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The Morning Star Rises

by Sara Davison

In the midst of all the fear and confusion, only one thing is clear … This isn’t over yet.

Jesse Christensen is out of the army, but the real battle has just begun. As martial law continues in Canada in 2054, Major Gallagher has taken over the city. His oppression of believers intensifies in response to a so-called radical Christian group that claims responsibility for more terrorist attacks. But is Gallagher acting in a professional capacity, or is he carrying out a personal vendetta?

Meryn O’Reilly faces a dark and uncertain future after shocking revelations devastate her life. She is determined to follow God’s call, but her plans could cost her everything. She and Jesse struggle to surrender everything to a God who is always in control, even when circumstances suggest otherwise.

With the world descending into chaos around them, Meryn and Jesse face the greatest barrier to their love yet–a barrier that may prove too strong to breach.

Chapter 1

Jesse Christensen stopped in the hallway between the farmhouse living room and kitchen and drew in a deep breath. He pressed a palm to the doorframe and stuck his head into the kitchen. The lingering aroma of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy permeated the room. Comfort food that had failed to bring him any comfort that evening.

Meryn O’Reilly stood at the sink, hands immersed in soapy water, apparently trying to scrub the lining off a pot.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She jerked and dropped the pot, sending a spray of water shooting across the front of her red shirt.

Jesse grimaced. Not a great way to start this conversation. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

Meryn shook the water from her hands and stalked to the stove to grab the dishtowel hanging on the handle. “I didn’t hear you coming.”

She wouldn’t have seen him either, given the way she’d studiously avoided glancing in his direction since he’d responded to her brothers’ invitation to come for dinner and shown up at her door earlier that evening. Not that he blamed her. How did a woman look at the man she’d just found out had gunned down her husband? There was no handbook for that kind of thing. Jesse pushed away from the doorframe and stepped into the room.

Meryn scrubbed at her shirt with the towel, still not looking at him. The fact that they both stood in almost the exact spots they’d been a couple of weeks earlier when she had ordered him out of her life for good had to be registering in her consciousness right about now.

Please look at me. Jesse repressed a sigh. He wasn’t any more comfortable than she was. He likely shouldn’t have come out here, but if he was going to work with her brothers, he, Shane, and Brendan had to get together. They all agreed the farm was the best place. At least here they were out of sight of the authorities, if still in range of the GPS embedded in the bracelets that identified them as believers.

Besides, Meryn wanted to be involved in any plan they devised to fight against Gallagher, who had recently been promoted to major, making him the commander of the Kingston base. Or, in his mind, king. After Gallagher had executed Jesse’s best friend and commanding officer, Caleb Donevan, and kicked Jesse out of the army at the same time, Jesse and Meryn’s family had agreed to band together to stand up to him. How did she think she could work with him if she couldn’t even look at him?

He took a tentative step closer. “So this is okay?”

“Sure.” She stopped the frenetic scrubbing and shoved the towel back over the handle. “It’s fine.”

Her trapped-animal look suggested it was anything but. “If you want me to bring Kate or Shane in here, I can.”

Meryn looked over at him. Finally.

Jesse was drawn immediately into the ocean-blue depths of her eyes. Be careful what you wish for.

“That’s not necessary. We’re both adults. I’m sure we’re capable of having a civilized conversation.” She crossed the room and sank down on a chair, pulled one knee up to her chest, and clasped her arms tightly around her leg.

Great. A civilized conversation. Just what he wanted from her. Jesse shook off the thought. He had to let go of wanting anything more than that. A pang shot through him, but he worked to keep his features even as he leaned back against the counter. “I know you told me not to come back here, but it’s the safest place for us to meet.”

“Really?” Her lips twitched slightly. “Way out in the middle of nowhere? Aren’t you just asking for trouble, coming out here?”

The muscles across his back relaxed. Was she actually joking around with him? That would make things easier. And a lot harder. “I think I’ll risk it. After all, you survived four years out here all by yourself.”

