Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Irishwoman's Tale - Chapter 1

An Irishwomans' Tale

Kregel Publications (July 8, 2008)


Get ’er out of here.” Moon-shaped faces stared at Mary across the round, oaken table, then guzzled tea. Stared. Guzzled. Cup after cup of the steaming stuff.

“Ye can’t mean it,” Mam screamed. “Not now. She’s all o’ a bloody five.”

“The little eejit. Get ’er out.”

A fist crashed to the table. Cups and saucers and cigarettes flew. Tea splattered onto the wall, onto the front of Killian’s shirt.

“Ye swine.” Mam was in Killian’s face. “For the sake of St. Pat-rick, she’s my flesh and blood.”

“She’s got to go.”

Mam’s screaming curse sent a chill up Mary’s spine. “Ye lured me here, promised to take us in.”

“She’s got to go. Now.”

“All right, she’ll go.” Mam’s words slapped Mary in the face. “And you’ll be cursed, all of ye.”

Mam? No. Not you, Mam? Mary flung herself on the floor, legs and arms flailing. Mam on their side? Her heart broke in two, not by the others, but by her own mother.

Mam jerked her to a standing position, letting those horrid, hor-rid faces burn holes into her. Still, Mary stared at them, refusing to be the first to look away.

They glared back at her and sloshed watery tea all over them-selves and the tabletop. Words floated overhead. Harris, Chicago, America. What did they all mean? She heard a slap and cowered, but the blow did not fall on her.

One of the sisters half-carried, half-dragged her to bed.

“Why, Mam, why?” Over and over Mary sobbed the same thing into her pillow. She knew the foul-smelling faces that loomed over the table didn’t want her, but Mam? The black reality en-gulfed her, and her body convulsed with waves of despair.

Chapter 1

Run the straight race through God’s good grace;
Lift up thine eyes and seek His face.
—John S. B. Monsell, “Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might”

Terre Haute, Indiana, 1995

Mary Freeman had done all she could to make it special. The skillet was hot. Creamy yogurt waited to be dolloped onto nutty granola. Raspberry scones cooled on a wire rack. Steel-cut oats from County Kildare simmered on a back burner. She whirled about, trading a spoon for a spatula, determined to suit the pal-ates of her husband, Paul, and her two teenage daughters, Claire and Chloe. Every morning, the four of them ate breakfast together in this big kitchen, with its copper pot rack and granite countertops. Then Paul would leave, heaving this tool or that box into the old farm truck, a quick hug to suffice for a day without him. The girls would leave too, armed with backpacks and rac-quets and changes of clothes. The house would be empty—except for her and Mother.

For now, Mary’s world became Paul and the girls. She checked her watch, then stepped out to the garden and clipped purple asters off spindly stems. It pricked her to think of the approaching void, when she and Mother would coexist within the walls of this cavern-ous Victorian Painted Lady. Bustling back inside, she arranged the flowers and twigs of hypericum in a crystal vase, hoping to add the final touches to a memory she could cling to when the walls closed in.

She stepped back and surveyed her handiwork, plucking off a rogue leaf, then headed to the laundry room. Three more loads, which she could easily wedge in between mother’s feeding, the upstairs cleaning—

“Get ’er out of here.”

The voice bounced off the laundry room walls. Mary tried to ignore it, as she always did. Yet the thick Irish brogue assailed her, conjuring lifelike images.

Moon-shaped faces stared at Mary across the round oaken table, then guzzled tea. Stared. Guzzled.

“The little eejit. Get ’er out.”

Mam screaming. Crashing. Cups and saucers flying. Tea splattering.

“Ye swine.” Mam spat into Killian’s face.

“She’s got to go. Now.”

“All right, she’ll go. And ye be cursed, all of ye.”

As quickly as the voices had come, they faded. And left Mary trembling, damp laundry chilling her hands.

Overhead, steps pounded across the planked floor. It was Claire, banging her fist against the balustrade as she had for the past ten years, then thundering downstairs.

Mary dropped the laundry and bustled back to the kitchen. “Breakfast’s ready, honey.” She cracked some eggs, beat them until they foamed, and poured them in the skillet. If only the voices could be handled so efficiently.

Claire whooshed into the kitchen, bringing life and light and the smell of green apples and hair mousse. “Morning, Mom.” At five foot ten, Claire towered over everyone in the family but her daddy. Her younger sister, Chloe, dubbed her a red tornado, not just for her mane of hair but for her temper.

Cabinets banged and the refrigerator door creaked. “Where’s the jelly?”

“Over there, dear.” Mary slid her arm around Claire and managed to hug her.

Claire offered a cheek, then grabbed a bowl of granola, plucked a scone off the rack, and slid onto a bench seat. “Don’t forget, I’ve got Key Club tonight. I’ll just grab something after prac-tice.”

Mary nodded, then turned back to Paul’s eggs, which were seconds away from being just the consistency he liked them. “Paul?” she called to the figure clattering about in the front room. “Your breakfast is—ooh! Quit it!”

A scratchy beard chafed the nape of Mary’s neck, yet she didn’t really want him to stop. If only she could hop with him into that rickety truck, patter about the barn with their goats and wooly-backed sheep, then meet for lunch under their sycamore tree . . .

“Mom? Where’s my blue jacket?” Unnoticed, Chloe had crept down the stairs, gotten her cereal, and squeezed onto the bench.

“In the utility room. Pressed and ready.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Mary smiled, both at the love in Claire’s voice and at the way sunlight chose this moment to filter through the window and blush her daughters’ cheeks. This was the way she’d planned it. She backed out of Paul’s grasp, dished eggs onto a plate, and bee-lined back toward the laundry room to finish what she’d started.

“Whoa, girls. Let’s bless the food.” Paul grabbed the sash of Mary’s apron, pinched her tantalizingly close to her back pocket, then led her toward the table. “That means you too,” he said, kiss-ing her on her ear this time.

“Oh, Daddy.” The girls’ giggles and rolling eyes suggested they’d witnessed their father’s middle-aged shenanigans. But there was pride in their tone—and love.

“I’ll just get another load—”

“This comes first.” Paul had always been lean, but years of farming had hardened spare muscles into steel. He pulled Mary onto the bench across from their girls, and they all joined hands. “Heavenly Father,” he began, “thank You for this food. Watch over my girls today. Thank You for—”

“Where are ye?”

Mary blinked, then cut a glance at the girls and again bowed her head. Couldn’t Mother give them five minutes of peace? Five minutes for the four of them? As Paul kept praying, she clenched her jaw, willing her mother back to sleep.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I swear—” Mother’s screech shook the room.

“Why can’t she just shut up?” Claire jumped to her feet, tossed her napkin down, and shook bangs out of her eyes. “She ruins everything.”

Mary felt heat rising to her face. She wished she could blurt out exactly what she felt, like her daughters did. But what kind of exam-ple would that be? She struggled to get her thoughts together, to make the best of the time they had left. “Claire, she’s your grand-mother. And I’ll not have you saying that about her.”

“Why not?” Chloe dabbed at her lips, which managed to stay Hot Hot Pink or whatever the name of her latest lip gloss was. “It’s true.” As usual, Chloe never shouted. Yet the words cut into Mary as if she’d yelled louder than the woman in the next room. “Be-sides, she’s not really our grandmother,” Chloe added, the napkin now a wad by her plate.

Mary looked long and hard at her daughters, seeing her nose in Chloe, her eyes in Claire, and her resentment of Mother in both of them. Claire and Chloe felt free to spill their feelings all over this well-set table. She, with the Lord’s help, had been able to keep hers bottled up. But pressure was building.

Paul smoothed out his napkin and laid it by now-cold eggs. “Of course she is. And we’re gonna honor her like we did Gran. It’s our way.”

“Why?” Some of the sting had left Claire’s voice.

“Because it’s His way.”

“I’ll have yer head for this, I will!” Mother’s tirade had risen to a fe-verish pitch.

A glint entered Chloe’s eyes. “I’ll have yours first.”

Claire’s spoon clattered to the table. “Just shut up, Chloe!”

The sisters glared at each other, faces red.

“Not another word, either of you!” With a jerk, Mary untied her apron and tossed it onto the island cluttered with the remains of what she’d so hoped would be a special breakfast. Soon they would leave, and she’d be alone with Anne Harris, the eighty-three-year-old who was and wasn’t her mother.
“Get in here, girl.”

A breeze tickled slatted blinds and carried the scent of Irish roses into the room, but the heady fragrance didn’t still Mary’s trembling hands or calm her thumping heart. She was still girl, not daughter or dear, words she’d waited a lifetime to hear. All the sacrifices they’d made for Mother—even moving into town when she couldn’t manage out on the farm—didn’t seem to matter. Mary flipped on the light switch in a vain attempt to brighten her thoughts. But no matter what she calls me, Anne Harris is the only mother I’ve got now. “I’m here, Mother.” Somehow Mary managed to put a lilt in her voice.

“Girl?” The voice came from a huddle of quilts, only a stubborn jaw jutting above cotton and satin bedding.

“I’m Mary. Your daughter.” Mary said it to herself as much as to the woman on the bed.

Mother’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “You’re not my daughter. Not really.”

For just an instant, Mary longed to hurl some of Mother’s bile back in her face, then stomp to the phone and reserve one of the “spacious suites” that the new assisted-living center was touting as the latest in “modern adult community.” Let them clean her lin-ens and change her diapers and puree her food and bathe her and listen to her. Most of all, let them listen to her.

“I’m off, honey!”

Mary whirled about. Paul stood at the threshold of Mother’s room. She flew into his arms.

“What’s this about?” He somehow managed to run one hand through her hair and pull her close with the other.


“It’ll be okay,” he assured her, nuzzling about her neck.

Mary breathed deeply of wood smoke and damp wool until her heart resumed its normal beat. It would be okay . . . wouldn’t it? She willed Paul to forget about the calf with the gimpy leg, the trees that needed grafting, and stay home today. But she knew he couldn’t. The farm was his lifeblood, and hers too. If not for Mother, she’d be out there by his side.

Too soon, Paul pulled away. After good-byes and air kisses, the girls pattered down the hall, right behind their daddy. The front door slammed, then clicked. She and Mother were locked in. Safe, but not necessarily sound.

