Friday Fiction – Out of Her Element, Chapter Three

Fiction Friday graphic

Time for the next installment of Out of Her Element!

Start at the beginning HERE.

Out of Her Element cover artChapter Three

As Mira put her coat on so she could take Bill’s phone out to him, James came downstairs carrying a duffel bag. He set it beside her stuff and pulled on his coat.

“Why don’t you go ahead and bring your things out? We’ll pack them into Bill’s truck.”

She slung her pack over her shoulder, picked up her sleeping bag, grabbed her walking stick, and followed him outside. The dogs were tied to the tailgate of a new pickup truck with a cap. Their gazes locked on Mira, and they began to whine and wag from the tips of their noses to the tips of their tails. Nothing like a happy dog to make a girl feel loved, even if it was only because she’d been bribing them. She set her things on the porch and retrieved a deerskin pouch from her coat pocket. Smiling, she joined the dogs and pulled several small pieces of jerky from the pouch.

“I know what you guys want,” she told the excited canines with a laugh.

The dogs crowded around her and devoured the treats she offered. After returning the pouch to her coat pocket, she knelt and petted the dogs while they licked her and tried to get the jerky out of her pocket.

Mira laughed again as she shoved away a cold wet nose. “Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it?”

She scratched behind a few more ears and stood. The three men stared at her while the dogs continued to act as if she were a long lost friend. Were they angry that she’d fed their dogs without permission? She knew some people could be picky about their dogs’ diets. Then Bill shook his head and smiled.

“I wondered why the dogs didn’t bark when you were staying in the shed. Usually old Dan is loud enough to wake the dead when confronted by a stranger.”

“I guess it’s true that bribery gets you everywhere.” Richard chuckled.

Mira grinned, thankful they didn’t mind her giving their dogs treats. “I don’t know about that, but jerky’s great for getting a dog to like you.”

“What kind of jerky is that?” James asked. “The dogs are crazy about it.”

She moved away from the animals in question and retrieved the pouch. “Deer jerky. Want some?”

The men exchanged glances and shrugged.

“Sure, why not?” James said and pulled a small piece from the soft leather pouch.

The other two followed suit, and Mira pulled out a slightly larger piece. She enjoyed the impressed expressions on the men’s faces as they tasted the smoky flavor of the jerky she’d made.

“This is really good,” James said.

“Thank you.” A smile spread across her face despite her best efforts to keep her emotions hidden. Compliments weren’t common for her in this part of the world, especially not in the last several months.

Richard lifted an eyebrow. “Dare I ask how you killed the deer?”

“Sure.” She walked over to the porch and picked up her walking stick.

“You beat it with a stick?”

She smothered a laugh and shook her head as she twisted the top of the stick and removed it to reveal a smaller stick with a piece of antler on the end.

“I used this,” she said, pulling out an unstrung bow about five feet long.

She strung the bow and retrieved a small drawstring pouch from one of the deerskin bags on the porch. As she removed a small metal arrowhead from the pouch, Bill spoke.

“You’re a bowhunter?”

“I guess so.” She held up the arrowhead. “This is what actually killed the deer.”

Richard turned from studying the hollow, thin-walled walking stick. “This is ingenious. Did you make it?”

“No, Harley made it and the bow for me.”

“He must have been a talented man.”

“He was.” A pang of sadness hit as she ran her fingers across the silky wood of the bow.

She unstrung it and returned it to its case. Now was not the time to think of the cousins who had treated her as their own child. She could do that later, when she was alone. Too bad the sense of loss often hit at inopportune times and wasn’t so easily shaken.

Richard went back to cleaning the shed, and James went with him. Bill joined Mira as she returned the arrowheads to the bag she had retrieved them from.

“Did you talk to Della?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.” She pulled the cell phone from her pocket and handed it to him. “She says I’m supposed to call you Bill.”

“That’s right.” He studied her small pile of belongings. “Let’s load this in the truck.”

“Okay.” She pushed back the lingering grief and focused on gathering her meager possessions.

They carried everything to the other vehicle parked beside the cabin, a newer SUV. Bill opened the back, and they packed everything in beside a large cage. Mira studied the cage. Was it for one or more of the dogs?

Bill tapped it with a smile. “This is where Dan rides.”

She handed him the last bag and looked toward the dogs. “Which one is Dan?”

“That large, long-legged mutt with hound ears.”

“He curled up against me at night to keep me warm.” Her heart lifted. Maybe she could spend time with him while she was at the Montaignes’ house.

“Dan’s a big softy.” Bill closed the hatch as Richard and James came around the side of the shed. “I do believe it’s time for lunch.”

Mira followed as he led the way into the cabin. They gathered around the table to enjoy the thick stew that had been filling the cabin with a delicious aroma for the last couple of hours. Hope and doubts whirled through Mira’s mind in a tornado of thoughts that distracted her from the conversation. Was she making a mistake by going with Bill? How much better would her life be living in the Montaigne house? Did she have the strength to carry through with the plan?

As soon as she finished eating, she pushed back her chair and stood. She needed time alone to reconsider her decision to live with Bill and Della.

“I’m going outside.”

Before the men could object, she put on her coat and went out the door. The dogs rose expectantly the moment she stepped onto the porch.

“Sorry, I don’t have anything for you,” she said as she joined them and sat on the frozen ground.

Dan padded over and sat beside her. When he leaned against her shoulder as if giving her a hug, tears flooded her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around the big dog.

“Am I doing the right thing?” She spoke softly in Arabic. Even though she knew the dog didn’t understand a word she said, it helped to think he was listening to her thoughts. “I can’t stay here. It’s too cold to live outside, and I have nowhere else to live. Harley and Marnie always told me I could trust the Montaignes, that they’re good people, but I barely know them.”

Dan licked her nose, and she gave him a bit of a smile as she dried her eyes.

“Yeah, they’ve always been nice enough, and Bill and Della both seem concerned about me, but living with them? I don’t even know where they live.” She sighed and shifted so that only one arm draped across her canine companion. “What am I thinking, going to live with near strangers? I know it’s better than being homeless and risking freezing to death, but still. I must be crazy. I mean, what do I really know about these people?”

Dan whimpered and licked her again. Mira gave the dog another small smile.

“I know that Bill likes dogs and you’re a sweetie. Della doesn’t seem to mind people what don’t know English very well. I don’t know much about Josh, but Tabby and I always got along pretty well. I guess the main thing is that I know nothing about their way of life. I’m about to leave everything familiar behind for who knows what. I don’t know if I want to do that again. It was hard enough when I first came to America.”

The door of the cabin opened, and she glanced over her shoulder to see James standing in the open doorway.

“What do you want me to do with these rabbit skins?”

Mira stood, patted Dan one last time, and walked toward the cabin. “I’ll take care of them.”

Someone had cleaned up the kitchen. The only things left on the counter were the two rabbit skins. Mira reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the black plastic bag that had kept her provisions dry. Under the watchful gazes of the men, she wrapped the skins in it and did her best to ensure the fur would stay clean during the short trip to her friends’ store. Once the plastic-wrapped bundle was ready, she turned to James.

“What did you do with the brains?”

The men’s eyes widened. Why were they so shocked? They were all hunters and had surely cured hides before. James glanced at the bag of trash waiting to be tied and hauled to the nearest dumpster.

“I assume they were in the skulls when I threw them away. Why?”

“You need the brains to cure the hide.” Okay, so maybe they didn’t tan the hides of anything they killed. She walked over to the trashcan and peered in. Sure enough, two rabbit skulls sat on top. “Do you have something I can wrap these in?”

Bill reached into a drawer and pulled out a plastic bag. Mira retrieved the skulls from the trash, relieved to find the brains intact. She placed them in the plastic bag and set it with the well-wrapped skins. Then she washed her hands while James scrubbed the counter.

