An ear-piercing boom resounded from somewhere, followed by a force, so powerful, it threw him back. When he hit the ground, sharp, jagged rocks sliced into his body. The impact trapped stagnant air in his lungs. Dust and smoke lingered and stung his exposed skin. The smell made him gag. He swallowed convulsively, tasting something thick and metallic. Blood. Waling cries in the distance pulsated and repeated like a rhythmic drumbeat in an old western movie. If he could move, he’d cover his ears to block it out. With effort, he shuttered in a breath that caused a gurgling to resonate in his throat. Time seemed to move in slow motion as he tried to focus on something—anything that was real. The azure sky above. The sparse, fluffy clouds that were so close he could reach out and touch them. “Hey, Mav…erick. Do you see what I see?” he choked out as he wrenched his head sideways. That’s when he saw his cameraman, the image, shattering his soul into a million fractured pieces.
Henry Kiel jerked awake, gasping, his heart thudding so hard, it felt as if it was about to leave his chest.
That damn memory wouldn’t let up—no matter how many months passed.
He shook his head to clear the fog and kicked his legs to get free from the covers, wiping perspiration from his upper lip. Henry didn’t need the dream to remind him of what happened two and a half years ago, the constant ache in his hip and the guilt eating away at his soul accomplished that.
But why today of all days—his first on the job at the Tribune? Like a bad omen of things to come. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t let this shake him since it was his fresh start. In a town so unlike any he’d ever lived before.
He threaded his hands through his hair, then stumbled off to the shower.
Two-hundred and forty-three days clean and sober.
Time to tamp down his triggers and go forward. As long as he didn’t make the same mistakes, he could get through this and stage a comeback. But as he’d learned in ‘New Beginnings’ taking one day at a time was the only way to remain in recovery.
No more dressing the part of an award-winning journalist. Those days were over. According to his editor, he was to look like everyone else in town. Simple. Jeans. Plain white shirt. Boots or sneakers if Henry had a day in the field—whichever worked best. Shaving appeared to be optional from what he’d seen, a plus since he was two weeks into growing a beard.
Thirty minutes later, he stepped out the door, almost tripping over the newspaper on the sidewalk. He picked it up, untucked it from the rubber band that held it together and read the headline. New Dairy Freeze opens on Fredrick Street. Excitement abound. How was he ever going to find fulfillment in writing about things like that?
He blew out a ragged breath, opened his car door and slid behind the wheel. He was going to have to make this work because it was his only option for now.
While driving, he admired the quiet serenity of the neighborhood. Two story homes were the norm in Plain City, Arkansas. Most painted muted hues. Some brick. All with an array of different color shutters and flower boxes. Their lawns were manicured to a half an inch in height, and black torchlights lined the walkways. Typical Norman Rockwell, small-town America that made it ideal for anyone raising a family. But a wife and kids had never been in Henry’s plans. Hell, the longest relationship he’d had was a snowed-in week at the Alps—with twin sisters who insisted they do everything together.
Why did that feel like a different place in time? Probably because the last ten years of his life he’d spent in war-torn countries where gunfire was an everyday event. They’d charged his adrenalin and fueled his need for danger—a demand to go anywhere for a story. No matter the cost.
This was the polar opposite of that experience. Last evening, he’d listened to cricket’s chirp and tree frogs croak. When one would stop, another would begin. All night long. He’d tossed and turned until he’d stuffed a pillow over his head to block out the irritating noise. Somehow, he was going to have to get used to this new normal or buy some earplugs.
Minutes into his commute, he pulled into a parking spot in front of Allen’s coffee shop. On the large picture window of the storefront, chalked outlines of steaming cups of coffee and cake donuts were drawn. In a big city, that would have been amateurish. Here, he guessed it was acceptable.
He hefted himself out of his Camry. He needed a cup of strong, black coffee and Simon Ridge, his new editor, said Allen’s made the best in town.
As he stepped inside, a blend of aromatic coffee beans, cinnamon, and baked goods caused his mouth to water.
