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Protecting Her Own

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Blurb

Return to the Shelter of Home

A month after returning to Lightning Gap, Virginia, Kim Mullins finally feels at home. Relaxed. Ready to recover from years of hectic city life and too many broken hearts.

Steph Holfield needs the shelter of her family to heal. A dose of peace and routine. The abrupt end of her marriage left her reeling and shattered. Unsure of her own heart and mind.

Seeing each other sends Kim and Steph into a whirlwind of memories, and the enchanting prospect of discovering each other again.

But more than the chance of renewing youthful romance swirls around them. Bringing unseen forces human and supernatural into play.

Will Kim and Steph find the strength they need to survive in each other?

An excerpt from Protecting Her Own:

A Shared Homecoming

Kim almost pushed the swing back too hard after all.

Steph was here, right here in Lightning Gap?

"I thought Steph got married?" Kim said. "Moved away with her new husband not long after I went to college in Atlanta?"

Auntie Venus took a drink of coffee, peering at Kim over the edge of her world mug. The kind of knowing gaze that would either discover everything or get you to say it out loud for her.

Kim fought revealing anything as hard as she could.

"She did get married," Auntie Venus said, tilting her face up and to the left like she always did when she was trying to remember something. "Went to school down in Texas, but she ended up with a local boy. From over in Laurel Gap if I recall. They went up to Louisville for a while. But she's been back here for several months now. Started teaching at the start of the school year."

"That is an interesting bit of luck. Both of us back here now after years away. Might be nice enough to catch up with Steph, see how life's been treating her. Just out of curiosity, did she bring the husband back with her?"

Auntie Venus shook her head. "She sure didn't. Seems to me she got all of that out of her system before she got too old. Some might say that's a smart move. In her case, I have to agree."

