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First pages

Taken by Choice

When Zane Holloway seeks help from his best friend Tori, he is crazed with worry, desperate to find the mother of his children. While he assumes the role of amateur sleuth, Zane travels outside of the country, leaving his twins in the care of Tori. If that isn’t enough, he wants her to deliver his twins to his family’s ranch in Montana. Tori is eager to help, because the cross country trip means that she can delay the inevitable end to her relationship with her boyfriend, Brett. When she takes on this seemingly simple task, she loses her footing, but not for long. As fate has it, she gains the admiration and affection of Zane’s brother. The ranch becomes a respite, and during her time spent there, she realizes that she doesn’t recognize herself anymore. As the pieces fall together, she finally discovers the truth about herself. Tori wants a life of her choosing, and she wants to live that life with a man she sincerely loves.

Chapter One

“You’ve got to control your anger. Calm down, and we’ll talk.”

“There’s nothing more to say. Carmen left—she abandoned our girls, and I won’t allow her to get away with that!”

“Zane, you’re upset…I get that, but going off half-cocked isn’t the answer either.”

Zane cursed while he scrolled through the directory on his phone. He waited a beat, then he rattled off instructions expressing his urgent needs. When he was satisfied with his results, he cut a path across the living-room, heading in the direction of his master suite.

Tori was a good friend, and no matter what happened in his life, she’d always been in his corner. When he phoned her last night in a panic, she didn’t question him twice. She dropped her plans, and rushed right over to his Upper Westside apartment. She’d even bathed his twin girls, read them bedtime stories until their eyes finally tired. She sat up late with him doing most of the talking, but she still didn’t know why the mother of his twins suddenly decided that her modeling career was more important than raising her kids.

When Tori walked into the master-suite, she blinked several times, stunned by the chaotic sight. Usually Zane’s room was immaculate, and everything was always in its proper place. His clothes were always impeccably arranged. Tori was unsettled by the clutter. She looked around the room, noticing Willa’s favorite stuffed animal at the head of his bed. In that moment she was grateful that the nanny thought it best to maintain the twins weekly schedule. She thought about his daughter’s then she found her voice when she said…

“Zane…the girl’s…you can’t leave them. They need you.”

He scratched his head looking at a mound of clothes piled in the center of his bed. He was an emotional wreck, and he couldn’t rightly explain his behavior. If he had to admit the truth, he would say that Carmen didn’t possess any valuable human virtues. She was stubborn, self-centered and vain. But in spite of her shortcomings, she was the mother of his kids, and he wouldn’t allow her to easily bow out.

Tori watched him, and she wasn’t even sure if he’d heard her. She wasn’t even sure if he knew she’d joined him in his room. They were close friends. Some of their acquaintances once gossiped, saying that she’d dated him. They were all wrong, and she was glad that the rumors never affected their friendship.

Tori crossed the room, placing her hand on his shoulder. She said…

“Willa, and Bella… They need you. Please…for their sake, think this through. You can’t abandon them like their mother.”

Zane was a brilliant money manager. He’d grown up on his family’s ranch in Montana, but he’d spent most of his adult life living in New York. Everyday, he made billion dollar decisions, but today he wasn’t thinking with his head. He drawled when he said…

“I’m not abandoning my girls…”

“Then what would you call it.”

“Tori—you know me. I like things to be right, and right now, I’m no good to them now.”

“Zane—you’re their dad, that’s all they need. You don’t have to be perfect…you just need to be here.”

He shook his head as if he’d mulled his idea until there was nothing left to ponder. He said…

“Made up my mind… I want you to take ‘em home to momma, and daddy. They’ll watch my girl’s til I get back.”

Tori was prepared to argue the point, but before she could, Zane turned to face her. His eyes were red rimmed, then he shrugged…

“I wish I never met her…but I did. Carmen….” He choked up when he said… “She owes those girl’s something. More than she gave.”

“Zane…you can’t make her be a mother. You can’t even force her to come back.”

Zane crooked a smile when he said…

“You’re right.” He hooked his fingers in his belt when he added… “But I gotta try. So…will you help me out, or will you dump me like Carmen.”

“Ouch…that’s not fair.” Tori was nothing like his super model girlfriend, Carmen, and she definitely didn’t appreciate Zane’s comparison.

