Read an Excerpt
An Unexpected Grace
By Kristin von Kreisler
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Kristin von Kreisler
All rights reserved.
Lila's father called her stubborn, but she preferred to put a positive spin on it and say she was determined. Today only a determined person would go outside and brave the storm. The sky was charcoal gray; rain was pounding down in sheets. The local NPR newsman had said that wind had toppled trees and battered boats moored in San Francisco Bay.
Waiting at the door of her apartment building, Lila braced herself for getting wet. She shouldn't go to work today, she thought. She could snuggle under her down comforter, sip Morning Sunburst tea, and listen to rain tap her windows. She could escape eight long hours at Weatherby and Associates Public Relations, the last place she'd ever expected or wanted to work.
But, mustering her resolve, Lila chased away these tempting thoughts. She could not go back to bed. Not when she was living in an apartment she called Cockroach Manor, existing on tuna and beans from the Grocery Outlet, and saving every penny for six months to be a full-time artist. Since breaking up with her ex-boyfriend, Reed, in whose house she'd lived the past five years, she had to get back on her financial feet and put together her next art exhibit. Striking out into a storm was nothing compared to picking up a brush and doing her real work. On Lila's scale of importance, getting rained on was a mouse's squeak, and painting was an elephant's trumpet.
Her best friend, Cristina, pulled up at the curb in front of the door in her Volvo station wagon. She'd insisted on driving Lila to work to keep her from riding her bike in the rain. Lila stepped outside and opened her umbrella. As wind ruffled her fleece-lined poncho and blew her hair across her face, she sloshed down the steps. By the time she reached the sidewalk, water had gotten into her size-eleven loafers and was squishing between her toes. A moving van rumbled by and left a trail of exhaust fumes. A chill from the Bay blew in her face. She shivered.
"I'm glad you made it. Nobody should be driving this morning," Lila said as she opened the door.
"Sorry I couldn't get here sooner. There was a wreck on the Golden Gate." Cristina tossed her purse in the backseat to make room for Lila.
She climbed into the car, set her backpack at her feet, and clicked on her seat belt. As she fluffed damp bangs off her forehead, she said, "I think it's time to build an ark."
Cristina's dark Italian eyes shone when she laughed. "We're late." She sped down the street. To get downtown to the Crockett Building, where she and Lila worked on different floors, she turned left onto Geary and ran a yellow light. "I've got a surprise," she said. "Look in my purse. Get the manila folder in the side pocket."
"I know what the surprise is going to be." Cristina had been springing the same one on Lila for eighteen years. With reluctance, she reached to the backseat, grabbed the folder, and set it in her lap.
"Open it," Cristina urged. "I've made a new poster."
"I don't have to see it. What do you have this time? A poodle? A Lab?" Another ambush was in the making. Cristina would badger her about adopting a dog.
"Her name is Grace. She's the best one yet. The world's most precious."
Cristina flipped on the car's interior light so Lila could see the poster better. As usual, at the top was written in three-inch block red letters, NEEDS A HOME! This time what needed a home, however, was not the world's most precious. It was the world's saddest golden retriever.
Grace's lugubrious eyes looked straight at Lila and begged for a bowl of kibble and a reassuring hug. Grace's forehead was rumpled as if she were worried, and she was so scrawny that her ribs stuck out like a corrugated roof. Cristina had obviously tied a red bandana around Grace's neck to add a cheerful, festive look, but it had failed. Anyone could tell this dog had seen hard times. Her odometer had too many miles on it. She looked as worn as a tennis ball that had lost its fuzz.
That was probably why the man next to her in the photo seemed protective. Lila couldn't read his expression because he was looking down at Grace. But his body language said he was keeping her from harm. He'd wrapped his sturdy arm around her back, pulled her close, and curled his hand across her chest. His plaid wool jacket's softness must have comforted her. She looked small, nestled against his shoulder, which seemed to say, I'll keep you safe and warm.
Lila asked, "Who's the man?"
"Adam Spencer. My friend from the dog park. I'm not looking for a home for him. It's Grace I'm worried about."
"No need to worry. You always find somebody for your dogs."
"Why don't you take her?"
Here we go. The inevitable question. Cristina had asked it more times than Lila wanted to remember.
"You even match. You're both strawberry blondes. People would kill for your curls," Cristina continued. "She could protect you."
"I don't need protection."
"Keep you company, then."
"How do I know she won't attack me?"
"You've got to get over what happened twenty-five years ago. You have to forgive and move on."
"Not a chance. I'm scared of dogs. I can't help how I feel."
