Tuesday, July 29, 2008

DragonLight - Chapter 1

DragonLight

(WaterBrook Press - June 17, 2008)



Chapter 1: Castle Passages

Kale wrinkled her nose at the dank air drifting up from the stone staircase.

Below, utter darkness created a formidable barrier. Toopka stood close to her knee. Sparks skittered across the doneel child’s furry hand where she clasped the flowing, soft material of Kale’s wizard robe. Kale frowned down at her ward. The little doneel spent too much time attached to her skirts to be captivated by the light show.

Instead, Toopka glowered into the forbidding corridor. “What’s down there?”

Kale sighed. “I’m not sure.”

“Is it the dungeon?”

“I don’t think we have a dungeon.”

Toopka furrowed her brow in confusion. “Don’t you know? It’s your castle.”

“A castle built by committee.” Kale’s face grimaced at the memory of weeks of creative chaos. She put her hand on Toopka’s soft head.

The doneel dragged her gaze away from the stairway, tilted her head back, and frowned at her guardian. “What’s ‘by committee’?”

“You remember, don’t you? It was just five years ago.”

“I remember the wizards coming and the pretty tents in the meadow.” Toopka pursed her lips. “And shouting. I remember shouting.”

“They were shouting because no one was listening. Twenty-one wizards came for the castle raising. Each had their own idea about what we needed. So they each constructed their fragment of the castle structure according to their whims.”

Toopka giggled.

“I don’t think it’s funny. The chunks of castle were erected, juxtaposed with the others, but not as a whole unit. I thank Wulder that at least my parents had some sense. My mother and father connected the tads, bits, and smidgens together with steps and short halls. When nothing else would work, they formed gateways from one portion to another.”

The little doneel laughed out loud and hid her face in Kale’s silky wizard’s robe. Miniature lightning flashes enveloped Toopka’s head and cascaded down her neck, over her back, and onto the floor like a waterfall of sparks.

Kale cut off the flow of energy and placed a hand on the doneel’s shoulder. “Surely you remember this, Toopka.”

She looked up, her face growing serious. “I was very young then.”

Kale narrowed her eyes and examined the child’s innocent face. “As long as I have known you, you’ve appeared to be the same age. Are you ever going to grow up?”

Toopka shrugged, then the typical smile of a doneel spread across her face. Her thin black lips stretched, almost reaching from ear to ear.

“I’m growing up as fast as I can, but I don’t think I’m the one in charge. If I were in charge, I would be big enough to have my own dragon, instead of searching for yours.”

The statement pulled Kale back to her original purpose. No doubt she had been manipulated yet again by the tiny doneel, but dropping the subject of Toopka’s age for the time being seemed prudent. Kale rubbed the top of Toopka’s head. The shorter fur between her ears felt softer than the hair on the child’s arms. Kale always found it soothing to stroke Toopka’s head, and the doneel liked it as well.

Kale let her hand fall to her side and pursued their mission. “Gally and Mince have been missing for a day and a half. We must find them. Taylaminkadot said she heard an odd noise when she came down to the storeroom.” Kale squared her shoulders and took a step down into the dark, dank stairwell. “Gally and Mince may be down here, and they may be in trouble.”

“How can you know who’s missing?” Toopka tugged on Kale’s robe, letting loose a spray of sparkles. “You have hundreds of minor dragons in the castle and more big dragons in the fields.”

“I know.” Kale put her hand in front of her, and a globe of light appeared, resting on her palm. “I’m a Dragon Keeper. I know when any of my dragons have missed a meal or two.” She stepped through the doorway.

Toopka tugged on Kale’s gown. “May I have a light too?”

“Of course.” She handed the globe to the doneel. The light flickered. Kale tapped it, and the glow steadied. She produced another light to sit in her own hand and proceeded down the steps.

Toopka followed, clutching the sparkling cloth of Kale’s robe in one hand and the light in the other. “I think we should take a dozen guards with us.”

“I don’t think there’s anything scary down here, Toopka. After all, as you reminded me, this is our castle, and we certainly haven’t invited anything nasty to live with us.”

“It’s the things that come uninvited that worry me.”

“All right. Just a moment.” Kale turned to face the archway at the top of the stairs, a few steps up from where they stood. She reached with her mind to the nearest band of minor dragons. Soon chittering dragon voices, a rainbow vision of soft, flapping, leathery wings, and a ripple of excitement swept through her senses. She heard Artross, the leader of this watch, call for his band to mind their manners, listen to orders, and calm themselves.

Kale smiled her greeting as they entered the stairway and circled above her. She turned to Toopka, pleased with her solution, but Toopka scowled. Obviously, the doneel was not impressed with the arrival of a courageous escort.

Kale opened her mouth to inform Toopka that a watch of dragons provides sentries, scouts, and fighters. And Bardon had seen to their training. But the doneel child knew this.

Each watch formed without a Dragon Keeper’s instigation. Usually eleven to fifteen minor dragons developed camaraderie, and a leader emerged. A social structure developed within each watch. Kale marveled at the process. Even though she didn’t always understand the choices, she did nothing to alter the natural way of establishing the hierarchy and respectfully worked with what was in place.

Artross, a milky white dragon who glowed in the dark, had caught Kale’s affections. She sent a warm greeting to the serious-minded leader and received a curt acknowledgment. The straight-laced young dragon with his tiny, mottled white body tickled her. Although they didn’t look alike in the least, Artross’s behavior reminded Kale of her husband’s personality.

Kale nodded at Toopka and winked. “Now we have defenders.”

“I think,” said the doneel, letting go of Kale’s robe and stepping down a stair, “it would be better if they were bigger and carried swords.”

Kale smiled as one of the younger dragons landed on her shoulder. He pushed his violet head against her chin, rubbing with soft scales circling between small bumps that looked like stunted horns. Toopka skipped ahead with the other minor dragons flying just above her head.

“Hello, Crain,” said Kale, using a fingertip to stroke his pink belly. She’d been at his hatching a week before. The little dragon chirred his contentment. “With your love of learning, I’m surprised you’re not in the library with Librettowit.”

A scene emerged in Kale’s mind from the small dragon’s thoughts. She hid a smile. “I’m sorry you got thrown out, but you must not bring your snacks into Librettowit’s reading rooms. A tumanhofer usually likes a morsel of food to tide him over, but not when the treat threatens to smudge the pages of his precious books.” She felt the small beast shudder at the memory of the librarian’s angry voice. “It’s all right, Crain. He’ll forgive you and let you come back into his bookish sanctum.

And he’ll delight in helping you find all sorts of wonderful facts.” Toopka came scurrying back. She’d deserted her lead position in the company of intrepid dragons. The tiny doneel dodged behind Kale and once more clutched the sparkling robe. Kale shifted her attention to a commotion ahead and sought out the thoughts of the leader Artross.

“What’s wrong?” asked Kale, but her answer came as she tuned in to the leader of the dragon watch.

Artross trilled orders to his subordinates. Kale saw the enemy through the eyes of this friend.

An anvilhead snake slid over the stone floor of a room stacked high with large kegs. His long black body stretched out from a nook between two barrels. With the tail of the serpent hidden, she had no way of knowing its size. These reptiles’ heads outweighed their bodies. The muscled section behind the base of the jaws could be as much as six inches wide.

But the length of the snake could be from three feet to thirty. Kale shuddered but took another step down the passage. Artross looked around the room and spotted another section of ropelike body against the opposite wall. Kegs hid most of the snake.

Kale grimaced. Another snake? Or the end of the one threatening my
dragons?

The viper’s heavy head advanced, and the distant portion moved with the same speed.

One snake.

“Toopka, stay here,” she ordered and ran down the remaining steps. She tossed the globe from her right hand to her left and pulled her sword from its hiding place beneath her robe. Nothing appeared to be in her hand, but Kale felt the leather-bound hilt secure in her grip.

The old sword had been given to her by her mother, and Kale knew how to use the invisible blade with deadly precision. “Don’t let him get away,” she called as she increased her speed through the narrow corridor.

The wizard robe dissolved as she rushed to join her guard. Her long dress of azure and plum reformed itself into leggings and a tunic. The color drained away and returned as a pink that would rival a stunning sunset. When she reached the cold, dark room, she cast her globe into the air. Floating in the middle of the room, it tripled in size and gave off a brighter light.

The dragons circled above the snake, spitting their caustic saliva with great accuracy. Kale’s skin crawled at the sight of the coiling reptile. More and more of the serpentine body emerged from the shadowy protection of the stacked kegs. Obviously, the snake did not fear these intruders.

Even covered with splotches of brightly colored spit, the creature looked like the loathsome killer it was. Kale’s two missing dragons could have been dinner for the serpent. She searched the room with the talent Wulder had bestowed upon her and concluded the little ones still lived.

The reptile hissed at her, raised its massive head, and swayed in a threatening posture. The creature slithered toward her, propelled by the elongated body still on the floor. Just out of reach of Kale’s sword, the beast stopped, pulled its head back for the strike, and let out a slow, menacing hiss. The snake lunged, and Kale swung her invisible weapon.

The severed head sailed across the room and slammed against the stone wall.

Kale eyed the writhing body for a moment. “You won’t be eating any more small animals.” She turned her attention to the missing dragons and pointed her sword hand at a barrel at the top of one stack. “There. Gally and Mince are in that keg.”

Several dragons landed on the wooden staves, and a brown dragon examined the cask to determine how best to open it. Toopka ran into the room and over to the barrel. “I’ll help.”

Kale tilted her head. “There is also a nest of snake eggs.” She consulted the dragon most likely to know facts about anvilhead vipers. Crain landed on her shoulder and poured out all he knew in a combination of chittering and thoughts.

The odd reptiles preferred eating young farm animals, grain, and feed. They did nothing to combat the population of rats, insects, and vermin. No farmer allowed the snakes on his property if he could help it. “Find the nest,” Kale ordered. “Destroy them all.”

The watch of dragons took flight again, zooming into lightrockilluminated passages leading off from this central room. Kale waited until a small group raised an alarm. Four minor dragons had found the nest.

She plunged down a dim passage, sending a plume of light ahead and calling for the dispersed dragons to join her. Eleven came from the other corridors, and nine flew in a V formation in front of her. Gally and Mince landed on her shoulders.

“You’re all right. I’m so glad.”

They scooted next to her neck, shivering. From their minds she deciphered the details of their ordeal. A game of hide-and-seek had led them into the depths of the castle. When the snake surprised them, they’d flown under the off-center lid of the barrel. As Mince dove into the narrow opening, he knocked the top just enough for it to rattle down into place. This successfully kept the serpent out, but also trapped them within.

Kale offered sympathy, and they cuddled against her, rubbing their heads on her chin as she whisked through the underground tunnel in pursuit of the other dragons.

Numerous rooms jutted off the main hallway, each stacked with boxes, crates, barrels, and huge burlap bags. Kale had no idea this vast amount of storage lay beneath the castle. Taylaminkadot, their efficient housekeeper and wife to Librettowit, probably had a tally sheet listing each item. Kale and the dragons passed rooms that contained fewer and fewer supplies until the stores dwindled to nothing.

