First Kiss: Joy and Mark

joy coverExcerpt, The Return of Joy:

“New Mexican food isn’t quite like any other Mexican food, huh?” Mark took a bite of his and closed his eyes with an enraptured look on his face.

Joy giggled. “Look at us. You’d think we were starving. This food is amazing.” She wiped her lips with a napkin. “It isn’t too hot, but I can feel the tingle of the salsa on my lips.”

She hadn’t meant her words to sound provocative, but when Mark reached out one finger to touch the corner her mouth, she realized they may have come across that way.

He traced her lip to the other corner, his touch so light and gentle she caught her breath.

“I may have to check later and see how long that tingle lasts,” he whispered. He moved his gaze from her lips to her eyes. “I want to know how you taste. I’ve been wondering.”

He pulled his hand away, and immediately she craved his touch. She reached for his hand and squeezed it.

“We may need to do some mutual exploration,” she whispered back.

The sizzle of attraction became more potent whenever she touched him, so she held his hand a little longer. Until he began stroking it with his thumb. Until a Mariachi band strolled up to their table and broke the mood.

They played a loud, bouncing polka that rocked Joy’s mood from sensuous to frivolous, and when they finished the first number, Mark jumped to his feet and clapped. Unable to stop herself, Joy did the same. Then Mark leaned over and whispered something to the band leader, who nodded and passed the name of a song she didn’t recognize to the others. The trumpet on this tune was a little slower, butdreamstimefree_191246 still fun.

Mark grabbed her hand and pulled her closer for a dance. A few other couples followed their lead and took to the dance floor with quick, lively steps. Then Mark led Joy into a slower number as the tune changed, clasping one of her hands against his heart and circling his other arm around her waist.

As the song ended, he leaned in and brushed his lips across hers, then grinned. “I couldn’t wait. Hope you don’t mind.”

Her heart pounded with excitement at the gentle touch. “No, I don’t mind.”

She leaned toward him and captured his lips with her own, adding a little pressure, thrilling as the pace of his heart grew faster under her hand.

A few whistles and a light round of applause from the band drew their attention to the audience witnessing their first kiss.

Mark leaned close and whispered, “You’re blushing,” before leading her back to their seats.

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Paige and Joshua — the Sizzle of their First Kiss

“There you are.” Paige’s lilting voice gave Josh a rush of warmth and he grinned up at her from flat on his back on the ground, bumping his head on the corner of the tool shed as he sat up.dreamstimefree_3756336

“Ouch.” He rubbed the spot and with a rueful shrug, scooted out and brushed the back of his head to shake any leaves free. “You startled me. I was just finishing up.”

“What are you doing under there, anyway?” Paige leaned down to peer into the recess under the floor of the little building. “That doesn’t even look safe. I’d be afraid of bugs and snakes and other unnamed creepy crawlies.”

“Oh, they’re all gone now.” Josh reached under the building and felt around until he grasped his treasure. “Scared them away with the rake before I retrieved this.”

He pulled one of the rocks out and held it up for Paige to see.

Her gasp of joy pleased him. She reached for the crystal in his hand.

“I don’t believe it. However did you find this? It’s gorgeous.” She held it up, letting the sun reflect through it, flashing colors.

“Rose quartz, madam, if I don’t miss my guess. And there are more.” He reached back to the neat pile he’d gathered at the edge of the foundation and pulled out another stone. “This one is granite. It will be beautiful wet.”

She caught the idea immediately. “Maybe in the bird bath.” She dropped down in the grass to sit cross-legged beside him. Then she took the fist-sized rock, spit on it, and rubbed the spot. “Or if I ever build my waterfall.”

“If you build a little pond, you can fit all these in. Come take a look.” He continued scraping the rocks from the pile forward, bringing one after another into the light. This was his first good look at them, and he gave a low whistle. “This isn’t just a pile of rocks. It was someone’s collection once upon a time. I think this is jade.”

He gathered three non-descript ones with similar surfaces and dropped them into Paige’s lap. “Here are some geodes. If you crack them open, you’ll find jagged crystals inside. Here, this one is open.”

They moved their heads closer together as they handled the hollow crystal and sorted through others. Paige looked up, and Josh found her eyes, blue and sparkling with joy, only inches from his. He could get lost in those eyes. The light in them was clear and bright and eager. He didn’t want to look away, but she broke the gaze.

