The Ring

Forty-five minutes had passed and not a single call. Nights like this made Julian mad because, like everyone else, he relied on every penny. He wasn’t always a cab driver. He had come from a village with gravel roads, two-way streets and one working traffic light. A few job applications later, he was holding the keys to a company van with Coroner stickers on it. For eleven years, he had carried dead bodies.

A dog’s bark interrupted Julian’s thoughts. He opened the window and shivered. It seemed colder than expected for an early fall, and a layer of thin frost had already covered the ground.

The dispatcher’s voice boomed through the CB radio breaking the silence and startling Julian. “I need someone at 2117 David Drive.”

Julian reached for the microphone. “201. I am close.”

“10/4,” the dispatcher’s voice scratched through the line.

Julian turned onto the poorly illuminated one-way street when the dispatcher’s voice rumbled again. “201, David Drive canceled.”

“Really?”

“Sorry about that,” the dispatcher apologized.

Julian shook his head and made a turn for the main road.

A woman emerged from the cemetery and flagged the approaching cab. She seemed young – dark hair, immaculately dressed. Quite attractive from what Julian could tell. The whitest skin he had ever seen.

Probably one of those supermodels—doesn’t want to be seen in public.

“River Road, please,” she said settling into the passenger’s seat.

A foul smell entered the cab and Julian grimaced. “What number?” he asked throwing the car into gear.

She seemed puzzled. “What?”

“The number… on River Road?”

“Oh… um… I’ll show you,” she said then turned toward the window. Clearly she wasn’t interested in talking.

Julian opened his window to get rid of the familiar stench. Though he had been in close contact with dead bodies, he could never grow accustomed to the smell.

“I hope my window doesn’t bother you. Probably some dead animal that has drowned in the canal.”

The young woman nodded but remained silent.
***

“You can drop me over there,” she said pointing to an empty parking lot.

Julian cocked an eyebrow, knowing that the factory had closed a while ago. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she replied, searching for something in her purse. “I think I lost my wallet.” She pulled a ring off her finger. “Here, take my ring, and I’ll pay you tomorrow,” she said, holding out her ring.

“I-I can’t take your ring.”

She searched her purse again and pulling out a piece of paper and a pen, she scribbled something. “Here is my address,” she said placing the ring on it and exiting the car before Julian could protest.

Is she ill? Julian wondered. What is she doing here in the middle of the night?                                                                                     ***

In the morning, he pulled in front of a house, proceeded down the narrow walkway and knocked on the door. A young man still in his pajamas, answered.

“Hi, may I help you?” he asked.

“Um…” Julian realized that he didn’t know the woman’s name. “I am looking for a young lady—”

“Sorry, you have the wrong address.”

“Is this 2117 David Drive?” A jolt of anger struck Julian when he realized that this was the same address that had canceled his order the night before.

“Yup, but I live alone.”

“The woman… Um… I am a cab driver—” Julian stuttered.

“Look, man, I’m tired.” The young man turned to go back inside.

“No. Wait. I gave a ride to a woman, but she couldn’t pay so she insisted that I take her ring and return it today.” Julian revealed the ring.

The young man looked at the ring in Julian’s palm and took a quick step back. His face became white and the next time he spoke his voice seemed obstructed.

“W-where did you get that?”

“I told you—”

“That’s impossible,” he interrupted. “That’s my wife’s!”

“Look. I didn’t mean to—”

The man paced back and forth. “Jody died a year ago.”

“Say what?” Julian could swear his hearing played tricks on him.

“Jody died in that stupid factory.”

“Man, stop playing with me. I just want my money.” The words crawling upward from the depth of his throat sounded more like a growl.

“I am not… playing! I swear.”

Instantly, Julian felt sick. A buzzing sound vibrated in his ears. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. The world shook and then went deathly still as he crumpled forward.

My review of Swarm Theory by E. W. Sullivan on behalf of Reader’s Choice

4****From the beginning to the end, Swarm Theory—A Murder-Mystery Thriller by E. W. Sullivan is a captivating story.