Every time Lila saw a dog—especially a large, galumphing one—she thought only of fangs, and her heart pounded like it was trying to break out of her chest and run down the street. Her mind always flashed back to the white-and-tan mutt she'd met the summer after fourth grade as he was lounging around, as big as a moose, in front of Walmart. Then an ardent dog lover, Lila had stooped down to pet him, just as she petted every dog she found. She had expected him to give her a dopey smile and thump his tail on the sidewalk. Maybe he'd slobber on her, though she wouldn't mind.
But he'd snapped his eyes open, jumped to his feet, and stuck his face in hers. When he snarled, she'd smelled his sour breath and cringed at his yellow fangs. He'd lunged at her and sunk his teeth into the very hand she'd reached out to pet him with. Lila had the scars to prove you couldn't trust dogs. If she'd created the world, there wouldn't be a dog whisker in it.
"If Grace were a cat, I'd adopt her," Lila said. "But I can't afford a pet right now."
"You'd love a dog if you'd give her a chance. Grace would never hurt you." Cristina sighed with exasperation and passed a FedEx truck. "I'm not giving up till you get a dog. You're missing out ..."
"Truce?" Lila patted Cristina's arm to convey I love you, but let it go.
"Okay, okay." Cristina stopped at a red light.
To steer her to another subject, Lila returned to the storm. "About building that ark? Where do you think we could get some wood?"
Armed with four dog posters that she had agreed to put up in restrooms, Lila rushed twenty minutes late into Weatherby's reception area. It was a brightly lit, cheerful place, where you could practically grab the urge for teamwork from the air. Nature photos on the walls suggested mountains climbed to get things done for clients, and rivers flowing toward their fame and fortune. A promise of public relations success was practically woven into the sofa's royal-blue upholstery.
Lila waved to Emily, the receptionist, who was about to retire. "At lunch I'll bring you the begonia I rooted for you," Lila said.
She stopped at the office of Madeline, the head copywriter, whose morning sickness had turned her face a pale gray-green. Lila asked, "Are you feeling better?"
Madeline smiled. "Graham crackers to the rescue."
"Good! See you later." With a full day's work ahead of her, Lila had to get going.
After a quick drink at the water fountain, she hurried to her office, a tiny cubicle with fluorescent lights and no windows or doors. The walls, covered with felt the gray of smog, barely came to her shoulders because she was a shade less than six feet tall. She had a faux-birch desk, a gray-upholstered swivel chair, and a black rug with magenta specks that made her dizzy if she stared at them too long. To remind herself of the art career she'd vowed to return to, come hell or high water, she'd propped against the wall her boldest, brightest abstract painting, with greens and golds and reds that danced across the canvas. When she got bored or claustrophobic in her cubicle, she looked at the colors for consolation. They never failed her.
Lila put on headphones and called the first person on the three-page list she'd been assigned: G. Roger Earling, features editor of the Bay Area Herald. As the phone rang, the smell of coffee traveled from the staff lounge. A cable car clanged its bell from the street below, as if to encourage her for a day of making cold calls.
When Mr. Earling answered, Lila roused her most chipper self. "Good morning! This is Lila Elliot at Weatherby and Associates Public Relations. I was wondering if you got our press packet about the exciting ergonomics conference at Moscone Center."
"I don't remember it," he said, as flat as Illinois.
Bad memory. The perennial excuse. Lila called up her determination. "I'll send you another packet."
"Don't bother. Waste of time."
"But it could interest you."
"Look, an ergonomics conference isn't for us." Mr. Earling sounded surly. His oatmeal must have boiled over that morning, and he'd run out of milk. Lila could tell these things after three long months of phoning hundreds of people.
Calling editors and TV and radio producers was like marching toward an enemy in armor made of lace. You were vulnerable and had nothing but your wits and grit to get the job done. For the media coverage you begged and cajoled out of people, you often got hit with apathy, impatience, or rejection. Sometimes it was hard to shrug off the bad feelings, though Lila always clenched her teeth and kept going.
"The conference is going to be fascinating. Really. Your readers will want to know about it." To keep her foot in the door of Mr. Earling's attention, Lila reeled off the products that would be displayed: potato peelers for arthritics, office chairs for people with bad backs, garden tools approved by the AARP, computer keyboards guaranteed to ward off carpal tunnel syndrome.
He muttered a stifled "aargh" that sounded like a consumptive tiger's growl. "Try calling our business section."
"Any specific person?" Lila pressed.
"I don't have time to lead you by the hand, miss."
Don't take it personally. Lila pulled his arrow from her heart. "It would really help to have the right name."
With hopes Mr. Earling might be looking for one in a directory, Lila forced herself to wait in the silence that spread between them like a field of snow. As she glanced at her painting for moral support, she heard loud voices down the hall. A man was shouting, and a woman seemed to be trying to calm him. That was odd for Weatherby. Lila got up and looked out her open doorway. Seeing no one, she sat back down.
