Thursday’s Throwback with Donna Schlachter

Free chapter excerpt and Giveaway!

Today I have Historical Christian fiction author, Donna Schlachter here to share her novel, Christmas Under the Stars.

This romantic suspense is set in Utah Territory in 1858 at the height of the westward expansion and wagon trains.  Edie is traveling west with her brother to meet up with another brother and his family who went ahead of them. Edie’s father was an itinerant preacher who barely managed to keep his family together. Tom is heading to California to hopefully start a church. Already we can see problems, at least as far as Edie is concerned. And although Tom is attracted to Edie, once he’s introduced to her and hears she shares the same name as the man traveling with her, he assumes they are husband and wife.

Although he didn’t ask for it, Tom is soon appointed as head of their wagon train, and a series of accidents and unfortunate circumstances threaten to sabotage their journey. But are these incidents more than that? Or is someone determined to prevent them from reaching their destination?

Through miscommunication and misunderstandings, Edie and Tom muddle through as best they know how, which is true of many of the emigrants. And the good news is that just like the travelers of the time, they do make it, although a little the worse for wear.

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November 1858, Utah Territory
Edie Meredith strives to keep her temper and her tongue under control as she heads west with her brother to California. Raised in an itinerant preacher family, she promises she will never marry a man of the cloth.
 
Tom Aiken, drover of the wagon train, longs to answer his true calling: to preach, and while he realizes not every woman would choose a preacher for a husband, he hopes to soon find his help-meet.
 
Suspicious ‘accidents’ plague their journey. Is someone trying to keep them from reaching their destination? Or will misunderstanding and circumstances keep them apart?


Enter the Giveaway

Leave a comment to be entered into a random drawing for a print copy (US only) or ebook version of Christmas Under the Stars.


Read a chapter excerpt

Tom Aitken strode beside the lead wagon in the train, encouraging on the two lumbering oxen he could hear but not see. “Git on Blue, git on. Brick.” The beasts lowered their heads at the sound of his voice and strained into the traces. Tom grit his teeth against another blast of cold air blowing from the Canadian Rockies.

What had he been thinking, taking a wagon train to Echo at this time of year? He’d focused on the offer of free passage to California. Free, indeed. Might not have cost him any money, but the two-month journey was surely grinding years off his life. 

Digging his hands into his armpits, seeking some warmth, no matter how small, he trudged along, head down, wishing for a heavier coat. Echo was just a few more miles up this canyon. In good weather, a half day’s travel.

In this storm, forever.

As he debated whether to pull the wagon train off the trail and set up camp for the night, a faint cry echoed off the rock walls behind him. He slowed his step, allowing the oxen to pass him, waiting to hear the sound again. Nothing. He pivoted on one foot to trace his steps back, straining to see who was calling and whether they were friend or foe. Having spotted Indians several times over the past week or so, he was determined to stay alert.

Nothing but swirling, blinding snow. Lots of it.

He must have been hearing things. Probably just the wind echoing down off the canyon walls. No doubt where Echo got its name. He turned to face forward and felt someone – or something – press on his shoulder. His right hand on the knife in a sheath at his waist, he whirled around, ready to fight.

The man in the second-to-last wagon stood before him, face white with cold – or fear – and hands raised in surrender. His rough Irish brogue bespoke his heritage, and his coarse woolen coat and muffler his financial status. “I can’t find the Meredith woman.”

“I saw her maybe a ‘alf hour ago, when the wind stopped blowin’ long enough to see me ‘and in front of me face. Me missus remarked then that the lass was looking peaked.”

Tom grit his teeth against the sharp retort rising. Must he be like a mother hen to these travelers? No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he repented of his hardness of heart. Lord, forgive me. Help her. Please. For her husband’s sake.

His silent prayer done, Tom gestured to his wagon. “Take my place as lead. Keep them straight on the trail. We’ve got just about twelve miles to go.”

The man nodded and Tom stopped, allowing the rest of the train to pass him. Although the rule was that only the very young, very old, and very sick got to ride in the wagons, sometimes folks hitched a ride when they were exhausted.

He sighed, his breath escaping like a puff of smoke from a chimney, carried off on the northerly gale. He’d have to check every wagon that passed to see if she’d climbed aboard.

If she hadn’t – well, he’d pray she was curled up in a pile of quilts rather than consider the alternative.

Tom plowed through a snowdrift nearly up to his chest. Edie Meredith wasn’t in any of the wagons. Her husband, Mark, as leader of the final wagon in the train, had been walking at the head of his team to keep them on the trail and hadn’t noticed when she’d gone missing. Tom stopped the train, and word passed up and down the line until all of the wagons paused. Women-folk and children climbed aboard their wagons to warm up, and the men divided into several groups to go in search of Miss Meredith.

 The man accompanying Tom heaved along behind him, his breath sounding labored in the cold air. Harnesses jingled as the huge oxen shook themselves and got comfortable as they waited, and questions chased him as he traveled the length of the train.

“Found her yet?”

“What was she wearing?”