 

Dr. Thelonious Zones is a Criminal Profiler. He hears screams coming from a back alley and at a closer look, he discovers that a woman is about to be raped. He interrupts the act just as an explosion blasts, burying him under a pile of trash where he is found alive by the investigating team. He was working on trying to prove (or disprove) his father’s innocence, but his investigation is disrupted by the blast that has killed a young Arab college student, who at the time of his death was disguised as a–blond hair, blue eyes—Caucasian male.

More bombings follow and Zones’ list of suspects stretch a mile long. Everyone fits the profile—from suspected Islamic terrorists to environmentalists and animal rights activists to Jamaican drug dealers and perhaps even government officials.  The investigators begin to question the accuracy of Zones’ work every time new suspects surface. But when the path leads him to evidence connected to his mother’s murder, Zones begins to question everything he’d thought he knew.

 

From the thrilling screams in the alley to the very last paragraph, Swarm Theory by E. W. Sullivan grips the reader and never lets go.  This astonishingly imaginative story crammed with interesting characters and realistic dialogue is absolutely riveting as it takes the reader on an intriguing ride through various possibilities. I was especially fascinated with the conclusion of this story.

My review for Hellavey—book two in the New Breed series—by Lisa Vandiver on behalf of Reader’s Favorite

5***** Hellavey—book two in the New Breed series—by Lisa Vandiver is so much more than a gripping fantasy that puts the reader in the middle of a war between humans, Hellaveys, and Earth vampires.

Hellaveys, are a group of powerful creatures from another world brought to Earth by The Mist and ruled by Queen Santono and her two lovers, Prince Jeremy, and Waylona. While Detectives Alex Mosley and James Frazier try to solve a series of mysterious murders, completely unaware of a powerful enemy that is settling just outside their community, Keilwen, Prince of the Aspellian Kingdom, is also sucked into The Mist and brought to Earth, where he is reunited with his long-lost parents.

Though Hellavey by Lisa Vandiver is the second book in the series, it has enough background information that it can stand alone. Hellavey is a fantastic book complete with a made up Carasylian language. I can honestly say that I never read anything like it. Through vivid descriptions and characters with strong personalities, Vandiver delivers a terrifying cinematic tale of murder, desire, self-discipline, and sometimes, out of control circumstances. The city of Tonospon, surrounded by forest and eerie but breathtaking caves, is the perfect backdrop for the flurry of action that starts on the first page and lasts all the way through. The dynamics between these entities, each fighting for survival, hold puzzles that put everyone’s lives at risk. Vandiver’s imagination will take you far and beyond what you think you know when you first start reading this book.

 

My review for Rebecca’s Coronation by Gary Green on behalf of Reader’s Favorite

5***** Rebecca’s Coronation by Gary Green is book three in the Redemption series.

Rebecca is an orphan whose grandmother has guided her to a world of magic and adventure. Rebecca’s enemy, Pan, urges her to stop fighting him and just let him kill her. She mocks him and begins fighting him, her sword slashing through his body. But his wounds heal right before her eyes. Defeated, she feels she has no choice in the matter and makes a pact with Pan to kill her but to let her magical friends live. Just as Pan is about to kill her, she wakes up. It was just a dream.

Falsely informed that Rebecca is dead, Pan gets ready to destroy humans and their world. He summons his councils of war and instructs them each to create chaos, hurricanes, and other disasters. Meanwhile, Rebecca and her magical friends prepare for some new adventures, including meeting the Loch Ness Monster.

Cleverly done and easy to read, Rebecca’s Coronation by Gary Green, is so much more than a teen fiction. Readers of all ages will love this heartwarming, enjoyable book. The story flows well. Pulling from legends, Gary Green has created a world of characters that continue to grow, each of them enriching the story in their own way. Rebecca, in particular, is a strong character, blending magic with real life. Overall, Rebecca’s Coronation is an extremely well-thought plot with elves, gnomes, fairies, and dragons that add to the author’s wonderful writing style. He transforms a magical world into a believable, normal, everyday human life.

My review for The Elixir of Freedom by M. R. Neer on behalf of Reader’s Favorite

5***** The Elixir of Freedom by M. R. Neer is a mythological fantasy.

Ravi’s twin brother, Vik, is captured by the Mine Master’s men and taken to work in the coal mines. Ravi needs to save him, but how, without getting trapped himself in the mine? He wants to go and talk to the Master, but his father, Kristof, convinces him that’s a bad idea. He suggests seeking help from the old legends of Raam instead. As Ravi learns about the secret of the Heart of the Sun, he goes on a journey that takes him deep into the forest where he discovers a powerful potion, made of sap and sunlight. The potion is believed to be the answer to his brother’s freedom and possibly more.