He glanced around. The interior had stainless steel bakery cases and retro type tables and chairs, the walls a soothing light green with nice pieces of watercolor artwork hanging from them. Henry’s stomach chose that moment to kick up a ruckus and growl like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Not surprising since his appetite had gained ground with his stint in rehab.
When he glanced back at the counter, the few people waiting in line had turned to stare. Nothing unexpected. Being new in town and having fallen from grace.
He cleared his throat and gave them a halfhearted smile. “Good morning.” He couldn’t afford to start off on the wrong foot with anyone here. Not when he’d be interacting with most in some capacity.
“Next,” a singsong voice said, drawing him to the person behind the counter. His jaw would have dropped had he not seen his share of gorgeous women in the world. They were plentiful in exotic ports of call. But this one had the greenest eyes he’d ever seen and held an almost angelic aura—a warmth so alluring he couldn’t stop staring.
“He’s some kind of addict,” a woman in front of him said to the lady getting her order filled.
Henry shifted from one foot to the other. The pathetic looks he got from the customers seated at the tables about sent him out the door. The residents of Plain City weren’t going to hold any punches. They were going to humble him every chance they could. Maybe though, that’d be a good thing to keep him on track.
“You’re next, Carol,” that sweet voice said, causing the older lady with the big mouth to shuffle forward. Talk about perfect timing.
Henry gave the beauty behind the counter an appreciative smile, which she returned. She definitely had a calming presence about her. Was pretty and wholesome with light blonde hair, pulled back into a ponytail, emphasizing her heart-shaped face. Her cheekbones were high and structured, her nose pert and slightly upturned. All pulled together by those amazing green eyes. Henry was entranced—drawn to her like a newsman to a once in a lifetime byline. “You’re next,” she said, biting her full, blush-colored bottom lip.
Henry swallowed hard and glanced at the menu above her head. “What do you recommend?”
“Our house blend coffee is our best seller. The bear claws are scrumptious.”
He returned his attention to her. “Sounds good. Make the coffee large and give me two of the bear claws.”
“Coming right up.” As she rushed to retrieve his order, his gaze held fast to her, finding himself mesmerized by the way she moved—the way her hands lingered on everything she touched.
Back at the counter, she handed him a paper cup and a white bag. “Seeing’s that you are new and all, this one’s on the house.”
That was a first. Getting something for nothing. What was the catch? “Are you sure?”
“This way you’ll feel obligated to come back.”
Good marketing strategy. He’d have to remember that. “Thanks.”
Reluctantly, he turned to leave. Hell, he could have stayed and absorbed more of her positive energy. For some reason, she exuded that—made him feel almost normal again. He wasn’t sure why. But right now, he didn’t have time to figure it out. He had to get to work and hope something exciting happened in this tiny, hole-in-the-wall town. If not, he was going to shrivel up and die before he turned forty.
Outside, as he headed to his car, an ambulance flew by with no lights on.
Henry rubbed at his jaw. The way he looked at this, he had two options. Number one, go into the office and sit around. Or two, chase a story. This was a no-brainer.
He jumped in the driver’s seat, sat his coffee in the cup holder on his console and followed the emergency vehicle out of town, keeping at a safe distance.
The winding roads were something else he was going to have to get used to, maneuvering to a crawl not to run into the ditch. No way would he even try to drink his coffee, let alone eat.
Fifteen minutes into the crazy ride, red taillights came on in front of him.
Henry stomped on the brakes, the ambulance taking a turn onto a dirt drive that clearly hadn’t been traveled recently, waist-high grass slapping beneath the vehicle. Evergreen and oak trees lined both sides of the road. Henry was surprised anyone would even be able to find the place, and now that he looked around, he didn’t see any phone or power lines running down this way. How did someone call for assistance? Maybe a cell phone. He reached for his, fighting no service.
The bus again slowed its roll and jutted right.
He did the same, his gaze widening when he saw four patrol cruisers parked off to the left of a weathered barn, red, peeling paint in areas, the roof of the structure sagging on one side. He’d have second thoughts about going into the place, afraid it might collapse. But police officers were clearly milling around inside.
