About the Author
LAURALEE BLISS has always liked to dream big dreams. Part of that dream was writing, and after several years of hard work, her dream of publishing was realized in 1997 with the publication of her first romance novel, Mountaintop, through Barbour Publishing. Since then she’s had twenty books published, both historical and contemporary. Lauralee is also an avid hiker, completing the entire length of the Appalachian Trail both north and south. Lauralee makes her home in Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her family. Visit her website at www.lauraleebliss.com and find her on Twitter and Facebook Readers of Author Lauralee Bliss.
Read an Excerpt
Behind the Mask
By Lauralee Bliss
Truly YoursCopyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Gail Shelton despised airline travel. Although she never confessed her fear to anyone, her stomach would twist into painful knots, and a solid lump would form in her throat the moment she boarded an aircraft. Today was no exception. As she walked unsteadily down the passenger tunnel linking the aircraft to the terminal building, she clutched her stomach and swallowed the bile that rose in her throat.
The plane had encountered severe turbulence during its descent through a bank of puffy claouds into Logan Inter-national Airport, Boston's thriving air transportation center. Knowing her propensity for air sickness, Gail had pawed through the magazines stuffed inside the pocket of the seat in front of her, searching for the motion sickness bag. She had wanted to keep it close at hand. Next to her had sat an elderly woman, a pair of crochet needles clicking between her fingers, who conversed nonstop about her grandchildren. Beneath the tangle of yarn and needles emerged the beginnings of a blue baby sweater for a new arrival, or so the lady informed her. Gail's mind had buzzed with the woman's incessant chattering until, in desperation, she pulled out an airline magazine and pretended to read the boring articles. The woman had peered over Gail's shoulder at the article on summer gardening, and immediately launched into a diatribe on the varieties of flowers and vegetables she raised. Gail had sensed her irritation rising to the brink of an explosion. She forced down a sharp reply and continued reading.
After the normal flight time had elapsed, the captain warned his passengers of imminent turbulence as the plane approached Logan. As her seat shook, Gail imagined the plane taking a nose dive into the frothy waves of the Atlantic Ocean, near Boston Harbor. Clutching the armrest in one hand and the motion sickness bag in the other, she wondered if the seats really would serve as flotation devices. Some-where she had once read that the chance of surviving a crash would be greater if the passenger's seat was located in the tail section of the plane. Aware that her seat was near the nose of the plane, fear formed a hard lump in her stomach. She closed her eyes and began to pray.
At last Gail had felt the plane touch down on the runway. Her stomach had lurched into her throat, then settled into its place. The plane cruised around the maze of runways to finally rest at the gate where she hoped her sister and brother-in-law would be waiting.
Now, as Gail walked briskly down the carpeted passenger causeway, thankful to be done with the dreadful flight, her foot suddenly twisted beneath her. Passengers bumped into her from behind, uttering quick apologies, as Gail looked down to find the heel of her pump resting on the floor. "Great," she muttered, grabbing up the broken heel in disgust. "If anything else goes wrong today, I'm going to tell Dorrie to drive me back to New York and save the visit for some other time."
Hefting her purse and her carry-on, Gail hobbled down to the gate, where cushioned chairs were aligned in rows. Passengers sat reading newspapers or books while waiting for the next flight. Gail scanned the countless faces before her, but recognized none of them. "I'll bet Dorrie forgot I was coming today," she grumbled, limping along on one high heel.
Finally, she heard a voice shout her name, and strong arms grabbed her up in a hefty embrace. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you!" Dorrie cried, whirling Gail around with the force of her affection.
Gail politely wiggled her way out of the embrace. "Look, it's been a long day, Dorrie."
"C'mon, let's go get your luggage then." Dorrie noticed the pointed object in Gail's hand. "What's that?"
