Box Set Books 1-4
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FLYING SOLO – 4 single parents—a football player, a medical doc, a country vet plus one worried mom who’d do anything for their kids’ happiness. Falling in love, however, was not on the menu. Until it was.
SUMMER AT THE LAKE
Winner, Award of Excellence
Winner, Write Touch Readers' Award
Award of Merit-Holt Medallion
Rick Cooper is a NY cop who leaves his job to recuperate from a botched hostage negotiation. He heads to his family’s home on the lake with only his fishing pole, his saxophone and his therapy dog, Quincy. Kristin is a single mom trying to deal with her traumatized daughter. They are lent a cottage on the lake so that healing can take place. Despite distrust between the adults, warm feelings begin to grow. Can the power of music and a therapy dog lead to healing and the creation of a new family?
HOUSEFUL OF STRANGERS
Finalist, National Readers' Choice Awards
Award of Merit-Holt Medallion
After breaking his arm, single dad Eric Mitchell seeks help with his rural veterinary practice in upstate New York. Dr. Alison Truesdale accepts the six-month position in an effort to begin life again after losing her husband and son. She hadn’t counted on a boss with an attitude. When a street-smart runaway enters their lives, both adults realize that she might hold the key to transforming a houseful of strangers into a home full of love.
Winner, Write Touch Readers’ Award
NFL Quarterback Dan Delito had it all – talent, money, fans and love. Until his wife died. Nothing matters to him now except the game and help from Jack Daniel’s. Then he meets attorney Alexis Brown and her infant niece. Suddenly his world is turned upside down again. Is it because Alexis strongly resembles his late wife, Kim? Is it because he admires the intrepid lawyer who’ll do whatever’s necessary to retain custody of her niece – including standing up to him, the baby’s dad? As trust grows, romance beckons…despite Kim’s shadow. Do they have a chance for wholehearted love?
THE APPLE ORCHARD
Psychologist Abby MacKenzie needs an R&R after losing one of her patients. She wants hard physical work and heads across country to the apple orchards of New England, near her aunt. Jake Templeton doesn’t want Abby anywhere near his troubled daughter. He’s distrustful of mental health professionals. He distrusts Abby for needing a “sabbatical.” But his daughter seeks Abby out, and Jake finds himself falling for the sensitive and lovely woman hiding from her past.
Summer at the Lake: Book One
Rick Cooper shoved his badge and gun across his commanding officer’s desk. “I’m done,” he said quietly. “There will be no next time. Twelve years is enough.” His mind made up, he eyeballed Captain Stein steadily.
The captain met his gaze with equal weight—and pushed the badge and weapon back at Rick. “Not accepted. Your resignation is not accepted.”
“What?” Rick had imagined a dozen different conversations at this point, all variations on a theme of “Goodbye and good luck.” He hadn’t imagined this scene. “You can’t...”
Stein held up his hand in a stop motion. “Save it. And you listen to me.”
As if he had a choice.
“You’re so lost in this incident that you can’t see straight. Sure, it sucked. Sure, we hated the outcome. But I’m not losing my best negotiator to a pity party that he’s throwing for himself. And that’s what you’re doing.”
Rick started to rise.
“Sit! I’m not finished.”
He normally liked the captain. Stein was fair, smart and capable. But right now, Rick wanted to flatten him. Pity party! Didn’t the man understand? Three people had died because of Rick’s failure, one of them a little girl. Best negotiator? Hell, no.
“Did you talk to the shrink?” asked Stein. “No. Did you contribute to the debriefing with the team? No. Did you seek me out? No. I thought we had a better rapport than that.”
“There’s nothing to say,” replied Rick. “The crisis team was there—every member. We played to win and we lost. Big-time. It won’t happen again if I’m gone.”
“Listen to your ego. Do you think you’re the only one grieving this? The only person in the NYPD who’s ever lost a negotiation?”
“Sorry, Captain. I’m done.”
Stein shook his head. “It was a bad one, Rick. I know it. When a kid is involved, it’s tough. But you’re not done. You’re burned out. And for that we have a leave of absence. Eight weeks.”
