Week 6 Finalist

TITLE: Her Own Best Enemy
AUTHOR: Cynthia Justlin
CATEGORY: Romantic Suspense

Keith King looked about as approachable as a coiled timber rattler ready to strike—and that was with his back to her.

Grace Stevens would rather take her chances on a deadly rattler any day than confront the callous man who’d spent his teenage years humiliating her. Fourteen years later, and she still couldn’t forgive or forget.

She squeezed her eyes shut, the strong smell of antiseptic cleanser stinging her nostrils. He’d used her.

Well, now it was her turn. To find her son she’d take on the devil himself. In this case, the devil just happened to be Keith.

The security door of Monthan Rehabilitation Center’s recreation room slammed behind her, sending shivers up her spine. He’d make her beg. Asking wouldn’t be good enough. Not for the Keith she remembered.

A clap of thunder shook the high windows. Hard rain pelted the glass mercilessly announcing the onslaught of another Arizona monsoon. The tormented weather matched the wave of unease that roiled through herstomach.

What if Keith refused?

No, she wouldn’t think it. Wouldn’t allow it. He was her best hope of bringing Ryker home safe and sound.

Grace squared her shoulders and narrowed her gaze on Keith’s back. He sat alone at a circular table tucked in one corner. Around him primary-colored chairs were scattered at larger tables adding a splash of brightness to the otherwise sterile white atmosphere.

Why had he checked himself into such a dismal place?

Two nurses in white uniforms gave her questioning glances as they passed. She mustered up a smile for them and strode to Keith’s table.

Confident. Calm. Everything she wasn’t.

Her steps faltered and slowed to a stop when she came close enough to make out Keith’s rigid spine and the don’t-mess-with-me tendons that stretched taut in his neck as he bent over the table.

What did she say to him? Did she tell him how she knew him? Hi, Keith, remember me? Grace-less Cooper? The awkward girl you tormented, teased…destroyed?

“Keith…King?” Her voice cracked on his name. She grit her teeth and continued around the table until they were face to face.

He looked up from the deck of cards he was shuffling. His intense hazel eyes narrowed on her face. Cold. Calculating. Derisive.

A scar marred his left cheek, a half moon that bisected the hard plane of his jaw. He hadn’t had it as a teenager, she definitely would’ve remembered. Even the faintest lines of his young face had been branded in her memory.

His straw-colored hair had darkened since his youth and was much, much shorter, in the typical military style. And the mouth that had once been the talk of teenage girls in two counties no longer appeared to have a hint of the sensuality it once possessed. In fact, the grim slash was void of any emotion at all.

Strangely enough, it only served to make his mouth sexier.

“Who’s asking?”

Until he opened it to speak, that is.

The rusty edge to his voice stirred a cocktail of nerves and anger through her. Damn him, he’d always had the ability to reduce her to a quivering mass of uncertainty.

Not this time.

She stiffened her spine and thrust out her hand. “Grace Stevens.”

She watched his eyes for a flicker of recognition, waiting for them to darken with suspicion, or narrow in irritation, but they stared back at her with nothing more than cool assessment. Of course he wouldn’tremember her. She’d been nothing more than a gangly, awkward, girl, sport for Keith and his friends, while he’d been the catalyst that crumbled her whole world.

He shifted his steady gaze to her outstretched hand then back to her face. “And?”

Grace jerked a pale yellow plastic chair away from the table and sat, deliberately throwing his coarse attitude back at him.

Keith arched a brow. “Like a seat?” His gaze never wavered from her face as he fanned the deck of cards in front of him.

The cold plastic seeped through her jeans. She wedged her chilled hands between her knees. “Your sister told me where I could find you.”

He snorted. “Figures.”

With a deft hand, he tossed down a series of cards, flipped one over and laid the red queen of diamonds on top of the black king of spades.

“I—” She swallowed past her dry throat. “I need your help.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible. I don’t even know you.” He turned over a red nine of diamonds and placed it on top of a black ten of clubs.

Did she tell him? You’re the boy that ruined my life. Somehow she didn’t think that would entice him to help her.

“I just…if I could have a moment of your time.”

There. Polite. Gracious. Surely he wouldn’t continue to give her the cold shoulder.

Without so much as a glance, or a word, Keith tossed two more cards atop the table.

