Wednesday, November 27, 2013

First Chapter of STARTING FROM SCRATCH, Plus Amazon GC Giveaway!

Want a peek at Starting From Scratch?  How about more than a peek?  How about... the first chapter?  Enjoy! ^_^

Chapter One

“Hold on to your big-girl panties, Luce—Sully Jax is back in town.”

Silence slammed into the usually bustling kitchen of Pauline’s Praline Sweet Shoppe. Only the Christmas music playing overhead convinced Lucy Crabtree she hadn’t gone stone-deaf before she resumed beating a batch of cream cheese frosting into submission. Three sets of eyes zeroed in on her as she stood at the kitchen’s stainless steel workstation. Or at least she assumed they did. She was too busy making sure the now-ragged cloak of composure she’d been hiding under for a year covered her wounds.

“Lucy, honey.” The motherly voice of Pauline Padgett, the shop’s owner, came from the opposite side of the workstation. She looked ready to run to Lucy, despite being elbow-deep in spice cupcakes and having her gout-riddled feet propped up on a milk crate. “Did you hear Celia?”

“I don’t like the quality of powdered sugar we’re getting from our supplier lately.” Lucy lifted the spatula from the bowl of creamy sweetness to give it a critical once-over. “I get clumps no matter how many times I sift it. It didn’t used to do that.”

Pauline’s husband, Willard, a Santa Claus look-alike if there ever was one, seemed to forget he was supposed to be taking the latest trays of spice cupcakes out of the oven. “Lucy love—”

“I’m fine.” At last she raised her face, hoping they saw only calm. She was more numb than calm, but they didn’t need to know that. “Sullivan’s dad called yesterday to let me know his son was back, fresh from the final round of rehab they had him do at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Since he’s still not a hundred percent he has to be supervised, so he’ll be staying on his father’s property for a while. Hate to say it, Celia,” she added to the worried teenage beauty in the doorway, “but you’re behind the times.”

“No fair. You had inside information.” With a sigh of relief, Celia Villarreal ventured in, her cheerleader’s bow tied around her ponytail. “Are you okay, Luce?”

“No, I’m devastated. Like, beyond repair. Any second now my flood of salty tears will ruin this batch of frosting.” She held out the spatula. “How does it taste, by the way? Pre-tears, I mean.”

“How can you wave all those yummy empty calories right under my dieting nose? Though, I suppose I can always run a few extra laps…”

“You shouldn’t be dieting at all,” Lucy admonished as the teen scrounged for a spoon. “Hold your head high and be proud of the person you are.”

“It was nice of Lowell Jax to call you.” At last, Willard remembered to rescue the latest batch of cupcakes from an incendiary death. “I’m sure he understood it’d be a shock if you were to bump into Sully walking down the street. He’s always been a good guy.”

“If Lowell was such a good guy,” Pauline inserted, lips pursed as she expertly capped a cupcake with a swirly mountain of rich cream cheese goodness, “he’d have done the right thing and invited Lucy over to help welcome Sully home.”

“He did.”

Again, the silence. Inwardly Lucy cussed a blue streak and wondered how much longer she’d have to endure things like awkward silences.

“And you didn’t go over?” Celia, licking the spoon she’d loaded with frosting, stared at Lucy with huge eyes. “That is so…awesome. I’d totally do the same thing. I mean, he’s the one who hit the eject button. Why give him a minute of your time just because he’s a war hero?”

“That’ll do, Celia.” Pauline gave the girl a hard stare. “I can’t tell if you’re here to work or gossip. You get paid for one, but not the other. Which is it going to be today, dear?”

Celia let out a put-upon groan that only teenagers could get away with, and shuffled off to the mudroom the workers used as a locker room.

“Tying her apron on should give us at least fifteen minutes of privacy. Now.” Pauline turned her scalpel-sharp attention to Lucy. “As much as it shocks me to say it, I agree with Celia. I can understand why you decided not to force a meeting with Sully. But Bitterthorn is a small town, and everybody knows everyone. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, eventually you and Sully are going to bump into each other. What are you going to do then?”

Lucy kept beating the frosting to work out the nonexistent clumps and wished—not for the first time—that she hadn’t dug in her heels and settled back in Bitterthorn. If only she’d known how things would turn out when she’d made that decision. Now she was stuck. If she left the moment Sully Jax breezed back into town, it would look like she was running scared.

She’d be damned if she started running now.

“I’ve given it some thought, Pauline.” Translation, I didn’t sleep at all last night. “There’s no reason for it to be awkward.”

“You don’t think so?”

“Not at all. You’re acting like it’s going to be the first time for us to meet since Sullivan got injured, but I’ve seen him plenty of times since he returned to the States. I spent all of last winter with him at Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood during the early stages of recovery.” Never mind the fact that it had been a nightmare filled with Sully’s screams.