Rick shrugged. It didn’t matter what it was called—a leave, a resignation, whatever. He’d invested twelve years here for nothing, and now he was going to find another line of work, rethink the whole career angle. He wanted something less responsible, something that wouldn’t be on his mind 24/7, something he was better suited for. Plus, with a less demanding job, he’d be ready for a social life again. A normal social life with a nice woman. A long-term relationship. Maybe a marriage that would last this time. The key was to leave the department first.
Again, he started to get up.
“Uh, one more thing,” said the captain.
Stein grunted. “I want to hear from you every week.”
He had to be kidding. “I already have a mother.”
The C.O. glared at him, his fist hitting the table as he said, “You’re one of mine, Cooper, one of my best. And I take care of my own. Understand?”
He did. He understood the code, but Stein was going beyond the general brotherhood. The man had put the negotiating team together. His name was stamped on it, and Rick owed him more than a sarcastic response.
“I’ll call you,” Rick promised.
“And you’ll call Doc Romano for an appointment.”
“Romano? I don’t need a shrink. I’m outta here, remember? In fact, I’m leaving town for a while. Going to do some fishing upstate, play my sax and find another career.”
The C.O. continued to watch him. “Then you’ll see the doc now. I did favors to get the guy assigned to us. He’s the best there is, Cooper, and he’s standing by for you.”
Rick inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “Is that what you call taking care of your own?”
“That’s exactly what I call it.”
Kristin McCarthy set the last of the dinner dishes into a cabinet in her borrowed house, delighted with the change of environment. She and Ashley would be country girls for a while. Her daughter needed distractions. New surroundings. Ashley needed a place to heal. Kristin’s friend, Marsha, had immediately offered them her summer home on Morningstar Lake in the Catskill Mountains, three hours northwest of New York City. They could stay free of charge until August, when Marsha and her family would come up themselves. At that point Kristin would need to return to U.S. Life Corporation, anyway. Her leave of absence ran out on August 1.
She wondered how much progress her eleven-year-old would make by August, if any. Healing the soul seemed to take more time than healing the body.
She glanced at Ashley now as her daughter swept the floor and put the broom away. She watched her adjust each chair until it was positioned just so and then organize her school books for the next morning’s work. In the week they’d been here, they’d established a few routines. Schoolwork began the day. Eating dessert on the screened porch overlooking the lake ended it.
The tea kettle whistled. Kristin shut the heat off and glanced at Ashley. “Ready for a glass of milk and some of those peanut butter cookies we baked this afternoon?”
The child’s wan smile broke her heart. Ash was a shadow of her naturally ebullient self, but Kristin continued the one-sided conversation as though nothing was wrong. If she kept acting as if life were normal, maybe Ashley would start to believe it could be normal again. Maybe she’d want to go back to school and play with her friends.
“Pour yourself some milk, sweetheart, and let’s head out back to the porch. We can listen to the sounds of the lake.”
First, Ashley checked the locks on the front door, then she poured her milk. Half-a-glass. Kristin took comfort that it was whole milk. Four percent fat. Every calorie counted.
She snatched two sweaters from a wall hook, and collected the pencil and notebook the therapist had recommended they keep close by—in case Ashley had any breakthroughs to record. Then Kristin and Ash sat on matching chaises staring into the darkening night. The large lake began fifty feet from the house, and on sunny days, willows, birches and maple trees provided shade. There was a well-defined path to the water and shoreline, an area covered with small stones and sand.
She and Ashley had explored a lot of shoreline during the past few days. Whether they’d trespassed on neighboring properties, Kristin didn’t know and didn’t care. She considered the explorations around the lake “nature walks,” and justified them as part of the science curriculum. Ashley seemed to enjoy examining the different plants and insects on these outings, so they’d made their walks a daily activity.
“The frogs make me laugh,” said Kristin. “But the water sounds of the lake are soothing. What do you think?”