He said…

“Tori…I’ve already talked to my parents. They’re expecting the girls, and I already told them to expect you too.”

She was prepared to make a suggestion, but he was quick to say…

“I would take the girls myself, but I’ve got a lead on Carmen, and I can’t risk that she’ll stay put. If I drive the girls to the ranch, Carmen will have a two, maybe three day head start. And you know flying the girl’s to Montana is out of the question.”

Of course she knew. Willa was afraid of closed in spaces, and Bella was afraid of planes in general. From the moment Zane concocted the idea he knew that he would need Tori’s help if he ever stood a chance of pulling this off.

She said…

“I hate driving. You know that.”

“No problem. You can use my driver.”

She grind her teeth because using his driver was absolutely impractical. Besides, Tori loved his little girls, and she didn’t think that they should be blamed for having a selfish mother.

She resigned herself to the role she would play in Zane’s foolhardy scheme. Tori said…

“So…what time are you leaving?”

“Before the nanny brings the girls back.”

“So soon?”

“It’s best. The sooner I leave, the better.”

“But Zane…” She was at a loss for words.

He said…

“I don’t want the tears—and if they see me leave, you know there will be tears.”

Tori wanted to call him a coward, because the girls were going to cry either way. But she decided that for now, he needed friendship more than a reality check.

She said…

“Is there anything I can do to help you get out of here sooner?”

Zane stepped back taking her in at a sidelong glance. Why couldn’t Carmen be like this woman, had been his haunting thought. He opened his arms wide, guiding her until her head lay nestled on his chest. He hugged her, and she hugged him back. He said…

“Do you ever wonder what would have happened if we’d decided to date, instead of just being good friends?”

Of course she’d thought about it. Tori had considered the idea more than a thousand times. He was handsome.Rich, although thanks to her parents, she rarely thought about money. She thought about the first time she saw him. Every woman in the room gawked, and they all wished they were in the shoes of woman draped beneath his arm. That woman had been the lucky one because she’d been Zane Holloway’s date.

Snapping out of that memory, Tori lied when she said…

“Nope. Never gave it a thought. We’re friends, and that’s always been good enough for me.”

He smirked, hugging her tighter when he said…

“That’s funny…cause I think about it all the time.” Zane stroked her hair when he said…“My girls have always loved you…and you’re always here. Even Carmen wondered about us. She hid a fear that one day you’d replace her. She once said that when the girls started talking, they would more than likely call you mum, instead of her.”

He could be a flirt, and at times he exaggerated stories, but on this point her instincts told her that he was sincere. She wondered why he’d never told her that before today. She wondered why he’d chosen now to tell her something that Carmen would never say.

They stayed that way for a moment longer, then he released his hold. Zane sighed when he said…

“Don’t worry about the apartment. I’ll leave word with the housekeeper. As for everything else…I’ll figure it out as I go along.”

“Zane…I really think you’re over reacting. Maybe you misunderstood. Maybe Carmen just needs a little alone time.”

He laughed when he said…

“No…I’m not over reacting. She’s gone, and I’m going to find her and bring her back.”

She moved aside watching him as he quietly packed a few lightweight bags. He was leaving. Some would say that Zane disliked messy confrontations, and that he was leaving Tori to deal with his domestic troubles. But she didn’t see it that way. She thought about Willa, and Bella. When the twins arrived home she wanted to be there to comfort them. She wanted to dry their tears, and even though she wasn’t their mother, she loved them just the same.

Tori studied Zane. His gaze lifted, as if his senses detected her staring at him. He flashed her with one of his dazzling smiles, then he said…

“Well, that’s that. All packed.”

She nodded her response, because she was at a loss for words. In that moment, the ability to speak left her brain. He was leaving, and that was that. But was it? She didn’t have the answers, and not knowing should have tripped a warning alarm.

Chapter Two

“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that you’re the only friend that Zane has to rely on?”

“Brett, you’re making too much out of this. Besides, we’re not talking about his list of friends. We’re talking about me. I’m taking the twins to his parent’s because he asked, and I said yes.”

“He takes enormous risk in business, and in his personal life. It’s no wonder that Carmen left him. And as for those kids…Well, that’s another topic entirely.”

