. “Shh.”

Mack threw his Stetson to the ground and kicked it. “Of all the….” Arms whirling like a windmill, he kicked it again. “Did you hear what the man said? He’s from Boston, for the luvva Pete. He meant you no harm. Why, I doubt he could’ve hit the broad side of a barn with that pea shooter of his, even if he’d tried!”

“Looked to me like he was aimin’ to shoot,” one of the bandits insisted, “an’ nobody takes aim at Frank Michaels whilst I’m around.”

The rifleman cursed under his breath. “Thought I tol’ you to shut up, Tom.”

“All of you shut up,” Frank snarled.

But Levee paid him no mind. “Fight, Liam,” she urged him. “Stay with me! You promised that as soon as we were settled, we’d—”

His eyelids fluttered open, and an enormous, silvery tear leaked from the corner of one eye. “S-sorry, Levee,” he rasped, grabbing her hand. “S-sorry….”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Liam. You’re going to be fine.” Oh, please, God, let it be true! “Just fine! Do you hear me?” No sooner had the words passed her lips than his body shuddered once, and the fingers that had been squeezing hers went limp. A dribble of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth to his chin. Then, one grating, ragged breath later, he was gone.

Levee couldn’t help feeling guilty about her role in his death. These horrible men had murdered her husband, but if she hadn’t put her dream of a nursing degree ahead of their wedding plans, they would have had a house to call their own. If she hadn’t spent so many hours on her feet at the hospital, they would have had a child or two, instead of two unfruitful pregnancies to mourn. Perhaps, with a family to occupy his time and fill his heart, Liam wouldn’t have reacted with such enthusiasm to the article in the Boston Globe that spoke of the need for doctors in Mexico. Why had she let him talk her into this move? And why had she bowed to the dictates of society and the Good Book regarding wifely submission? If only she’d been stronger and less self-centered!

She watched the thugs help themselves to Liam’s hard-earned savings. Watched them poke through her small suitcase as Frank Michaels tucked Grandpa O’Reilly’s gold pocket watch into his vest. He looked up, caught her staring, and touched a finger to his hat brim. “My apologies, ma’am,” he said, aiming a steely smile her way. “And to prove my sincerity, we aren’t going to kill you. You have my word on that.” A grating chuckle passed through the red and black fabric of his bandanna. “At least, not today.”

His implied threat hung on the parched air as Levee looked into her husband’s ashy face. Almost from the moment they’d left Boston, Levee had been afraid. Afraid of ghastly-looking bugs and wild animals, afraid of the unrelenting wind and the dry, desolate land that seemed to stretch on forever. Afraid of the outlaws and bandits she’d read about. Distraught and anguished, she was beyond fear now. A swirl of self-blame, guilt, and shame roiled inside her like a cyclone, putting put her on her feet.

Fists balled at her sides, Levee marched up to the leader’s horse. “You killed my husband for no reason, and you think a phony apology will make things right? You’re—you’re a lunatic, Frank Michaels, and so are these so-called men who ride with you.” Levee wiped angrily at her traitorous tears. “Look at you, hiding behind your masks. Why, you’re nothing but cowards, the lot of you. Heartless thieves and—and cold-blooded killers. You’d better shoot me good and dead, right here where I stand, because the very first chance I get, I will report you to the Texas Rangers, and nothing will please me more than to watch you hang for your crimes!”

Her hysterical tirade silenced even the chorusing insects and chirruping birds. Silenced the amused chortles of Frank and his cohorts, too. The men exchanged puzzled glances, and then the one named Tom said, “You want I should plug her, Frank, or d’you wanna do it?”

Frank rested one leather-gloved hand atop the other on his saddle horn, seeming to consider the idea. “I gave her my word, and I intend to keep it.”

Tom snorted. “She’ll probably die of thirst before she reaches the next town, anyway.” Winking, he added, “If the coyotes don’t get her first.”

Levee had been an unwilling eyewitness of what the mangy canines could do to a deer carcass, and in very little time, too. She pressed her fingertips to her closed eyes to block the grisly image, and when she did, the picture of Liam’s lifeless body took its place. A dozen thoughts flitted through her head. Could she have used her medical training to do something to save him? Why hadn’t she seen the gunman take aim before he fired at Liam? If she had, what might she have done to prevent the shooting?

“Coyotes,” she heard the rifleman say. “You got that right, Tom. No chance she’ll live long enough to tell anybody what happened here.”

Mack’s voice broke through. “That was uncalled for,” he grumbled. “The poor woman just lost her husband.”