Her heart heavy, Mary sunk to the plush carpet on her mother’s floor. “Forgive me,” she prayed. “I do love her, or at least I try to. And give me a friend, Lord. Someone to help me get through this loneliness.”

She rose to see something akin to a smile softening her mother’s withered face, the set jaw. That hint of a smile carried Mary through the diaper-changing, dressing, and resettling back into the old iron bed. She would be a daughter, regardless of what she was or wasn’t called. “I’ll be back with your breakfast, Mother,” she announced as she hurried down the hall. The second break-fast shift was about to begin.
I’m the last of the Irish Rovers, bathed in a bed o’ clo-ver,” she sang as she stirred the oatmeal, which was mushy, just like Mother liked it. Or used to, when Mother still expressed likes and dislikes. Still singing, Mary buttered toast, poured tea, squeezed juice, sliced fruit, and set it, along with the vase of as-ters, on a tray. “A good diet,” the doctor had told Mary over a dec-ade ago. “Plenty of love.” Her hands gripped the tray a bit tighter, certain she’d succeeded at the first of his orders. But the second gave her cause to shake her head. Lord, I’ve done my best. You know I’ve done my best.

“Good morning.” Mary smoothed back a shock of her mother’s white hair. “Here’s your breakfast.”

Mother’s mouth opened and closed like a baby sparrow’s, yet there was no recognition in the filmy blue eyes.

Mary propped up her mother with pillows and pulled a stool near the side of the bed. She fed her a spoonful of oats, a smid-gen of toast, prattling about anything she could think of, as empti-ness edged in until she felt its cold fingers about her throat.

When the pale lips clamped shut and the papery thin eyelids closed, Mary dabbed crumbs off her mother’s mouth, then care-fully folded the napkin and set it down.

A blessed quiet filled the room. Mary stepped to the case-ment window and let the wind soothe away the tightness about her throat, her shoulders. A few brave rose blossoms remained amongst a tangle of stems and leaves in a futile gesture to stave off the approaching fall. Their scent permeated every corner of the room, from the mahogany wardrobe to the antique chest, transporting Mary to another place, another time . . . ’Tis the last rose of summer, lass, left bloomin’ all alone., All her lovely companions, faded now and gone.

For a moment, she was back on the cliffs, breathing deeply of salty spray, the smoke from a turf fire in her hair . . .

Mary jumped, then sighed. It was Mother, thrashing about in her sheets. She hurried to her side. “Tura, lura, lura,” she sang, stroking the wrinkled cheek.

Perhaps the eyes brightened for an instant. Then the bony limbs resumed their thrashing. “There, there,” she kept saying, in between the gasps and grunts and heaves it took to get Mother into the rocker and in front of the television.

“You’re the next contestant . . .”

The raucous laughter grated at Mary. They’d never wanted a television, never needed a television. Out on the farm, they’d sur-vived just fine without it. She sighed as blue-haired grannies shrieked their way down the aisle. Yet the boob tube settled Mother as nothing else did, and for that, Mary was grateful.

“Come on down!”

Mary surged about the bedroom-bathroom suite, determined to let busyness still the nerves set on edge by the TV. She plumped cushions, straightened orthopedic shoes and slippers, and was washing out her mother’s hosiery when the phone rang.

She let the answering machine get it. “Pick up, Mary.” It was the voice of Sue, a family friend and the doctor who’d delivered her girls. “I need you.”

Mary wrung out the stockings and hung them over a towel rack, hurried into the study, and picked up the phone. “Sue. What’s going on?”

“Hey, Mary. Listen, could you sub today?”

Mary hesitated. Mother’d be okay by herself for as long as it took to play a couple of sets, or she could call Dora, who always wanted more hours. “Who’s playing?”

“Mona and JoAnn and some new lady. She’s pretty good, I hear.”

Mary frowned. Two hours with Mona and JoAnn could last a lifetime, not to mention some stranger. “What’s her name?”

“All I know is she’s from the South. Listen, Mary, I don’t have time for twenty questions. A patient’s in the ER, and you’re the only one I’ve gotten through to. It’s just for a couple of hours. How about it?”

“Well, there’s Mother . . .”

“Take my word for it, Mary. She’s fine. Besides, she isn’t going anywhere.”

Mary bit her lip. It was true; Mother hadn’t taken a step unas-sisted in five years. She’d call Dora. Besides, what else was there to do? The house had been scrubbed and oiled and waxed until it glistened. The garden had been winterized. Her summer clothes had been pressed and hung in garment bags. “No problem, Sue,” Mary said. “I’ll do it.”

“You won’t regret it, Mary. I promise.”

For a moment, Mary stared at the phone. What did Sue mean by that? She’d been subbing for Sue on a regular basis since Sue opened her own clinic. And it helped Mary get in more practice, which she definitely could use to compete in the A League. But Sue’s tone had hinted at something mysterious. Something hope-ful. She picked up the phone and called Dora, the strange com-ment still ringing in her ears.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dangerous Heart - Chapter 1

Dangerous Heart

Avon Inspire (October 14, 2008)


Mid-October 1850
Gunfire in the middle of the night was never good.

The blast startled Ginger Freeman from the first sound sleep she'd had in a week. She bolted upright in the tent she shared with her friend and fellow traveler, Toni Rodden, and fumbled around in the dark for her moccasins.

"Was that thunder?" Toni asked from the other side of the tent, her voice thick with sleep and worry. She made a shadowy figure as she sat up and reached for her shoes.

"No. Gunfire. I'm going to check on it."

"You don’t suppose it’s Indians?" Toni's voice shook the words into the air.

Ginger understood her friend's fear. Only a short time ago, Toni had been the object of a younger war chief's obsession. But the army had taken care of that─soon after Toni's rescue, a group of soldiers bore down upon the renegades camp, rescuing white captives and rounding up as many of the braves as they could. "If it is a pack of Indians, it's not who you're thinking. But you'd best stay put, just the same.

More gunfire shattered the night, and the sound of yelling echoes through the camp. "Outlaws! Take cover!"

"Did you hear that?" Toni asked, standing and heading toward the tent flap. "I─I better go with you."

The offer brought a smile to Ginger's lips. I thing we can handle it. Sam would have my hide if I let you go out there, and you know it. And I don't think it’s outlaws, anyhow. Most likely Kip Caldwell and some of the other boys playing a joke with gunpowder and a flint." Ginger frowned, hard-pressed to believe her own words, but she tried to sound light-hearted for Toni's sake. "Besides, what kind of crazy outlaws would attack a wagon train the size of the one?"

"The kind with a lot of men and guns?" Toni's voice still shook, but Ginger has no time to mollycoddle her friend. She figured her help was most needed out there with the rest of the guns. More than the rest, truth be told. If there was one thing Ginger knew a little something about, it was outlaws─a fact she couldn't mention to Toni or anyone else. But from her experience, this attack just didn't make any kind of sense. Unless the bandits thought there was an awful lot of treasure to be had among this battered, weary band of travelers, or the men firing into the camp were missing a few brains. Ginger was betting on the latter.

"I'll be back as soon as I can." She checked to make sure her pistol was loaded, then stuffed it into her holster and grabbed her rifle for good measure. She tossed a quick look in Toni's direction. "Hunker down and stay out of sight, Hopefully this'll all be over soon.

"Be careful!" Toni whispered after her. Ginger stopped and turned back. She snatched her pistol from her holster. "Here, take this."

Toni gave a vehement shake of her head. "You'll need it. Besides, I don't like those things."

Ginger shoved the weapon toward her. Now was not the time to take no for an answer. "Take it. I have my rifle. How am I supposed to concentrate, thinking about you unprotected in here, all by yourself?"

Toni's expression softened, and she took the pistol. "Thank you, Ginger."

Ginger ducked her head, swallowing hard. Emotional women always made her uncomfortable. Maybe because she hadn't really spent much time in the company of women since she was a little girl. Before her ma left. She'd been raised around rough men, who laughed at tears and didn't cotton to hugs and coddling. "I'd best be going."

Pulling back the tent flap, she escaped outside, taking care to keep her head down and her senses alert. She gripped her rifle firmly, ready to aim and fire if necessary. And she figured it would be necessary real soon.

She tried to take stock of the situation. Outside the circle of wagons, the dark and dust and sagebrush were thick enough to hide a few outlaws, bent on mischief. But she still couldn't imagine anyone crazy enough to go up against a wagon train the size of this one. Especially if her suspicions were correct─no more than fifteen men would be riding with the outlaws.

She strained her eyes against the dimness around her, Dawn was beginning to break over the snow-capped mountains to the east, but it was still too dark to make out more than shadows beyond the camp's fire.

Ginger crept forward, bending at the waist as she tried to assess the situation. Her body remained tense, every inch of her alert to the danger lurking in the shadowy darkness, as she searched for the most logical spot to hunker down and make the biggest impact. From the direction of the gunfire, she knew they weren't surrounded, and the attack seemed to be aimed toward the middle of the wagon train.

Heading toward the closest wagon, she kept her mind focused on getting to her hiding spot─which was the only explanation for what happened next.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Less Than Dead - Chapter 1

Less Than Dead
Thomas Nelson (September 9, 2008)

Chapter 1

Northern Virginia, 1998

The sheriff looked out over the crowded backyard. People were frantically searching everywhere: sheriff’s deputies, crime scene technicians, even file clerks and secretaries from the Warren County Sheriff’s Department whose hearts had been touched by the news. Everyone wanted to help: friends, neighbors, church members, even total strangers from as far away as Front Royal who had heard about the missing three-year-old boy and had driven over to lend a hand with the search.

But there was no sign of the boy anywhere.

It was late now, well after midnight, and the sheriff was privately beginning to lose hope. He kept up a bold front for the sake of the frantic mother, but he had worked kidnappings and child abductions before, and he knew that the first twenty-four hours were critical. Unfortunately, this was the second day of the search, and the boy’s odds of survival were diminishing fast.

“Is there anything new you can tell me? Anything at all?”

The sheriff turned to the woman; her face was contorted by fear and exhaustion, and her panic-stricken eyes stared up at him from sunken gray pools. “I told you I’d tell you the minute we know anything.”

“That was an hour ago.”

“That was ten minutes ago. We’ll find your boy, Mrs. Coleman—it just takes time.”