Richard glanced at the plastic-shrouded bundles and grimaced. “That’s disgusting.”

“It’s perfectly natural,” Mira said. “As Harley always told me, ‘Every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide.’”

Bill stared at her. “Are you bringing that stuff with you?”

She grinned at his worried tone. Apparently, he wasn’t as much of a country boy as she’d thought. “No, Della said I could give the hides to my friends.”

“Are they going to want those?” Richard pointed toward the bundles on the counter.

“Sure. They know how to tan a hide, same as me.”

“Okay, I think we’re ready to go,” James said, tying the trash bag closed.

Mira collected the rabbit hides and skulls while the men pulled on their coats. They headed outside, and Bill locked up as Richard and James untied the dogs and loaded them into their cages. Dan was the only dog that went into the SUV. Bill and Mira climbed into the SUV, and James and Richard got into the pickup. Following her directions, Bill soon pulled into the parking lot of a small general store. She hopped out and retrieved the pelts, both cured and uncured, from the back of the vehicle before heading inside. The older woman behind the counter offered a friendly smile.

“Hey, Mira!” Sally Miller said. “I was wondering how you were surviving this cold snap.”

“I’m surviving.” She held up the pelts. “I brought you some furs, although two of them still need to be cured.”

“That’s fine. My oldest boys get a kick out of tanning hides. Do you need to borrow the washing machine or the shower today?”

“No.” She hesitated, knowing this was her last chance to stay in West Virginia. But, it wasn’t fair to put her welfare on Sally’s family. Not when she’d already been offered a place to live. “Actually, I came to pick up my stuff. The Montaignes are giving me a place to stay.”

“The Montaignes?” Sally’s eyebrows rose. “Aren’t they those rich folk what own the cabin down the road from your old place?”

“That’s them. When they heard about my situation, they asked me to come live with them. They were good friends of Harley and Marnie.”

“That’s right.” Sally nodded. “Well, it’s good you have a place to live. You want some help carrying your stuff?”

“No, I’m just taking my clothes and books. You and your family can have the food.” Sally’s family needed her provisions more than the Montaignes. As her friend had pointed out, the Montaignes were rich. Sally’s family was just as poor as everyone else around Selma.

“Thank you.” Appreciation shone bright in her eyes. “I’ll go get your bag.”

She disappeared into the back room and returned a moment later carrying a large canvas duffel. Mira accepted it and a hug.

“You be sure to let me know how you’re doing from time to time,” Sally said, handing her a slip of paper with her name, address, and phone number.

“I will.” She shoved the paper in her coat pocket. “Give everyone a hug for me.”

“Okay, Mira. You take care now.”

“You, too.”

She stowed her duffel in the backseat of the SUV and climbed in beside Bill. He faced her as she fastened her seatbelt.

“Ready to go?”

She scanned the familiar scenery and sighed. She was going to miss this place, tiny and not always friendly to her as it was. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Bill pulled onto the empty road with James and Richard following. “I think you’re going to like your new home. We have about ten acres of woods and fifteen acres of pastures and meadows.”

“What about crops?”

“We don’t grow any. We do have several horses, though.”

“Do you have cows, sheep, or hogs?”

“No, the only livestock we have are the horses.”

“Y’all don’t even have any goats or chickens?” The thought of so much land and no crops or farm animals amazed her. What kind of life did these people live?

“No, just the horses and Dan. We also have a cat named Frank. He lives in the house with us. Frank is a purebred Ragamuffin and very friendly.”

She loved cats, but she’d never owned a purebred anything. “What does a Ragamuffin look like?”

“Well, it has long hair and is kind of fluffy-looking. Its face looks a kitten’s. Frank is a blue mink Ragamuffin, which means he’s a gray color.”

“So, Frank’s a friendly, fluffy, gray cat?”

Bill laughed. “That about describes him, except you forgot to say huge. He weighs eighteen pounds.”

“That’s almost twice as big as my last cat. She only weighed ten pounds.”

Mira stared out the window, watching the forest and farmland pass by. Even the familiar things in the Montaignes’ lives were unfamiliar. Who ever heard of a cat that big? And a purebred cat to boot. Every cat she’d ever met was much smaller and of the stray or barn cat variety.

After a couple of hours of driving down back roads and state highways, they got on the interstate heading west. Mira finally worked up the courage to ask the question that had been plaguing her for most of the trip.

“Where is your house?”

“It’s just outside Dayton.”

“Where’s that?” She’d never heard of it.

Bill glanced at her. “It’s in southwestern Ohio, about forty miles north of Cincinnati.”

She wasn’t sure where Cincinnati was, but at least she’d heard of it. After the surprised look he gave her when she asked about Dayton, she didn’t want to make it any more obvious her geography skills stunk.

“It takes about seven hours to get there from the cabin.” He must have figured out she didn’t have a good grasp on where places were in the United States.

Seven hours from all that was familiar? Mira’s heart threatened to beat right out of her chest. “That’s a long way. Harley took me to Ohio once to see about some hogs, but that was only three hours away.”

“Ohio is a big state. We should get home around eight or eight-thirty. We’ll stop somewhere later and get some dinner.”

She faced the window and tried not to worry about what she would find at the Montaigne estate.


Out of Her Element, Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth West
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Autism Awareness Through Fiction – Honeyflower and Pansy by Esmé James

Autism Awareness Through Fiction graphic

Today we’re taking a look at Honeyflower and Pansy written by my fellow Clean Reads author Esmé James. The autistic character in this book is a secondary character who plays an important role in the story.

Book Description

Honeyflower and Pansy cover artWith hopes of educating Sage, who has autism, Amanda Daryl’s family find themselves living in a town which has an unfinished story to tell. When plans for the school’s construction are abandoned, Amanda’s instincts lead her to fight for her sister’s honour; unknowingly paving the way for experiences she could never have anticipated.

Faced with a drunken café owner, amusing new friends, and little Sage, who simply cannot stop eating, Amanda’s journey becomes comical, inspiring, and at times, heart-breaking. To achieve her goal, Amanda discovers she must first address the ghosts of this town, and place it back in motion.

And then of course, there is Tristan; the mysterious boy always lurking near the edge of the forest, who best expresses his emotions through flowers.

Honeyflower and Pansy attempts to capture humanity at its highest, and lowest points, ultimately offering a message of hope. It explores the different types of love that can be found in the world, even the ones found in the most unexpected places.

Excerpt

“There was silence. And there was silence in the night. There was silence through the trees, and through the animals, and for a single instant, there was silence in the world. And it was still. And there was only Tristan and I, and a large oak tree And that was all there would ever be. That’s all I’d ever want there to be.”

“And there was peace in the night, in the world, and in my mind.”

“If the night changes things, it certainly does not change me.”

“You only say that because you are under the night’s control.”

~~

Honeyflower and Pansy is available from Amazon, iTunes, and Smashwords.

~~

About the Author

Photo of author Esme JamesEsmé James a is published author and freelance writer residing in Melbourne, Australia. By the age of twenty, Esmé has released two novels, Honeyflower and Pansy (2015) and The Awakening (2017), as well as various short-stories, poems and non-fiction articles. Her present work focuses on increasing awareness of individuals with special needs, and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Completing her Bachelor of Arts in 2017, with a major in creative writing and literature, Esmé is now a graduate student at the University of Melbourne. She was nominated for the ‘Fitzpatrick: Long-Form Fiction’ award in 2017, and has been a finalist for the Melbourne Arts Student’s Society’s ‘Creative Writing’ award for the past three years.