“Prob’ly find her froze to death.”

Tom shook off this last comment and pressed on. No, he would find her before that happened. He’d noticed the pretty young woman the instant he joined the wagon train, her red hair lighting up into a thousand pinpoints of gold in the afternoon sun. Freckles dotted across the bridge of her nose as she stared at him, a smile creeping across her face.

But that was as far as their relationship was likely to go. The broad-shouldered hulk standing next to her, laying claim to her with his protective attitude and gruff voice was enough to keep any sensible man in his place. No siree, her husband was not to be trifled with. Mark and Edie Meredith. That’s how they were introduced to him. That plus Meredith’s, “She’s spoken for” when she’d smiled and bobbed her head at him, was enough to keep any sane man a sensible distance away. No matter how he might wish the situation could be otherwise.

For now, he would look for her because that was his job. 

And he was good at his job. Rather, his two jobs. Drover by day and preacher by night. Such a strange combination of occupations, he was certain. Still, the good Lord knew what He was doing, and drovering was just until he got to California. Then he would start his own church at the first town that needed him.

Tom peered into the storm, the faint outline of a shadow forming ahead of him, to the side of the trail. As he neared, he could have sworn he heard singing. A soft, lilting melody, like a lullaby.

A few more steps, and he paused over the form on the ground. Already snow gathered on her cheeks, filling in the concave hollows of her eyes, testifying to how cold her skin was that the particles didn’t melt.

He knelt beside her, fearing the worst. In a neat pile beside her, a pair of gloves and a shawl. Her coat unbuttoned, she looked dead.

But there, a slight flare of her nostrils confirmed there was life in her yet. He turned back to the man following him. “Over here. Over here.” 

The man came running, and together they lifted the unconscious woman and carried her to the nearest wagon. She needed warming up, and soon. 

He called to the man he’d put in the lead. “Pull the train over toward the palisades. There should be some caves around here that we can overnight in.”

The men hastened to do his bidding, and the wagon beneath him lurched, throwing him off balance. He landed in a tangle against Miss Meredith and stared into her green eyes, wide open in surprise.

 No doubt about it. She was beautiful. Tendrils of damp hair at her temples decorated her pale skin. But he couldn’t sit here admiring her. She was nearly frozen to death. Her blue lips and white complexion scared him. 

“What do you mean, man? Speak up.”

He was alone in a wagon with a desirable woman who needed his help. 

He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled her to his chest. The sudden chill took his breath away, but he persisted in his ministrations. As the heat flowed from him, he was gratified to note color returning to her lips. 

Her hands pressed against his chest, and he increased his grip on her. She needed warmth now. He’d heard of folks dying in the snow who’d stripped down to their underclothing.

He glanced at the woman now resting quietly in his arms, wishing he was holding her so close, so intimately, for a different reason.       

But she belonged to another.

He had no choice.


About Donna

Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 40 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of several writing communities; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly; and judges in writing contests.

Thursday’s Throwback with Merrillee Whren

Today I have USA Today bestselling author, Merrillee Whren sharing her book, Hometown Promise, book 1 in the Kellersburg series.

Some secrets are hard to hide…

Lukas Frye has moved to Kellersburg, Ohio, to renew his relationship with his grandfather, who lives there. For the past six years, Lukas has worked hard to put his reckless past behind him, and Kellersburg seems like the perfect place to do that—until he encounters Juliane Keller. She could derail all his plans.
 
Juliane remembers Lukas from her college days, and her memories of him are anything but good. He says he’s a changed man, but can she trust that claim? Besides, his presence in town is a constant reminder of the secret her family harbors.
 

When secrets are revealed, will love find a way to forgive?


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Read an excerpt of Hometown Promise

Chapter One

Harsh memories flashed through Juliane Keller’s mind as she stopped in the middle of the church aisle. The subject of those memories—Lukas Frey—stood with members of the choir on the stage at the front of the sanctuary. Why was he here?

Brushing snowflakes from her coat, she could think of only one good reason—his wonderful singing voice. But the Lukas she’d known eleven years ago would never have used his voice to sing in a church choir. Lightheaded, she grabbed the back of a pew and watched him converse with her cousins Carrie and Val. Tonight was the first official practice of the musical they were performing for Winter Festival at the end of January. Strangers weren’t supposed to be there.

What was she to make of his sudden appearance in her little hometown of Kellersburg, Ohio?

With everyone absorbed in conversation, no one had noticed her entrance. Could she escape before Lukas became aware of her presence? She wanted to avoid him, as he dredged up things better forgotten, until she had a chance to find out what he was doing in town.

She crept backward down the aisle. She hoped her slow, quiet steps would guard her from detection. As she eased away from the stage, she bumped into someone. Letting out a yelp, she turned and came face to face with Tom Porter, the music minister, a rotund man with graying brown hair.

Tom grabbed her shoulders. “Juliane, are you all right? Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I’m fine.”

“That’s good. We’ve been waiting for you. I’m glad you finally made it.”

