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t was a beautiful Georgia morning, as Deborah and Dave stepped outside the Cracker Barrel. The kind of morning that made you want to stretch as you looked around and up at that azure blue sky. The kind that made you think about skipping work and life’s trouble’s for a leisurely day at the pool or for packing a picnic. The temperatures were forecast to

reach the upper seventy’s, a “preview of Summer’s lazy, hazy days” the weatherman had said. They could sniff the scent of freshly mowed grass adrift on the breeze. The peaceful cooing of a dove as they had stopped at a red light added a slight note of melancholy to their moods.

It wasn’t far to the hospital from the restaurant where they had breakfasted and talked … only about fifteen minutes or so. Deborah found herself making small talk with Dave about the weather, traffic, and places they were passing in the area. But inwardly now, as they were about to reach their destination, her stomach felt like maybe that eating hadn’t been such a bright idea, after all. All that had happened over the last twenty four hours had been so shocking. Several things were swirling inside her mind now, and the hospital was now looming along with flashbacks of her time there. The parking lot looked crowded. Mark?

With the thought of him she could almost see him in her mind’s eye, again kissing Tessa at that Longhorn Steak House; then she could “hear” his voice at a fever pitch, taunting, ‘Where. Are. You? But her sharpest focus was centered like a sharpshooter’s on that red pickup truck. Not Mark. Not what she’d say to him. Not Dave. Not even her concern for Susan could override that target. Like flashes of lightning it kept appearing quickly. Like some kind of Consciousness Morse Code. There. Behind her that night. At the hotel. She recalled Tessas’s strange words, when she had asked her in the ladies room to get the pictures of it for her. “A stalker? Maybe.”

Dave would glance over at her as he was driving, responding to her when she spoke but he, too, was now preoccupied. What did Deb know? The way she had looked at him when

she said “ A demon in a red pickup truck thinks he can get away with this!” It worried him.

As they reached the hospital he said, “I’ll let you out at the main entrance. My parking space is around back. I don’t think it would do for him to see us together.”

‘Him’? she thought. ‘The man in the tr…?’ Oh! No, he was referring to Mark, of course. Deborah looked over and smiled to reassure him.

The sun streamed across his handsome face now as he pulled up to the main entrance and stopped the car. She couldn’t help but let her eyes rove up and down him. Not even a bit embarrassed when his eyes met hers, catching her giving him an approving once-over. She broke the flirtatious tension of the moment with a soft, feminine giggle. “I’m sorry, you just are an incredibly attractive man, Dave. And smart, And thoughtful.”

To her surprise, he actually blushed slightly, even as his smile broadened into a masculine laugh. Although he was gently shaking his head no at her, his countenance was lit with an excited glow. It was an expression that’s a rarity when seen on a man. His beautiful voice caught her attention. –He was saying, “thank you”, and he leaned across her to open her door. She was unbuckling her seatbelt when he caught hold under her chin and leaned in for a tender kiss. Not a lingering, nor passionate one, as if from a lover, but a tender, kind one that said, ‘I care – I care very much!’ And then he actually did whisper, “Be careful, baby.” To his delight, not only did she not pull back, she smiled and whispered back softly, “I will.”

And then she returned his gift to her. She placed her hand at his chin and reciprocated his kiss with a little bonus added. Her hand moved on around to the back of his neck steadying his head to hers as she pressed her lips to his with even more pressure than he’d used. He responded and it felt to her like she was drawing strength from him. An unintentional moan escaped her letting them both

know this was no longer just a spark of interest between two people with questions and needs. Desire flamed up from both their hearts. She now blushed and quickly pulled back from him to exit the car. She turned back. “I’ll talk to you later.” He nodded his head in the affirmative. His eyes never left her as she disappeared inside before he pulled away.

Deb stepped off the elevator onto the fourth floor. Mark wasn’t anywhere in sight. She proceeded directly to the nurses’ station and inquired about Susan’s condition. They said ‘Serious, but stable at the present time.’ She was allowed in because her name was on the doctor’s list of authorized safe visitors the patient could receive.

She tiptoed into the room. As she beheld Susan, whom she thought was sleeping, a tear escaped and trickled down her cheek. “Beautiful Susan”, she whispered. “My poor darling. It’s been awhile since we were together. I’m so sorry.” Yes, though it was heart-wrenching, she thought even now you look pretty, sweet lady. Although swollen and bruised, Susan’s tawny hair was swirled out on the pillow. Her form was that of a fine figured woman, almost model-like with the sheet draped over her. Suddenly it hit her. Oh, my goodness! You really remind me of Tessa. I’d worried before that Mark would fall for you. And yet he didn’t. Really, there is a resemblance, though. An amazing one. Is that why Mark kind of turned on you? You were not only my friend, but you reminded him of her? Then, she spotted a bite mark on Susan’s neck and her stomach did a flip. Deb’s hand flew back to her mouth to keep herself from sobbing out loud.

She took a seat beside her bed and then laid her hand on Susan’s, patting it gently. Softly speaking, she began. “I’m here honey. And don’t you worry. We’ll get him. He’ll never hurt you again. I promise you.”

Susan moaned and then opened her eyes. Squeezing Deb’s hand back, she spoke in a voice strained and weak, “You’re here. I prayed you’d come.” Deb leaned down closer to hear her. “It’s not me, Deb.” She strained to say it again. “Not me. He – that man – wants,” she swallowed hard, “– a ,,, Tessa. He kept calling me that name. Don’t tell. I–, he said, don’t tell. He’d kill me.” She began to squirm, aggitated. She was getting more upset as what had happened was coming back to her. She began trying to raise herself up. “I’ve got to get out. Run. Help me, God! Pleaseeeee!”