Connect with Esmé James

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Snapchat: esme.james

Autism Awareness Through Fiction – Rainn on My Parade by LoRee Peery

Autism Awareness Through Fiction graphic

Please welcome my fellow Pelican Book Group author LoRee Peery! She’s sharing her inspirational romance Rainn on My Parade with us today.

Book Description

Rainn on My Parade cover artAfter firefighter Rainn Harris rescues Geneva Carson from being stuck in a tree, she feels she owes him. Helping to care for his autistic niece comes easy, but her attraction to Rainn is a different story. Being drawn to a man twelve years her junior metes internal havoc as Geneva attempts to balance responsibility and personal fulfillment. And the prospect of becoming a middle-aged mom to a special -needs child sends Geneva into a tailspin of conflicting emotions.

As the custodial parent for his young niece, Rainn is determined to be a better parent than his absentee sister. When Geneva agrees to help care for Mia, Rainn is overjoyed. He admires Geneva’s compassion and enthusiasm for life, and expects she’ll be a positive influence on Mia. What he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with the beautiful and vital woman. But Geneva’s hung up on their age difference, and he must convince her of his sincerity before they will ever have a chance at happiness together.

As tension threatens to pull them apart, both must learn to rely on the Lord to direct their futures—whether that means two lives joined or paths in opposite directions.

Excerpt

Get a grip, woman, and act your age.

The sirens drew close. She soon heard activity below, but she kept her eyes clamped shut.

“Hold on, Ms. Carson. Don’t be scared,” a disembodied voice that didn’t belong to her future son-in-law spoke from below. “Just hold on.”

“I assure you, I’m too scared to let go.” Geneva’s voice quivered. But she couldn’t help smiling at her predicament.

The extension ladder whirred softly and creaked as it reached for the top branches of the tree.

She squeezed her eyes tighter.

“I’m right behind you now.”

“Thank you, Lord.”

“Not God, just me.”

The firefighter chuckled.

Her eyes popped open when she felt him close behind. Thankful for the cropped-pajama bottoms she wore instead of a nightgown, Geneva frowned at the unexpected shiver as she attempted to place the voice.

“Whenever you’re ready, just let go.”

“Thought you told me to hold on.”

“Well, I’m here to catch you now.”

She caught the humor in his voice. And hated it.

“Oh, good grief. I’m too heavy for anybody to catch me.” She lowered her eyes to half-mast.

“Spunky, most likely,” came from under his breath.

She doubted he meant for her to hear.

Is that professional behavior? Well, that’s pretty nervy of the guy. But then again, I am caught in a tree. She snickered, wondering if she was hysterical. She tried for a deep breath but it turned into a gulp around her sternum. “Are you sure I can let go?”

“Geneva, trust me.” That popped her eyes wide open.

The confident urging voice and the use of her first name drew enough courage to peer downward.

Rainn Harris.

And he was way too close for comfort.

Eric would never live this down at the firehouse. His future mother-in-law rescued from a tree, by his buddy.

She remembered her first look at him. Rainn was a few years older than Eric, but they became fast friends when they met at University. Geneva may have heard Rainn’s name a time or two before Eric started working on Moselle’s loft, but she hadn’t any reason to pay attention. Since then, she’d seen him with Eric many times.

Rainn probably knew more about her than she did him.

Before she could fathom any further thought, Geneva let go and found herself wrapped in the strongest arms and pressed against the strongest chest imaginable.

I’d climb the tree again if this firefighter would come for me.

~~

Rainn on My Parade is available from Amazon and Pelican Book Group.

~~

About the Author

Photo of author LoRee PeeryChristian romance author LoRee Peery writes to feel alive, as a way of contributing, and to pass forward the hope of rescue from sin. She writes of redeeming grace with a sense of place. LoRee clings to I John 5:4 and prays her family sees that faith. She has authored the Frivolities Series and other e-books. Her desire for readers, the same as for her characters, is to discover where they fit in this life journey to best work out the Lord’s life plan. She is who she is by the grace of God: Christian, country girl, wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and author. She’s been a reader since before kindergarten.

Connect with LoRee Peery Online

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Fiction Friday – Out of Her Element, Chapter 2

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Who’s ready for the second installment of Out of Her Element? If you missed the first chapter, you can find it HERE.

Out of Her Element cover artChapter Two

Mira sat in the thick straw covering the shed’s floor, desperate for a chance to think. The big, gangly hound flopped across her lap, and she stroked his head. Although she’d met Bill several times since she moved in with Harley and Marnie, she hadn’t seen him or his family in the last few years. According to Marnie, their annual vacation to the cabin had fallen by the wayside as their busy lives got in the way. She had missed seeing the Montaigne family every summer, but she’d adjusted and let them fade from memory. Now, however, she needed to remember as much as possible if she wanted to relax until Bill took her to Sally and Jack’s store.

Bill owned a big company of some kind. Something to do with electronics, maybe? She wasn’t sure, but the industry didn’t matter as much as his personality. He’d always been friendly toward everyone, even the most uneducated people in the area. His wife, Della, was a small woman with a big heart. She had treated Mira kindly. Even when Mira first met the Montaignes and didn’t know much English yet, Della had been courteous.

They had a son, Josh, two or three years older than Mira. He had always been interested in the plants in the forest and their uses. And then there was Tabby, the baby of the Montaigne family. She would be nineteen or twenty now, about a year younger than Mira. Tabby’s interests had changed every time Mira saw her, but the younger girl remained consistent in her love of people.

Did they remember her? Bill had, but she didn’t know how much he remembered of those vacations in years past. She’d spent more time with his kids than with him. Thinking about Josh and Tabby now made her miss them with an intensity she hadn’t felt in a while. They had been almost like siblings to her when they stayed in their cabin, and she missed their friendship.

Unable to find a reason to stall any longer, Mira gave the hound in her lap one last scratch. “Sorry, buddy. I have to grab my stuff and go back inside. Maybe I’ll see you again later.”

She gave him a gentle shove, and he rolled off her with a groan. Despite all three dogs begging for attention, or maybe jerky, she collected her pack and sleeping bag and returned to the cabin. She stole a peek at the room while she set her things on the floor by the door and hung her coat on the empty peg. Richard still sat at the table, but James stood at the counter, knife in hand, with the rabbits in front of him. Bill was conspicuously absent.

The way Richard kept assessing her made her nervous, so she joined James.

“What are you making?”

“I was thinking about rabbit stew.” He glanced at her. “If I put it on now, it should be perfect by lunch.”

Maybe she could help him out to repay him for breakfast. “You want me to skin and cut up the rabbits for you?”

“If you’d like.”

He handed her the knife and joined Richard at the table. Mira quickly skinned both rabbits and set the pelts aside. She could trade them at the store after she cured them, unless one of the men wanted to keep them. Working with practiced fingers, she soon had one rabbit boned and cut into bite-sized pieces. Bill came into the kitchen as she started on the second.

“Hey, Mira, I have a proposition for you.”

“What is it?” If he wanted to offer her a job, she would give it serious consideration.

“How would you like to come live with my wife and me?”

She almost cut herself. He wanted her to live with them? Stilling her hands for a moment, she took a breath to compose herself. Her mind raced faster than her pulse. Moving into his house was a far cry from working for him. She went back to work on the rabbit. “Is Mrs. Montaigne okay with this idea?”

“She’s hoping you’ll say yes. I just got off the phone with her, and she made me promise to call her back just as soon as I have your answer.”

Mira finished butchering the rabbit while she thought. Why did they want her to live with them? Did she even want to live there? Unlike Sally and Jack at the store, the Montaignes could afford to take her in. They had more money than she could imagine, but they never acted like it when they came to their cabin. Would the same be true in their home?

Her thoughts whirled, giving her no answers. Finally, she faced Bill. “Why do y’all want me?”