“It seems to be taking longer than it should.”

“Not at all,” the sheriff lied. “Look at all these people pitching in—if your boy’s anywhere around here, they’ll find him.”

“What if he’s not around here? Has Mark told you anything else?”

“I’m afraid your husband has decided not to cooperate.”

“Maybe I should try talking to him again.”

“I don’t think that will help, and it’ll only make you feel worse. Right now you need to keep your hopes up and let us do our work. I’ll keep you posted—I promise.”

“Then I’ll help search.”

“You’ll only slow us down, Mrs. Coleman—people keep stopping to take care of you instead of searching. If you want something to do, go back and pitch in at the refreshment table.”

“That’s a good idea,” she mumbled. “Everyone’s working so hard—they’ll be hungry . . .” Her voice trailed off as she turned away.

Just then a sheriff’s deputy approached and nodded a greeting.

“Where have you been, Elgin?” the sheriff asked. “You’ve been gone for hours.”

“I went to find her, just like you told me. She lives way up on top of the mountain above Endor, y’know—thought I’d like to never find her.”

“Well, did you?”

“Eventually. It’s like a prison up there—she’s got the whole place surrounded by chain-link fence and she keeps the gate chained shut. She don’t have no phone—I had to just sit there and lay on the horn until she finally came to the gate. Any news here?”

“Nothing. We’ve looked everywhere we can think of.”

“The crawl space?”

“Checked it twice. Checked the attic too, but he wasn’t there, thank the Lord—the boy wouldn’t have lasted an hour up there in this heat. I had the city engineers bring maps of all the storm drains and culverts—nothing. We searched the woods over there—been over it twice, but we’re looking again. A bunch of the neighbors walked that cornfield hand in hand, but they didn’t find him there. Did you fetch her down?”

“She wouldn’t come with me—insisted on drivin’ herself. Creepiest thing I ever saw, Gus; I’m layin’ on the horn and three big dogs come walkin’ up to the gate. Biggest mutts I ever saw—they just stood there and looked me over—I swear I thought they were black bears at first. Then the woman comes walkin’ up nice and slow, wearin’ a long white robe with her black hair hangin’ all around. And there’s another dog walkin’ beside her—a mangy old gray mongrel—and the thing’s only got three legs. Three legs! What about the husband—has he said anything more?”

“Nothing. He took the boy, no doubt about it—but he’s not about to tell us where he put him.”

“Just to spite his ex-wife?”

“He’s got a knife in her heart and he’s just gonna twist it—a woman he used to be married to. We’ve tried all we can—threatened him with everything from hell to high water, but he’s not talking. The fool’s willing to let his own boy die just to cause the woman pain. You know, people can be mean as snakes sometimes. You say she wouldn’t come with you—but she is coming, right?”

“She’s already here. Get this, Gus: She walks right up to the gate and looks at me with one eye—then she snaps her fingers like this and all four dogs sit down at the same time. Never said a word to ’em—it’s like the dogs could read her mind. I don’t mind tellin’ you, it made my skin crawl.”

The sheriff shook his head. “She’s as weird as her old man was.”

“I don’t mind ‘weird’—hey, I’m weird—but this is somethin’ else. Know what she said to me? ‘Who dares to invade my privacy?’ I’m tellin’ you, Gus, it’s true what people say about her: The woman is a witch.”

“I don’t care if she’s the Ghost of Christmas Past, as long as she can help us find that boy. Where is she now?”

“Right over there—you can’t miss her.”

The sheriff looked; standing on a small berm at the far edge of the property was a woman in her mid-twenties dressed in a flowing white gown. Her hair was long and straight and she kept her head down so that the hair hung in front of her face. Beside her was a dog: mottled gray, lean and angular—and it had only three legs. Standing atop the berm, the two of them were almost silhouetted against the new moon—and the sheriff had to admit, the image was definitely eerie.

He walked over to her. She did not look up as he approached.

“Are you Alena Savard?” he asked.

The woman cocked her head to one side and slowly raised it until her hair parted slightly, exposing a pale sliver of flesh and one emerald eye that glared up at the sheriff. “I am.”

“Can you help us, Ms. Savard?”

“What is it you require?”

“We’ve got a missing boy here, about three years old. It’s a domestic dispute. There was an ugly divorce and a custody battle and the husband lost. First he threatened to take the boy away, then he threatened to harm him—it looks like he might have done both.”

“Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Because you can’t arrest a man for a crime he hasn’t committed yet. I don’t like it either, but that’s the law. The wife got a restraining order, but it didn’t much matter—a man who’s willing to let his own boy die won’t be stopped by a piece of paper.”

“You people,” she said. “My dogs are more human than you.”

“Right now I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ve got the husband in custody, but he refuses to talk to us; the boy’s been missing for almost two days now, and we’re hoping we can find him before—”

“I find the dead.”

“Well, we’re hoping he’s still alive.”

“I find the dead—only the dead.”

“Keep your voice down, will you? The mother is right over there, and she’s about out of her mind already.”

“Why did you send for me?”

“I’ve heard about your father—I thought maybe you could help.”

“If the boy is alive I’ll be of no use to you. You think the boy is dead, or you wouldn’t have sent for me.”

“I think he might be dead—it’s an option we have to consider. We need to know if we should keep looking, and you might be able to tell us. Will you help?”

Alena paused. “I will help—under the following conditions: No one is to speak to me or come near; the moment I finish I will leave—I will answer no further questions; and if anyone attempts to approach my dog in any way I will leave immediately. Do you agree to these conditions?”

“Agreed. What do you need me to do?”

“Nothing. Just leave me alone.”

“One thing,” the sheriff said. “That woman over there is the boy’s mother. Try to stay clear of her; it’s best if she doesn’t know you’re here.”

He walked back to the house and turned to watch.

The woman seemed to do nothing at first—then she slowly raised both arms and looked up into the night sky. She lowered her head again and swung it slowly from side to side, as if she were mopping a table with her long black hair. She shook both arms loosely, like a pitcher limbering up, then began to walk around in small circles.

Everyone in the yard began to stop and stare.

She knelt down in front of her dog and took a brightly colored bandanna from around her neck; she showed it to the dog as if she were asking for its approval—then she slipped the bandanna around the dog’s neck and straightened it.

The entire yard fell silent.

She stood up again and snapped her fingers; the dog immediately circled her once and sat down at her side. She snapped her fingers a second time and made a tossing motion with her right hand; the dog jumped to its feet and began to zigzag across the yard with its nose quivering just above the ground.

The mother approached the sheriff from behind and tugged on his sleeve. “Who is that woman?” she asked.

“Never you mind,” the sheriff said. “She’s here to help us find your boy.”

“How can she help?”

“We can use all the help we can get right now, Mrs. Coleman.”

“But—what is she doing? It looks so strange.”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

“You already tried a search-and-rescue dog—it couldn’t find him.”

“This is a different kind of dog. We’re hoping it’ll have better luck.”

The dog quickly worked its way across the berm and around the backyard with the woman following close behind; she made no eye contact with anyone as they worked, and the other volunteers all nervously stepped back and gave them a wide berth wherever they turned.

When they reached the edge of the woods the dog suddenly stopped; it swung its head back and forth over an area no larger than a frying pan—and then it lay down. The woman knelt down in front of the dog and looked into its eyes; she made a shrugging motion and looked again. The dog just lay still and stared up at her.

The woman stood up and looked across the yard at the sheriff. She pointed to the ground near the trunk of an old beech tree.

The mother grabbed the sheriff’s arm. “Why is she doing that? Why is she pointing at the ground?”

The sheriff didn’t answer.

“What does that mean? Tell me!”

“Keep her here,” the sheriff said to Elgin, then started toward the woman and the dog.

He called out to Alena as he approached. “Are you sure?”

She nodded.

The sheriff tested the spot with the toe of his shoe; the soil was loose. He turned to one of his deputies and called back, “Bring me a shovel.”

The mother let out a shriek and twisted out of Elgin’s hands.

Alena knelt down in front of her dog again and flashed it a beaming grin, then rolled onto her back as the two of them began to wrestle together in the grass.

The mother ran to the beech tree and threw herself in front of it. “It’s not him!” she shouted. “He isn’t dead!”

“We’ll know in a minute,” the sheriff said, readying the spade above the ground—but the woman grabbed the handle with both hands and stopped him.

“Don’t!” she screamed. “If you find him here, they’ll stop looking for him!”

“Mrs. Coleman—please.”

The mother released the shovel and turned on Alena. “Who are you?” she demanded.

Alena scrambled awkwardly to her feet.

“Who told you to come here anyway? I didn’t ask you to! I don’t want you here!”

Alena lowered her head until her black hair covered her eyes.

“I know who you are—you’re the witch, come to take my boy! He was alive until you came here! He was—”

Her voice failed mid-sentence, and she collapsed to the ground sobbing.

Alena turned without a word and hurried away.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Murder on The Ol' Bunions - Chapter 1

Murder on The Ol' Bunions

Barbour Publishing, Inc (2008)


Something about the Out of Time antique store didn’t feel quite right that Tuesday afternoon. The rattle of that annoying bell Marion Peters insisted on hanging over the front door combined with the shock of cool air against my hot skin managed to fry all my circuits and make me feel a little crazy. Kind of like the days when my kids each used to demand all my attention at once.

“Mercy, Marion,” I reached up to still the clattering noisemaker and called down the narrow building toward the soda fountain Marion used as a counter, at the back of the store. “When you goin’ to bless us all by removing this thing?”

No one answered. Strange, that. Silence is not one of Marion’s virtues. Come to think of it, her Virtue list is pretty short, if you get my meaning. And no one enters Marion’s store without her verbally pouncing on them with news of her latest purchase of quality merchandise or her daughter Valorie’s most recent show of academic brilliance.

My sweet husband, Hardy, set the bell to rattling all over again as he heaved his plaid pants a little higher and stepped inside the shop and out of the Colorado sunshine. He shot me a grin that sported his pride and joy—his lone front tooth, covered in gold. But the sight of his weathered black face and grizzled gray-black hair has filled my heart with contentment for going on thirty-eight years. ’Course, I don’t let him know that too often, or he’d be thinking he’s got me wrapped around his little finger.