Trying to smile, Juliane knew everyone, including Lukas, was looking at her. “I got stuck at the store doing some last-minute stuff for my dad. Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s okay. Now that you’re here, we can get started.” Tom gestured toward the front and hurried up the aisle.

Heat creeping into her cheeks, Juliane followed Tom, keeping her eyes on the blue tweed carpeting that matched the padding on the pews. She didn’t dare look at Lukas, who appeared, at least from a distance, not to have changed much in the eleven years since she’d last seen him. He was still tall and lean with coal-black hair. Was his personality the same? There was no way to tell. At least he seemed to be sober—for now. She shuddered as she recalled her last brush with a drunken Lukas Frey. Was he remembering the same thing? She hoped not.

But why was she worried? He probably didn’t even remember her or their last encounter. As a college freshman, she’d barely been a blip on his graduate-student radar.

When Tom reached the three steps leading to the stage, he stopped and turned to Juliane. “I want you to meet the newest member of the choir.”

Juliane kept her gaze focused on Tom as her stomach churned. Lukas? A new member of their choir? How could that be? He didn’t even live here. Besides, she had a hard time believing he was involved with church, much less the choir. He hadn’t exactly been the churchgoing type.

How should she handle this situation? Should she pretend not to know him? God expected her to tell the truth, but she was sorely tempted to lie. If only she’d been able to get away.

She forced another smile. “Who?”

“Lukas, come meet Juliane.” Tom motioned for Lukas to join them.

Glancing their way, Lukas grinned. As he made his way across the stage, his gaze met hers. She remembered those startling blue eyes. They made her shiver, but relief washed over her when no recognition showed on his face. He didn’t remember her. Her concern was for nothing.

Why would he remember her anyway? They’d only met in passing at a few different theater department productions. When she’d first encountered him at rehearsals, she’d wondered why someone in an MBA program would be involved in the theater group. She soon learned he was dating a graduate assistant in the theater department.

He’d been hard to miss with his handsome face, those blue eyes, and that dark hair. But his constant drinking had disgusted her, so she’d avoided him until the night her cousin Nathan, who was also in that theater group, had asked her to do a good deed by giving Lukas a ride home. As she pushed the memories away, he came down the steps and extended his hand.

“Hi, I’m Lukas Frey.”

Offering him her hand, Juliane tried to keep her lips from quivering as she held her smile in place. “I’m Juliane Keller.”

He narrowed his gaze. “Have we met before? Somehow you seem familiar. My grandfather lives here. Have we run into each other here in town?”

Juliane digested that bit of information while an easy lie formed in her mind. He would never know the difference if she led him to believe they’d met here. But no matter the cost, she couldn’t give in to the temptation. “Yes, we’ve met before, but not here. We met when we worked on the same theater department musical. As I recall, you were in grad school, and I was a freshman.”

“How could I not remember you?”

What was that supposed to mean? Did he suddenly recall their last meeting? Doubtful. Maintaining her smile was painful, but she’d have to be cordial and pretend that meeting him wasn’t setting her nerves on edge. “Are you visiting your grandfather?”

“Not exactly. I’ve moved here.”

Realizing the stupidity of her question, Juliane shook her head. Lukas had her mind in a dither. “Since Tom said you’re in the choir, I should’ve known that. Welcome to Kellersburg. I hope you and your family will enjoy living in our great little town.”

“No family here except my grandfather. He moved here a couple of years ago when he retired. He wanted to get out of the city.” Lukas smiled wryly. “And if I need a taste of city life myself, Cincinnati’s not far away.”

“Do I know your grandfather?”

Lukas shrugged. “I don’t know. His name is Ferdinand Engel.”

“I don’t recall meeting him.”

Tom jumped into the conversation. “Lukas will be in charge of running the new plant in town.”

“You mean the medical devices plant?” Juliane asked.

Lukas certainly must have changed since his grad school days. Years before, he hardly seemed like someone who could handle the responsibilities of a plant manager or responsibilities of any kind. Was he truly more trustworthy now…or had he just gotten better at hiding his drinking problems?

“Yes, I’ll be supervising the start-up, then the day-to-day operations.”

“Are you living with your grandfather?”

Chuckling, Lukas shook his head. “Grandpa wouldn’t have that, so I did the next best thing. I purchased a house in the same block where he lives. Grandpa thinks he can take care of himself, but I took this job specifically to keep an eye on him. His health’s been poor in recent years.”

Juliane hoped the surprise didn’t show on her face. She’d never expected him to be the type who would care for a grandparent. “So you took the job here to be close to him?”

“Sort of. I’ve worked for this company for several years. It’s a good promotion for me, and it gives me the opportunity to look after him.”

Tom clapped Lukas on the back. “I had no idea you two had met before. This will give you a chance to renew your acquaintance.”

“Certainly.” Juliane stifled a groan. She didn’t want to renew anything with Lukas Frey, but somehow she managed to smile again. By this time, her smile surely looked disingenuous. How long could she keep up this pretense?

Lukas turned to Tom. “I didn’t mean to take up so much time talking. I know you want to get started.”

