Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Daisy Chain - Chapter 1

Daisy Chain

Zondervan (March 1, 2009)

Chapter One

Defiance, Texas

It had been thirty roller-coaster years since Daisy Marie Chance forced fourteen-year-old Jed Pepper to fall in love with her. He’d obliged her, dizzied at the thought ever since. It had been that long before Jed could walk through the ruins
of Crooked Creek Church, a butterfly flitting a prophecy he never could believe, even today. It was Daisy’s singsong words that gave the butterfly its bewitching manner, those same words that strangled him with newfound love. For years, he wished
he’d had an Instamatic camera to capture the moment he fell for Daisy, but then entropy would’ve had its way, fading and creasing Daisy’s face until she’d have looked like an overloved newspaper recipe, wrinkled and unreadable.

Thing was, he could always read Daisy’s face. Even then. She’d looked at him square in the eyes that day in 1977, in the exact same spot he stood now, and declared, “Your family ain’t normal, Jed.” And because lies came easy to him, he’d thought, of course my family’s normal. Anyone with eyes could see that. Daisy said a lot of words, being a thirteen-year-old girl and all, but these didn’t make much sense.

Thirty years later they did. they screamed the truth through the empty field where the church used to creak in the wind.

For a hesitant moment, enshrined in the ruins of his childhood, Jed was fourteen again. Filled to the brim with testosterone and pestered by an orange and black tormenter and Daisy’s oh-sotrue words.

“Your family ain’t normal, Jed.”

He watched the butterfly loop above the organ, never landing, like it had a thing against church music. Or maybe dust.

He sat on a rickety pew.


He clasped his hands around his ears, hoping Daisy’s words would run away. He hummed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

She put her nose right in front of his. He felt her breathing, smelled her Juicy Fruit breath. “You in there?”

He swatted the air between them, hoping she’d disappear. “Yeah. Quit bothering me.” He looked at his watch. Six fifteen. Time to go.

“But your face.” Daisy sat down a Bible’s throw away.

Jed touched his swollen eye. “Yeah? So? What about it?”

“It looks like it hurts.” Daisy scooted closer. She reached her arm his direction.

He inched away.

“The truth, Jed. How’d you get that shiner?”

He watched the butterfly. “I was stupid. Ran my face into a corner.” Thirty seconds had ticked. The watch clicked like a stopwatch, pestering him.

“Faces don’t mess with corners, Jed.”

“Mine did. Chasing Sissy around the house. She said it wasn’t fair because I was bigger. She tied a bandana around my head. I ran after her blind.” Another well-told lie, almost as good as Hap’s stories from the pulpit. Six sixteen. Time to go.

Daisy shook her head. Her long blonde braid whipped back and forth like a tire swing over a swimming hole. She hated bangs, something her mom, Miss Emory, knew but hacked away at them a few weeks ago anyway, leaving them a crooked mess. Daisy still steamed about it, but her only protest was two yellow clips with smiling daisies pulling the jagged bangs away from her forehead.

“I love you, you know.”

Jed’s face warmed. “Would you quit that please? There’s no room for talk like that.”

“Why not? This is church, right? Aren’t you supposed to say love in church? Besides, you know what street I live on.”

Jed rolled his eyes. “Love Street.”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t see how that makes any difference.”

“It makes every difference. It’s destiny, what street you live on.” Daisy turned away from Jed, pulled her braid to her mouth. She bit its stubbled end and groaned like she was gritting teeth. Her angry noise.

The monarch flew in circles in front of Daisy, as if it were trying to lift her mood by dancing on air. It lit upon the pew between the two of them, wings folded up toward the ceiling in prayer.

Daisy bent near the monarch, but the butterfly didn’t flinch. “It means something, sure enough,” she whispered.

“What’s gotten into you? It’s tired, that’s all. And it happened to sit down right there.” Jed pointed his finger at the motionless butterfly. With one tentative hop, the monarch left the dusty pew for Jed’s dirt-stained fingernail. It seemed to study his face while the sun shone through its papery wings. It flapped once and
then flew clear away, out one of the abandoned church’s broken stained glass windows.

They sat in pew four listening to doves calling each other.

Jed checked his watch. Nearly twenty after.

“It’s a sign. Jed Pepper, you’re going to change the world. You’ve been chosen.”

“You’re frustrating.” Jed stood.

“Am not.”

“Are too.” Jed scatted the air with a wave of his hand, as if doing that would erase the words Daisy spoke, an aerial Etch A Sketch.

He walked Crooked Creek Church’s middle aisle backwards, like a sinner unrepentant, while Daisy chattered away. Part of him wanted to leave her behind for good, but another part wanted to listen to her forever and a year. He’d welcome her words to fill the silence of his home.

“Hey, Jed?”

“Now what?”

“You be careful.”

“I will.”


“Did anyone ever tell you you’re a pest?”

“Mama does. Every single day. Should I add you to the list?” Her voice got that empty sound whenever she spoke of Miss Emory — a longing for something her mama couldn’t or wouldn’t give her.

He considered his answer. Daisy’s mama scatted her like she was an interrupting fruit fly half the time. He didn’t want to treat her the same. “No, never mind. Forget I said it.”

“I’m a good forgetter.” She smiled.

He couldn’t help but smile in return. “I gotta go.” If he ran, he’d make it.

Daisy stepped out into the aisle, hands on hips. “I’m going to marry you someday. You wait and see.”

Jed rolled his eyes. Girls.

“I’m going to put on a long white dress and you’re going to wear a fine suit. We’re going to tend birds. I can’t live without ’em.”

A dove shot through an open window, looping frantically through the church, flying crazy-winged out where it came from in a flustering of wings against windowpane. For a moment, everything was silent. Dead quiet.

“God’s been here,” Daisy whispered, looking haunted-eyed at Jed.

He looked away.

She tapped him on the shoulder. “And when we’re married, we’re going to have six kids — all girls. Want to know their names?” This time her eyes spelled mischief.

“Not hardly.”

“Petunia, Hollyhock, Primrose, Begonia, Dahlia, and Buttercup.”

Jed leaned against the back pew, eyeing the door of escape.

“Sounds more like a garden than a batch of kids.” He knew he should leave, but Daisy held some sort of annoying girl spell
over him.

“Very funny.”

“I need to head home.” Jed turned. He opened the back door. He’d come in the side way, through a low window, and was going to leave proper this time. Besides, it was the closest way to escape Daisy’s sentences. Next thing, she’d be talking about
perfume or how smooth babies’ skin was or going on about the butterfly’s hidden meaning. Anyone knew he wouldn’t change the world. Not today at least. He’d be happy to make it through one day.

Daisy followed him. “You going to leave me here alone? I traipsed all the way from town to come here.”

“It’s not like we don’t meet here every single day. You’ll be fine. How many times have you walked home from here? A thousand? Two?”

“It’s a long walk.”

“For crying out loud, Daisy, this is Defiance, Texas. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Besides, you’ve got God’s eye for protection.”

She looked away, didn’t say a word while seconds ticked away. She took a deep breath, then let it out. “You’ll regret it.” The western sun shone through the church’s broken-out windows, brightening the left side of Daisy’s face. She looked almost like an angel, that is if angels had braided hair and prattled on and on.

“See you later,” he called over his shoulder.

Jed shut the door, knowing Daisy preferred crawling out of the church like a fugitive. Ever since she read a book about Anne who holed up from Nazis, she’d taken to hiding and sneaking. He tied baler twine around the doorknob and a piece of wood
sticking out from the doorframe, securing the door.

He faced his world in that moment, let its significance and fury sink into his heart. Would he change the world? Hard to say.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tender Grace - Chapter 1

Tender Grace

Bethany House (February 1, 2009)

Chapter One

July 10

He died the way he'd always wanted to. As anyone would want to, I'd think—sitting in his recliner with something wonderful to read. The bad part, of course, was the juxtaposition of the numbers. He had hoped to leave the confines of the earth at age 85, not 58.

I had hoped for the same thing, hadn't thought yet to worry that he might not. His annual physical had been encouraging, as usual. No hint of heart trouble, or any other kind of trouble. He took a half tablet of Zocor and a baby aspirin only as a sensible precaution. We'd had colonoscopies on the same morning two months before he died, and we'd left the hospital congratulating ourselves on colons fit beyond our expectations.

This evening I decided to see if I could formulate words. Except for thank-you notes, labels for Christmas presents wrapped by mall elves, and birthday cards for Mom, the kids, and grandkids, I haven't written anything since I kissed him good-night and told him to come to bed soon.

I've been sitting here in front of this new document for what seems like an hour watching the cursor of my laptop blink on and off, rhythmic as a heartbeat. The cursor seems more alive than I. Don't they say the first year is supposed to be the hardest? I'm three months into year two. Like a daffodil, the nub of it breaking through the soil in the flower beds each spring, I should be awakening.

I'm so disgusted with myself that I am not.

And I'm afraid. Afraid that this is who I am now. I read many years ago that when someone dies, there is a sense in which the loved ones die too. The optimistic twist on it was that rebirth occurs and the new person, affected by the suffering, may become better than the old. The rub lies in the auxiliary verb may. How I wish the "new me" were better than the old, a tribute to everything we had and were.

I assumed when the time came, that's how it would be.

I was wrong.

The truth is I know of no one who has coped worse with losing a mate than I have.

There is the small consolation that most people think I'm fine.