Tori raced around her townhouse, skirting around Brett if he blocked her way. She had called him as a courtesy because she definitely didn’t feel obligated to him. They had dated for a little over a year, and most people had wondered what was the hold up. Why hadn’t he popped the question? Well, he had popped the question, but her response was a heavily guarded secret. Tori had said yes, she would consider his proposal. Her answer was a polite way of saying ‘No’ without actually refusing him. She actually was buying time, in hopes that maybe she would come to care for him, as much as he apparently cared for her.

Brett fumed when he said…

“This is just like Zane. He swings in, behaving like that guy on that ship… The one that said he was the king of the world.”

Tori hated listening to Brett whenever he used metaphors, especially when his phrases involved movies, or the dialogue. She’d told him more than a thousand times never to refer to movies unless he knew the titles, and not to muddle the dialogue especially if he couldn’t get it right. Yet, here he was doing it again.

She brushed pass him, ignoring his anger when she said…

“I spoke with the nanny an hour ago. She’ll be here with the twins in less than thirty minutes.”

“The nanny!?” he groaned, followed by…. “Why didn’t he ask her to take his kids to Montana?”

“Because that isn’t her job?”

“And it isn’t your job either. The nerve of that guy.”

There were so many things she could say in this situation, but she didn’t want the twins to catch her arguing with one of their father’s friends. She stood with each hand perched on her hips while saying.…

“Say whatever you have to say…because I’m going, and that’s the end of it.”

Brett pouted like a two year old, and she couldn’t imagine what she’d ever saw in him. He wasn’t handsome in the true definition of the word, and he was often awkward in social settings. On the other hand, they did share a love of science, and research. Tori supposed that aside from that, she really didn’t have much more in common with him.

The door to her townhouse chimed. She ran in that direction, reminding Brett to behave as she rushed pass him.

“You had your say, and I’ve had mine. From here on out, not another word. Are we clear?”

He muttered under his voice…

“As if I have a choice.”

Tori disregarded him. When she opened the door the twins hurried in like a gush of wind. They each took a leg, clinging on as if she were a jungle gym. The nanny said…

“Now girls…we’ve talked about this. Greetings first…a hug, then ask to be seated.”

The girls ignored their nanny, mainly because they weren’t sure when or if they would ever see her again. Tori had told them about Montana. The place where their daddy had lived when he was a boy. She also told them that their father had gone, and he would return, but aside from that, she didn’t know much more. Tori had wiped their tears away, and she watched their slow, defiant regression. The girls were four years old, but when they cried they each behaved as if they were two. Now, they were wrapped around her legs, acting as if they didn’t hear the nanny at all.

Tori lowered, reaching for each of their hands, and steadying herself for fear of falling.

She regarded the nanny when she said…

“My Mercedes is out front. Could you instruct the driver to put the girls luggage in the trunk?”

The nanny nodded, almost as if she was glad to be free of the twins. Tori wondered what happened in the apartment after she left. Had the twins cried, tormenting the nanny?

Willa said…

“When will we leave?”

They each were staring up at her. She smiled, saying…

“Soon. I have a few things to take care of, then we’ll be off.”

Bella stared beyond the room, and Tori followed her gaze. The little girl was ogling Brett. They knew him, but she’d never seen them interact.

Tori said…

“That’s Brett…my friend. You remember him, don’t you girls…?”

Willa said…

“Daddy doesn’t like him. He said that you don’t like him either.”

Shocked, Tori said…

“That’s not true… I like Brett. Even your daddy likes Brett.”

Bella said…

“Then why aren’t you married to him? Daddy said if you like him you’d be married by now. Isn’t that true?”

Nanny stood in the threshold witnessing Tori’s mortification. She grabbed the little hands, then she said…

“Which way to the restroom ma’am? Wouldn’t want a bathroom break to slow down the start to your road-trip.”

Tori said…

“Just down that hall, then turn to the left.”

Nanny nodded, then she herded the girls like little chicks. The girls chattered amongst themselves following the nanny down the narrow hallway. When they rounded the corner Brett closed the distance. His face was a mask of uncertainty. She couldn’t rightly read his expression, until he calmly said…

“This is a bad idea, but I’ve said my peace.”

