Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Excerpt - BETTER THAN FIRST (Christian Contemporary Romance)

Today, I’m posting an excerpt from Kari Trumbo’s Christian Contemporary Romance, Better Than First, book 1 in the Dream Big series.

Here’s the back cover description:

A sweet romance that will leave you feeling the kisses in the falling snow and cheering for a happily ever after.

Isla won't let anything hold her back, except telling her best friend she's in love with him.


When Isla Florez's coach and best friend challenges her to make a bucket list, she's worried her dreams of a gold medal will slip away. If she agrees, won’t she miss time at the track?

The more she allows Duncan to show her, the more value she sees in everyday life...and love.

Duncan Schmitz went from homelessness to his dream job as a youth pastor, but it isn't enough.

He's loved Isla from afar for ten years. As a challenge, he takes it upon himself to remind her what life is like off the track. And maybe also remind her he's not just her coach, but the friend who's always been there for her.

Get this sweet, heart-warming, friends to more romance that reads like a Hallmark movie by bestselling author Kari Trumbo.

I interviewed Kari in a two part interview—part 1 is here and part 2 is here. I also posted a knitting pattern for the cute lace drawstring purse Kari’s heroine uses in her novella, January Hope, which is in the Save the Date anthology.

Excerpt:

Chapter One

At every turn around the indoor racetrack, Isla Flores caught sight of Duncan, cheering her on from the stands. She gripped the wheels of her racing wheelchair and tugged as hard as she could down the back straightaway. She had the lead, but just in her periphery, a wheel approached. She couldn’t get second again. Not another loss. Isla pushed harder, almost missing the moment when she needed to push her compensator to make her chair lean into the turn.

Twenty meters to go.  

Her hands were wet with sweat, but her gloves would keep her grip from slipping. Just a moment more. The wheel came closer, then her competitor burst forth in the final few meters, and as Isla crossed the finish, she didn’t break the ribbon. Second, once again. Always second. 

She slowed to a stop next to the winner, Mia, who was surrounded by family, coach, and friends. She was young, maybe sixteen with a brand-new chair. Mia had been around the track for years, getting better with every race. Now, she’d finally won. 

If I’d only pushed harder. 

“Congratulations, Mia,” she called into the crowd, not that Mia would hear in the midst of her throng of fans. Duncan Schmitz, Isla’s best friend and coach, ran toward her. The huge smile on his face should’ve perked up her spirits, but did little to help. Maybe next time. 

“Isla! That was amazing. Great run! Let’s get you out of that chair, so you don’t cramp your legs.”  

She nodded, unable to join in his happiness, and let him handle the details. He’d take care of all that needed to be done until she could get into her bed at home and let her real feelings out. He didn’t need to see the ugly side of her. The side that needed the validation of a win. 

Her racing chair had no handles or even much of a back to it at all. When she sat in racing position, she folded herself up, basically kneeling with her feet strapped under her and her torso leaning forward, so her arms could act as literal pistons to the wheels. He couldn’t push her anywhere, so he ran off to get her everyday chair as other coaches and family members did the same for all the riders around her. 

He returned quickly, pushing her red chair. He knelt on the ground and gently released her legs. Besides a slight tingle up her spine to let her know circulation had begun to return in force, she couldn’t feel what he was doing. Then he popped up next to her, his smile still firmly in place, and gently lifted her from her racing chair. She’d always trusted his strong arms, because he’d never dropped her, never failed her. He sat her into the red chair then knelt next to her, looking her straight in the eyes. 

“I know that didn’t turn out how you’d hoped. But think of all the other racers who put in just as much effort as you and didn’t place today. Second is a huge deal. It’s still in the winner’s circle. Come on, can I see a smile?” 

She gave him the best she could. He was such a good friend and always tried hard to cheer her up, but to her mind, second place was just the first loser. He folded her racing chair and carried it like a suitcase as he pushed her one-handed over to the sideline to watch the other racers. There were various age range competitions and skill-level challenges. Most days, she would have stayed and watched the rest with excitement, but today she just couldn’t bring herself to be cheerful. She’d been so close, so sure she could do it. 