The Elixir of Freedom by M. R. Neer is a captivating tale of intrigue, love, and danger in a world where fantasy is woven into reality. Gripping, clean, and character-driven with a unique premise and skilled writing, the story draws you in from the first page and takes you on a magical journey. I liked the idea of fighting the darkness with the light. Deep down we all know that is the only possible way to overcome our fears, doubts, and bigotry. I especially liked Ravi and Verda’s journey to find the light. Through their determination and powerful love, Ravi and Verda inspire us to examine our own lives and try to find our own internal light that could lead us to a better existence.

My review for Peace, Love n’ Mud by Kraig Geiger on behalf of Reader’s Favorite

4**** Peace, Love n’ Mud by Kraig Geiger tells a young boy’s compelling life story. Born in North Miami Beach, Florida, Geiger tells his and his family’s tumultuous life story in almost a straight narrative manner, from before he was born to when he wrote Peace, Love n’ Mud, weaving the past into the present. In spite his not-so-easy childhood filled with angst and negativity, he manages to find his footing when he wakes up from a dream that seemed real. Geiger is unsure when his dream, to become a concert photographer, began. Perhaps it began when he first saw impressions of Woodstock ’69 at the age of eight, perhaps at the age of fifteen when he borrowed his father’s camera to photograph his very first rock n’ roll concert. Regardless, as the story follows him to New York, during the Woodstock ’94 Music & Art Fair, and other concerts, he never gives up to pursue his life dream.

Peace, Love n’ Mud, by Kraig Geiger, is a book about love, faith, hope, and redemption. Geiger masterfully brings the reader in the midst of his family’s ups and downs while demonstrating the life of a contographer and his role in the music industry along the way. He reveals powerfully that a dream doesn’t have to stay a dream. Blaming your parents for your short-comings would never solve your problems, but with enough love and determination anyone has the power to turn their dream into reality. The story could flow a little better with the help of an editor.

Reader’s Favorite review for Things Unsaid by Diana Paul

5***** Diana Paul’s novel, Things Unsaid, examines the dynamics of the family.

 

It’s tough getting old—for you and those around you. As an elderly parent, how much do you have the right to expect from your children? As a child of an elderly parent, how far would you go for your parent? Would you do everything humanly possible to maintain your parents’ comfort and lifestyle, even if that comes at the expense of your own family? These are the questions Julia has after another argument with her husband about her parents.  Robert and Aida Whitman, Julia’s parents, live in Safe Harbor, an assisted living community that costs five thousand dollars a month. Moreover, Julia’s father has invested in penny stocks and lost almost everything he had. Julia and her two siblings, Joanne, and Andrew are now supposed to compensate and keep up the lifestyle to which their parents have become accustomed. Except that Andrew and Joanne have their own financial crisis. Julia is left to bail her parents out even as her own family’s finances are at risk, including her daughter’s college fund that is slowly draining away.

 

Things Unsaid by Diana Paul is a powerful, emotional tale that takes the reader deep into the complex dynamics of a dysfunctional family, alternating between love and obligation. Paul expertly entwines the past and present while exploring Julia’s moral impasse between love and duty for her two families—the one she was born into and the one she has created as an adult.

Reader’s Favorite review for A Vacancy at the Inn by Alice Orr

5***** A Vacancy at the Inn by Alice Orr is a heartwarming, feel-good story.

Bethany Miller grew up with her two sisters, in Riverton—a small town in upstate New York. The Miller family, just like any other large family, is filled with drama and tension and at nineteen, Bethany moves to Chicago to escape the small town and the family dynamics. Ten years later she’s back. A single mother of nine-year-old Michael, she returns to Riverton hoping to take her son away from the big city and the wrong crowd he has begun to hang out with. Now more than ever Bethany needs her extended family to help an angry Michael adjust to this new lifestyle. But first she has to face her past, and that includes strong, sizzling feelings for Luke Kalli. Back in the day, she and Luke had a romantic encounter that stayed with her, but now seeing him again, reawakens a bunch of emotions that she doesn’t need. Not when she has to focus exclusively on her son.