A blush crept up her neck, and she shifted a little farther from him. “You seem to know a lot about rocks.”

“I was an avid collector as a kid. My mom makes jewelry and always had lots of rocks around for her work.” He picked up a purple crystal and held it out to her.

She opened her palm.

He dropped it into her hand and let his fingers trail across her wrist before he moved them away.”That one was always my favorite. It’s an amethyst. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Amethyst is my birthstone.” Hcrystal3er voice was low, almost a whisper, and filled with a kind of awe that touched him to the core.

“You have a February birthday, then.” He frowned a minute, pulling words from a deep memory. “It is a crystal known for cleansing the aura, enhancing spiritual awareness, and…”

He struggled to remember the rest. Then he remembered and swallowed. “And attracting loving energy. It suits you.” Loving energy emanated from Paige.

“It is beautiful.”

He looked at her face, the perfection of her skin, slightly pink and so touchable, and he reached out one finger and ran it down her cheek. Electricity crackled up his arm.

“Yes, it is.” He stopped at her mouth, shifted so his thumb was there instead, and hooked his finger under her chin. Then he lifted her eyes to his. “Beautiful,” he repeated.cover for on line ad

Her breathing picked up, and his own grew rapid and shallow, matching his speeding heart. He struggled to remember that he’d only seen this woman once before. He barely knew her, but somehow that didn’t compute. The only thought he could process was how her lips would feel under his. He leaned forward for a little taste and found her lips parted ever so slightly and her breath tasting of cinnamon. She shifted a little closer.

She tasted of everything good and right in the world. Cinnamon and vanilla and honey. He moved his lips slowly, carefully, taking his time, giving her time to draw back or not, to do what she wanted and needed to do.

Her hand came up to his face and she angled in, deepening their kiss and stealing his reserve. Her fingers tested the feel of his hair, the stubble on his face, and then her tongue flicked the corner of his mouth.

Had he moaned out loud? He needed to press closer. He put his arm around her shoulder and shifted so their bodies touched as he pulled her against him.

They both broke off and pulled back, she with a giggle, and he with a muffled curse, as the pointed edges of the rock collection dug into his hip.”Dratted rocks.”

The pile he’d pulled out for her viewing pleasure made a decidedly unpleasant place to lounge for a first kiss. His gaze darted up to meet hers, and he burst into laughter as she covered her mouth and smothered her own chuckles. Her eyes danced, filled with joy in the craziness of the moment.

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Animals help make the story – but Therapy Cats?

Excerpt from Out of Agony:IMG_0606

The World’s Best Cats and Kittens boasted long, screened enclosures with cats and kittens everywhere. An older woman greeted them at the office door. She was thin and spry with grey hair pulled back, and dangling earrings providing a splash of color. She tucked a yellow tabby under one arm and reached out to shake Jessie’s hand with a firm grip. A grey cat draped over her shoulders and peeked around at Jessie in curiosity.

“Lots of people bring us their kittens, and we work hard to place them all. Neutering and nursing the animals, and finding homes, is full-time work. I’m so glad you came here. I know we can find what you want.”

“We need a therapy cat,” Sara spoke up. “I have cancer and the nurses say a cat will help me get better.”

The woman reached out a hand to clasp Sara’s. “They will help, I promise. I am a cancer survivor myself, and I credit the cats with getting me well. Come on, let’s go see which ones you like.”

Ones? Oh-oh. If she thought they would take more than one cat…

“I have an idea. Let’s see what you think.” She led them, not to the enclosures, but into the house. “There is a little runt here. Some of the other cats picked on him, especially while he was recovering after his operation, and one of the mama cats adopted him. I keep them in here so she doesn’t have to defend him quite so fiercely.”

Curled up together on the top of a short platform lay a calico cat and a black kitten with white paws. When Sara approached, the kitten looked up at her, stood, stretched, and reached for her with one paw as if to say “pick me.” When she stroked his head, he leaned into her, pressing close and purring loud enough Jessie could hear him a few steps away.

“Oh, look Aunt Jessie, he loves me.” The calico cat looked on and nudged Sara’s other hand.

“Oh, and she loves me, too.” She had a cat under each hand and pure joy radiated across her face.

“Do you think he would adjust to a leash?”