My children know I'm not, but they are kind and understanding and patient. But even they don't know that I feel as dead to this world as their father is. You don't tell your children that. They have suffered enough.

July 11
I record Oprah, Law and Order, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Heroes, What Not to Wear, Divine Design, The Closer, and an eclectic selection of movies, lots of movies. Next season I might add Ugly Betty to my schedule, despite its unfortunate title. Several people have recommended it.

No matter what my son says, I do not and will not record American Chopper. Is this refusal a sign of life?

My DVR holds one hundred hours of programming. I panic if the allotted time for recording reaches fifty.

Mark and Molly, caring children that they are, have encouraged me to continue substitute teaching. It's true—I did enjoy it the two years after I packed up my classroom and retired, but I have not been able to find enough interest and energy, even courage, to enter a classroom since Tom died. This strikes me as odd since I taught for thirty years, and a classroom was as much my natural habitat as water is to fish. But that was then.

Tom and I retired early, even though we still enjoyed our jobs, so that we could "run around"—that's what our friends called it. We only dabbled in running around, however. We didn't buy a travel trailer and slap a "We're spending our children's inheritance" sticker on it, but we spent a lot of time with the grandkids, and we saw a lot of the country. A cruise to Alaska was on our calendar for last July. It was our last Christmas present to each other and made us look forward even more to the new year.

We missed viewing the inner passage of Alaska by three months.

Fortunately we had insured the trip. Mother wasn't feeling well when we booked it.

July 12
I prepared for retirement by getting serious about exercise. I am not disciplined, though Molly, great defender of her mother, says I didn't get a master's degree while caring for a two-year-old and expecting another baby without discipline. Nor, she continues, did I teach for thirty years without a significant amount of discipline. I call these examples anomalies. The rule is this: little discipline.

The treadmill upstairs in the bonus room is one of my proof texts. I have exercised off and on all my life. I gain ten pounds, start dragging around, begin thinking about cutting calories and walking three miles a day, mull it over a few months, finally commit myself to it, and then lose the ten pounds and gain a level of energy that will suffice.

I always think I'll keep at it the rest of my life. Then with no warning, I quit. Eventually I gain ten pounds and the cycle begins again. When I turned fifty-two and retirement was only four months away, I told myself exercise was no longer just a good idea; it was a necessity if we were to have quality of life in what Jane Fonda calls Act Three.

The last time I was on the treadmill was the morning before Tom died, having barely finished Act Two.

July 17
Somehow I managed.

The whole crew came for a weekend visit: Mark and Katy with Kelsie and Austin; Molly and Brad with Jada and Hank—our beloveds. Could there be sweeter children and grandchildren? I remember how happy, no, thrilled, Tom and I were that the kids settled only an hour or so away. Branson is a little closer than Joplin, but both kids have made us feel they live just on the other side of Springfield.

We built this house on the golf course eleven years ago. I'm glad we didn't wait until we retired to do it. I had thought we might spend forty years together here. If gratitude were still a blip on my screen, I'd have to say ten years beats two.

Tom enjoyed golfing immensely, but he especially loved playing with Mark and Brad. He did not live long enough for the boys to beat him, though there was whooping and hollering the day Mark tied him. Friday evening the men took the golf cart out for the first time without Tom.

The little girls, age six now, slept with me. The little boys cried because they couldn't, but they finally settled down when Molly let them both sleep on a pallet in her room. Molly and Mark sense my weariness. Their visits have been short since Tom died, usually only overnight. So far I've been able to feign being a decent nana for twenty-four hours.

The girls will start first grade next month; I remember marveling with Tom that soon they'd be in kindergarten. How was it possible that our grandchildren were old enough for that? Nothing prepared us for the joy of our children's children. Though we adored our son and daughter and have enjoyed kids by occupation, this bliss caught us by surprise.

The "babies," as we call them, have finally quit looking for Papa when they come.

I cannot believe what they have lost. I cannot believe I'll ever be enough.

July 18
Molly and Katy had breakfast ready before the girls and I made it into the kitchen. Tom, an early riser, had been the breakfast maker when the kids came home. I got out maybe three words of apology before Molly stopped me. My new routine doesn't include breakfast, but I managed to eat part of a waffle and a piece of bacon. Sitting across from me at the round breakfast table, Molly said the flowers at the front of the house and in the beds around the patio looked gorgeous. She and Brad had come the first of May to help me put out the annuals. This was something Tom and I always did together. Molly knew I wouldn't get it done by myself.

What she doesn't know is that annuals have ceased to thrill me.

July 19
Writing the date is the answer to my blinking cursor. I can write a paragraph or two once the date gets me started. I caught sight of the last line of yesterday's entry and can't believe I said that annuals have ceased to thrill me. It seems sacrilegious and probably is. But, if I'm honest (and what a drag that is), I'd have to say many good things have ceased to thrill me.

I've quit reading, even best sellers, even Pulitzers, even the newspaper (I canceled it), even my Bible. I'm surprised I read even the last line of Tuesday's entry.

I also quit listening to music. I have chosen silence for over a year now. Molly begs for "tunes" when we're together. It's rare that I relent.

This lack of appreciation for things I once loved is beginning to define me. More mornings than I can count, I say to myself before I open my eyes, "I don't want to do this." In the days shortly following Tom's death that made sense, but what does it mean now? I asked myself that yesterday. What is "this" exactly? What does that mean?

I don't know.

That I'm in trouble?

One of the best qualities of the former me was thankfulness. In fact, on my fiftieth birthday I awoke with a doxology on my lips, aware of so many good gifts I'd received from God in fifty years, including two new grandbabies. I've even given thanks for my penchant for giving thanks. As I was trying to sleep last night, needing Tom to be curled up behind me, his left arm slung across me, nightly comfort, I realized to my horror that I couldn't remember the last time I was thankful. Really thankful. Not an intellectual gratitude, which has remained, but an emotional and spiritual gratitude that wells up from a trusting, peaceful heart. I thought of a line from an old hymn: "Awake, my soul, and sing."

I miss Tom.

I also miss me.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gingham Mountain - Chapter 1

Gingham Mountain

Barbour Books (February 1, 2009)


Sour Springs, Texas, 1870

Martha had an iron rod where most people had a backbone.

Grant smiled as he pulled his team to a stop in front of the train station in Sour Springs, Texas.

She also had a heart of gold—even if the old bat wouldn’t admit it. She was going to be thrilled to see him and scold him the whole time.

“It’s time to get back on the train.” Martha Norris, ever the disciplinarian, had a voice that could back down a starving Texas wildcat, let alone a bunch of orphaned kids. It carried all the way across the street as Grant jumped from his wagon and trotted toward the depot. He’d almost missed them. He could see the worry on Martha’s face.

Wound up tight from rushing to town, Grant knew he was late. But now that he was here, he relaxed. It took all of his willpower not to laugh at Martha, the old softy.

He hurried toward them. If it had only been Martha he would have laughed, but there was nothing funny about the two children with her. They were leftovers.

A little girl, shivering in the biting cold, her thin shoulders hunched against the wind, turned back toward the train. Martha, her shoulders slumped with sadness at what lay ahead for these children, rested one of her competent hands on the child’s back.

Grant noticed the girl limping. That explained why she hadn’t been adopted. No one wanted a handicapped child. As if limping put a child so far outside of normal she didn’t need love and a home. Controlling the slow burn in his gut, Grant saw the engineer top off the train’s water tank. They’d be pulling out of the station in a matter of minutes.

“Isn’t this the last stop, Mrs. Norris?” A blond-headed boy stood, stony-faced, angry, scared.

“Yes, Charlie, it is.”

His new son’s name was Charlie. Grant picked up his pace.

Martha sighed. “We don’t have any more meetings planned.”

“So, we have to go back to New York?” Charlie, shivering and thin but hardy compared to the girl, scowled as he stood on the snow-covered platform, six feet of wood separating the train from the station house.

Grant had never heard such a defeated question.

The little girl’s chin dropped and her shoulders trembled.

What was he thinking? He heard defeat from unwanted children all the time.

Charlie slipped his threadbare coat off his shoulders even though the wind cut like a knife through Grant’s worn-out buckskin jacket.

Grant’s throat threatened to swell shut with tears as he watched that boy sacrifice the bit of warmth he got from that old coat.

Stepping behind Martha, Charlie wrapped his coat around the girl. She shuddered and practically burrowed into the coat as if it held the heat of a fireplace, even as she shook her head and frowned at Charlie.

“Just take the stupid thing.” Charlie glared at the girl.

After studying him a long moment, the little girl, her eyes wide and sad, kept the coat.

Mrs. Norris stayed his hands. “That’s very generous, Charlie, but you can’t go without a coat.”

“I don’t want it. I’m gonna throw it under the train if she don’t take it.” The boy’s voice was sharp and combative. A bad attitude. That could keep a boy from finding a home.

Grant hurried faster across the frozen ruts of Sour Springs Main Street toward the train platform and almost made it. A tight grip on his arm stopped him. Surprised, he turned and saw that irksome woman who’d been hounding him ever since she’d moved to town. What was her name? Grant’d made of point of not paying attention to her. She usually yammered about having his shirts sewn in her shop.

“Grant, it’s so nice to see you.”

It took all his considerable patience to not jerk free. Shirt Lady was unusually tall, slender, and no one could deny she was pretty, but she had a grip like a mule skinner, and Grant was afraid he’d have a fight on his hands to get his arm back.