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Chapter 1
Chapter 1 Water really did make all the difference when it came to brewing coffee. And Kim Mullins had never tasted anything as good as the water from her Auntie Venus’s mountainside spring. Kim closed her eyes and pushed her bare toes against the thick wool rug, sending the porch swing backward again. Her great aunt’s house sat far enough up that they often got fog on these early spring mornings. Reason enough to get up with the sun as far as she was concerned. Right now the air outside the screens surrounding her was pure white, with thinner patches revealing a flash of the pine trees in the front yard every couple of minutes. The fog managed to cushion sounds out of the air too, muffling the breeze, the musical creek close by, and the birds greeting the day. She probably had a solid hour to enjoy the sensation of swinging on a porch swing in the middle of a fresh, mineral-scented cloud before it burned off. Not that the view of mountains all around them barely showing the first sweet blush of spring was a bad follow-up. The coffee that surpassed anything she’d ever tasted back in Atlanta, in New York, or on a trip with Auntie Venus to Italy years ago filled a mug that really was too big for a single serving. In fact, Kim had used the huge purple and pink striped ceramic vessel as a soup bowl many times when she was a little girl. Between the decadence of drinking coffee out of it and the warmth against her fingers, she’d started every day since her move back home on an entirely positive note. Having the perfect weather for bare feet, blue jeans, and a black hoodie alone felt amazing when late March would already be getting hot in Atlanta. She might have to shift her routine once the hot weather really settled in a few months from now. A switch to cold coffee, maybe. Even though it could still snow into May at this elevation in the southwestern corner of Virginia and March still had a week to go, days were pleasantly warm. Unlike they’d be in late October once winter made itself comfortable. Now was the time to enjoy the outdoor mornings. The rug she pushed herself off of to keep the swing going—and to get an agreeable gronk out of the chains holding it up—had come from another of her Auntie Venus’s adventures. Kim couldn’t remember where, but she was determined to ask later on. Much later on, once her aunt finally decided to get up. She’d been as much a night owl as Kim was an early bird throughout her whole life. The rug had thick, soft pile, deep enough to really sink her toes into. Indigo blue around the outside, with a swirling pattern that gradually got lighter toward the middle. The fibers dyed violet, blood red, dark green, and even black were trimmed to different heights, irresistible for little girl fingers or grown woman toes. Kim had never seen anything like it. That was the thing about Auntie Venus’s house. It was full of things no one anywhere near Lightning Gap, Virginia, would ever find if they searched near and far. The porch was built so the wooden ledge under the screened windows was extra wide, and shelves painted in as many different vivid colors as the rug lined the space under the windows. And every inch held a different treasure from a different exotic corner of the world. Bunches of statues of all shapes, sizes, and materials. Some fairly new from trips over the last few years, others obviously older than Kim herself at thirty-seven. The typical figures of round Buddhas and many-armed deities sat comfortably alongside stylized couples embracing and birds, snakes, and bears. Wood, metal, stone, even what looked like jewelry quality gems and minerals. Most of the figures, human and animal alike, had an odd look to the head or the eyes or the ears making it clear they came from a different culture. Some strange enough that Kim suspected they may be even older than Auntie Venus at eighty-three. Ceremonial-looking bottles and jars. Painted tiles and plates. Wands and crystals and crucifixes and peace signs. As long as they held meaning or memory, they all belonged here. Kim hoped she would eventually feel the same way, like she had when she was a little girl whose legs were too short to push off in this swing. She took another long drink of just-hot-enough coffee, nowhere near the scalding nonsense that came out of most American coffee shops, and shook her head at the silliness of her own wandering thoughts. Of course her Auntie Venus welcomed her. The first time Kim mentioned wanting to take a break from city life in Atlanta on one of their weekly phone conversations, Auntie Venus had offered company and a place to live. The second time, Auntie Venus had admitted she’d love to have the company. The third time, she admitted she needed the help even more than Kim needed the change of scenery. Barely a month later—job respectfully resigned and city house on the market getting lots of interest—Kim made the big move. Everyone had welcomed her, to the point that she felt more than a little uncomfortable with all the attention. Even with a great group of friends, satisfying job as a technical writer, and ten years in the same house, Kim hadn’t realized how anonymous she’d been in such a huge city. Some people knew her, of course, but the majority of folks had no idea who she was. Millions of them wouldn’t recognize her from Eve. That didn’t count countless numbers more who came in and out of Atlanta every day, month, and year. But back here? In and around the close-knit community of Lightning Gap, she wasn’t Kim Mullins, skilled tech writer or good friend or any of the other roles that had defined her life. Here she was Bill and Stacy Mullins’s girl. Throw in all the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and Kim suddenly felt like nothing more than an extension of people she hardly knew any more. What she was most known as, of course, was the grand-niece of the rather eccentric Venus Elizabeth Mullins Thompson McFall Kelly. She’d gone back to only Mullins after her third beloved husband passed away because she didn’t plan on having another, don’t you know. Even with her great aunt’s example to live up to, Kim knew she was the subject of much speculation after so many years living away in the Big City. Naturally. And just as naturally, at least for her, she spent an unreasonable amount of time pondering the questions that must surely be flying around with her name attached. Why had she come back home? Had she failed somehow? Was she running from something? Had she been forced to sell out and run back up here to the mountains? Did she have some kind of Big City Scandal hanging over her head, just waiting to reveal itself? And most importantly, had she turned out as interesting and odd as her Auntie Venus? The only scandal she could think of wasn’t much to trade on these days, even in a small town. Being gay hardly turned heads any more. Not that she wanted the trouble with that subject that had only so recently slipped into the past. Not for herself or anyone