“No problem.” Tom hopped onto the stage and picked up a stack of booklets. “Okay, everyone, these contain the music score and speaking parts. You can follow along while we listen to the recording of the program and get an idea of how it goes.”

Hurrying up the steps, Juliane took a booklet from Tom, hoping to distance herself from Lukas. “Are we supposed to sing with the recording or just listen?”

“We’re not concerned about actually singing tonight, but if you want, you can sing along, especially those of you who have solos, like you and Lukas.” Tom turned toward Lukas as he joined them on the stage, then added, “Those of you with speaking parts can underline your part in the booklet.”

Juliane’s mind buzzed as she settled on the front pew in the choir loft. Lukas had a solo? How had that happened so quickly? She glanced at him. “What part do you have?”

“I have the male lead. I think the character’s name is Dave.” Lukas stared at her. “How about you?”

“I’ve got the part of Grace, the female lead.” Juliane didn’t want to believe it. How had Lukas wound up with the lead male role? Her cousin Nathan was supposed to have that. Sometime tonight she needed to have a talk with Tom and find out why the change had been made.

Smiling, Lukas sat at the other end of the pew. “Great. Then we’ll be singing together.”

Yeah. Great. That wasn’t the word she’d use to describe the situation. Thankfully, before she could respond, Tom turned on the recording.

While they listened to the songs, Juliane couldn’t concentrate on her part, especially when she realized how much interaction David and Grace had in the musical. That meant lots of interaction between Lukas and her. Could she get someone else to take her part? That would solve the problem.

Juliane dismissed that idea instantly. Maybe God was trying to remind her that His love extended to everyone—even people who sometimes seemed unlovable. Dealing with Lukas was definitely a test of her resolve to be Christlike.

Besides, she’d been looking forward to this year’s program for the Winter Festival and the opportunity to tell the story of God’s love not just to churchgoers but also to the community at large. She wanted to use her voice for God’s glory. Now she had to put God’s love into practice by being nice to Lukas even though she didn’t relish the idea.

When she glanced up from the music score, Lukas was looking at her. He didn’t seem embarrassed to be caught staring. His audacity hadn’t changed in eleven years. Had anything else?

She’d been at a cast party on that night eleven years ago when she’d looked out the window to see Lukas headed for his car, keys in hand. She couldn’t let him drive home after all he’d had to drink at the party. He’d kill himself or someone else. How could she stop him?

As she turned to find help, her cousin Nathan approached. She hurried over to him and explained the situation.

“You’re right. We can’t let him drive.” Without waiting for her, Nathan raced out the door.

Juliane followed him into the night. She caught up to him just as he reached Lukas, who was still fumbling to unlock his car.

Nathan put a hand on Lukas’s shoulder. “Having a problem?”

“Yeah, man.” Lukas looked up, a silly grin on his face.

Nathan reached for the keys. “Let me see what I can do.”

Juliane sighed with relief when Lukas handed over his keys without resistance. Nathan unlocked the car.

“Hey, man. Thanks.” Lukas leaned against the car, still grinning like a fool. “Now I can go home.”

“I can’t let you drive,” Nathan said.

Juliane held her breath while she watched the exchange. Would Nathan be able to convince Lukas that he shouldn’t drive himself home? Thankfully, Lukas was a happy drunk, not a surly one.

“Then how do you expect me to get home?” Lukas slurred through his question.

“Juliane will drive you.” Nathan turned her way.

Her heart sank into her stomach. “Me?”

“Yes.” Nathan pulled her aside. “You can drive him to his apartment. Unlock his door, then keep his keys so he won’t decide to drive himself out for a White Castle. I’d do it myself, but I have to help load all the tables and stuff we borrowed so the guys can return them.”

“I don’t know where he lives.”

“In that complex a couple of blocks from campus. You know the one I mean?”

Juliane nodded.

“Good. I’ll be there in a few minutes to pick you up. Think of this as your good deed for the day.”

Letting out her breath, Juliane glanced at Lukas, who stumbled toward them. He was still grinning, his eyes glazed over as he stopped beside her. Taking him home wasn’t what she wanted to do, but she couldn’t let him drive. “Looks like I’m elected to take you home.”

“The pretty lady wants to drive me home?”

Not really. “Sure, get in.”

Without an argument, Lukas slumped into the passenger seat. Thankfully, she was able to make the trip without having to stop for a traffic light. Turning into the parking lot, she glanced at Lukas, who was still slumped in his seat. “Which building is yours?”

“This first one.” Looking at her, he gave her that silly grin again. “You know…you’re pretty. Why haven’t I seen you before?”

She ignored the question as she got out. “We need to get you inside. Can you walk?”

“Of course I can walk.” He opened the door and exited the car. He lurched forward but managed not to fall down. “See.”

Once inside the building, Juliane followed Lukas up the stairs to his apartment. She unlocked the door and let it swing open. She turned and looked at him. “You’re home. I’m keeping your keys, and Nathan will see that you get them back tomorrow.”