 

A Vacancy at the Inn by Alice Orr is a quick but satisfying read. Through a mix of vividly descriptive scenes, emotional perceptiveness, some sexual tension between Bethany Miller and Luke Kalli, and a small measure of nail-biting suspense, Alice Orr masterfully and beautifully weaves the details of why Bethany left Riverton and why she comes back. A Vacancy at the Inn is a wonderful story filled with kind-hearted characters that will have the reader stay up late, turning pages.

 

Reader’s Favorite review of Tainted Love by Erin Cawood

4 **** Tainted Love by Erin Cawood is a story that touches on domestic violence shared by the protagonist—Faith McKenzie—through letters to her younger brother. In her letters, Faith describes the slow decay of her marriage as her beloved psychiatrist, ten years her senior, husband, Calvin, goes from a charming man who sweeps her off her feet to a controlling, manipulative, and abusive husband. As it usually happens in these cases, the abused woman disregards the red flags and even finds excuses and justifications for her abuser’s escalating violence against her. Faith has no doubt in her mind that Calvin loves her—all she needs to do is figure out what it is she does wrong and try harder not to upset him. But the cycle of abuse continues as Faith tries to hide it from her family, her children and everyone around her until she is forced to face the truth—her life, and possibly her children’s lives, are in danger. Shadowed by fear and self-doubt, she finally gets the strength to leave, only partly aware of what the future holds.

Told in simple expository language, Tainted Love, is a spellbinding, raw eye-opening novel of the mind. Cawood brings to light a difficult, realistic insight into the mind and rationale of an abused woman. The story is easy to read and hard to put down in spite of the difficult topic. The rule of what happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors is conveyed with accuracy in an often unlooked setting of well to do families. I had only one issue with the book—the suggestive (and sometimes quite descriptive) bedroom scenes shared with her brother felt unrealistic, and they didn’t add to the story.

 

Resilience – Chapter 1

1aaaaa                                                                              Buy the book here

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Any given day that Johanna White did not have to interact with Detective Louis White, her ex-husband, or Melinda Morton, his douchebag lawyer, was a good day in her book. By that rule, the past two weeks had been full of good ones. Today, though, was murky.

The only possible way to define it.

To calm herself down, she circled her desk and looked out the window. Thunder roared in the distance as a flash of lightning stabbed the ceiling of black clouds.

Nothing unusual about November downpours in Vancouver, she thought, still chewing on her lip.

Only today, Johanna’s mood seemed to mirror the weather outside. Like the thunder, her mind rumbled while waiting for the clock to tick ten o’clock—the time when Family Supreme Court in Vancouver opened.

She turned and glanced into the face reflecting from a six-foot crystal mirror propped against the wall. Staring back through shimmering blue eyes, was a young woman with long blond curls. A strand that refused to stay clipped back coiled around her ear. Her gaze glided from the top of her hair, down to the white silk blouse tucked in her black pencil skirt, ending with a study of her black leather shoes with three inch high heels. Fashion was not something that Johanna focused on, but she’d been told she had a natural flair for it.

On the surface, her smooth complexion and full lips looked calm and collected, but inside, a knot of nerves felt like a bomb ready to explode.

No, this was not her normal self. She hadn’t always been anxious. Fearful. Years ago she had been calm, optimistic, joyful. She had even been happily married, once. But that was a long time ago. Ten years, exactly. Ten years since Louis had charmed his way into her life—flirting with her and making promises he never intended to keep.

They used to be endlessly happy. She recalled how proud she was to be married to a cop. In fact, Louis’ direction in life was the first thing that had attracted her. But slowly, she had watched her loving husband morph into this deranged lunatic who treated her like yesterday’s garbage. “Our problems are your fault,” he’d told her time and again.

Even so, he had managed to string her along until he confessed to having an affair. That was the beginning of their end. He swore that the affair meant nothing to him. He didn’t want to lose her. He suggested marriage counseling, and for a day or so, she even considered it, wanting to believe they could work out their problems.

But her instincts, trying desperately to block his pleas, pushed her to engage in a gut-wrenching scrutiny of her married life. The word enough kept slamming into her mind, crushing her attempts to find excuses for Louis’ behavior.