else. Hell, her family and everyone else around here had probably known long before she figured it out herself. It was only that Kim would have happily traded being seen as exceedingly odd or even shocking if she could stop feeling so drearily...ordinary. A low screen door squeak as comforting as the porch swing’s gronk let her know Auntie Venus was up and about, and surely anything but ordinary. A few seconds later, a vision in shimmery pink silk pants that flared before fitting tight around the ankle, sky blue high-top booties, and an oversized fuzzy lavender robe appeared. She had her thick silver hair braided as usual, with the end forward across her shoulder and caught up in an iridescent forest green clip. Kim only hoped her own heavy mop of brunette hair would end up with that lovely color over time. “You’re up early, Auntie Venus. I hope I didn’t wake you.” Auntie Venus shook her head and smiled as she joined Kim on the swing. “Lord no, honey, I doubt a boulder rolling down the mountain would wake me these days. I heard a big beauty of a storm last night, but I dropped right back off. You’re quiet as a mouse in the mornings as far as I can tell. Just turned over with my eyes wide open is all.” Her cup was a black globe with the continents rendered in glittering jewel tones. She took a good long drink of her coffee and hummed. “I thought you were crazy talking about brewing coffee on the counter all night long when you first got here. But damned if this doesn’t make a fine morning cup. Every bit as good cold as it is hot.” Kim’s own expertise in swearing had largely been learned at her great aunt’s knee. “Well thank you,” she said. “I never had such luck until I was using your good spring water.” They both glanced toward the steep mountainside close to the side of the house, barely visible through the fog. Covered in poplars, oaks, and maples that hadn’t started budding out yet. The scattered rhododendrons and mountain laurels thick in the understory still looked like overgrown azaleas to Kim’s eyes. The spring that brought the amazing water made its way through the underlying stone of that mountain, and a trickle still filled a little pond circled with huge rocks of all different kinds and colors. Most of it had been harnessed to provide drinking water for the house before Kim was ever born. She’d heard several explanations for why that water tasted so good since she was first old enough to ask. Auntie Venus’s special mugs or glasses brought back from all over the world changed the flavor. The limestone rock the water filtered through, that did it. Some special formula of the soil held the secret. Kim’s favorite—and the one her great aunt held to herself—was the peculiar magic of Lighting Gap itself. Maybe even the namesake lightning. No one ever said more than that, but Kim had the feeling many of the locals knew more than they let on. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be considered a local again after so long living away. “You got any work to do this week?” Auntie Venus said. “Your technical writing freelance work, I mean, from the folks at your old job.” Kim shook her head and gently pushed the swing back again. “Not so far. They’re giving me some time to settle in. I’ll let them know when I’m ready to start. Why, you got errands for me to run in town?” Auntie Venus lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, one of the signs that she had something to say or ask, and was working her way up to it. “Nothing to speak of for me, no. I hear they’re doing one of those Career Day things at the high school next week. You remember the Holfields, David and Donna? You knew their girl Stephanie pretty well.” Kim raised her eyebrows and turned her head the other way, toward a stand of cherry trees and the road down into town. Oh, she remembered Steph. Too well. “The Holfields, sure. I remember Career Day, too. I’m missing the point where they go together.” Auntie Venus patted Kim’s knee. “Well, they think the high school will want you to come by and talk to the kids, of course. Tell them how you’re able to work just fine from here or anywhere else in the world as long as you have your computer. Show them a good career they don’t have to leave home for.” “Maybe,” Kim said. “I’ve never done anything like that before, but it might be fun. I’m still...confused about where the Holfields come in.” “I thought you already knew. Stephanie is a teacher at the high school now, some kind of science I think her daddy said. He’s right sure Stephanie will be excited to talk to you about coming down there next week.” Kim almost pushed the swing back too hard after all. Steph was here, right here in Lightning Gap? “I thought Steph got married?” Kim said. “Moved away with her new husband not long after I went to college in Atlanta?” Auntie Venus took a drink of coffee, peering at Kim over the edge of her world mug. The kind of knowing gaze that would either discover everything or get you to say it out loud for her. Kim fought revealing anything as hard as she could. “She did get married,” Auntie Venus said, tilting her face up and to the left like she always did when she was trying to remember something. “Went to school down in Texas, but she ended up with a local boy. From over in Laurel Gap if I recall. They went up to Louisville for a while. But she’s been back here for several months now. Started teaching at the start of the school year.” “That is an interesting bit of luck. Both of us back here now after years away. Might be nice enough to catch up with Steph, see how life’s been treating her. Just out of curiosity, did she bring the husband back with her?” Auntie Venus shook her head. “She sure didn’t. Seems to me she got all of that out of her system before she got too old. Some might say that’s a smart move. In her case, I have to agree.” “You?” Kim said, smiling and leaning her shoulder against her great aunt’s. She decided not to ask what her great aunt meant by Steph getting all of that out of her system. “You didn’t leave a single one of your husbands, and not one of them ever stopped loving you. You were just stubborn enough to outlive them.” “Doesn’t mean I don’t understand what it’s like to have your marriage fit you like a shoe with a stone caught inside. Stephanie seems real happy now, back here and teaching.” Kim didn’t want to say how well she understood, how well her great aunt’s words described her own relationships. A couple of those had been more like a sharp stone in her shoe, and a shoe that hadn’t fit right in the first place. The last one, and the longest one, had started out soft and easy, as comfortable as her great aunt’s booties. But by the time she and Stacy managed to get away from each other, it felt more like running across shards of glass. If nothing else, catching up with a friend from so far in her past might help her get settled in. Couldn’t hurt to try. “I know what you mean, Auntie Venus. Maybe I’ll get in touch with Stephanie later today.”

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