He stumbled into the apartment and pulled her with him. “Okay, pretty lady, what do you have for me?”

“Nothing.” Her heart hammered as she tried to pull her arm from his grasp.

He gave her that sappy smile, only this time it seemed more like a leer. “You didn’t drive me home for nothing.”

“I’ve got to go. Nathan is waiting for me.”

“He can just keep waiting.” Lukas kicked the door closed. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her.

Juliane tried not to panic as she twisted her head away and kneed him in the groin. He let go of her and slumped over. Seeing her chance to escape, she opened the door and fled down the stairs.

Through the open door, he yelled, “Hey, whad ya do that for? I was only trying to get a kiss.”

Maybe that was all he had been trying to do, but she wasn’t sticking around to find out. He had scared her. Feeling sick to her stomach, she raced across the parking lot. When Nathan finally picked her up, he asked why she was waiting out in the cold. She told him she hadn’t felt like spending time with a drunk. She never told him anything else. She’d never told anyone about it.

Lukas had done nothing more than kiss her, but she couldn’t forget the way he’d scared her with that stolen kiss. Hoping never to see him again, she hadn’t gone back to the theater group.

Even with all the time that had passed, the memory still made her shiver. Was Lukas still that kind of man? Maybe not. The Lukas she’d known in college wouldn’t have darkened the door of a church. Did his presence here mean he’d changed his lifestyle? She should be glad if that was the case, but his sudden appearance had unnerved her. Thankfully, a great deal of attention wasn’t required tonight.

As soon as the rehearsal was over, Juliane rushed over to Tom. “Do you have a few minutes to talk in private?”

Tom wrinkled his brow and shrugged. “Sure, if you want to wait until everyone else has left.”

“I’ll wait.” Juliane left the stage and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Lukas hurry off in the opposite direction. As she started to sit on the nearby pew, she heard Val call her name, and Julianne turned. “Did you want me?”

“Yeah. We’re all headed to the coffee shop. Are you going to join us?” Her cousin gestured to the group gathered near the door.

Juliane was relieved to see that Lukas wasn’t among them. “Sure. I’ll be over after I talk to Pastor Tom.”

“Okay. We’ll see you in a little while.” Val hurried down the aisle.

After Val left, Juliane sat on the front pew and tried to study her lines and music while she waited for Pastor Tom. He was having tryouts for small solo parts. She wondered whether Lukas had tried out. When had he done that? When had he moved to town? Had he been in church on recent Sundays? She hadn’t seen him. It seemed as though he had appeared out of nowhere.

Juliane shook her head in an attempt to focus on her part instead of letting her thoughts drift back to Lukas. He wasn’t even here, and yet he filled her mind. Maybe the initial shock of seeing him again would wear off, and she wouldn’t think about him anymore. Wishful thinking.

“Are you ready to talk?”

Startled, Juliane glanced up to find Pastor Tom standing in front of her. “Oh, sure.”

“What do you want to discuss?” Tom sat next to her.

She stared at him for a moment. How was she going to ask her question without seeming ungracious toward Lukas? She should’ve figured that out while she sat here. She took a deep breath. “Well…I thought Nathan was going to be David. You know Nathan and I were the lead soloists in the Christmas program just a few weeks ago, so I thought we were going to do the leads in this program as well. I was really surprised to hear that Lukas will be playing that part.”

“I know you expected Nathan to be the male lead. He intended to do that, but while you were away on your buying trip this past week, he told me he’d rather not have a lead part since he’s going to be extra busy at the bank. Then Lukas showed up at church two weeks ago and volunteered. He has a great voice.” Tom wrinkled his brow. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Yeah, but there was no way she could tell Tom about it. “I was concerned that Nathan would be upset.”

“I’m glad I could ease your concern.” Tom patted her on the shoulder. “I heard Val invite you to join the others at the coffee shop. So I’ll let you run along.”

“Okay. Thanks for explaining. See you later.” Juliane shuffled down the aisle and contemplated the fact that Lukas had been here for two weeks. She’d been out of town last Sunday, but why hadn’t she noticed him the Sunday before? How was it possible to be in the same room as Lukas and not notice him? His good looks and magnetic smile had always drawn attention.

She gave herself a mental scolding. Lukas’s attractiveness wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether he could be trusted. Their parts in the program meant weeks of interaction. There was no getting around it. Trying to avoid him would be impossible at church as well as in this little town. Would she feel uncomfortable around him? He didn’t seem to remember what he’d done. It had been a long time since then. Maybe he truly had changed.

Juliane shrugged into her coat and rushed to her car in the church parking lot. The January night air made her shiver as she brushed snow from her windshield. While she drove the short distance to the coffee shop on Main Street, she hoped she could relax and forget any future dealings with Lukas at least for tonight.

She needed some downtime after her hectic day at the department store that her family owned. Although she loved her father, sometimes working with him was not the easiest. Their ideas about how to run the business often clashed. Things were better now that he was sober—six months and counting—but how long would that last? She’d seen him fall off the wagon often enough to learn her lesson. She could never trust a drinker, not even her father—and especially not Lukas Frey.