“I think I’d like to just go home.” Isla glanced at Duncan and prayed he would understand. 

“I think you should stay and clap for the winners and accept your award. Because you’re a good sport. Someone in this crowd today was watching you, wishing they could be you. You owe it to that person to finish. What if they give up because you did?” 

Ever the motivator. It was why she’d chosen him as her coach. That and it was one way to keep him close by. He was so sweet, so handsome, and maybe—just maybe—if she kept him busy enough, he’d never go off looking for someone important. Then they could stay friends forever. She’d tried to keep her feelings for him under wraps because if they ever became more than friends, she might lose the only one she had. Yet guilt nibbled at her. They were both in their late twenties. He worked so hard with her and she’d confined him to a single life. 

She scrunched her fingers in her lap. “I suppose you’re right. It’s just that I’m tired of always being the silver. When do I get to be gold? When will it be my time?” 

He reached for her hand and pulled it out of her lap, and gently removed the dirty and stiff glove that protected her hands from the wheels and helped her grip throughout a race. She flinched at her wet palms, but he didn’t seem to notice as he held her hand enclosed in his. “Gold doesn’t always mean success, Isla. You may never get it. Where will you be then?” 

She yanked her hand from his grasp. That didn’t bear thinking about. She’d begged her parents for that racing chair, and they’d had to take out a major loan to get it. The chairs were special equipment, costing thousands of dollars, but they’d done it gladly when she’d shown interest. She’d taken care of it like a living thing, because there would be no replacing it if she broke it. She owed it to them, and to herself, to be a winner, to be a contender for the Paralympic games. “I worked just as hard as she did. I saw that finish line. I wanted it more than anything.” 

Duncan took a deep breath. “I think it’s time you took a short break from competing. Focus more on training. Not only that, you’ve spent so much of your life here that you’re missing out on…what’s out there.” He gestured to the ceiling as if she could suddenly just fly away and see everything beyond the huge roof of the arena. 

The words hung in the air and she knew he’d meant to stir her with them, but it didn’t work. The race was life, and she wanted to be a winner at one thing. Just one thing. She couldn’t walk, couldn’t dance, couldn’t cross the stage as the valedictorian in her high school, even though she’d earned it. She couldn’t be anything—except at racing—but only if she could win. 

#
 

Duncan glanced down at Isla’s hands, woven together in her lap, and he wanted to kick himself for harping on her when she obviously needed something else. He’d lost his touch. During the last year of competing, Isla Flores had gone from a fun, sweet friend to fierce competitor. Nothing mattered to her but the win. She wanted to practice every day and he’d always accommodated. Now, he was ready for a break. He wanted the old Isla back. More than that, he wanted the woman he loved back, and there had to be a way to make her see how precious life was. 

Over their years of friendship, she’d come to mean more to him than any other person in the world. Not that he had a whole bunch of people to pick from. Being a foster kid with no family left the ranks pretty thin. Coming from homelessness literally drove every part of his life. He had to help his kids in youth ministry, and he had to show Isla how much he could love. Without her, he might never have a family. He gladly gave up every moment she asked of him to watch her practice and cheer her on, motivate her, even though she didn’t need him there in the slightest. He’d even considered that maybe she didn’t win because she didn’t have a true coach. What did he know about ways to succeed in racing? 

Isla worked harder than anyone he knew, but that didn’t guarantee a first-place finish. She needed something else in her life that she could grasp on to. Duncan feared that if she didn’t find that, he’d watch her turn despondent and bitter. He cared too much about her to see that happen. There had to be some way to pull her back into happiness and hope. 

“Want to pick up some food on the way home?” He’d practiced asking her out a million times in his head, but he’d never allowed himself to do it for fear of destroying the relationship they had if she said no. At least this way, he could be with her. He had a plan to fix that without ever asking her out on a dreaded date. 