How long does this hallway continue on? She slowed to creep along and tiptoed over the stone floor, noticing the rougher texture under her feet. Approaching a corner, she detected the four minor dragons destroying the snake’s nest in the next room. Her escort of flying dragons veered off into the room, and she followed. The small dragons swooped over the nest, grabbed an egg, then flew to the beamed roof of the storage room. They hurled the eggs to the floor, and most broke open on contact. Some had more rubbery shells, a sign that they would soon hatch. The minor dragons attacked these eggs with tooth and claw. Once the shell gave way, the content was pulled out and examined.

No hatchling snake survived. The smell alone halted Kale in her tracks and sent her back a pace. She screwed up her face, but no amount of pinching her nose muscles cut off the odor of raw eggs and the bodies of unborn snakes. She produced a square of moonbeam material from her pocket and covered the lower half of her face. The properties of the handkerchief filtered the unpleasant aroma.

Her gaze fell on the scene of annihilation. Usually, Kale found infant animals to be endearing, attractive in a gangly way. But the small snake bodies looked more like huge blackened worms than babies. Toopka raced up behind her and came to a skidding stop when she reached the doorway. “Ew!” She buried her face in the hem of Kale’s tunic, then peeked out with her nose still covered.

The minor dragons continued to destroy the huge nest. Kale estimated over a hundred snake eggs must have been deposited in the old shallow basket. The woven edges sagged where the weight of the female snake had broken the reeds. Kale shuddered at the thought of all those snakes hatching and occupying the lowest level of the castle, her home.

The urge to be above ground, in the light, and with her loved ones compelled her out of the room. Good work, she commended the dragons as she backed into the passage. Artross, be sure that no egg is left unshattered. She received his assurance, thanked him, then turned about and ran. She must find Bardon.

“Wait for me!” Toopka called. Her tiny, booted feet pounded the stone floor in a frantic effort to catch up.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Falcon And The Sparrow - Excerpt

The Falcon And The Sparrow

(Barbour Publishing, Inc - August 1, 2008)


March 1803 Dover, England

Dominique Celine Dawson stepped off the teetering plank of the ship and instantly became a traitor to England. Seeking the comfort of solid land beneath her feet, she thanked the purser and released his hand with a forced smile.

He tipped his hat and handed her the small embroidered valise containing all her worldly possessions. "Looks like rain," he called back over his shoulder as he headed up the gangway.

Black clouds swirled above her, stealing all light from the mid-morning sun. A gust of wind clawed at her bonnet. Passengers and sailors unloading cargo collided with her from all directions. She stepped aside, testing her wobbly legs. Although she'd just boarded the ship from Calais, France to Dover that morning, her legs quivered nearly as much as her heart. She hated sailing. What an embarrassment she must have been to her father, an admiral in the British Royal Navy.

A man dressed in a top hat and wool cape bumped into her and nearly knocked her to the ground.

Stumbling, Dominique clamped her sweaty fingers around her valise, feeling as though it was her heart they squeezed. Did the man know? Did he know what she had been sent here to do?

He shot her an annoyed glance over his shoulder. "Beggin' your pardon, miss," he muttered before trotting off, lady on his arm and children in tow.

Blowing out a sigh, Dominique tried to still her frantic breathing. She must focus. She must remain calm. She had committed no crime-yet.

She scanned the bustling port of Dover. Waves of people flowed through the streets, reminding her of the tumultuous sea she had just crossed. Ladies in silk bonnets clung to gentlemen in long-tailed waistcoats and breeches. Beggars, merchants, and tradesmen hustled to and fro as if they didn't have a minute to lose. Dark-haired
Chinamen hauled two-wheeled carts behind them loaded with passengers or goods. Carriages and horses clomped over the cobblestone streets. The air filled with a thousand voices, shouts and screams and curses and idle chatter accompanied by the
incessant tolling of bells and the rhythmic lap of the sea against the docks.

The stench of fish and human sweat stung Dominique's nose, and she coughed and took a step forward, searching for the carriage that surely must have been sent to convey her to London and to the Randal estate. But amidst the dizzying crowd, no empty conveyance sat waiting; no pair of eyes met hers-at least none belonging to a coachman sent to retrieve her. Other eyes flung their slithering gazes her way, however, like snakes preying on a tiny ship mouse. A lady traveling alone was not a sight often seen.

. . . . .

Rain battered her as she stared up at the massive white house, but she no longer cared. Her bonnet draped over her hair like a wet fish, her coiffure had melted into a tangle of saturated strands, and her gown, littered with mud, clung to her like a heavy shroud. She deserved it, she supposed, for what she had come to do.

She wondered if Admiral Randal was anything like his house-cold, imposing, and rigid. Four stories high, it towered above most houses on the street. Two massive white columns stood like sentinels holding up the awning while guarding the front door. The admiral sat on the Admiralty Board of His Majesty's Navy, making him a
powerful man privy to valuable information such as the size, location, and plans of the British fleet. Would he be anything like her dear father?

Dominique skirted the stairs that led down to the kitchen. Her knees began to quake as she continued toward the front door. The blood rushed from her head. The world began to spin around her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she swallowed. No, she had to do this. For you Marcel. You're all I have left in the world.

She opened her eyes and took another step, feeling as though she walked into a grand mausoleum where dead men's bones lay ensconced behind cold marble.

She halted. Not too late to turn around-not too late to run. But Marcel's innocent young face, contorted in fear, burned in her memory. And her cousin Lucien's lanky frame standing beside him, a stranglehold on the boy's collar. If you prefer your brother's head to be attached to his body, you will do as I request.

A cold fist clamped over Dominique's heart. She could not lose her brother. She continued up the steps though every muscle, every nerve protested. Why me, Lord? Who am I to perform such a task? Ducking under the cover of the imposing porch, Dominique raised her hand to knock upon the ornately carved wooden door, knowing
that after she did, she could not turn back.

Once she stepped over the threshold of this house, she would no longer be Dominique Dawson, the loyal daughter of a British Admiral.

She would be a French Spy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Painted Dresses - Chapter 1

Painted Dresses

(WaterBrook Press - July 15, 2008)


One

I inherited Delia by default. My younger sister works the night shift at Hamby Furniture Factory. Furniture is big business in North Carolina. Delia, however, lives a small life. But it is often the small life that brings the rest of the world to its knees.

Delia and I grew up in the house owned by my father, who inherited it from my grandfather. Poppy stole it in a poker game. We are of the age–our late twenties–when most sisters lay down their feuds and settle for an equitable peace. But Delia, not one to go quietly into the rules of southern female engagement, failed to recognize my white flags of surrender. Long after I had burrowed myself into a love match with a Wilmington pilot, Delia continued living a life of discontent. I managed to move around enough the first three years of our adult life to curb her phone calls to me and send her running back to my father to bail her out. He bailed her out of simple crises, like when she ran out of gas or was about to be evicted.

I was artful in avoiding my sister’s dirt. That was why Delia seldom called me, especially before eight in the morning. “It’s Delia, Gaylen. Daddy’s doctor, Doctor Weiss, has called in the family. You best get on the road to home. Weiss says Daddy won’t be long on this earth.”

Home. Boiling Waters, North Carolina. Population 2,972, including quite a few Sylers, some living and some dead. Some of the living counted among the dead. Not a town that wooed me back.

Boiling Waters was slow in coming out of the chute, so to speak, like the Sylers. It is part of the town’s oral history that the main drag of Fifty Lakes Drive did not see real pavement until the last day of 1959. Technology, pavement, and integrated schools all came late to Boiling Waters, the residue of change seeping across our sleepy borders.

Color TV, it was believed, sent radioactive waves straight into the body. Accompanying the thrill of talking heads, Amity once told me, was the intoxicating gossip that circulated whenever a Boiling Waters family snuck a color television into the house. Then word spread from Raleigh that color TV was not radioactive at all, but quite nice for seeing Lucille Ball in flesh tones and electric red hair.

My mother loved Lucy reruns. Fiona Chapel Syler. My mother. She grew up in the town next to Boiling Waters. I never knew the name of that town, but it was called The Bay, a spot on Highway 17 rowed by bungalows and a divergence of snaking dirt roads, no mailboxes.

On the porch, a washtub and sundry pots kept for starter plants like begonias. The letter carrier delivered house to house, perhaps twice a week, but it was a surprise to the family when a letter arrived, according to Mother.

Our house in Boiling Waters imitated that house on Highway 17, minus the washtub. Begonias were loved like children. My mother worked at insulating the days of my childhood in as much sentiment as she could muster while describing her own childhood as bleak as bleak could be.

Down in a bureau drawer, when I was on one of my many sleuthing expeditions as a curious girl, I found a photograph that time had sifted to the bottom. A group of neighbors living close to my grandmother gathered for that photograph: ladies in checkered blouses and faded jeans, sunburned around the eyes, and children perched on their mothers’ hips. My mother looked to be about five. She was shyly hugging a porch pillar, standing next to no one in particular.

Her eyes carried a perpetually surprised look, hair pulled back into a braid that encircled her head. One hand was grasping a finger on the other hand, as if she was unsure of whether or not she was supposed to be in the picture.

My mother described herself as spirited and strung high like a kite, the opposite of her sister-in-law, my Aunt Amity. Mother often compared their differences, along with the things they held in common, suggesting a sisterhood had silently formed between them.

Both Amity and Mother joined their flesh to the clan of Syler unwittingly. By that I mean that before the I-do’s were said to each respective husband, neither of them knew firsthand about the tomcat-like fighters making up the clan of Syler. But Amity caught on to her in-laws and each woman’s divisive nature by watching the criticism that followed my mother into her marriage to my father.

Amity overcame my aunts’ speculations about her through charm. Mother could have benefited from such a talent. The Sylers hated her, though, and she returned the sentiment.

After her stroke, Mother was never herself again. She passed away a year before Amity. When people die, things get shaken loose. After my mother died, my father fell ill too.

I drove my aging Neon to Boiling Waters. Braden’s Dodge truck, still parked next to my space, the one marked “Resident Manager,” needed new tires, and I couldn’t pay for them until my next paycheck.

Daddy had squirreled away some money to leave to Delia and me, but even after his mind was touched with the dementia initiated by painkillers, I would not touch a penny of it, not a single penny for myself.

I stopped for gas and to call home. Aunt Renni answered and said, “Fanny is here already,” and then added in that up-and-down voice so characteristic of southern women, “They’ve upped your father’s morphine.” Fanny was Renni’s daughter and a trusted cousin.

In the Syler clan, a trusted relative is rare, like Flamenco-dancers-in-Arkansas rare.

“Is Delia holding up?” I asked.

Whatever Delia blurted out, Fanny stifled with a laugh. I had not spoken to Delia or heard her low, grating voice in over a year. Perhaps that was the reason that my sister’s voice was frozen in that instant, in midair.

Memory foamed up like waves washing to land: the algae stink of Sharon Creek and how the two of us squatted on the creek bank behind my father’s house, watching ants straddle boat leaves.

How do I describe my sister’s voice? Low like our mother’s, an embarrassed alto, at least her speaking voice was. Mother had an uncontrollable vibrato. She sang an octave above her range, her tiny hands poised in front of her, red from dish soap. Not once did I ever hear Delia sing. I recalled how she sighed on Sunday mornings when Mother sang. She pushed one foot out of the sheet, allowing it to drop down from the mattress over my head. We crawled out of the bed on our knees, shuffling across the hardwood floor, peeking around the corner to watch our mother stage a performance in front of the gas stove.

