I’m happy to share a part in the blog tour for a YA Mystery – AFTER ALWAYS by Barbara J. Hancock! Alluring, lyrical, and mysterious this book spins a story that will keep you captivated. Keep reading this post for two excerpts!
Lydia’s life felt like it ended when Tristan died. Sure, they had their problems and he could be a little…intense at times. But he’d promised to love her forever…
When her parents propose a summer across the country with a music teacher who runs an inn, Lydia agrees. But it’s different from what she expected. There’s a presence there she can’t quite reconcile—and it feels like it’s hunting her. It seems Tristan’s promise followed her…and may have graver consequences than she could have known.
Then there’s Michael Malone, the one light spot in an otherwise dark existence. Lydia can’t help but be drawn to him, and as they try to uncover the evil plaguing the inn, they grow closer. But guilt over Tristan’s death still consumes her. Can she and Michael uncover what evil lurks in the inn before it takes another victim?
The hard gravel in my chest tried to beat faster, but I breathed in and out, slow and steady, and told myself it didn’t matter. The sudden beauty I’d seen in his everyday sort of features didn’t matter.
But when Michael’s amber eyes cut sideways and he caught me looking at his face, it did matter.
He got quiet. Even quieter than usual.
I got quiet as well.
We both seemed to hardly breathe for a little while.
I wasn’t only drawn to him because I’d noticed his physical attractiveness. And it wasn’t only his warmth, although I’d had a constant chill for months that seemed to ease as we stood there, side by side, as it always eased around him. It was his calm. His stillness. More than anything I was like a skittish wild creature being lured by an outstretched hand. I stared at his face because I didn’t know whether I should trust my instinct to run away or follow the urge to edge closer and dispel the cold a little more.
Then, he spoke again and I looked away from the movement of his finely shaped jaw.
“There’s always something that needs doing. And I like the work. I like Stonebridge,” Michael said.
I looked back at him thinking “like” was such an odd word for the monstrously huge old place. I wasn’t sure I liked it at all. I found myself strangely nervous in dark stairways and blind corners. And uncomfortable with all the closed and locked doors.
“I like the activity this time of year especially. The guests coming and going. I like staying busy. And Mrs. Brighton. I like her, too,” Michael said. “She hired me several years ago. I was sixteen. Lied. Said I was older. She must have known. I was a foot shorter back then. And I’d never even changed a light bulb. She hired me anyway.”
I couldn’t imagine a shorter version of the guy beside me. Or one who hadn’t always known exactly what he was doing. The young man I knew seemed to face the challenge presented by the aging hulk of Stonebridge with undaunted determination and know-how.
“She started paying me more when I decided to take engineering classes at the community college,” Michael continued.
“You’re an engineer?” I said. I had been so certain that I would be a concert pianist. Before. After, my high school graduation had come and gone in a blur of grief. Now, I was in limbo. Uncertain if I could face tomorrow much less a future at a conservatory that once threatened to come between me and Tristan.
“Will be. One day,” Michael replied. So simple. So certain.
I looked behind us at the great hulking house I’d needed to escape from that morning. I saw something very different in it than Michael saw. He saw opportunity and possibility. I saw dust and decay.
Just then, one of the swirling gulls above us shed a feather. I had turned back to the cove but the fluttering movement of the black-tipped gray feather as it fell caught my eye.
It would fall down, down, down to the ocean in the cove and be washed out to sea. I watched it fall. The haphazard dip and swerve of its trajectory was hypnotic in its inevitability.
Michael had seen it, too.
He didn’t wait for it to fall. He stepped to the edge of the cliff where a low rail at his knees would probably be useless in stopping his momentum if he slipped. He reached up and out for the feather until it floated into the palm of his hand. Then, he closed his fingers and pulled it back over land. All so sudden and quick and carelessly graceful. I found myself holding my breath again.
“I like gulls, too,” Michael said, twirling the saved feather in his dexterous, calloused fingers. “Some people think their calls sound sad, but they would change their minds if they would only watch them fly.”
He held the feather out to me and I reached and took it from him, like a gift, before I stopped to consider.
From his hand to mine, the gull feather passed and with it came the realization—I didn’t know how I felt about Stonebridge, but I liked Michael. More than I should. The feeling was warm and soft in my chest, unexpected and frightening. I was never supposed to be warm and soft again. I was supposed to continue to harden and cool until I was an unfeeling statue of Lydia, incapable of love and loss and remembering pain. I didn’t want to risk another relationship. Not only because I had promised Tristan forever, but because that vow had turned out to be a mistake even before he was lost at sea.
“That’s an unusual place for a not-so-unusual tattoo,” Michael said.
I stiffened. I braced for the touch to come back even as the cloud passed and a new light bulb brightly illuminated the hall.
“It was a secret. My parents couldn’t know,” I said.
For some reason, even though I’d said very little to Michael in the days we’d worked together, I found myself sharing the whole story.
He listened, sitting on the top of the step ladder like a lifeguard at a crowded beach. One in faded jeans with a tool belt hanging low on his lean hips. His tan and his sun-streaked hair made it easy to imagine him shirtless and vigilant and flocked by bathing suited admirers who wouldn’t be caught dead in walking shorts. While I talked, he flipped the ever present multi-tool into different configurations in his right hand. I thought maybe he was looking for the right configuration to fix this strange, broken girl he’d found. When I finished, he climbed down. He closed the tool and slipped it away in his back pocket. I didn’t expect him to do anything after that except fold up his ladder and walk away. Instead, he knelt beside me. He brushed aside the tendrils of hair that almost covered the tiny butterfly. I held my breath. Unlike the whisper of the phantom touch, his warm, calloused finger as it traced my tattoo was intimate and real. I’d seen myself in all the mirrors even when I’d tried not to look. I was too pale and too thin and the shadows under my eyes were way worse than the khaki uniform.
But I swear Michael’s touch seemed to negate all of that. I wasn’t the kind of girl that would attract a muscled future engineer with warm eyes and crinkles already starting to form at the edges of his frequent smile. And, yet, somehow, I was. His touch wasn’t a come-on, but in spite of his intentions, the second the calloused pads of his fingers brushed against my skin I was more awake than I’d ever been. I’d been right. Numb wasn’t possible with Michael. My heartbeat raced and blood rushed to my face and chest and the tattoo he touched.
“So he took you to a tattoo parlor so unprofessional they didn’t even check for IDs, and he had you get inked when he knew your parents wouldn’t want you to, when you had already said no?” Michael asked, completely missing the point. Tristan was gone. And there was no configuration of Michael’s multi-tool that could fix what had happened.
I stepped away from his soft touch. The rock in my chest had trembled and I chewed my lips to stop an answering tremor. Michael’s eyes were a warm brown the color of aged copper in the hallway shadows. They met mine and didn’t look away. He seemed to see someone else when he looked at me. Not the girl I used to be and not the girl I was now, but another Lydia that was just out of my reach. Braver, better, in touch with who she was and what she wanted. And who she wanted. Is that what he saw when he looked at broken things? With his engineer eyes, could he see the potential of an object—or a person—to be whole again?
Barbara J. Hancock lives in a cabin in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her many rescued pets and the guy who lured her into the wilderness with promises of lots of peace and quiet for writing. To this day, the Appalachian wildwood is the best gift she’s ever been given. Her favorite pastime (besides animal rescue) is bringing darkly romantic stories to life by firefly light.
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