Hardy shut the door and gazed up at the spastic bell. He reached to silence the thing, fingertips three inches shy of meeting their goal. His cocoa eyes rolled in my direction, waiting. You see, Hardy’s as short as I am tall.

I reached up to squelch the bell and patted him on the head, not bothering to hide my smile. “Where’d you disappear to? I looked all around the library for you, then gave up and came here.”

Hardy’s grin didn’t dim. “Went to Payton’s to talk music. He tried to sell me a book on playing the banjo.”

“You don’t play the banjo.”

“Yup. Where’s Marion?”

“How am I supposed to know? I just got here myself.” Reaching around Hardy’s slender form, I opened the door wide enough to set the bell to making noise and slammed it hard. We both cocked our ears toward the room for any sound to indicate Marion’s arrival.

Hardy guffawed. “Never thought I’d enter a place owned by Marion Peters and not hear her mouth flapping.”

I sailed past the old Broadwood concert grand piano that took up one side of the room and peered into one of the two boxes of books I’d purchased earlier in the day. Marion had grudgingly agreed to let me leave the boxes until I could fetch Hardy to haul them for me. “I suppose we can just take this box and go. Wonder where the other one is?” Where was that woman? “Marion!”

“Lot o’ wind in them lungs for an old woman.”

“You better shut your trap, Hardy Barnhart. Years of yelling after you has given me my lung capacity. Marion!”

Hardy’s eyes twinkled. “She’s giving you the silent treatment. I figure she’s still mad at you for—”

“You hush.”

“Marion can hold a powerful grudge.”

His words came to me through the filter of my own warring thoughts. Something wasn’t right. I could feel it. Marion never left the store without flipping the sign from OPEN to CLOSED. And forgetful she’s not. Ask anyone who has ever done her wrong. I glanced back at the door. The sign definitely said OPEN.

“You go ahead and load this box into the car, I’m gonna look for the other one.”

Hardy shuffled forward. “You paid for them?”

I sent him a healthy dose of the look I made legendary with my children. “Of course.”

He held his hands up, palms out. “Just askin’. If LaTisha Barnhart is thinking of starting a life of crime, I want to make sure I get cut in on the loot.”

This man. He makes me crazy. I glanced down the length of him and smirked. “Got your drawers hitched too high again, don’t you? I can always tell—you start spouting crazy things.”

“Yeah, like the day I said, ‘I do.’ ”

“That’s not what you said. You said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ”

I peeked into the box. The old books, covers frayed and worn, were neatly stacked, and definitely the ones I’d purchased. I motioned to Hardy and he lifted the box to his shoulder. I turned and mentally itemized the merchandise in the store. Having worked at Out of Time until my youngest left for college last fall, I knew exactly where everything should be. A few dustless outlines proved recent sales had helped boost Marion’s receipts, but other than that things looked normal. And why shouldn’t they be?

The store didn’t hold much. A huge oak bookcase, a mahogany secretary, and a cherry dining room set, took up most of the twenty-one-foot length. Thanks to her going-out-of-business sale, Marion’s overpriced stock now sported tags well within the price range of Maple Gap folk. The store’s impending closing had surprised many of the citizens. Everyone figured Marion’s elite clientele of wealthy collectors both here in tourist-laden Colorado and across the United States would keep Out of Time a thriving landmark for many years.

So much for that thought.

The scent of old books and dust hung heavy in the air. A draft of cold air raised shiver bumps on my arms. I stilled myself, turned, and studied everything again, forcing deep, calming breaths. Something was eluding me. Whatever stirred my senses to high alert seemed to be strongest at the counter. I returned there and sucked in another breath. And that’s when I caught it. A certain strange scent. What was that odor?

A mental image of my grown son at the age of eight bloomed. Tyrone had been helping Hardy build a shed and had sliced his finger a good one on the saw. Tyrone gave out a yelp. I went running. Hardy’s dark chocolate face took on a milk chocolate patina at the sight of the blood, so I took charge. As Hardy hit the ground in a faint, I barked instructions to my children on how to care for their father and hustled Tyrone to the car.

I directed our old Buick through town, one hand on the wheel, the other helping Tyrone maintain pressure on the wound. I tell you, blood seeped through that towel faster than I felt comfortable with, filling the air with its copper scent.

That was it! I inhaled the air in Marion’s shop, held my breath, and then released it slowly. My stomach clenched hard. Blood.

All my senses flared, spitting warnings, making my head spin. With a hand on the counter, I steadied myself for what I knew needed to be done. As if pulled by an unseen string, I gravitated toward the only corner of the room I hadn’t already examined. Some sixth sense screamed at me, telling me to hightail it out of there. But I ignored it, my feet leading the way, my brain screaming at my toes, telling them to cease all forward movement, turn tail, and run.

I focused on the things scattered along the counter, a white envelope, an old-fashioned cash register, brochures of the store, a small bell for service. The now identified scent of blood saturated the air. My throat clenched. My feet must have finally got the message because they wouldn’t move forward at all now, so I steeled myself and leaned over the counter.


Her head lay in a pool of blood.

Cold shivers tingled along my scalp. My heart skittered. I pressed both hands flat on the counter and squeezed my eyes shut to block the horrible image as shock carried me over the edge of rational thinking into one where every impulse had its way. I opened my mouth and gave vent.

Hardy came on the run, his steps banging along the wooden floor as he skidded to a halt beside me.

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

My tongue stuck to the roof of my dry mouth.

“You getting ready to drop over or something?”

Tears glazed my eyes and turned Hardy into a fuzzy, carnival-mirror image. I raised my hand and shooed him away. “Get back,” I finally croaked. “Go back outside. You don’t need to see her.”

Hardy’s eyes got wide. “What you talking about, woman? See who? You ain’t been sniffing glue again, have you?”

He sure knew how to get to me, but I wasn’t having any of it. “You know I only did that once on a dare. Now you get.” I waited for him to retreat, instead he stared. I flicked my hands at him, hoping he’d trust me on this one. “Hardy. . .” My glance at the place where Marion now rested gave everything away.

Hardy’s expression melted into a frown. “What’s back there?” He took a step closer.

“No! You’d better not stick your nose over that counter. I’m warning you. You’ll be sorry. Don’t look.”

“Hardy’s coming around, LaTisha,” the young doctor of Maple Gap stood in the doorway of Out of Time, divested of its annoying bell at long last by the chief of police himself.

“I think he’ll be just fine.” Dr. Troy Gordon motioned me to precede him back into the store. “It’s not every day one sees a dead body.”

I stepped over to the end of the counter, careful to keep my eyes off the form flanked by the police chief and another man I’d never seen before. I gazed down at Hardy’s waxy complexion. He needed a thorough chiding, so, being the good wife that I am, I warmed to the event like a microwave on high. “I told you not to look. You never do listen.”

The doctor knelt next to my man and patted Hardy’s shoulder as he tried to sit up. “You’d better lay back down, Mr. Barnhart. You’ve had quite a shock.”

“Naw,” he grated out. “She talks to me like that all the time. Ignoring her works best.”

My tongue poised to reply, but a wave of dizziness gripped me so hard I felt myself whirling. “I’m a-thinking I’m going to lay me down, too.”

Dr. Gordon’s wide-eyed face tilted up at me, and he jumped to his feet. Just as my knees gave way, a hand jerked me backward and my body folded onto a chair.

“Head down, LaTisha.” Doc’s hand pushed my head between my knees, or as far forward as it could reach over my stomach. Diet is a four letter word, after all.

Within seconds the dizziness began to release its grip. Something tickled down my belly. As my head cleared, I realized the sensation came from my pantyhose beginning a southern migration. Never could get a decent pair anymore.

“How do you feel?”

Doc Gordon’s voice penetrated my thoughts. I croaked a little hiccup and raised my head slowly. “I’ll be fine.” But I wanted air. Real bad. I nodded toward the door. Doc must have understood my silent plea because he gripped my arm and helped me get up. With his hand directing me, I broke out of that shop and back into the spring sunshine. He helped me get settled into one of the two Windsor chairs he’d dragged from Marion’s shop.

“I’ll bring Hardy out here, too. I daresay he’s had enough excitement in that store.”

Within minutes, Doc Gordon returned with a wan, shuffling Hardy.

“You don’t look so good,” I said as Hardy slumped down next to me and buried his face in his hands.

“Neither did she.”

I scootched my chair closer to him and squeezed his shoulders, drawing his head down to my chest. “You listen next time I tell you something. Thought you’d done gone and had a heart attack.”

I spread my hand on his slender back and wondered how, after thirty-eight years of my cooking, the man had yet to put on more than five pounds. He was too skinny. Of course, he always told me I’d gained enough for both of us.

Hardy’s voice came out muffled. “I wouldn’t leave you to have all the fun.”

The doctor reappeared. “Officer Simpson wants to talk to you, LaTisha. I told him you weren’t feeling well and to wait awhile. He’s pretty anxious to ask you some questions. Do you feel up to it?”

I twisted around in the chair and saw the young police officer standing in the doorway. I nodded at him, anxious to have the whole incident behind me. “Come on over here and get to your asking.”

Doc gave Hardy a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll be inside if you need me.”

Hardy straightened in his chair as the officer approached. I gave his complexion a good once-over before frowning at the policeman and jabbing a finger toward Hardy. “You can ask me what you need to until he’s feeling perky.”

“I just have a few questions, ma’am.”

“You new to town?”

The young officer swelled up a bit. “Yes, Mrs. Barnhart. I moved into town last week.”

I gave the newcomer a good scrub down with my eyes and wondered why I hadn’t heard of his arrival. No way was I anxious to have to go through the whole trauma of explaining how I found Marion’s body with this young fellow.

“Job doesn’t pay well,” I started out, making good and sure he knew I had the upper hand. “We just lost two men a month ago because the city council didn’t approve raises. One of them moved his family to Seattle, the other became an insurance salesman.”

“Uh, yes, ma’am.”

“I’m LaTisha Barnhart. And you?”

“I’m Officer Mac Simpson.”

“Not a bad looking boy. How old are you?”



Hardy’s voice held an edge that I recognized right away. I rolled my eyes his way. “I’m just trying to be neighborly.”

“Let the boy do his job.”