Mother sang every Sunday morning. In winter, she warmed in front of the gas stove my father installed in our living room. Daddy was not a good fix-it man, so our house functioned through the primitive inventions and screwed-together widgets, air ducts outside of the Sheetrock, a bathroom sink hanging off the wall with naked pipe elbows perched perfectly so that Delia and I could stand tiptoe on them to brush our teeth.

Delia and I slept in a bunk bed in my mother’s bedroom across the hall from Daddy. The quiet of Sunday was always wrecked by the Sunday Morning Jubilee, a gospel-music TV show populated with a cast of family quartets, most from the Carolinas or Tennessee.

Mother threw back her head, her hands on her hips, her small elbows drawn back like wings. TV was substitute church for my mother. Mother turned it up loud, singing, “I’ll fly away, oh glory.” Delia wanted to know who was Glory. She watched our mother, grinning. But her small, bowlike lips never mouthed a single lyric. Not to the eighties Top 40 and not to “I’ll Fly Away.” Mother took us to a Church of God service when I was five, a Baptist church when I was seven or eight. Once we visited a Mormon church, a trip she said was a mistake–she’d taken a wrong turn trying to find a Catholic mass.

Her mother warned her that she was bringing up the spawn of Satan if she neglected her children’s religious upbringing. We ended up back home on Sunday mornings, singing with the Greenes.

Delia threw off my mother’s religious accouterments as fast as our little toy dog threw off the jingle-bell harness we fastened to him one Christmas. As soon as Delia turned fourteen, she flatly refused to go to church. When the visitation committees paid a call following our respective visits, Delia rejected Mother’s cues. Mother sat poised in her brown chair as if she herself was from the women’s missionary committee. But when she cued Delia to say something nice about church, Delia would say, “WE NEVER GO TO CHURCH, PEOPLE, SO WHY LIE LIKE THE DEVIL?” I couldn’t blame her. Mother thought of religion as something you lay in front of children like a doormat.

To Delia that was the same as a suspicious option she was glad to walk around. My sister never left Boiling Waters, its small department stores, the town boys growing up to drive bread trucks, girls coming of age and congregating on Saturday nights at the Blue Water Café and Raw Bar.

Some people believe that you can come back and relive your life until you get it right. I assume that “right” is what you get free of regret. If I could relive my life, saying that I was given a choice, push this button to return to age seven, what have you, I’d relive high school. But not the bad grade I got in Mrs. Juarez’s algebra class or the first time I got felt up by an ugly eleventh grader underneath the water’s surface at the city pool. I would rewrite my life with Delia.

People talked about Delia for saying the wrong thing in polite company or impolite company. She could take an average conversation down to English language’s bottom-most parts. If my classmate Ellie and I waited out in front of BW High for the bus, talking about Gilda Freeman’s new push-up bra, Delia said things like, “I think I have a brain tumor.” I got mad at Ellie for laughing, not because it might hurt Delia’s feelings. I didn’t want to advance Delia’s campaigns.

Laughter was affirmation to keep up the antics. Delia was an affirmation addict. She fabricated wild fictions, but in a manner so subtle that the unwary bystander might stop and give her a serious listen. Ellie laughed at Delia, the same as our cousin Fanny or Aunt Amity did. Delia made people laugh when she responded to the misfirings of her disorderly neurons. She did believe a brain tumor grew on the left side of her cerebellum.

Mother got a call from the school counselor saying that Delia complained that her family was neglecting her tumor and why wouldn’t our family take her for treatment.

I believed that Delia could be fixed the same as me. If I made an asinine statement that caused all eyes to look away or, worse yet, to stare, I composed a new thread to lead the listeners into a more sobering topic. Then I returned quietly to the herd to graze on teenage silage, the things we pretended to like so we’d coalesce: a boy making it above the popularity blip or beautifully wrecked jeans. I blended.

Delia followed her own voices. She raised her voice twenty decibels in a hushed room. If the topic was clothes, she blurted out, “I WEAR THE SAME T-SHIRT EVERY DAY, PEOPLE. CAN’T YOU APPRECIATE WHAT YOU HAVE?” She brought the conversation to a frozen state, all eyes fastened on her and our mouths hanging open.

I rehearsed a conversation I might have with her after I arrived in Boiling Waters. I was gassing up the car, so I practiced. “How is work?” I imagined the wink I would give her when she answered, “I think someone is putting cocaine in my coffee.” I practiced laughing.

A woman across the fuel island averted her eyes. Delia was not a trophy sister, the one I asked God for when I found out my mother was pregnant. She was the girl my father called “a brick shy a load.” One nut shy a pie. When school was in session, she was not my worry. But summer’s lottery with Delia fell to me, her personal guide through and around the small troubles she elevated to tragedy.

One June when we were girls, we collapsed on our backs in clover. While I wistfully looked for four-leaf ones, she picked three-leaf specimens and handed them to me, at first with glee. Then she tossed them at me until I screamed. She had no sense of what was common and what was rare.

I topped off the gas tank and hurried back into the warmth of my car. I checked my phone for messages. Braden still hadn’t returned the call I left him about my father. His suitcase was missing, but I was almost certain he stored it outside in the apartment storage closet.

He wasn’t really leaving. What a joke to act like he really meant it! He was funnier than Delia. Raleigh was gray like Wilmington. As the Neon coasted onto the interstate ramp, white tufts blew across the interchange and stuck to the window glass. The sky unrolled like a towel, shaking snow onto us mortals.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Try Darkness - Chapter 1 & 2

Try Darkness

(Center Street - July 30, 2008)


THE NUN HIT me in the mouth and said, "Get out of my house."

Jaw throbbing, I said, "I can't believe you just did that."

"This is my house," she said. "You want more? Come on back in."

Sister Mary Veritas is a shade over five and a half feet. She was playing in gray sweats, of course. Most of the time she wears the full habit. Her pixie face is usually a picture of innocence. She has short chestnut hair and blue eyes. I had just discovered those eyes hid an animal ruthlessness.

It was the first Friday in April, and we were playing what I thought was some friendly one-on-one on the basketball court of St. Monica's, a Benedictine community in the Santa Susana mountains. The morning was bright, the sky clear. Should have meant peace like a river.

Not a nun like a mugger.

Backing into the key for a spin hook, I was surprised to find not just the basket but a holy Catholic elbow waiting for my face. I'm six-three, so it took some effort for her to pop me.

"That's a foul," I said.

"So take it out," she said.

"I thought the Benedictines were known for their hospitality."

"For the hungry pilgrim," Sister Mary said. "Not for a guy looking for an easy bucket."

"What would the pope say to you?"

"Probably, Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

"You're a pagan. It probably did you some good."

"A trash-talking sister." I shook my head. "So this is organized religion in the twenty-first century."

"Play."

Okay, she wanted my outside game? She'd get it. True, I hadn't played a whole lot of ball since college. A couple of stints on a lawyer league team. But I could still shoot. I was deadly from twenty feet in.

Not this morning. I clanked one from the free throw line and Sister Mary got the rebound.

Before becoming a nun, she played high school ball in Oklahoma. On a championship team, no less. Knew her way around a court.

But I also had the size advantage and gave her a cushion on defense. She took it and shot over me from fifteen feet.

Swish.

Pride is a sin, so Sister Mary tells me. But it's a good motivator when a little nun is schooling you. I kicked up the aggression factor a notch.

She tried a fadeaway next. I got a little bit of her wrist as she shot.

Air ball.

Sister Mary waited for me to call a foul.

"Nice try," I said.

"Where'd you learn to play," she said. "County jail?"

"You talking or playing?"

She got the animal look again. I hoped that wouldn't interfere with her morning prayers. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour we talk smack.

I took the ball to the top of the key. Did a beautiful crossover dribble. Sister Mary swiped at the ball. Got my arm instead with a loud thwack. I stopped and threw up a jumper.

It hit the side of the rim and bounced left.

I thought I'd surprise her by hustling for the rebound.

She had the same idea.

We were side by side going for the ball. I could feel her body language. There was no way she was going to let me get it.

There was no way I was going to let her get it.

I was going to body a nun into the weeds.



2

WE WENT DOWN. The brown grasses at the edge of the blacktop padded our fall.

I had both hands on the ball. So did Sister Mary.

She grunted and pulled. By this time we were out of bounds.

I started to laugh. The absurdity of a frantic postulant and a macho lawyer in a death grip over a basketball was hilarious.

Sister Mary didn't laugh. She wanted the ball.

I had to admire her doggedness. She's the type who'd go to the mat with the devil himself if she had to.

But I still wouldn't let her get the ball.

Then I was on my back, holding the ball to my chest. Sister Mary was on top of me, refusing to let her hands slip off the ball.

Her body was firm and fit and I looked at her face thinking thoughts one should not think of a woman pledged to a life of chastity.

I stopped laughing and let her have the ball.

She took it and rolled off me.

Neither of us said anything.

Then a voice said, "Now, isn't that a pretty picture?"

Father Bob stood at the other end of the court, hands on hips.

One displeased priest.

I shot up, helped Sister Mary to her feet. "Nothing to see here," I said. "Just a little hustle and flow."

"Or grab and go," Father Bob said.

Sister Mary said nothing. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard.

"A friendly game of one-on," I said. "You see? I'm doing my part to help the community stay in shape. You want a piece of me next?"

Father Bob, who looks like Morgan Freeman's stand-in, said, "I know a few tricks even Sister Mary hasn't learned yet."

"I have to go now," she said. Without her characteristic smile, she dropped the ball in the grass and jogged toward her quarters.

Father Bob motioned me over. "Tread carefully," he said.

"I know," I said.

"Do you?"

"What's not to know?"

He picked up the ball and spun it on his finger. Like a Globetrotter.

"Not bad," I said.

"God created the world to spin on its axis," he said. "Perfectly. And he created man to be in perfect communion with him. Only man messed up. He messed up the way things are supposed to spin." He grabbed the ball with both hands. "In the garden, you know the story."

"A snake got Eve to eat an apple."

"Don't know if it was an apple," Father Bob said. "It just says ‘the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.'"

"Was that such a bad thing to want?"

"If a serpent's offering it to you, it is. Now, we've come a long way trying to get things to spin right again. That's the reason for the church. That's the reason for people taking holy vows. And that's the reason you have to tread carefully around here."

I took the ball from him and tried to spin it on my finger. It fell to the ground and bounced.

"See?" Father Bob said.

"Fine."

"Then are you ready to earn your daily bread?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Promises, Promises - Chapter 1

Promises, Promises

(Heartsong Presents - July, 2008)



Book 1 of Delaware Brides

Chapter One


New Castle County

present-day Delaware

Christina River Valley, 1740


Heedless of the home-stitched stockings showing at her knees, Raelene Strattford ran down the tree-lined lane, her skirts flying behind her. Strands of hair from her crown of braids came loose and flailed in the cool breeze. After being cooped inside the house for the past week, abed with a fever, it should have been refreshing, but Raelene was distracted by the lone wagon coming toward her.

It wasn't the one she expected. This one belonged to her neighbors, not her mother and father. One man drove it at a dirge-like pace as another walked alongside, both with heads down. But what made Raelene run even harder were the two workhorses tied behind it. Her family's workhorses! That could only mean. . .