Pauline waved a hand. “He was still recovering then. That hardly counts.”

“And I saw him again in July when the divorce was finalized.” She’d been dying by inches ever since, but again, no one needed to know that. “Sullivan knows I live here. I know he lives here. There’s no reason why it should be weird.”

Pauline and Willard exchanged worried glances. “If you say so.”

“I do.” With a serene expression firmly in place, Lucy was certain no one could hear her screaming inside.


The remainder of Lucy’s shift was a self-induced nightmare. Her responsibilities at Pauline’s as head baker kept her locked in the back, but she could still hear the front bell sound whenever a customer pushed through the front door. Without fail, every time the chime sounded, her heart froze. She held her breath, her ears going into bionic mode, waiting to hear the male voice she still dreamed about. But it was never Sullivan. War hero. Childhood sweetheart. Center of her universe.


For a year now, she’d been without her other half. A year of half life. Or half death. Logically she knew there were many other families who had suffered the loss of so much more. If any one of those families knew her unusual circumstances, they’d probably switch with her in a minute. She should be grateful. And she was. After all, her hopes and prayers had been answered, technically speaking. The only thing she’d prayed for was for Sully to come back alive.

She should have been more specific.

More than a dozen customers—none of them Sully—had come to Pauline’s by closing time. Some actually had legitimate orders, with Christmas a little over a week away. But others had dropped by in the obvious hope of seeing her reaction now that Sully was back in Bitterthorn. She knew the type. They were the vultures who slowed to a crawl to rubberneck at a bad accident. When she was a kid with a mother who’d done a runner and a father who eventually drank himself into the grave, those same gawkers had stared as well. It was as if they knew ketchup sandwiches were the only things keeping her from starvation.

Yeah. She could spot that type a mile away.

There was only one surefire way to get rid of them. Give them nothing. Nothing to look at, nothing to cluck over in their self-righteous way. Nothing to gossip about. Boredom set in if there was no observable trauma, so that’s exactly what Lucy gave them. Nothing.

A frigid wind hit when she stepped out onto the sidewalk fronting Pauline’s, and she tightened the scarf in her favorite color—a brilliant red—around her neck. The only time it had ever snowed in the South Texas town of Bitterthorn had been before she was born. According to those who’d lived through it, a single inch of the white stuff had brought the town to a shell-shocked standstill. It definitely felt cold enough for it now, and it got her moving toward her loft apartment over Lefty’s garage a couple of blocks away, a convenient space she’d been living in since summer.

Coe Rodas ran Lefty’s now, a former stock car driver, mechanical genius and, in another lifetime, her long-ago babysitter. Lucy and Coe had managed to survive growing up on the wrong side of Bitterthorn’s tracks, and they’d looked out for each other since day one. It had been Coe who had given her away when she’d married Sully, just as it had been Coe’s shoulder she’d sobbed on when she’d made the painful decision to give Sully the divorce he’d asked for. Outside of Pauline and Willard Padgett, Coe was the closest thing she had to family.

As she rushed past the post office crammed with people trying to mail off Christmas packages, the Open sign got flipped to Closed. Lefty’s was on the corner past Mabel’s Diner, from which delicious aromas from a bustling dinner rush emanated. Through the gloom she could see Coe’s familiar form waiting on the sidewalk, shoulders hunched against the cold. She smiled, her chin lifting as she waved when a gust of wind slammed into her like an invisible wall. Her scarf smacked her in the face on its way off her neck, and with a squeak she grabbed at it. She wasn’t fast enough, and had to hurry after it as it somersaulted like a living thing down the sidewalk. A booted foot came out from the direction of Mabel’s recessed doorway, stomping on the brilliant scrap of material a scant moment before she crashed into the body that belonged to it.

“Sorry!” Horrified, she grabbed at the person before they could both fall. Her gloved hands gripped lean hips, with one almost completely cupping a firm butt cheek.

Oh, good God.

Hastily she jumped back, not sure if she should snatch up the scarf and run for it, or dive into the mortification pool and acknowledge the inappropriate grope. Maybe if she made a joke… Hey, was that as good for you as it was for me? It could work, as long as it wasn’t Father Fabian. Crap, if she’d just inadvertently copped a feel of the town’s sixty-something parish priest, she’d freaking die right there.

Breathless, Lucy looked up into evergreen eyes hooded by dark brown brows, and discovered that agony could cause sudden paralysis.



Face tingling from the cold, Sully worked to get his tongue unglued from the roof of his mouth. Damn. Had that been her hand on his ass? Hell yes, it most definitely had been. He could still feel each individual finger digging into the flesh as if the nerves there were now branded. Not surprising, really. A man would have to be dead not to appreciate a good-looking woman’s hand gripping his butt cheek as if conducting a squeeze-test for ripeness.

Even if that woman was his ex-wife.

