Here’s the first bit of chapter 1 from my new release, The Rose, coming March 25th!
For the first time all day, Belle could finally breathe. As she curled up her feet on the sofa, a steaming cup of lemon jasmine tea between her hands, she basked in the comfortable silence. The rain outside had picked up and she had already spotted a few flashes of lightning through the speckled windowpanes, but that didn’t bother her. The thunderstorm added just the right ambience to help her relax.
The last hour had been spent actively trying not to go over the events of the day. She didn’t want to rehearse every word, every action, or overanalyze all that had happened to her in the bookstore. All she wanted to do was let her mind go blank. With the christening sip of her tea, its aroma soothing her anxious mind, she resolved to do just that.
On the coffee table sat her laptop and a lit lavender candle that added to the whole calming atmosphere she strived to create. She glanced to the screen and watched the four security camera windows with the black and lime-colored images of her animals in the barn. Three horses and a small flock of sheep all rested peacefully through the storm. There was the occasional stirring from an ewe or head toss from one of her mares, but nothing alarming. Just how she preferred it. A quiet night recuperating from the chaotic, stressful day.
Belle sunk lower against the mass of pillows and let the tea take effect on her rattled nerves. This was just another end to a long day that, to anyone else’s eyes, went off without a hitch. But to Belle, clad in her soft pajama bottoms and baggy Longhorn shirt, it was one of many that left her tired, drained, and in need of recharging.
All day, every day, she put on the mask. The one that gave a friendly smile to everyone, the one that spoke the right words every time, and never showed how truly terrified she was to be facing a perfect stranger. She spent so much energy keeping that mask firmly in place to hide her true self that at the end of the day, all she could do was crash on the couch with her tea and wonder if this would ever get easier.
Here, in her home, she was safe to be herself. It was her haven, her port of call. Her nearest neighbors were at least half a mile away on either side of her expansive farm, the one that had been passed down through her family for generations.
Everything in the barn and her two-story little farmhouse whispered the cherished memories of her childhood and a dozen childhoods before her. From the dining table in the kitchen that was made by her great-grandfather, to the wall of bookshelves in the living room packed with novels that had been collected over decades. Not to mention the three upstairs bedrooms that stored precious heirlooms dating back to her great-grandfather’s time when the house was first built. All of it embraced her and welcomed her into a safe place she would never trade for the world.
She might have been alone here, but she was happy. Here, she was able to let down her long brown hair, freeing the waves and curls she tamed back every day in a ponytail. Here, she could let loose and be who she wanted to be and not have to fake her own existence for the sake of being polite and normal.
Once she had drained her first cup, Belle begrudgingly stood from the sofa and made her way into the adjoining kitchen to pour herself another. Two more and she’d be ready for bed soon, the pacifying effects of the brew thoroughly cleansing away her anxiety. Her socked feet strode across the black and white checkered tiles, the ones her grandfather had laid when he first brought his new bride home. Her father once told the story of how she took one look at the patterned vinyl and demanded it be replaced. The project was completed in just two days before her grandmother made some comment about the cabinets, and they were replaced too.
Now, dark wood offset the green countertops, giving the rustic kitchen a mis-matched look that Belle couldn’t bring herself to remodel. There was too much character here, and even the thought of replacing the old appliances made her feel a little sad. So, she tolerated the dryer that had a mind of its own in the corner with the washer, and the gas stove that didn’t always want to start, and the refrigerator whose icemaker broke when she was ten years old.
No, she wouldn’t change a single thing about any of it.
As she poured hot water from her overused kettle over a fresh teabag, she heard a loud crash followed by a peel of thunder. Belle glanced over her shoulder to the darkened window but saw nothing except the pattering of raindrops against the glass.
She went straight to her laptop table and peered at the surveillance videos. She couldn’t see anything obviously wrong until one of the feeds showed that the barn door had come unlatched and banged furiously against the outer wall. This startled the horses and though there was no sound on the footage, she could hear all three mares knicker and the loud cries of the ewes over the pouring rain.
With a sigh, she knew she’d have to wait to start on that second cup of tea until she fixed the door. But just when she was about to turn away, Belle caught sight of something in the camera. For just a moment, she thought she saw something moving outside of the animal pens. It was too big to be a sheep and stood upright like a person.
She stared at the screen longer, her pulse racing as she tried to make sense of what she saw. Nothing moved again, but that didn’t keep her from spiraling into a panic. Maybe someone had broken into her barn. Her entire body went ice cold at the thought.
Another clash of lightning made the power flicker and she could see the bright green glow of the string lights flicker and die in the live video feed. Belle had convinced her father years ago to rig the barn with electricity so they didn’t have to take a lantern or flashlight with them if they had to check on the animals at night. However, that power had always been glitchy and unreliable at best. She had left the lights on to give some comfort to the animals during the storm, but who knew if they would turn back on.