Grant touched the brim of his battered Stetson with his free hand. “Howdy, Miss. I’m afraid I’m in a hurry today.”

A movement caught his eye, and he turned to look at his wagon across the street. Through the whipping wind he could see little, but Grant was sure someone had come alongside his wagon. He wished it were true so he could palm this persistent pest off on an unsuspecting neighbor.

Shirt Lady’s grip tightened until it almost hurt through his coat. She leaned close, far closer than was proper to Grant’s way of thinking.

“Why don’t you come over to my place and warm yourself before you head back to the ranch. I’ve made pie, and it’s a lonely kind of day.” She fluttered her lashes until Grant worried she’d gotten dirt in her eye. He considered sending her to Doc Morgan for medical care.

The train chugged and reminded Grant he was almost out of time. “Can’t stop now, Miss.” What was her name? How many times had she spoken to him? A dozen if it was three. “There are some orphans left on the platform, and they need a home. I’ve got to see to ’em.”

Something flashed in her eyes for a second before she controlled it. He knew that look. She didn’t like orphans. Well, then what was she doing talking to him? He came with a passel of ’em. Grant shook himself free.

“We’ll talk another time then.”

Sorely afraid they would, Grant tugged on his hat brim again and ran. His boots echoed on the depot stairs. He reached the top step just as Martha turned to the sound of his clomping. She was listening for him even when she shouldn’t be.

Grant couldn’t stand the sight of the boy’s thin shoulders covered only by the coarse fabric of his dirty, brown shirt. He pulled his gloves off, noticing as he did that the tips of his fingers showed through holes in all ten fingers.

“I’ll take ’em, Martha.” How was he supposed to live with himself if he didn’t? Grant’s spurs clinked as he came forward. He realized in his dash to get to town he’d worn his spurs even though he brought the buckboard. Filthy from working the cattle all morning, most of his hair had fallen loose from the thong he used to tie it back. More than likely he smelled like his horse. A razor hadn’t touched his face since last Sunday morning.

Never one to spend money on himself when his young’uns had needs—or might at any time—his coat hung in tatters, and his woolen union suit showed through a rip in his knee.

Martha ran her eyes up and down him and shook her head, suppressing a smile. “Grant, you look a fright.”

A slender young woman rose to her feet from where she sat at the depot. Her movements drew Grant’s eyes away from the forlorn children. From the look of the snow piling up on the young woman’s head, she’d been sitting here in the cold ever since the train had pulled in, which would have been the better part of an hour ago. She must have expected someone to meet her, but no one had.

When she stepped toward him, Grant spared her a longer glance because she was a pretty little thing, even though her dark brown hair hung in bedraggled strings from beneath her black bonnet and twisted into tangled curls around her chin. Her face was so dirty the blue of her eyes shined almost like the heart of a flame in a sooty lantern.

Grant stared at her for a moment. He recognized something in her eyes. If she’d been a child and looked at him with those eyes, he’d have taken her home and raised her.

Then the children drew his attention away from the tired, young lady.

Martha Norris shook her head. “You can’t handle any more, Grant. We’ll find someone, I promise. I won’t quit until I do.”

“I know that’s the honest truth.” Grant knew Martha had to protest; good sense dictated it. But she’d hand the young’uns over. “And God bless you for it. But this is the end of the line for the orphan train. You can’t do anything until you get back to New York. I’m not going to let these children take that ride.”

“Actually, Libby joined us after we’d left New York. It was a little irregular, but it’s obvious the child needs a home.” Martha kept looking at him shaking her head.

“Irregular how?” He tucked his tattered gloves behind his belt buckle.

“She stowed away.” Martha glanced at Libby. “It was the strangest thing. I never go back to the baggage car, but one of the children tore a hole in his pants. My sewing kit is always in the satchel I carry with me. I was sure I had it, but it was nowhere to be found. So I knew I’d most likely left it with my baggage. I went back to fetch it so I could mend the seam and found her hiding in amongst the trunks.”

Grant was reaching for the buttons on his coat, but he froze. “Are you sure she isn’t running away from home?” His stomach twisted when he thought of a couple of his children who had run off over the years. He’d been in a panic until he’d found them. “She might have parents somewhere, worried to death about her.”

“She had a note in her pocket explaining everything. I feel certain she’s an orphan. And I don’t know how long she was back there. She could have been riding with us across several states. I sent telegraphs to every station immediately, and I’m planning on leaving a note at each stop on my way back, but I hold out no hope that a family is searching for her.” Martha sighed as if she wanted to fall asleep on her feet.

Grant realized it wasn’t just the children who had a long ride ahead of them. One corner of Grant’s lips turned up. “Quit looking at me like that, Martha, or I’ll be thinking I have to adopt you so you don’t have to face the trip.”

Martha, fifty if she was a day, laughed. “I ought to take you up on that. You need someone to come out there and take your ranch in hand. Without a wife, who’s going to cook for all these children?”

“You’ve been out. You know how we run things. Everybody chips in.” The snow was getting heavier, and the wind blew a large helping of it down Grant’s neck. Grant ignored the cold in the manner of men who fought the elements for their living and won. He went back to unbuttoning his coat, then shrugged it off and dropped it on the boy’s shoulders. It hung most of the way to the ground.

Charlie tried to give the coat back. “I don’t want your coat, mister.”

Taking a long look at Charlie’s defiant expression, Grant fairly growled. “Keep it.”

Charlie held his gaze for a moment before he looked away. “Thank you.”

Grant gave his Stetson a quick tug to salute the boy’s manners. Snow sprang into the air as the brim of his hat snapped down and up. He watched it be swept up and around by the whipping wind then filter down around his face, becoming part of the blizzard that was getting stronger and meaner every moment.

Martha nodded. “If they limited the number of children one man could take, you’d be over it for sure.”

Grant controlled a shudder of cold as he pulled on his gloves. “Well, thank heavens there’s no limit. The oldest boy and the two older girls are just a year or so away from being out on their own. One of them’s even got a beau. I really need three more to take their places, but I’ll settle for two.”

Martha looked from one exhausted, filthy child to the other then looked back at Grant. “The ride back would be terribly hard on them.”

Grant crouched down in front of the children, sorry for the clink of his spurs which had a harsh sound and might frighten the little girl. Hoping his smile softened his grizzled appearance enough to keep the little girl from running scared, he said, “Well, what kind of man would I be if I stood by watching while something was terribly hard on you two? How’d you like to come out and live on my ranch? I’ve got other kids there, and you’ll fit right in to our family.”

“They’re not going to fit, Grant,” Martha pointed out through chattering teeth. “Your house is overflowing now.”

Grant had to admit she was right. “What difference does it make if we’re a little crowded, Martha? We’ll find room.”

The engineer swung out on the top step of the nearest car, hanging onto a handle in the open door of the huffing locomotive. “All aboard!”

The little girl looked fearfully between the train and Grant.

Looking at the way the little girl clung to Martha’s hand, Grant knew she didn’t want to go off with a strange man almost as much as she didn’t want to get back on that train.

“I’ll go with you.” The little boy narrowed his eyes as he moved to stand like a cranky guardian angel beside the girl.

Grant saw no hesitation in the scowling little boy, only concern for the girl. No fear. No second thoughts. He didn’t even look tired compared to the girl and Martha. He had intelligent blue eyes with the slyness a lot of orphans had. Not every child he’d adopted had made the adjustment without trouble. A lot of them took all of Grant’s prayers and patience. Grant smiled to himself. He had an unlimited supply of prayers, and the prayers helped him hang onto the patience.

Grant shivered under the lash of the blowing snow.

The boy shrugged out of the coat. “Take your coat back. The cold don’t bother me none.”

Grant stood upright and gently tugged the huge garment back around the boy’s neck and began buttoning it. “The cold don’t bother me none, neither. You’ll make a good cowboy, son. We learn to keep going no matter what the weather.” He wished he had another coat because the girl still looked miserable. Truth be told, he wouldn’t have minded one for himself.

Martha leaned close to Grant’s ear on the side away from the children. “Grant, you need to know that Libby hasn’t spoken a word since we found her. There was a note in her pocket that said she’s mute. She’s got a limp, too. It looks to me like she had a badly broken ankle some years ago that didn’t heal right. I’ll understand if you—”

Grant pulled away from Martha’s whispers as his eyebrows slammed together. Martha fell silent and gave him a faintly alarmed look. He tried to calm down before he spoke, matching her whisper. “You’re not going to insult me by suggesting I’d leave a child behind because she has a few problems, are you?”

Martha studied him then her expression relaxed. Once more she whispered, “No Grant. But you did need to be told. The only reason I know her name is because it was on the note. Libby pulled it out of her coat pocket as if she’d done it a thousand times, so chances are this isn’t a new problem, which probably means it’s permanent.”

Grant nodded his head with one taut jerk. “Obliged for the information then. Sorry I got testy.” Grant did his best to make it sound sincere, but it hurt, cut him right to the quick, for Martha to say such a thing to him after all these years.

“No, I’m sorry I doubted you.” Martha rested one hand on his upper arm. “I shouldn’t have, not even for a second.”

Martha eased back and spoke normally again. “We think Libby’s around six.” She swung Libby’s little hand back and forth, giving the girl an encouraging smile.

All Grant’s temper melted away as he looked at the child. “Hello, Libby.” Crouching back down to the little girl’s eye level, he gave the shivering tyke all of his attention.