Sully’s brain shied away from the unfamiliar term. To cover the reaction, he retrieved the scarf and braced himself against the wall when the expected wave of vertigo hit. Going upside down without his cane to help keep his balance probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but he’d had it with that damn stick. He was sick of being an invalid. “I saw this slip its knot as you walked by. I had a feeling it was going to make a break for it.” He held out the bright strip of material as the last of the dizzies abated. “It’s good to see you, Lucy.”

“Hi.” Her gaze never wavered as she reclaimed her property. No doubt about it, her eyes were just about the prettiest he’d ever seen. Blue like the summer sky without so much as a fleck of gray or green to dim their clarity. They were widely spaced and framed with thick fans of black lashes, far darker than her toffee-colored hair now pulled back from a sculpted, oval face. The cold had touched her cheeks with pink, but the rest seemed as pale as winter frost.

He’d known their first meeting would be weird. That was why he’d made the decision to get it over with the moment Lucy had appeared outside the diner’s picture window. No, that wasn’t quite accurate. As she’d rushed by, she’d suddenly smiled with such brilliance it had jolted him out of the booth before he’d given it a thought. He couldn’t remember Lucy ever smiling at him like that.

Then again, that didn’t mean much.

“So.” Shit, this was awkward. Maybe there was some greeting card for a situation like this. “Heading home from work?”

“Work? You mean that madhouse that keeps me chained to an oven all day?”

Sully grinned. One thing he’d noticed about Lucy—she was never at a loss for words. “Yeah, that.”

“Pauline’s is like an acid-trippy three-ring circus during the holiday season, so I’m lucky if I can get out of there on time. I’m probably going to dream about being buried in cupcakes tonight.”

“I can think of worse dreams.”

“Believe me, so can I.” There didn’t seem to be any gas left in that conversation, so she busied herself with retying the scarf, this time tucking the ends into her jacket collar. “How about you? Any plans now that you’ve received your honorable discharge? Your dad updated me,” she added when he gave her a searching look. “Congrats, by the way. If I had confetti I’d toss it at you.”

“Thank heaven for small favors. And as of the New Year I’ll be doing what I do best—writing code for a computer security group that my old XO started up when he went into the private sector.”

Those sky eyes lit up. “That’s great, Sullivan. Sounds like you’re not going to have any trouble settling into civilian life.”

“At the moment it doesn’t seem that easy. I just had an hour-long battle at the post office, mailing off presents to the family of my best friend who was killed in action last year. I made a promise I’d do what I could for them during the holidays, so…” He shrugged, not sure why he felt the need to share that with her. Maybe he was babbling. “The post office is crazy this time of year.”

“Two words for you next year. Gift. Cards.”

He groaned. “Why didn’t I talk to you before I acted?”

Something in her expression flinched, as if she’d been poked with something sharp. “Well, now. There’s one helluva question if I’ve ever heard one.”


“Nothing.” She touched her scarf and offered him a tight smile that looked nothing like the real McCoy. “Thanks for catching this for me. Hope I didn’t hurt you when I full-on body-tackled you.”

“A Ranger’s tougher than that.” Except for the fingerprints he could feel burned onto his ass, he’d already forgotten about it. “That’s a good color on you.”

“You know me and red—my favorite color in the universe.” Then she bit her lips together, hard enough to turn them white. “Sorry. I, uh…I like red.”

“Right.” This was a bad idea, he thought, stepping back on the excuse of not blocking the sidewalk when someone approached. But the real reason was simple—he didn’t want to be in this conversation anymore. She wasn’t a part of his life, so it was a mystery why he’d found himself running to intercept her. Maybe it had been a good idea to get their first face-to-face meeting out of the way, but forcing something that wasn’t there was worse than pointless. It was painful. He was so sick of things that were painful. Simplicity was what he needed now. And simple wasn’t Lucy…Lucy…

His hands curled into frustrated fists when he came up empty. That blankness meant failure, and that was one thing the Ranger in him couldn’t accept.

“You’re not still going by Jax, are you?”

“No.” She gave him a veiled look. “You suggested that, to put all this behind us, I should take back my maiden name. I did.”

“Ah. Good.”

As she turned away she muttered something under her breath that sounded like, nice. “I’d better be going.”

As the vision of her back filled his view, a jolt went through him. A strange, frantic feeling he couldn’t control, while the diner door opened behind him. “Wait. Now you’re Lucy…?”

“Crabtree. Good—”

“Lucy!” His father, Lowell, hustled from the diner to sweep Lucy in a hug that took her off her feet. “How’s my queen of sweets? Since you moved out I never hear from you. Where’ve you been hiding?”