About Merrillee

Merrillee Whren is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author who writes inspirational romance. She is the winner of the 2003 Golden Heart Award for best inspirational romance manuscript presented by Romance Writers of America. She has also been the recipient of the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award and the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of forty- plus years, and has two grown daughters. She has lived in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Florida but now makes her home in the Arizona desert. She spends her free time playing tennis or walking while she does the plotting for her novels. Please visit her Website and signup for her newsletter and connect with her on Facebook.

Friday’s Feature with Sarah Hamaker

Interview, Excerpt, and Giveaway!

A family in danger…a U.S. Marshal sworn to protect.
 
U.S. Marshal Chalissa Manning has been running from her past and God for most of her life. When she meets widower Titus Davis and his son, Sam, her well-built defenses begin to crumble. But someone is targeting Titus and Sam, and it’s up to Chalissa to both protect them and to find out who is behind the attacks. 
 
As the threats pile up, will Chalissa be able to keep the family she’s grown to love safe?

 

Today I have Sarah Hamaker sharing her newest release, Protecting Her Witness. Sarah has generously offered to giveaway 2 e-books of Protecting Her Witness. All you have to do is comment here or on any of my social media posts about her newest release. 2 lucky winners will be chosen and notified by Sarah!

Welcome to my blog today, Sarah. It’s great to have you back!

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

Keep writing. Seriously, it’s so important for writers to write, even if there’s no publishing contract. Write something every day, and when you finish one book, start another one. Your writing time is different from your editing time, so make sure you prioritize writing time.

What does a day in the life of an author look like for you? What is your writing schedule like? 

Last year, I realized I had been going about this writing thing all wrong—and this after I’ve published several traditional and indie books! I needed to make sure my writing time was first, not the leftovers of my day. So I started getting up earlier and being at my computer by 7:30 each day for at least 45 minutes or so of writing time. I don’t check email or do anything but open my Word program and write. That has helped me to get more words down faster—and hopefully, that will translate into more published works!

If you could do anything else, what would it be?

To be honest, I’m doing what I love to do. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I’ve been bless that’s what I am. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. But if I couldn’t write for some reason, I’d probably work in a museum or even a cemetery—I loved to visit cemeteries when I was a kid (still do!). Reading tombstones of those long-dead people fired my imagination—who were they? What did they do? How did they live? Who loved them? Questions the writer inside me wanted to answer, and perhaps I do a little bit with my books.

What is your favorite genre of books to read?

I love to read what I write—romantic suspense like Lynette Eason, Natalie Walters, Lisa Harris, Irene Hannon. That’s one reason I love doing my podcast—I get to talk to all my favorite Christian romantic suspense authors! I also enjoy historical World War I mystery series like those by Charles Todd, Gilded Age mysteries like those by Victoria Thompson, and general crime and suspense fiction. For nonfiction, I like biographies and history, depending on what catches my interest. I listen to a lot of audio books too.

What issue or problem do you think your readers will relate to?

In Protecting His Witness, the child of the hero is on the autism spectrum. While I don’t have any bio children on the spectrum, we have had a few foster children with autism, and I wanted to portray an autistic child in a relatable, real way. Because it’s a spectrum, kids on it have a wide range of challenges and abilities, and I hope that this small insight into one such kid will help people understand autism a little bit better.



Read an Excerpt from Chapter 1

Chapter 1

U.S. Marshal Chalissa Manning settled into a steady pace as she ran the gravel loop ringing Burke Lake. She noted the mile marker as she swerved around a mom power-walking while pushing a jogging stroller. Whitney Houston belted “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” into her earbuds, the pulsating beat from 1980s hit in rhythm with her stride. Saturday morning sunlight streamed through the trees lining the pathway. Another mile marker flashed by. Good, she was on pace to finish a 5K run in nineteen minutes. 

She enjoyed running, loved being wrapped in her own world while the miles zipped by. So far, her transfer from the St. Louis, Missouri, office to Arlington, Virginia, had gone smoothly. After four years in St. Louis, she’d been ready for a different city and more challenging opportunities in her career with the U.S. Marshal’s Witness Protection Service. For her, the career clock ticked a little louder, given she had become a Marshal shortly before her thirtieth birthday, while most of her colleagues had entered the service directly after college graduation. Her previous work with troubled youth in residential treatment centers had made her a good fit for witness protection, but being older than most of the other newbies meant she had more to prove—and less time to do it if she wanted to make the Marshals her career. Which she did.

“Help!” A male voice shouted as Chalissa came up on the marina parking lot. “My son’s missing!”

Without hesitation, she veered off the path and into the parking lot, stopping her music and pulling her earbuds out. Several groups of people stood in small clusters near the fishing pier. A tall man wearing jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt topped by a vest with multiple pockets approached one of the clusters, his voice raised enough for Chalissa to hear. 

“Have you seen my son?” The group shook their heads collectively, and the man moved onto another group, asking the same question and receiving the same reply.