“I’m not really hungry, and I have to watch what I eat,” she said. “The more I weigh, the harder it is to push myself.” She reached for her coat and mittens on the bench next to her. 

The track had cleared, and the organizers set up the tables for the awards ceremony. It would take them about twenty minutes to compile everything and hand out prizes. The volunteers who sponsored the games were big into awards. Many of the competitors never felt like they were on top of anything outside of the track. Winning gave them something amazing to be proud of. 

Isla held her shoulders tight and her lips even tighter. He wished he could say something to make her understand her net worth had nothing to do with the ribbon around her neck. 

“I know you hired me to push you harder. I know your goal is, and always will be, the Paralympics.” 

“And I’ll never make it if I can’t win in the Minnesota qualifiers.” She wouldn’t even turn her head to look at him, but the shine in her eyes spoke volumes. 

That was about as far off the mark as he’d hoped to hit. “That’s not what I was saying. If you’ve lost all enjoyment of the sport, maybe this isn’t what God wants you to be doing? I don’t know, maybe there’s something else He wants you to do with your life.” He’d seen darkness first hand and wanted to save her from it with all that was in him. “You can’t exactly be a light into someone’s darkness if you’re constantly unhappy.” 

Instead of making her think, she only scowled darker. “I’ll deal with my failure as I see fit. This is my dream. Can’t I have something of my own? It’s not like I’m old. I have all my life to find meaning.” 

What if she never won? Never got that elusive spot? Would she continue to chase the dream until there was no time left? Many paraplegics had their lives cut short by blood clots and illness, and he already worried his time with her might be short. Isla had given a speech about it in high school, terrifying their entire class. It had only made him hold on to her friendship tighter. It was the first time he realized that she tended to push away people whom she loved. Maybe that meant she didn’t love him, but it could also mean she loved him too much to let go. He prayed it was the latter. 

“Of course you’re allowed to live your own life, but if you closed your eyes right now, ready to die, would you say you’ve lived?” 

“Wow, harsh Duncan.” She met his eyes for a moment then turned from him and pretended to watch them set out the flowers and ribbons. “Every time I hear the shot to start the race, I’m alive.” 

That was that. He couldn’t take that away from her. “Fine, but now that it’s only a few weeks until Christmas, please, let’s take a break.” 

“I can’t do that!” She swept her gaze back to him, and her eyes glowed with an inner fire. “Three days before Christmas is the big qualifier. If I miss that, this whole year was a waste.” 

He didn’t want to point out that her string of second places already disqualified her from taking the slot because a few other racers had taken more than one first place. “We’ll see. It’s a long drive, and in Minnesota you never know. I’m not taking you out on the road if there’s even a slight chance we could get stranded.” 

The announcer stepped onto the low podium used for announcing the winners. It seemed to take forever to get to Isla’s class, but she dutifully handed him her coat and mittens, then pushed her chair to the winner’s circle to accept her flowers and the ribbon around her neck. 

“That’s my girl,” he whispered to no one in particular. She was so pretty with her dark hair and almond skin. Pure, lovely. Somehow, he’d get her to smile again. When he did, he’d be able to smile again too. 

Chapter Two 

There was no telling what Isla’s silver medals were made of, but they weren’t really silver. They did glint a little in the light shining through her window against the wall where she hung them. The sallow hint of sun through slight flurries of snow didn’t provide much for them to reflect. If she were like everyone else, she would have to face those flurries outdoors to go to a job, but she never would be. She was Isla, the cripple, with medals that didn’t measure up. 

In one breath, she hated the fact that there were special rules for her, because being normal and seen as normal was a dream. Yet, those very same rules made it so she could earn a living easier. Her desk sat next to her bed in her room, the various colors of the sleep-mode screen bouncing around hypnotically. She worked from home, typing up court records as quickly and accurately as possible. If she checked her email just then, she’d find files to transcribe waiting for her. But first, she needed coffee.  

