31 Days of Halloween – Toni Noel

Decisive Moments is not your usual romance. Amy Millington is haunted by her failed marriage, Charles Harding by memories of his dark childhood, his boarded-up house haunted by his mother’s ghost. October in San Diego means crisp nights and warm sunny days, high school football played beneath a harvest moon, but not for reclusive Charles, whose nights and days never vary until a five-year-old little girl stumbles into his life on a “daddy search”. Marta’s request he become her father releases such mixed emotions he feels as if his heart might burst…
In Decisive Moments, to be released for download October 15 by Desert Breeze Publishing, Inc., Amy Millington needs to photograph Charles Harding’s childhood home to satisfy the requirements for her Master’s Degree in fine art photography, but his boarded-up-house holds painful memories for Charles. Without those photographs Amy cannot secure her young daughter Marta’s future. Charles denies the gutsy widow’s request. Her efforts to show him how to have fun lead him to allow her to photograph his home. Then Marta gets lost and Charles must help search his house for her. He finds Marta and his mother’s long-lost suicide note. Knowing the reason his mother shot his father, then turned the gun on herself, frees Charles from his past, but can he free Amy from her painful past and teach her to love again?
Here’s Amy’s first meeting with Charles:
The receptionist on a mission to block her path was no match for Amy Millington. On a mission herself, she darted past.
Her destination loomed ahead, the two closed mahogany doors leading to the office of Charles A. Harding, Architect.
So far, so good.
Now to outsmart the sedately dressed secretary seated at the desk just outside those doors. This formidable woman screened the architect’s calls and had, on a daily basis for the last two months, refused Amy’s request for an appointment.
Failure to accomplish her mission meant postponing graduation for six more months. No way. Too much was riding on her master’s degree. Maybe even a Guggenheim Fellowship. Amy’s new career, for sure, and with it, a secure future for her daughter. No way would she allow Harding’s secretary to stop her now.
Taking a deep breath, Amy charged around the woman’s desk to the doors and yanked, sending one crashing back against the wall.
The dark-haired man seated behind a massive desk looked up, surprised. His finely tailored suit matched the toasted pecan color of his eyes. His white shirt seemed almost too harsh for his silk tie softly patterned in rust and bark.
Amy’s heart beat erratically, making her lightheaded right when she needed to be at her best. She didn’t have much time. Building security would show up soon.
She met the man’s unreadable gaze and forced her best smile. Three more strides brought her close enough to inhale the woodsy scent of his aftershave. “Mr. Harding, I–“
His threshold guard interrupted. “I’m sorry, Mr. Harding. This young woman wouldn’t stop.”
He frowned, but a hint of curiosity lit his eyes. “Never mind, Julia.” He nodded at his secretary and she left the room, though Amy noticed she didn’t close the door.
Then he returned his attention to the blueprints on his desk. The nerve of him. Like a naughty child in the principal’s office, he made her wait.
A fresh wave of irritation at all her wasted time washed over her. Weeks of thwarted attempts to see this illusive man, and what did he do once she’d breached his gates? Ignored her best smile. Ignored the stylish suit she’d purchased just for this moment, a suit bought with money she’d managed to cut from her school supply budget over the last six months. It looked like she wouldn’t earn a second glance from this reclusive architect.
Finally he stopped shuffling the blueprints, rolled them up and stood. “Five minutes.”
She extended her hand, ignoring his cold demeanor. “My name is Amy Millington.” When he reluctantly offered his, she shook his hand, an artist’s hand with long fingers, his smooth, uncallused palm unexpectedly warm.
“Charles Harding, but of course you know that.”
Yes, she knew his name, and a lot more about him, thanks to her research. His presence seemed to fill the spacious room, crowding her. His quick gesture indicated she should take the chair near his desk. She sat, welcoming the chance to catch her breath and corral her thoughts.
He took his seat and cleared the space before him of work, giving her a moment to study him unobserved.
A stray curl tumbled over his forehead when he glanced down at his work, giving him a boyish look. He was definitely more good-looking than any photos she’d found of him, but he looked older than his years, and almost sad.
“So, Miss Millington, what’s so important you couldn’t wait for an appointment?”
“I wanted an appointment, but your secretary has refused to give me one each time I called. She insisted you were unavailable, that you would never make time to see me.”
         “Julia simply carries out my instructions.” He opened a drawer, took out a yellow pad and slid the drawer shut. “What brings you to my office? Are you interested in building a home?”
Amy glanced at the framed renderings on the wall behind him. All were of rather sterile, contemporary dwellings built of stone and glass. Her artistic eye rebelled at those cold images created by the man seated across from her.
“House plans are not what I had in mind.” She steadied her nerves and plunged on as she felt her five minutes ticking away. “I’m a grad student at UCSD just weeks from completing a master’s degree in visual arts. Photographing architecture is my main emphasis. I came because of my interest in your great-grandfather’s home designs.”
Harding’s frown returned so she hurried on. “He built six homes in Mission Hills. I’ve studied tho
se designs, and over the past few months I’ve photographed the interiors of five of those homes as part of my graduate project. There’s only one I still need. The house you own on Harding Road. At one time the man living there gave me permission to photograph the interior, but I’m now unable to reach him.”
She watched as the architect’s lips drew into a tight line, hardening his expression. A mouth revealed so much about a man.
With a deft motion, he slid open the drawer and stuffed the yellow pad inside. “I’m afraid what you’re about to propose is impossible. The uncle you spoke to died.” Harding came to his feet, ready to kick her out.
