Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Dozen Apologies Chapter Nine

Do you have a favorite hero yet? Are you honing your matchmaking skills? We have just a few more heroes before we open up voting next Wednesday, February 5. You'll have four days to decide Mara's future - we're leaving the choice in reader's hands.

Read Chapter One.
Read Chapter Two.
Read Chapter Three.
Read Chapter Four.
Read Chapter Five.
Read Chapter Six.

Read Chapter Seven.
Read Chapter Eight.

A Dozen Apologies
Chapter Nine - September
Elliott Weston

Edgar, the bulldog, yawned, a jaw-cracking exercise that displayed every bit of what looked like a foot-long tongue. How in the world did he fit that thing in his mouth?
Mara averted the shower nozzle until the dog shut his gaping maw. One lower canine tooth protruded. He looked up with soulful eyes. So adorable. All the dogs she’d encountered this week were sweethearts. Gentle, loving, humble, they didn’t hold grudges, didn’t complain, were ready to forgive and forget. They accepted whatever you did to them without complaint.
Well, a few complained, but they got over it quick enough. Men, on the other hand, weren’t quite as magnanimous as their four-footed best friends. She sighed and mentally checked off her list—seven down, five to go. Apologizing to the guys she’d wronged didn’t get any easier with practice.
She shuddered recalling the chickens in Alabama and before that the horses in Kentucky. A few more weeks here at Yips and Yaps would go a long way toward funding the trip to Colorado after Christmas.
Her bruised ego could sure use a reprieve.
She leaned in to finish Edgar’s rinse … and received a full-face slurp in return. Ew! She shrugged one shoulder to wipe the slobber from her face.
Edgar went into a frenzy. He shook his head and body in a twisting motion to rid himself of the excess bath water and drenched Mara in the process.
“All right, buddy. That’s enough. Let’s get you toweled off.” She gave him a brisk rub down followed by a quick once over with the hairdryer. “There we go, all clean and shiny. You smell good, too.”
Of course, she smelled like wet dog now. Bathing sixteen animals in five hours would do that.
Mara stole a peek at the clock on the wall and groaned. She’d worked through her lunch hour to keep up with the appointment schedule. With a dozen cages left to clean, six dogs to walk, supplies to restock, and the school kids due to arrive in less than thirty minutes, it looked like quitting time would also come and go without a stop.
Mara pressed a hand to her aching back and laughed at her own naiveté. She still rued the loss of her best silk blouse that first day. Canine Salon Assistant in pet superstore vernacular did not translate to an administrative position. Note to self: next time ask what the job entails.
Like she would have turned it down. Not with her bank account on a starvation diet. Perhaps once she completed the crazy task she’d set, the future could take center stage. Her thoughts drifted to the sketch book still in her suitcase. Maybe …
No. First things first. She’d made a commitment. To God and herself. Isn’t that what Sunday’s sermon in Proverbs had been about? When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
With all the humble pie she’d racked up lately, she ought to be among the wisest people in the world!
Clipping a leash on the bulldog, she let him lead her back to his cage. Water refreshed, she told Bernice, the silver haired groomer, that Edgar was ready for his pedicure.
“Mara, be sure those cages are clean before the children get here. Can’t have them complaining about the smell.”
“Yes, ma’am. Next on my list.” Fortunately, only one cage required the pooper-scooper, but several of the dogs had been here since opening. They needed to be walked soon before more cages required attention. Or baths re-done.
She saved the beagles until last, knowing the boisterous pair would require extra time. Ivan, the tricolor brown, black, and white standard, and Maxwell, a black and tan blue tick, could be a little too smart for their own good. Maxwell, the clever rascal, had managed to escape his cage once already. And chewed a hole in the twenty-pound box of treats. Hopefully he wouldn’t puke before his owner came to pick him up.
The weather outside remained warm during the day, but by late afternoon the temperature would dip. September. She loved this time of year in the south—a hint of autumn nip combined with a heady scent of ripe apples. A yellow school bus turned into the parking lot as she and the beagles finished their walk. A dozen school children emerged and descended on the store.
“Mara,” Bernice called out. “They’re here.”