Yellow crime scene tape had been strung up. Though, he had no clue why since he was sure no one ever came out here. Besides this crew. Everywhere, reeds and grass were trampled down to even get to the barn.
He backed his car behind a few trees and reached for his coffee. He’d watch what was going on. Crime tape meant someone was dead. Though, why they called an ambulance instead of a coroner was puzzling. Maybe they were trying to keep this under wraps. Which meant there was definitely a story here, but could he get close enough to find out what it was?
He grabbed the bag off the passenger seat, snatched one of the bear claws and took a bite, his taste buds going wild. The pretty blonde wasn’t lying. The doughy confection tasted like an orgasm in his mouth.
As he continued to stuff his face, he kept an eye peeled on the scene in front of him. Both EMT’s stepped inside the barn, and only moments later, one rushed out and heaved onto the ground to the right side.
Jesus. Henry needed to get inside and see what made that man sick.
He placed his coffee back into the cup holder, scarfed down the rest of the donut, and reached in the back floorboard for his camera. Outside the car, he clicked the door shut, then headed toward the rickety structure. His intent was to stay low so he wouldn’t be seen.
The EMT who’d puked had gone inside again and Henry snuck around the left side, hoping there was another way in.
The grass stood shoulder height toward the back, thicker, and harder to wade through. A window with no glass on the far side of the building caught his attention and he worked his way toward it. As he neared the sill, he heard voices from inside. “We need to keep this contained. If anything gets out, we’ll have a shit storm to deal with,” a deep, male voice said.
What the hell was going on? Henry couldn’t believe his luck. The first day on the job and this fell into his lap. Now, if he could find out what it was, he’d have a caption for the newspaper in the morning—one that would probably rival any Plain City had ever had in the past. And, if he could get pictures to go along with it, he’d be in journalistic heaven.
At the window, Henry peeked inside. The sight that met him had the blood draining from his extremities and the coffee and donut in his stomach worked its way back up his throat.
* * *
A knock at the door of the coffeehouse’s kitchen had Blake Allen glancing at her teenage employee, who was washing up the last of the dirty dishes in the sink. “Could you get that, Amy? My hands are full,” she said, kneading the dough on the large, steel table in the center of the room.
“Yep.” The lanky seventeen-year-old wiped her hands on a towel and headed toward the back. “Are you finished yet?” Blake heard as Amy returned with her best friend Sara in tow, a girl who was the complete polar opposite of Amy. Sara Shelby barely reached five feet, was curvy from top to bottom, and had a much more guarded personality than her counterpart—the reason why Blake had chosen Amy over her when both had applied for the part-time position at the coffee shop.
“Hey, how’s your mother doing?” Blake asked Sara.
The dishwater blonde wrinkled her freckled nose. “She’s the same. Crazy busy as usual. Today, she’s working on completing ‘her list’ of things to do and bring to the social next Sunday. You know she’s never happy unless she’s working on something. Speaking of work, is Amy done for the day. We have plans, and if we don’t hurry, we’re going to be late.”
Amy looked to Blake for her answer.
“Go ahead. I’m just going to finish up here. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then?”
“Yep. See you. Oh, can I grab a bear claw to take with me?”
“Of course. Get one for Sara as well, and enjoy your evening.”
Both girls grabbed a pastry and headed for the back door, giggling as they left.
Blake was once like that. Carefree and excited about going out and experiencing new things. Seemed so long ago now. Once you hit adulthood, time moved quickly. Maybe back then, she shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to grow up.
She blew out a breath and wiped a shirt-sleeved arm across her brow. The prep work for the morning rush was the last thing she had to do before closing up for the day—a morning and afternoon that had been more hectic than usual. Not a bad thing, just wearing on her twenty-nine-year-old body.
Owning her own business was rewarding, yet challenging with only herself and Amy, who worked two hours before school, an hour after, two days a week, then five hours on Saturday. Blake was here Monday thru Saturday. Dusk to dawn.