Her smile didn’t reach anywhere but her mouth, and barely there. Like a restless butterfly, landing lightly and flitting away almost immediately. “In spite of your dire predictions to the contrary.”

“Exactly.” His own lips twitched, but he couldn’t manufacture a real smile either. “Anyway, I just wanted to make sure you were okay with me coming here so we can make plans.”

She studied him for a moment, then flipped her long, dark hair back over one shoulder. “I don’t really have a choice, do I? There are things that need to be done, and we have to work together to accomplish them. You don’t always get to choose the people you’re going to work with; you just put your head down and focus on completing the task.”

Did she know how far she was pushing the blade in with every word? She’d always been able to read him, to see on his face everything he was thinking and feeling. Could she see it now, or had even that connection been severed? “So we’re co-workers.”

“Yes.” She shifted. “Is there anything else?”

“Actually, there is. I’m sure Kate told you she and Ethan offered me the use of the in-law suite in their backyard. I’m working on some other arrangements, but until those come together, I hope you don’t mind that I took them up on it.”

Meryn shrugged, as though nothing he did could possibly concern her. “You have to have a place to live. I’m glad you aren’t on the streets. Whatever you might think, I don’t want you to suffer any more than you already have.”

Then you might want to lose the nonchalance. Jesse pushed the thought away. She was hurting as much as he was. He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, trying to match her attitude with a detached one of his own. And failing miserably. His fingers closed around a hard, cold object. The silver heart she’d given him before everything between them had been smashed into pieces. He glanced at her throat. It was bare. The gold necklace he’d fastened around her neck—twice—along with the promise that she would always have his heart, was gone. Jesse pushed back his shoulders. “All right. As long as you’re okay with everything.”

The shadow that crossed her face before her guard shot back up suggested that she wasn’t as nonchalant as she was pretending to be. Hope ignited, a fragile spark dropping from flint struck against flint onto sparse tinder below.

“You didn’t change your name.”

She blinked. “What?”

“When you got married. You didn’t change your last name.”

“Oh. No, I didn’t. Like I told you, everything happened so fast. Logan and I decided we could do that when he came back and we had our big wedding.”

“Too bad. It would have saved us a lot of … confusion if you had.”

She exhaled. “I know.”

Jesse pulled his hands from his pockets and gripped the edges of the counter on either side of him as he studied her. She looked thinner and there were shadows under her eyes. Was she all right? He bit his tongue to keep from asking. Of course she wasn’t all right. She was a widow, thanks to him, and in mourning. Did she grieve the loss of him a little, or were her thoughts only for her husband? He cleared his throat. “If we’re going to work together, it would be great if it wasn’t awkward for everyone. Do you think we could be friends, at least?” He almost choked over the word.

“We could try.” Her voice softened slightly.

That would have to do. For now. Her feigned disinterest seemed to be gone anyway.

God, let it be feigned.

Otherwise the hope he clung to would extinguish quickly, leaving nothing but a curling tendril of smoke in its wake. His gaze settled on her mouth. A rush of longing poured through him. If things had gone according to his plan, they’d be married by now. Jesse clenched his jaw. Don’t go there. None of this was his plan; it was God’s plan. Which meant it had to be better. Something Jesse was sure he’d come to see. Eventually.

Meryn lowered her foot to the floor. “It’s almost curfew. You should go.”

He lifted his eyes quickly. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

She stood and headed for the hallway as if she had been released from a cage.

When she reached him, Jesse touched her elbow. He’d told her once that she didn’t feel like glass, all hard and cold. Now, with every muscle in her body tense, that’s exactly how she felt.

She stopped but didn’t turn in his direction.

“I really am sorry, Meryn. More sorry than I can say.”

“I know you are.” Her gaze dropped to his fingers, still resting on her arm. “Are we through here?”

Jesse pulled back his hand. “I guess so.” For several seconds, all he could do was stare at the doorway where she had disappeared.

Chapter 2

Bells jangled above the door of Meryn’s secondhand bookstore. She looked up from dusting the shelves.