"Okay," Mr. Earling said. "Here's somebody for you. Call Charles Saunders."
The woman's voice got louder, higher pitched. It was Emily. "Please, please." She sounded like she was begging.
The man yelled garbled words that Lila couldn't understand. Emily screamed, "No. Oh, God ... Don't!"
Lila jumped to her feet to run to her friend. Just as Lila yanked off her headset and threw it on her desk, a blast, like a balloon exploding, only louder, came from the reception area.
Lila blinked and tried to figure out what the noise had been—but then came more explosions, one after another, too startling to comprehend. Something horrible was going on, but she couldn't understand what it was. Surely no one would set off firecrackers in our office.
When shouts came from around the corner, Lila froze. What she'd heard must have been a gun. More shots crackled and pinged, as if ricocheting off metal window frames. Glass shattered.
So many people were screaming at once that she couldn't make out single voices. Then somebody shouted, "Lock your doors!"
Lila shrank back from the doorless entry to her cubicle. She smelled smoke, and her stomach felt like it was grinding lead. As her knees wobbled, she grabbed the phone, but her hands shook too hard to call 911. To keep from toppling over, she leaned on her chair.
Should she dive under her desk? She wouldn't fit. Run to the supply closet? She'd be an easy target in the hall. Hide behind her chair? It was too small a shield. Her bright red turtleneck invited bullets.
More yells and shots. Thuds and slams like fighting in the hall. As heavy footsteps scuffled outside her cubicle, she steeled her will and forced her feet to take three steps to the wall adjacent to the entry. Trembling, she crouched down, folded her legs close to her chest, and tried to disappear.
A man loomed in her open doorway. Without looking up, Lila heard his crazed, ragged breaths. On the floor his shadow twitched, and his agitation traveled into her and made her tremble harder. Her heart pummeled her chest.
She hunched lower, but she felt his stare bore into her. She raised her eyes from black wing-tip shoes to a herringbone sports coat—to the contorted face of Yuri Makov, Weatherby's janitor, who just last week had collected her trash and smiled at her. "Not you!" she yelled.
Two sweaty ringlets clung to his forehead, and veins bulged at his temples. His lips were chapped, and a small, round, flesh-toned Band-Aid was on his quivering chin. With each breath, his chest heaved, and the flight bag hanging from his shoulder hit his hip. Everything about him jittered—except his eyes, which pierced her.
Screaming in Russian, he jerked back his shoulders and shoved his handgun's stubby barrel toward her. He pulled it away and slapped it against his thigh. He lifted the gun to his waist and held it in both hands, and the flesh around his eyes seemed to soften as if he were remembering something. Then with resolution in his eyes, he aimed the gun at her again and curled his finger around the trigger.
"Yuri, what are you doing? Don't shoot!" She stood, the better to plead.
He shouted words she didn't understand.
"Please ... Please, don't ... Please, oh, please."
Just as Lila lunged behind her office chair, fire seared a path through her chest. The force sent her reeling against the file cabinet. As she collapsed, her head hit metal and she bit her tongue. Her hand swept across the desk and sent the posters of Grace through the air. Lila crashed to the floor and gasped for breath.
A shot crackled in the hall.
Please, don't let me die. Her left side felt like she was being burned alive. As her eyes sagged closed, her mind fogged. She retreated to an ice floe, roiling and bobbing in a dark, distant territory.CHAPTER 2
When Lila woke, her world was a thick, furry gray. She couldn't tell how long she rode up and down on a seesaw of awareness, but eventually she rose toward the light and opened her eyes to slits. Her eyelids felt as if a pebble had been tied to each lash. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't will away the grogginess.
On her back, she couldn't move because her right arm was strapped down, and a needle connected to an intravenous tube was stuck into the back of her right hand and taped to her skin. Her left arm was in a plaster cast, and something pressed on her chest. When she shifted her shoulder's position just half an inch, adhesive tape tugged her skin.
She glanced around at bare white walls and a blank TV screen. Through the mini-blinds, the fading sun shone in soft stripes across her blanket. A curtain was drawn, like a partial cocoon, around one side and the foot of her bed. She heard rubber soles squeak softly on linoleum, and she smelled bleach and bruised flower petals.
What happened? How did I get here? Suddenly, she remembered getting shot. Shot, for God's sake. Shot! One minute she'd been sitting at her desk, and the next, she was sprawled on the floor about to die in a pool of her own blood.
But she wasn't dead. She was in a hospital. She was alive.
Still, maybe she could die or be permanently disfigured.
As Lila cringed, her pain medication jumped in and bound her brain with golden cords that restrained her fear. Her world faded again to gray and furry.
Excerpted from An Unexpected Grace by Kristin von Kreisler. Copyright © 2014 Kristin von Kreisler. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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