A sob tore through her body.

Mama! Papa!

Her pounding heart beat her voice dead in her throat, but not the furtive prayers for this not to be what it seemed, what she feared. As she reached the wagon, her mouth as parched as the dirt beneath her feet, the driver halted the horses.

"Whoa, Braedon."

Raelene couldn't recall her neighbors' names, not with the panic racing through her mind.

"I am sorry, miss," the larger of the two said, stepping between her and the wagon. The cocky farm boy had actually had the nerve to ask her father permission to court her. What was his name?

"There is no way to break bad news," the older man interjected.

Bad news. His heavily accented words halted her steps, as if delaying facing what she feared might change things. But her mind refused to stand still. What would she find? God forbid, they couldn't be dead. They just couldn't be. She wouldn't know unless she looked. But could she bear it?

The wall of a man stepped out of her way. His large, gentle hand cupped her elbow, nudging her forward. With hesitant steps and dread filling her being, Raelene reached the solid wood gate across the back of the serviceable wagon. She looked inside.

Mama used to tease her that she had a wild imagination, but nothing Raelene could conjure in her mind compared to this. This was horribly real.

Mama and Papa lay in the back of the wagon, bloodied and battered. She covered her mouth to catch the moan rising from the center of her anguish, but it escaped. And with it, Raelene's strength. Her knees buckled, and she would have landed on the ground had it not been for two strong arms that held her upright.

"Here now! Do not fall. You are safe."

Bewildered, she looked into a pair of striking and sympathetic indigo eyes. Gustaf Hanssen. That was the name of the man who had disrupted her life last year with his suit, focusing more on her land than on her. The older man was his father, Jarel.

"If you say what you want us to do. . ." Gustaf broke off, awkward, his choppy English making it difficult to follow. He seemed to have trouble only when speaking with her, but somehow she managed to grasp his meaning.

What she wanted them to do? She wanted them to make this go away. But for all the compassion in his gaze, he couldn't do that. She had to deal with this herself.

At the sound of a moan, Raelene shifted her gaze back to the bodies on the ragged bed of hay and blankets.

They were alive! God had heard her half-formed prayers of panic and answered them.

"Mama! Papa!"

Raelene tried to climb onto the wagon bed but couldn't find footing until Gustaf gave her a boot up.

"Hurry," she told him. "We have got to get them home. . .in bed. . .where I can take care of them."

Their clothes were torn, and fresh blood seeped through the makeshift bandages over their numerous wounds. Neither of her parents answered her call or opened their eyes. They both lay still, but the slow rise and fall of their chests gave Raelene hope.

As the wagon lurched forward toward the house, Gustaf's father gave his account of what had happened.

"Accident. . .horses scared. . .runaway. . .loose bolt. . ."

The words barely penetrated. Her focus remained fixed on the labored breaths of her beloved parents. She wasn't going to lose them. The idea gripped her heart like a vise. No, she'd take care of them, nurse them back to health like they'd done for her on many occasions. And for that, she had to be strong.

Raelene spoke softly to her parents, assuring them they'd be fine, but cut off her words when the wagon stopped in front of the little three-room farmhouse. Puffs of smoke curled up from the chimney, but the usual comfort that filled her at the sight of her home deserted her.

Gustaf lifted her down from the wagon as though she were a doll. Mr. Hanssen descended from the seat to stand beside his son.

"We sent for doctor. I pray he come before—"

"Before what?" Raelene pulled away from the big hands enveloping her waist, took a step back, and shifted her gaze between the two men. Gustaf spoke first.

"Your parents, they are broken inside and out."

Cringing at the thought, Raelene held her ground. "I appreciate what you have done, sir, but if you would get them inside, we will let the doctor be the judge of that."

Neither her mother nor her father regained consciousness as Gustaf and his father carried them into the bedroom off the kitchen. Both men ducked as they stepped down into the room. At a loss for what to do, Raelene set about warming water to wash the dirt and blood away, while the men stepped outside to wait by the wagon. It helped to stay busy. Busy meant she didn't have to think about what the young man had said. And she had to keep praying.

Yet for all her prayer, words of comfort, and care, Mama and Papa remained unresponsive.

"They are here, Doctor." Mr. Hanssen's voice carried from just outside the main door.

Doctor. Raelene hadn't heard his carriage arrive. Hope surged in her chest. Everything would be all right. It had to be.

Dr. Schuylar asked Raelene to leave the room. She watched the door close behind him and stared at it. She had hated closed doors since she was little. Even the stairs by the fireplace that led up to her loft had a door that she always left open. Closed doors separated her from the people she loved.

No, she was just being foolish. Raelene raised her hand to her forehead and found it warmer than it should have been.

Lord, this is no time for my fever to return. I must be well for Mama and Papa.

A chair scraped near the stone hearth. Raelene turned to find Gustaf seated on a bench at the small, round table by the diamond-paned window. His father pressed a steaming cup of tea into her hands before mumbling something about fetching someone else. The heat from the cup seeped into her skin. Emotionless, she raised the tin cup to her lips and drank the hot liquid. The strong flavor awakened her taste buds. Warmth flowed through her body, bringing her back to some semblance of reality.

Raelene glanced about the small room, bringing the handcarved shelves in the little kitchen into focus. In slow order, she saw the whitewashed walls and the cast-iron cooking supplies hung or placed around the fireplace. Minimal personal treasures retrieved from the chests of items stored in the doctor's barn in town decorated the shelves. Papa had plans to build a larger home, and until then, he'd allowed Mama to set out a few things. Her perusal stopped when she again looked at Gustaf.

His brown doublet strained across broad shoulders and barely concealed the work-hardened muscles of his upper torso. The beige breeches disappeared into dark stockings, both covering long, lean limbs. She raised her gaze to his face. Gustaf 's chiseled jaw and wide mouth gave way to a narrow nose and deep-set blue eyes.

Those eyes!

Realization dawned on her the moment she caught Gustaf's sympathetic gaze. The memory of his strong arms holding her steady and the piercing intensity of his eyes made her skin tingle. Heat stole into Raelene's cheeks. Why did Gustaf Hanssen have to be the one to find her parents?

"We put horses away and give them food."

Raelene forced herself to focus on his words.

"Far go to bring Mor."

Some remnants of the hospitality Mama ingrained in Raelene surfaced. "Thank you, Mr.—"

"To please," he interrupted. "I am Gustaf."

But that wouldn't do. She didn't want to give him any ideas when she'd settle for nothing less than a gentleman as a beau. "Thank you, Mr. Hanssen, for bringing my parents home."

She glanced at the cup in her hands. His father had seen to her needs. She should do the same for Gustaf. Rubbing her hands on her skirts, Raelene started toward the hearth, where Mama always kept a kettle of water heating.

"Can I pour you some tea? I imagine the doctor will want some when he is through. . .and Mama loves tea." She was rambling. She couldn't help it. "She says tea is good for all occasions."

Raelene reached for the handle of the teakettle, realizing too late that she'd forgotten to use a towel. With a gasp, she let it go and jumped away as the kettle struck the stone hearth, splattering its scalding contents. The liquid sizzled on the open flame.

In an instant, Gustaf was at her side, sweeping her out of harm's way. "Here." He took her hand in his. "I look."

Tears that had refused to spill at the sight of her parents' injuries flooded her eyes as the young man blew on the burn. A shiver ran up Raelene's arm, and she tensed her muscles in response.

"You have medicine?" Gustaf asked between breaths.

He had a strong, rugged face, Swedish fair. The room swirled around it at a dizzying speed. Raelene's head felt like she'd been twirling with a vengeance and then stopped to look at the sky. Except this sky churned with dark clouds rushing in from all sides, blotting out the light—and nearly everything else. It made her sway.

The floor beneath her seemed to give way, and she floated above it. Jostled and shifted until her new position became comfortable, Raelene realized Gustaf carried her. The heat from the fireplace warmed her, but she shivered. Gustaf's arms tightened around her back and legs. Raelene leaned against his solid chest, seeking the comfort and strength she had lost.

She buried her head against Gustaf's neck, hot tears soaking through his coarse shirt. Not a thought was given to propriety. Raelene only knew she needed the reassurance he offered. As Gustaf pivoted around the table in the center of the room, the roof began to spin above her, and Raelene succumbed to the blackness that welcomed her.

* * * * *

When Raelene opened her eyes, Gustaf sat in a chair next to her cot by the back wall of the kitchen. Since her fever, her parents had moved her cot to the kitchen from her bedroom in the loft.

"You are awake. This is good."

Raelene opened her mouth to speak but found her throat dry. She swallowed several times. "What happened?" Even that sounded hoarse.

"You burn your hand on teakettle." He nodded toward her hand, now wrapped and resting across her abdomen. "Your recent illness make you sleep longer. Doctor give me medicine and bandage. You lucky burn not worse."

She cradled her injured hand with her other one and looked away. "Your kindness is appreciated."

"It is least I can do."

Raelene took a deep breath and exhaled. At the footsteps sounding from her parents' bedchamber, memory of their battered bodies returned. "My parents!"

"Doctor is with them still."

She looked at Gustaf. "Mr. Hanssen, tell me about the accident. Please."

Gustaf ran his hand over his mouth and whiskered jaw and sighed. He reached out and clasped her hands in his, as if preparing her for the worst. "A snake scare the horses as your mor and far come from church. The horses kick up and shake bolt loose. Far and I try to stop them, but they run at full gallop. Wagon was not able to handle bumps and holes in road." He paused. "Before we catch them, the bolt came out, and the wagon fell over side of hill. Your mor and far fall down with it."

Raelene withdrew her hands from his large ones. She immediately felt the loss of his warmth and touch, but stared straight ahead. "Thank you," she whispered, growing warm beneath his compassionate gaze. Although the man lacked the polish of her English cousins, he was kind. . .and gallant in his own awkward way.

"I wish I can do more."

The opening of the bedchamber door spared Raelene from replying.

Dr. Schuylar emerged. "Your father is asking for you."

Raelene brightened. That had to be good. She shot to her feet, astonished when she had to lean on Gustaf 's proffered arm. With the shock of all that had happened and having barely recovered from a fever, it was no wonder.

"I–I am fine now," she said to Gustaf, when his touch lingered.

"No, wait." Dr. Schuylar held her back. "Sit down, dear."

"But he is ask—"

"Raelene, your mother is no longer with us."

Raelene sank into the chair Gustaf had just vacated, struck with disbelief. What would she and her father do without Mother? God, please let this be a nightmare. Please let me wake up and find it's all the fever.

Dr. Schuylar placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "There is more, child."

Raelene stared unseeing at the hooked rug she and Mama had made, its pattern nothing but a blur.

"Your mother. . .she. . ." He squeezed Raelene's shoulder. "She was with child."

Child? The word numbed her thoughts. Then the pain resumed with renewed fervor. She couldn't have imagined the situation worse, yet it was. The answer to her parents' sixteen-year prayer also taken away. A tortured sound strangled in her throat.

What kind of God would allow this?

"You must pull yourself together as best you can for your father, dear," Doc Schuylar continued. "I am afraid he does not have much time."

Raelene's head shot up. "But he is talking."