He leaned forward, pressing his lips on her forehead. When he drew back, he said…

“I only hate that I can’t go with you. I don’t like the idea of you driving cross-country alone.”

She smiled when she said…

“I won’t be alone. I have Willa, and Bella.”

He didn’t have to say what he was thinking because irritation colored his face.

Tired, Tori said…

“Are we done here?”

He said…

“I guess so, because you’re holding all the cards.”

She lowered her head, because this disagreement was only one in a long list of grievances. One word would end their heartache, but if she ended their relationship, she would only do this after serious thought. Brett wasn’t all bad, and he wasn’t an ogre where kids were concerned. Most times he was a genuinely caring person, and she supposed her indecision was partly to blame for their current confrontation.

The children ran in the room, waving hands singing in unison…

“We’re ready, we’re ready, we’re ready…”

Brett turned to face them. His mouth spread into a smile, when he said…

“My, my…don’t you two look clean. Looks like you’re ready for your road trip.”

They giggled, and in that moment he showed her one of the reasons she liked him. He could be such a caring person.

Brett turned to her, putting his back to the kids. He said…

“For the record…cross country road trips are a bitch. But hey…you were stupid enough to do a favor for a friend. I don’t know why I’m saying this… but, be safe.”

In less than five-seconds Brett pushed himself backwards, undoing his momentary progress. For the life of him, he couldn’t leave well enough alone.

She nodded, because she was very good at hiding her emotions. She said…

“Okay…thanks for the advice.”

Chapter Three

“Are we there yet?” Willa said.

Tori thought in her head… “Wait…”

“Are we there yet?” Echoed Bella.

This chorus began one hour outside of Manhattan, and they gave an encore performance every hundred miles. At first she was grateful, because the question was better than their tears. Now, with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in their wake, Tori was experiencing something akin to cabin fever. Gnawing on all that remained of her thumbnail, she faked a smile. In a sing-song voice she answered…

“Not yet girls, but we’re almost there.”

Willa, and Bella didn’t know the difference between one mile, and one-hundred. But they could read the billboards, and they could spot the fast-food restaurant signs better than the navigation system in her car.

Tori looked at the road markers, trying to decide which way would be the smarter choice. She had followed the directions to a T, and there was something about this road trip that gave her a rush. She had defied Brett, and she hated that he tried to put her in a position to refuse her friend. He was being a baby, and he couldn’t be a man, and suck it up. Take one for the team. Zane was her friend, and his girls need their mother. She didn’t agree with the way he’d chosen to solve his problems, but she understood. She peered in the rearview mirror thankful that the girls had iPads to occupy their time. When they weren’t bugging her, or bugging each other; their faces were glued to the iPads or their plush mushroom shaped pillows.

The phone rang in the car.

“Answer, answer—it might be daddy.” said Willa.

By the ringtone, Tori knew different. The caller was Brett…again. She let it ring, and ring, and… After the fourth ring, the call went to voicemail.

Bella said…

“You missed the call.”

Tori heaved a heavy sigh, because since the caller was Brett, she was confident that her phone would ring again.

 

In Wisconsin, Tori called ahead, reserving a room at a Bed and Breakfast. They slept in late, and before they left, the girls chose stuffed animals in the souvenir shop. While they played with their toys, she dialed Zane but she didn’t get an answer. From the moment they left New York she called, leaving messages along the way. Each time she tried to contact him, her pleas echoed the one from before. “Please call me back as soon as you get this message.” This was day three, they had traveled through five states, and he still hadn’t answered her call, or returned her messages.

Tori was heading towards the girls, and seeing them sparked an angry fire. She pulled out her phone, and she dialed Zane’s number again. She’d decided to leave a message that would surely get his attention, or force his hand. The phone rang, and she waited for the connection. Counting down in her head, she knew that on the fifth ring the voicemail would kick in. But on this call, that didn’t happen.

“Hello…” There was a young woman on the other end.

Tori fumbled over her words, stammering, because she hadn’t expected the phone to be answered by anyone.

“Uh…hello, this is… Um, who is this?” She asked, thinking that maybe she’d dialed the wrong number.

The young woman sounded apologetic when she said…

“My name is Miss Grace. I’m one of the executive secretaries. You’ve reached Mr. Holloway’s office, but he isn’t here.”