Too tiny for six and too thin for any age, she had long dark hair caught in a single bedraggled braid and blue eyes awash in fear and wishes. Her nose and cheeks were chapped and red. Her lips trembled. Grant hoped it was from the cold and not from looking at the nasty man who wanted to take her away.

“I think you’ll like living on my ranch. I’ve got the biggest backyard to play in you ever saw. Why, the Rocking C has a mountain rising right up out of the back door. You can collect eggs from the chickens. I’ve got some other kids and they’ll be your brothers and sisters, and we’ve got horses you can ride.”

Libby’s eyes widened with interest, but she never spoke. Well, he’d had ’em shy before.

“I can see you’ll like that. I’ll start giving you riding lessons as soon as the snow lets up.” Grant ran his hand over his grizzled face. “I should have shaved and made myself more presentable for you young’uns. I reckon I’m a scary sight. But the cattle were acting up this morning. There’s a storm coming, and it makes ’em skittish. By the time I could get away, I was afraid I’d miss the train.”

Grant took Libby’s little hand, careful not to move suddenly and frighten her, and rubbed her fingers on his whiskery face.

She snatched her hand away, but she grinned.

The smile transformed Libby’s face. She had eyes that had seen too much and square shoulders that had borne a lifetime of trouble. Grant vowed to himself that he’d devote himself to making her smile.

“I’ll shave it off before I give you your first good night kiss.”

The smile faded, and Libby looked at him with such longing Grant’s heart turned over with a father’s love for his new daughter. She’d gotten to him even faster than they usually did.

Martha reached past Libby to rest her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And Charlie is eleven.”

Grant pivoted a bit on his toes and looked at Charlie again. A good-looking boy, but so skinny he looked like he’d blow over in a hard wind. Grant could fix that. The boy had flyaway blond hair that needed a wash and a trim. It was the hostility in his eyes that explained why he hadn’t found a home. Grant had seen that look before many times, including in a mirror.

As if he spoke to another man, Grant said, “Charlie, welcome to the family.”

Charlie shrugged as if being adopted meant nothing to him. “Are we supposed to call you pa?”

“That’d be just fine.” Grant looked back at the little girl. “Does that suit you, Libby?”

Libby didn’t take her lonesome eyes off Grant, but she pressed herself against Martha’s leg as if she wanted to disappear into Martha’s long wool coat.

The engineer shouted, “All aboard!” The train whistle sounded. A blast of steam shot across the platform a few feet ahead of them.

Libby jumped and let out a little squeak of surprise. Grant noted that the little girl’s voice worked, so most likely she didn’t talk for reasons of her own, not because of an injury. He wondered if she’d seen something so terrible she couldn’t bear to speak of it.

The boy reached his hand out for Libby. “We’ve been together for a long time, Libby. We can go together to the ranch. I’ll take care of you.”

Libby looked at Charlie as if he were a knight in shining armor. After some hesitation, she released her death grip on Martha and caught Charlie’s hand with both of hers.

“Did I hear you correctly?” A sharp voice asked from over Grant’s shoulder. “Are you allowing this man to adopt these children?”

Startled, Grant stood, turned, and bumped against a soft, cranky woman. He almost knocked her onto her backside—the lady who’d been waiting at the depot. He grabbed her or she’d have fallen on the slippery wood. Grant steadied her, warm and alive in his hands.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cry In The Night - Chapter 1

A Cry In The Night

Thomas Nelson (February 3, 2009)

The baby in the carrier slept peacefully, tiny fists thrust against her chubby cheeks blissfully unaware of her danger. Pia Westola clicked off the phone and sat back in her chair, gazing at the baby, sick with the awareness of this new, undesirable turn her life had taken. What had started out as a job she could believe
in-even if it did sometimes drift into the law's gray areas-had just become clearly criminal. She would never have agreed to take this infant if what Florence had just told her was true.

One glance at the clock told her her boss would be here soon. Pia just had to keep the little one out of his reach. Adrenaline pulsed through her at the thought. Her decision made, she slipped on her coat, adjusted the insulating cover over the baby carrier that fit on her like a backpack, then grabbed the bottles and diapers
and stuffed them in with the baby. If she could hide out long enough, maybe she could get the baby to safety.

Before she reached the garage door, she heard a car out front. Peeking through the curtains, she saw him get out. His car blocked Pia's getaway. Biting back panic, she realized she'd have to escape through the kitchen door.

She exited quickly with the baby and stood on the porch. She knew she had to hurry, but which direction? Hed see her on the road. Her only hope was through the thigh-high drifts across her backyard and into the woods. Her cross-country skis were propped against the side of the house. She shouldered into the baby backpack, slung the diaper bag over that, and then snapped on her skis.

She set out across the frozen landscape. Her muscles were warm by the time she reached the edge of the woods, and her breath fogged the frigid air. But she'd reached the path other skiers had used, and the going would be easier.

Her back aching from the weight of the carrier, she spared a glance behind her. Her spirits fagged when she caught a glimpse of him. He was on skis too. She'd forgotten he always carried them in his car. He wasnt burdened with the baby either. She was
never going to make the sanctuary shed hoped for. He hadnt seen her yet though. She hoped he'd lose her tracks on the more highly trafficked trail.

Tension coiled along Pia's spine as she whirled and looked for a place to hide the baby. There-a fallen pile of logs had enough space under it to hide the infant. She slipped out of the backpack, and a crumpled piece of paper fell from her pocket. She wedged the carrier under the logs. She layered several insulated blankets around the tiny girl. At least the child was sheltered.

Picking up a branch, she erased the evidence of her tracks to the logs. She stared down the hill at the approaching figure, then retraced her steps. She met him at a bend in the trail. She'd never known him to be a violent man-maybe she could reason
with him.

His narrowed gaze nearly cut her down, "Where's the baby?"

She tipped up her chin. "Im not going to be part of this."

He grabbed her arm and twisted it. "Where is she?"

Reeling from the shock, Pia's shoulder shrieked with pain. Still, she held his gaze defiantly. "Where you'll never find her."

"I saw you carrying her!" He slapped her, then slapped her again. Both hands moved to her shoulders and he shook her. "Where is she?"

Pia's cheeks burned. Her head fopped with the violence of the shaking. Then he shoved her, and she was falling, falling toward a broken tree limb that jutted from the ground like a giant spear.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Against All Odds - Prologue and Chapter 1

Against All Odds

Revell (February 1, 2009)

P r o l o g u e

“Sir? I think you need to hear this.”

With a preoccupied frown, David Callahan looked up from the security briefing in his hand. His aide, Salam Farah, stood on the threshold of his small office deep inside the fortified U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. The man was holding a tape recorder and a single sheet of paper.

“A new message from the terrorists?” David lowered the briefing to his desk.

“Yes. And another personal threat.”

“I’m not interested in threats directed at me.” David waved the comment aside. “Let our security people worry about them.”

“This one is different, sir.”

After forty years in the diplomatic service, most of them spent dealing with volatile situations in the world’s hot spots, David had learned to trust his instincts about people. And in the two months he’d been back in Afghanistan trying to help stabilize the local government, he’d come to respect Salam’s judgment. His aide wouldn’t raise a red flag unless there was good cause.

“All right.” David adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses and held out his hand. “Let’s see what they have to say.”

In silence, Salam set the recorder on the desk, pressed the play button, and passed the sheet of paper to David.

As the spoken message was relayed in Pashto, the language favored by the Taliban, David scanned the translation. The warning was similar to those that had come before: convince the country’s struggling fledgling government to release a dozen
incarcerated terrorists and pay a twenty-million-dollar ransom, or the three U.S. hostages that had been kidnapped a week ago would die.

But as he read the last line, he understood Salam’s concern. The nature of the personal threat had, indeed, changed.

If you do not convince the government to meet our demands, your daughter will be our next target.

His pulse slammed into high gear.

“When did this arrive?” A thread of tension wove through his clipped question.

“Half an hour ago. It’s been in translation.”

“Was it delivered in the usual manner?”


Meaning a randomly selected seven- or eight-year-old boy had been paid a few afghanis—the equivalent of a dime—to thrust the tape into the hands of the first U.S. soldier he saw at busy Massood Square, not far from the main gate of the
embassy. The young, nimble couriers always managed to slip into the crowd or dart through the traffic before they could be restrained. It was a simple, expedient delivery method that left no clue about the origin of the messages.

Swiveling toward the small window in his office, David considered his options.

The official stance from Washington was clear—the United States didn’t negotiate with terrorists. Nevertheless, secret deals were sometimes bartered that allowed the government to save hostages while maintaining its hard-line public stance. While
he’d been assigned to broker a couple of those clandestine arrangements during his career, David had never recommended that course of action. Had never even considered recommending it.

Until now.

Because he wanted to protect Monica—even if she wanted nothing to do with him.

As he stared out the window at the jagged, unforgiving peaks of the distant Hindu Kush Mountains, snow-covered on this frigid February day, he was keenly aware of the moral dilemma he faced. If he’d been unwilling to advise covert bargaining to save the lives of the three American hostages, how could he in good conscience change his stance now just because his own daughter had become a target?

Whoever had masterminded this latest threat had thrown him a cunning, world-class curveball.

For thirty eternal seconds he wrestled with his dilemma. But when he swung back toward Salam, there was steel in his voice.

“Get Washington on the phone.”

Chpater 1

Evan Cooper had never liked predawn pages.