“Aunt Meryn!” Three-and-a-half-year-old Gracie ran down the aisle toward her.

Meryn set the feather duster on top of a row of books and crouched down. Gracie flew into her arms, nearly knocking her backward. Meryn pulled her close and looked over the strawberry curls at Kate, the friend who was more of a sister to Meryn and her brothers than their half-sister, Annaliese, had ever been. Still holding Gracie, Meryn straightened up. “This is a nice surprise.”

Kate tucked her short red hair behind one ear. “Gracie’s been begging me to bring her to see you for a couple of days, so I finally gave in.”

“I’m fine, Kate. You don’t have to keep checking up on me.”

Kate cupped Meryn’s chin, studying her. “Fine is clearly a bit of an overstatement.” She let go of her. “I am glad to see you back at work, though.”

Meryn set Gracie down and reached for her hand. “Want to go to the kids’ section, Gracie?” She led the little girl down a long aisle between rows of books, toward the area in the back corner she’d recently set up for children who came into the store with their parents. Two-foot-high bookshelves formed a rectangular area, a small break between a couple of the shelves allowing kids to come and go. Inside the rectangle, a large, brightly-coloured rug covered the wooden floor. Bins of toys lined the back wall of the area, and soft cushions were strewn every few feet.

Gracie tugged her hand free and ran through the opening.

Meryn waited until Kate came up alongside her. “I had to get back to work. There’s a lot to do here. Besides, I was climbing the walls at home. Way too much time to think.”

“Who were you thinking about?”

“Not who, what. My life, mostly. Where I’m at and what I should do now that so much has changed.” How I’m going to keep going after losing everything. She shook off the negativity. She still had so much to be thankful for. God, family, friends, and—she glanced around the store—resources. What more did she need? She mentally blocked that answer before it could even cross her mind.

Kate stopped at the entrance to the kids’ area and turned to her. “And?”

“I have one or two ideas. I have time, now that I’m not involved with anyone, and I want to do something meaningful.”

“Are you going to share those ideas with me?”

“Soon. When I have all the details worked out.”

“All right. I’m assuming you’re talking about the list of things Jesse wants us to do.”

His name still stung but Meryn worked to keep the jolt that shot through her like a current of electricity from showing on her face.

Unfortunately, Kate knew her too well. “Would you rather I not talk about him?”

Meryn waved a hand through the air. “Of course not. It’s fine. He asked me last night if the two of us could be friends. He’s obviously still part of our lives. I’m going to be hearing his name all the time.”

“And you’re …”

“Perfectly fine with that.”

Kate smiled. “Just seeing how many times you’re going to work the word fine into this conversation. You do understand what it means, right?”

Meryn shot her a dark look. “Yes, I understand what it means. And yes, I guess Jesse is the one who’s got me thinking about what I can do. But I’m not doing this for him; I’m doing it for God, and all of us, and for the Christians in Kingston. At least in some small way, I’d like to try and make things better.”

“You sound pretty passionate about this, Mer. So go for it. It will help take your mind off … everything.”

“That’s the plan.”

“And it’s a fine one.”

Meryn scrunched up her face, and Kate laughed.

A buzzer sounded from the rear of the store.

Meryn glanced in that direction and bit her lip. “I’m expecting a delivery this morning. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Sure.” Kate slipped through the opening in the shelves and sank down, cross-legged, on the area rug.

Clutching a picture book to her chest, Gracie ran over to Kate and turned around to drop into her lap. “Read, Mama.”

Meryn grinned. Nothing made her happier than kids enjoying her huge collection of children’s books. The thrill that gave her was one reason she was so thankful the army had allowed her to re-open her store, even after she’d been arrested for using the place to smuggle Bibles.

Her smile faded as she headed for the back room and marched through the swinging doors. The table where she did her unpacking and sorting dominated the small space. Meryn walked around it and made her way to the door. A medium-sized cardboard box sat on the stoop outside. After glancing up and down the alley and not seeing anyone, she bent down and lifted the box to carry it inside. She shifted it onto one hip, so she could pull the door shut and lock it.