Chalissa jogged up to him and touched his arm as the man turned away from the group. “Sir? Maybe I can help you?”

The man whipped around so fast he nearly bumped into her. “My son’s gone. He was here just a few minutes ago,” his voice cracked. He swallowed hard, then continued. “I’ve got to find him.”

“Okay, we’ll find him. Tell me your name.” Chalissa pitched her voice low and soothing to project calm in the midst of this man’s personal storm.

“Titus. Titus Davis.” Mr. Davis started to walk away, but Chalissa plucked at his sleeve to bring him to a halt.

“Mr. Davis, my name is Chalissa Manning.” She waited until she had his attention once more. “I’m with the U.S. Marshal Service.” 

She pointed to indicate her cropped leggings and baggy t-shirt. “I’m obviously not here on official Marshal business, but let me help you find your son.”

“You’re with the Marshals?” Mr. Davis’s shoulders relaxed a little at her nod. “Thank goodness.”

“Have you called the police?” 

“No.” He shot a hand through his hair, sending the brown strands every-which-way, but didn’t volunteer any more information. 

“How long would you estimate your son’s been missing?” Chalissa took her phone out of its arm band and opened the notes app. 

“Five minutes.” Mr. Davis had returned his gaze to scanning the area. 

“Mr. Davis.” Chalissa waited until the man looked at her. He had a very attractive face, with its strong jawline and short-cropped beard. Chalissa mentally shook her head. The man had a son, which meant he either had a wife or a significant other. “I know you want to look for your son, but these questions will help us find him.”

“I’m really worried.” Mr. Davis swiped at his eyes. “He’s only seven and on the spectrum.”

“He has autism?” She blurted out her question before thinking, as memories slammed into her. 

“Yes, it’s not severe, but it does impact the way Sam interacts with people,” Mr. Davis said. “He doesn’t read social cues well, and can be too trusting.”

“In what way?” A vision of Brandon engaging cashiers, dog walkers, and anyone else who came to his attention zipped across her mind.

“If someone asked Sam to help him look for a lost puppy, he’d do it in a flash.” He rubbed his chin. “Even though we’ve discussed the dangers of going off with a stranger over and over again. Listen, I really need to go look for him.”

Chalissa shook her head as if the movement could clear her mind from thoughts of Brandon, but the pain was just as sharp as it had been sixteen years ago. But Brandon wasn’t here, and Sam needed her help. “Please bear with me. The more info I can gather, the quicker we can involve more people in looking for your son.”

Her words succeeded in stopping him from walking away but he balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, ready to leave in an instant. Better get on with her questions. “What was Sam wearing?”

“He had on jeans, sneakers, a long-sleeved blue t-shirt, and a bright orange fishing vest.”

She jotted down the description. “Hair, eye color, height?”

“His hair is a little lighter brown than mine,” Mr. Davis gestured to his head. “His eyes are brown and he wears glasses. They’re bright green, the kind that wrap all the way around the back of his head. And he’s about yay big.” He held out his hand to indicate close to three feet.

“Thank you, that’s very helpful. Where did you last see him?”

“It was down by the pier.” He pointed to the fishing pier. “We had set up to fish—see the blue camping chairs about midway down on the left side?”

“I see them.” She noted the location, then added the information to her notes. 

“Sam realized he’d dropped his favorite lure. He’d been holding it along with his pole as we walked from the car to the pier.” Mr. Davis drew in a breath. “We’re parked right there.” He nodded toward a late model, dark blue crossover SUV in a parking space a few feet away. “I didn’t see the need to walk with him.”

Chalissa visually measured the distance from the chairs to the SUV—about fifty feet. 

“He’s nearly eight, and we’ve been working on him doing things by himself because…”

“A boy needs his independence,” she finished the thought for him.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“But you watched him all the way to the car?” 

“Yes. I saw him pick up the lure—it was on the ground right by the back passenger-side door, where he must have dropped as he got out of the car.” 

Mr. Davis closed his eyes briefly, pain etched into the lines of his face. “Then I got a text. I only looked away for a few seconds.”

“From your wife?” As soon as the words left her mouth, Chalissa wanted them back. At least her voice had sounded brisk, professional, and not inquiring.

“No.” Mr. Davis looked away. “My wife, Sam’s mom, died when he was a baby.”

She winced for pouring more pain on an already painful situation. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” He squared his shoulders. “I read the text, and when I looked up again, Sam wasn’t there.”

“You didn’t answer the text?” 

“It was spam.” His gaze locked with hers. “You don’t think it was sent on purpose to distract me from Sam? Let me show you.” He pulled out his phone and brought up the text. As she read the short message, he continued, “It was something about my credit card account, but my credit card company doesn’t communicate that sort of information by text.”

“Thanks.” The text had standard spam language, but given the timing, she noted the sender’s number just in case. “Where have you looked for your son?” 

“All around here.”

“Excuse me?” An older man wearing the brown uniform of a park employee approached them. “Are you the father with the missing boy?”