In his four years on the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, he’d pulled his share of all-nighters. And those were fine. He’d much rather stay up until the sun rose than be awakened by that rude alert. Especially on a Saturday after a late night of partying.

Stifling a groan, he groped around the top of his nightstand until his fingers closed over his BlackBerry. Once he’d killed the piercing noise, he peered at his watch in the darkness, forcing his bleary eyes to focus. According to the LED dial, it was four in the morning. Two hours of sleep.

Not enough.

Resigned, Coop clicked on his in-box. Normally, his adrenaline would already be pumping as he speculated about what crisis had escalated to the point that the nation’s most elite civilian tactical force would be called in. But in his present condition, the address line did little more than arouse mild curiosity in his sleep-fogged brain. Why had the page been directed to him alone rather than to his full team, as usual?

Squinting in the dark, Coop scanned the clipped directive from Les Coplin, head of the HRT.

Meet me at Quantico ASAP.

No explanation. No clue about why this meeting couldn’t wait until a decent hour. Just a summons.

In other words, typical Les.

After four years of this drill, Coop simply shifted into auto-pilot. And thirty minutes later, he found himself striding down the too-bright corridor toward Les’s office with no actual recollection of getting dressed, driving to Quantico, going through security, or parking his car.

It was almost scary.

“You look about as alert as I feel.”

At the wry comment, Coop glanced over his shoulder. Mark Sanders closed the distance between them in a few long strides and fell into step beside him.

“One too many beers last night?” Mark queried.

“At least.” Coop didn’t figure it would do any good to deny the obvious. Mark had been by his side most of the evening. “I take it you got a page too?”

“Yep.” He scanned the deserted hallway. “Looks like it’s just you and me, kid. A two-man job. This might be interesting.”

Maybe, Coop conceded. After I wake up.

“How come you’re so perky?” Coop gave Mark a suspicious look. The two of them were often teamed up on missions that called for partners, and their on-the-job pairing had led to a solid friendship. “You had as much to drink as I did.”

“I also stopped for a cup of coffee at the quick shop on the way in.”


“I thought so.” Mark’s lips quirked into a smirk. “Hey, maybe Les will take pity on you and offer you some of his special brew.”

The commander’s thick-as-motor-oil sludge was legendary—and universally abhorred. But Coop was desperate. “I might take him up on it.”

“Whoa!” Mark’s eyebrows shot up. “You did have a rough night. Or else you’re getting old.”

“Thanks a lot, buddy.” In truth, he felt every one of his thirty-eight years this morning.

Chuckling, Mark stopped outside Les’s office and slapped Coop on the back. “Hey, what are friends for?” He lifted his hand to knock but froze as a gruff voice bellowed through the door.

“Don’t just stand there. Come on in!”

Rolling his eyes, Mark pushed the door open and stepped aside, ushering Coop in first.

“Now you decide to be polite,” Coop muttered under his breath as he passed.

Mark’s soft chuckle was the only response.

“Sit.” Les waved them into chairs and fished out some file folders from the sea of papers on his desk. He worked the stub of his ever-present, unlit cigar between his teeth as he scrutinized the men across from him.

“You two look like something the cat dragged in.” He turned to Coop. “Especially you. Get some caffeine.” He motioned to a coffeemaker on a small table against the wall.

After exchanging a look with Mark, Coop rose in silence and filled a disposable cup three-quarters full, stirring in two packets of creamer to cut the bitterness of the noxious swill that masqueraded as coffee. Nothing got past Les, Coop reflected. One
quick, assessing glance was all it had taken for the man to figure out who had fared the worse from a night of barhopping.

His astute powers of observation were no surprise, though. A former green beret and HRT operator, Les had headed the Hostage Rescue Team for the past two years. And he’d earned the respect of every HRT member with his keen insights and cutto-the-chase manner. He’d also earned the nickname Bulldog, thanks to his stocky build, close-cropped gray hair, and square jaw—not to mention his tenacious determination.

As Coop retook his seat, grimacing at his first sip of the vile brew, he ignored the twitch in Mark’s lips and focused on Les.

“I’ve got a job for you two. Ever hear of David Callahan?”

Mark shot Coop a silent query. At the almost imperceptible shake of his partner’s head, he answered for both of them.


“Didn’t think so. He keeps a low profile. Here’s some background you can review later.” He tossed a file across the desk, and Coop fumbled with his coffee as he grabbed for it, the murky liquid sloshing dangerously close to the rim of the cup.

Les scowled at him and chewed his cigar. “Keep drinking that coffee.” Settling back in his chair, he ignored the flush that rose on Coop’s neck. “David Callahan works for the State Department. Has for forty years. He’s been in about every hot spot in the world where the United States has a vested interest. By reputation, he’s a savvy diplomat and a tough but fair negotiator. When you see the secretary of state shaking hands with foreign leaders after a diplomatic coup, you can bet David Callahan had a hand in it. I assume you’re both versed on the current hostage situation in Afghanistan.”

It was a statement, not a question.

To Coop’s relief, Mark took pity on him and accepted the volley. The coffee was starting to work, but he wasn’t yet ready to dive into this game.

“Yes. The basics, anyway. An unidentified terrorist group kidnapped three Americans a week ago and is demanding the release of a number of extremists who are in custody, as well as a large ransom. The hostages are a wire service reporter, the
director of a humanitarian organization, and a State Department employee. The last I heard, things were at a stalemate.”

“That’s right. It’s a dicey situation. Callahan is holding firm to our nonnegotiation policy with terrorists, but he’s facing immense pressure to convince the State Department and the Afghan government to reconsider that stance. And the terrorists just raised the stakes.”

Leaning forward, Les passed a file to Mark. “Background on Monica Callahan, David’s daughter.”

“How is she involved?” Mark took the file.

“She isn’t. Yet. And it’s up to you to keep it that way.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” Twin creases appeared on Mark’s brow.

“Three hours ago, the terrorists gave David Callahan a vested interest in the outcome by threatening his daughter.” Les turned to Coop. “You with us?”

“Yes, sir. But I’m not sure I understand, either. Shouldn’t this be handled by State Department personnel?”

“In general, yes. David Callahan’s own security is being managed internally. But he wanted the best available protection for his daughter. And he went to the highest levels to get it.”

“The secretary of state asked for HRT involvement?” Mark sent Les a surprised look.

“No one asked for anything. It was an order.” Les chewed on his cigar for a few seconds. “And it came from the White House.”

Stunned, Coop stared at him. “The White House?”

“The coffee must be kicking in. Good.” Les worked his cigar to the other side of his mouth. “Now that I have your full attention, we can talk about your assignment.”

“Is the daughter in Afghanistan?” Mark asked.

“No. Much closer to home. Richmond, Virginia. I want you and Coop on dignitary protection duty 24/7 until this hostage situation is resolved.”

“That could be weeks,” Coop said.

“And your point is . . .” Les pinned him with a piercing look. Coop took a fortifying gulp of his coffee and remained silent.

“That’s what I figured.” Les removed his cigar long enough to take a swig from his own mug. “We’ll work the intelligence angle from here and try to intercept any imminent threats. I need you two on the ground with Monica Callahan to provide physical protection.” He passed another file over to Mark. “Classified intelligence on the hostage situation and terrorist cells in the U.S. that could be connected to it.”

“Is a safe house being arranged?”

At Mark’s question, Les leaned back in his chair and squinted. Not a good sign, Coop knew. Their boss only squinted in tense situations—or if things weren’t going as planned.

“That would be the most effective way to deal with the situation. And we’re securing a location now. But we have a challenge to deal with first.”

As Coop leaned forward to wedge his coffee cup into a tiny bare spot on Les’s desk, he exchanged a glance with Mark. His partner’s concerned expression mirrored Coop’s reaction. When Les said “challenge,” he meant “problem.” And with the White House watching over their shoulders, problems were not a good thing.

“I’m assuming you’ll explain that.” Coop’s even, controlled tone reflected none of his sudden unease.

“The lady isn’t aware of the danger because she hasn’t responded to her father’s calls. As you’ll discover from her file, they’ve been estranged for many years.” Les delivered his bombshell matter-of-factly. “So your first challenge, gentlemen, will
be to convince her she needs protecting and get her on board with the program—despite her feelings about her father.”

The last vestiges of fuzziness vanished from Coop’s brain. They were supposed to protect an uncooperative subject from a terrorist threat with the White House looking over their shoulders.


From the set of his jaw, Mark wasn’t any more thrilled by the assignment than he was, Coop deduced.

Dignitary protection details were bad enough under the best conditions. No one on the HRT had joined the group to play nursemaid to high-powered, pampered VIPs. And that’s what these gigs amounted to in most cases, as he and Mark knew firsthand. You stashed the person in a safe house and babysat until you got the all clear.

In other words, you were bored out of your mind. But he’d take that kind of assignment in a heartbeat compared to the one Les had handed them. One wrong step, and their careers would be toast.

“We’ll feed you intelligence as we get it,” Les continued. “And we’ll proceed on the assumption that you’ll convince Ms. Callahan it’s in her best interest to cooperate. In the meantime, get up to speed on those files and head down to Richmond. I want
you on the job by nine o’clock. The local field office is handling covert surveillance until you get there. Any questions?”

Coop and Mark exchanged a look but remained silent.

“Okay. Stay in touch. And good luck.” Rising, Coop gripped the file folder on David Callahan and picked up his coffee. As he followed Mark out the door, he glanced at the murky dregs sloshing in the bottom of the cup. They turned his stomach.