Ash nodded and imitated a gentle wave’s rolling motion with her right arm, her fingers touching her left hand, repeating the sequence several times.
“That’s right, Ash. The small waves lap the shore over and over,” responded Kristin. “In a steady rhythm. Is that what you’re telling me?”
Ashley nodded again.
One day, her daughter would talk again. One day they’d chatter away about everything just like they used to. Even the psychologist said it would happen at some point. But Dr. Kaplan would make no predictions. “Every person works through it differently—there’s no timetable for trauma recovery.”
They’d get there little by little. Kristin believed it. She had to believe it. Hope kept her going. Right now, however, maybe a game of Scrabble would keep Ashley’s mind occupied. The game might take an hour, but the longer the child stayed awake, the more tired she became and the less chance a nightmare would tear her apart. It worked for Kristin.
“Ash, how about...
But Ashley jumped from her chaise, grabbed Kristin’s hand and pointed to the left. The child cupped her own hand behind her ear.
Kristin listened hard and heard the lovely sounds of a.... She glanced at Ashley. “A trumpet?”
Ash shook her head with vigor. Her chest rose and fell. Kristin heard deep breaths fill her daughter’s lungs, heard her exhale and stopped breathing herself. Talk, baby, talk!
“Ahh...ahhh.....” The girl grabbed a pencil and wrote, “jazz sax.”
Almost. She almost said it.
Ash positioned a chair to face the music and slowly sat down. As she listened, she remained perfectly still, hands in her lap.
In the glow of the overhead light, Kristin soon saw a tiny smile emerge on Ashley’s face and wanted to shout for joy. The old Ashley—the real Ashley—was still there. Just now, the new Ashley had forgotten to be afraid, and had unconsciously allowed herself to enjoy the moment. The real Ashley was simply in hiding. Waiting. And the music had reached her.
It made sense. Ash was her father’s daughter, too, a musical child of a talented dad who’d taught in high schools with passion and devotion—and played trumpet and piano with their regional orchestra.
John and a younger Ashley had filled the house with music at one time. Piano duets. Piano and flute duets. Wonderful music. But John’s unexpected death four years ago... Kristin looked at Ashley again and caught her breath. Her daughter’s quiet behavior, her fragility, were heartbreakingly similar to her demeanor then. Grief. She and Ashley had grieved hard together. And now, her daughter, while listening to this sweet music, was mourning once again. For her dad? Or for herself?
Kristen’s hands fisted. If she ever found the man who’d raped her child...she’d kill him. Piece by piece, she’d take him apart.
Right. She, who’d rarely engaged in a verbal argument, let alone a physical one, had absolutely no idea how to take a man down. It had been the cops’ job to get the monster. And they hadn’t done a blessed thing.
Ashley walked over and stroked her mother’s tear-streaked face.
“The music’s beautiful but sad,” Kristin explained.
Her daughter nodded and bestowed a warm kiss on her cheek before sitting down again.
Kristin swallowed her sobs and allowed the anger to storm through her body all the way to fingers and toes, and to her cramped stomach. Oh, yes. She’d definitely kill the guy.
After warming up the sax the previous night, his first evening at his family’s country house, Rick actually slept through until noon. Unbelievable. Maybe cutting out the caffeine was key, but he didn’t think so. He gave credit to inhaling the sweet mountain air, removing himself from the “incident,” and being in a place of good memories and happy times.
Over the years, his dad had turned a three-room cabin into a four-bedroom, fully winterized and insulated home. Rick had helped with the continuous remodeling, and for the last dozen years, the family had not only enjoyed summers in the mountains, but ski weekends in the winter, too.
None of the neighbors were at the lake this early in the summer. Of course, that would change with the Memorial Day weekend at the end of the month. But for now, Rick had everything he wanted—his dog, his sax, some groceries, and a change of environment.
The combination seemed to be working well so far.
On his second night, he headed for the screened back porch again, saxophone in hand, the big shepherd at his side. He suspected that Quincy enjoyed the companionship more than the music; the dog would stick close even if he played like a beginner, squealing and screeching sour notes. He wasn’t a beginner. Music was the other half of himself.
