My latest contemporary romance, Hero ever After, is now available.
Read the excerpt from Hero Ever After:
I love heroes. Everything about them. Their strength, their honor, their devotion, their pursuit of the ultimate goal in the face of unsurmountable odds. A hero always does what’s right, always wins, no matter what. Right now, more than anything in the whole wide world, I need a hero. I’m broke, widowed, a whisper from the edge, and my baby girl’s dying—she wants a hero, and by all that’s holy, I’ll get her one. I’ll get her the greatest superhero of all time. I’ll get her Liam Stone.
I glance to the backseat of the car. Bean’s strapped in her car seat. Her sixth birthday was last week and she’s working through the pile of comic books that she got for her present.
“Do you think he’ll lift a car?” she asks. “When he fought The Red Spider he lifted a car over his head and crushed him.”
I take my eyes off the washed out dirt road and look in the rearview mirror. “I don’t know, Bean. I don’t know if retired superheroes still do that stuff.”
Two lines pucker between her forehead as she thinks my answer over. “But he’ll still train me?”
“If I have to wrestle him to the ground and force him.”
She giggles and I nearly lose my breath at the happy sound.
“Mama, you can’t beat Liam Stone. He’s strong as two hundred men, quick as a rocket, and smarter than Einstein, aaand he’s devoted to helping the misfortunate.”
“Downtrodden,” I say with a wry smile.
“He’ll be happy to see me. I bet he’s been wanting a protégé for years. All the best heroes have ’em.”
I raise my eyebrows. Since when did she start using words like protégé? “You let me do the talking, Bean.”
“I know.” She buries her nose back in the comic book. I can barely see the top of her bald head over the bright cover of the comic.
I breathe through the pinch of panic that comes every time I see evidence of her being sick. Push it aside.
Anyway, we’ve made it. We’re ten miles outside of Centreville where Route 511 crosses Route 511B and turns onto Pine Tree Road. Southern Ohio is full of fallow land sold for cheap, you can snatch up hundreds of acres, and be left alone for the rest of your life. Which is, I guess, what Liam Stone was hoping for. He bought the land two years ago when he literally fell from Hollywood stardom.
At first, everyone in town was starstruck, waiting for the day he’d come to Main Street so they could go gaga over him. But he never came. Two years on, no one in town has ever laid eyes on him. And no one has ever been brave enough to come out and introduce themselves—extend a neighborly hello. Nope, we’ve all just left him alone.
I turn into his driveway and don’t let myself think, because if I did I might back out.
I grip the steering wheel and my knuckles turn white. But I keep my hold tight because if I relaxed I wouldn’t be able to stop shaking. Please, please, please don’t let me down. Please be a hero. Please be as good and kind and selfless as the character you played in the movies. I send out the prayer as we pass through the deep green summer woods of his land.
My car, old Bess, groans on the uneven gravel. Bless her, she keeps chugging along. The fabric on the ceiling sags, the stuffing of the seats sticks out, and the steering wheel’s long faded from brown to gray, but she only breaks down every few weeks, which is better than my last car. Plus, a wrench, a few cuss words, and a swift kick are usually enough to restart her motor. I don’t mind getting dirty if it means Bean still makes her appointments. Those are ninety miles away, too many days each week.
There’s a wood fence on the side of the driveway. It’s rotten and the tall grass swallows it. Finally, the woods open up and I pull to a stop at the end of the drive. The grass is weedy tall and there’s a little trampled path to the front door. I park in front of the rusted trailer. It’s a single wide. Baby blue and banana yellow with narrow little windows and a cement block patio.
“It looks abandoned,” says Bean.
I shiver. It looks worse than abandoned, it looks like a horror movie. Maybe nobody ever met Liam Stone because he died two years ago and his body’s been rotting in the squat trailer ever since.
But that can’t be right. The FedEx guy says he drops deliveries from online grocery stores, and liquor distributors, and everything else under the sun, every single week. Somebody’s getting those packages.
“It’s not abandoned,” I say.
I think I see a curtain flutter and I rub my hands up and down my arms. It’s nearly ninety degrees, but darned if I’m not chilled.
Bean unbuckles her seat. “I bet he has his headquarters beneath the trailer. It’s a trick to fool The Red Spider.” She grabs her red silk cape and starts to tie it around her neck.
As I wait for her to prepare, I look at the books piled on the passenger seat. Overcoming Grief—A Widow’s Guide. I’m Okay, You’re Okay. The Single Mom’s Guide to Motherhood. How to Let Go. Saying Goodbye. When Good People Die. Losing a Child.
I clasp my hands and swallow back…everything.
I shove all the books onto the floor. The pages flutter and they each hit the floor with a hard thud. They haven’t been any help, none of them are any help.
“I’m ready, Mama,” Bean says.
I turn to her. She’s in her cape and mask. “Aren’t you a picture. The best protégé a superhero could want.”
She swallows and nods quickly. My fearless little girl is nervous.
I can’t let her see that I am too. In all this, I never want her to see how terrified I am. That I can’t handle it, that I’m so terrified that I stay awake at night, that I sob in the shower, that I have to force myself to eat, that I’m so scared for her. I can’t let her see it. I need to be steady for her, so that she never knows that her mama is terrified for her. I have to be her rock, so that if the time comes, she won’t be scared to go. When that time comes, after she’s gone, then I’ll fall apart. But until then, I’ll stitch myself together and I’ll hold it all in, so that not an inch of fear, or nerves, or stress shows through.
I open my door and step into the oppressive heat. I open Bean’s door and she steps down into the gravel.