And the assignment Les had handed them was having the same effect.

As for luck . . . he had a feeling they were going to need a whole lot more than that to emerge from this job unscathed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Word Gets Around - Chapter 1

Word Gets Around

Bethany House (February 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Lauren Eldridge

They say you can't go home again, but the truth is, if you're a small-town Texas girl, you can never really leave. The town travels with you like an extra layer of skin—something flamboyant and tight fitting. Even though you may hide it beneath the trappings of sophistication, it's right there under your clothes, your secret identity. Whether you admit it or not, you have an affinity for big hair, shirts with pearl snaps, cowboy boots, and faded blue jeans. Even in the most upscale restaurants, you secretly search the menu for comfort foods like chicken-fried steak and catfish, especially on Fridays. Any Texas girl knows it's not Friday without all-you-can-eat catfish.

The world would be better off if everyone ate fried food at least one night a week, and drank coffee you could cut with a knife, and lingered with their neighbors. We'd understand each other a little better, and maybe we'd understand ourselves. Perhaps we'd ponder, over the plastic basket with the grease-stained tissue paper, the need to run so far, so fast—to have, to do, to achieve, to gain, to win—to be all that and make sure everybody knows it. A pecan pie does not toil, nor does it spin, but it sure tastes good, and it makes a fine conversation piece.

In the right setting, you can talk for twenty minutes about the merits of a good pecan pie. You can discuss the pecans—paper shell, Stuart, native, chopped, broken, whole. You can talk about the fact that farm-fresh eggs make a better pie than store-bought. You can theorize as to why that might be. One thing that's wrong with society today—too many chemically altered chickens living in giant egg factories, toiling mindlessly, uninspired by their work.

There's a whole world out there that doesn't know one egg from another, and for some reason, that world had always held an attraction for me. My limited contact with the strange and wondrous realms outside our little town of Daily, Texas, was the subject of my earliest childhood fascinations. That world seemed like the place to be, even when I was too young to understand it.

In the farthest reaches of my memory, there are hippies. They're sitting on a street corner in Los Angeles, shaking tambourines, playing guitars, railing against nukes and advocating love. It's a nice song, I think, and I'm enthralled by their swinging leather fringes, and the fact that they're dancing half-naked on the sidewalk. We don't see things like that back home in Daily, Texas.

Aunt Donetta grabs my hand and drags me across the street and we go find my father, who is delivering a herd of our ranch horses to their winter jobs at a movie studio. The horses have been ferrying city kids and troops of Girl Scouts out at Boggy Bend Park all summer, so they're dog gentle, says my father as he and the studio wrangler, Willie Wardlaw, watch the herd exit the trailer and blink in the bright California sunlight. The wrangler, my dad's old rodeo buddy, laughs. "Just because Girl Scouts can handle them horses don't mean movie actors can," he says.

Standing there in my new pink cowgirl suit, proudly wearing my latest goat slapping championship belt buckle, I catalog that information in my six-year-old brain. Movie actors are worse horse riders than Girl Scouts. Even at six years old, I have suspected as much from watching TV westerns, but my theory is confirmed when Willie grins and says, "You know they only ride for the camera. Other than that, not a one of 'em knows the head from the hind end."

Then Willie walks away with his clipboard, leaving me to fret about abandoning our remuda in movie land. I've been worried about this all along, because the horses are my personal friends and favorite playmates, except in the summer, when the campground at Boggy Bend fills with yammering city kids who are fun to play kickball with, but painfully ignorant about horses.

I cling to my father's assurance that he has a sweet deal worked out to lease our horses for the winter, then bring them back to Daily in time for summer campers. He cannot believe the amount a movie studio is willing to pay for this. It's well worth the long haul from Texas in the rebuilt Ford pickup he has lovingly pieced together from spare parts.

Aunt Donetta isn't worried about the paycheck or the horses, but she does have something on her mind. She tells my father about the dangerous hippies in the street. They're everywhere—singing, carrying anti-government signs, smoking and being s-e-x-u-a-l (she spells this word then blushes) in public. Los Angeles is one big, full-scale hippie convention. "It's hardly a proper place for an impressionable child," she says and frowns because, thanks to my father's part-time rodeo affliction, my brother, Kemp, and I are often in improper places. We love those places, but Aunt Donetta feels the need to protect us, being as we have no mother to do it. She demands that my father take us home to Texas immediately. No—she does not want to see Hollywood Boulevard or Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Our trip to California is ruined. Daddy and Aunt Donetta pack my little brother and me into the truck and we head home, and I never go back to California again, even though my dad helps support his rodeo habit for years by supplying Willie Wardlaw with movie horses. In fact, our existence is all about horses. My father is certain that, since Kemp's only interest is sports, I'll be the one to take over the ranch, eventually.

The day I gave up horses for a graduate teaching assistantship at Kansas State University and left Daily, Texas, for good became the biggest disappointment of my father's life. At twenty-nine, I needed a clean break from the hometown, and even though my father knew the reasons, my leaving was hard for him to accept. For two years afterward, he pretended he didn't have a clue what I was doing, way up north in Kansas.

When he finally managed to navigate the university phone system and call my office, I knew something big was up.

"Hey-uh, Puggy, what ya doin'?" My father has forever insisted on calling me Puggy, despite the implied unattractiveness of it. In my family, you're saddled with a nickname the minute enough relatives make it to the hospital to establish a quorum. After that, you're stuck with it. My name is Lauren, but to my dad, I am forever Puggy.

"Eating a breakfast taco and grading anatomy finals," I replied. "It's always entertaining. I wonder if some of these kids ever come to class. If they did, they'd know that a fracture of the first phalanx in a racing greyhound would be in the foot, not the mouth. We tried offering an anatomy course in summer minimester this year, but it's looking like it was a mistake."

"I read where kids startin' college are even dumber than we used to be." Dad seemed surprisingly willing to talk about campus life. This was a first. Normally when I brought it up, he changed the subject. "Them SAT scores are down three percentile points overall. Read it in the Wall Street Journal."

The Wall Street Journal? My dad? "Well, it's a good thing the Wall Street Journal is not here grading these tests, because this kid has the jawbone connected to the leg bone."

Dad hooted as though I'd said something hilarious. "Wooh-wee, that'd be interesting, now wouldn't it? Don't reckon that dog'd hunt. I took anatomy once. Don't remember much. Think that mighta been the year I broke my shoulder." It was a well-known fact that my father's undergraduate career involved more college rodeo than actual coursework. When he broke his shoulder and couldn't continue to compete, he quit school, went home to Daily to work in my grandfather's auto shop, and never returned to academic life. According to him, it was probably for the best.

"So, how's the teachin' business?"

"It's fine, Dad. It's good. I'm a little behind in getting some things graded. I'll catch up now that the minimester course is over." Ah, heaven—the lazy hours of midsummer, when the campus was quiet and the student population reduced by half.

"Got a lot to do this weekend?"

"A bit, but I'll get it finished. We're off tomorrow, so it's a long weekend for us, and I'm not teaching anything else this summer, which means I don't have to prep until closer to fall." Something began to needle the back of my mind. These were strange questions, coming from my father. Dad didn't like to talk on the phone. When he did call, we conversed about ranch business, or the latest happenings in Daily, or how my brother, Kemp, was doing now that he'd moved home and taken a coaching job at Daily High. "What's up, Dad?"

"Well, nothin', nothin' ..." His pregnant pause shifted my attention from the anatomy test to the conversation.

"Dad, is something wrong?"

"Well, no. No, a'course not." He diverted the dialogue with a short dissertation about a local girl having made it big in a TV-show talent competition a few months ago. Amber Anderson's second-place finish on American Megastar last April was the biggest thing to hit Daily, Texas, in years. Aunt Donetta made sure I tuned in for the big Hometown Reveal segment, when Amber was announced as a finalist. It was strange, seeing Daily on the screen—all the familiar places, all the same people. The town seemed to have remained frozen in time during the two years I'd been away. Watching Amber's hometown show, I basked in the transient warmth of memories. And then, during a scene at the rodeo arena, completely without warning, there was a big roan horse with a Hash-3 brand on its hip. I remembered the day the horse was born. I remembered Danny and me helping it into the world. I remembered when the Hash-3 was the two of us—young, married, living in a crumbling ranch house on the back side of my father's place, with a mile-high stack of impractical dreams.

The history of that life, and its abrupt and painful ending, had flashed through my mind, and I couldn't breathe. My body felt heavy and numb. I turned off the TV, walked to the bedroom, crawled into bed, and cried until I fell asleep. The next day, I called in sick and let another GA teach my classes. I was careful not to turn on week two of the American Megastar finals....

Dad's voice brought me back to the present. "So, anyhow. You'll never guess who's here. Ol' Willie Wardlaw. You remember him? You met him when you was just little. Remember? The year you and Aunt Netta rode along to deliver the horses at the movie studio?"

Ah, the infamous year of the hippies. "Sure, of course I remember." My one and only Hollywood experience, when I didn't get to meet either Mickey Mouse or the cast of Little House on the Prairie—my two fantasies at the time. "Wow, that's something. I didn't know you two kept in touch anymore."