I huffed back into my chair and crossed my arms, considering. Doesn’t hurt to give the new guy a few warnings about small town living. Who knew? A murder right after a new person arrives in town. . . Suspicious if you ask me.

With Hardy getting uptight with me, I’d have to summarize my welcome speech. “You must have bought the Hartford’s place. Only house for sale that I know of. I’ll bring you some of my fried chicken. Don’t want newcomers to feel unwelcome here. I consider it my duty to make sure new people have at least one good square meal. Moving is hard work, and organizing a kitchen takes a woman’s touch. You got yourself a woman? Preferably a missus.” My eyes slid to his left hand. No ring. “We can take care of that for you, too, just give us a chance.”

Satisfied that I’d had my say, I waited for the man to begin with the questions. He blinked like a barn owl in the sunlight for a full thirty seconds.

“Hurry up and ask what you need to ask. I haven’t got all day.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed, and he cleared his throat. “I—” He glanced at the small notebook in his hand as if it contained the script he should follow. I knew the pages were blank. Noticed it right off. Not much escapes me. Ask any one of my seven children. They’ll tell you their momma not only has eyes in the back of her head, but she’s got ’em on the sides, too, and the high beams are always on.

Being that I had more education about these police things than he probably did, I decided to help him out. “You want to know what I was doing in the store and how I found Marion.”

His lips cracked a small smile. “That would be a good start. Yes.”

“The chief asked me all this already.”

“Yes, ma’am. He wanted me to ask again.”

Now if there’s one thing I don’t like to have to do is repeat myself. I tell you once. That’s it. You ask for a repeat and you might get it—slowly and with every vowel enunciated—but you ask again, and I’ll call the ear doctor and set up a fitting for you to get yourself a hearing aid.

I leaned forward, deciding I’d give this boy a second chance. This time. Since he was new and all. “I went into the store to pick up some things I bought earlier. Hardy came in after me. Something seemed funny when Marion didn’t start talking right off. That’s Marion for you. She never had any need for quiet. Anyways, I went around the counter and there she was.” I had to push hard at the sight of her that flashed in my brain. Forcing back my emotions, I went on. “Payton heard me—that’s the owner of the music store next door, don’t suppose you’ve met him yet—and he came over right after Hardy fainted. He’s the one who called you boys. That’s it.”

Officer Simpson scribbled in his book. “Did you see anything suspicious? Hear anything out of the ordinary?”

“I smelled blood.” And still did. I swallowed hard. “Took me awhile to figure out what that smell was, but I did. That’s when I thought to look behind the counter.”

Voices carried over from the doorway of the shop. The chief of police and a man I didn’t recognize talked for a minute before the stranger went back inside. Chief Chad Conrad caught my gaze and headed our way.

Simpson saw his boss coming. His expression became severe. “I must say you’re pretty calm for someone who just saw a dead body.”

I latched onto his eyeballs with mine. “Look here, I’ve had seven children, five of those are boys. Between bumps, scrapes, and breaks, there isn’t much more that’ll shock this momma. If one of them boys didn’t drop blood every day they’d thought they was girls. You feelin’ me?”

“Uh, I—” Officer Simpson’s face became a fiery red, and he gave his boss a mortified look. “Why, no, Mrs. Barnhart, I’d never—”

“That’s not to say I’m not sorry for Marion. She was a pillar in this community, but she’s also a woman who is well known for her high-handed ways and churlishness. I figure most folk wanted to give her a good push at some point or other, but that doesn’t mean I did it!”

Chief Conrad presented a slick authority figure beside his younger counterpart. He also maintained the honor of Maple Gap’s most eligible bachelor, though Officer Simpson’s hand, sans ring, might mean the chief’s days retaining that honor were numbered.

The chief leaned to whisper in Officer Simpson’s ear. Relief flooded the younger man’s face. He sent me one last, almost terrified glance and went back inside.

Conrad hooked his thumbs over the edge of his thick black belt. Squint creases on either side of his eyes, coupled with his thin lips and dark widow’s peak, gave him the look of a tough guy. “I should appoint you to the force, LaTisha. The way you intimidate people is amazing. You and I could do the good cop/bad cop routine quite well.”

Hardy snorted to life. “Yeah, but you’re a little too mean looking to be the nice guy, Chief.”

The two laughed themselves stupid at that. I crossed my arms and glared. But the idea of being a cop, an investigator, or an officer on the force. . .

“I’ve only got one more semester before I’ll have my degree in police science,” I offered, pointing a finger after the departing Officer Simpson. “Bet that boy doesn’t have one of those.”

“I can’t be too choosey at this point, LaTisha. The budget restraints are stretching us as it is.” His gaze shifted to the store, and I could almost hear his brain churning. He doesn’t know how he’s going to manage a murder investigation as short staffed as he is.

Conrad pulled his gaze from the store. “How are you two feeling?”

I glanced at Hardy, relieved to see the familiar sparkle in his eyes.

“We’ll survive.”

Couldn’t help but wince at Hardy’s choice of words. Chief just grinned.

My curiosity got the best of me. “How do you think it happened?”

“We won’t be sure for a while. State police are on their way with a mobile crime lab vehicle. Could be she just had a bad fall and slammed her head against that radiator.”

“She’d have to have fallen awful hard. It’s not like she weighs a lot.”

Conrad pursed his lips. “True. We’ll let the state men do their thing to find out. In the meantime, there are a few more things I need to ask you. Payton has offered us the use of his store while Nelson finishes taking pictures of the bo—”

I shook my head and ran a finger across my neck so he wouldn’t shake up Hardy again with reminders of Marion’s body.

“—uh, the details.”

“Does Hardy need to stay?” If Conrad insisted on talking bodies and blood, my man needed to leave or we’d be sweeping him up in a dustpan after he shattered.

“How about I talk to you first. While we’re talking, if Hardy could play us a tune. . . ?”
Hardy pushed to his feet. “Sure thing, as long as Payton doesn’t try to sell me anymore banjo books.” He laced his fingers together and stretched them, palm out in front of him, until his knuckles cracked. “I’m a piano man.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Beautiful Fall - Chapter 1

A Beautiful Fall

David C. Cook (October 2008)

Cahpter 1

At 5'8", Emma Madison would have described herself as too tall. That's why she rarely dressed in high heels. She wore her dark auburn hair past her shoulders, something she'd done since childhood, thinking the length gave balance to the rest of her body. Emma looked beautiful that morning in the downtown Boston courtroom although she would never describe herself that way. She stood near the mahogany plaintiff's table, beyond the waist-high wooden railing lawyers call "the bar" separating the area for official court proceedings from the spectators' galley. Even though she hadn't left the city since June, her face retained a trace of a summer tan, and her skin looked so clear and soft she could have passed as a model for skin cream. Emma's eyes were her most striking feature─two brown orbs that somehow made her seem vulnerable and strong all at the same time. Their color appeared so dark it overshadowed her pupils, making the windows of her soul a deep pool to look, or fall, into.

To jurors, the thirty-four-year-old attorney for the plaintiff has been captivating to watch over the long August trial, but not for mere beauty alone. Emma expressed an intense passion for her client's case that had in turn induced strong emotions in the jury. They'd been swept up in the drama of her client's sympathetic story and felt themselves standing in Anna Kelly's shoes, wondering how they'd feel in her circumstances, and knowing somehow they'd feel good about Emma as their attorney.

Her body language conveyed an easy openness when she cross-examined a witness. On good days, the jury grinned along with her good-natured humor. On difficult days, Emma displayed courtesy and grit; confident and comfortable in her own skin. She was clear and honest when she spoke, articulate in matters concerning the law, and always upbeat in spirit.

Emma's client was a young, fair-skinned woman named Anna Kelley. Anna had approached the law firm of Adler, McCormick & Madison months earlier when her Northeast health-care provider, Interscope Insurance, dropped Anna from coverage without explanation during a difficult battle with breast cancer. Eventually it was revealed that Interscope had instituted a controversial new profit-making policy called "Retroactive Review." Even though Anna had been approved for coverage and had been paying premiums with her employer for over tow years, Interscope cut her coverage, claiming there were "inconsistencies" on Anna's application after the hospital began submitting bills. As it turned out, there were inconsistencies on lots of customer's applications─inconsistencies discovered by Interscope only after one of their clients got sick.

On the final day of the trial, twelve earnest jurors watched from the jury box, listening to closing arguments from defense attorney Kenneth Blackman. In the end, the jury trusted Emma, agreed with the evidence she'd presented in her case, and returned from deliberation with a favorable verdict, and ultimately, a seven-million-dollar award.

"I didn't know where to turn," Anna confided to her after the trial. "I felt so hopeless and didn't think there was anything I could do. I felt so small, you know? Like these were the big guys, They could do whatever they wanted."

The courtroom bustled. Dismissed jurors headed back to the jury room, Judge Brown stood and collected papers from his bench, and Kenneth Blackman briskly exited the courtroom, Emma reached across the table to touch Anna's sleeve.

"But you did do something, Anna. You stood up to those big guys, and you won."

Anna smiled with the realization that ll they'd set out to do had been accomplished. She leaned over and gave Emma a hug.

"Thank you."

"I'm proud of you," Emma said. "You could have run away, but you didn't. That's what most of us do when we have to face a giant."

In the hallway, her colleague Colin Douglas congratulated Emma with a cordial embrace. Colin represented the new breed of smart, young, and hip Northeastern lawyers: the man in the Kensington suit with a racquetball-thin and money-clip-thick physique.

"You were incredible," he said to her in a near whisper, letting Emma slip back out of his arms, the space between them returning to a more professional distance. "This calls for a celebration. What would you say to dinner tonight at 33's? You've earned yourself a night of extravagance."

"Frankly, I'd welcome any diversion from the endless stacks of depositions I've been reading."

She smiled at Colin. "How come you always make me feel so special?"

"Because you are," he said.

Emma tried to read his expression, but wasn't quite sure where the smooth lawyer ended and the intriguing friend began. Colin was a man who drove too fast in his BMW and thrived in the accelerated pace of a seventy-hour workweek. She imagined him guarding his Sundays for tennis at a private country club or three-day weekends at Martha's Vineyard.

They were both up-and-comers in Boston city laws. His star shone a little brighter, though Emma suspected her Interscope victory might raise her own status a notch or two. Did he picture the two of them together? Could she?