Tomorrow, he’d call some of the local clubs and see if he could sit in on a few sets. That would be a treat he didn’t often get in the city. The club owners knew him, knew he could hold his own with their players. Moreover, having an extra cop on the premises was always a plus. It was a fair trade. But now he wondered whether he could earn his living through music. Lots of people turned their hobbies into careers. Maybe he could be one of them.
The dog nuzzled him and waited until he sat down. Then Quincy laid on the braided area rug near his human’s chair.
Rick fingered a few scales, closed his eyes and began with some old favorites from John Coltrane. After ten minutes, he heard Quincy move, and through slitted lids saw him sit at attention, ears up, staring through the right- side screen. Rick didn’t stop playing. His dog possessed superior hearing skills, and an owl, frog, cat or even a tiny field mouse could be out there. No big deal.
But then he heard the voice. A clear soprano. She began vocalizing against his melody—no words, just creating her own riffs. She kept up with him as he played. Out of curiosity, he changed musical style, selecting a Sinatra standard, then something from Broadway. She stayed with him. He switched to the blues. And to his astonishment, the lovely human vocals were replaced by the sound of a flute. And like the vocals, this music followed his lead, too. Then led him. The flute wound around his sax, playing with the melody, playing against the melody. For almost an hour, he ran with the flow they created until, without conscious planning, he began Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven.
Boom! Red blood on a white jersey, the blood staining his memory as surely as it stained the child’s clothing. An innocent little girl. A man. A woman. Arms and legs awry. Because of him. Tears welled, and this time, when the clear melody of the flute joined him, he heard the pure sound of a solitary church bell in his mind. The sax dropped to his lap. His head dropped to his hands. But the sweet sad melody of the flute continued to the very end.
When quiet filled the air once more, he whispered a gravely, “Amen,” and listened to the night. He heard only the gentle rustle of the leaves. Like an arthritic old man, he rose from his chair, reached for his sax and shuffled to the door.
His unknown partner was an accomplished musician, perhaps professional. Funny, he thought he knew everyone on this side of the lake. It seemed he was wrong.
For the first time since her daughter’s rape, Kristin prepared for bed feeling content. Ash had reached out with music that night. She’d connected with someone. Kristin pulled down the bedspread and plumped the pillows, looking forward to a full night’s sleep. A rare night’s sleep.
Everything Ashley had done that evening, she’d done on her own volition. Her voice was an instrument, and unconsciously, Ash had joined the saxophone, singing without words. That activity alone had sent Kristin’s spirit soaring, but when her daughter grabbed the flute—a last minute addition to their luggage when leaving home—and played counterpoint to her mysterious partner, Kristin fought to keep her cheers to herself.
She slid into bed and reached for the notebook she kept in her night table drawer—a record of Ashley’s progress. A journal of events. She hoped and prayed that whoever played the sax that evening was a youngster like Ash—a teenager would be fine. A sweet, gentle girl or boy who might help to draw her daughter out of the shell she’d created. Created because of a monster.
Kristin’s palm stung. Glancing down, she saw her fisted hand, knuckles white and nails pressed hard against her skin. The purple indentations would last a long while. Every time she thought about what had happened to Ash... No, no. She had to forget the bastard. Focus on Ashley. Help her. Even if the monster was never caught, Ashley had to move forward and live her life. Maybe by August, her daughter would start acting like the energetic girl she’d been instead of like the timid child she’d become. And if, God willing, she did, Kristin would never ever complain about her messy bedroom again. She hated Ash’s current need for perfection in every room. Another reminder of the monster.
She made notes about Ashley’s participation in that night’s concert, then turned out the lamp and sought a comfortable position. They were making some progress, and tomorrow might be even better than today. Maybe she should forcefully encourage Ashley to speak. The therapist said Ashley would talk when she was ready, but it was hard to straddle the line between gentle encouragement and over-expectation. Finally, she told herself that she was doing the best she could and went to sleep.
