Chapter 1 is the first meeting of Madison Lorraine, her daughter, Mo, and the dolphin they name "Free"
Chapter 1 Excerpt
"Mom! Wake up!"
Madison Lorraine, with her cheek buried in a pillow, popped one eye open and attempted to focus on her nine-year-old daughter's face within an inch of her own.
"It's Saturday, Mo. Cartoons, remember?" She closed her eye and tried to reenter her interrupted dream.
"But, Mom, there's a shark in the cove. Come on!" Mo tugged once on Madison's arm and ran out of room.
Madison bolted upright. She scrambled to disentangle her legs from the sheet and blanket.
"Mo! Mo, wait. Don't you dare go anywhere near the water!" Madison managed two steps forward before falling onto her knees, still entangled in the bedding. "Damn it." She threw everything aside and sprinted out onto the deck. The hard wood reverberated through the soles of her feet. "Shit." She debated for a couple of seconds about going back for her shoes. Seeing Mo racing to the shore convinced her. She rushed down the steps. "Mo, what did I say?"
Mo pointed to the middle of the cove. Madison cupped her hand over her eyes and spotted the gray-skinned form swimming about twenty yards offshore. He was right at the drop-off into deeper waters. He swam parallel to them and turned to swim back, his dorsal fin barely visible.
Madison stepped nearer to the water. Mo edged even closer. Madison reached out and grabbed her hand to pull her back.
"Didn't I say not to go near the water?"
Mo looked up at her. Her blonde hair, bleached almost white from her days in the Florida heat, reflected the sun. Madison's breath caught in her throat as she met her daughter's bright blue eyes. The same blue as Callie's. Mo was Madison's life, but sometimes it hurt to look at her. The image of Madison's dead partner bombarded her.
"Mom? You okay?"
Before Madison answered, a splash brought her attention back to the water. Sharks didn't jump and splash in the water unless they were going after a seal. At least according to those National Geographic specials. Madison wondered if she'd mistaken the sound. Then the fish flew out of the water in front of them, performed a perfect pirouette, and landed back in the water with another resounding splash.
"It's a dolphin!" Mo jumped up and down. "Can I go in and swim with him?"
"No, you most certainly cannot. You don't know where he's been."
Madison cringed. Did I actually just say that?
"That's silly, Mom. He's been in the water."
"Hey, don't get smart with me."
The dolphin leapt in the air again, this time barely causing a ripple as he dove back in. "He's wild, Mo. It's not safe."
The dolphin danced across the water on his tail. If Madison didn't know any better, she'd think he was showing off, as if to say, "See? I'm harmless."
Mo giggled. "Isn't he cute? He doesn't look like he'd hurt us." She broke free of Madison's grasp and sprinted toward their dock.
Madison hurried after her. "Montanna Marie, don't you dare get in that water."
Mo slowed to a stop at the full use of her name. Then she gave Madison her best "sad puppy" imitation, complete with cocked head to the side.
"Please, Mom? We don't have to go into the water. Maybe we can see if he'll come up to us." She stuck out her bottom lip in an adorable pout.
Since Callie's death a little over three years ago, Madison found she gave in to Mo's whims far too frequently. But this was a little much. Despite how friendly the dolphin seemed, it wasn't like they were dealing with Flipper here.
The dolphin stuck his nose out of the water, making a sound very much like Flipper communicating with the boy in the old television show. Okay, now that's too weird. She followed Mo to the end of the dock. Mo knelt down on her knees and held her hand over the water.
"Damn it, Mo." All of Madison's good thoughts about Flipper vanished as her mind flashed on an image of the dolphin latching onto Mo and yanking her down with him. She knelt, pulled Mo back, and hugged her tight to her body. She didn't realize she was trembling until Mo's excited expression turned to one of worry.
"I'm okay, Mom."
"I know you are, and we're going to keep it that way."
The dolphin dipped back under the water. Madison leaned forward with Mo to try to get a glimpse of him. He resurfaced, pushed his nose into the water, and flipped it out, spraying water toward them.
They skittered back from the edge but not before they were both drenched.
The dolphin made the laughing noise again, and Madison thought, I'll be damned if he doesn't look like he's smiling at us.
"That wasn't funny," she called out to him.
Mo held her sides as she giggled and pointed at Madison.
"You don't look much better, Montanna."
Madison thought the dolphin had left them, but he resurfaced in front of the dock. He jabbered for a few seconds, nodded, and did the oddest thing. He captured Madison's gaze and held it. Madison stared, mesmerized. What the—
Mo said something that Madison didn't catch at first.