"Then it's a date," he said. "I'll make a reservation for seven thirty."

"It makes me nervous when you use the word date. You know I think of us as just friends, don't you?"

Colin reeled back on the heel of his Allen-Edmonds dress shoe.

"Emma, can I help it if only one of us has seen the light?"

"Maybe we should put dinner on hold until one of us changes his light switch."

Congratulations, counselor." Robert Adler stepped into their circle and patted Emma on her shoulder. "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed seeing Kenneth Blackman crushed this morning."

The seventy-five-year-old senior partner of Adler, McCormick & Madison crowed at the taste of sweet victory.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Home Another Way - Chapter 1

Home Another Way

Bethany House (October 1, 2008)

Chapter One

I had twenty-three borrowed dollars in my pocket, and the deed to a house in a town I couldn't find on any map. How long ago had I stopped at that gas station to ask for directions? It seemed like hours. The attendant had pointed to the top of the mountain and said, "Keep going up."

So I drove until the sun wilted into the horizon, dropping behind rows of shaggy, towering evergreens. Brown leaves skittered across the road; I swerved around them more than once, mistaking them for toads, or chickadees. Deer-crossing signs blazed yellow in my headlights around each turn. Snow appeared, as if growing from the ground. The windows began to fog.

I should have turned around before starting this absurd quest for—what? Revenge? Retribution? Whatever it was, a certain romanticism had crept into the ordeal—being on the road, alone, with just my thoughts and a cooler of Diet Coke. I always imagined myself the tragic heroine. That, and I had absolutely nowhere else to go.

Squinting, I saw a light ahead, attached to a worn, whaleshaped sign: THE JONAH INN

"Cute," I mumbled, turning into the driveway.

There was a story in the Bible about Jonah. My grandmother, a bit of a religious fanatic, had taken particular delight in giant fish and prophets and the complete stupidity of some guy living three days up to his knees in gastric juices. I must have heard it fifty times. "You see, you must always do what God tells you to do," she'd say. As a small child, I would nod and agree, and then ask for a cookie. Finally, when I was twelve, I demanded, "What about adultery? What about murder? What does God say about that?"

Grandmother's eyes had bulged. "Who told you?"

"Aunt Ruth," I said. "Don't you think God wanted me to know the truth about my parents?"

Grandmother didn't talk to me about the Bible anymore after that. She stopped talking to Ruth completely. Lucky Aunt Ruth.

* * *

The inn's gray clapboard siding flaked like dead skin onto the front porch. I hoped the bed had clean sheets.

The door unlocked, I entered to a bell chime. A sleepy voice called, "One minute." I heard scuffling from the room to my left, and a woman limped out, hair the same sad color as the house. About fifty years old, she wore a too-big sweater with leather patches on the elbows, and thick fleece socks.

"This is mighty unexpected," she said, but smiled.

"I can go somewhere else, if you're not ready for guests."

Silent a moment too long, the woman realized she was staring. "Sorry, dear. I'm just a little fuzzed up with sleep is all. There's no place else to stay, except here." Pulling a ledger from the desk by the front door, she asked, "What's your name?"

"Sarah Graham."

"You a skier, here visiting?"

I cleared my throat. "Just passing through."

Under her flannel pajamas, the woman's bony frame stiffened at my lie. She finished writing my name in the book, and handed me a dusty key.

"I'm Mary-Margaret Watson. Folks here call me Maggie. You're welcome to do the same. That all you have, or do you need to go back out to your car?" She nodded toward my duffel bag.

"This is all I need tonight."

"Okay, then. Follow me."

The old stairs creaked in protest, unhappy to be bothered so late at night. Maggie opened the door to my room, pointed at another door just to the left. "That's the bathroom. Towels are in there. You'll need to let the hot water run a bit."

"Thank you."

"Yup. Pick up the phone in the room if you need something. You'll get me. Spare blankets are in the closet. Sleep tight," she said, and then disappeared back down the stairs.

I felt oily. I hadn't showered in three days but was too tired to clean up now. I didn't even change my clothes—just shook off my shoes, turned on the bedside lamp long enough to find the extra blankets, and climbed into bed.

I forgot to check the sheets.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hometown Favorite - Chapter 1

Hometown Favorite

Revell (September 1, 2008)

Chapter 1

The lemon yellow Hummer skidded to a stop in front of Dewayne Jobe’s house, the hip-hop music vibrating the vehicle’s insides with percussive explosions. Jesse Webb, owner and operator of the pulsating vehicle, blew his horn to the rhythm of the beat.

The front door of the house swung open. Cherie Jobe stepped out onto the porch and planted her free hand on her hips.

“Jesse Webb, I’m gonna call the police if you don’t turn off that yellow tank and stop raising the dead.”

Jesse’s grin transformed into a look of mock hurt. “Miss Cherie, we’re just celebrating.” Conceding to her trumped-up scold, he reached over to lower the volume.

“You got that thing so loud I couldn’t hear Gabriel’s trumpet.” No longer able to hold a scornful expression, her face gave way to a bright smile. “Get in this house, both of you. My boy’s not ready.”

Riding shotgun with Jesse was Sylvester “Sly” Adams, quarterback for the Springdale Tigers and record holder for throwing the most touchdowns in the high school’s history—due in large measure to his best friend Dewayne, Springdale’s star wide receiver.

“Still trying to make himself look pretty for the cheerleaders.” Sly opened his door and bounced off the front seat.

Jesse came around the front of his Hummer. “He could spend all day in front of his mirror and still not look as pretty as Sly.”

“My man,” Sly said, and the two boys pounded fi ts. Cherie smiled at the antics of her son’s friends and ushered them into the house.

Springdale had only one recreational off ering for its citizens . . . high school football. As soon as young boys showed the least bit of interest in the sport and displayed a reasonable measure of aptitude and competence, they were absorbed into the peewee league for early training and experience. Jesse, Sly, and Dewayne were born in the same year, signed up for the peewee league in the same year, and grew into the rhythm and flow of the game together, perfecting their skills and at times showing true genius. Tomorrow the three friends would play their final game of high school football for the Mississippi state championship.

Sly sauntered toward Dewayne’s bedroom, with Jesse at his heels.

“Jesse, could you come here a minute?”

At Cherie’s request, Jesse started turning back toward the living room, but not before throwing a playful punch at Sly’s shoulder. He flashed a boyish smile of surprise when Sly wheeled to smack him back. Th e boys traded a few good-natured slaps before Sly dodged the last backhand and disappeared into Dewayne’s room.

“My boys. What am I gonna do without all your craziness!” Cherie said.

Jesse gave Cherie a quick peck on the cheek and then settled his thick frame into a well-worn Webb factory recliner. In spite of his fireplug physique, Jesse was swift on his feet. With his agility, he had racked up an impressive number of tackles as a linebacker for the Tigers.

It would have been easy for him to stay with his kind and class growing up in Springdale, Mississippi, but the team sport of football worked a strange magic on Jesse’s impressionable psyche, and he had instead chosen two African Americans to be his best friends. It went as far back as those fi rst years in the peewee league when kids recognized different skin shades only as colors from the same palette and not with any overtones of bigotry. Th e mutual respect the three boys had for each other’s talents closed the deal on a permanent friendship, and their trust for each other on and off the fi eld made them inseparable.

Cherie perched on the sofa near the young man she considered an adopted son. “I’m in a quandary, Jesse.” She smoothed the wrinkles out of her dress with agitated fingers.

“About what, Miss Cherie?”

They ignored the playful jive coming from Dewayne’s bedroom.

“My boy and his future,” she said. “God has given him a gift , and I don’t know what’s the best way for him to use it. You’re going to college, I know, and I want that for Dewayne, but I don’t know the best choice for him.”

“I envy him.” Jesse’s head drooped. “I don’t have choices, Miss Cherie.”

Heir to Webb Furniture, a fourth-generation business, Jesse had every intention of accepting the CEO mantle as soon as he fulfilled another Webb tradition of attending Ole Miss and playing football, if not exceptionally, at least honorably.

“Ole Miss, Webb Furniture, and the rest of my days in Springdale are laid out for me. I couldn’t change that destiny if they off ered me the moon.”

Cherie reached her hand over to Jesse’s thick leg and patted the firm muscle above the knee. “There’s pride in knowing who you are, where you come from, where your future’s headed. It will be a comfort to me knowing you’re close by.”

Jesse gave her hand a quick squeeze. Her motherly tenderness seemed to ease the sting of resignation that came from having his future set in stone.

Cherie sighed. “But my boy . . . it’s the moon they seem to be offering,” she said.

“How’s that?” Jesse leaned forward in the easy chair.

Cherie stretched herself over the arm of the threadbare sofa and reached behind it. She pulled out a battered shoebox with a rubber band over the top that tried to keep the stack of letters tucked inside. The lid pushed upward as soon as she removed the rubber band, and the top letters popped up and spilled onto the floor. Cherie bent over to retrieve them from the faded carpet.

“Colleges and big-time universities wanting Dewayne to come play for them and offering to pay his way,” she said as she collected the letters and displayed them for Jesse to behold.

Jesse moved over to the couch to look at the pile and gave a whistle. “You need a bigger box.” He picked up a few of the envelopes. “Guess folks all over have figured out how good our boy is.”

“I don’t know where to begin. Robert and I never went to college.”

Cherie Turner and Robert Dewayne Jobe met on the assembly line of Webb Furniture, each one thinking the other a thing of beauty. They began spending as much off -hour time together as possible, and months later, neither of them could think of any reason why this relationship should not become permanent.

Cherie had never remarried aft er her husband’s death . . . a tragic accident of a fatigued husband working double shift s to provide for a new wife and their soon-to-be child. Early one morning a police officer spotted the rear bumper of Robert’s car sticking out of the water of Deer Creek. With no evidence to the contrary, the coroner ruled it death by drowning, probably due to falling asleep at the wheel just
as the car came upon the precarious curve onto the bridge over the creek.

The likes of Robert were not to be found again. Rather, Cherie raised her son by herself, believing the good character of his father was installed at birth and trusting God’s mercy would make up for all human deficiency. The quantity of inquiries displayed before Jesse’s unbelieving eyes was evidence enough that character and talent flowed in Dewayne’s bloodstream.