“Why?” His eyebrows shot up toward his graying hair. “Because we care about you and hate to think of you sleeping in a storeroom.”

His answer was too generic. She would give him one more chance to convince her that they truly cared and didn’t have some self-serving reason to take her in.

“Mira, Della and I were good friends with Harley and Marnie,” he said, moving closer. “If we had known sooner that you needed a place to stay, we would have been down here immediately to pick you up.”

The sincerity in his voice and the compassion in his eyes softened her skepticism.

“I know that if the situation was reversed and something had happened to Della and me, Harley and Marnie would have taken in Josh and Tabby. We want to do the same for you, if you’ll let us.”

The mention of Harley and Marnie’s kindness did in her last bit of resistance. At least with the Montaignes she wouldn’t have to worry about freezing to death, and she knew they wouldn’t let her starve. She dropped the chunks of rabbit meat into the pot James had placed nearby.

“Okay. I’ll go with you.” She washed her hands and placed the pot on the stove. “I have to go collect my traps and provisions.”

“Why don’t you take James along with you? He can help you carry whatever you have.”

Take James? Mira cast a doubtful glance at the man who had tackled her. Even though he’d been kind since then, she wasn’t sure she trusted him alone in the woods. However, she couldn’t risk offending Bill by refusing to take him along. She needed somewhere warm to stay through the winter. “I guess that would be okay.”

James added the rest of the stew ingredients to the pot, and then he and Mira bundled up and headed outside. According to the thermometer on one of the porch posts, the air temperature had warmed to just above twenty degrees. They didn’t speak as they walked through the woods. The quiet soothed Mira’s nerves, giving her the strength she needed to carry through with collecting her possessions in preparation for leaving.

They arrived in a clearing, and Mira walked to a stick curving down into the tall yellow grass. She held it down as she released the trigger stick held in place by two more pounded into the ground. She’d learned the hard way how much it hurt to accidentally set off a spring snare trap in her face. After removing the wires from the trigger stick and the tall one she’d used for the spring, she pulled up the remaining sticks and tossed them all aside. She placed the wire in her pocket and crossed the meadow to repeat the process with another spring snare trap.

As they headed into the trees again, she noticed that James seemed almost as comfortable in their current surroundings as she was. Did he spend a lot of time in the wilderness? She doubted he’d ever been forced to live in the woods, but maybe he liked camping.

She led him to another large clearing, this one containing the remnants of her garden. After dismantling another trap, she walked past the cultivated ground and stopped just inside the line of trees. A good-sized lean-to thatched with long meadow grass stood against the hillside, sheltered from the wind by the ground’s slope and several berry bushes that had long since quit producing fruit for the year.

“Welcome to my home,” Mira said as she crawled into the sturdy structure.

Few belongings sat inside. She’d never had much, but getting kicked out of her home had forced her to whittle her possessions down even further. She emerged carrying a thick, hollow walking stick containing one of her most prized possessions; a small bundle of pelts; and two deerskin bags. Close by, a large black garbage bag dangled at the end of a rope draped over a tree branch and tied to the trunk. She set the items from the lean-to on the ground and tried to untie the rope. It was no use. The sudden weather change and the snow had frozen the knot. She retrieved the hunting knife from her coat pocket and cut the rope with the sharp blade. After lowering the bag to the ground, she pulled out deerskin bags of varying sizes. James watched her with a curious gaze, and she waved a hand at the growing pile on the ground.

“My provisions.”

He ran an appraising gaze over her food supply. “That doesn’t look like it would have lasted through the winter.”

“It wouldn’t.” She folded the trash bag and shoved it in her pocket. “This would have lasted for a week or two. My friends are holding the rest of my provisions until I need them.”

They divided up the bags to carry back. James carried the bundle of furs, and Mira picked up her walking stick. As they hiked through yet another section of forest on their way back to the cabin, James indicated the food pouches he carried.

“This stuff doesn’t weigh much at all.”

“That’s because it’s all dried.” She dismantled another snare, tossing the sticks aside and pocketing the wires as they started off again. “Drying the food not only makes it lighter, but it keeps longer and takes up less room.”

“What kind of things do you have in these bags?”

“Meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts. There’s also herbs of all kinds in one of them.”

“Herbs? Do you cook with them?”

“Some of them. Others are for healing, some for teas.” The conversation reminded her of Josh. Did he still live with Bill and Della? He was old enough to have his own place, assuming he’d been able to get a job. So many people around Selma had struggled with finding jobs. Then again, it was such a small town in a rural area that employment opportunities were rare.

“It sounds like you know a lot about living off the land.”

“I guess so.” She’d never given it much thought. “Harley and Marnie did a good job of teaching me.”

“Why didn’t you live with your friends?”

His sudden change of topic threw her off for a second, but then her thoughts shifted to the kind family who had apologized profusely for their inability to take her in. “There was no room. They had some kinfolk what fell on hard times and needed a place to stay.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” James said, his tone sympathetic.

They fell silent for the rest of the hike back to the cabin. They left her possessions on the back porch, except for the walking stick which she carried inside. Now that she had the option to take it somewhere warm, she couldn’t bear to leave it in the cold a moment longer. The contents were irreplaceable, and she didn’t want to risk damage from the winter weather if she could avoid it. Richard and Bill looked up from their seats at the table.

“Did you get everything?” Bill asked.

“Everything that’s here.”

The men exchanged puzzled glances.

“I left most of my food stores with my friends,” Mira said. “They’re also keeping some things safe for me.”

“If you give me directions when we head out of here,” Bill said, “we can stop and pick up your things.”

“Okay.”

She removed her coat as James checked on the rabbit stew. Richard got up and poured two cups of coffee, handing one to Mira and the other to James. They joined Bill at the table, and Mira listened to the men discuss the preparations for leaving. Her time in the only home she’d known in the United States grew shorter with each passing moment—a thought that would cause anxiety if she allowed it, but she didn’t have that luxury. She had to go with Bill. If she stayed there, freezing to death was a very real possibility.

After a while, James set aside his empty cup and stood. “I’d better go pack up.”

Richard rose as well. “I need to tie out the dogs and clean the shed.”

“I’ll be out to help you in a few minutes,” Bill said.

“Don’t wait too long or you’ll miss all the fun.” Richard chuckled as he pulled on his coat.

After his friends left the kitchen, Bill focused on Mira. “Della asked me to have you call her.”

Nerves attacked like a swarm of butterflies. “I guess I can call her if you have a phone I can borrow.”

“Sure.” He did something with his cell phone, and then handed it to her. “It’s already set to dial my home number. Just press the green button.”

“Okay.” Mira studied the phone for a moment. She’d never held one before. She looked up at him again. Did he have any idea how little exposure she’d had to modern technology since moving in with Harley and Marnie?

He stood and offered an encouraging smile. “You go ahead and call Della. I’m going to help Richard with the dogs.”

She watched him leave and turned her attention the phone. A green square with the silhouette of a telephone receiver sat in the center at the bottom of the screen. She pressed it and raised the device to her ear.

“Hello,” a woman answered. “Montaigne residence.”

“Can I speak with Mrs. Montaigne, please?” Nerves thickened her accent. Would the woman understand her, or would she have to try again?

“And whom shall I say is calling?”

“Miranda Hassan.” Intimidated by the woman’s formal tone, she gave her full name.

“One moment, please.”

She took a deep breath while she waited for Bill’s wife to take the call. Did she really want to do this? Did she have a choice?

Della’s voice came over the line, full of friendliness and excitement. “Hello, Mira! I’m so glad you called.”

“Hello, Mrs. Montaigne.” A sudden attack of shyness hit.