"What did you say?" Madison asked.
"Can we keep him?" Mo tugged on her hand. "Please?"
She shook free from her trance. "No. He's not a puppy, Montanna."
The dolphin whistled at them before he turned toward the area that led back to the Gulf. Madison wasn't sure he'd headed that way until he leapt into sight right before he entered open water.
"Ah, shoot. He's leaving." Mo crossed her arms and stomped her foot. She looked exactly like her biological mother when Callie and Madison would have an argument. Madison bit her lip to keep from laughing.
"There's proof he's not a pet." Madison motioned toward the water. "He's free to come and go as he pleases." She doubted he'd be back, though she didn't want to share that with Mo. She was already on the verge of tears.
Madison took her by the shoulders and aimed her toward the house. "Come on. I'll fix you some pancakes." As they walked down the dock, she turned back one last time to catch another glimpse of the dolphin. He was nowhere in sight.
To Love Free
Chapter 11 is where Erin asks Corey to go two-stepping with her at a dude ranch. Will the night lead to something more than dancing?
Chapter 11 Excerpt
They parked in the lot at the dude ranch and followed couples strolling hand in hand to the corrals in the back. Overhead lights draped over a stage set up to the rear. To their right, several long tables overflowed with buckets of iced beer and bottled water for those not inclined to drink alcohol.
"The gray-haired guy with the goatee and banjo is Bill Cooper," Erin said, nodding toward the stage where four men warmed up their instruments. "He owns the ranch."
"Hey, Erin. Where's Tess tonight?" An older woman with graying, auburn hair approached them.
"She's staying at the lodge and taking care of guests. Our part-time desk clerk called in sick tonight." Erin motioned toward Corey. "This is Corey Banner, our new head of maintenance. Corey, this is Midge Cooper, Bill's wife."
Midge stuck out her hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, Mrs. Cooper."
Midge laughed. "Erin, where'd you find this one? Nobody has this kind of manners around here. Corey, we're on a first-name basis, all right?" Midge scrutinized them, as if trying to figure out if this was more than an employer showing her employee western hospitality.
Erin tugged Corey by the arm toward the beer table before Midge commenced with her game of twenty questions.
"If I remember right, you like Coors." Erin reached in a bucket and lifted out an ice-cold bottle dripping with water. She handed it to Corey and grabbed one for herself.
The band played the open notes of a fast country tune, and couples took to the dirt dance floor.
Erin challenged her. "Ready?"
Corey grimaced and held up her bottle. "Can I at least down this to get some courage?"
"Then no backing out, ya hear?"
"Oh, I hear all right." Corey sipped her beer as she watched the dancers.
Erin watched, too, tapping her toe to the beat. By the time the song ended, Corey had finished her beer.
"Nervous?" Erin asked, with a smile.
Corey opened her mouth to answer when something behind Erin caught her attention.
"Erin, how are you?"
Erin turned to see Lee ambling over. She was wearing a short jeans skirt with a denim shirt tied at the bottom over a white ribbed top. Her full breasts filled out the top, showing plenty of cleavage. She wore her cowboy hat low, cloaking her face in shadow.
Lee raised her chin at Corey. "What was your name again?"
"Corey," she answered with an even voice.
The two women stared at each other like gunslingers about to draw their six-shooters in the middle of town.
"Corey and I were about to dance. She's never two-stepped before."
"Why don't you and I show her how it's done, Erin?"
Erin was about to protest, but Corey silenced any refusal. "I'll wait, Erin. Go ahead."
Lee didn't need any more incentive. She grabbed Erin by the hand and pulled her toward the center of the dance area.
"You know, you were kind of rude," Erin said as the music started.
"She's a big girl. Besides, she needs to let two pros show her the moves."
Erin didn't say anything as she concentrated on following Lee's lead. She had to give Lee this much. She was good. Erin got lost in the music, not paying much attention to who she was dancing with. She searched for Corey who had drifted into the shadows. She seemed to be following their every move. Erin couldn't tell if she was concentrating on getting the steps down or if it was something else.
The song ended, and the band quickly started on the next.
"How about another go?" Lee asked.
"No, I promised Corey I'd show her how to two-step." Erin pulled out of her embrace and walked toward Corey. "Got your courage up yet?"
Corey set her beer on a nearby table. "One and a half beers gave me enough gumption."
Erin held out her left hand and Corey took it. She placed her other hand loosely on Corey's shoulder.
"Since I'll be leading, put your left hand on my arm here. You'll be able to feel which direction I'm headed when I squeeze your other hand."