Her only day off was Sunday. Though, for the last two weeks, she played the organ for the church services since Beverly Clarence abruptly quit. Rumor had it that Bev and the new Pastor, Gabriel Huntington hadn’t clicked and the older woman decided to step down from her post as the churches organist—a job she’d held for the past thirty years. Her resignation had come as quite a shock to the Plain City Fellowship Church parishioners, but the change had worked out well. Their congregation had tripled in size since Pastor Gabriel had taken to the pulpit, a charismatic, young minister, who had everyone focused on his every word. Or maybe it was just the women. Blake wasn’t sure. He certainly was handsome enough, with his head of curly, almost shoulder-length hair and intense, hazel eyes. But for Blake, his looks didn’t matter. It was how he’d brought so many people into the church. After all, that was the goal of a Christian, to convert more souls to God.
His style was so different than the former Pastor’s. Of course, Kirkland Ames had forty-plus years on Gabriel, and a younger man oozed more enthusiasm and energy. Something she really liked about him. That’s why, when asked to take Beverly’s place, she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Her cell phone went off and brought her back to the dough she’d been working and the sticky mess on her hands. Whoever was trying to call was going to have to wait until she’d finished with this and washed up.
Twenty minutes later, she covered the huge bowl of dough with a large towel, carried it to the refrigerator and placed it on the rack inside. Early in the morning, she’d take it out to allow it to rise so she could make fresh donuts for the day.
She reached into her purse for her phone and keys to leave. One missed call from Jenell. She pressed to return call and waited for her to answer. On the fifth ring, Jenell picked up. “Finally.”
Blake squinted as she stepped outside and locked the door. “What’s going on?”
“I was wondering if you’d heard from Beverly the past couple of days? I’ve been trying to call her, but I get no answer.”
“No, and now that I think about it, she wasn’t at church Sunday either, was she?”
“I don’t remember, but Charlene Filmore called me, concerned. They were supposed to go to bingo on Saturday night at the Elks but she never showed up. She dropped by Bev’s place but her car was gone, and she’s not answering her phone”
“That’s odd. If she was going out of town, she surely would have told someone.”
“That’s why Charlene called me. She thought maybe I’d know something since I live on her block.”
Blake stepped over to her car. “When was the last time you saw her?”
“Saturday afternoon, I think. She was leaving the subdivision. She didn’t look happy.”
“Okay, so maybe she was called away on an emergency.” Blake sucked in a breath. “Perhaps she hasn’t had time to tell anyone.”
“You’re probably right. Charlene is just being a worry-wart. So, are we still on for a movie tonight?”
“Yep. I’ve just finished up here. I’m going home to change. Then I’ll pick you up.”
“Oh, hey, have you met the new guy in town yet?” Jenell asked, her voice now filled with excitement. “The so-called fallen journalist? I heard he’s quite the looker.”
“He came in for coffee this morning.”
“Is he cute?”
“I don’t know. I guess if you like the straight out of bed look.”
“Oooh, sounds intriguing. I can’t wait to meet him.”
Blake sighed. Same old Jenell. Jumping in head first. Blake had learned to avoid that early on. Too bad it had taken a traumatic event to do so. “Do you remember what we talked about when you and Trent ended things? You can’t fix someone who’s broken, Nell. According to the AP, this guy is a recovering oxycodone addict.”
“Yes, I know, but aren’t you always saying that God forgives and so should we? That everyone deserves a second chance?”
“Yes, that’s true, but trusting that person is another thing altogether, especially when it comes to personal failings that could bleed into your life. I know that sounds judgmental. I just don’t want that for you. You suffered enough with your ex and his gambling problem. You need a man to care for you, to support your goals, not one you have to watch 24/7.”
“I’d rather have to babysit one than not want one at all.”
“Oh, Jenell, I wish you could see how wrong you are. If you need a man so desperately, why can’t you at least be attracted to a nice guy with a good job.”
“What’s the fun in that?”
This is what Blake dealt with. All the time. She didn’t care how appealing a man was, and Henry Kiel was that, but an addiction was a deal-breaker. Horrible things happened when mind-altering drugs came into play—things that could change lives forever. So, forgiveness was one thing, but having blind faith was altogether different.