Deb hit the nurse’s button. Before she could say anything, the door swung open and several of them rushed in. Deb was asked to wait outside, but it was not really a request.

As she left the room she realized she’d gone weak. She couldn’t keep from gagging at what she had seen and heard. She leaned back against the wall with her eyes closed, feeling helpless. Almost immediately, she felt arms wrapping around her. Mark’s voice was saying. “Let it out, honey. Let it out. You saw her didn’t you?”

She leaned on Mark as he helped to get her seated in the nearby waiting room.

“Oh, Mark, I’m sick.”

“Yeah baby, I know. I know it’s hard. Look, I’m going to run and get you a coke to settle your stomach and something cool to wipe your face. I’ll be right back!”

And he was to her surprise. He took over with her now like he hadn’t tended her in the last … , she couldn’t remember how many years. He wiped

away her smeared makeup. Held the drink while she sipped. Patted her back. He seemed genuinely compassionate in the circumstances.

They both looked up at a nurse’s voice. “Excuse me. Mr and Mrs. Johnson?”

“Yes?” replied Mark.

“I was asked to tell you that Susan has been given medication and is resting comfortably again. She will sleep now for pretty much the remainder of the day. No more visitors will be allowed ’til tomorrow, or possibly the day after. Doctor’s orders. We’ll take good care of her. You two should get some rest yourselves. She’ll need you later on.”

Mark readily agreed. Deb really looked at him for the first time since leaving Susan, as if she were coming out of a daze. She realized he looked like he had been crying. He’d also lost some weight. She hadn’t noticed that in Florida. He’d looked so handsome with Tessa at Gregory’s. She was stunned at his countenance now. What is going on?

“Mark?” she began, alarmed. “Are you sick?”

Just then his phone rang. He glanced down at the number, rolled his eyes and said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

As he walked away, he spoke angrily into the phone a clipped “Yeah?”

Deb slipped out of her shoes quickly so he wouldn’t hear her and followed close enough behind that she could hear him arguing with the caller.

No! You Don’t Threaten Me!

“Look”, he spoke curtly, “you promised me that if I did what you said, NOBODY would get hurt. Now some goon that works for your organization almost killed my wife’s best friend!” He listened for a moment then all but hissed, “No! You don’t threaten me! You want info that only I can get for you? I’m telling you, YOU’D BETTER DO SOMETHING!” It was silent again on his end for a moment before he huffed out a burst of air that was pure frustration. “Fine! You do that! But you keep him away from my family. You got that?” A pause. “You’d better!” He stopped abruptly. Had the call ended? Deb ducked around an adjoining hallway’s entrance, hoping not to be seen by him. It worked. He passed by heading back up to where they had been.

Dave came out of a patient’s room in the hallway she was now in. She almost ran smack into him. He took her arm and steered her into the empty room next to them. He pulled her against him.

“Deb, what is it? What’s wrong? I thought you had left the hospital.”

“We’ve got trouble. Some kind of trouble!” she emphasized. Putting her shoes back on, suddenly the words from that old Tanya Tucker song were running strongly through her mind. She spoke them out to Dave now. “Trouble in my heart. Trouble on my mind. It’s never any trouble for me to find: some kind of trouble.”

He looked alarmed. “Wait– What?”

Deb ignored his alarm. “Dave? Look out there. Do you see Mark?”

Dave looked her over, quickly sizing her up. He decided this was no time to quibble about details. Her makeup was off. She’d been crying and was speaking breathlessly. He clasped her hands in his. “Calm down, baby, it’ll be alright. You stay in here; give me a couple of minutes.”

He stepped out and checked the hallway and waiting rooms on the floor. He came back in a few minutes and told her, “He must have taken the elevator down.

The waiting rooms are empty. I didn’t see him anywhere.”

She breathed out a sigh of relief and reached for the door.

Dave stopped her, turning her to face him. “Deb?What kind of trouble? Did he do something to you?”

“Dave. Mark’s in some kind of trouble. The woman he loves is in trouble. And you? Because you’re now involved with me? You’re in trouble.”

Dave kind of laughed.

She rolled her eyes and made a face at him. “This isn’t funny.”

But then she began to break into a little laugh with him. “This is crazy. Why are we laughing, David? Really! This is really serious. Deadly serious.”

To which he responded, “Honey, if we don’t laugh when we get to pivotal points in life like this? Well, those who don’t, usually don’t make it!”

As she considered that, absently nodding her head in acquiescence, he winked at her. “Baby. You and me? We’re gonna make it!” He became serious again. “Does, uh, this ‘trouble’ have to do with that red pickup truck?”

She looked deeply into his eyes before answering. “Yeah. That. And evidently a whole lot more that I don’t know. Yet.”

“Why was I afraid you were going to say that?” He opened the door.

To Be Continued.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

I think my favorite part of reading Christian fiction in the suspense, mystery, or thriller category is that the characters who are really struggling with their beliefs and how circumstances compel them to focus on their relationship with Christ. As they face these terrifying events, often the themes help us to grow in our own walk with the LORD and encourages us to dig deeper into our Bible training.

What do you think about the situations challenging Deb, Mark, Tessa and Susan in Romantic Heartbeats? Does it relate to things you struggle with?

I’d love to hear all of our readers’ comments on the story so far:

Please drop your reactions in the Comment Box below or email me a line at betty@beautywomantowoman.com.

OH AND DO ENJOY THE GAME ON THE CELEBRITY PAGE THIS ISSUE. IT’LL BE A BLAST! Have Fun!

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