In the end, her common sense had won. Certain her marriage was over long before Louis’ affair, she had filed for divorce, and their happily-ever-after had ended too soon. However, memories of the good times still played at the edge of her mind. They were few and far in between, but that didn’t make them any less memorable. Not even the bitter divorce could wipe out those blissful moments. After all, her two beautiful children, Athena and Aidan, were there to remind Johanna she had been in love. Once. For that reason, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

But now, Louis was trying to take her children away from her. Well…he had been trying since they first separated, but this time, he might just succeed. And it was the reason Johanna’s nerves had knotted in the pit of her stomach.

More than four years of fiery court battles had culminated with another hearing where a crooked psychologist had testified that she was an irresponsible parent.

The court scheduling had informed her the day before that The Reasons for Judgment were ready, but she saw the email too late. The future of her children rested on that judgment.

Everything made so much more sense now. How Parenting Coordinator George Finn had ignored her concerns; how he had diminished Louis’ actions; how he had left her feeling helpless and frustrated.

Everything had come to light when she discovered, too late, a chain of emails sent to her, by mistake, detailing how George had been hired fraudulently right under her nose.

Lies have a funny way of coming out. Well… funny only if you are not at the receiving end.

Johanna cringed, thinking how easily Louis and his family had manipulated her. If she had discovered the chain of emails before George testified, she could’ve proven they all plotted against her.

Louis, George, Melinda, and Karol—Mommy dearest, the most evil of all. They had all plotted to take her out of the picture. Out of her children’s lives. In court, the emails would’ve been gold.

Another sigh escaped through Johanna’s gritted teeth. She wrapped her arms around her waist tightly, to hold herself together as she silently recounted the tall tales.

Lie number one: George had been hired one month after the trial, not three months as ordered by the court, and as they all claimed. Even more sickening, they hired him while Louis insisted that a Parent Coordinator was not possible due to financial hardship.

Lie number two: Melinda Morton told George that the court had appointed Louis to choose a Parenting Coordinator. Not true. Louis only had the right to choose after three months from the trial and only in case he and Johanna couldn’t agree within that time frame.

Lie number three: Ms. Morton assured George that Johanna was a difficult person, on drugs. Therefore, he had to restrain Johanna from making any decisions regarding the children. This was the condition of his employment.

Lie number four: The court hadn’t given George the power to take sides, yet he had responded affirmatively to all their requests, including excluding Johanna from every decision-making.

Lie number five: “Oh, what the hell? Every single word that comes out their filthy mouths is a lie,” she mumbled.

Find out what his retainer is, Karol had written in an email to Melinda, and tell George we want to sign the agreement. We’ll worry about Johanna later.

The email had felt like a sucker punch to her gut.

“Like they celebrated my birthday without inviting me. How could I have been so naïve and not seen this coming?” Johanna pondered, shaking her head.

Unfortunately, now it was too late. The judge had released his order on their last court appearance.

The ping of a message yanked Johanna from her mind storms. Walking back and sitting in her office chair, she hoped against hope it would be the email from the court scheduling.

It wasn’t. It was Angela Grey, her assistant. Where are you? she wrote in capital letters. Your next meeting is in an hour, and I need to brief you on a few things before that.

Johanna’s cleaning business, the one she had started while married to Louis, as a way to earn some money when he’d blocked her access to their joint account, the one Louis had continuously mocked, was growing faster than she had ever expected. It employed over a thousand people. In fact, it had expanded so much that Johanna could no longer run Spic & Span Cleaning from her home, so she had leased an entire floor, a total of twelve offices. At the same time, she had to hire ten more supervisors, an accountant, and an assistant—Angela—who also served as Johanna’s general manager…and apparently, her rude keeper. Angela was a true asset, so Johanna turned a blind eye to her assistant’s lack of diplomacy…and loud voice.

With a long sigh, Johanna informed Angela that something had come up, and asked her to reschedule everything for tomorrow just as her phone beeped again.

This time, the message was from the court scheduling. Her heart did a little flip then settled into a bumpy rhythm. She didn’t need to read the message—she knew the drill. It was to alert her about the arrival of the order in the form of an email.