His office, had been Tori’s thought. She said…

“Um…I called his mobile line. Are is calls being diverted to the office?”

For a moment she was preparing herself to receive good news. When he played golf he usually forwarded his mobile calls to his office to avoid being disturbed. Perhaps he’d recently returned, and maybe he was at his apartment, working things out with Carmen. Maybe he wanted the kids to stay with his parents while he persuaded Carmen to stay.

Tori waited because she was hopeful that Miss Grace would be the bearer of good news.

The woman on the other end said…

“This call is on Mr. Holloway’s mobile phone, so I guess his calls aren’t being forwarded to the office.”

“Oh…I see.”

Miss Grace said…

“Mr. Holloway is out of the country on business.”

“But his phone…” Tori knew that Zane wasn’t out of the country on business, then she recalled him saying that he had to tie up a few loose ends. Like, covering his ass by telling his employees a bold-face lie. On the other hand, what would be gained by him telling his employees the truth.

Miss Grace said…

“I was passing Mr. Holloway’s office when I heard his mobile ringing.”

Tori thought about the phone. Zane never traveled without it. Never. Then her fear heightened when she realized that if he didn’t have his phone, she didn’t have any other way to contact him.

Miss Grace said…

“Is there anything that I can do for you? Would you like to leave a message for Mr. Holloway?”

Hopeful, Tori said…

“Yes, I would. Do you know when Mr. Holloway will be checking in at the office?”

The woman said…

“No…and as far as I know, he isn’t expected to contact anyone. We had a meeting earlier this week, and all of his calls are being handled by his partner, Mr. Holt. I could give you his number if you’d like.”

David Holt wasn’t Zane’s partner. In fact, he wasn’t even lower management. She was pretty sure that David was bolstering his authority in Zane’s absence, and she knew that Zane would never leave him in charge. This wasn’t good news, and this knowledge wouldn’t help Tori.

Miss Grace said…

“This phone only has 20% left on its battery. I have a charger, but I didn’t bring it to work.”

Tori said…

“Listen. Do me a favor, and turn off the phone. Put it away in Zane’s desk. Doesn’t make sense to leave it on until the battery goes dead.”

The woman said…

“Makes sense.”

Tori added…

“Also,…you don’t have to talk about this. You’re in Zane’s office, and people might talk. You know what I mean?”

Miss Grace wasn’t sure, but she wasn’t one for creating drama. She said…

“Sure. When I end this call, I’ll put the phone in his desk. Can I do anything else for you?”

“No. And by the way…thanks for answering my call.”

“You bet…but if anyone ask, I’ll deny it.”

Tori laughed, then she said…

“Smart cookie.”

 

When she ended the call, she gathered up the girls. Not long after that, they were in the car heading in the direction of Montana. Tori’s brain was on overdrive, and she could hear Brett’s nagging voice in her head. She couldn’t shake the sound. He’d warned her not to take this on. The thought tortured her, and she felt like the biggest chump. Zane was somewhere chasing after Carmen, while she was shuttling his kids across the country alone. What had he been thinking, leaving his phone in his office? More importantly, even though he didn’t have his phone, he should have called, or made attempts to contact her. It was late in the afternoon and the girls had fallen asleep again. Overall, they were darling kids, and anyone would be lucky to be their parent. She was thinking this when her phone rang, and instinctively, she connected the call.

Without fanfare, Brett was off and running…

“Tori…what the hell is going on? It’s been two days since we last spoke. I’ve been worried out of my skin. What’s going on? Why didn’t you answer my calls? What happened? Forget that…where are you?”

Tori dialed down the volume, and her eyes darted to the rear seat. She sighed, thankful that Brett’s craziness hadn’t disturbed the girls. In a low voice she said…

“Lower your tone. The twins are sleeping.”

He moaned, then he said…

“I’ll try. It’s just that….”

She interrupted him…

“Rest assured…I’m fine. We’re fine. This trip is just taking longer than I expected.”

“Where are you Tori… Are you even halfway there?”

“We’re just outside of Minnesota. I plan to drive until it gets dark, then I’ll call ahead to reserve a room, and we’ll sleep in for the night. If all goes well we should arrive at the ranch tomorrow evening, or maybe in the afternoon on the next day.”