“I can’t believe I get to meet Liam Stone,” says Bean. “He’s my hero, and I get to meet him. And I get to train with him. I’m the luckiest person in the world. Gran said that you don’t know Liam Stone, and this was all going to end in mountains of misery and Heather said you’re a failure and that Liam Stone is a laughingstock—”
“Well, Gran and Miss Heather—”
“But Finick said that Gran’s mummified in her bitterness and Heather’s a cold-hearted bi—”
“Beatrice Renae, we don’t use that kind of language.”
“I’m just repeating what I hear. They don’t believe, but I do and so does Finick and you said you would do this and you always do what you say.” She looks up at me with absolute trust and it nearly breaks me.
Because I learned real early that the worst part of motherhood, the worst part of life, is not being able to do anything. Not being able to save the one person you love more than yourself. I can’t save my Bean. I can’t kiss her and make her better. Nothing I do will stop her from hurting, dying. So instead, I’m going to give her the one thing she’s always wanted.
She told me she had a wish. To train as a superhero under Liam Stone. And if I can get that for her, I will. I swear on my life and everything in me, I will.
Grandma Enid and Heather and all the other doubters, they don’t know, they have no idea what I’ll do for my child.
I take Bean’s hand and feel the dry coolness of her skin. “Don’t worry, Bean. Mr. Liam Stone won’t be able to resist our charm. Besides, superheroes, even retired ones, always want to help others.”
I glance at the rat-trap trailer, the tall grass and the unwelcoming atmosphere. “But maybe you could wait in the shade over there under that big oak tree. Just for a minute, while I chat with Mr. Stone. Alright?”
She looks me over, then at the trailer, then at the shade of the tree with the soft grass beneath it.
“I’ll be quick,” I say.
I give her a peck on her check and she scuttles off to lean against the wide oak tree. When she starts flipping through her comic I sigh and face the trailer with resolve. I walk up the overgrown path to the front door. There are thorns that scrape my bare legs and I kick the prickers back. Finally, I step on the concrete stairs and raise my fist. I knock hard and loud. This isn’t the time for timidity.
Inside the trailer, I hear cussing, and glass bottles knocking over. He’s in there, but after a minute, with still no answer I bang on the door again.
“Coming, coming. Hold your pants,” a man shouts. His voice is booming and deep. I recognize it from seven blockbuster films. The sort of voice that men wish they had and women wish was being whispered to them under bed sheets. Yes, that voice. Smooth, confident, rich and firm. The voice of a hero.
This’ll be okay. Liam Stone may be living as a hermit in a dump in the middle of nowhere, but he’s Liam Stone.
Cut muscles, eight-pack abs, shoulders to carry the world, brown eyes full of wisdom and empathy, a smile that warms the hearts of the worst cynic. This man was America’s son, brother, husband and father all wrapped in one. He was our hero. He saved the world in the movies and then in real life he gave to charity and kissed babies. There’s no way he won’t want to help.
Also, that voice, it hasn’t changed one bit.
I knock again, convinced that this is going to work. I’ll get Bean her wish.
I lean against the door and knock again. Then the door’s yanked open. I stumble and let out a sharp exhalation. I trip into the trailer and fall into a man’s arms.
He jerks and pushes me back and away from him. I trip over the threshold and grab the door to steady myself.
“What the hell?” he says. “Who the hell are you?”
My mouth drops open and I stare at him in shock. This man…he’s…he’s…
His bathrobe hangs open. Instead of an eight-pack he has a gut. Instead of a clean-shaven jaw there’s a scraggly beard. His hair is overlong and sticks up in every direction. His eyes are bloodshot and he smells like he just took a bath in cheap beer.
I look behind him and realize he did. The noise I heard earlier was him crashing through half-empty beer bottles.
“What. Do. You. Want.” He looks me over, from the top of my ponytail, to my old tank, and my cut-off shorts, to my Vans shoes. His blatant perusal makes me feel like I’m the one in a ratty bathrobe and he’s in a tux on the red carpet.
“Mr. Stone?” I ask.
His lip curls and I catch a hint of the snarl he used to give a villain right before he crushed them with his super strength.
“Unless you’re here with my Lagavulin delivery, I suggest you get off my property.”
He narrows his eyes and I see that he’s about to slam the door. I catch the handle and put my foot in the entry.
“Wait,” I say. “It’s important I speak with you.”
He pauses and nods slowly. “Ahh, I see. It’s important.”
“That’s right,” I say, my shoulders relax.
He smiles, and I catch my breath at that little hint of his charm. “In that case…” He lets go of the door and holds his hands out for me to come in.
Thank goodness. I can explain the situation, help him clean up the trailer, get him presentable for Bean.
I move my foot and let go of the door. I step back. “Thank you. You see, I—”
“Don’t care,” he snaps.
Then he slams the door.
“Hey!” He can’t do that. He can’t just—
I stare at the closed door.
He can’t, but he did.
I hit the door. Kick it. Rattle the knob.
But Mr. Liam Stone doesn’t answer.
He doesn’t care. He doesn’t even know and he still doesn’t care. A feeling of desperation claws at me and I vent it by pounding my fist against the rusty metal. He tricked me. He smiled at me, put me off my guard and then slammed the door in my face.
He’s not a hero. He’s awful. Awful.
I kick the door again.
I hear bottles being knocked about inside and a low curse.
He’s a drunk. Bean’s hero is a smelly, let-himself-go, rude, awful, drunk.
I drop my hand and my fingers clench into a tight fist. I have to hang on, I have to keep trying, except…I turn to go, because Liam Stone’s not a hero. He’s a villain.
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