Dewayne’s size, dexterity, and quickness defi ed reason. By his seventeenth birthday, he had topped out at six feet six inches, weighing two hundred forty pounds, all muscle, bone, skin, and functioning organs to sustain this young man under the grueling training regimen he endured from his coaches. Th e grocery bill for the two of them would have fed a family of six. By his last season of high school football, he was a good head taller than anyone on his team and most of the boys from all opposing football teams who lined up against him. Add another three feet of arm span to his six-six height, and any player assigned to cover Dewayne would need a miracle to stop a pass completion or bring him down. Double coverage and gang tackle were about the only defense a team could use to stop Dewayne, and even then, he would drag his tacklers along like Gulliver dragging the Lilliputians
for a few extra yards. His proficiency at off ense applied to defense as well. He and Jesse were a formidable pair of linebackers who knew the game and each other’s moves so well, it was not often they were duped by another team’s off ensive play. And each time Sly came onto the field with his all-star quality at quarterback, it was hard for the hometown fans not to expect a touchdown. Being undefeated their
senior year was not a cakewalk, but it never was in question either. By midseason, everyone in Springdale knew their team would play in the state championship, and they were the odds-on favorite to win.

The clamor of Sly’s entrance broke the spell cast over Jessie and Cherie staring at the queries for Dewayne’s talent. Sly burst into the living room as though pursued by tacklers. He gripped a football and pumped his arm in several directions, looking for would-be receivers as he provided his own sports commentary.

“The offense has collapsed and the blitz is crashing in on the Sly. He fakes right, then left . He stiff -arms one three-hundred-pound tackler. He leaps over the second one like a gazelle. No one can sack the Sly.”

“Somebody shut him up,” Dewayne said as he entered the living room.

“He dashes across the field, waiting for a receiver to get open.” Sly danced sideways. “He lobs the pass over the heads of the opposing team”—he pump faked toward Dewayne, then turned and pitched the ball—“dropping the pigskin into the outstretched hands of the receiver.”

Jesse caught Sly’s pitchout without ever taking his eyes off the stack of letters Cherie held in her hands.

“Another touchdown for the Sly.” Sly acknowledged his imaginary cheering crowd by waving his hands in the air.

Sly might have had an exaggerated view of his skills, but on the football field, he lived up to them. He was fast enough to evade most defensive players who got past his front line, and he enjoyed dancing around the fi eld, dodging tacklers, almost as much as throwing touchdowns. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a doting grandmother, Sly had created an image of himself that required a belief that he was
superior to most other humans. In spite of a fawning public, Jesse and Dewayne were the only ones allowed into his narcissistic bubble, and to his credit, Sly did not mind his two best friends taking him down a notch or two when the preoccupation with his ego got out of control.

The three boys were rarely apart, except when the social norms kept Mississippi’s blacks and whites separated, but the trio pushed even those boundaries. They sat in the pews of each other’s churches or went to a single-color restaurant or attended a public function with a young lady of the opposite race. Th ese small challenges to social traditions raised eyebrows and stimulated behind-the-back conversations, but
as long as the Springdale Tigers kept winning, the boys could do no wrong and all was right with their world.

When Cherie cleared her throat, Sly redirected his attention from his fantasy fans to the letters in Cherie’s hands. “Is that D’s fan mail, Miss Cherie?”

“I guess you could call it that,” Jesse said.

“What did I tell you about throwing the football in my house?”

Cherie’s mild scold made Sly fi dget and produced a rare sheepish grin on his face. “Sorry. Too excited about State tomorrow.”

“Dewayne, you never told us about all these letters,” Jesse said, waving a stack of letters in front of his face like a fan. “You sure been secretive.”

Dewayne shrugged. “Nothing to tell really.”

“Nothing to tell,” Sly said, taking a handful of letters out of Cherie’s hand. He began to flip through the stack, discarding each one into the shoebox aft er reading the letterhead. “D, you got Penn State, Michigan, Ohio . . . too cold for your black Mississippi blood. The University of Tennessee . . . you just volunteer yourself onto the next one. It looks like the entire SEC is coming after you. You got your cowboy colleges, and finally your elite West Coast Rose Bowl contenders. That’s an
impressive list . . . almost as good as mine.”

“What are they offering?” Jesse asked.

Dewayne shrugged his shoulders again, looking more uncomfortable.“Full rides.”

“Don’t be hanging your head, my brother.” Sly slapped Dewayne across his broad shoulders. “Th is is a proud moment.”

“So what should he do?” Cherie asked.

Quiet settled over the boys. Jesse stopped fanning himself and handed Cherie the letters. She shuffl ed them into a neat pile before returning them to the cardboard box.

“What do you want to do, D?” Jessie said, and he picked up the football in his lap and began to pass it back and forth from hand to hand. The thump of the ball smacking Jesse’s hands as he played his own game of pitch and catch dominated the sounds in the room.

“I want to score touchdowns,” Dewayne said.

“That’s right.” Sly went from slap to embrace. “My man here wants to catch himself a boatload of touchdowns and a fat NFL contract.”

“Mama and I have been doing a lot of praying about this,” Dewayne said. “We need God’s direction.”

“What do you think, Sly?” Cherie asked.

“As long as God don’t send him to Miami, he can go anywhere that pays to let him play.”

“You never told us you decided on Miami,” Jesse said.

“Strong program that made me the best off er, eighty-degree winters, and women as far as the eye can see.”

“Careful now in front of your mama,” Cherie said.

“Ain’t any of them ever going to replace you, now.” Sly leaned over and gave Cherie a kiss on the cheek.

“Don’t be playing with me.” Cherie waved him away, unable to resist a smile. “Be serious now. Where should my boy go to college? The coaches have been talking. Th e recruiters have been calling. But I want to hear from his best friends.”

“Miss Cherie, D needs to get as far away from Springdale as he can,” Jesse said. “I think a West Coast school might be his best bet.”

“No lie, Miss Cherie,” Sly said. “With our boy’s hands he can pull in those passes. Th e sports pages like to see that kind of beauty and that is what gets the attention of the NFL.”

Sly intercepted the ball from Jesse, stopping the hypnotic rhythm of the passing. He stretched out his passing arm dramatically and pretended to throw a “Hail Mary” out the front window in the westward direction. “Go west, young man.”

Dewayne just smiled and then patted Cherie on her shoulder. “We need to go, Mama.”

“Don’t want to be late for your last pep rally,” Cherie said.

“No, ma’am,” Jesse said, springing from the recliner. “We win State, I’m buying you a new recliner.” He kissed Cherie on the cheek before bounding out the front door.
Sly repeated Jesse’s farewell on Cherie’s cheek with an extra “You know I love you,” and Cherie added her own tender pat to his face.

“You coming?” Dewayne asked.

“Of course I’ll be there,” she said.

Like his friends before him, Dewayne kissed his mother on the cheek.

“You know the Lord is gonna steer us right, Mama,” he said.

“No doubt, son, no doubt,” she said. “Now go on. Don’t be late.”

Dewayne squeezed his mother’s arm before walking out the door.

Cherie picked up the few letters that still lay on the floor, folded them, and replaced them in the shoebox. Before sealing the box, she laid her hand on the letters and closed her eyes.

“Lord, we need thy wisdom,” she whispered. “Let the right one rise
to the top.”


The only location large enough to accommodate the town of Springdale for the pep rally was the Webb family farm. The level of play, the team’s competence, and the town spirit had not had a simultaneous appearance before in Springdale, and talk was that it would be another generation before the convergence of the three would happen again.

Neighboring counties could spot the three blazing bonfires. The multitude roared as the head coach introduced each starting player, accompanied by a blast from the marching band’s brass section as the player dashed into position facing the crowd. Cherie had maneuvered onto a small rise a short distance from the center of the celebrations. This bond of humanity had one goal in mind: to unite their individual
desires and energies into a force powerful enough to win the support and blessing of the gods of football, and to raise the town of Springdale out of the universal plainness of small-town America.

Jake Hopper, the receivers’ and quarterbacks’ coach for the Tigers, did not like standing with the other coaches and staff and the team for these football rituals. He preferred anonymity. He preferred the controlled discipline of the practice field or the blood rush of the game. He accepted these chaotic traditions as a necessary evil.

He ambled through the crowd until he spied Cherie. Here was a friend, a calm in the maelstrom. He moved toward her, but a group of teenagers bolted in front of him, blocking his path and nearly trampling him as they rushed to get a better view of their heroes. He waited for the herd to pass and then made steady progress toward his goal.

Jake stepped up beside Cherie. “And what do you think of our pagan rites?”

“It’s loud enough to bring down Jericho’s walls,” Cherie said. “I should have brought my OSHA earplugs from the factory.”

“That assembly line working you hard?”

Cherie cupped her hands over her ears. “Hard enough, but I don’t think it ever gets as loud as these kids.”

“Humanity changes little, I’m afraid, except through calamity, and then reluctantly,” he said, approving his pithy statement with a smirk.

Jake Hopper gave of himself body and soul to taking the God-given talent of each player and molding it. In his heart of hearts, he considered himself a sculptor of living, flesh-and-blood models, shaping and perfecting the fl uidity of speed and motion of the human body. And a well-executed, unrepeatable moment on the fi eld brought a bigger smile to his face than a touchdown or even a win.

Jake prized the singular bond between player and coach, a bond of souls when competitive physical play brings out a special bliss between men. Jake and Dewayne had that bond, an idealized bond of a father and son, free of responsibility beyond the rules, discipline, and training necessary for the game. Dewayne had no father. Jake had no children. Yet the two men provided for each other what was missing
in their lives.

“Excuse me for being forward, but if all our sons had mothers such as you, the world would be whole,” Jake said, a bold statement, especially from someone unaccustomed to making them. Perhaps the sips of vodka before arriving at the pep rally inspired the boldness. He felt a pang of regret, a fl ushed embarrassment at the compliment. He was thankful for the darkness. It helped conceal his chagrin.

At that moment, the music from the marching band raised its decibel level, and the cheerleaders, shimmering pom-poms stuck to the top of each raised arm, began their escort of the senior boys to the front of the team.

“Hush now. They’re about to introduce my boy,” Cherie said.