"Well, we hadn't talked in a while. Few years. Boy, between the movie business and race horses, Willie's kept busy. All that time when we was bringin' him our park horses, he was charging the studio four times the lease fee he paid us per animal. Old scoundrel. And here I thought we was gettin' rich. You should see the pictures of this place he runs out in California. It's like the Tash-mer-hall for horses—thirty-stall barn, all the pastures mowed like golf course lawns, exercise track with a startin' gate, white fence runnin' as far as the eye can see. Got an indoor workout arena, too. Air-conditioned. I mean, Willie's got hisself a horseman's heaven."

Well, that's it. Dad's moving to California to train racehorses with Willie. He's trying to break it to me gently. "It sounds wonderful, Dad. I'm glad you and Willie are having a good visit. What's he doing in Texas, anyway?" In Daily, of all places.

My father went right on talking. "Yeah, old Willie's done good. Stands some big time runnin' horses at stud, right there on the place. Got three hot walkers, and a full-size arena out back. Keeps horses for some movie stars, too. Lord a'mercy, these pictures got girls ridin' in bikini bathing suits. Willie's got him a cute little girlfriend, too. She's upstairs gettin' ready to go to breakfast at the cafe. Wooh-wee, Daily ain't ever seen anything like her, I'll tell you. She dresses like that Pamela Hilton."

"Paris Hilton?"

"Yeah, her."

Dad has fallen for Willie's Malibu Barbie girlfriend. He's headed to California to find one of his own. That's why it's him calling, not Aunt Donetta. She's too mad to talk. "Well, now there's a picture." Paris Hilton on the streets of Daily. Look out. "Has Aunt Donetta seen her yet?"

"Oh, you bet. This afternoon, Aunt Netta's gonna take her down to Boggy Bend to get some sun at the RV park pool."

Aunt Donetta is hanging out with Willie's bikini-babe girlfriend. At the Boggy Bend RV park. Wonder if Paris knows that, by swimming pool, they mean a hollowed-out section of the creek with bluegill, perch, and an occasional diamondback water snake living in it. The first time a fish nips her toes, she'll freak. "That's nice."

"Yeah. Willie and me have some business to tend to. He's got a heck of a sweet deal goin' on right now. Willie's the wrangler for that new movie they're makin' from that book that was on Good Mornin' America a few years back. You remember—The Horseman?" Dad lowered his voice, saying the title as if he, himself, were the show's announcer. "Remember how right after that book come out, all that horse whisperin' was a big deal? Every yay-hoo around was gonna be a horse whisperer, like the fella in the book. Anyhow, now Willie's got the contract to do all the horse wranglin' for the movie. Big job for one man."

My father has gone Hollywood. He's hiring on with Willie Wardlaw to help make The Horseman. Willie will rent him out for four times what Dad's getting paid. "Sounds like it," I agreed.

"It'll be worth the work, though. This thing's gonna go all the way to the A-cademy A-wards, I'll guar-own-tee. They're gonna make it sure-enough authentic—change it up a little from the book, make the horseman a little older, so it'll be believable that he'd have all them insights about horses and people."

My father has been asked to play the horseman. He's going to be a movie star at sixty-six. "That makes sense. Sounds exciting, Dad. I bet it'll be a big success."

"Sure is. They got star power, too—that there Justin ... uhhh ... Justin ... well, you know, that there Justin fella that's so famous. The fella Amber Anderson got to be friends with while she was in California singin' on American Megastar. Justin ..."


"Yeah, sure, that's him. Justin Shay. Willie says he'll be good for the part. He's real popular. Just needs a little coaching in the horse whisperin' end of it."

My father is going to train the Hollywood horse whisperer—Justin Shay, pop-action-thriller star who undoubtedly doesn't know one end of a horse from the other. I'm offended. For years, I tried to bring my father in tune with modern, kinder, gentler methods of training horses. He had no interest. He wanted to do things the old-fashioned way. "A horse ain't broke until you break it," he'd say.

"Well, Dad, there are definitely some things to know about resistance-free training. It isn't all intuitive, even for people who have been around animals all their lives. You have to understand why the animal does what it does—what the body language means and what actions on the part of the trainer cause those reactions. It's all about action and reaction."

"Exactly. That's right. See, you know all them modern terms for that stuff. Back in my day, we just put a horse in the pen and got him broke, but now everyone's gotta whisper. It's a whole new science."

Good gravy, Dad has just admitted that resistance-free training is a science. What is going on? "There is some behavioral theory behind it...."

"Well, sure. This movie'll really be good for the whole horse whisperin' industry."

"Could be." It was strange to be talking about horses after not having been near one in two years. I felt like a reformed smoker discussing the taste of cigarettes.

"They got star power on the horse end, too. The broke-down racehorse is gonna be played by Lucky Strike hisself—you remember, that big bay that was on the way to a triple crown a couple years ago until he snapped his leg? Willie bought into the stallion syndicate on that horse, big time. Got him cheap, but it turns out they can't get hardly anything bred with him. Not enough huevos in the burrito, so to speak."

"Mmm-hmm." Growing up in the ranching business, you think nothing of discussing reproduction and who's capable of it. This is acceptable dinner conversation.

"The Lucky Strike syndicate owners are hopin' that getting him on camera in a western-type setting will help make him popular with quarter horse breeders. Thoroughbred registry, of course, they'll only allow live breedin', but with the quarter horse registry, they can do it in a lab. It could be a whole new market for a horse like Lucky Strike."

Hmmm ... my father has bought syndication shares in a very expensive reproductively challenged racehorse. He's calling to see if I want to buy in, too. "Seems like the financial potential there would be limited." Not to rain on your parade, or anything.

"Lucky Strike's gonna be a bigger star than that Arab horse that played the black stallion, what with that Justin ... uhhh ... Justin ... Shay playin' the horseman, the sky's the limit, I guar-own-tee."

"So, they're going to combine an actor who's not really a horse trainer with a five-year-old racehorse stallion and try to make a movie? That doesn't seem very wise."

"Oh sure. Sure." Dad swished off my comment like a pesky gnat. "Amazin' thing is, they're gonna film the movie right here in Daily. After that Justin fella was here with Amber last April, he bought the old Barlinger ranch. He says he wants to film the movie there."

"In Daily?" I imagined my little hometown, which was only now recovering from the excitement of Amber Anderson's big second-place Megastar finish, caught up in another dose of glitz. Suddenly, I was glad I lived two states away.

"Sure 'nuf."

"At the Barlinger ranch? That place is a wreck. It's been abandoned for years." Back when I was in high school, we held spook houses at the Barlinger ranch. The sprawling limestone homestead had been trapped in probate for as long as anyone could remember.

"Wooh-wee, not anymore." Dad whistled appreciatively. "They got all kinds of crews out there workin'. You oughta see it. Amber and that Justin fella are gonna turn the ranch into some kind of camp for foster kids, eventually. But right now, they're gonna film the movie there. A'course, first they show the bigwig directors and movie-mogul types the project—sell 'em on it, so to speak, then the movie gets made. We gotta take a few days to get the horse calm and bring ol' Justin up to speed on lookin' like a horse whisperer."

In a few days? Good luck. "Sounds interesting. Are you going to help Willie with that?"

Dad paused, and my attention drifted to the window, where a student was loading her suitcases into her car and hugging her boyfriend good-bye in the parking lot. I checked my watch. Time to get back to work if I was going to have the grades in before I went home. I was really looking forward to taking Friday off, rather than coming in to check leftover exams.

"Well, Puggy, you know I'm not any good at that kinda thing," Dad said. "I'm just an old cowhand. I only know how to break a horse one way." He held an extended pause. I didn't notice at first, because I was watching the girl on the sidewalk cling to her boyfriend like she couldn't bear to let go. I hoped she was smart enough not to elope, leave school, and ride off into the sunset on the back of his rodeo pony.

For a moment, I saw Danny and myself all those years ago, standing on a sidewalk at Texas A&M. "Come on," he said. "Let's just do it ... take a year and travel hard, hit all the big rodeos. Grad school's not going anywhere...."

"I was thinking you could come do it." Dad's voice seemed far away at first.

"What ... Dad. I got distracted. What did you say?"

"I thought you could come here and help teach this Justin ... uhhh ... Justin ... what's 'iz name to work with the horse."

"Huh?" was the only answer I could come up with.

Dad huffed impatiently. He'd soft-pedaled as long as he could. Now he was ready to put this mule in the chute. "You know, come down here, help out with the project. There's never been anyone could work a horse like you could, Puggy. Everybody knows it wasn't Danny who trained Mo and Blue. It was you. All Danny could do was throw a rope and tie a calf. Only reason he made it as far as he did was because you trained the horses for him. Surely you can help this Justin fella get on with Lucky Strike."

The instant he said Mo and Blue and come down here, an invisible fist seized my lungs and squeezed tight. I couldn't breathe. The room seemed airless. Training Mo and Blue was the greatest regret of my life, because of what it led to. "Dad I ... I can't, I ... have tests to grade." The words were wooden, robotic.

"You just said you had a long weekend startin'. This'll only take a few days."

"I have to log the scores ... for minimester finals."

"Bring that stuff along. You can do paperwork anyplace, right? You can stay down at Aunt Netta's hotel if you don't want to bunk out at the ranch with Willie, Mimi, and me. Come on. Folks around here think you've gone and moved to Timbuktu."

"Dad, I can't just drop everything and run off to Daily. I'm sorry." A rising tide of nervousness mingled with guilt and made the words sound harsh. I closed my eyes, thinking, Calm down, calm down. He can't force you to do anything ...