With a trembling hand she clicked on the Chrome menu on her computer’s toolbar. She logged into her email account and went to her inbox, then clicked on the one that read, Reasons for Judgment. The email opened slower than it should, or was that just her imagination?

Once it opened, she stared at it for an ungodly amount of time, unable to click on the attachment. This was it. Her children’s future and hers rested inside the little red rectangle. Once she opened the attachment, there would be no going back. Once she saw it, she could never unsee it. For a long moment, she contemplated whether to call her mother from upstairs and ask her to open it.

Don’t be ridiculous. What are you? Two? she scolded herself. Whatever the court’s decision, she would have to deal with it just as she had in the past.

With trembling hands Johanna clicked on the attachment, and then squeezing her damp hands into fists, she held her breath. The fraction of a second it took the PDF file to open seemed the longest of her life. Once it opened, she scrolled down to the last page. And froze.

Residency with the father jumped at her from beneath Interim Order written in bold letters. Wide-eyed and unable to read the rest of the order, Johanna sat there. The punch in her stomach slowly rising and forming into a lump in her throat. Tears welled up in her eyes, and the more she stared at the screen, the more bitter the lemons pelting her reality.

She had lost custody of her children. How?

Two mirrored calendars in both homes… the judge’s words echoed in her mind.

All air had left her lungs as a sudden sick feeling churned her insides. She peeled her eyes off the screen and stood on shaky legs as if all the muscles and bones in her body had suddenly liquefied. The room tipped and turned, and she felt herself folding like a ribbon. She reached for the desk to regain her balance.

“Johanna, are you okay?”

Still holding on to the desk, Johanna turned toward the sound of her mother’s voice with tears gushing out.

Placing one hand on Johanna’s shoulder and her forefinger from her other hand beneath Johanna’s chin, Anna raised her daughter’s face until their eyes met.

“Hey. Hey…” Anna pulled Johanna into a tight hug. “You want to talk about it?” she asked softly.

Johanna unwrapped herself from her mother’s embrace and pointed to the screen that still bore the open court file, then she collapsed into her office chair. “I’ve lost my children, Mom,” she said between sobs.

Anna’s eyebrows drew together and a crease formed between them. “What?”

“We got the order. Oh, my God! Mom, I lost my children. What have I done?!” Johanna screamed. Hearing the words aloud, made it final. Made it more than she could bear.

Anna took another step. “I don’t believe it. That’s ridiculous. We’ll appeal.” Anna’s voice sounded brittle. She leaned down to bring the screen to her eye level. “Let me see that.” Her frown deepened, but only for a few moments. As she read on, her face lit up. “You haven’t lost your children,” she said when she finished reading. “Look. It’s still 50/50,” she added, underlining the words on the screen with her finger.

Johanna’s sobbing halted, and she squinted trying to read the bullet points on the order through tear-filled eyes.

Joint guardianship based upon Joyce Model, will require the mother to be consulted on all matters regarding the children;

Access days are as follows: Mother-Tuesday and Thursday, and alternating weekends;

Holidays, spring and summer breaks, will be split equally as stated in the old order;

Parents shall create a monthly calendar that will be displayed in both homes, showing, the children’s birthdays, activities, and each parent’s access time;

Father will be responsible for the children’s sporting activities;

On mother’s weekend access, the father will pick up the children one hour before the game, and will bring them back one hour after the game;

When father is working or otherwise not available to care for the children, the mother will take over the care of the children. This is to eliminate the use of daycares and other babysitters;

Johanna shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“Forget the wording. It doesn’t mean anything. You have them Tuesday and Thursday, and every other weekend.”

Pushing her hair away from her face, Johanna forced out a breath, trying to calm her pounding heart. “I don’t have them the same amount of days. I have them for two weekdays while Louis has them for three.”

“No. This Order is only valid until the end of the school year,” Anna said, clearly trying to muster as much enthusiasm as she could. “Look,” she said, again pointing at the computer screen. “You have them Tuesday and Thursday. He gets them Monday and Wednesday. Friday is alternating. You have them one Friday, and he has them one Friday.”

“Are you sure?” Johanna wiped away tears and read the order again. This wasn’t the time for guessing. She had to be sure. “But I don’t understand. Why did he write residency with the father?”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t know why he did that, but I know I am right. Mark the days on the calendar and you’ll see I am right.”