“Please, call me Della. And call my husband Bill, if he hasn’t told you already.”

“Okay, Della.” What should she say now? Ask the woman if she actually wanted her moving in?

“Bill tells me you’ve been living in the woods since April.”

“Yes, ma’am, I have.” Pride filled her, making it easier to converse. “And I’ve been surviving just fine.”

“I’m glad, dear.” The smile in Della’s voice soothed a few of Mira’s nerves. “Bill also told me you worked hard to prepare enough food for the winter.”

“Yes, ma’am. Since you’re taking me in, I’ll give you what provisions I have to help out.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to.” How could she explain that she didn’t want to burden them in anyway without insulting their generosity? Giving them food was the only way she could prevent it. Plus, Harley and Marnie and her parents before them had taught her to help out where she could. Giving the Montaignes her provisions was her only option at the moment since she didn’t have any money to pay rent.

“Well, that’s fine. You’re so thoughtful.”

Mira stayed quiet, not sure how to respond.

“Is there anything you need, dear?” Della asked. “Do you have enough clothes?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Maybe a compliment would keep the conversation moving. “Although nothing so nice as I remember you wearing.”

“Why, thank you! Is there anything you might need before tomorrow?”

“Just a shower.” Honesty might be embarrassing, but she’d been taught from birth to always tell the truth. “I’ve been sleeping with dogs for the last couple of days, so I’m sure I don’t smell very good.”

“You can take as long a shower as you want when you get here.”

“Thank you.” Could she say anything that surprised this woman? “I have some rabbit pelts, if you want them. Two are fresh and still have to be scraped and cured, but the others are ready to use.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and then Della spoke with a cautious tone. “I appreciate the offer, but I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Would your friends with the store like them?”

“Most likely. I’ve given them all of the others.” How had the woman kept her composure so well? If she remembered right, Della had never been much of an outdoorswoman.

“Well, you have Bill take you there so you can drop them off.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I look forward to seeing you again,” Della said, and Mira breathed a little easier now that the conversation seemed to be winding up. “I’ll make sure there is a room prepared for you when you arrive.”

“Thank you.” Why were these people she only knew from the vacations they spent in Selma being so kind?

“I’ll see you this evening, Mira.”

“Okay.” She waited for Della to hang up before pressing the red button and hoping it disconnected the call. Even though their generosity in taking her in filled her with gratitude, she wasn’t sure how she would adapt to living with rich people. Without a doubt, they were used to an easier life than the one she’d led so far. Would they expect her to live the same easy life? Although not having to worry about going without sounded wonderful, she had a hard time imagining herself doing anything other than working hard every single day.


Out of Her Element, Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth West

Click here to continue on to Chapter Three…

Autism Awareness Through Fiction – Christmas Harmony by E.A. West

Autism Awareness Through Fiction graphic

Who’s up for another Christmas romance? In today’s spotlight is my book Christmas Harmony. It features an autistic heroine.

Book Description

Christmas Harmony cover artAfter a long semester, college student Tawny Beschen is more than ready for a relaxing winter break. Hanging out at rehearsals for her dad’s metal band is just what she needs. Familiar people, familiar music, and a familiar routine… It’s an overwhelmed autistic’s dream. Then the new guitarist walks in, and her safe, predictable world implodes.

Malachi Vandermeer is grateful for the opportunity to play guitar for Death Pardon. After a rough few years, the family-like relationship of the band is what he needs. Then he meets Tawny. Her sweet innocence creates an instant attraction, but his past makes him afraid to let it grow.

Can Tawny and Malachi overcome their challenges and have a merry Christmas together?

Excerpt

“Hey, Tawny,” Alan said, “you mind if I take the mic now?”

She lifted her fingers from the smooth metal of the stand and stepped back. “Oh, sorry.”

“No worries. Long semester?”

“I think I’m brain dead,” she said, shoving her hands in the front pocket of her hooded sweatshirt.

Alan chuckled and adjusted the microphone. “You must be glad you’re on winter break, then.”

“Yeah.” She wandered away as the men prepared to start their rehearsal. Minutes after she stretched out on the floor and stared up at the ceiling with its recessed lights, someone else entered the room.

A stranger around her age. He was cute with his dark brown hair and a day’s growth of beard shadowing his jaw.

The sudden change in routine broke through her relaxed state. A rush of anxiety immobilized her. She curled into a ball on the carpet and pressed her sleeve-covered fist to her mouth to muffle the crying.

“Hey, Tawny, are you all right?” Her father’s quiet voice meant she hadn’t done a great job of hiding her tears. “You want to tell me about it?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. After a few breaths, she rolled halfway over and looked directly into her father’s face. “That’s not Jimmy.”

Dad’s features filled with sympathy, and he smoothed her hair back. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”

Dread washed over her. “He’s not dead, is he?”

“No! He’s still going strong.” Dad rubbed her shoulder. “He decided it was time to move on to other things, so we found ourselves a new guitarist a few months ago.”

“I…I think you told me about that when I was working on that paper that drove me nuts. Some guy with a Bible name or something.”

“That’s right. His name is Malachi Vandermeer. Would you like to meet him?”

Tawny nodded.

Dale was talking to the new guy on the far side of the room.

Insecurity slammed into her. Would he want to meet her?

Her dad held his hand out. “It’s a little hard to introduce you if you don’t come with me.”

“He probably thinks I’m an idiot or a psycho.”

“No, he doesn’t.” Dad gave her a brief yet soothing hug. “When I came to see about you, Dale said he’d explain to Malachi.”

“I feel like an idiot.” Humiliation threatened to make her cry again.

“There’s no need for it. A lot of college students get stressed out with their classes, and they don’t have the added struggles you do. You rock, girl, for overcoming that and making the dean’s list anyway. Now, let’s go introduce you to the newbie so you can quit worrying.”

She dropped her gaze to the floor, more comfortable looking at the ugly utilitarian carpet than risking seeing what was in anyone’s eyes. Dale’s familiar skater shoes and an unfamiliar pair of sneakers came into view. They looked as if they’d walked across the country and back. Tawny stole a glance at their owner.

Malachi offered a smile.

Tawny looked back down.

“Malachi, this is my daughter, Tawny. Tawny, meet Malachi Vandermeer, our new guitarist.”

“Hi.” She managed to make eye contact just long enough to discover he had the most gorgeous brown eyes she’d ever seen.

“Hey, Tawny, it’s nice to meet you.” Malachi’s smooth, rich voice sent tingles racing through her. “Your dad’s been bragging on you since I joined the band. How’d your grades turn out?”

“All A’s.” She glanced at her father as curiosity formed. How many others that she’d never met had heard about her college career?

“Awesome!” Malachi’s exclamation broke into her ponderings. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” Tawny’s nerves jumped. “I’m gonna go back to the floor now. Have a good rehearsal.”

Malachi’s voice followed her. “Hey, Tawny, I have a cousin who’s an Aspie, and his daughter is autistic. Just thought you might like to know that I get it.”

She gave a single nod and stretched out on the floor again. Maybe she didn’t have to worry about him thinking she was crazy or stupid after all.

~~

Christmas Harmony is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Pelican Book Group.

~~

About the Author

Photo of author E.A. WestAward-winning author E.A. West is a lifelong lover of books and storytelling. In high school, she picked up her pen in a creative writing class and hasn’t laid it down yet. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys reading, knitting, and crocheting. She lives in Indiana with her family and a small zoo of pets.

Connect with E.A. West Online

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Autism Awareness Through Fiction – A Christmas Beau by Delia Latham

Autism Awareness Through Fiction graphic

Today’s spotlight is on A Christmas Beau, an inspirational romance by my fellow Pelican Book Group author Delia Latham.