As if she needed a reminder! Please, Lord, please, let this be a terrible nightmare. Let me wake up and realize that—

A deafening explosion ended her prayer. She wasn’t dreaming, as evidenced by the whiff of smoke spiraling from Frank’s gun barrel—and the ghastly sound of Mack’s body hitting the ground. “No-o-o,” she wailed for the second time today. “Not him, too! B-but you promised not to—”

“I only promised not to kill you,” Frank said, then coolly holstered his revolver and faced Tom. “Unharness the team.”

Frank and his men had ended three lives in barely more than three minutes, and with three words, he’d dismissed the matter. The howling wind whirled around them, gathering the dust into tiny twisters that hopped across the prairie like jackrabbits. Levee buried her face in her hands, unwilling to let the bandits witness one more moment of her misery. She had the rest of her life for that.

Life. She almost laughed at the notion. Sitting in the middle of the Texas prairie, waiting for only the good Lord knew what to kill her, wasn’t her idea of life.

An idea dawned: perhaps, if she got them good and angry, they’d shoot her, too, and she could join Liam in paradise.

So, Levee began hurling insults and slurs, shrieking like a crazed fishwife, and waving her arms. But she might as well have been a cactus or tumbleweed for all the attention they paid her. Infuriated, she picked up rocks and pebbles and hurled those, too, yet the outlaws continued to ignore her. It seemed they really did intend to leave her out here in the middle of nowhere to wait for starvation and thirst—or hungry coyotes—to kill her. Oh, Father, please let it be coyotes, she prayed. As painful and terrifying as that would be, she’d die faster that way than by nature’s cruel hand. Either way, she’d have ample time to repent of her sins of selfishness.

“You’re no better than the coyotes!” But her words disappeared into their cloud of get-away dust and gleeful bellows. Hugging herself, Levee sunk to the dirt between Liam and Mack and sat on her boot heels, rocking and groaning, groaning and rocking, as she waited for the tears to start.

But not a single drop fell. Not for her husband or the babies they’d lost, not for the brave young cowboy who died defending her, not even for herself, alone and afraid, somewhere in West Texas.

She didn’t know how many hours had passed when the sun began to sink below the horizon like a gold coin disappearing into a slot. A dark chill blanketed the plains, waking snaky shadows that slithered from bush to scrubby shrub. That’s when strange, forlorn moans spilled forth from Levee’s lips, ascended into the blackness, and merged with the midnight cacophony of night birds and bugs and coyote calls.

By the time exhaustion rendered her silent, the moon was high in the sky, and she found herself cuddled up to Liam. And, though his lanky body offered no warmth or comfort, that’s where she stayed, praying that before morning, the Almighty in His loving mercy, would call her home, too.

The Clouds Roll Away, by Sibella Giorello

The Clouds Roll Away is beautifully written and captivated me from the very first page. However, despite her pretty prose, Sibella does not write fluff. This is a gritty novel full of realistic characters with real world problems.   Hate crimes, bigotry, violence, drugs, murder, senility, love, betrayal …  Sibella takes us through the underworld with FBI agent Raleigh Harmon, who struggles to hold her faith in the corrupt world she works in.

The Clouds Roll Away is book three in a series. I haven’t read the first two books and I am still very much enjoying this one, but I am aware that I am missing nuances and undercurrents I would better understand had I read the others. They’re definitely on my wishlist.

About the Book:
Forensic geologist Raleigh Harmon returns home for Christmas but discovers Richmond, Virginia running low on goodness and light.

Although her exemplary service in Seattle lifted her disciplinary transfer, Raleigh lands a hometown civil rights case riddled with problems that could get her sent away again. When she helps out a fellow cop, her life goes on the line, forcing her undercover in a sting operation. As Raleigh realizes the lines are crossing and double-crossing, her domestic life starts to unravel. Her mother’s mental health cracks like ice, her closest friend grows cold, and her old boyfriend DeMott comes a-calling, hoping for more than chestnuts by an open fire.

While the city glows with Christmas lights and carols, Raleigh is forced to rely on her sharpest skills to stay alive, hoping for that one clear moment when everything makes sense and the clouds roll away.

About the Author:
Sibella Giorello grew up in Alaska and majored in geology at Mount Holyoke College. After riding a motorcycle across the country, she worked as a features for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her stories have won state and national awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. She now lives in Washington state with her husband and sons. Find out more about Sibella and her other books at her website. www.sibellagiorello.com

About The Clouds Roll Away – “Beautifully written with exquisite descriptions, Giorello’s mystery also features well-developed characters…”
—Booklist, starred review

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Litfuse Publicity Group. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”