"It used to be part of my shoe," she grumbled, showing her older sister the mismatched shoes and the gaping hole where the heel had once been nailed. "This trip hasn't gone right since the moment I left. Some old lady sitting next to me talked the entire time. Then the plane tossed around so much, I almost threw up the bag of peanuts they gave us as a snack."
Dorrie tugged on Gail's left hand. "C'mon, forget your miseries and show me the rock."
"The rock? Oh, you mean my ring."
"Yes, your ring. We aren't going to baggage claim until I see it."
Gail sheepishly brought forth her hand, only to scowl at the chipped nail on her forefinger, a victim of the storage bin that had contained her carry-on. The huge diamond glittered in the lights of the terminal.
Dorrie whistled. "Whooo-eee, now that's some rock! It's at least two carats—maybe ten, by the size of the thing. Is this guy of yours loaded or what?"
"Keith is a very hard worker," Gail quickly answered, withdrawing her hand from her sister's view. "He makes good money repairing computers, now that he's no longer a waiter."
"I'll say he does. Wow! Well, c'mon, Mick's supposed to meet us at the baggage claim after he parks the car."
"Did you bring Jamie?"
Dorrie shot her a grin. "Well, since he is a bit young at ten months to care for himself, I decided to bring him along for the ride."
Gail frowned as she followed her sister through the hordes of people headed for the baggage area. "There you go making fun of me already, and I've only been here ten minutes."
Dorrie hooked her arm through Gail's and gave a squeeze. "I'm not trying to poke fun at you; I was only making a joke. Don't be so serious."
Gail exhaled an exasperated sigh. "If you'd had the kind of day I've had, you'd be serious, too."
"Well, you're here safe and sound, and your nephew can't wait to see his favorite aunt. Plus, I'm dying to hear all the wedding plans. I'm still the matron of honor, right?"
Gail held her carry-on bag up before Dorrie. "I have all the information tucked right in here. Ask me when we get out of this stuffy airport and to a place where I can freshen up. I must look like a wreck." She sniffed her clothing, scrunching up her nose at the odor of plane exhaust. "I've got to change my clothes and put on some perfume after the stench of that airplane."
Dorrie laughed. "Same ol' Gail," she said before adding quickly, "but I wouldn't want you any other way. You did my makeup on my wedding day and taught me everything I needed to know about etiquette. I suppose Mother appreciated the fact that Mick and I finally agreed to have the marriage ceremony inside a church."
"If we had settled on your version of a wedding, the ceremony would've taken place in some backwoods camping area with mosquitoes and flies all over the wedding cake. A church is where people are supposed to get married."
"And we had a great time. I'll never forget it as long as I live."
Gail cast her sister a sideways glance. "I'll bet you won't forget when I tried to catch your bouquet and collided instead with the punch bowl."
Dorrie shrugged as a broad smile crossed her lean features. "Hey, what's a wedding without a few bumbles? You were the star of the show, Gail."
"And so was my yellow bridesmaid's gown with red polka dots, as I remember."
Dorrie laughed merrily.
"But if I hadn't crashed into the punch bowl, I wouldn't have met Keith."
Dorrie paused at that moment to clutch her throat, extend her hand, and act out in distress, "Oh, this is simply dreadful! Look at my lemon yellow gown! I look worse than a child with chicken pox! Please, dearest waiter, would you help me? Oh, you are the most wonderful man!"
Gail couldn't help but smile. "He was wonderful—my hero of the night. He helped me to my feet and found a mop to clean up the spill. I'm so glad he doesn't do that job for a living anymore. This computer business is certainly much better."
"I'll say, judging from the size of the rock you're wearing. Well, here we are—baggage claim."
The shrill of a baby in distress halted their conversation. Without a word, Dorrie took off through the crowd, leaving a bewildered Gail to search the sea of faces for her sister. Finally, she noticed the tall form of Dorrie's husband, Mick, standing next to a stroller; he was trying in vain to comfort the screeching ten-month-old. "He sure has a set of lungs on him," Mick was saying as he surrendered the fussy infant into Dorrie's care. "Must come from your side of the family."
