Excerpt: Shadows of the Soul

What do you do when you discover that your imaginary friend is real?

Don’t be silly.” Beth said. They started down the road, the trees above shading them from the sun. “It leads to the Reilly’s farm. Then it becomes a path and the fields are behind them, about a 1/4 of a mile along. Old man Reilly planted them years and years ago when he first settled in Iowa.”

“Doesn’t he mind you pilfering his strawberries?” Luke asked.

“He died before I was born and they started growing wild. It seemed like such a waste, so a few years back I offered to tend to them if Mrs. Reilly allowed me to pick some.”

“When they’re ripe, of course.” The sensual tone of his voice made her color up. Was there a double meaning in his words?

“To get the best jam-set you need some semi-ripe fruit, but yes, you mainly want berries at their ripest.”

He gazed down at her, his black eyes suddenly warmly admiring. “And their sweetest.”

Yes, oh yes there was a double meaning and it set her heart to fluttering. She halted, struggling to catch her breath. Goodness, she thought as he stopped too and raised his eyebrows. A smile played across his chiseled lips—lips whispering in her ear words that she oughtn’t to even think about, especially in daylight. Oh, but he hadn’t actually said anything and she was hopelessly, hopelessly, scatterbrained.

“Something wrong?” His eyes were so hot now that they glowed. With desire. For her. But surely not for a woman with only half a working brain?

“I’m—I’m having a hard time breathing. It must be the heat.” But not from the sun. . . .

He stepped forward and reached for her hand. The brush of his long, calloused fingers sent tingling thrills rushing over her skin. “Would you care to sit down? Allow me to—”

“NO!” She snatched her hand away. Rude, rude. “I mean, I’m fine. Really.”

He peered at her for a moment before nodding. They started walking, while Beth tried to force her brain to work again. Again? Oh, but for the first time, really! What had they been talking about, anyhow, before the berries? Reputations? Yes, reputations, a very dull, very safe, subject. “And so,” she began shakily, “how can a bad reputation be easier than a good one?”

He shrugged. “With a good reputation, you must always be on your guard lest you say or do something to damage it. With a bad one, it doesn’t matter. Everyone assumes the worst. It is, to be sure, remarkably liberating.”

Yes, this was better. Much better. The little thrills racing through her body slowed as she turned his words over. He was right in a perverse kind of way. After all, her reputation for being a-little-bit-mad gave her the chance to do slightly crazy things—like not wearing a cap on a sunny day—without fear of reprisal. On the other hand, she’d lived many years with the frustration of never being taken seriously. She sighed. “Not entirely free. Good people shun those with bad reputations.”

“Good people,” he said, with a small rusty laugh, “are highly overrated. Trust me, the bad ones are a deal more entertaining.”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Lucas Devlin, you are a rascal, and I’ll not ask you what you mean by entertaining.”

“Why? Are you afraid it’s true? Have you never done something wicked that you enjoyed?”

“Wicked? No. Bad, though. . .” She remembered stealing cookies from the jar as a child, and pies from windows, and listening to Judith’s tales of debauchery as they hid among the bales of hay in the haymow. Was that wicked? Maybe, but she’d never regretted it. “God forgives us our sins if we ask. And you? What have you ever done to blacken your reputation?”

As he stared ahead, she watched him. A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth and, oddly enough, something akin to satisfaction settled in the lines around his eyes. “Forgive me, Beth, but I doubt your gently-bred ears—”

Abruptly, his expression changed to alarm. He focused on something by the side of the road. “What the devil?” he hissed. Before she could follow his gaze, he whirled around to stand in front of her, dropping the basket in the process. His large body blocked her view—incompletely. Behind him, she saw a human arm lying white against a background of old, brown leaves.