She rolled her chair out to the kitchen of her first-floor apartment and popped a cup into the single-serve coffeemaker. Her phone buzzed on the counter and she slid it toward her as she pushed the button on the machine to make her coffee. An email from Duncan Schmitz, her coach, sat at the top, and the heading read: Twelve Things You Would Do Before You Die. 

Isla groaned. “Really? We’re still getting all morbs with the death talk?” She shook the heavy feeling from her chest. It was Duncan. He would never do anything to purposely hurt her. He’d always been there for her, even beyond what he should’ve. With her current losing streak, he should’ve given up. She tapped the screen of her phone with her finger, expecting a link to an article, but it was just a short paragraph. 

Isla, 

I meant what I said yesterday. We’re taking today off from practice and I want you to think of twelve things you’d like to do before you die. Like the twelve days of Christmas. Use your imagination. Over the next three weeks, we’re going to make as many of those come true as possible. Then, you’ll be able to go into that winner’s circle knowing that winning isn’t what you think it will be. Life is what matters. 

Duncan


Isla released her breath and stared at the small screen. If anyone knew what made life matter, it was Duncan. He’d been not only homeless for a time, but an orphan for most of his life. He’d seen the worst life had to offer and came out kicking.  

However, Duncan’s life wasn’t hers. She had a whole different set of needs and he was one of the first on her list. If she had to choose, the very most important thing to do before she died, would be to finally tell him how she felt. It was so hard not to. That couldn’t be helped. Some secrets were worth keeping. She carefully set her phone in her lap and affixed the lid on her mug of coffee so she wouldn’t spill it as she rolled back to her room. 

Instead of pulling up her work email, as she ought to have done, she hit the respond button on Duncan’s. Twelve things… It couldn’t be that hard. She held her hands poised over her keyboard but couldn’t force herself to type a word. What if Duncan thought they were silly? What if he didn’t think they were important enough? A text popped through and she heard the buzz, though she couldn’t feel it on her leg. Isla picked up the phone and smiled.  

Don’t think too hard about this, Chica. No trabajes tanto.

She laughed. “Yeah, don’t try too hard, my foot. You try doing this.” 

His broken Spanish was a running joke between them. Though he put forth the effort, he’d never really made it beyond about what a third grader could speak. When they were in the ninth grade, he’d pestered her to help him with his Spanish homework, saying his German tongue couldn’t wrap itself correctly around Spanish words. He’d been right about that, but at least he tried. She’d been born in America to Hispanic naturalized citizens, but knew both languages fluently and often switched midsentence just to confound Duncan. 

Don’t think too hard, she repeated to herself. 

“Fine.” She typed “Bucket List” at the top of the page.  

1. Be someone people look up to 

2. Visit the Minnehaha Falls 

3. Dance at the prom 

4. Go sledding 


Isla glanced over her list. It was hard enough to come up with five. How could she come up with more than double that? Her shoulders tensed as she looked at her list of four. Every single one of them represented something she’d had to skip for one reason or another, but they all boiled down to one reason. She couldn’t walk, and those things had hurt. She’d been excluded when her friends had gone. There was a deep scar for each one of the items she’d placed on the list, and if she could do them, a chance to heal.  

She held her breath, closed her eyes… 

5. Get kissed under the mistletoe

She opened her eyes, swung the mouse up to the send button and hit it before she could talk herself out of it. 

“Try to arrange that one, Duncan.” She laughed, but it held no humor. She was on thin ice. If he took that to mean she wanted to kiss him, he might try. Then what? What if he read it and decided she was weird…or ugly…or unworthy? She clenched her fist to her waist, her coffee burning like acid in her empty stomach. 

She rushed to click open the unsend function on her email. It was too late, he’d already opened it. 