“So, should we not file an appeal then?”

“I don’t know. We need to think about it. I mean they are just words. You still have your children, but instead of having them one week on, one week off, you guys share them on daily bases. I’m not sure why the judge did this, as it’ll confuse the children, but I’m sure if he wanted to take your children away, he would’ve. I don’t think that was his intention.”

“I hope you’re right.” Johanna wanted to sound positive, but she wasn’t sure who she tried to convince.

Anna pressed an assuring hand on Johanna’s shoulder. “It’s only until the end of the school year, dear. So a few more months.”

Who was she kidding? Clearly this was a new disaster in her life. Johanna nodded once then shook her head. “Do you know what he’ll do now? He’ll go and flash that order to everyone. He’ll show it to the children’s teachers.” More tears flowed, choking the words in Johanna’s throat.

Still on Johanna’s shoulder, Anna’s hand gave it a gentle squeeze. “Who cares? No one will care.”

Johanna buried her face in her hands and when she spoke her voice sounded nasal. “People will have the same reaction I had—she lost custody.”

Anna spun the office chair, so Johanna faced her. “Look at me,” she said. “You need to stop worrying about what other people think of you. What has he done to you? I’ve never known you to live your life by other people’s standards.” Johanna wiped out her tears with the back of her hand but said nothing. Anna added, “You need to work on that attitude. You’re scared, and that’s normal. But molding your entire life around Louis’ wants and needs is not.”

“I am trying, Mom. Believe me, I am trying. There are days when I hum on all four cylinders. Then there are days, like today, when not even a 95 octane gasoline could fire up those babies. He has turned my entire life upside-down and inside-out.” She took a deep breath. “And the worst part, I can’t even blame anyone.” She shook her head. “Actually, it’s not entirely accurate. I have myself to blame. I singlehandedly managed to screw up my entire life.”

“You need to stop blaming yourself. You have done nothing wrong.”

Johanna rolled her eyes. “Not a single thing, huh? Mom, I love you for trying to make me feel better, but how can you say that? I chose him. I chose to marry him. I chose to have children with him. You warned me. Remember? “Look at his parents,” you said. “Whatever is wrong with them, it will eventually be wrong with him.” I didn’t listen, and the signs were there, all but screaming narcissist. His, and his mother’s lack of compassion for each other, should’ve been my red flag.” She paused to let out an expulsion of air. “The only good thing out of this marriage is my children.”

“Look. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, but if your children are the only good thing from your marriage, you need to focus on them. When you married him, you didn’t know what kind of a person he was. He tricked you.” Anna flailed her arms in the air. “Hell, he even tricked me, and I always considered myself a good judge of character. Yes, I was worried about his family values in the beginning, but I never knew the lack of family values equals viciousness. Stop blaming yourself.”

Johanna’s gaze shifted to a picture of her and the children, propped against the printer. The picture was taken shortly after her divorce. She picked it up and gently caressed her thumb over each child’s face. Athena had inherited Johanna’s fair skin while Aidan was darker just like his father. But both had dark hair like Louis, which made their light blue eyes look even bluer and bigger. “I’ve destroyed my life and my children’s lives,” she said bluntly.

“Give yourself a break. You’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress. Had you shattered, no one would’ve blamed you. And yet, you’re still standing strong.”

“I don’t know about strong, but I am still standing.”

“It breaks my heart to see you suffer so much.”

“I only suffer, because my children are unhappy with this arrangement. I know they love their father, but their father is hardly around and Karol…I feel powerless. It’s absolutely nothing I can do to help them!”

“You’re wrong. Love them, and don’t let them forget that for a minute. The power of a mother’s love always prevails. Things will turn around in your favor. You’ll see,” she added with a forced smile.

Johanna reached out to her mom, and they wrapped their arms around each other. Anna had always been so strong and optimistic. She had comforted and encouraged Johanna. But now, for the first time, Johanna felt worry in her mother’s tone.

She held Anna tightly as if trying to reassure her. She had sensed the same concern in her grandmother’s tone a few days ago when they spoke on the phone.

Place your troubles in God’s hands and trust that He’ll do what’s best,” her grandmother had told her.

Clearly, Johanna’s divorce was no longer her divorce. It was stretching and affecting everyone within thousands of miles of its epicenter.