"Okay." Corey lifted her head and gave a small sniff. "I smell lilacs."
"Uh... that's my perfume."
"Good. I mean it smells good."
"Thanks. Did you catch on any to the dancing?" Erin asked in a rush.
"First of all, don't let the experienced dancers scare you." She nodded toward couples doing fast spins around the dance floor. "I'll teach you the basics. Watch my feet at first. I'll lead. It's two quick steps forward. That's two quick steps back for you." She moved forward. "And then two slow steps. The beat is quick-quick-slow-slow, quick-quick-slow-slow."
Corey's brow furrowed, and the tip of her tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth.
God, she's adorable, Erin thought as they moved haltingly with the other dancers. Corey uttered an occasional "damn it" when her steps faltered.
"Now, don't look at our feet," Erin said.
"Are you crazy? If not, I'll fall on my ass."
"No you won't. Trust me. Raise your head and focus on me."
Corey met her eyes as another fast song drifted through the night air. The face lined in concentration had slipped away, and a much more heated expression had replaced it. This time, Erin stumbled. She quickly righted her steps.
They moved now with a smoother gait, almost as if they'd been dancing together for years. The music ended, and they stopped as the band led into a slow song. A lot of the couples left the dance floor. Erin still held Corey's right hand in her left with her other hand on Corey's shoulder.
Without thinking, she drew Corey closer and dropped her hand around Corey's waist. They swayed gently to the mournful country ballad. Eventually, Erin rested her cheek against Corey's. Corey trembled at the move. Erin wanted the song to last forever but had to settle for a few minutes of bliss in Corey's arms.
She reluctantly withdrew from the embrace when the song ended. "That was... nice."
"It was," Corey whispered. She shook her head slightly as if to regain her composure. "Do you mind if I sit the next one out? Lee's coming this way. I think she'll want to dance with you again."
Erin was about to say she didn't want to dance with another woman, but Corey had already drifted from under the overhead lights and into the darkness.
"She seemed to catch on fast." Lee reached out to take Erin's hand, but Erin turned away.
"I'm going to check on her."
And a Time to Dance
Survived by Her Longtime Companion
Chapter 4 is where Bailey and Chelsea meet again, albeit unexpectedly, at Eleanor Burnett's house to interview her about her late partner, the movie star Daphne DeMonet.
Chapter 4 Excerpt
Eleanor looked back and forth between the two women. “You know each other?”
Chelsea nodded and noticed Bailey doing the same.
“Let’s sit down, and you can tell me how.” Eleanor motioned them to the chairs.
Chelsea scooted her chair closer to Eleanor’s before sitting down.
“Tea, Chelsea?” Eleanor asked.
“No, thank you.” Her heart pounded in her ears. She hadn’t prepared for this. How could she have? She didn’t think Bailey had, either, if her bouncing knee was any indication.
“What do you drink?” Eleanor asked.
“Water is fine.” Chelsea gripped her briefcase against her chest as if it could protect her from her swirling emotions.
Eleanor picked up a small porcelain bell and rang it. Bailey flinched at the sound.
“Madam?” Niles appeared at the sliding glass door.
“Ice water for Professor Parker, please.”
After he left, Eleanor took a sip of her tea and stared at them over the rim of her cup. “So. Who’s going to tell me first?”
Chelsea shot a quick glance over at Bailey whose bouncing knee had hit a frenzied rate.
“Bailey and I... we... well, we...”
Eleanor finished her sentence. “You were lovers.”
“Yes,” Chelsea answered.
“How long?” Eleanor asked.
“How long...” Chelsea grew more uncomfortable with the questions. Who was interviewing whom here?
“How long were you together?”
Chelsea was about to answer, but Bailey interrupted.
“Nine years, three months, and thirteen days.”
Chelsea swallowed the lump in her throat in an attempt to stave off her tears.
Niles brought out a bottle of water and a glass of ice. After he left, an awkward silence shrouded the table.
“Interesting,” Eleanor said. “Very interesting. And how long apart?”
Chelsea answered this time. “Eleven months.”
“All right. Here’s the big question. Why did you separate?”
Bailey tapped the side of her cup with her index finger.
When it was clear Bailey wasn’t about to respond, Chelsea answered. “We got too busy with our work and grew apart.”
Eleanor’s sharp laugh echoed in the backyard.
“That’s it? You were busy and grew apart?”
“Well...” Chelsea tried to think of something else to say but was at a loss.
Eleanor waved her hand in the air. “Don’t try to justify it with any more words. I get the picture.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Chelsea wondered whether she’d lost the interview before it had even begun.