“Yes, I’m Titus Davis.”

“Nathan Wiltshire.” He turned toward Chalissa. “And you are?”

“Chalissa Manning, U.S. Marshal.” She shook his hand. “I left my official ID in my vehicle, but while running on the trail, I heard Mr. Davis calling for help.” She held up her phone. “I’ve taken down all the pertinent information about what happened, including a description of Sam, age seven. If you’ll give me your contact info, I’ll send it to you to disperse to the park employees.”

Mr. Wiltshire rattled off his phone number. “That will make things easier.”

“I have to look for Sam,” Mr. Davis said. “I can’t just stand around doing nothing.”

The park employee shook his head. “It’s best if you stay here, in case Sam comes back on his own.” He held up a hand as Mr. Davis opened his mouth. “I know how difficult a request that is. If it were my son, I’d want to be searching the grounds too. But it really is best if you leave the search to park workers and the police.”

“You’ve called the police?” Chalissa asked.

“Yes, as soon as I heard the boy was missing.” A shadow passed over Mr. Wiltshire’s face. “Another Northern Virginia park had a similar incident about five years ago and the Northern Virginia Park Authority management made the decision that any time a child was reported missing on park grounds, the police would be brought in immediately.”

Chalissa heard the sorrow behind the words and hoped Mr. Davis hadn’t picked up on the inflection. That incident probably hadn’t turned out well, but there was no need for Mr. Davis to start imagining anything darker than he already was.

The other man extended his hand to Mr. Davis, who shook it impatiently. “Hang tight. I’ll, keep you updated. I’m going to make sure everyone is looking for your son.” 

As the park employee walked away, Chalissa turned back to the father. “Is there anyone I can call for you?” 

“Call?” His eyes widened. “No, I’ll take care of it. Excuse me.”

She watched him move toward his vehicle, fear and concern slumping his shoulders. The knot in the pit of her stomach tightened even more. She could relate to how terrified Mr. Davis must be feeling, how helpless, particularly since his missing son had special needs. For a moment, the temptation to cry out to God to save Sam, to not let Brandon’s fate befall him, overwhelmed her. But personal experience had confirmed God didn’t answer her prayers.

# # #

Hanging onto his control by a wire as thin as the fishing line on his rod, Titus leaned his back against the rear bumper of his SUV. Tremors shook his hands and it took him three tries to select the right number to call. 

“Mac here.”

U.S. Marshal James “Mac” MacIntire’s familiar, crisp greeting nearly made Titus cry out in relief. “It’s Titus. Sam is missing.”

“What happened?”

Titus quickly recounted the events of the morning. “The park has started a search and called in the local police.”

“Could Sam be playing a game?” Mac’s question irritated Titus. 

His son knew better than to play a game like this, but he bit his tongue to prevent himself from taking out his fear on Mac. “I don’t think so. Sam usually follows the rules.”

“Did you and Sam run into anyone you know at the park?” 

“No.” Titus could hear the fear in his own voice. “With the trial coming up in a couple of weeks…” He let the thought trail off, knowing Mac would understand.

“You did the right thing in calling me.” 

“Mr. Davis?”

Titus raised his head and met the direct gaze of Chalissa Manning, a serious expression stamped on her face. “Hold a minute, Mac.” He put the phone down.

“The police have arrived.” She pointed over her shoulder to where a trio of officers made their way through the crowd toward him. “I’ll brief them while you finish your call.”

“Thanks.” Titus put the phone back to his ear as she moved toward the officers. “The police are here.”

“Good. Who was that you were talking to just now?”

“Chalissa Manning. A jogger on the path who heard me shouting for Sam. She offered to help. She said she was a U.S. Marshal, but she didn’t have any identification on her.” The tranquility and compassion in her eyes as she questioned him had done much to calm him during those first few moments of panic at the realization Sam was missing. 

“You didn’t say anything?” Mac’s question stung.

“Of course not,” Titus snapped. “I merely gave her the information necessary to find Sam.” He lowered his voice, his gaze seeking out Chalissa, where she stood talking to the police. “I certainly didn’t blurt out I’m in witness protection.”

“Good. We do have a new inspector who arrived last week from the St. Louis office, but I haven’t met him or her yet.” Mac cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, I’m four hours away in southwestern Virginia, but let me check with the office on the new inspector. If it is this Chalissa Manning, I’ll call and brief her, so she can take over as your point-of-contact during the search.”

“Okay.” 

“For now, follow protocol and don’t say a word to anyone about your being in WITSEC.”

“Got it.” Titus ended the call as Chalissa waved him over. As he walked toward the group of officers, the same prayer looped over and over in his mind. Please God, keep Sam safe. Don’t let him be hurt because of me.


About Sarah

Sarah Hamaker has been spinning stories since she was a child. While she’s had two traditionally published nonfiction books, her heart is writing romantic suspense. You can find a list of her books, listen to her podcast, “The Romantic Side of Suspense,” and connect with Sarah at sarahhamakerfiction.com.