Donning her rubber boots and raincoat, she grabbed a flashlight from the hook on the wall and dove out into the storm as she tried to ignore every instinct to stay inside where it was safe and dry.
Mud sloshed all around her pant legs, soaking them through until she felt the water chill her ankles and seep into her socks. Not even her boots could keep out the torrential downpour. Plump, cool drops splashed on her face, thoroughly dampening it despite the hood that concealed much of her head.
The rain fell across the yellow beam of light, almost obscuring her view. Somehow through the darkness and haze of rain, she saw the barn door slapping against the front side of the barn with every gust of wind.
Belle stopped to examine the damage, her shoes sinking into the deep puddles that had already formed on the ground. She knew for a fact that she had locked up the barn before going back inside that night. The padlock couldn’t have been knocked off by the wind and the key was still sitting on the kitchen counter. It had to have been broken by something. Or someone.
Fear rose up in her throat, but she tread softly toward the barn doors. Belle swallowed hard as she inspected the lock and found that it, along with the latch, had been ripped completely off, and lay in the mud just in front of the entrance. Whoever had gotten in was either incredibly strong or had a tool sturdy enough to rip off the lock.
When she shined her flashlight around the opening, she saw what the intruder must have used. An iron crowbar lay in the dirt just inside the threshold. It hadn’t been there before, but Belle recognized it as her father’s. His initials had been etched into the handle when he forged it himself for a school project.
Belle picked up the crowbar and swung the door shut behind her. She pushed back her raincoat hood and shined her flashlight around inside of the barn, willing for the beam to stop bouncing as her hands continued to shake. She swept it along the horse stalls, then to the sheep’s pen to the far back right corner, then to the old run-down Volkswagen opposite from them.
There was a thickness in the cool air that confirmed her suspicions that something wasn’t right. Whoever had broken into her barn must have still been there, lurking in the shadows where her flashlight couldn’t penetrate.
After another quick check with her light, she roamed to more closely inspect the barn. Nothing appeared to be missing in the way of supplies or animals. Yet, there was still an unease that filled her spirit. It just didn’t feel right, and she hated the way her heart pounded against her ribs with painful urgency.
Thinking that it might have been the storm making both herself and her animals nervous, Belle turned to leave, willing to dismiss what she saw on the camera feed as a moth or bug that got in the way of the lens. Maybe the wind had picked up a sturdy piece of lumber and knocked it against the lock to make it fly off instead of the crowbar she found. The wood of the barn door wasn’t new by any means and probably bore the beginnings of dry rot anyway. She couldn’t remember the last time the latch had been replaced, so it was possible that there was no intruder after all. That’s what she wanted to believe.
Then, she heard a sneeze. It wasn’t an animal sneeze, as she knew them all too well. This was a human sneeze and it sounded distinctly male.
Belle whipped around, crowbar poised and ready to throw or beat down whoever came near her. Her flashlight darted to all the corners, but still found nothing.
Finally, she called out in the strongest voice she could muster, “Show yourself now or I’m calling the cops!”
It took a moment, but there came some movement from the stack of hay bales near the back wall. Belle, as shaky as she was, stood her ground and gripped her weapon tighter. Though her teeth were clamped tight, her ragged breaths came sputtering out from her nostrils. There was no hiding her fear, no matter how she tried.
A man came forward with his arms raised in submission. He was shirtless, only clothed in a pair of battered jeans, torn and stained. His body made the air in Belle’s lungs freeze. Residual rainwater dripped from his barrel-chest down his toned, rippling abs and curving along his narrowing waist. He had broad shoulders and beefy arms as thick around as her thighs, all muscle and power.
Her flashlight stopped at his neck, but her eyes continued to roam upward. A pair of pure blue eyes sparkled from beneath dark brows. A beard covered his jaw and around his mouth, as black as the night sky. His equally dark, damp hair was slightly flattened and tangled by the storm, its tips grazing against the bare skin of his collarbone.
But it wasn’t the striking contrast of his hair and eyes that stunned her. It was the way he looked directly at her, ignoring the weapon she held, and the harsh light shining on his torso. He wasn’t afraid, but neither was he on the offensive. There wasn’t a hint of malice anywhere in his expression. There wasn’t a hint of anything. He met her stern gaze with a steady, gentle one that both intrigued and unnerved her even further.
Yet, somehow, she couldn’t look away, even if she wanted to. She would have given anything to drop her eyes in submission. Her mask wanted to come up, to protect her from this man and his hypnotic gaze. But, it couldn’t. Why couldn’t it? Maybe it was the long day or the tea she had drank earlier. It put her at a disadvantage, and she wasn’t prepared to face another person that evening. Exposed, caught off-guard, and terribly vulnerable. Anything could go wrong here, and she needed to be brave and detached. But the mask wouldn’t stick as long as this man was looking at her like that.
They stood there, in a stalemate for what seemed like several minutes before he spoke in a deep voice that rattled her bones. “Are you still going to call the police?”