“Please.” Her voice quaked. “You’re wasting time!” The one precious commodity she didn’t have. Each second that ticked past only succeeded in separating her further from Ryker.

She didn’t know what she’d expected from Keith—certainly not a friendly greeting—but his total lack of response pushed her to the edge.

Grace slapped her palms on the table. “If you could just look at me. Please. Listen to what I have to say. Just for a minute.”

A minute to explain, and however long it took to enlist his aid. She wouldn’t leave unless he gave his word, not that it meant a darn thing, but right now she needed something to believe in.

Keith lifted his head, his jaw clamped tight. His hazel eyes snagged on her and held, a spark of annoyance darkening their color.

“I need you to help me find my son.”


Cynthia, the tension and conflict in this scene crackles! Love how you’ve thrown the hero and heroine together instantly and put them a situation from the get-go that seems almost impossible to overcome.  I know that there are going to be lots of tense moments to come.

And what a hero! Discovering what’s given him such attitude and watching him fall for Grace is enough to keep me turning the page. And I’m dying to know why he’s in rehab, what’s happened between him and Grace in the past, and why she needs his help now.  Lots of unanswered questions are dangling in this scene – but in a good way.

Great job!


28 responses

18 02 2009
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18 02 2009

In the past, he’s devastated her and looms so large in her mind–yet when she approaches him, he doesn’t even remember her! Love it. You withhold just enough detail to keep me wanting more.

Great job, Cynthia!

18 02 2009

Wow–amazing tension, and I definitely want to read more! Darn, why are these only 1,000 words, lol! He seems to be brutal yet he’s also fascinating. I also like the fact that she’s gotten a backbone along the way since her tormented childhood. (And really, even for those of us who weren’t really bullied, anyone can relate to feelings of outsider-ness at least once during childhood.)

You did an excellent job here, Cynthia. Congratulations!

18 02 2009
Leigh Michaels

Cynthia, I really like this opening. From “Grace-less Cooper” to the hero’s attitude to the hints that he’s ex-military… I was reading very carefully so I didn’t miss anything. All the questions you’ve left about what’s happened to her son, why she needs Keith, why he doesn’t (seem to) remember her are gripping — I’d definitely keep reading.

18 02 2009

Wow! I’m so excited to be this week’s finalist! I’m grinning from ear to ear. Grace and Keith are characters near and dear to my heart, so I’m thrilled that everyone is intrigued with them.

Thanks, Rachelle and Leigh! 🙂

18 02 2009
Carly Carson

Congrats, Cynthia,

Are we going to have a tortured hero here? lol

Readers love ’em. Great opening line.


19 02 2009
19 02 2009

Congrats, Cynthia. I’ve always loved Grace and Keith. Awesome job.

20 02 2009
Phyllis Campbell

Cynthia, sorry it took so long to pop in. But I’m excited for you!! This is an awesome story. Everyone, I’m one of Cynthia’s crit partners, and I can tell you, this woman is going FAR!!


24 02 2009

Congratulations! I loved your opening line.

25 02 2009

Great story, I loved it! Great characters and I love the conflict and tension you have in just the first 1000 words. It drew me right in & I would love to read more.

Great job!

27 02 2009

Dropping back in to say thanks to everyone who commented on my opening! I’m so happy to see that it is hooking readers! Thanks again to Rachelle and Leigh for giving of their time and expertise…this contest has been so much fun!

27 02 2009
Paula G.

Very well done, Cynthia! Wonderful tension and I love your voice. Your characters really come alive. I can’t wait to read more!!!

4 03 2009
Theresa Stevens

Excellent characters, strong conflict, tension crackling in almost every line. This is very good writing. I was completely hooked by the end.

You might want to rethink the first four paragraphs, though, so that the reader is grounded a bit more quickly. It’s not a big problem, but it would have helped to get a quicker sense of setting. This is a very minor nitpick.

Good job! Good luck!

5 03 2009

Thanks for the feedback, Theresa! Much appreciated!