“I’m sure of it. Watch.” The woman picked up two small harnesses. She stretched the first over the calico’s head, and the second over the black kitten’s. She buckled them both in place.

Sara kept petting them.

“I’ve already trained them to accept the harness. It’s the biggest step. Cats are so flexible, they can get away from any collar if they really want to, even if it means breaking the break-away latch.”

She eyed Sara for a second. “Why don’t you sit down and let’s see what they do.” Sara obeyed, perching on the edge of a chair. Immediately both cats hopped down from the platform and approached her. The little one meowed loudly and hopped up beside her. The older one, though quieter, acted just as determined to stay right beside Sara. How would she choose between the two?

“Good, they both are very interested in staying with you.” The woman clipped a short leash to each collar and let it dangle. So far so good. She handed the leash ends to Sara.

“Don’t get in a hurry, but when you are ready, hold one leash in each hand and stand up. If they stay calm, walk toward me and we’ll see what happens.”

Sara talked to the cats for another few moments, then stood. Both cats jumped down, one on each side of her. They didn’t seem bothered by the leashes at all. She looked up at the woman standing across the room. When she nodded, Sara began to walk slowly toward her.

The two cats fell in step beside her.

“Amazing!” Awe filled Jessie. She’d expected a real fight with the cats.

“Well, you can reinforce their good behavior.” The woman handed some treats to Sara, who in turn fed one to each cat.

“It also helps if they get to go somewhere interesting when they are on leash. I am sure their new home will be interesting to them.” She smiled benevolently at her little charges, like a proud grandma. “I thought these two would be naturals. Ready to write up the paperwork and adopt them?”

Them? She was trying to get them to take both cats. Jessie didn’t have the heart to make Sara choose. They were both so cute and so loving to Sara. Clearly the cats loved each other. It wouldn’t be fair to separate them.

“Sara?”

Her niece nodded happily, dropped into a seat, and gathered the two cats into her arms.

“Did you hear? Blackie, you and your mama get to come home with me. Mama, you can take care of your baby in your new home. And take care of me, too.”

John and Phyllis would probably kill her. Not one cat, but two, added to their already hectic household.

Out of Agony is available July 21 from Desert Breeze Publishing and Amazon.com.

Ollie, my own sweet dog, is a character in Voice

When it began to get dark Jen looked for a campsite. She didn’t want to hook things up in the dark if she found a site with electricity. If she didn’t, her generator would take care of them.

The campground wasn’t as empty as she’d thought it would be. More people must travel in the fall than she’d realized. Big RVs and Airstream trailers of all sizes shared the spaces with vans like hers. She signed in at the office, paid for her night in advance, then pulled into her spot.

Once she’d parked, she sat there a long time. She was really doing this. Was she a little nuts? A woman and a little dog, traveling alone. A shiver ran down her spine, and she shook off the fear. Ollie, anxious to get out and explore — or more likely relieve himself — gave a little whine and pawed at her arm.

“Okay, Ollie, okay.” She went into the back of the van and got IMG_0402a towel and her little caddy of shampoo, conditioner, and soap.

“Let’s get a walk, then get a shower tonight, while it’s still light, and then we can lock things down tight for the night.”

She clipped his leash onto the harness, and they hopped out of the van. She locked the doors behind her and they set off to explore the campsite.

“Hey, neighbor, cute dog. What kind is he?” The voice came from the site two down from hers. An older woman, with grey curly hair, stepped out from behind a camp stove. The delicious smell indicated she was grilling burgers for dinner.

“I don’t know what breed his is, but people always ask. He’s cute, huh? He was a rescue, and his name is Ollie.”

If there were lots of women in these campsites, it might not be so bad.

“Hello, Ollie.” The woman leaned down to pat him, and Ollie pulled forward to meet her friendly touch. Well, he seemed to think she was safe enough.

She looked up at Jen and smiled. “I’m Lucille,” she offered. “My sister and I are headed to Northern California. Where are you headed?”

“I’m Jen. Not sure where Ollie and I will end up. We aren’t expected in Illinois for a few weeks, so I think we’ll see how many national parks and monuments we can find between here and there.”

“Sounds like fun, Jen. Just the two of you then?”

Jen nodded.

“Well, be sure to let me know if you need anything — forgot the butter, can’t get the electricity set up, or some creep bugs you — just call out, and we’ll come running.”

