We are pleased to announce the winner of the first run of the Contemporary Romance category in our OUT OF THE SLUSH PILE, Novel Journey’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame Contest. This month’s winning entry has all the elements of a good story: a solid, well-paced plot; distinctive, likeable characters unburdened by cliché; action, suspense, and (of course!) romantic intrigue, all assembled skillfully by a writer who shows good promise.
We invite you, therefore, to enjoy the first chapter of Strike the Match by Diane Moody of Kingston Springs, Tennessee. Congratulations, Diane!
by Diane Moody
“Keri! The Bradford cabin is on fire! Get over here. Now!”
Keri McMillan strained to see her alarm clock. Three-fifteen in the morning. “No, no, no! This can’t be happening!” she shouted into the phone. She threw back her covers and jumped out of bed.
“Carson, did you call the fire department?”
“They’re already here. Hurry, Keri!”
“On my way.” She flew into her closet, grabbed her clothes and dashed into the bathroom. A minute later she was dressed and rushing outside into the frigid Oregon night.
Oh God, no! Please let them save it!
Tires squealing, she stomped the accelerator and headed for the construction site, consumed with dread. The Bradford’s cabin was her dad’s latest design, intended to be a high-end showcase for his log cabin company. Perched high atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific, the luxury home was just one week shy of opening its doors to the new owners. The perfect Christmas gift.
Keri’s mind raced, a storm of thoughts and emotions swirling in her head. She’d only been home from school for three days, returning from her second year at New York University. With dwindling funds, Keri decided to move home for a year, work for her dad, and stockpile every penny she earned. She was determined to fill her savings account then head back to complete her degree in journalism.
As she pulled up to the raging fire, she couldn’t help but think her dreams were going up in smoke before her eyes. Fire trucks flanked the back of the house, their hoses attempting to douse the flames that licked the sky from the two-story structure. Keri’s heart pounded as tears burned her eyes.
I’ve got to call Dad.
As she reached for her phone, someone banged on her window. Keri jumped then pushed open the door.
“Carson, you scared me half to death!
“Sorry, Keri, I was just—”
“What happened? How did it start?” She stepped out of her vehicle.
“Don’t know yet.” Her dad’s construction chief rubbed his face with his hands. “A neighbor called the fire department, then Bill called me first chance he got. He knew this was one of ours. It’s bad, Keri. Real bad.”
Keri wrapped her arm around his thick waist. Carson had been with her dad from the start when they first launched McMillan Log Homes twenty years ago. She wanted to comfort him but couldn’t think of a thing to say. He hung his arm around her shoulders, releasing a long, tired sigh.
“We called the Bradfords, but all we got was their voice mail. Apparently they’re still in Idaho. We’ll keep trying.”
“Carson, I’ve got to call Dad. He needs to come home.”
“I know. I was just hoping the guys could put this out before any major damage was done. Too late for that now, I guess.”
She looked at the shell of the massive home, sickened by the sight of it. The lump in her throat hindered a response. Keri climbed back in her car, pressed the auto-dial number for her dad’s cell phone, and closed her eyes.
Grant Dawson hit the brakes on his SUV and grabbed his camera. His windshield reflected the blaze before him, roaring against the black December sky. His mind began framing the best pictures, the captions jumping around in his head. He could see the bold print on his front page. NEW OCEANSIDE ESTATE DESTROYED BY FIRE. No, too blah. DREAMS SHATTERED BY MIDNIGHT BLAZE. Too cheesy? Maybe—
“Grant! Over here!”
He couldn’t help but smile. Luby Sanders, in all her glory. Pink foam curlers wrapped with her bright white hair peeked out beneath a wool scarf. Green satin pajamas flashed from beneath her winter coat, tucked into oversized yellow galoshes. He was tempted to snap a picture just to get a rise out of her, but it hardly seemed appropriate at a time like this. When he moved here six months ago, Luby was the first person in this tight-knit coastal town to befriend him. She and her gaggle of friends had welcomed him with uncommon hospitality, taking him in like one of their own.
He pressed his lips together to hide the smirk. “Luby, what brings you out on this beautiful night?”
She whacked him on the arm. “The fire, you big lug! I live across the street there and heard all the sirens.”
Grant noticed the young woman approaching Luby as they made their way toward the inferno, immediately doing a double-take. He’d never seen her before. The blustery wind whipped a mass of light brown curls around a face etched with worry. Her skin was flawless, and her eyes sparkled with tears in the surreal glow of the blaze. He forced his gaze away from her, afraid she might look his way and see something in his countenance. What, he wasn’t sure.
This must be the niece Luby’s been babbling about so much. The journalism student, home from school and none-too-happy about it. No-doubt a Christiane Amanpour or Ashleigh Banfield wannabe.
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