"He is holding on for you, Raelene." The doctor helped her up from the chair and led her to the bedchamber door. "God will be with you."

He hasn't been thus far. Raelene gathered what remnant of strength remained, facing the door as if it were an executioner. God hadn't been there for her mother and the baby. He wasn't there for her father. Her father was dying. No, if Raelene had to be strong, it would be on her own.

"Thank you, Doctor," she said, her voice that of an oddly calm stranger. "I know you have done all you can."

Raelene paused at the threshold as if stepping over it would force her to face the cold, hard truth. Her mother and the baby she carried were dead. Her father lay dying. She couldn't let him see her in tears.

Taking a step down into the small room, she walked toward the two straw beds that lay against the opposite wall. A pitcher and basin with fresh water rested on a stand between the beds. Flimsy white curtains fluttered at the windows, but the fresh breeze couldn't hide the smell of death hovering around the room. A lone wooden chair sat in front of the stand, and Raelene approached it. She placed her hands on the back, trying not to look at her mother's corpse.

"Raelene."

Her father's hoarse whisper drew her to his bedside. He lay bathed in sweat, a mere shadow of the strong man she knew and loved. His square jaw was bandaged, and his silver-streaked, dark brown hair matted against his face. The life had all but gone from his light blue eyes.

Raelene brushed back a stray lock of hair from her father's forehead. She held her tears in check. He'd always admonished her to be strong, no matter what atrocities and unfairness were dealt in the hand of life.

With difficulty, Papa took Raelene's hands in his own.

"Oh, Railey," he whispered. His next breath sounded garbled, and she knew their time together would be brief. "What will. . .do without me?"

Raelene tried to choke back a sob but couldn't. "Papa. . ."

He squeezed her hand. "Shh. . .no tears. . .rejoice. Eternity awaits."

She glanced over her shoulder at the other bed. Was that where Mama and the baby were now? "But, Papa. . ."

Duncan followed her gaze and sighed. "I shall be with her soon."

Joy touched his gaze. How could he feel joy in the midst of this tragedy?

He squeezed her hand. "With God. . .we will watch. . .you." A pain-filled but reassuring smile formed on his lips. He winced, and his breath caught. "Our land. . ."

"I'll take care of it, Papa. But I can't do it alone." Raelene sniffed. "I need you, Papa."

Her father struggled to take another breath. His pain added to hers. "Not alone. . .have help."

Help? From where? From whom?

"God. . ." He closed his eyes, then opened them and looked straight at her. "Remember. . .God. . .is with you."

"I need you, Papa, not God. Do you hear me?"

He put his hand on Raelene's lap, his gaze fixed across the small divide where his wife lay. "Help me, Railey. I want to touch her once more."

Numb, Raelene took her mother's still-warm hand and joined it with her father's, holding the two together with her own.

She didn't know how long she held them, her eyes squeezed tight against the flood of tears building behind them. Raelene couldn't think. She could only feel the loss of the present and of that to come. It was unbearable, yet she was bearing it.

Bearing it in silence. The labor of her father's breath no longer racked the room. She opened her eyes to see that his eyes were closed as if he'd slipped off to sleep, a sleep as still and eternal as that of her mother. Their pain was gone.

Hers had just begun.

The depth of that pain hit her. She cried for her mother, for her father, for her unknown brother or sister, for the family back home across the ocean. Finally, she cried for herself, for how much she would miss them, for how unfair it was that she couldn't be with them. What would she do now?

Bitterness and anger welled, joining the desolation that filled her. Not wanting to stay in the room where death filled every crack and crevice, Raelene wiped her eyes, stood, and headed for the kitchen. Four people watched her as she emerged, but grief blinded her to their identities.

"They are. . .they are both gone." Her announcement carried a sense of finality, taking her last sliver of strength.

Raelene took one stumbling step before her legs gave out. The crash of a wooden bench reached her ears at the same time two strong arms caught her. Anger at God was the last thought Raelene had before she succumbed to the blackness that welcomed her.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sisterchicks Go Brit - Chapter 1

Sisterchick Go Brit

Multnomah Publishers (May 20, 2008)


On that pivotal day at the Brew-La-La, the first thing I noticed about the tiny, determined woman as she assumed command from the cranberry red chair was her British accent.

“I do appreciate your willingness to meet with me here on rather short notice. I’m Opal. I spoke with you yesterday.” She adjusted her trifocals and with an open palm patted the side of her poofed-up white hair.

Kellie gave me a what-is-going-on-here look. All I could do was shrug.

“As I indicated on the phone,” Opal continued, “I’m fully prepared to pay your regular fees. My only question is, when might you be able to provide me with an estimate?”

“I’m sorry,” Kellie said in a tone that revealed her instinctively smooth and professional demeanor. “I think you might have me confused with someone else.”

Opal blinked. “Are you not an interior designer?”

The truthful answer for Kellie was yes. She was, as a hobby, an interior designer. “Who were you expecting to meet?” I asked.

Flustered, Opal reached for her pocketbook, undid the clasp, and rummaged around. Instead of a note or a business card, she extracted a handkerchief and held it in her left hand as if for moral support. “I have the name here somewhere.” She looked at Kellie again. “Are you certain you are not a designer? I thought I recognized you from Sunshine Manor.”

Kellie smiled. “My aunt used to live at Sunshine Manor. Did you know Martha Wojckski?”

Opal’s expression lifted. “Yes, of course I knew Martha. Her apartment was beautifully decorated. Which is exactly why I’m meeting with a designer. I’m afraid I’ll go mad if I don’t have a change of color on the walls soon. Do you happen to know who designed your aunt’s apartment?”

Kellie blushed. “Actually, I did.”

Opal sat up straight. “Then I should like to engage you for the work needed on my apartment.”

“I’m not a professional interior designer,” Kellie said quickly. She looked to me for backup, but I didn’t agree. Kellie had done wonders with my small home, and her home was a masterpiece. She had wanted to pursue designing for well over a decade but had never taken the first step toward that dream. If Opal was going to push Kellie off the cliff by inviting her to take this risk, I wasn’t going to stop her.

“You did such a lovely job with your aunt’s apartment. If you’re available, I would certainly like to hire you.”

“What about the other designer you were going to meet here?” Kellie asked.

Opal looked around and glanced at her watch. “I don’t think she’s coming. We only had a tentative meeting arranged, which is why I was so hopeful when I saw you wave. In her message yesterday she said she was reluctant to take on the project since I live at Sunshine Manor. Apparently there are difficulties in working within the limitations set by the association.”

While Opal was talking, I had been giving Kellie all the nonverbals I thought she needed to recognize this as a golden opportunity she had better snatch. Kellie may have had one eye on my affirming expressions, but she definitely had both ears open to Opal.

“I know,” Kellie said to Opal. “They do have some strict rules. I found a way to work around some of the restrictions. They aren’t that complicated. We just have to file the necessary forms.”

“Does this mean you’ll come to give me an estimate?”

Kellie swallowed.

I gave her my most encouraging smile.

“All right,” Kellie said with a hesitant sort of nod. “Sure. Why not? When would you like me to come?”

The next afternoon I accompanied Kellie to Opal’s apartment. My presence was partly for support and partly because I was fascinated by Opal. Her accent reminded me of Mrs. Roberts, a woman who had been important to me during high school.

Sunshine Manor was all of two blocks from Brew-La-La. We found number 2017 and knocked. Opal opened the door, and I offered one of my best smiles to Kellie’s first unofficial client. I don’t have a lot of stunning attributes like Kellie with her gorgeous, thick auburn hair and her warm, perceptive eyes. My hair is flyaway and fair like my skin. But I do know how to smile. I can almost always get others, even pouting children, to smile back when I give them a generous grin.

Opal invited us inside. “May I offer you some tea?”

Kellie and I slid into straight-backed chairs at a round table in the corner. A pudgy, rose-strewn china teapot and a plate of gingersnaps awaited us. We sipped Earl Grey from china teacups balanced on saucers, and I felt like we were little girls playing dress-up. This was a stretch for us. Kellie and I were decaf-grandetriple-nonfat-latte-in-a-to-go-cup kind of women.

I tried out what I hoped was proper British tea-party conversation.“Have you lived here long, Opal?”

“Not long. Sixteen years. My husband lived in Orlando as a child. He was determined to return and spend his final days in the sunshine. He did exactly that. I’ve been alone the past eight years.”

“Where did you live before coming here?” Kellie asked.

“I lived nearly all my life in a small town in England called Olney.”

“I always wanted to go to England.” I sat up a bit straighter. “Especially London.”

“Is that so?”

I nodded with the same eagerness I had felt about England since I was fifteen.

“Do you have plans to visit London soon, then?” Opal asked.

“No, not soon. Someday maybe.”

“Maybe sooner than later,” Opal said cheerfully. “You’ll find London to be a delightful city.”

I leaned forward in my best tea-party posture and shared my small secret with Opal. “I’ve always had a hopeless crush on Big Ben.”

Opal studied me as she swallowed a nibble of her gingersnap. Kellie, of course, knew of my fascination with all things British but particularly the top tourist sights of London. However, when the disclosure of my long-held wish was followed by a pensive silence, she moved the conversation to another topic.

“What sort of decorating ideas did you have in mind for your apartment, Opal?”

Turning her attention to Kellie, Opal said, “I am ready for a complete change. I would like a more cheerful color for these walls. Yellow, I think. One can live within the belly of a pale salmon for only so long.”

She unfolded a prepared list and read to us her extensive changes.

Kellie listened thoughtfully. “You have some lovely pieces of furniture. Once the walls are painted, these dark woods will look much different than they do now. I know an excellent upholsterer who could re-cover your wingback chair and give it a new look.”

"That would be fine. Just so long as none of the colors is pink. Nothing pink.” Opal rose from her chair with surprising agility and reached into her pocketbook. “For what amount should I draft the check?”

“How about if we draw up an agreement first?” Kellie suggested. “It will take me a little time to put together a preliminary proposal. I could return later this week, if you like.”

“Lovely. I will expect you on Friday at the same time. Would that suit you both?”

Kellie and I exchanged glances. I wasn’t part of the arrangement, but I didn’t have a particular reason to bow out at this point.

“Friday would be fine,” Kellie answered for both of us.

And that’s how our regular teatimes with Opal began.

Kellie poured herself into the transformation of Opal’s little nest, and I assisted in small ways. I hit an excellent sale at a fabric store and found the exact material we were after for the cushions on the four straight-backed chairs. I also was able to snag superior quality sheets at an outlet store and a gorgeous pale yellow matelassĂ© bedspread from Portugal.

The entire redecorating process took a little over a month, and the results were stunning. Kellie and I were greeted by name at the front desk whenever we arrived at Sunshine Manor, and Kellie soon had requests for renovations from two other residents.

We were on our way to pay our final official visit to Opal when Kellie pulled into the parking area and said, “You know what I like about doing all this for Opal? I like helping someone who can’t drive around town or pick up a paintbrush and make these changes on her own. It was the same way with my aunt. If this is the last home she’ll have, she needs it to be lovely.”

“I agree. And you know what I’ve loved about this past month? I’ve loved watching your creative side run free. I think it’s time for you to get a business license.”

Kellie’s soft brown eyes always gave away her secrets long before her lips agreed to participate in any sort of confession. “I think so too. I even have a name for the business.”

