Title: Raising the Stakes by Karen Rock
Publisher: Harlequin Heartwarming
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Length: 196 pages
Hiding from the world…
Tucking herself away in the Adirondack woods was supposed to keep Vivienne Harris safe. From dark memories of the Bronx, from danger, from entanglements. But when an orphaned bear cub raids her pantry and conservation officer Liam Walsh appears with news of poachers nearby, her private, peaceful world is turned upside down!
Suddenly two forces are drawing her out—Button, the cub who needs her help, and Liam, the man who’s dead set against her rehabilitating the bear. If she can just win Liam’s support, Vivie knows she can give Button a good life. And maybe find the courage to embrace a future with Liam…
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Liam kissed his mother’s damp cheek and eased his guitar from her grip. Her clear-eyed happiness soothed the deep burning inside. Vivie had a point. His music did make a difference. If it made his mother feel better, smoothed over this bump in the reception, then it was worth reliving the past. And maybe the past was something he needed to face, as Vivie had last night.
When he and Vivie approached the band area there was brief applause followed by an attentive hush.
He plucked two notes and felt the audience lean toward them. He touched a string and began to tune the instrument. It was not the finest guitar. He hadn’t been able to afford a better one at the time. Its neck was nicked. One of the pegs was loose and prone to going out of tune, he recalled.
He brushed a soft chord and tipped his ear to the strings. As he glanced up, he glimpsed Vivie’s face, clear as the moon. She smiled excitedly and the soft light in her eyes made his heart squeeze.
He touched the loose peg gently, running his hands over the warm wood. The varnish was scraped and scuffed in places, but that didn’t make it less precious to him.
So, yes. It had flaws, but what did that matter when it came to things you treasured? Vivie had called herself damaged goods and he could say the same about himself. Yet, did that mean they couldn’t be loved…find love…together?
Anyone could love someone perfect. Whole. That was easy. But to love someone scarred. Wounded. To know the flaws and love them too. That was rare and pure and perfect. Could he and Vivie share that?
He adjusted another string and pictured his old bunkmate, Roger, asking him for some Bon Jovi, Pete wanting more Journey. How both of them, and the rest of his unit, had sung along or closed their eyes, remembered better times. He had brought them peace at the end and the thought soothed a jagged part of him that had scraped his heart raw.
At last, he moved a finger and the chord went minor in a way that sounded a bit sad. He moved his hands again and this time two chords sang with each other. Then, without a plan, he began to play.
The strings felt foreign to his fingers, like old friends meeting up again. He played soft and slow, sending notes to the edge of the circle gathered around them. Fingers and strings worked together carefully, as if this tender bond might be broken at any moment.
Then he felt something inside him open and music poured into the quiet. His fingers danced, intricate and quick. The music moved like a maple key spinning to the forest floor, dandelion fluff floating on a summer breeze. It felt as if it carried his time in Kunar with it, along with the anguished waiting, the heart-stopping fear, the despair that he’d never make it out.
At last, he slipped into a familiar tune, a love song Mary Ann had played endlessly when they’d grown up. Her eyes smiled at him and Vivie joined him in a duet. Her voice was honey-smooth, a light soprano that complemented his baritone perfectly. They sang as though they’d done so together forever, each one taking turns weaving harmonic lines, supporting the melody and sometimes carrying it for the other. The moment was the sharpest, sweetest, he’d ever known.
He felt the heat of her beside him. Breathed in the summer rain and meadow-flower scent of her. Listened to the tender fluttering of her voice. It was beautiful. His eyes kept returning to her as she sat on a stool, arms hugging her knees.
At last the song ended, the final chord ringing in the silence, and after a bit, it slowly began to dawn on Liam that he’d been staring at Vivie for an awkward amount of time. But she didn’t seem offended or amused. She studied his face, as if she was waiting.
He wanted to take her somewhere private. Brush her cheek with his fingertips. Tell her that she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. That the sight of her was enough to drive the breath from him. How sometimes he missed out on what she said for the soft lilt of her voice. He wanted to say that if she were with him then nothing could ever be wrong in his world again.
In that moment, he considered asking her to come with him to Yellowstone. He felt the question boiling up in his chest. He drew in air, then hesitated. What could he say? Come with me? Leave your work, your friends, home, everything you know and love?
Sudden certainty tightened in his chest. He couldn’t promise her anything. He closed his mouth and smiled instead at the applauding crowd and his beaming mother.
Whatever he said couldn’t guarantee her permanence or stability, and after all she’d been through she deserved at least that.
Karen Rock is an award-winning YA and adult contemporary romance author. She holds a master’s degree in English and worked as an ELA instructor before becoming a full-time writer. Currently she writes for Harlequin Heartwarming and has published five novels with them. Her first novel for the line, WISH ME TOMORROW, has won the 2014 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, the 2014 Golden Quill Contest and was a finalist in the Published Maggie Awards. The first novel in her co-authored YA series, CAMP BOYFRIEND, has been a finalist in the Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards.