August 2017 Book Excerpt

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As a little treat this month, I'm sharing the first chapter of my new Love Inspired Romance, along with your favorite ice cream. Dig in.

Jean      

eBook Release Today!

A Father's Promise 

Rhys Maddox wants nothing more than custody of his two sons. Released from prison after a wrongful charge, the widowed dad will do anything to bring his boys home where they belong. But that doesn't include falling for their former social worker. Now leading an outreach program for families in transition, Renee Delacroix can't escape the tall, dark and intriguing single dad…or his adorable little boys. But Rhys is determined to go it alone. Until one incident that may cost him what he wants the most. Now it's up to Renee to save him…if she can make him see she's just what he needs to complete their forever family.

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Chapter One Excerpt

Rhys Maddox looked across the small room at his broken dream. The dream he’d shattered. His boys stood in the doorway with a woman who wasn’t their mother. Owen was a miniature copy of himself. Dylan had so many of his mother’s features, it made his heart bleed.

“Mr. Maddox?”

He looked at Renee Delacroix, the Essex County Child Protective Services’ worker he’d been sitting with.

“This is Suzanne Hill, Owen and Dylan’s foster mother,” she said.

Rhys strangled the shudder that began when the word foster formed on Ms. Delacroix’s lips. Those memories were behind him and would be behind his boys soon, too. He stood and offered the woman his hand, glad for the opportunity to break away from Ms. Delacroix’s scrutiny and the knowledge that she stood between him and his sons.

“Mrs. Hill,” he said, warmed by her wholesome freshness, a contrast to Ms. Delacroix’s glacial beauty. “It’s good to meet you in person.”

“Suzi, please,” she said, smiling.

“Suzi, then.”

Today’s half hour with the Child Services’ worker was his second meeting with Ms. Delacroix since he’d come to Paradox Lake to claim his sons. Yet they were still Mr. Maddox and Ms. Delacroix.

He released Suzi’s hand. “May I?” he asked, glancing from Dylan to Owen, uncertain what he was asking for.

Suzi looked over his shoulder toward the table where he’d been sitting.

Ms. Delacroix must have given the okay.

He ruffled nine-year-old Owen’s hair. “How’s it going, buddy?”

They’d both grown since he’d seen them this spring at their mother’s funeral. His gut . He’d missed so much the past five years.

Owen threw his arms around Rhys, almost knocking him over in excitement.

“Daddy, I’m so glad you’re home. You’re not going to have to go back again like you did after Mommy’s…” The rest of Owen’s words were muffled against Rhys’s chest.

He rested his head on his older son’s. “No.” Never.

No way was he going to let anything get between him and his responsibility to his family again. He set Owen back and looked into his face. “I’m so proud of you, helping your mom and taking care of Dylan for me. Mrs. Hill sent me your soccer game pictures and one of your winning Pinewood Derby car. And I kept all of the Bible verses that you and Dylan memorized in Sunday school and wrote out for me.”

“Coach Josh helped me with the car. I painted it like your old Charger. This year, you and me can make one and win first prize instead of second.”

Rhys’s throat clogged. “Sure thing.” He lifted his hands from Owen’s shoulders and squatted in front of his younger son. “How about you, Dylan? Want to go get some ice cream with Daddy?”

“No.” The six-and-a-half-year-old shook his head emphatically. “You’re a bad man. My friend Tyler said so. His mommy told him.”

Dylan’s words hit him harder than Owen’s near tackle. Dylan had been only a toddler when Rhys had been sent to Dannemora Correctional Facility for his part as the getaway driver in a bank robbery. The little guy didn’t remember the four of them as a family, the home they’d had in Albany. But Gwen had brought both of the boys to Dannemora to see him as often as she could manage.

“Dylan. This is Daddy. It’ll be fun.” Owen jumped to his defense, filling Rhys with regret for all of the times his older son and Gwen had had to cover for him because he hadn’t been there, due to his pride, bad choices and plain stupidity.

“No, I don’t have to go. Ms. Delacroix said so. Right, Mrs. Hill?”

Rhys followed Dylan’s gaze from him to Suzi and caught her look of pity before she hid it. He stood and spun around, glaring at Renee Delacroix. She looked barely old enough to be out of college. She was an intern, and she had the authority to keep his son from him? He fisted his hands.

Ms. Delacroix avoided his glare and fixed her gaze on his fists. “Dylan expressed some reluctance to go with you today. I assured him that he didn’t have to if he didn’t feel secure.”

Security was one of the many things he’d failed to provide his family. His anger seeped out, combating his rigid stance.

“Transitioning can be more difficult for some children,” she said.

Transitioning? Rhys worked his jaw. He was Dylan’s father. He wanted to take his sons for a soft-serve ice-cream cone, with supervision, of course. The plan had been for Mrs. Hill to take the boys and meet him at the ice-cream stand on Paradox Lake, near her home and the house he’d rented.

Ms. Delacroix pushed away from the table and walked over to stand next to Rhys, facing Dylan. A faint aroma, sweet and floral, tickled his senses. Was it her shampoo? He eyed her black hair pulled back in some kind of fancy braid with a few wispy curls escaping around her face. He knew she couldn’t be as young as she looked. When she’d introduced herself, she’d said she was a graduate student interning with the county. She’d mentioned mission work she’d done with children in Haiti before coming to work in Social Services.

“Dylan, if I go with your daddy to get ice cream, do you want to come or do you want to stay with Mrs. Hill?” Ms. Delacroix asked.

While he waited for his son to answer, Rhys followed one of her curls along the curve of her cheek. He curled his lip against the bitter tang in his mouth. What had gotten into him, besides having been incarcerated with 2,500 men for the past five years? He was here for Dylan and Owen, to make them a family again. Not to be distracted by and wonder about Renee Delacroix.

Dylan wrapped his arms around his foster mother’s leg. “I want to go home with Mrs. Hill.”

Home. With a woman Dylan had only known for a matter of months. This wasn’t the dream that had kept him going since Gwen’s death, while he was waiting for his appeal and release.

“I want to go with you, Dad.” Owen’s voice pulled him from the dark place he was headed.

“You still can,” Ms. Delacroix said. “I can come and drive you back to the Hills’ house afterward.”

“Would that be all right with you, Dad?”

“More than all right.” He’d take whatever he could get when it came to spending time with his sons.

Rhys nodded to Ms. Delacroix. “I know it’s part of your job, but thanks for going out of your way.” He scuffed the toe of his work boot on the floor. The drive from Elizabethtown, where the Social Services’ office was located, to Paradox Lake and back would take her more than an hour. “I mean, having to take Owen home afterward and coming back here.”

“It’s no problem.” A true smile spread across her face, the first the all-business lady had given him. “I live near Paradox Lake. You can wait here with Mrs. Hill while I go back to my office and wrap things up so we can go.”

“Sure.” He’d been waiting five years to be with his boys. What were a few more minutes?

* * *

“Go ahead and sit.” Renee’s hand accidentally brushed Rhys Maddox’s biceps as she motioned toward a couch and chairs near the table. The rock-hard resistance unsettled her. She rushed out into the hall. Let him think I’m hurrying to get back for the visitation, not to get away from him.

Maybe she was too much of a newbie at this work but everything about Rhys Maddox unsettled her—from his record and conviction, to his tall, dark, imposing stature, to his icy-blue eyes that had thawed only when he spoke to Owen and Dylan. Especially his eyes. They weren’t just cold. They were devoid of light.

Renee crossed her arms to counteract a shiver. She was authorized to oversee supervised visits and knew how overloaded the Maddox family’s caseworker was. It wasn’t as if she was to decide whether or not to place his children with him. But she hated taking on responsibilities she wasn’t sure she was qualified to handle, making decisions like the ones she’d had to make in Haiti because the mission had been so understaffed. A week from Monday—the start of her new job as a Building Bridges’ facilitator for the Christian Action Coalition—couldn’t come soon enough. There she’d be working primarily with kids in child care and after-school programs, helping them adjust to changed family situations—divorce, death of a parent, a parent marrying or .

Renee checked with the caseworker to see if she wanted to handle the visit herself. It was Rhys Maddox’s first visit. And receiving the "no" answer she’d She scanned her desk to make sure anything that should be secured in the file cabinets was tucked away and walked back to the visitation room.

Renee heard the rumble of Rhys’s voice as she approached the doorway, but couldn’t make out his words.

“Ready?” she asked as she stepped inside. Her cheery greeting bounced off the tense silence in the room. Owen sat next to his father, tapping his foot on the floor as if he couldn’t wait to go. Dylan had curled up on Suzi’s lap in a chair, his face buried in his foster mother’s shoulder. Their father was soldier-straight on the couch, his hands clamped on his thighs.

“I asked him how his reading was coming. Gwen…” Rhys paused to swallow. “My wife had told me how excited Dylan was about starting to recognize words, that it looked like he was going to be a reader like she was. She read everything.”

“Yeah,” Owen piped up. “Dylan’s really good at reading. I had some trouble with it at my old school, but Mrs. Bradshaw helped me last year.”

Rhys’s gaze flickered between his sons. He pinched his lower lip and released it as if he was going to say something. But he didn’t.

Renee filed a mental reminder to note in the records that, with his father gone, Owen may have adopted a protective, man-of-the-family stance with his mother and brother that he was extending to his father now. Rhys’s stony expression implied that could cause conflict between Rhys and Owen. Both her earlier interview with Rhys and talking with him today had given her the distinct impression that he was a man who would protect his own, who wouldn’t welcome outside assistance, maybe not even from his eldest son.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go for ice cream?” Suzi lifted Dylan and placed him on the floor between her legs. “I’ll come.”

The little boy shook his head. Suzi gave her and Rhys a look that said I tried.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Mrs. Hill. `Bye, Dylan,” Renee said.

“`Bye son.”

Rhys’s tone had no inflection, as if he were afraid the boy would detect any emotion as he spoke. Emotion that had far too much of an impact on Renee. Despite her training and all her work with disrupted families in Haiti, she still had a hard time comprehending a child wanting to shut out a parent or parent shutting out a child, even if there was a good reason. Her frame of reference always came back to her big, boisterous, loving family.

Dylan took Suzi’s hand. “`Bye,” he said, not looking at either her or Rhys.

Rhys cleared his throat. “Owen says there’s a stand on the lake that serves soft ice cream. He’d like to go there.”

“I know the one. My family and I go there all the time.”

Rhys rose and Owen hopped off the couch.

“Do you have kids, Ms. Delacroix?” Owen asked as she led them from the room toward the back door.

“No, but I have two brothers—one’s my twin—and three sisters, three nieces, a nephew and another niece or nephew on the way.”

“Wow! I have only Dylan…and my dad. But Mrs. Hill’s mother told me she would be my grandmother `cause I don’t have any grandmas or any grandpas.”

Rhys locked his jaw and pushed the door so it swung open hard, almost banging against the brick wall of the building. He held himself back until they were out and almost down the sidewalk before exiting.

“My dad doesn’t have any parents. He had parents, but he doesn’t know them. He had foster parents like the Hills. Lots of them.”

Renee nodded. That information had been in Rhys’s records.

“My mom’s parents don’t like us.”

Rhys caught up with them.

“But we don’t care about that, do we, Dad?”

From the fire in his father’s eyes, the man might care. She knew Gwen Maddox had been estranged from her parents. Renee’s brother-in-law, Connor Donnelly, pastor at the Hazardtown Community Church, had called Gwen’s parents to inform them of her death and funeral, and they’d practically hung up on him. When he’d said the boys were being placed in temporary foster care, their grandmother had started to say something but their grandfather had cut her off, telling Connor, “Foster care was good enough for their father. It’s good enough for them.”

“I’ve got you and Dylan.” Rhys wrapped his arm around his son and squeezed his shoulder. “What more could I want?”

“Mom.”

Rhys sucked in a breath. “Your mother.”

Owen looked over the parking lot. “Which car is yours, Dad?”

“I have a pickup. For work.”

At their earlier interview, he’d said he was looking for construction or electrical work but hadn’t found anything. Had Rhys heard something since then? He hadn’t said anything today.

“Mrs. Hill’s husband has a F-350 pickup with a supercab so Dylan’s booster seat fits and we can ride with Mr. Hill in the back seat. And he has a tow truck. That’s what he does, tows cars and fixes them.”

Owen’s words made Rhys wince. “Sounds like a man I should get to know.”

“Yeah, you’d like Mr. Hill,” Owen said. “Maybe you can be friends.”

Renee followed Rhys’s gaze across the parking lot to a compact pickup with faded red paint and a missing hubcap, and understood the meaning of his comment.

“Ms. Delacroix, Mrs. Hill said I had to ride with you, but couldn’t I go with my dad? I can show him where we’re going, or you can drive first and we’ll follow.”

“No, son,” Rhys answered for her. “We have to follow the rules, so we can all live together again. I’ll follow Ms. Delacroix.”

His words shouted control, which she read as another indication he’d do whatever he had to do to have his boys. Again, she was thankful she’d be done with her internship with Social Services soon, and that this would be the extent of her getting between him and his sons. It might be a flashback to her experience in Haiti, but Rhys Maddox struck her as a complex man—a man whom, despite the draw of his obvious love and devotion to his sons, she might not want to get on the wrong side of.

* * *

The truck didn’t start with his first two turns of the key and he could see Ms. Delacroix sitting in her car in the driving lane in front of him, chalking up more demerits against him. No job. No reliable transportation. No good for Owen and Dylan. He snorted a laugh. He’d been hearing the no-good part his whole life, from everyone but Gwen and the praise ministry and his Bible study group at Dannemora. He rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment before trying a third time. The engine rattled into action.

He’d get something better once he started working and could afford payments. He was trying to spend as little as possible of the money from Gwen’s life insurance policy through the school district where she’d worked. That money was for Owen and Dylan’s future. The first and last month’s rent and on the three-bedroom house he’d rented on Hazard Cove Road had taken a sizable chunk. The house was a financial stretch, but it reminded him of the house he and Gwen had had in Albany. Their home. Another casualty of his rash actions.

Ms. Delacroix tooted her car horn to signal she was taking off. He followed close behind for the thirty-mile trip to Paradox Lake and then to the opposite side of the lake from his rental house. She pulled into a rustic, old-fashioned, ice-cream stand. A red-and-white candy-striped awning shielded the order window from the hot midafternoon sun. Several picnic tables sported matching umbrellas.

Owen was out of Ms. Delacroix’s car and over to his truck almost before he’d shut it off—with the cooperation of the engine.

“Is vanilla still your favorite, Dad? Mine’s still chocolate. Can I have my cone dipped in chocolate, too?”

“Anything you want.” This time. He’d have to watch himself to avoid indulging the boys to make up for lost time. It was a recommendation Ms. Delacroix had made that he couldn’t argue with, even though he wanted to give them the best of everything.

He stepped up to the window. “We’ll have a large chocolate-dipped.”

Owen grinned at him, warming his heart in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time. Too long.

“A large vanilla-dipped and…” Rhys turned to Renee.

“You don’t have to pay for mine,” she said. “I’ll get my own.”

“No, I’m treating.”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I can’t accept. It’s a CPS rule. We can’t take gifts.” She placed her order.

Another rule. He fingered the bills in his hand. He could accept it. The past five years had made him a master at accepting rules.

“Hey, Dad,” Own said as they started toward an empty picnic table, “that’s my friend Alex and his dad. Can we sit with them?”

Rhys’s eyes followed Owen’s outstretched arm to a table where a dark-haired man and a boy about his son’s age sat eating burgers. He fought back a frown. This was supposed to be his time with his boys. Dylan had refused to come and now Owen wanted to be with his friend.

He took the easy out. “Ms. Delacroix?”

“It’s up to you.”

If it was up to him, he wouldn’t be here now at all. Owen and Dylan would both be living with him already.

Owen looked at him expectantly, with his mother’s eyes.

“Sure,” Rhys said.

Ms. Delacroix’s smile of approval lifted the gray mantle settling on him as much as Owen’s did.

He was pathetic, waiting for validation of everything he did.

Let go and let God. He’ll make everything right. Except Rhys’s faith was so new, he wasn’t sure he knew how to let go yet.

“Hey, Owen,” his friend Alex called.

“Hi,” Owen called back, tugging Rhys toward the table. “This is my dad,” he said as they approached the table.

Rhys’s insides went mushy at the pride in his son’s voice. He certainly hadn’t done much to make him proud in the past. But that was behind him. He wouldn’t let Owen or Dylan down again.

“Rhys Maddox.” He extended his hand over the table to Alex’s father.

“Neal Hazard.” He stood and shook hands. “Hi, Renee,” Neal said before sitting again. “Looks like you two are joining us.” He motioned to the bench beside him, where Owen was already seated next to Alex.

“Hi.” She stepped around Rhys to sit on the bench across from Neal.

Ms. Delacroix and Neal seemed friendly, even though Neal had to be ten or fifteen years older than her. Not that it mattered to him.

Rhys sat on the opposite end of the bench across from Owen.

“Just you and Alex today?” Renee glanced toward the stand.