“Be right there.” Rechecking the latches on the beagles’ cages—you couldn’t be too careful with Maxwell—she glanced in the mirror over the sink and used her fingers to comb through the wild disarray of curls and ruthlessly pulled her long mane into a ponytail and splashed water on her face. Edgar’s earlier ministrations had removed the last of her makeup. She wouldn’t win any beauty contests today.
Plastering a smile on her face, Mara headed to the front. Give a quick tour through the store. Add a little commentary while they watched Bernice work her magic with the clippers. And then the finale—fifteen minutes to ooh and ah over the rabbits, hamsters, puppies, kitties, and fish. After that, home to a hot bath, a home-cooked meal, and bed, thank You, Jesus.
Before she made it to the counter, Mara realized these kids were different. One little girl, dressed in pink jeans and a white t-shirt, stood off to the side, twirling a long strand of ash blonde hair. Her eyes remained fixed on the floor. Another child, a smallish boy, walked aided by forearm crutches, his legs encased in braces. Several other children, obviously wound up, stuttered in excitement.
Their teacher squatted in front of the kids with his back to Bernice and Mara. A big man by the width of his shoulders. His dark, close-cropped hair bobbed amid the towheads. He spoke in a quiet voice of command that held the children’s attention.
“Zoe.” He crooked a finger at the little girl who stood apart from the others. She ran to him, flinging her arms around his neck. He gave her a quick squeeze and gently peeled her arms away but kept hold of her hand. She clutched at his shirt for a moment, revealing part of a tattoo that twined around one arm.
An image came unbidden, that of a dragon’s tail wrapped around another bulging bicep. Someone still on her must-see list.
The teacher’s interaction with his charges charmed her. So many men felt uncomfortable around kids, at least the guys she’d known. Add in all these special needs, and they’d show you their dust without a blink. What made this man different?
Mara’s lips twitched in a bittersweet smile at the stir of attraction. She made bad decisions where men were concerned.
He stood, turned to Bernice, and flashed a heart-stopping smile. “Good afternoon, ma’am. We’re from Todd Elementary here for a tour.”
Bernice hurried forward. “Oh, yes. We’re very excited to host your field trip.”
He turned with an equally brilliant smile for Mara … and froze. The smile slipped from his face. “You?”
His icy gray eyes pinned Mara with an all too familiar look of loathing. She hadn’t planned on finding Elliott until later and wasn’t prepared to deal with him now. Not here. Apparently God had other plans.
She willed her emotions aside and donned an emotionless mask, something she had become quite adept at. “Elliott Weston. How are you?”
Bernice looked at her and then Elliott and back to Mara again. Her avid eyes wouldn’t miss the tension.
Before the uncomfortable situation turned ugly, Mara turned to the children. “Hi, kids. Want to see where we keep all the toys and stuff? After that, we’ll come back here and let Bernice show us how she gives a dog a haircut. And then we’ll go see the pets.”
“C-can we p-pet the b-bunnies?”
“I want to hold a puppy.”
“I have a bird. Momma said w-we m-might g-g-get another one if I f-found one I l-liked.”
“Whoa, kids. Let’s slow down.”
Just like that, Elliott reestablished control. He’d been a natural leader on the football field. And off campus where all the carousing took place. A rebellious bad boy. And one of the reasons she’d picked him for the game.
“Are you our guide?” he asked Mara.
Elliott had every reason to despise her, but his scorn opened wounds she’d thought were protected. Mustering a scrap of pride, she lifted her chin. She would apologize if the opportunity surfaced. Make it quick because he wouldn’t be forgiving. “I’m sure I can find someone else—”
“No. I want you to do it.”
He wanted his pound of flesh. Some penances were harder to accept but had to be borne nonetheless. She owed him that much. “Very well. Follow me.”
The kids trailed behind her in an orderly procession, Elliott at the rear. Up one aisle and down another, through the food, medicines, toys, crates, books, bones, bowls, and leashes. When they got back to the salon, the kids gathered around the low counter, fascinated by Bernice and the poodle on the grooming table.
“Why d-does the doggy have a r-rope around his neck?”
“So he won’t bite?”
“No, to keep him from r-running away.”
Bernice answered. “This helps him hold still so he doesn’t jump around and make me mess up his haircut.”
The questions continued as she switched on the clippers and explained each step.
This was a side of Bernice Mara hadn’t seen before. She listened as raptly as the kids.
“You can pretend I’m not here, but it won’t make it so. I never took you for a coward.”
Mara tensed. How had he gotten so close without her knowing? “I’m very aware of you, Elliott. I also know you despise being anywhere near me, so don’t worry. I’ll keep my distance.”
“I heard you were in New York. At some fancy design house. Why are you back in Spartanburg? And washing dogs, for Pete’s sake.”
She looked up and her eyes locked with his for a long moment until the intensity of his stare made her tremble. The air sizzled between them, something she hadn’t expected. Maybe the truth would relieve some of his resentment. “I fell for someone who let me believe he returned my feelings and then humiliated me. What goes around comes around, huh?”
“What happened?”
“I trusted him. He stole my designs and pawned them off as his work. He got the job I wanted and then fired me. Now, no one in the business will hire me.”
He didn’t speak for a long moment. “I’m sorry.”
Her head jerked up. “What? Why?”
“Because betrayal leaves you gutted, and I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.”
“Elliott, there’s so much I need to apologize for. I’m—”
“No.” He growled, his voice harsh. “Not here. If you want to apologize, to ask my forgiveness, you’ll do it without the buffer of a public place, without the buffer of the kids. Are you staying with your parents?”
She nodded, blinking hard to stay unexpected tears. “I was never very good with budgets.” She waved one arm around and tried to laugh “Or keeping jobs.”
The kids interrupted their tête-à-tête with cheers and handclapping. The white standard poodle now sported an English saddle clip with a puff ball on his tail and around all four feet. The girls lobbied for a pink ribbon for the dog’s head while the boys wanted any color but pink. The owner arrived and settled the argument by choosing a red satin ribbon.
“Who wants to go see the puppies now?” Mara asked.
Amidst happy shouts, they made their way to the pet adoption department. She gave instructions to not touch or scare the animals, birds, and fishes, and allowed the children to roam around the confined area.
“So you became a teacher?” Mara asked to divert Elliott’s attention.
“Yeah. After I tore up my ankle at football camp, I spent my summers at children’s camps.”
She flinched, remembering the horrendous injury he suffered between his freshman and sophomore year at the University of South Carolina. The Carolina Panthers had invited him to their summer squads, and she’d gone with him. He didn’t get beyond the first play, though. His dream of a professional football career ended that day with torn ligaments and a ruptured Achilles tendon. His college career ended as well.
“I was good with kids. I like them, and they liked me. Later I discovered a passion for special needs kids. It took me two extra years of specialized training, but I’ve never regretted it.”
A small black puppy ran their way.
“How did …” Mara grabbed for the Scottie, missed collaring the pooch … and lunged for another pup that raced by. Soon, the aisles were filled with dogs of all sizes, breeds, and colors. “Oh, this is not good.”
“The kids.” Elliott tucked a Yorkie under his arm, scooped up a Cocker Spaniel, and hurried back to the bank of kennels.
A wrinkled little pug pawed at Mara’s feet. She picked him up and followed Elliott, who now confronted the prison break accomplice still at work.
The little girl in the pink jeans sobbed, tears streaming down her face, as she worked furiously to unlatch the last cage. The boxer puppy inside whined, anxious for his trip to freedom.
Elliott stuffed the two dogs he’d captured into a cage and latched it before reaching for the little girl. He pulled her into a hug. “Zoe, Zoe, Zoe, what are you doing, sweetheart? Why are you crying?”
“They’re s-so s-s-scared,” she sobbed. “I d-don’t like the c-cages.”
“Shhh, Zoe. It’s okay. Not all cages are bad, honey. The puppies don’t mind them. See how this guy licks my hand?” He stuck his fingers through the wire cage and tickled the boxer puppy’s mushed face.
The store came alive with barks, yelps, and squeals. Soon the beagles in the salon joined in and brayed their displeasure at being left out of the romp. The kids bounced around like Mexican jumping beans while the customers laughed as store employees tried to catch the runaways. A display of dog food toppled over. Cans spilled everywhere.
“What’s the meaning of this, Ms. Adkins?” Mr. Perkins, the store manager, demanded, his faced flushed dark red. “Whoever let these animals out is in big trouble.”