“Really? Let’s hear it.”

“K & L Interiors.” She watched my reaction closely as we walked toward the entrance of Sunshine Manor.

“It’s a simple name,” I said, doing an on-the-spot evaluation.

“It’s easy to remember. K is for Kellie, right? And L is for…”

“You.”

“Me?” I stopped walking. “Me?”

“Yes, you. Liz, we could do this together just like we did for Opal. No one can hunt and gather like you. The bedspread and sheets you found were perfect. And that table lamp was ideal. We’re a team. We’ve always been great together on projects.”

“But this is a business, Kellie.”

Her eyebrows raised in an expression that said, “So?”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, even though I already knew my answer. I didn’t want to do anything that could jeopardize our friendship. Kellie and I had thirty-two years of friendship to our credit. However, two of those years had been absolutely terrible. I didn’t want to be in that terrible place ever again.

“Just think about it, Liz, okay? I talked to Martin, and he thinks it’s great. His actual words were ‘It’s about time.’ Will you talk to Roger and see what he thinks?”

I nodded. My affable husband probably would say it was a good idea. But I knew I wouldn’t join Kellie’s endeavor. We took the elevator up to Opal’s floor and stood by her front door with a gift basket brimming with new tea towels and a tin of loose-leaf Earl Grey to replace all of Opal’s tea we had drunk during
the past few weeks.

Opal let us in with a Mary Poppins sort of efficiency and invited us to have a seat on her reupholstered sofa. She thanked us for the gift basket and then proceeded to hand an envelope to each of us.

“Go ahead and open them.” Opal grinned in her innocent-as-a-lamb way.

This was awkward. I shouldn’t be paid for any of the work. It was Kellie’s gig. “I can’t accept this.” I slid the unopened envelope back across the coffee table. “Thank you, though, for considering me.”

“How can you say you can’t accept it when you don’t even know what’s inside?” Opal was on her feet, rosy faced with excitement.

“Open it. Please.”

Kellie and I opened the envelopes in unison. Inside we found airline tickets to what I always had considered the most romantic sounding airport name in the Western world: Heathrow.

I was holding a ticket to my childhood wish in my hands. Too stunned to cry, I gleamed. That’s what Kellie said later. She said my face was so red and radiant I was shooting gleam-beams all over the room.

Kellie immediately began the string of questions. All the answers from Opal started with yes. Yes, this was for real. Yes, Opal was sure she wanted to do this. Yes, she remembered my saying on our first visit that I had always wanted to go to England. Yes, the tickets were booked for next Monday. And, yes, she knew that we had current passports because she had slipped that question into a conversation two weeks ago.

I calmed down, but my smile stayed at full sail. Opal poured the tea. Kellie sat in sweet, stunned silence. Both of us had just put the china teacups to our lips when Opal pulled out her final surprise of the day.

“We are going to have such a lovely time.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wind River -Chapter 1



Wind River

(Bethany House July 1, 2008)


Chapter One
Wyoming—sixteen years ago
The morning sun had just cleared the summits to the east, and the grass in the small valley was still thick with dew, wetting the boots and the shins of the man and the boy.

The man, tall and unstooped, wore bib overalls over a flannel shirt, his feet shod with cream-soled tan work boots, white hair crowned with a faded green John Deere ball cap. Carrying a heavy Kelty backpack topped with a rolled tent, he walked confidently. His oaken walking staff, gripped just beneath the fist-size burl at its top, seemed to be more for cadence than support. The whiteness of his hair, his wire-rimmed bifocals, the crow's-feet next to his eyes, and a longish nose, just beginning to thicken, were the only hints that he was well past his middle years.

The boy wore a hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans bought too long and cuffed short so they wouldn't drag. His pack was little more than a rucksack, and in his right hand he carried an Orvis split-bamboo fly rod, fully assembled and bobbing before him like a slender, overlong divining rod. Like the man, his blondstreaked light-brown hair was also topped with a John Deere cap, only his cap was still brand-new.

A small movement in the woods high on the hill to their right brought both hikers to a halt. They stood there, silent, for a moment, the bright mountain sun reflecting off a thousand beads of water on the foliage around them. Then the man made a sound halfway between a cough and the caw of a crow.

Up on the slope, a deer stepped out from the trees, velvet nubbins of horn sprouting on his tawny head. The deer stared at the man and boy, took a tentative step in their direction, then turned and bolted back uphill, his white tail upright in alarm, the snapping branches marking his flight for several seconds after he had vanished back into the forest.

The man tamped his staff on the ground and chuckled. The boy looked his way.

"Why'd he come out like that?"

"I called him," the man said. "That sound I made? That's the sound his mama made when he was just a fawn, how she told him to stop doin' whatever he was doin' and get over to her. They hear it when they're growin' up, and they never forget it. Even if you can't bring a deer to you with that, you can freeze 'em in their tracks for just a second when they hear it. It's how they was raised."

The boy made the sound, a tenor echo of the man's warm baritone.

"That's it," the man told him. "You've got it."

They walked on in silence for the next few minutes, the trail winding down to the valley floor where it paralleled a small, clear creek.

The boy slowed, stepped nearer to the creek bank, and then looked back.

"Look." He pointed to the water, where several sleek brown shapes hovered in an eddy, a stray shaft of sunlight picking out the bright red patch just behind the upstream end of one undulating form. "There's cutthroat in there."

"Always have been," the man said. "But if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, then you may as well just give it up. Black bear fish this creek all the time, and them trout are way too skittish. I've seen lots'a folks fix to hook one, but fixin' is all they ever done. You can't catch 'em; they're too wild."

The boy scowled and looked back at the creek. He turned to the man again.

"Well, can I try, at least?"

The man looked around and then walked to a half-buried gray granite boulder sticking out of the purple mountain heather just above the trail. He shed his backpack and sat. "Sure," he said, leaning back against the rough rock. "I could use me a breather. But you're wasting your time, boy. Them trout are just way too wild."

The boy set his pack down next to the man's, opened the flap, pulled out a small aluminum fly box and selected a mosquitosize dry fly, an Adams pattern. He held it up to the man, who shrugged and said, "Good as any, I suppose. But I don't suspect they'll be buyin' what you're sellin'."

Scowling, the boy took pliers from his rucksack and bent the fly's barb flat to the bend of its hook. He pulled the tippet from the fly reel, threaded it through the rod guides, and tied on the fly with a practiced clinch knot. He glanced at the man, who said, "Gift-wrap it if you want. Won't make no difference."

Then the boy pulled nail clippers from his pocket, snipped off the tag end of the tippet, and returned the fly box and pliers to the pack. He glanced up at the man, who had taken a small black book from the chest pocket of his overalls. The man read, looking up every moment or two. He appeared to be following a distant snowcapped skyline with his gaze.

Lips set thin and straight, the boy stepped toward the stream, stopped, backed up, then stooped close to the heather and approached the water again. He moved stealthily, setting his feet without so much as a sound, and stopped completely once he was within sight of the stream's far bank. Slowly lowering himself to all fours, he looked back at the man, who met his gaze for just the tiniest fraction of a second before resuming a leisurely inspection of the distant ridge.

The boy reached the bank and parted the grasses. Near the center of the water, a large trout rose, its brown back bowing the surface before it dipped back down and resettled to the gravel streambed. Tapping his fingertips against his thigh, one beat to each second, the boy watched, and when the big trout rose again he resumed his count: tapping, tapping, tapping.

Five times he watched the big fish rise and fall. When it sounded for the sixth time, he pointed the rod tip through the parted grasses, keeping his thumb on the reel and pulling the tiny fly back toward him with his other hand, the way a prankster might pull back a rubber band in school. The rod tip bowed upward from the pressure, and the boy's lips moved, silently forming the numbers one, two, three ...

Then, just as the fish was due to rise again, the boy released the tiny fly and its hook.

The fly shot out and up on its spider thread of tippet. Then the minuscule ruff of fur around the shank caught air and the dry fly slowed and settled toward the water.

In the creek, a brown shape began rising.

There was a swell of crystal water, a splash, and the fly was gone, the tippet pulling tight and yanking the bamboo rod tip downward.

The boy fed line off the reel, letting the fish pull until the tippet had completely cleared the guides and a foot or two of pale yellow fly line was clear as well, pointing this way and that as the trout raced to and fro in the pool.

Standing, the boy held the rod high, clear of the shrubs near the creek bank, and glanced back at the man, who was slapping his thighs and laughing with delight.

The boy straightened up and did his work, cupping the rim of the fly reel with his hand and letting it run a little. When the fish turned, he took line with it, keeping tension on the barbless hook. He did this three times. Then the fish seemed to tire and the boy stepped down the bank and into the water, gasping as it reached his knees.

He kept the rod high, turning and guiding the fish until it drew next to him. Still keeping tension on the line, he dipped his free hand beneath the surface, cupped the fish behind its pectoral fins and lifted it free of the water. The red mark behind the big trout's gill plate gleamed fiercely in the bright mountain sun.

"Whoo-eee!" The man was standing on the creek bank now, a black Vivitar camera in his hands. "That fella's two pounds if he's two ounces. Hold him up and turn a little this way, Tyler."

Tyler trapped the fly rod between his arm and body and held the fish out with both hands, displaying it like the prize that it was.

The man took one picture, then another. He glanced at the sun and said, "Breakfast was kind'a on the light side this morning. Want me to break out the stove and fry that fella up for you?"

The boy shook his head. "I just wanted to see if I could catch him. Let's let him go."

The man crooked an eyebrow. "That's no rainbow, you know. Cutthroat are smart. They remember. You won't be pullin' that prank on him twice."

Tyler laughed. "Then I'll just have to come up with a new prank."

He cocked his head. "Don't you think I should put him back?"

The man held up an index finger and then opened to the front of the little book he'd been studying. He leafed forward a few pages.

"'And God blessed them,'" he read, "'and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea.'"

He closed the book and looked at the boy. "'Have dominion.' You know what that means?"

Tyler shook his head.

"It means you get to decide. That may be a fish of the creek instead of a fish of the sea, but it's close enough. You still get to call the shots. Cook him or set him free, God says you're the boss. Sure you don't want him for lunch?"

The boy shook his head again. "I want to put him back."

"All right. Turn him loose, then."

The hook came free with one turn and a pull, and the boy lowered the fish belly-first into the stream, moving him back and forth in the cold clear water until the trout's brown body quivered and it swam from his hands and shot for an undercut on the far side of the stream.

The boy handed the fly rod up to the man and clambered out of the water. The man had put the camera away and held out a dry pair of boot socks. Tyler nodded and accepted them, sitting down on the warm, rough surface of the boulder to pull off his sodden boots. A soft breeze ruffled the hair above his forehead as a yellow butterfly flitted nearby among the heather.

"Is that really true what you told me? That nobody has ever caught one of those trout before?"

"Not in all the years I've been comin' here. And I've been comin' here since before the war. Seen folks try it. Lots of folks. You're the only one I've ever seen do it."

The boy beamed, and the man seemed to dim a little, his smile straightening, eyes moving back to the jagged edge of the distant ridgeline.

"What are you thinking?"

The man smiled at him. "About how much I love coming here. About how I like being here with you."