Lucille went back to her stove with a wave. Good. No long, nosy conversations, just enough chatting to be friendly.

And to know each other’s names if some kind of trouble came up for either of them. Smart.

“You know, Ollie, this might not be so bad.” The dog looked up at his name, but they kept walking. He trotted with his proud little strut, head up, tail curled, walking in his funny, not quite straight gait. Almost like he used to walk his happy little stride before. She wanted to get at least a mile in so that they both had a good stretch. It had been a long day buckled into the van.

“We don’t have to explain anything. We have neighbors willing to help, and we have the solitude of our cozy little home on wheels.” Best of all possible worlds — or as good as a world could be without Trudy.

Buy Finding Her Voice today from Amazon or Desert Breeze Publishing.

Atlas, Mark’s dog, plays a key role in The Return of Joy

Excerpts from The Return of Joy:atlas cropped 2

Mark turned to Charity. “And who is this young lady?”

“This is my granddaughter, Charity.” Evelyn grinned, then busied herself with placing Charity on the ground. She was sucking on her fingers and eyeing the dog. She pointed to him, not frightened exactly but cautious. “Does he bite?”

“Hi, Charity.” Mark put out a hand to solemnly shake her pointing finger. “No, he doesn’t bite. And he loves pats and hugs and kisses. Would you like to pet him?”

Charity nodded, and Mark guided her hand to the animal’s head. Charity giggled and patted the dog with both hands.

“Can I lick him?” she asked soberly, no doubt thinking of doggy kisses.

All three adults chuckled at that.

“No, Charity, just regular people kisses, okay?” Mark crouched beside her and looked up at Evelyn. “She’s a wonder, Evelyn. You must love having a granddaughter.”

*****

When Charity dropped to the floor next to Atlas and showed him one of the books, Mark laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”

“She’s reading to the dog,” he pointed out.

“She’s been doing that for a couple of weeks, Mark.” So proud of both the girl and the dog she could hardly stand it, Joy grinned. “Josie has a therapy dog who listens to kids read at a local library. She helped us make sure Atlas could do the same.” Joy pulled a paper out of the pile of presents on the table. “Atlas passed his test. All we need is your permission to send everything in, and he can be an official therapy dog, too.”

Looking confused, Mark scratched his head. “A therapy dog? He’s just… you know, a family dog.”

Joy smiled and stepped closer to Mark. She patted his chest.

“I know he is your dog. That’s why we won’t pursue this if you don’t want to.” She turned and slid an arm around his waist. “But look at them. They’re so happy reading together.”

Mark looked, shaking his head. “He’s just lying there. He isn’t even looking at the pictures.”

“That’s what Charity said the first tim603986_377554449000333_815996728_ne. Then Josie explained he likes to listen to her tell the story. Charity can’t actually read yet, of course, but she’s learning to share, to decipher from the pictures, and turn the pages. You should see Josie’s dog, Zoey, at the library, surrounded by children from toddlers through about second grade. They all crowd around and pet her, and take turns reading to her.”

“So if you send in Atlas’ paperwork and he becomes a therapy dog, what does that mean, exactly?”

“It means I can volunteer with him at a local school or library, where kids will do just what Charity’s doing now. Read out loud to the dog.”

“And they don’t realize he doesn’t understand?”

“Nope.” Joy chuckled. “You should have seen Atlas at his reading test. One little boy read a book about Little Pig Piglet, who couldn’t sleep. At the end of the story when he read that Little Pig Piglet finally fell asleep, Atlas flopped over on his side on top of the book as if he was falling asleep, too. So of course he must understand. He doesn’t really, of course, but the children are so excited about being the ones to read out loud, and the dogs are so non-judgmental, that they get better and better at reading when they read to a dog. And the dogs never correct them, I might add.”

Mark seemed skeptical.

“I guess you have to see it to understand.” She looked up into his eyes. “Josie had one boy who came in with his grandpa who told us he couldn’t read but would it be okay if he petted the dog? Josie said sure, of course, and he knelt down beside Zoey and began to talk to her, saying ‘Good dog. You’re a good dog.’ When we looked up at Grandpa he had tears in his eyes. I asked him if he was okay and he nodded and told us it was the first time his grandson had spoken in months – that he has autism and has difficulty talking to people. But not to the dog!”

Buy The Return of Joy from Desert Breeze Publishing or Amazon.