"Hey, I don't even know where I'm going and you leave me in the middle of a crowd!" Gail interrupted as she stumbled up, tucking loose strands of curly hair behind her ear.
"Sorry, but this noisy baby needed his mother," Dorrie said, cradling the infant who began sucking on his fist. "Just follow the shrieks and you'll always find Jamie Walters."
"Good to see you again, Gail," Mick said congenially, holding out his hand.
"You can at least give me a hug." Gail approached him with her arms outstretched. "We're related now. And if it weren't for me, you two would have never met."
"Well, you're right about that," he admitted as they embraced.
"Mick, why don't you help Gail find her luggage on the carousel over there while I entertain junior," Dorrie suggested.
"You can't miss my bags," Gail added. "They have big red roses on them. I hope they arrived safely, though. I don't trust these airline carriers one bit. That's why I pack an extra outfit and all my cosmetics in my carry-on, just to be on the safe side."
Gail followed Mick as he skillfully negotiated a path through the crowd. They reached the conveyor belt that was carrying passengers' luggage around a large loop. While waiting for her bags to arrive, Gail studied the profile of Mick Walters. She decided he hadn't changed much since the time they all met in New Hampshire almost three years earlier, while Dorrie and Gail were vacationing in the White Mountains. He still possessed a brawny, muscular frame and honey-blond hair that swept across his forehead. And those fantastic blue eyes. Gail had tried in vain to make Mick her own during that time, but it was plain to see that Mick had fallen head over heels in love with Dorrie. Dorrie and Mick were a perfect match, sharing a mutual interest in the great outdoors that Gail despised with a passion.
Watching Mick as he scanned the conveyor belt for her flower-adorned bags, she decided that while Mick possessed some interesting traits, she felt fortunate to be engaged to the man of her dreams. Both men were similar in stature, but Keith possessed straight dark-brown hair and chocolate-colored eyes that would stare tenderly into her own. At times, he also wore wire-rimmed glasses that gave him a serious appearance. Gail had fallen in love with him the moment he had gallantly arrived on the scene in his crisp white shirt, black vest, and bow tie of a waiter—ready to help her up from the floor after the mishap with the punch bowl during Dorrie and Mick's wedding. At the conclusion of the reception, held near her aunt's home in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, Gail found herself in Keith's company while he cleaned tables. They had made small talk about the evening, after which they agreed to swap phone numbers. To her delight, she discovered that Keith lived with his parents only a short distance from her aunt's home. Several months later, they were reacquainted when Gail returned to visit her aunt. During her stay, Keith invited her out to dinner. On a verandah decorated with ferns and white lights, they sampled a light fare of grilled tuna on a bed of rice pilaf, while sharing with each other their hopes and dreams.
"And you're a part of my dreams now," Keith had told her as the lights in the ferns reflected in his dark eyes. "That's why I've come to a decision. I'm going to look for work down in Westchester County."
"You mean near me? Oh, Keith, that's fantastic!"
"It's about time I got away from here and made a new life for myself." His hand found hers. "And I want you in my life."
After Keith landed a computer repair job, they saw each other almost daily. One thing led to another, until six months later when Keith presented her with the diamond that now decorated her left hand.
"Hey, I said is this yours?" A flowered bag hovered in midair before her eyes, next to Mick's puzzled face.
"Oh, uh ... yes," Gail answered, checking the name tag.
"A lot on your mind?"
"Just remember how it was when you and Dorrie were engaged."
"Okay, I get the message." Mick hefted up the two bags. "We're looking forward to hearing all about the wedding plans. I know you did a good job organizing ours. If there's anything Dorrie and I can do to make life easier, let us know."
"Thanks." Gail smiled, remembering the day she called to share the news of her engagement with her older sister. Dorrie was ecstatic that Gail had finally abandoned her numerous relationships to settle down with one special guy. The exclamation of approval over the telephone had ricocheted across the room, prompting smiles by both their mother and father, who had welcomed the announcement with hugs and tears of acceptance.