#
 

Isla hadn’t answered his text, but he knew she was awake. She was a creature of habit as most athletes were. She got up every morning, precisely at 6:30 AM, and did her stretches to combat clots in her legs. He still wasn’t sure how she managed that alone, but every time he broached the subject, she would get frustrated and he’d drop it. After she stretched, she got dressed and ready for the day, then made coffee. He figured if he timed his email just right, she’d at least gotten her first sip before he shocked her, which was exactly what he hoped to do. 

The ping of a new email came through. As he opened the app, he held his breath. How had she done it so quickly? It had taken him an hour to make his own list of only ten and he’d been thinking about it beforehand. He scanned down her list, and his eyes caught on number five. Get kissed under the mistletoe. His mouth fell open, and he gripped the arms of his chair. Could she possibly be feeling what he had? It seemed too good to be true. 

He hit reply, but refused to broach the pink elephant that was number five on her list. 

Isla, 

That’s great, but you’re not even half done. Keep thinking. I’ll drop by after work, and we can talk about how to make some of these things happen. Only three weeks until Christmas! 

Duncan


He drummed his fingers against his chin, then picked up his phone and dialed his boss, the head pastor at the Cornerstone Church. 

“Hey, Pastor Paul, this is Duncan.” 

“Good morning. What’s up?” Paul’s voice had a natural low timber, especially so at that early hour.  

Duncan smiled. The senior pastor was very laid-back in approach, making him easy to talk to. It wasn’t that he couldn’t tell you right from wrong, or that he wasn’t out to show you where you might need conviction. He simply chose to speak it in such a plain and honest way that you knew it wasn’t him convicting you, but Him. 

“You know Isla Flores. She helps sometimes with music in the Spanish service?” 

“I do. Didn’t she start a small group at one point?” 

Duncan didn’t want to get Pastor Paul in the weeds, and that particular venture hadn’t gone well for Isla. Some small groups worked, others failed, but not for lack of trying. “Yes, that’s her. She’s been working…training…very hard to try to qualify for the Paralympics, and as her coach, I’ve got to admit it’s a very long shot. I was looking for ways to maybe bring her focus back to the church a little. What better time than Christmas, right?” 

“What do you have in mind?” Paul knew him too well. As the associate youth pastor, they’d spent many hours deep in conversation about the direction of both youth and adult ministries and how they had to connect, or children would never believe that what they learned was important. 

“I’d like Isla to be a part of the student’s pageant, reading Luke 2 at the end. I know that’s a special role and usually reserved for an older child, but if she were doing it, she might be able to recite some of it, whereas the children couldn’t. They also would have a chance to be around someone they would classify as, you know, different, and see that she really isn’t.” Duncan bit his lip and waited. Paul didn’t just slap the okay on anything if he thought it needed more thought. It was one of the things Duncan respected about his boss the most, but he needed this to happen. For Isla. 

“As long as she isn’t needed in the Spanish service, I don’t see any reason why she couldn’t, though maybe consider having her sing instead, so one of the children can still read.” 

Duncan pumped his fist in the air. One down. “That’s a good idea. Thank you, sir.” 

“Let me know if you need anything else, Schmitz. The pageant is in two weeks; I hadn’t realized you hadn’t chosen parts for everyone yet.” Back to reality. The children had been practicing some music, but they hadn’t really planned on doing a play.  

“Plans have changed a little over the last day. I’ll get right on it this Wednesday night.” 

“Sounds good.” Paul hung up, and the line went dead. 

One down, four to go. 

***

Camy here: Kari is one of the twelve authors participating with me in the Christian Contemporary Romance anthology, Save the Date, which releases September 15! Preorder now to get 12 novellas for only 99 cents!

6 comments :

  1. Thank you so much for having me on your blog!

    Kari

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  2. I'm adding this to my WTR list!

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    Replies
    1. Wasn’t that a great excerpt! I want to read this too!

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  3. Oooh, sounds so good!!!! Thanx for the excerpt!

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