Her hope for a better day crashed the next morning when she stood with Ashley on the front porch. Jogging down Lakeside Road—the blacktop road that circled the waterfront community—was a man and a dog. Sweat darkened the athlete’s shirt, and the dog—well, the silver-black shepherd was gorgeous but humongous. And not leashed.
Ashley pressed against her.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
Now, her child stepped behind her.
Kristin turned around. “Please, Ash. Talk to me. Tell me. Use words.”
But Ashley pressed her lips together, her eyes wide and unblinking. Trance-like.
No, no, no. They didn’t need any setbacks. She wouldn’t force the issue, especially when she knew very well why Ashley was frightened. The man. The dog. Easy to see.
“Maybe they’ll keep on running,” Kristin said softly, “all the way out of sight. Maybe they live on the other side of the lake and that would be a couple of miles.” And maybe pigs really did fly.
Her heart sank as, through the trees, she spotted the duo turn into a driveway two houses down—and sensed Ashley’s retreat inside.
“Did you know, Ash,” she said, intercepting her, “that the German shepherd is one of the most intelligent animals on the planet?” Whether this was actually a fact, she wasn’t sure, but she didn’t care. She took Ashley’s hand and led her to the rocking chairs they’d set out upon their arrival the week before. “These dogs are so smart, they help the police detect hidden illegal drugs. They can find lost people just by sniffing a piece of their clothing before searching for them.”
Ashley nodded, then opened her arms wide.
“Yes, the dogs are big. They have to be. They’ve got muscles for running and endurance for searching. Those traits are necessary for finding a lost person.”
Ashley rose and measured a four foot height with her hand.
“Kids? Sure. They find kids as well as adults.”
The girl’s eyes brightened for a moment, then she shivered.
“What are you thinking, Ash?” What threats had the monster made? “Please, sweetheart. I can help you.”
Ashley shook her head and stared at the floor. Kristin swallowed hard. Again, her daughter was shutting her out, refusing her help to ease the pain. To face the fear.
She leaned over and gave Ashley a kiss. “I love you, baby. Forever and ever. And nothing can change that.”
The child hugged her tightly before glancing in the direction where the man and his companion had disappeared. Then she peered over her shoulder at their front door.
But Kristin had had enough of hiding. No dog or man was going to prevent Ashley from feeling safe here, from enjoying herself outside whether she was reading a book or swimming in the lake.
“Let’s introduce ourselves, Ash. Then the dog will know we belong here, and we won’t have to be concerned. If we bring some cookies, he’ll love us forever. It’s the neighborly thing to do. And if the dog can’t eat them, the man will.”
Kristin rose from the chair and motioned to her daughter. “Come on. We’ve got some peanut butter ones from yesterday’s batch.” She watched Ashley drag her feet into the house, but didn’t change her mind about going to see their neighbors.
What should have taken a quick minute took ten with Ashley moving in slow motion. Finally, however, they stood in front of 68 Lakeside Road. Kristin knocked.
Thirty seconds later, the big man filled the doorway. He was fresh from a shower with a towel around his neck, and wearing a water-spotted tee shirt, and a different pair of running shorts. He studied them in silence for a moment, the dog sitting at perfect attention at his side. Kristin’s heart sank. She hadn’t counted on unfriendly neighbors.
And then he smiled. His steel-gray eyes melting to a soft gray mist. “Are you guys lost? I don’t recognize you.”
Whew! What a change. The hunk was friendly. Shocked at her thoughts, Kristin stood tongue-tied. She hadn’t noticed any man in four years.
She handed the cookies to him and offered their names. “We’re staying at the Goldman place until August. We saw you running with your…uh, pal, here… your rather large pal…so we came to meet him. And you, too, of course.” Her face burned. Her skin had to be cherry-red, the downside of being a fair- skinned blonde. To compensate, she thrust her chin up and forced herself to look directly at him.
“House sitting for the Goldmans?”
“Something like that,” she replied, this time smoothly. “Marsha is a good friend of mine.”