Book Description

A Christmas Beau cover artKatie Knowles’s life is going as planned. Even her long-time crush on Cameron Hilliard has fallen into place. Katie knows Cameron cares for her. Deeply. But something keeps him from committing completely.

Cam Hilliard is thirty-two years old before he finds himself wading the murky waters of true love. At twenty-four, Katie’s so young. So pure. So innocent. Although he’s found Christ and is at peace with his past, Cam can claim none of those things. Is it fair to ask such a special woman to tie her future to his?

Then Katie comes face-to-face with a ghost from a part of Cam’s past he’d like to erase, and he is forced to acknowledge the very real possibility of losing her. Suddenly their differences no longer matter. He has to find a way to set the situation right, accept the consequence of his most shameful secret, and win back Katie’s trust and love.

But when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas day, it’ll be too late. Is their faith and love strong enough to bring them a real-life Christmas miracle?

Excerpt

Sliding her key into the lock, Katie Knowles listened for the click of success, and then pushed into her office at Pohono Elementary School. Once the door swung shut, she took a moment to cast a contented glance around the space. Not exactly fancy—what public school office ever was? But the room exuded warmth and welcome.

Any child who visited ‘Miss Katie‛ suffered some type of emotional or mental problem. Otherwise they’d never have a reason to see her. The last thing she wanted was for her young charges to be put off by dull, unattractive surroundings—or a cold, unwelcoming one. Hence the plush rugs on the and the brightly colored, child-oriented art on the walls. Her desk, while as utilitarian as any other in the public school system, sported a couple coats of pleasant, robin’s egg blue paint, as did the tall, four-drawer file cabinet shoved against the wall behind it.

Comfortable, child-sized chairs and a low, round table filled the center space. Stacked atop the table, sketch pads and a variety of colored markers, pens, and pencils provided an alternate medium of communication for those young guests to whom talking didn’t come easily. In one corner, a couple of standing shelves held an assortment of toy trucks and cars, action figures, dolls, and bright jewelry.

All the tools she needed to help her relate to a child’s mind. She was good at it, even if success meant‚ becoming a child herself. She’d been known to push a truck around the room, making all the appropriate noises, to win the trust of a troubled little boy. Nor was it beyond her to don cheap, gaudy earrings and wrap a feather boa around her neck, or cradle a doll in her arms and play Mommy with a sad-eyed girl.

Whatever it took to reach a child.

After graduating high school, Katie had kept her nose to the educational grindstone. She’d put her social life on hold, sacrificed lazy weekends and carefree vacations and plowed through the rigors of an accelerated graduate program. That single-minded dedication resulted in a Master’s degree just in time to apply for this position in Pohono.
Given her minimal hands-on experience, Katie’s job title was ‘Counselor’s Assistant.’ The official Psychology Counselor, responsible for a dozen county schools, made her home base in Eufala, sixty miles away. She held a cyber meeting with Katie once a week, offered advice when needed, but put in an actual appearance at the school only once or twice a quarter. Since the beginning of the current school term, Katie had thought of the Pohono counselor’s office as her own.

She slipped her sweater off her shoulders, but quickly decided against removing the extra layer. The past week had brought on a bit of a chill that announced winter’s approach, way too soon. Old Man Winter must be planning a humdinger of a season, to be awake and blowing whispers of ice into the atmosphere in early October.

After sliding her purse into the bottom desk drawer, she picked up a small, framed photo that lay face-up in the same space. Although not strictly forbidden, displaying personal photos was subtly discouraged, so she kept the picture of herself with the love of her life in that drawer, where she’d see it every morning when she put her purse away. The photographic reminder that she and Cameron Hilliard were a couple never failed to start her work day off with a smile.

They’d started dating not long after Belle’s engagement to Cam’s friend, Nick Santini. Thank God her sister worked for the Hilliard Agency. Otherwise, Katie might never have met Belle’s boss. Scary thought, since life without Cam would be…well, she didn’t even want to entertain such a devastating scenario.

She giggled. Successful business owner or not, the man would blush to the roots of his dark blond hair if he could see into her thoughts. Sweet, quiet Cam, with his moments of unexpected shyness that always swelled her heart with something so profound, so intense, it often frightened her. Those elements of his personality were a large part of what made Cam Cam…and Katie loved the whole package.

A sharp knock on the door pulled her out of her daydreams. She glanced at her appointment book then hurried across the room to welcome her first little challenge of the day. Aidan Seth Treadwell. He was new to her lineup of young cases, and she looked forward to meeting him.

Her friend, Heidi Greer, waited at the door, her fingers wrapped around those of a little blond boy. Small for a third-grader, the child cast his gaze somewhere around the vicinity of his toes as his teacher made the introductions.

“Good morning.” Katie knelt and tried to catch his eye, but he seemed determined not to let that happen.

Heidi sighed. “This is Miss Katie, Aidan. Say hello.”

“’Lo, Miss Katie.” The boy mumbled a barely audible greeting.

“You and I are going to have a lot of fun together, Aidan.”

Heidi stepped into the office and pulled out one of the small chairs. “Come over and sit down, sweetie. You’re going to visit with Miss Katie for a little while, and then I’ll be back for you.”

The boy moved toward his teacher, never once raising his gaze off the floor. He ignored the chair and lowered his small form to the rug, cross-legged.

Heidi cast a frustrated glance in Katie’s direction. “Your turn to try, my friend. Good luck and all that.”

“Later, Heidi.” But I don’t need luck. Just a little inspiration from On High.

Alone with her young visitor, she joined the boy on the floor—face to face, but far enough apart to avoid making him uncomfortable. “I’m so happy to meet you, Aidan.”

She’d already determined to use his name often. His diagnosis of mild autism spectrum disorder was a recent one. For some autistic children, constant use of a name helped ground them in time and space, counteracting the tendency to take mental journeys inside themselves.

Katie plucked a sketch pad and pencil from the table. Heidi had told her during their pre-appointment discussion that her prime concern for Aidan was his inability—or perhaps refusal—to interact with others.

The boy’s condition interfered with his learning in only a couple of areas. Overall, his grades were high. His foster parents had indicated that the child’s condition had declined steadily in the nine months he’d been in their care. At first, Aidan showed little evidence of autism, although the diagnosis was indicated in his records. But as time passed, he’d lapsed into more of the behaviors and symptoms common to the condition.

He displayed artistic skills far beyond that of a normal eight-year-old. Heidi had included a few of his drawings in his file to corroborate that opinion, and they did indicate surprising ability. Katie hoped to utilize that natural talent as a possible means of communication. But only if Aidan made the first move. She wouldn’t try to force the issue.

She placed the pad and pencil on the rug between them. “Do you like to draw, Aidan?”

The boy crossed thin arms over his chest and rocked forward without looking up. Katie waited for the backward swing, but it didn’t come right away.

“Well, I heard you like it a lot. That’s why this sketch pad is here.” She plucked the pencil off the thick tablet of drawing paper and held it up as if he was actually watching her, even though he hadn’t glanced in her direction even once. After a moment, she laid it down again. “Think you could draw something for me?”

Nothing. Finally, he rocked backward, and forward again. And back.

“Aidan. Look at me, please.”

His head tilted upward and away from Katie, but only by a bare fraction of an inch. Just when she decided he wasn’t going to do as she asked, Aidan slanted his gaze in her direction but focused it about the level of her neck.

Not what she’d hoped for, but a decent start.

Katie nudged the sketch pad closer, hoping the movement was perceptible to the boy, but not obvious. Then she stood.

“I’ll be at my desk, Aidan. If you need anything, let me know.”

No response…for now. But there would be. She knew it.