Mara stepped forward as Elliott tried to soothe the little girl’s hysteria. “I’m sorry, sir. The children wanted to pet the puppies. I thought it would be okay, but things got a little out of hand.”
“A little out of hand! This isn’t a petting zoo. No one handles the live merchandise unless it’s a serious buyer. Now, round up these mutts and lock them up. And get these kids out of my store!” Mr. Perkins stormed away but turned before he disappeared around the corner. “I’ll see you in my office once this is set to rights.”
She turned to join the hunt, forcing her slumped shoulders to straighten. She’d lost better jobs than this. Something else would turn up. It always did. First, though, she had puppies to catch.
“Mara, wait.”
She couldn’t deal with his animosity now. “For what, Elliott? You don’t want my apology. Take your kids and go.”
“Let me get Zoe and the others on the bus. The driver will watch them while I help you round up the dogs.”
“Just leave.”
“We’re not through talking. I’ll be back in a minute.”
He was good as his word and returned to snare the last scoundrel, a sneaky little Chihuahua.
“You shouldn’t have come back, but thank you.” She wiped perspiration from her face with the back of her hand.
“Why did you tell your boss you let the dogs out? Why’d you protect Zoe and me? It could cost your job.”
“Yeah, well it won’t be the first job I’ve lost. Probably not the last either. It was my responsibility. I should’ve paid closer attention.
Elliott’s dark blue eyes seemed to drill into her soul. “I do want to hear your apology, Mara. If you still want to give it.”
Her stomach did a funny flip. “Okaaay.”
She swallowed hard, calling on the Bible verse from the pastor’s Sunday sermon, something from the book of Matthew. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. She’d eaten a double portion of humble pie over the past few months. When did the exalted part come? “You want your pound of flesh, don’t you?”
His mouth twisted, but whether in a smile or a sneer, she didn’t know. “My grandma used to say, ‘Women forgive, but don’t forget, while men forget, but don’t forgive.’ Try me, Mara. See if I can forgive you.”
Unable to bear the intensity of his stare, she looked away. Confession might be good for the soul, but it didn’t get easier with the doing. One lesson this exercise had taught her—if it’s bad enough to require an apology later, don’t do it in the first place.
Mara looked toward the bus. While the other kids frolicked inside, awaiting the return of their teacher, Little Zoe hung out the window, anxiously following Elliott’s every move. Inside the store, the little girl had done what she thought was right. An honest and forthright reaction.
With a soft sigh, Mara raised her head. “I am truly sorry for what I did to you, Elliott. You didn’t deserve the ugly words I threw at you, or the humiliating rejection in front of your friends. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. Doesn’t say much for my integrity, does it?”
He ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. It was his turn to look away.
Peace settled around her like a warm shawl. “I thought by cutting you and the others down, it showed how strong I was. The truth is, you and some of the other guys were the strong ones. I hid my insecurity behind a shield of malice.”

She straightened. Time to wrap up before she embarrassed herself and him any further. “I’m not that person anymore. You see, Jesus changed my heart. While I had hoped to earn your forgiveness, I can’t make you accept my apology. A wise man told me recently I had to move forward and not backward. I pray you can do the same.” She touched his arm. “Thank you for letting me get out what I needed to say.”

Voting opens at Noon (EST) on Feb 5.

Because we want YOU to choose the best hero for Mara, we're going to try to keep the author/creator of each chapter a secret until after the voting is over. If you know one of the authors, and pick out her chapter, please help us keep the secret. We want the hero chosen based on his personality and his chemistry with Mara, and not make it a contest between authors.

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Our authors are also offering some inside glimpses into the writing process, some interviews with authors, heroes, and even the publisher. And that Marji - she somehow got hold of Mara's journal, so you'll be able to read some of her thoughts as she goes through this experience. Fay snagged interviews with all the heroes too. Check out all the links below to stay on top of the latest.

Thanks for joining us in Mara's adventure - we hope you have a great time!

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