“Baby…I hate that you’re doing this all alone. The driving…it has to be brutal… And the girls…”

She cut him off when she said…

“The girls have been angels. That’s no lie. They haven’t cried or given me one bit of trouble.”

“That’s because they’ve known you all their lives. Hell—you attended all of their birthday parties. Now, that’s something even their mother can’t say.”

Tori shushed him, then her eyes glanced in the rear. She didn’t want them ever to hear anything negative about their mother. She said…

“Let’s talk about something else. How are things at work? Is your father pleased with the changes you’ve made in the research department?”

Brett’s parent’s held controlling interest in a pharmaceutical company that had been owned by his family for more than seventy years. Their most memorable conversations had been about advances in pediatric medicine.

Brett said…

“Overall, we agreed on the changes, but the new budget hasn’t been approved.”

Concerned, she said…

“I’m sorry Brett. I know how hard you worked on that. Maybe if you’d reconsider some of your dad’s suggestions, he’ll be more willing to compromise.”

Brett swore, then he said…

“I want to play a part in changing lives, but I can’t do that with inferior methods. I need more money, not more suggestions on how I could spend less.”

“I’m agree but…”

He cut her off, unwilling to listen.

“If you were here I could explain, but instead you’re more concerned about your friend, than you are about me. How can we get serious about our relationship when I’m the only one really trying?”

“That’s not fair…and our troubles started long before I agreed to help Zane.”

“I needed your help and you weren’t here.”

“Brett…how could I have helped you when the problem is between you and your dad.”

His voice raised when he said…

“My father likes you. He listens to you. You’re an effective and persuasive speaker.”

She said…

“So are you. If you’d only listen to what your father has to say.”

“I’m not entirely sure that you understand.”

She did, and that was the problem. Too often he allowed his paranoias to sabotage his efforts. Brett simply hated to be proven wrong. She’d suggested talking about his work, because she thought it would be a safe topic. Sadly, safe topics were becoming fewer, and fewer, and soon there would be nothing left to talk about at all. Dishearten by this prospect, she said…

“Brett…maybe we need to rethink things. I mean…instead of getting closer, we’re getting farther, and farther apart.”

“Are you saying it’s my fault?” He sounded angry.

She said…

“No…I’m not blaming…”

“Because if it’s anyones fault, I would say that Zane is the architect of our discontent. Everything was moving along just fine until…”

He fell quiet, and every instinct told her not to entertain his obsessive jealousy. But she couldn’t hold back, so she said…

“Everything was moving along just fine until what? Say it… What kind of foolishness are you trying to blame on Zane?”

He huffed, then he said…

“Typical…”

She was barely tolerating him, and she’d had enough. She said…

“I knew you would say that. But for the record…I’ve always told you that you can trust me.”

“For the record it isn’t you that I don’t trust. It’s Zane. He’s been trying to come between us for years. And now he’s using Carmen, and his kids, and it’s working. You’re doing exactly what he wants you to do.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Am I?” He asked, and she was certain that he didn’t expect a response to his snide comment. On the other hand, she supplied one.

“Yes…you’re beyond crazy. You’re insane.”

Tori pressed the phone icon, disconnecting the line. She was through with him. Finished with that conversation. She was even certain that maybe she was prepared to call an end to their relationship, but she just didn’t want to do it in the heat of the moment. She wanted a clear head, but unfortunately, they weren’t connecting anymore, and all of their conversations were heated. A few minutes passed, when her phone rang again. She didn’t have to answer because she recognized the ringtone. It was Brett. If she were alone Tori would spew an Oscar worthy rant. The declaration would start in North Dakota, and it wouldn’t end until she’d reached the Holloway Ranch. Tori thought about the ranch, and it wasn’t until then that a problem raised its ugly head. She mouthed the words…

“Damn you Zane. You don’t have your phone. I don’t have a way to contact you. And aside from the address to your family’s ranch; I don’t have a phone number, and I don’t know any of their names.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Lori Turner is an author of contemporary romance, mystery, paranormal and fantasy novels. She is a military wife, a mother, a dog owner and a lover of all animals. As a lark, she entered one short story contest, and received promising scores in every category. She couldn’t ignore the truth anymore; writing has always been a heartfelt passion.


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