Sully winced at the lack of subtlety. Apparently while he’d been deployed, Lucy had stayed in the garage apartment on his father’s property, the same apartment where Sully now lived. From the moment Sully had walked through that apartment’s door he’d suffered an intense hatred of the place, when he usually didn’t give a crap about his surroundings. It just didn’t feel like home. No place did. He wasn’t even sure what home was supposed to feel like. All he knew was that the apartment wasn’t it.

“Lowell.” Lucy’s voice was muffled against his father’s shoulder as she was dumped back on her feet. “I haven’t been hiding, I’ve been working at Pauline’s and getting the loft transformed from a dirty storage space to a shiny new home.”

“Everyone knows Lucy’s the busiest person in Bitterthorn this time of year, even without having to sink new roots.”

The unfamiliar baritone snapped Sully’s attention to the man he’d seen approaching. The guy was a rough piece of work—unshaven, silver hoops gleaming in his ears, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. The new arrival’s attention glanced off him as though he’d sized Sully up as unimportant before he bestowed a thousand-watt grin on Lucy. “If she’s not under Pauline’s whip, she’s filling Pfeffernüsse orders on the side. It’s almost embarrassing, how my garage smells like Mrs. Claus’s kitchen.”

“Oh, Pfeffernüsse.” Lowell made a sound of swoony yearning. “Lucy, is it too late for me to sneak an order in? You know I can’t resist anything you bake, but your secret recipe is something I look forward to every year.”

She patted his father’s cheek, showing a familiarity that made Sully feel more like an outsider than ever. “For you, Lowell, anything.”

Pfeffernüsse?” That edgy sense of failure growled to life while the foreign-sounding word whispered in his head. “What’s that?”

Silence—that awkward, something’s-not-quite-right silence he should be used to by now—froze them in place before Lucy shrugged. “It’s a traditional German-Dutch cookie, usually made during the holidays. The recipe I use has been handed down from generation to generation for at least two hundred years. Not even Pauline has been able to coax the recipe out of me.”

“Sounds good. I’ve been craving cookies lately.”

The man with the ponytail glanced his way. “So, Lieutenant Jax. I hear the mayor’s made you the guest of honor at the Christmas Ball, to celebrate the return of Bitterthorn’s big Silver Star war hero.”

Sully would have to be deaf to not hear the mockery. “Who are you?”

“Coe Rodas. Name ring any bells, Lieutenant?”

Coe.” The admonition came from Lucy, and the white-hot fire behind the tone jerked his attention back to her. Strange, she’d never shown any fire around him before now.

Funny thing about fire. He’d always had a crazy kind of thing for it.

The tough guy, Coe, seemed to recognize all that heat meant danger, and backed down like an obedient puppy. “My apologies, Luce. I didn’t mean to mess with someone who’s, you know…fragile.”

Sully’s teeth snapped together. “I went through sixty-one days of hell in Ranger School, renowned as the toughest combat training course in the world, where on average nearly half the class washes out the first week alone. I did it because I wanted to become a part of the army’s most elite infantry, just to see if I was strong enough mentally and physically to handle it. My battalion specialized in personnel extraction behind enemy lines, and we never failed in retrieving our target. We could be deployed anywhere in the world in eighteen hours flat, whether it was desert, jungle, urban or mountainous—we trained for it all. I know more ways to kill you than you can probably count, so the one thing I’m not is fragile. And I may not have everything straight in my head, but I’d be willing to bet you and I always had a real goddamn problem occupying the same area. Am I right?”

“Pretty much.” But instead of going toe to toe with him like he wanted, Coe once again looked to Lucy with those puppy-dog eyes. It took all of Sully’s strength not to rip his fucking head off. “But that’s ancient history. The present and future are all that matter now.”

The phrase sounded so much like what he’d told Lucy when he’d pushed for a divorce—a merciful act to free them from an unwanted obligation—that he glanced her way. For her part, she glared at Coe as if she believed she could fry him with a look alone.

No thought could have pleased him more.

“It’s great to see you looking so healthy, Sullivan.” With a curt nod in his direction, Lucy turned away. “Welcome home.”

Sound like something you might be interested in reading?  Here’s the blurb:

Christmas is the perfect time to start from scratch

Lieutenant Sully Jax saved his unit during an IED attack, but he couldn't save his marriage. He can't even remember it. Recovered from his injuries, he's come home to the family and friends he knows—and an ex-wife who's a stranger to him.

Lucy Crabtree was heartbroken last Christmas when Sully announced his plan to go on one last tour of duty, and devastated when he asked for a divorce after he awoke in the hospital with no memory of her. She's finally moving on from her hurt and from losing the man she loved more than anything, and her cookie-baking business is taking off just in time for the holidays. But now Sully's back, and she can't deny she still loves him. But how can she trust her heart to someone who breaks it every time she sees him?

Sully might not remember Lucy, but something inside won't let her go. With every bite of her cookies, he finds a new love for Lucy, and he soon realizes he wants to rebuild his life
with her by his side.

36,000 words




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