He nodded and studied her as though memorizing her features for future reference. Then he turned toward Ashley, and a pain-filled expression crossed his face.
Ashley’s fingers touched hers.
Immediately, the man smiled as if nothing had happened. “Rick Cooper,” he said, extending his hand first to her, then to Ashley. “I’m happy to meet you both.”
Kristin held her breath watching Ash’s reaction. Slowly, without speaking, her daughter placed her hand in Rick’s and let it remain for a complete handshake. Kristin exhaled in relief, knowing she’d record the action in the journal. It was important enough.
Now, he motioned them inside. A big country kitchen ran from the front to back on the right side of the house. Oak floors, a large oak dining table. He took the cookies and led them to a breakfast nook in the back, toward the lake. On the way, Kristin saw an informal library and game room on the left, a staircase and another room beyond it. Once in the breakfast nook, she noticed the large back porch and guessed that every house had a screened arrangement overlooking the lake. This was a house for a family.
“Do you have any kids?” she asked conversationally. “Ashley is eleven.”
“I’m single. But my niece and nephew will be up at the end of the month.”
Single by choice, she thought. His choice. With his looks and physique, he could attract a swarm. “We’ll look forward to meeting them, too.”
“If you ladies take a seat, I’ll put Quincy through his paces and then introduce you up close and personal.”
“Thank you, Rick. We really appreciate your time.”
Rick motioned, and the dog sat at attention watching his owner. With hand signals only, he had the dog sit, lay down, walk at heel, stay, ignore treats he’d placed on the floor, and shake hands with him. Perfect performance. The reward came quickly in the form of praise and one of the doggie treats. And applause from Kristin.
She didn’t wait for Rick’s invitation, but impulsively knelt down to pet the beautiful animal, scratching his head and crooning softly to him. She got a lick for her efforts. The beast was friendly and liked to nuzzle. She beamed at Ashley, totally reassured.
“Your turn, honey. He may be big, he may even resemble a gray wolf, but he’s a lovable baby.”
Ashley stayed seated.
Rick knelt next to the dog, held his collar and spoke softly, only to Ashley. “Where I live in the city, all the kids play with Quincy, and that’s when he’s the happiest. They throw balls for him, they roll on the ground with him, but most of all they hug him and talk to him.” He winked at her, and said, “He’s their special friend.”
Ashley barely blinked.
“Right now,” continued Rick, “Quincy’s a little lonely.” He spoke to the dog. “Are you sad, boy?”
The dog whined and licked him. “See what I mean, Ashley? Now it’s Quincy who could use a special friend, a friend right here at Morningstar Lake.”
He motioned to the child and smiled with such encouragement, that Kristin realized she was holding her own breath waiting for her daughter’s response.
Without a word, Ashley slid from her chair and step-by-cautious step approached Rick from the side, avoiding a face-to-face with Quincy.
“See how fast he’s wagging his tail? He’s smiling at you, Ashley. Notice the way his tongue’s hanging out the side of his mouth. Man, I hate to admit this handsome boy looks silly, but he sure does.”
Was that a giggle? Or a squeaky shoe? Kristin stared at Ashley, but her daughter was totally fixed on Quincy. Could this be a turning point for her?
Continuing his soft patter, the man somehow maneuvered them to the front porch, the dog at heel next to Ashley while she held his leash. The two walked up and down the entire width of the porch several times until Rick motioned them to stop. Quincy, however, didn’t seem ready to lose his new friend. He tucked his head under Ashley’s arm, looked up with adoring eyes and licked her on her cheek and neck. His tail wagged so hard, its breeze gave Kristin goose bumps.
“He likes me!” The delight in Ashley’s voice was unmistakable as she hugged the big canine.
Words! A sentence. Voluntarily uttered. Kristin couldn’t move. Nor could she stop her tears—or the horrified expression on Rick’s face when he saw them.
His reaction didn’t matter. Her tears didn’t matter. Only Ashley mattered. Ashley and her breakthrough. An entire sentence! Kristin would call Dr. Kaplan. Now, they’d move forward. She just knew it.