"Then why did you look sad there for a little bit?"

The man cocked his head and studied the boy a moment, then turned his attention toward the ridge again, tucking the Bible back into his bib pocket and buttoning the pocket shut.

"I've been coming into the Wind River Range for more than fifty years, Tyler. Started when I was barely shaving. And now ... well, now I'm old."

"You're not old."

The man took his cap off and his white hair shone in the sun.

"There's snow on the mountain," he said, laughing.

"But you're still strong."

"Am now." The man nodded. "But I won't be forever. And I was just thinkin' that there'll come a day when I won't be able to do this anymore. When I won't be able to just pack up and go."

The boy looked at the ridge as well.

"Then I'll bring you," he finally said.

"How's that?"

"When you can't come on your own. I'll come and I'll get you and I'll bring you. I'll come to your and Miss Edda's house, and I'll put you in my truck and I'll bring you."

"You have a truck now, do you?"

Tyler shook his head. "Not yet. But I will when I'm a man. And I'll come and I'll get you and I'll take you into the Winds, just like you take me now."

The man smiled, tan skin crinkling more deeply behind his glasses at the corners of his blue eyes.

"Well, I'd like that," he said. "You wouldn't have to do it all the time. Who knows? When you grow up, you might live somewhere way across the country. But maybe when I'm too old to come up here all by my lonesome ... maybe you can come get me sometime and bring me back up for one last trip. Could you do that?"

"I'll do that."

"You promise?"

The boy spat on his palm and held his hand out.

The man spat on his own and they shook. No laughter. No jokes.

"It's a promise," Tyler told him.

"All right then." The man looked around the valley and took the boy's wet socks, putting them under the straps that held the tent on his pack so they'd dry as they walked in the sun. "One last time. One last trip into the Winds."

"When you're too old."

"That's right. When I'm too old."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Edge Of Recall - Chapter 1

The Edge Of Recall

(Bethany House July 1, 2008)


Chapter 1


Houses smaller than her dollhouse, fields stretching out and away. A pond tossing sunrays as she leans against the window, nose pressed to the glass. The plane seat rumbles. She feels it in her fingertips, in her teeth.

Daddy points. "Look there."

And she sees it. Circle upon circle, living branches shaped like the inside of a seashell. Mesmerized, she follows the path with her eyes to the very center.

Daddy's voice holds all the mystery in the world. "It's a labyrinth."

* * *

"Miss Young?"

Tessa opened her heavy-lidded eyes to white light, beige walls. For a moment she'd thought she was in— But no, it was the emergency room. She rotated her wrist and winced. Her neck burned, and she could almost feel the grip there still. She drew a ragged breath.

The nurse put a hand between her shoulder blades. "Let me help you up."

"Thank you." Tessa slid her legs over the side of the exam bed and sat up, woozy, as the curtain slid open with a squeal of metal rings on rod. A man with a hawkish face and wiry hair entered. Dr. Brinkley. She'd spoken with him ... how long ago?

"You've had some rest, Ms. Young?"

She pressed her fingers to her temples and realized that somewhere between arriving and now they had sedated her.

"Sheriff Thomas is back, if you're up to seeing him."

Her chest quaked as her mind replayed the knife flashing, Smith's stunned face. Would she have to identify him? Could she bear it? The sheriff entered, his pants and jacket shiny with rain.

"Is he ... is he dead?"

"We went over the property, Ms. Young. There's nothing to indicate a homicide."

She had a moment of disconnect. What was he saying? "You didn't find Smith?" Her throat constricted. "That's impossible."

"The rain's ruined what trace of an altercation there might have been."

She jolted. "Someone attacked us. He stabbed Smith."

"Someone not quite human."

"I didn't say he wasn't human, just grotesque, misshapen—"

"Pale and malformed, rotten teeth and milky eyes. Wasn't that the description?"

The description conjured up his image. "Yes. That's what I saw."

The sheriff slid out the pad he'd jotted her words on before. "Yours was the only vehicle."

She nodded. "I don't know how he got there, but it isn't the first time. I thought I saw him weeks ago."

"You said your boss was six-one, one-eighty. How would this small, malformed person with no transportation—"

"He must have hidden Smith, buried ... the body."

"We searched the field and surrounding woods." The sheriff looked her over slowly. "I'll round up some dogs in the morning, but before I do, why don't you tell me what really happened?"

She stared. "What do you mean?"

"It appears you had a scuffle, but frankly, your story is . . ." He spread his hands. "Not plausible."

Her panic rose. "It's not a story. I barely got away. Someone attacked us. He—" She fought the grief that raised the pitch of her voice. "Have you talked to Smith Chandler? Can you tell me he's alive?"

The sheriff narrowed his eyes. "I'm going to give you a while to come to grips with things, rethink your statement. Go home now, and we'll talk in the morning."

Dazed, she got up and went out, shivering, to the dark, wet street. Go home? She was so far from home it made her head spin. Before driving her rental car back to the inn some miles out of town, she would try once more to make the sheriff listen. She huddled under the covered entrance and speed-dialed her phone, needing someone to vouch for her, someone with credibility, to make them realize she could never imagine something like this.

"Dr. Brenner? I'm sorry to call so late, but I need you to talk to someone."

"Hello, Tessa. Would that someone be Sheriff Thomas?"

Her jaw dropped. "You spoke to him?"

"You listed me as your emergency contact, and he was concerned. He said you were hysterical and incoherent."

She brushed her hair back with shaky fingers. "Did he tell you why?"

"He told me what you said."

"You mean what happened."

The pause said too much. "Tessa, this ... experience. You do see the similarity to your dreams."

Her breath made a slow escape.

"All your classic elements—the maze, the fear of losing someone, abandonment. Even a monster."

"It's not a maze—it's a labyrinth. And I can tell the difference between dreams and reality." Her voice broke. "I saw someone stab Smith."

"As his rejection stabbed you?"

"I ... You can't think—"

"Listen to me, Tessa. It's possible the scenario you're describing is playing out like one of your dreams—or worse, that the real issues you've been dealing with have pushed you to a breaking point."

She started to shake. "Yes, I have dreams, terrible dreams. I also have a life. And I know the difference between what happens in my dreams and what happens in my life."

"To a soldier with PTSD, bombs landing on his home seem very real. The mind is a powerful thing."

She closed her eyes. "This is not in my mind."

"The condition can cause a person to overreact to a perceived threat or injury."

"What are you saying?"

"I want you to come back to Cedar Grove. Let me evaluate you ... before you're charged with a crime you may not have been able to control."

"You can't believe I would hurt Smith."

"I think it more likely you've broken with reality."

"What about that I'm telling the truth?"

His silence stung. She hung up and clutched the phone to her throat. Fear and dread loomed like monsters, but this was real. She knew it. Only . . .

With trembling fingers, she dialed another number.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Wet and shivering, Tessa dragged herself up the inn stairs to her room. She locked the door and window, dragged the wing chair over to the door and propped it beneath the knob. Enfolded by the soft yellow walls and cozy furnishings, she surrendered to the grief. Smith was gone, and the hurt overwhelmed her. Hurt and fear. Every creak, every muffled noise set her heart pounding. She tried to close her eyes, but the pale face and eyes of his murderer were etched on the back of her eyelids. She had not dreamed or imagined him.

Perhaps she dozed, for she followed endless paths in endless circles until the cold morning light woke her. She opened her eyes and sat up. The sedative had left her brain filmy. Had Dr. Brenner authorized or even prescribed the medication? She had been hysterical, running for her life after seeing Smith fall.

Pain came, as hard and relentless as the rain outside. She wished she could believe nothing had happened, but Smith would have answered her call if he could. She checked her watch. Last night she had collapsed in her clothes, but she tore them off now and changed into clean khakis and a T-shirt. Her wrist throbbed as she ran a brush through her hair and pulled it into a ponytail, impatient with each minute that kept her from answers.

At the station, she found Sheriff Thomas conferring with a deputy. The sheriff finished his bite of bagel, took a swig of coffee, and cleared his throat. "Too much rain to go out there, Ms. Young. Dogs won't pick up a scent, and the ground's been ruined for footprints." He wiped his mouth. "So why don't we get the real story, now that you're settled down."

"Smith Chandler was stabbed in the labyrinth field, just past the old foundation. I saw him fall. I saw him lying in the rain."

"Where's the knife? What did you do with the body?"

Her chest constricted. The red sags under the sheriff's eyes and his drooping jowls gave him the look of a bloodhound, but he was on the wrong scent.

"We searched everything, Ms. Young, including your weird crop circles or whatever you're cutting out there." Sheriff Thomas cleared the gruff edge from his throat. "This will go down so much better if you just come clean."

"I told you what happened."

He shook his head. "I'm going to find out. Until then, it's probably best you don't leave the county."

Returning to the inn, she closed herself into the room, anger rising. Dr. Brenner had fed the sheriff's suspicion instead of giving her credibility. So what if this event had connections to her dreams? She was a specialist in labyrinths. Her work always overlapped the subconscious elements that haunted her sleep.

She went and stood at the rain-streaked window. Could anyone truly believe she'd killed Smith? The thought that she may have had a psychotic break and imagined it all shook her, but if there was no body and no evidence of murder, then Smith was alive, somewhere. Oh, please—let it have all been in her head.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Love Starts With Elle - Chapter 1

Love Starts With Elle

(Thomas Nelson - July 8, 2008)


One


Beaufort, SC

December 21
From the loft of her Bay Street art gallery, Elle Garvey leaned against the waist-high wall, admiring GG Galley’s “Art in Christmas” show. Visitors and patrons—some Beaufort residence, others curious tourists—milled among the displays, speaking in low tones, sipping hot cider.

The mellow voice of Andy Williams serenaded them. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . .”

“Elle, are you the queen, surveying her kingdom?” Arlene Coulter gazed up from the bottom of the loft stairs, her bright red Christmas suit its own fashion work of art.

“Yes, and are you my loyal servant?”

Arlene curtsied, her bottle-blonde hair falling forward like silky angel hair, the hem of her skirt sliding up her knee. “Yours and yours alone, O you of whom Art News wrote, ‘One of the lowcountry’s finest galleries.’”

“Best hundred-dollar bribe I ever spent.” Elle descended the stairs, catching sight of her baby sister, Julianne, selling a bronze sculpture to a young woman wearing pearls.

“Darling”—Arlene linked arms with Elle and led her to the back wall—“your artist eye is truly God gifted. Tell me now . . . is this the work of the great Alyssa Porter?”

“It is.” Elle surveyed the paintings. They spoke to her each time she viewed them. She envied Alyssa and artists like her—the ones who had the courage to chase the dream.

Elle had lost hers a long time ago.

“And what do you like about this artist?” Arlene squeezed Elle’s arm tighter.

“Her paintings move me.” Elle freed herself from Arlene and moved to Alyssa’s Rose Garden, convinced it’d be a masterpiece one day.

“Move you?” Arlene studied one of the abstracts through a oneeyed slit, her short, red-tipped fingers squeezing the point of her chin. “I suppose they move me too. I’m just not sure where.”

“You’re looking for a definite image, Arlene. Don’t be so concrete. Let your imagination run . . .” Elle hooked her arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Follow my hand. See how you just moved out of the sunlight into the shade?”