“But surely–“
“No.” A muscle twitched in his strong jaw. “Five houses should be sufficient for your needs.”
“Not photographing the sixth house will make my study incomplete. Please, could I–“
Irritation flashed in his eyes. “No one goes inside.”
Why? It didn’t make sense.
All right, time to try something else. “I’m sure you know the first C. A. Harding included ingenious details in his designs.” To Amy’s relief, his stiff stance relaxed a fraction.
“One interesting part of my research involved discovering the secret hidden in each of the homes he helped build. The house with the dumb waiter to the master bedroom is my favorite.”
As if surprised to discover himself standing, Harding eased back into his chair.
Almost made him smile. Good. Maybe she could reach the real man beneath this hard shell. “Or maybe it’s the house on Dixon Drive where shrubbery hides the outside stairs leading from the garden to the eldest son’s bedroom.”
Amazingly, Harding’s sculpted lips twitched into a smile. What a difference a grin made in his looks. Gone was the grim set of his jaw, the skeptical frown. A cleft in his chin appeared. What could have made this handsome man so dour? So serious? Charles Harding needed to learn how to lighten up.
Ignoring the sudden tripping of her heartbeat as she realized she was staring at him, she hurried on. “I can just picture an adolescent son sneaking in late at night, no need to remove his shoes.”
Leaning forward, Amy met the architect’s gaze and smiled. “What about you? Are surprises hidden in your designs?”
“I’m more concerned with function. With practicality. My clientele demands modern efficiency for their money, clean lines and easy care. Hidden passageways are remnants of another time.”
“That may be true, but what romantic times they were. Have you asked your clients if they might prefer something more imaginative? A design with a few soft curves to soften all the cold stone and glass?”
“What might seem appropriate in your art would be considered impractical in modern homes.”
Modern designs held no appeal for her she’d learned. “Now, about photographing your house…”
Anger — or was it something else — flared in his eyes as he stood. “There is no chance of you ever photographing my house,” he said, a note of finality in his voice.
“Here’s my card, in case you change your mind.”
He slid the card into his desk without a glance. “I won’t.”
She tucked her purse under her arm and headed for the door. Across the room a burst of buttercup yellow caught her eye. Her own reflection in glass. The only spot of color in the dreary room was her best suit.
Excerpt of Charles and Marta’s first meet on his property:
“Miss Millington! What were you trying to do?”
Still brushing cobwebs from her hair, Amy stood. Lifting her chin, she gave Harding a guileless smile.
“M-Mr. Harding, I can explain.”
“Trespassing, now? I thought I made myself clear. You are not using my property for your little project.”
In her peripheral vision, two bare feet dangled from a limb of the corner oak. Marta. Making herself at home in the architect’s tree.
“I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t… I’d intended to stay in my car. There’s no law says I can’t roll down the window and–“
He glanced at the street, some feet away. “A little far from your car, don’t you think?”
“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have come.”
He nodded. “I’m delighted we finally agree.”
She turned toward the oak tree and called, “Marta. It’s time to go.”
The leafy branches of the oak tree parted, revealing her daughter’s round little face and wide grin. “Coming.”
Marta shimmied along the limb until she reached the main trunk. Hesitating only long enough to cause fear to lodge in Amy’s throat, she jumped, landing on her bare feet. Her undaunted child collected her shoes and socks and trotted across the lawn while her mother learned how to breathe again.
Frowning as she approached, Marta gave Harding a curious once-over.
Amy tried to head off her inquisitive daughter, but couldn’t catch her attention.
“Hi, mister. Are you a lawyer, too?”
Amy watched as the hardness around his eyes melted and Harding knelt beside the little girl. “No. Why do you ask?”
“You’re pret — oops, Mom says I should say han-sum instead of pretty — you’re han-sum, so I thought you must be a lawyer, too.”
With her child silenced for the moment, Amy turned to face Charles. “This is my daughter, Marta, Mr. Harding. She met her first lawyer at school today, and was very impressed. Marta, this is Mr. Harding.”
“How do you do? You’re dressed in a suit like my friend’s father. He’s a lawyer, but your suit is darker. Han-sumer and more mmpressive. What do you do?”
“Marta, that’s quite enough. Mr. Harding is an architect. He owns this house.”
“Oh-h. You’re the man who doesn’t like my mother.”
“Well, I–“
“Marta.” Amy blushed. “I’m sorry. My daughter is at the age where she repeats everything she hears.”
Realizing her hasty explanation served to make matters worse, Amy’s cheeks burned.
“My class is learning about what daddies do,” Marta said. “Fathers come to school and share their oku-pashuns. Bobby Denton’s father is a lawyer. My father died, so I don’t have anyone to bring.”
As if interested in her child’s recitation, Harding responded with a thoughtful, “I see,” each time Marta stopped to catch her breath.
The talkative imp sat on the steps, pulling on her socks and shoes. “We never had an arky–“
“Architect,” Amy prompted.
“–arky-tek speak to our class. Would you be my father and come talk to my class?”

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Toni Noel is the author of three eBooks released by Desert Breeze Publishing, Inc, and three more to be released in 2012. She retired in 1995 as Senior Accountant for a government contractor to write full time, unaware how little she knew about fiction writing and how much she’d need to learn.

She worked so hard at getting her name into print the San Diego Chapter of Romance Writers of America awarded her a banner reading “Rejection builds character” commemorating the month she received three rejection letters in one day.

A firm believer in perseverance and keeping the faith, Toni made her first eBook sale in 2009 and couldn’t be happier seeing her name in print on the covers of her eBooks downloaded to her Nook.