She opened his file, but only to make herself appear occupied with something other than her young visitor. Later, she’d lose herself in the painstaking notes and charts, but right now, she wanted to observe the child without making him uncomfortable.

As she watched, two small fingers slid closer to the sketch pad. She waited, holding her breath, until he drew the drawing tablet onto his lap and picked up the pencil, without once looking directly at the book, or at Katie.

Still, it was something. Not a half-bad start to the day.

****

From his booth in Santini’s Italiano, Cameron Hilliard kept an eye on the entrance. His lips curved into a wide, unstoppable grin when his date appeared in the doorway. He could no more have held back that smile than he could’ve stopped the sun from shining.

Katie Knowles possessed some kind of ‘magic’ that made smiles happen—and Cam wasn’t alone in feeling its effect. A quick glance around the vicinity revealed at least a half dozen pair of eyes fixed on the tiny, auburn-haired woman in the arched doorway—every one of them accompanied by a big, happy, helpless grin.

He stood, and her green gaze found him in an instant.

Katie accepted the discreet brush of his lips against her cheek. “How was your day, Cam?”

Her sweet smile wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed hard. He pulled air into his lungs, wondering for the hundredth time what he was doing. Every minute he spent with this beautiful woman was one moment deeper under her spell, one smile closer to losing his heart forever…and still he kept coming around. What was he thinking? What in the world had possessed him to risk a relationship with a woman so young, and so far out of his league?

He bit back a chuckle at his slight mental exaggeration. At twenty-five, Katie was eight years younger—enough to make their formative experiences somewhat different, but not so much that the gap made a relationship impossible.

He looked at her across a candlelit booth overhung with grape vines and twinkling lights. “Maybe you should tell me about your day, Katiekins. It’s bound to be more interesting.”

“You first.” Katie blasted him with a thousand-watt smile, effectively dousing any sensible thought he might have had. “I want to know about every second you spent away from me.”

He smiled back—something he’d done a far sight more since Katie came into his life—and laid an open hand on the table. She slid hers into it without hesitation, big green eyes lit up like emerald stars.

Cam, my man, there’s no hope for you. You’re a goner.

“Every second?”

“Uh-huh. From the moment you opened your eyes this morning until this very moment.”

“That’s a pretty tall order. I’d really hate to bore you with the details of my humdrum Friday. I didn’t do anything worth talking about.”

“Everything you do is interesting to me, Cam, because…well, because you’re you.”

How many women would be so open about their feelings?

In the name of honesty, he had to admit that he’d almost certainly be uncomfortable with that degree of candidness in most women he’d dated. But not this woman. Katie’s forthright demeanor refreshed him, made him feel vibrant.

And that’s what scared him all the way to his core.

~~

A Christmas Beau is available from Amazon and Pelican Book Group.

~~

About the Author

Photo of author Delia LathamBorn and raised in a place called Weedpatch, Delia Latham enjoys multiple roles as Christian wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend, but especially loves being a princess daughter to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. She loves to hear from her readers.

Connect with Delia Latham Online

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Blog

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Amazon Author Page

Fiction Friday – Out of Her Element, Chapter 1

Fiction Friday graphic

I’m starting a new feature here on The West Corner called Fiction Friday. Every Friday, a new chapter of Out of Her Element will be posted. That’s right. You get to read it for free!

To get notifications of every chapter, and other posts, subscribe to my blog by clicking the button on the right labeled “SIGN ME UP!”

Without further ado, here’s the first chapter of Out of Her Element!

Book Description

Out of Her Element cover artIs living a life of luxury worth losing who you are?

Twenty-year-old Palestinian immigrant Mira Hassan is dirt-poor and homeless when wealthy family friends give her the chance of a lifetime. The Montaigne family invites her stay with them in their mansion on a twenty-five acre estate in Dayton, Ohio.

The transition from the hills of rural West Virginia to high society is anything but easy. As Mira deals with prejudice and struggles to understand America’s class system she must find a way to fit in with her hosts without losing herself.

Chapter One

The three dogs crowded around Mira Hassan, and she fed each of them another bite of venison jerky. Like most hunting dogs she’d met, they were food-motivated, which made befriending them easy. A little jerky, some sweet talking, and a few scratches here and there had enabled her to come and go from the shed without fear. She gave one last pat to the long-legged mutt with a big head and floppy ears. She had no idea what his name was, but he was a sweetheart and had become her best friend in the last few days.

“Don’t bark at me when I come back.” The accent in her whispered words had made her something of an outcast in the area. Who knew a Palestinian accent flavored with a West Virginian drawl could make people so suspicious? Then again, she was half Palestinian and had spent more of her life in the Middle East than in the United States. Suspicion due to fear of terrorism was pretty common in her life.

The mutt licked her hand once and sprawled on the thick layer of straw covering the floor. Mira pulled her scarf up around her face and stepped out of the shed. The icy dawn air stung her eyes, and she huddled a little deeper in her coat. One of these days, she would have a warm house to live in again. Her gaze went to the two-story cabin she’d lived near for the last seven and a half years, ever since she came to the United States as a thirteen-year-old orphan. The windows were still dark, offering a small measure of security as she crossed the clearing.

When she reached the woods, she slipped between the trees and into relative safety. She paused and glanced over her shoulder in time to see a light come on in one of the downstairs windows. Her heart skipped a beat. Had they seen her? Should she run?

She remained frozen to the spot, waiting for some sign that she’d been noticed. The back door stayed closed, and she didn’t hear any sirens approaching from the tiny town of Selma. She released the breath she’d been holding. Nothing indicated the men in the cabin had seen her. The light probably meant they had awakened and were starting their day.

Since feeding their dogs would be near the top of their list of morning chores, she continued deeper into the woods. No sense in hanging around and letting them find her when all she wanted was to get away undetected.

The silence of the forest surrounded her, bringing a measure of peace. Despite the circumstances that had forced her to live in the woods full-time, she still loved the natural beauty. Being in nature had calmed her for as long as she could remember. Even as a small child wandering through her mother’s garden, the simple act of being outside in the open air had lifted her spirits.

Now, as she approached the first of her snare traps, she was even more grateful for the bounty of the forest. Starvation was one thing she didn’t have to worry about. She collected the rabbit and reset the trap before moving on to the next. Normally she wouldn’t worry about resetting the trap so quickly, but whatever she found this morning wasn’t for her. She felt obligated to provide payment for her use of the shed as sleeping quarters. Since she had no job and no money, whatever she could trap would have to do.

She lucked into another rabbit in the second trap. The two large rodents would make a nice meal or two for the three men in the cabin. Surely that would be enough to make up for borrowing their shed since the weather turned frigid a few days earlier. She reset the trap and circled back toward the cabin.

Mira scanned the area around the cabin, but no movement caught her eye. With any luck, they’d fed the dogs and were busy eating their own breakfast. Moving as quietly as possible on the frozen ground, she crept to the small back porch and leaned down to lay the rabbits where the men were sure to spot them.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

The shout scared her half to death, and she jerked upright. An angry man strode toward her from the direction of the shed. Heart thundering in her chest, she whirled toward the woods as the back door flew open and another man appeared. She took off, away from the cabin, before he could say a word. A handful of feet from the safety of the trees, someone tackled her. After a brief struggle, the man who had come out of the cabin hauled her to her feet and marched her back toward the building.

The angry man and the third man staying at the cabin, both of whom were older than the one holding her captive, turned from studying the two dead rabbits she’d left on the porch. The man who’d shouted at her now seemed more confused than angry after seeing her offering. The third man’s expression was impossible to read. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him. The adrenaline flooding her system made it impossible to think about much of anything other than finding a way to escape.

“Let’s go inside and see if we can figure this out.” He picked up the rabbits and carried them through the door.