6 03 2009
Laura Bradford

I like your opening line quite a bit. It sets the tone very nicely. This scene sparks with tension, which is great, but ultimately, I found the forboding overtures to be a bit heavy handed. You mention that he’s the devil, that he’d ruined her life, that she could never forget or forgive him, that he’d used her, destroyed her and other variations on that theme several times…a few drops like that and they stop having as much power. I think if you want to emphasize that the man destroyed her life, you should use strong, decisive language like that sparingly, so it has more resonance. I didn’t want to be told he was a total bastard, I wanted you to show me that he was. To that end, I was anxious for the dialogue between them to begin.

I thought there was a slight contradiction when she said that he’d used her so she planned to use him in return because, if I am reading this right, she is planning to ask him for help. How is that using him? If she does have plans to take advantage of him and then throw him away, now THAT could be interesting. The emotionality of the piece was on point and the writing is definitely solid. Get to the dialogue a little quicker and I’d say you have a winner.

8 03 2009
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9 03 2009
Raelene Gorlinsky

Good impact from the first sentence!

Excellent contrast between her focus on their past conflict, and him not recognizing or remembering her. I liked her dialogue, her stammering difficulty in figuring out how to talk to him.

I was left eager to find out if her missing son is also HIS son, if that is how he ruined her life. And why she thinks he can help locate the boy, being as he is in prison.

10 03 2009
Faith Black

There is some great tension in this scene and it certainly makes the reader want to know more about what’s going on and what’s going to happen. A couple of minor nitpicky thinks you might want to keep an eye on. There are several instances (for example “What did she say to him?” and “Did she tell him?”) where “did” is used as opposed to “should” or “would”. This is confusing as it makes it seem like she’s already had the conversation with him rather than wondering what she should say when she sits down with him. Also, there’s a lot of really charged language, adjectives, etc: tortured, tormented, deadly, onslaught, mercilessly, etc. Watch that these things don’t get overused as they start to lose their efficacy when things seem too fraught.

But you’ve done a great job of setting the scene and enticing the reader and establishing the history between these two characters.

12 03 2009

To Laura Bradford: Thank you so much for your comments! I appreciate you pointing out where I’m going overboard on the dramatic overtones. It’s always hard to strike the right balance and now that I’m aware of the problem I can go through my manuscript and streamline some of those out.

I appreciate your time!

12 03 2009

To Raelene Gorlinsky: Thanks so much for the feedback. I’m thrilled that the entry left you wanting to know more.

I appreciate your time!

12 03 2009

To Faith Black: Thank you for your time and the helpful feedback! It is much appreciated! I will definitely watch out for the issues you mentioned and make sure I’m not overusing some of these dramatic phrases.

16 03 2009
Elaine English

You did a marvelous job of depicting the tension in this scene. The emotional level is strong and engaging from the very first sentence and continues throughout the scene. But I’m not sure I understood too much of the plot. Why is Grace seeking the help of someone who’s in rehab, a mental hospital, whatever? I wasn’t clear why the fact that he did her wrong necessarily qualified him to help her find her son. And, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when the scene ended with it only being her son — I was sure you were going to say it was their son.

17 03 2009
Katie Gilligan

You really set up wonderful tension and suspense right from the beginning; it captivates the reader and also allures them to wait for the “hook.” I was confused about the rehab thing–was it mental, physical, addiction? It also made it sound like Keith was a counselor there at first, rather than a patient. You might want to clarify these kinds of things just for the sake of facility at such an early point in the book. Also watch for over-used metaphors–“if the devil was Keith” or “sent shivers up my spine”–Grace seems too unique for that! There’s definitely many layers here, and involving the past and present–I think you do a really nice job of getting the reader interested and delivering.

18 03 2009

To Elaine English:

Thanks for taking the time to point out areas where I need clarification. The reasons Keith is in rehab and why he is the only one who can help her become clear in the following pages, but perhaps I need to look at grounding the reader sooner.

I appreciate the feedback!

18 03 2009

To Katie Gilligan:

Thanks so much for your comments! I will definitely keep an eye out for those pesky over-used metaphors, and look to clarifying a few of those plot issues. I appreciate your time and feedback!

20 03 2009
Megan McKeever

Great opening! I really enjoyed reading this and I think you are a strong writer. I’d just be careful to take the writing down just a notch – at times it felt a little overwritten which can take the reader out of the story.

21 03 2009

To Megan McKeever:

Thanks so much for the compliments on my writing! I will definitely look to trim down the overwritten bits. I appreciate your time and feedback!

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