Jake turned his eyes away from Cherie and wondered how life might have been different had he met Cherie in their younger days. She might have spoken the same words just now but substituted them with “our boy.” The thought produced in him a pang of regret.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Constant Heart - Chapter 1

A Constant Heart

(Bethany House October 1, 2008)

Chapter 1

But how could he not like you?"

"He is an earl, Joan!"

"And you, Marget, are to be his countess."

The Midsummer Day sun was hot and absent any breeze. We were sitting on a log at the marsh's edge, our skirts drawn up to our knees, caps resting on the ground beside us. The marsh birds would warn us of any intruder, but there were unlikely to be any wanderers this festive day. We had slipped away from the city's merriment to ponder my rapidly approaching marriage.

In several short months I was to exchange my life as a knight's daughter for life as a countess. That thought still had the power to drain the blood from my face as if January's salt-laden winds were whipping in from the Wash, stealing my breath as they continued on their way.

"Think you. For how many years now have you trained for this?"

"Twelve." It had begun at the age of five. If I whispered the number it was only because, of a sudden, I did not wish for the training to end.

"And now you can ... what are all those things you can do? 'Tis been some time since I heard your father recite them all at my father's tavern."

"He has been busy."

"Aye. The pride of our fair city. The noble merchant-turned-landowner. He has been turning himself in circles, sending hither and thither across the kingdom to catch you a husband. You should be rejoicing at his success."

"But what if—"

"What if what? What if you cannot please him?" Joan's voice was rising, as if my worries were trifles too small to warrant her attentions. "Do you not know a dozen ways to dance? Can you not sing like a songbird? In how many languages can you read? And how many stitches can you work upon a canvas? How can you fail to please him, Marget?"

"If only I could meet him ..."

Joan shrugged. "And what good would that do anyone?"

"What if he is ... aged?"

"Then you will spend less time in bed and more time in delighting yourself with ... all the means of a countess at your disposal."

I could not keep a blush from spreading through my cheeks. "But his first wife—"

"The marriage was annulled. Is that not what you told me?"

"Aye. 'Tis true."

"Then she was no wife to him at all."

"But what if—"

"What if horses could fly? Would that not be marvelous? What if the Queen herself were to trade places with me? Would that not be grand?"

I grabbed her arm and made her stop. Made her turn toward me. "Truly. What if I cannot please him?"

"Are you meaning to ask me if you are to play the role of your mother?"

My fingers tightened around her arm.

"He will not be your father, Marget. You will please him. He will stay in your bed. Is that what vexes you?"

I could not bring myself to nod, but Joan knew me almost better than I knew myself.

"Hear me: there is nothing in you that could make him cast you off."


"Hush you. Last time I noticed, earls were still men." She said it as if that settled everything. As if there were no reason for the worries that churned in my belly.


"And last time I looked, Marget, you still had the face of an angel." Her gaze softened before she continued on. " 'Tis nothing like my own."

Her words asked for no comment and none was needed. We both knew the truth, had known it since we became friends. God had doled out looks to me with a generous hand, while he had been overly judicious with Joan. Her eyes seemed perpetually tired; her mouth drooped constantly in apparent fatigue. She hunched at the shoulders as if expecting a blow at any moment. Her strengths were abundant—loyalty, honesty, good humor—but they registered not upon her person. My poor, sweet Joan was less than plain. But it seemed not to matter to her one whit. She had always been my protector. I had assumed she always would be. But fate had decreed that in a few short weeks I would be embarking upon a new life without her. And at that moment, that seemed the worst part of the impending change.

"Come." Joan bent to pick up our caps and then took my hand, pulled me from the log, and began to run toward the city's walls, toward the bonfires and the singing and the dancing.

I could do naught but follow.


It was enough to drive a man mad!

Any nobleman worth his title could write poetry. That was what my tutor had taught me long ago. That was what I had always believed. But then came Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and now rumors of some person named Shakespeare. They had ruined it for us all. It was no longer acceptable to just dash out a sonnet. One must employ mythology and politics, and work for days to cultivate allusions aplenty.

But now, all I needed was a rhyme for carriage.

Her Majesty's comportment, her carriage, could be compared to ... Bah! It had been at the edge of my mind the entire forenoon. Carriage ... carnage.


Carriage ... cleavage.

There was no hope for it. It would come. I could feel it, but I might as well do something else, something more productive, until it did. Why did poetry have to require so much work? I was replacing the quill in the inkwell when a knock sounded upon the door, and then it opened forthwith.

It was Nicholas. He was carrying something in his hand. "For you, my lord." He straightened from a bow and extended a document toward me. "From the east, my lord."

The east. Perhaps ... I made quick work in breaking the seal, but then found my eyes could not deal so deftly with the words contained inside. If only my hands would stop shaking.

I spread it on the desk before me but still could not focus on the words long enough to read them. Pushing away from the desk, I gestured Nicholas toward the paper. "Read it."

"My lord." He stood beside the desk and took the letter into his hands. " 'Tis dated King's Lynn this twenty-second day of June. 'To Simon St. Aubin, most gracious lord, Earl of Lytham, I humbly take my pen in hand to—' "

"Aye, aye. Does he accept the terms or not?"

"It seems, my lord that ..."

"An aye or nay will suffice."

"If you could find the patience to allow me the opportunity to simply—"

"You vex me."

Nicholas's lips twitched into the briefest of smiles. "If you would rather have the reading of it, my lord?"

"Nay! And may the devil take you."

"Then ... it would seem as if ..."


Nicholas held up a finger to stay my words. If he had not been my most trusted friend, I would not have forborne the insolence, but he was my Gentleman of the Horse. And I had marked him as mine in my younger days. Had it not been for my youth's ill temper and the sharp end of a stick, he would now be absent a star of a scar that marred his left cheek.

"What say you?" I asked again.

Using that same finger, he reached down and slid it beneath a line of text. And then, finally, he lifted his eyes to mine. "Aye. After all of that, in the very last phrase, he agrees. You shall have the hand of his daughter in marriage."

"Thank heaven!"

"Congratulations, my lord. It is my fondest hope that the young lady will bring you nothing but happiness."

I looked at him. Though his mien revealed nothing but innocence, I knew him too well. "You mean to say, as opposed to the first young lady?"

Nicholas merely stood there.

I frowned as I regained my desk and removed my quill from the inkpot. "The young lady is of no importance."

"I beg to argue, my lord."

"You have never begged for anything in your life, Nicholas." I looked up just in time to see him hide a smile by tucking his chin into his chest.

"Be that as it may, that young lady shall soon become your countess."

"Aye. 'Tis the manner in which these things generally occur."

"A countess who will represent you. A countess who may bear you an heir."

I put the quill back into the inkpot and turned to look at him. "Pray, be plain."

"As a knight's daughter, her only wish will be to please you. You must not punish her for another's mistakes, my lord."

"Do you think me some cruel tyrant?"

"Nay, my lord. But it was you who said she was of no importance."

"Relatively speaking, Nicholas. 'Tis her dowry that I am after. Her knight-father's riches will allow me to regain Holleystone. If there is anything to rejoice over, 'tis that fact. You and I shall both be going home. 'Tis for that God is to be praised."

After being sold to pay for another's destitution—my brother's, the former earl—Holleystone was once again to be held by its rightful owners. And never again would it leave the family's possession.

Coaxing the lease of my other estate, Brustleigh Hall, from the Queen had been a victory, but the return of Holleystone would be a triumph. It was a shame I would have to marry for that pleasure, but the return of Holleystone was worth any tribulation. Surely the girl could not be so bad as my first wife, Elinor. I gathered those thoughts before they could gallop away from me. Though I had taken Elinor to wife, Parliament had recently annulled that marriage and so, in fact, I had no wife. Had never had. But the Act of Parliament that had expunged a marriage had failed to obliterate the memories ... that the face of an angel could hide a heart so duplicitous ... that beauty could be so deceitful.

It still cost me to think of the ways, all the very many ways, in which she had betrayed me. Though I had tried everything I knew to mend the wound, each thought of Elinor pulled at the edges, threatening to start it bleeding once more. And now I was to bind myself to another woman.

At least this one was just a knight's daughter. Surely I would not be expected to keep her long at court. Just as soon as I was able I would hide the horse-faced young girl away at Holleystone. Would that I could send her to Brustleigh and keep Holleystone for myself, but it seemed it could not be helped.

If Holleystone was personal, a family wrong to be righted, then Brustleigh was for the Queen. The renovations were nearly complete, and with what would be left of the girl's dowry, the remaining work could be finished sooner rather than later. And when it was, I would persuade Her Majesty to visit. With that sign of preference, along with some small sign of the Queen's preferment, then I could finally be first among her courtiers.

Nicholas cleared his throat, a sure sign that I had been ignoring him. "The young lady, my lord."

"What of her?"

"You will not neglect her, my lord?"

"Certainly not! Luck's chosen vessel must be looked after ..."

My thoughts turned toward all the ways in which I might, very soon, become lucky. I might be selected to receive a venerable Garter Knighthood. I might be asked to take a seat on Her Majesty's Privy Council. I might be given another estate or even a chance to purchase a monopoly.

Nicholas coughed.

"What is it?"

"The gifts, my lord."

"The gifts?"

"If you are to be married in several months, then I have only several months to attend to the preparations, my lord. First among them, the gifts."

"What gifts?"

"For the betrothal, my lord. And the morning after."

"Morning after what?"

"Your wedding, you great dunce!"

I waved him away. "Choose something you deem adequate. And since you concern yourself with the girl's welfare, take the gift there yourself."

I am certain he thought I did not see him shake his head over my words; I did. But I could not care. Fortune had finally smiled upon me. My ship had turned its sails toward home. That I would soon be married and have some girl by my side as I sailed could hardly matter.


That was it! Carriage, marriage. Her Majesty's carriage could be compared to a marriage of ... grace and virtue? Of grace and ... beauty? Grace and something. Why did poetry have to come in fits and starts? My only hope was that the more I practiced, the more I wrote, the easier it would become.

As Nicholas left the room, I reviewed the portions of the sonnet I had already written. I had been writing on the subject of Her Majesty, but as I contemplated my future, I decided to write instead about Fair Fortune.

I put the one sonnet to the side and began anew.