She didn’t have a choice but to follow since the guy who’d tackled her still held her arm in a tight grasp and propelled her forward. The other man entered last and closed the door. He studied her as he removed his coat, and she wanted to run. What did these guys plan to do with her? Would they hurt someone who gave them food? She straightened her spine and met his gaze, determined to show no fear.

The familiar man laid the rabbits on the counter and faced her. “Did you leave those?”

She gave a quick nod, not ready to let them hear her accent. Once she was more sure of their character, then she would risk getting labeled a terrorist yet again.

“Why?” When she didn’t answer, he motioned to the man holding her arm. He released her with obvious reluctance, and the familiar man spoke again. “What’s your name?”

A modicum of trust was starting to form, but did she want to risk them hearing her last name? Too many people in the area had taken an instant dislike to her the moment they heard she was a Hassan.

“There’s no need to be afraid. You obviously mean no harm. But I would like an explanation, young man.”

She raised her eyebrows. He couldn’t tell she was female? Yeah, she definitely had to say something. “I’m a girl.”

“Speak up.”

She must have spoken too softly. Looking him straight in the eye, she said in a clear voice, “I’m not a man.”

She tugged her scarf down, revealing her face. Her long coppery hair with strawberry-blond highlights crackled with static as she pulled off her hat. Letting her hands fall to her sides, she gazed at the three men before her. She couldn’t wait to see how long it took them to quit staring at her with wide eyes.

The man who’d yelled at her recovered first. “Is it safe to assume you own the knapsack and sleeping bag in the shed with the dogs?”

“Yes.” She waved a hand at the rabbits on the counter. “I brought those as payment for borrowing your shed.”

“You’ve been sleeping with the dogs?”

“Yes.” She lifted her chin, daring them to make a disparaging remark. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t used to it.

“Why?”

“Because it got too cold in the lean-to.”

“What lean-to?” the younger man asked, his voice full of suspicion.

“The one I lived in until a few days ago when it got too cold.”

The familiar man studied her. “Aren’t you Harley and Marnie Davis’s girl?”

Recognition slammed into her with the sound of her cousins’ names. How could she have forgotten who he was for even a brief moment? After all, she was standing in his family’s cabin. “Mr. Montaigne?”

“That’s right. These are my good friends Richard Halliday and James Porter.”

She silently appraised each of them. Richard was around Bill Montaigne’s age, so somewhere in his fifties. James didn’t look much past thirty. She returned her attention to Bill and steeled her emotions against the pain of what she had to tell him. “Harley and Marnie passed on early this year.”

“Yes, I was sorry to hear about that,” Bill said, his voice filled with sympathy. “Where have you been living since then?”

She shifted her gaze to the far wall, fighting the anger that always came when she remembered. “In April, when the weather got warm, Harley’s kin made me leave the cabin. I’ve been living in the woods since then.”

“You’ve been living alone in the woods for over seven months?”

She gave a small shrug. Keeping track of the time hadn’t been one of her priorities, but that sounded right.

Richard cleared his throat. “Who exactly are you?”

“Mira Hassan. Harley and Marnie were some kind of cousins to my mother.”

“Why don’t we all sit down and have breakfast while we talk?” Bill said.

Richard’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t argue. Mira wasn’t about to pass up a free meal, especially since it meant spending more time protected from the elements. He set an extra place at the table, and James served the bacon and eggs keeping warm on the stove.

Now faced with the reality of eating with two strangers and a man she hadn’t seen in a few years, Mira battled a sudden bout of nerves. She remained where James had left her while she dug deep for courage. Bill paused in pouring orange juice and sent her a smile.

“Why don’t you take off your coat and join us?”

She studied him for a long moment, doubts hitting her as to the motive behind his breakfast invitation. Hunger won out over caution. “Okay.”

She hung her coat on an empty peg by the back door and tried not to be ashamed of her current outfit. The men wore nice clothing that looked new. She’d gone for warmth over style. Not that she had a lot of choices, and she definitely didn’t own anything as expensive as what these guys wore. Still, the baggy sweater over a pair of battered overalls and her sturdy, well-worn boots made it clear she came from a different world than the men. She had no chance of impressing anyone with sophisticated style. All she could do was show them respect and hope for the best. She joined them at the table and waited until they started eating to pick up her own fork.

They were nearing the end of the meal when James spoke.

“How have you survived all these months?”

“I’ve been living off the land,” Mira said, with a shrug. “I had a big garden in a clearing over the summer, and I dried a lot of stuff. I killed a deer a couple of months ago and turned most of the meat into jerky. There’s fish in the river, plenty of small animals, and edible plants. Whatever else I need I trade for at this little store about a mile from here.”

“And you’ve been living in a lean-to.”

“Right.” She ate the last bite of her breakfast.

“Where did you learn how to do all of that?”

“My mom taught me a bit, but most of it I learned from Harley and Marnie.”

Richard leaned forward, his expression curious. “Where are your parents?”

“Buried in a little town in the West Bank.” She used years of practice to keep her emotions hidden. Showing any kind of vulnerability could lead to ridicule or worse.

“Do you mean the West Bank in Israel?”

“Palestine, actually, but yes.”

The men fell silent, and James got up to clear the table. Had she made a mistake by telling the truth? Richard studied her, making her even more nervous.

“How did you come to have the last name of Hassan?”

“My daddy was a Palestinian. My mama was a blonde from here in the US. She went to Israel to play the violin, fell in love, and married my dad.” Maybe if she told him a little more of the story, he would quit staring at her like she was some kind of alien. “His family disowned him for marrying an American woman, so after my parents got killed I was sent to live with my mom’s relatives. Harley and Marnie are the ones what took me in. The rest had disowned her for marrying a Palestinian man.”

He tapped his chin. “Did you grow up speaking English?”

“No, until I was thirteen I only spoke Arabic and Hebrew. My mom had just started teaching me English when I came to live with Harley and Marnie. They helped me learn English as well as they knew it.” If she’d known she would end up living in the United States, she wouldn’t have resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her English for so long.

Bill leaned forward. “Where are you going to live now that it’s too cold to live in the woods?”

Mira studied him for a moment. Did he actually care, or was he just making conversation? Not that it mattered either way. “I don’t know. I’ll probably see if I can sleep on the storeroom floor at my friends’ store.”

James set the last plate in the drainer on the counter and returned to his seat. “Why don’t you get a job and rent a place?”

She gave an unladylike snort worthy of Harley’s stubborn old draft horse. “Nobody ’round here’s gonna hire me.”

“Why not?” Richard asked. “From what you’ve said you’re a hard worker, and you’re obviously intelligent.”

How could a guy that old be so naive? “There isn’t anybody in these parts interested in hiring someone with the last name of Hassan, and especially not since the terrorist scares.”

“Why not go to the city to find a position?” James asked.

“’Cause I’m not much good at anything I can get paid for. Besides, at least here I know I’m not gonna starve.” She pushed back her chair and stood, tired of the interrogation. “Thank you for the breakfast. Now, I better go rescue my pack from your dogs and see if my friends will let me sleep in their storeroom tonight.”

She headed for the door and pulled on her coat. As soon as she’d wrapped the scarf around her neck and settled the hat on her head, she reached for the doorknob.

“Mira, wait.” Bill’s voice stopped her before she could turn it.

She looked over her shoulder. Did he want her to do some chores to pay for her meal?

“After you get your pack, why don’t you come on back in here? We’re heading home right after lunch. You could stay and eat with us, and then we’ll drop you off at your friends’ store.”

“I guess I could.” As much as she wanted to get away, she couldn’t deny the appeal of spending more time in the warm cabin.

“Great.” He smiled and she went out the door wondering if she’d made the right choice.


Out of Her Element, Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth West

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