“Yep. Anne and Sophia are having a girls’ day shopping for school clothes and Ian’s at soccer camp. I took the afternoon off so Alex wouldn’t have to go shopping with his mother and sister.”

“A fate worse than death, for sure,” Renee said.

Neal laughed in agreement, making Rhys wish he could pull off the easy manner Neal had with her.

“Maddox,” Neal said mid-laugh, as if he’d suddenly realized who Rhys was.

Rhys tensed, waiting for the other man to make the connection between him and the CPS worker.

“I should have put it together.”

Anger started to simmer in the pit of Rhys’s stomach. Hazard had better not say anything bad about him in front of Owen.

“You’re the guy who rented one of the old summer houses from my dad.”

Rhys squirmed on the bench. He wouldn’t be doing his boys any good if he was always on the defensive, expecting the worst from everyone.

“Yes, if your father is Ted Hazard.” Rhys could see a resemblance.

“Sure is. I don’t know why I didn’t think of Owen when Dad told me. We’re neighbors. Our house is right around the corner off Hazard Cove Road. Alex and Owen are almost inseparable. It’ll save us a lot of driving if they’re within walking distance of each other.”

Rhys looked at his son, who was in deep conversation with his friend. “Owen will like that. I hope to have him and Dylan with me soon.”

Neal nodded without asking for any further explanation.

He knows. Of course, he knows. Neal’s kid was Owen’s best friend.

Rhys’s stomach muscles clenched. Neal seemed to know Ms. Delacroix well enough to know she worked for the county CPS. And when he’d rented the house, Rhys had given Neal’s father full disclosure about his conviction and early release after new evidence had exonerated him of involvement in an earlier bank robbery—a robbery during which a bank guard had been shot. He wiped a drop of ice cream from his hand. How many other people knew of his background? What would that do to his job prospects? He didn’t want to move the boys. Not right away. Gwen had said Paradox Lake was a good place, and he didn’t want to disrupt Owen and Dylan’s lives any more than necessary.

“I’m going to get some water,” Renee said.

Rhys ran his tongue along the inside of dry lips. He could use one, too.

“Dad, can I get Coke?” Owen asked.

“Yes.” Rhys reached in his jeans’ pocket for his wallet. “And I’ll have a water, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” She took his money. “Do you want anything, Neal?”

“We’re good, but you’ll need some help carrying the drinks.”

“We’ll help.” Owen and Alex hopped off the bench.

“Good men,” Neal said before focusing his attention on Rhys. “Dad said you’re looking for work. You’re an electrician?”

“I did most of an apprenticeship with the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.” Rhys bit back the “before” he’d been about to add. There was no need to bring up his past. “Do you have a lead on a job?”

“I’m looking for someone. I’m an electrical contractor. We do mostly solar installations and other work for my wife’s company, GreenSpaces.”

GreenSpaces, a big, international corporation, was on his list of places to check out. Rhys eyed Neal questioningly.

“Yeah.” Neal laughed. “You look the same way I did when I first learned Anne was a bigwig corporate executive. She teaches engineering at North Country Community College, too.”

"Your wife owns GreenSpaces?"

Neal nodded. "Anne and her first husband started the company, and she inherited his stock to add to her own when he died."

Rhys shifted on the hard wooden bench. “I’m not licensed or part of a union or anything,” he said, wanting to be honest about his qualifications.

“The job I have is for a more general laborer, but your electrical knowledge is a plus. Interested?”

“I sure am.” He saw no reason to hide his enthusiasm.

Neal reached in his wallet and pulled out his business card. “Does eight o’clock tomorrow morning work for you for an interview?”

“Eight’s fine.”

Rhys fingered the card. His roller-coaster life was heading up again. He prayed that it stayed there as he watched Owen walk back with Renee and thought about Dylan. CPS seemed to be more into keeping them apart than in reuniting them. He’d talk with Pastor Connor about the Building Bridges thing at the Hazardtown Community Church. Rhys had shrugged off the pastor’s recommendation that he get involved to help him and his boys reconnect. But now he thought it just might help him reach Dylan—and keep the uphill momentum.

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Can You Find All 15 Ice Cream Flavors?

Butter Pecan, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, Cotton Candy, Creamsickle, Mint Chip, Peanut Butter Cup, Peppermint, Pistachio, Rainbow Sherbet, Rock Road, Strawberry, and Vanilla

Good luck, and enjoy!

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Jean C. Gordon

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Selkirk, NY 12158

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