"Oh, how I prayed you would find a special man," Dorrie wrote Gail later in the month. "Our Bible group prays all the time for family members, and you've been on our prayer chain."
Gail read the remark in the letter without the caustic reaction she normally experienced whenever Dorrie espoused her Christianity. Lately, Gail had been thinking about Dorrie and her walk with God. Seeing how Dorrie and Mick led a happy and fulfilled marriage, Gail desperately wanted her own marriage to pulsate with the same joy.
Now she followed the little family out of the terminal building. Mick carried Gail's bags while Dorrie wheeled the stroller with baby Jamie nestled inside. Gail imagined herself walking side by side with Keith, rolling her own baby carriage along with a new little person cuddled beneath a blanket. The wee face and large eyes would peer out to acknowledge the awesome world revolving around him. Tingles of apprehension shot through her at the idea of caring for a little baby. No doubt Dorrie will make sure I know all about infant care before this visit ends, she thought.
Once the bags were placed in the trunk and the baby was fastened into his infant car seat, they sped off into the nightmare of tangled traffic that plagued Boston. As Gail watched the buildings of the city shrink in the distance, she recalled a trip that Keith and she had taken to New York City. Amid the tall skyscrapers and the frantic pace of city life, he treated her to dinner and a Broadway play. The lights and music of the play dazzled Gail, but nothing warmed her heart more than when Keith reached for her hand and clasped it in his for most of the production. His touch reached into the depths of her heart, stirring up a wave of love like no one else ever had. Gail certainly had had her share of relationships in the past, but this was different. She knew deep down inside that this was the man she wanted in her life. Not long after the special outing, Keith proposed to her with a similar eagerness for a lifelong relationship.
"I said, how are Mother and Dad?" Dorrie repeated as Gail gazed dreamily out the car window.
"I told you she's a little hard of hearing," Mick said. "I waited five minutes with the baggage before she knew what was going on."
"Oh, love does that to you," Dorrie added. "I remember that after we got engaged, I never heard my boss at the office. He finally got so irritated with me, he broke down and bought a dictation device so he wouldn't have to repeat himself anymore." She turned and yelled to Gail, "So how are Mother and Dad?"
Gail cast her an irritated look. "You don't have to scream, Dorrie. I'm sitting right behind you. I can hear everything."
Dorrie shook her head. "Honey, you ain't hearin' nuthin'. You've got the disease, don't you know? It's that long-lost look of love that comes over us women when we've hooked a man. But to be honest, I think he's the one who's got you-hook, line, and sinker."
Gail twirled the diamond ring around her finger, watching the stone reflect delicately colored patterns as the sunbeams streamed through the car window. For once, she agreed with her sister's observation.
"So I'll ask again, how are Mother and Dad?"
"They're doing fine. Mother's worried about the wedding, of course. When I get back from this trip, we'll go shopping for the dress. Dad takes it all in stride."
"He always does," Dorrie agreed. "He's very level-headed."
"Of course. You're the spitting image of Dad and I'm more like Mother."
Dorrie nodded in agreement. "I can't argue with that. For some reason, Mother could always relate to you."
"And Dad always stuck up for you," Gail hastily answered. When they were younger, Gail often flaunted her relationship with their mother before her older sister. Secretly, she was glad Mother favored her, for Dorrie delved into life with a certain vitality that sparked jealousy within Gail. Now that she sat poised to seal a lifetime commitment with the man she loved, past parental relationships and jealous emotions seemed moot points by comparison.
"Look, I don't think it matters," Dorrie said in a soft voice, echoing Gail's sentiment. "As far as I'm concerned, those years have passed. Now it's on to bigger and better things in both our lives."
Excerpted from Behind the Mask by Lauralee Bliss. Copyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Truly Yours.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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