Her hands shook a little when she set the box down on the table. She ran her fingers over the top of it. Father, I know this is what you want me to do. Give me courage. She’d open it later, when Kate and Gracie were gone. Meryn turned the handle to close the blinds over the one small window in the room, stuck the box in a cupboard she’d cleared out in preparation for the delivery, and closed the doors firmly.

When she got back to the children’s area, Gracie was snuggled in Kate’s lap, but the little girl must have gotten up a few times since Meryn had left as the pile of books on the floor beside Kate had grown to at least ten.

The ache in Meryn’s chest drove in deep. Would she ever have a child of her own? The prospect appeared less and less likely. Maybe that wasn’t God’s will for her. Which is fine. She winced as the word crossed her mind. Kate was right, as usual. The truth was nothing was fine. She certainly wasn’t. She scooped a stuffed animal up off the floor and tossed it into a red bin. “Want me to take a turn?”

“Sure.” Gracie went for more books, and Kate took the opportunity to stand up and dust off the back of her pants. “I want to browse around for a bit anyway. I need something to read.”

“Okay.” Meryn settled on the carpet and patted her knees. “Come on, Gracie. Aunt Meryn will read you a story.”

The little girl trotted over with a book in each hand.

For the next twenty minutes, Meryn read book after book to Gracie, delighting in the little girl’s laughter and the chubby fingers pointing out animals and objects on the pages. What would her family have done if Jesse hadn’t been able to get Gracie and her brother, Matthew, back after the army removed them from Kate and Ethan’s home a few weeks earlier?

Her arms tightened around the little girl. They would have gone on, somehow. Still, two bright rays of light in their family would have been extinguished. The dark shadows that remained might never have lifted. Meryn pressed a kiss to the top of Gracie’s head.

“Had enough?”

She looked up. Kate was watching the two of them, an amused smile on her face.

“Are you talking to me or Gracie?”

“You. Gracie could never have enough stories. She’d listen to you read for hours if you were willing.”

The bells above the front door jangled again. Meryn lifted Gracie from her lap and rose with a groan. “I am willing, but I better take care of my customers. Did you find a book?”

Kate held up a paperback. “This should last me a couple of days. Then we’ll be back, so I can find another one.”

“And check up on me.”

“We’d never do that, would we, Gracie?” Kate hoisted her daughter up into her arms. “And why would we need to? Aunt Meryn’s just fine, isn’t she?”

Gracie nodded and rested her head on Kate’s shoulder.

Meryn picked up the pile of books and set them on a shelf. “I better go see if anyone needs help.”

Kate caught her arm as she walked by them, leaned in close, and whispered, “Did that delivery you just got have something to do with one of those ideas you mentioned earlier?”

Meryn glanced toward the front of the store. “Maybe.”

“You’re not going to get yourself in trouble again, are you?”

“It seems like just about anything we do these days can get us into trouble.”

“That’s pretty evasive.” Kate let go of her. “Okay, Mer, I’ll wait until you’re ready to tell me about it. Just promise me you’ll be careful, okay?”

“I will.” Meryn followed her to the front door.

Two customers, a man and a woman, were perusing books in the historical fiction section.

“Thanks for coming by. I really do appreciate it.”

Kate opened the door and turned back, her hazel eyes serious. “I mean it. Be careful.”

“You worry too much. I’m …”

Kate held up a hand. “Don’t say it.”

Meryn laughed and went out onto the front stoop as Kate set Gracie down and helped her climb down the steps. When they reached the bottom, the two of them headed for the van parked at the curb. Although it wasn’t quite ten in the morning, the early August heat was already oppressive, rising in shimmering waves from the sidewalk.

Meryn turned to go back inside. Sunlight glinted off the silver fish symbol screwed above the door of the store, and her chest tightened. Would having her store marked as a Christian business make it easier or harder for her to carry out her plans? She drew in a breath of humidity-laden air. Only time would tell. That part was out of her hands.

The bells jangled softly as she went in and closed the door behind her.