“Upset me?” Again, Eleanor laughed, but there was no humor in it. “I’m not upset. I’m angry. There’s a difference.”
“What did I say wrong? I didn’t mean anything by my words.” Chelsea gave Bailey a pleading look.
Bailey leaned toward Eleanor. “We were both at fault.”
“You most certainly were. How could you let a nine-year— what did you say? Nine-year, three-months and—”
“Thirteen days,” Chelsea said.
“Right. If you both can remember the exact time you were together, how could you now be apart? It makes no sense. None.”
Eleanor rose to her feet and stomped off toward the garden.
Chelsea watched her leave and then whirled toward Bailey. “What is this? Why are you here?”
“Hi, Bailey. How’ve you been? I’ve been fine, Chelsea, how about you?” Bailey rolled her eyes. “Why do you think? For the same reason you are.”
“Let me guess. Joanne Addison thought because you’re gay, Eleanor Burnett would talk to you.”
“Yeah. That’s pretty much it.”
“And you came anyway, knowing I’m here teaching?” Chelsea’s voice continued to rise.
“Why are you mad? It’s not like you have the right to an exclusive.” Bailey stood and shoved her chair back. It teetered and then settled on all four legs.
Chelsea rose to her feet to avoid Bailey towering over her. “I still can’t believe you’re here.”
Bailey looked like she was about to say something more. Instead, she marched toward the direction Eleanor had taken.
“Wait!” Chelsea hurried to catch up with Bailey’s long strides. “I’m not done.”
“I don’t have to listen to this anymore, remember?” Bailey’s jaw was tight.
Chelsea stumbled and began to fall forward, but Bailey caught her under the elbow. When she did, Chelsea fell into her arms. They stared at each other, both breathing heavy. Bailey’s gaze dropped to Chelsea’s lips. Then she blinked, pulled away, and continued toward Eleanor who stood in the distance.
I almost kissed her, Bailey thought. I can’t believe I almost kissed her. What is wrong with me? She caught up with Eleanor who was weeding the daffodils.
“Ms. Burnett...” Bailey started to say.
Eleanor raised her head and glared at Bailey.
“I’m sorry. Eleanor. Please don’t let our former relationship keep you from talking to me.”
“To us,” Chelsea chimed in as she moved beside Bailey.
Eleanor straightened and brushed the dirt from her hands. “Tomorrow morning. Seven o’clock sharp.”
Bailey and Chelsea spoke at the same time.
“Seven o’clock in the morning. You Yanks are capable of arising that early, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” they answered together.
“I see some habits are hard to break. I bet you still finish each other’s sentences, too. Return tomorrow at seven and we’ll talk. I’m tired. It’s time for my afternoon nap. You can find your way to the front by following that path.” Eleanor gestured at a dirt path lined with stones and strode back to the house.
“That was interesting,” Bailey said, but Chelsea was already walking down the path. “Hey, wait, Chels. I still don’t know why you’re so angry.”
Bailey caught up with her as Chelsea reached the Outback. She was about to open the door, but Bailey pressed her palm against it and waited for Chelsea to face her. “Talk to me.”
Bailey reached out to touch Chelsea’s shoulder but let her hand drop to her side.
Chelsea spun around, her face wet with tears. She wiped at them in jerking motions.
She’s that angry, Bailey thought. No. Wait. She’s hurt.
“I can’t believe you came out here thinking there was no chance we could meet. Are you that desperate for a job?”
Bailey bristled. “Now, hold on. My job is as important to me as yours is to you. Or have you conveniently forgotten that and twisted history?”
“What do you mean, ‘twisted history’?”
“Seems like the only one you’re thinking about is you. Just like when...”
“Just like when, what, Bailey? When I was the brave one and actually acknowledged we couldn’t go on the way we were? Is that what you were going to say?”
“I didn’t say it.”
“You didn’t have to. I know how you think, and right now the only one you’re thinking about is you.” Chelsea poked her in the chest with her index finger. “You could have told Joanne no.”
“Well, I didn’t. So grow up and accept it that we’re both here to do our jobs.”
Chelsea opened her mouth to say something but stopped.
“What?” Bailey asked.
“It’s too damn soon.” Chelsea reached behind her, opened the door, and got inside, not looking up as she started the engine and drove around the circular drive to the gravel road.
“It’s not like I planned it!” Bailey shouted at the dust left behind by the Outback. She tramped to her Jeep. She buckled her seatbelt and was about to pull away when she noticed a curtain in the front of the house move aside before dropping back into place.
“Crazy old broad,” Bailey muttered as she drove back to the main road.