“No, but, girl, I really love your bracelets. Where’d you get those?” Arlene grabbed Elle’s wrist to study the tricolor bangles.

“You beat all, Arlene.” Elle twisted her hand free.

“Well, a good set of bracelets is hard to find.” Arlene gazed again at the painting. “So, what should I do about Miss Porter?”

“Buy her. The New York art scene has discovered Alyssa and if you don’t purchase something before her first auction, you’ll never be able to afford it. Here . . .” Elle walked to the other side of the display. “This one on the bottom right is only two thousand dollars.”

Arlene stood an inch way from the bottom painting, tipping her head to one side. The track lighting haloed the back of her head.

“I’m afraid if I buy one of these I’ll wake up one night with the dang thing hanging over my head whispering, ‘I see dead people.’”

“If it does, call Pastor O’Neal, not me.”

Arlene bent in half as if she hung upside down, then snapped upright. “What about this artist over here. Coco Nelson. Now this I get. Look—a woman’s face, with eyes and hair.”

“Coco’s a wonderful artist,” Elle said. “Very realistic work. This series is called ‘Love and Romance.’”

“Very fitting for you, sugar.” Arlene arched a brow at Elle. “This piece, Proposal, is stunning.” Her voice rose and fell into a sing-song.

Elle ignore her subtle teasing. “Yes, there’s something about it. An ordinary gentleman down on one knee proposing to an ordinary woman.”

But the emotion Coco evoked in the scene was anything but ordinary. When she’d sent in the piece, Elle couldn’t hang it at first. Too embarrassed after last year’s Operation Wedding Day fiasco when she tried to date every available bachelor in Beaufort. She wanted no reminders of love and romance.

Until Jeremiah Franklin.

“Okay.” Arlene spun around. “I’ll take the Alyssa Porter and this Coco Nelson.”

“You won’t regret it.”

“Says who?” Arlene passed Alyssa’s abstract piece again, sidestepping the image as if it might spring to life and spar with her.

Elle laughed, leading the way to her desk across the old, former hardware store. She treasured the talented, sometimes whacky, interior designer who landed lowcountry clients like doctors, lawyers, and hotel developers. In the early days of GG Gallery, business from Coulter Designs had helped keep the gallery lights burning and
Elle’s hopes alive.

“What’s the damage?” Arlene flashed her checkbook.

“Hold on, now, let me add a few more zeroes.” Elle jammed her finger on the adding machine’s Zero button.

“Add all you want. I’m only writing three.” Arlene fanned her face with her opened checkbook. “So, how’s it going with the good pastor?”

The mere hint of Dr. Jeremiah Franklin made Elle feel bubbly. “Good.”

“If the glow on your cheeks is any indication, I’d say it’s more than good. How long y’all been together now? Few months?”

“Two.” Elle wrote up Arlene’s order with a ten-percent discount.

“And it’s love?” Arlene leaned to see Elle’s eyes. “Don’t tell me it ain’t ’cause I can see it written all over your face.”

“Here.” Elle laughed low, passing over the order ticket with the total circled. “I appreciate your business—and nosiness—Arlene.”

“Any time, sugar. Any time.” Arlene peeked at the total, then started to write.

“Hey, babe.”

Jeremiah.

He still took her breath away after two months. When he’d told her he loved her in the setting sunlight during a beach walk, Elle had handed him her heart on a silver—no, gold—platter. Key included.

“Jer, what are you doing here?” She met him on the other side of her desk and stepped into his arms. His fragrance awakened her yearnings.

“I’m on my way to rehearse tomorrow’s sermon. Couldn’t pass the gallery without stopping in for a minute.” His kiss was soft and sweet, a pastorly display of public affection. But enough to make Elle glad to be a woman. His woman. “We’re still on for dinner?”

“Absolutely. You still haven’t said where you wanted to go.”

Jeremiah’s hazel wink teased her. “Patience, girl. Do you have to know everything?”

“Do you not know me after these few months?”

“Exactly . . .” He stooped for another soft kiss and backed away. “Good to see you, Arlene.”

“You too, Dr. Franklin.” Arlene watched Jeremiah exit the building with a wave. “Hmm-um, Elle, it must be breaking your heart.” Rippp. She handed over her check.

“What? What are you talking about?” Elle brushed the check absently between her fingers.

Arlene gaped at Elle with an “Um, what now?” expression, then punched the air with a darn-it fist, chewing her bottom lip. “Me and my mouth. Shoot fire, my Dirk will kill me.” She clutched her buttercolored Dooney & Burke to her chest. “Just forget I said anything, Elle. I am so sorry.” She whirled around and hurried away with a
swirling, swing-swing of her hips. “See you in church.”

“Oh no you don’t.” Arlene’s diverse network of informants was infamous—a mixture of truth and town lore, and eerily accurate. Elle scurried after her, blocking her before she reached the door. “You can’t drop a bomb like that then wiggle out of here with a ‘see you in church.’ What were you talking about?”

“First of all, I have a very natural swing to my hips. It’s what caught Dirk’s eye in the first place, mind you. As for the other, well, Elle, Jeremiah can tell you himself. Don’t worry. It’s good, I think.” She squared her red-jacketed shoulders. “Like I said, see you in church.”

Elle watched her go, thoughts racing. Jeremiah had just been here. He’d acted perfect, like always. What was Arlene talking about? This time her information network must have supplied the wrong details. What did you hear, Arlene Coulter?

“Elle, Mrs. Beisner is curious about a discount for buying three pieces.” Julianne held out an order pad, tapping the total. During art show openings and art fairs, Elle’s baby sister worked part time for GG Gallery. “What do you think, fifteen percent?”

“Sure.” Elle raked her hair with her fingers. “Whatever she wants.”

Julianne observed her sister through narrowed eyes. “Whatever she wants? Elle, are you okay?”

“I don’t know.” Elle walked around Jules to her desk and opened the bottom drawer where her handbag lived. “Can you watch the gallery for me?”

“Where are you going?”

“To uncover a rumor.” She didn’t feel like waiting until dinner to hear his news—if there was any news.

“Now?” Julianne called after her.

“I won’t be long.” But the front door was blocked by Huckleberry Johns and his fish tank of eco art. Oh, please, not tonight. “Huck, what are you doing? You’re dripping muddy water all over my clean floor.”

With a lopsided grin, he scanned the gallery, vying for attention. “I call it Death at Coffin Creek.” He raised his composition of reeking pluff mud and marsh grass. “Developers are ruining our ecosystem.”

Elle dropped her shoulders in fake defeat. “Huckleberry, you are too good-looking and too young to be so weird.” She grabbed his shoulders and turned him around. “Out. You’re stinking up the place. Julianne, we need a mop up here.”

Huck was an art school dropout—or, rather, they’d dropped him—and he hit the sidewalk, protesting, “I deserve to be heard.”

“Not in my gallery.” Elle stepped out after him. “Right message, wrong venue, Huck.”

“Snob.”

Elle’s smile broke. “Slob. Talk about it later?”

“It may be too late.”

“For who? You or Coffin Creek?” Elle backed up the sidewalk in the direction of her car.

“You.” Huck hollered between his wide grin, spinning off in the opposite direction, disappearing around the corner.

Elle held the sanctuary door so it closed quietly without squeaking or thudding. She paused for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, then spotted Jeremiah up front, striding across the stage as he rehearsed his sermon, his lips moving in silent recitation.

His movement was graceful and controlled, an extension of his inner being.

“He can preach up a storm, that one.” A slight, round-shouldered, snowy-haired Miss Anna Carlisle emerged from one of the sanctuary’s dark pockets, jabbing her finger toward Jeremiah.

“Then we should bring our umbrellas tomorrow,” Elle said, giving Miss Anna’s shoulders a hug.

“Best to be prepared, I suppose.” Miss Anna’s pushed open the sanctuary door. “I’m praying for that boy,” she said with a wag of her finger. “And you.” Her words were intentional and steady.

“For me?” Elle asked.

“For you.”

Elle regarded her for a moment. “Are you walking? Can I give you a ride?” Elle went with the older woman through the foyer to the outer doors.

“I do believe it’s a fine, crisp evening for walking.” She buttoned the top button of her blue sweater and buried her hands in the frayed pockets. Elle thought the garment’s spacious weave would do little against the night’s chill. “Good night, Elle.”

“Are you sure you want to walk, Miss Anna?”

“I’m sure.”

Elle watched her until she disappeared between the trees and night lights. Then, back inside, she slipped into the back pew and watched Jeremiah practice his message. She’d never met a man like him—one who breathed in confidence and exhaled all doubt.

Her emotions tugged between the man she knew and Arlene’s slipup. What’s going on, Jeremiah? If anything?

Even for a Saturday-night sermon rehearsal, Jeremiah wore gray slacks and a starched cotton button-down. For the hundredth time, Elle wondered how he’d survived three years in the National Football League, three years of Bible college, and seven years of full-time ministry single.

But she wasn’t complaining. God had saved the best for her.

Under the low stage lights, Jeremiah paused as if waiting for a response. He acted out a laugh, making his way to center stage with an even gait. At the podium, he gripped the sides and leaned toward the empty sanctuary, bobbing his head to the beat of internal words. Can I get an “Amen,” somebody?

Why not oblige? “Amen.” Elle rose from the pew as Jeremiah squinted beyond the spotlights into the shadowy sanctuary.

“Elle, babe? Is that you?” He came off the stage with a touchdown power stride. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah, fine, but”—she met him in the middle of the aisle—“I heard a rumor.”

He growled, teasing her. “Is that ever good?” He touched his lips to hers with the passion that came when they were alone. “What kind of rumor?”

“Something about you and my breaking heart, Jeremiah.”

“And who delivered such almost horrifying news?” He locked his arms around her waist, his hazel eyes searching hers.

“Arlene Coulter, though she stopped herself when she saw I didn’t know what she was talking about.”

“She heard from her husband, one of our trusty elders?”

“Who else?” Elle broke her gaze from Jeremiah’s, smoothing her hand over the crisp surface of his shirt.

“You’d think the man would know better after twenty-five years of marriage.”

“And what should I know after two months of dating?”

He brushed her hair away from her shoulder, letting his fingertips graze her skin. “Can it wait for dinner?”

His touch was fiery to her. “You tell me. Can it?”

“Are we answering questions with questions?”

“Are we?” Some time in the past week they’d started this new back-and-forth questions-with-questions dance.

“Did I start this, or you?”

“Does it matter?”

“Only if we want to get off this ride.” He pressed his lips to hers again, breathing deep.

His kisses defied all bad news.

“Tell you what.” He held up his wrist to see his watch in the stage light. “I’m almost done here. Another thirty minutes. What time does the gallery close?”

“Nine.”

“Can Julianne close up for you? We’ll slip off to dinner.”

“If I pay her.” Elle brushed her hand down the sleeve his oxford shirt. “That girl’s all about moh-ney.” She eyed him. “Monet. Mo-net. . . Get it?”

“Yes, I get it. Artist jokes. So, meet me here in thirty?” He walked backward to the stage. “Remember, I love you.”

“What’s up, Dr. Franklin? If I have to remember . . .” She caught the high and low contours of his face as he stood under the lights.

“Not a good sign.”

His smile dried up the beginnings of her self-pity. “Just remember, Elle.”