Dad's voice was gentle. "It'll be good for ya, Puggy. Been an awful long time since you seen the hometown. You won't hardly recognize it. Road's been repaved and we got souvenir shops with Amber Anderson T-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and CDs."

"I can't come, Dad." That much was true. I can't. Perspiration beaded on my forehead, and I mopped it away, focused on my reflection in the window. The woman there was pale, frightened, her eyes, green in this light, hiding behind a mop of dark curls that, by this time in the morning, needed a barrette. She looked tired, afraid, worried, older than thirty-one.

Dad sighed. I pictured him stroking his long gray mustache, analyzing the situation.

Pressing a hand over my stomach, I gulped in a breath, let it out, took in another, quelling the fear-induced adrenaline. You're having a panic attack. Stop it. Right now. Calm down. You're a grown woman. He can't make you do anything.

"Lauren Lee." When my father took that tone with me, I felt ten years old. "You can't spend the rest of your natural life hidin' from the past. You can't. It's been over two years. Nobody blames you for what happened. We all just want you to come home."

We all just want you to come home.... I gripped the side of the desk. "I'm sorry, I just ..."

"You gotta face this thing, baby girl. It's time."

I deflated into a chair with my head in my hand. A curtain of hair fell across my face, catching the light from the window and turning a soft coffee color. "I know, Dad." What had gone unsaid between us for so long was finally out in the open. "I'll work toward it, I promise. But not right now. Not this way."

"Why not? Why not now? This movie business'll be a good distraction—help keep yer mind off ... things."

Things ... what a strange way to put it.

"Come on, puddin'-pie. Pack up your suitcase and get on the road home."

Now he was using childhood endearments to try to talk me into it. I'd become so pathetic my father was cooing to me at thirty-one years old. "No, Dad. No. All right? I'm not interested in helping some neophyte actor—who, by the way, is known for having a lousy attitude—play cowboy with a horse that's also known for having a bad attitude. I heard Lucky Strike almost killed one vet, and he was so prone to kicking the stall, they had to reset his leg a dozen times."

Dad clicked his tongue—a gesture of regret, of finally hitting the brass tacks. "I promised I wouldn't tell anyone, but Willie's got lung cancer. He don't want people to know. He hasn't even told his girlfriend, Mimi, because as soon as he does, she'll hit the road. She's thirty-six and she wants to be an actress. She ain't gonna stay around for some old man with lung cancer, even if he does have a ponytail and a twelve-hundred-dollar cowboy hat. Willie's son from his second marriage died a few years back in a motorcycle accident. He don't have anyone else."

"I'm sorry ..." A kernel of sympathy sprouted in my chest, and I pictured Willie Wardlaw, the once-strapping movie studio wrangler, who in my memory still stood laughing on a backlot with my father, now washed up, aging, with a few bad marriages, a superficial girlfriend, lung cancer, and a son who'd passed away prematurely. I thought of the times that checks from Willie's studio had bought extra Christmas presents, helped pay the bills at our ranch, or financed a new truck or tractor. I remembered Friday nights, curled up on the couch between Kemp and Dad, watching The Texan on TV, pointing out Willie working as an extra in the background—a tall man on a tall horse.

This wasn't a fitting way for a childhood icon to end up.

Another part of me, my self-defense mechanism, said, For heaven's sake, don't go sappy. You barely know this man. Dad hasn't seen him in years. Now suddenly everyone's supposed to drop everything? "Dad, I don't see what I can—"

"This movie deal's gotta work with Lucky Strike, Puggy. Willie's got everything tied up in the syndicate on that horse, and he's got some partners turning impatient." Dad's tone was low and somber, laced with a weary disappointment. Disappointment in me. In my weakness. In my selfishness. In my lack of willingness to do for him what he had done for me two years ago. Drop everything, give all. "I need you here, Puggy. I got money tied up in this thing, too."

"What money? What are you talking about?"

His hesitation indicated that I wasn't going to like his answer. "I took out a loan to help Willie. I put the shop building and the ranch up against it."

My mind went blank. "You did what? Dad, why would you do that for someone you haven't seen in years?"

"I owe a debt," he said, as if it were that simple, as if it made sense to have mortgaged everything he owned for an old rodeo buddy. "Willie helped me out when I had to have it, Pug. It was Willie that paid for the surgery on Kemp's arm when he got hurt pitching his junior year. Without that operation, Kemp wouldn't have been able to play college ball. Willie never would take a dime back, until now. It's time to repay."

Not this way, I thought. How dare Willie Wardlaw drag my father into his problems. My father had fixed cars, scrimped, and saved for years to take care of the ranch left to him by my grandparents. His shop building was part and parcel with the building that housed Aunt Donetta's beauty shop and the Daily Hotel. The building owned by Eldridges for over a hundred years. How could my father be so foolish as to gamble it on some ill-conceived film project? He could lose everything. Aunt Donetta could lose everything. Where was Kemp while all this was happening?

"Don't sign anything else." The words seemed to come from somewhere outside my body. "I'll be in Daily tomorrow afternoon."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Desires Of Her Heart - Chapter 1

Desires Of Her Heart

Avon Inspire (February 10, 2009)

New Orleans, early August 1821

With tiny sharp teeth, worry ripped and gnawed at Dorritt Mott's peace of mind. Her stepfatheq, Mr. Kilbride, had been up to something for months. But what exactly? And how would it affect Dorritt's private plan? Today the colorful and chaotic gathering of the crdme de la creme of New Orleans society buffeted Dorritt like the whirlwinds of a hurricane. But she'd come because attending the amateur race at the horse track outside the city would give her a chance to pick up a few more clues, to see what Mr. Kilbride was doing away from their plantation.

Scanning the elegant assembly for her stepfather, Dorritt saw that the race had drawn more than just the gentry. Westerners in buckskin with long rifles slung over their backs and sailors who might be pirates in Jean Laffite's crew dotted the crowd. Then she glimpsed a knot of beaver-hatted gentlemen-some jovial and all excited-gathered around a bookmaker who was taking bets near the horse stable. Of course, Mr. Kilbride was in the midst of them. The man never learned.

She began moving through the crowd, nodding and smiling when addressed. Present but apart. Ever since she had debuted, she had watched New Orleans society in a detached manner, as if watching an absurd, sometimes aggravating, play.

Two overly perfumed ladies in feathered bonnets-one gray and one brown-stepped in front of Dorritt, blocking her. Behind their fans, they were of course gossiping. Gray bonnet said, "Did you hear about the Dorsey chit marrying the Hampton heir?"

"Didn't her father forbld him to court herT" the brown bonnet objected.

Dorritt didn't blame the father. The Hampton heir was a rake. But of course, to some, wealth covered a multitude of sins.

"Hampton lured the girl away and took her driving in a closed carriage-" Gray bonnet lowered her voice. "-and they didn't come home until well into the night."

"Well into the night? Didn't her mother warn her about such indiscreet behaviorT" Brown bonnet sounded aghast.

Dorritt started to move away. Some women embraced the calculated destruction of reputations as their lifework. Dorritt had no doubt the Hampton heir had ensnared a green girl who would put up with his dubious behavior. All to give him an heir. Men must have their sons at all costs. And people wonder why I've chosen to remain a spinster

Pushing ahead, Dorritt managed to navigate within hearing distance of the men around her stepfather. They were discussing the merits of the horses scheduled to run today. From the corner of her eye, she noted that a few of the Westerners were coming up to put down bets too. Mr. Kilbride was touting the merits of his entry in today's race and placing a bet on it to win. TheStaggering amount he'd just wagered with a smile made Dorritt blanch. She kept the books for the plantation. If their horse lost, which of their people would he have to sell to recoup this bet?
Feeling panicky, Dorritt turned blindly and nearly walked into her half-sister's admiring all-male court. Fifteen-year-old Jewell, with her curly black hair, large brown eyes, plae complexion, and graceful figure knew exactly how to enthrall men. Her most favored and fervent admirer at the moment was sole heir of a wealthy family.

Dorritt edged away as her sister purred, "I do hope no one will be hurt today. Horse races can be so perilous." Jewell was fluttering her white egret feather fan against the heavy air already smothering them, the reason that the races were held early in the morning.

"Will you favor me with one of your ribbons to wear?" the wealthy young heir named André asked Jewell. "I'm sure I will win if you bestow your favor on me."

Dorritt felt the urge to gag. Most of the conversations she overheard were romantically exaggerated, devoid of any content. But she had a sudden insight. While most girls didn't debut until sixteen, Mr. Kilbride had insisted Jewell debut this year. Why? Was this part of his scheming?

Hastily, Dorritt turned, came face-to-face with the man she should have been watching out for. A recent widower with two children still in leading strings, he thought Dorritt was the answer to his need for a wife and stepmother. But she didn't want to get tangled up in those long ribbons on the toddlers' dresses. She tried to smile, repressing the urge to pick up her skirts and run.

Before he'd lost his wife, Dorritt had hoped she could persuade him to back her financially in her secret plan for independence. But now he viewed her as the quick solution to his problem of raising children alone. After all, Dorritt, at twentyfive,
was on the shelf a spinster. How could she afford to refuse an honest man's proposal?

She was saved by the horn announcing the start of the first race. She turned toward the track and hoped she could drift away from the widower before she was forced again to discourage him.

The persistent worry over what her stepfather was up tg the worry that had begun waking her up nights, tried to catch her, clench her again within its sharp teeth. She hurried forward, her pulse racing.I can't think of that now.