Sunday, May 31, 2009

Breathe - Chapter 1


(David C. Cook; New edition June 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

March 1883 Odessa tried to shove back the wave of fear as the slow suffocation began. It was too much, this long ride west. Three days they had been on cursed trains chugging across endless tracks—three days! Hours of dust and dark, choking smoke from the train, the sweet-sour body odor from fellow passengers. She could even smell herself, and the combined force seemed to pour sand in through her nose and down into her lungs, filling them, filling them like two sacks of concrete.

Her father had meant for her to chase the cure; instead, she was merely hastening her own demise.

“Odessa? Dess!” Dominic said, leaning forward in his seat.

“Moira, quick. Dampen this handkerchief.”

Odessa closed her eyes and concentrated on each breath, her brother’s voice, her sister’s movement. She willed herself not to panic, not to give in to the black demon that loomed over her. This was worse than before. The creature had moved in and around her, tormenting her as he sat upon her chest.

“Dess, here. You must take your laudanum. Just this once. You’ve made it this far; we’ll be there within hours.” Odessa could feel the cold stares of the people in the seats next to them as she sipped from the blue bottle. She knew she was not the only consumptive patient on this train, but the healthy passengers seemed to consider all of the consumptives a nuisance. She had not the strength to care at this point.

She had to keep herself from coughing.

To begin coughing was to never stop.

But her throat, the mucous, the tickle, the terrible desire to try and take a deep breath, to give it just one attempt, one huge cough to clear the way, to free her from the storm cloud that covered her now, roiling like a summer thunderhead. Oh God, she cried silently. I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Don’t let me die!

Visions of her little brothers filled her mind. Gasping piteously. Blue lips, blue fingernails, eyes rolling back in their heads. Michael, thirteen; Clifford, eleven; Earl, eight; tiny Fred, only three … “Dess,” Dominic said urgently. “Dess!”

She could feel herself sliding sideways, her head spinning. She knew it improper, such public loss of control, but she was helpless, giving in to the dark demon that was casting her about, twirling her about like a chicken on a spit.

Dominic picked her up in his arms and laid her gently on the floor between the seats. From far away, she could tell he was placing his coat beneath her head. She could feel the rough woolen fibers at her neck. But how was that possible? Spinning at this rate—

“Stay with us, Odessa St. Clair,” he called to her firmly. “We are almost there! Fight it! Fight back! Stay with us!”

It was as if he called to her from the mouth of a long, dark cave. Could he not see the monster? The demon cloud that was spiriting her away? How was she to fight such a thing? Why did they call it the White Death when it was dark, so dark?

The laudanum, the blessed drug, moved through her and began its soothing work. She did not wish to be the latest St. Clair invalid, wasting away of consumption, wasting away the family money, the family’s time, the family’s attentions. If she was not strong enough to chase the cure, she didn’t deserve it at all. She had to find it within her, the hope, the desire, hovering somewhere deep within. Was it even there any longer?

Moira returned to her side and placed a delicate white handkerchief over her nose and mouth, cool and light and smelling faintly of soap—clean, clear soap. It reminded Odessa of her mother, of years ago when she would come to Odessa’s sickroom to care for her, to nurse her back to health. She wanted to thank her sister, knowing this collapse was embarrassing her, embarrassing them all, but she could not find the breath to utter one word.

“Nic!” Moira said in alarm. Was she outside, floating away from Odessa? Or was Odessa floating away from them? Out of this train, out of her cave, breaking free?

“Is there a doctor on the train?” Dominic yelled. “Is there a doctor? Can anyone assist us?”

“You listen to me,” Dominic said lowly and fiercely in her ear, suddenly right beside her. “You are not going to die on this train. You are going to reach the sanatorium and regain your health. You have a life ahead of you, Odessa St. Clair. A life. Not as an invalid. But as a vital, healthy woman. You will know freedom. You will beat this curse on our family. We will be friends into our old age. Do you hear me? Do you hear me, Odessa?”

“Is there a doctor aboard this train?” Dominic yelled as he watched Odessa slip into unconsciousness. He looked down the aisle of the rocking, swaying train car, meeting the doleful glances of thirty other passengers. No one moved to help. Moira, his younger sister, wept behind her hand. Odessa grew more lax in his arms. Never had he felt so helpless. What had Father been thinking? He could barely keep himself out of trouble; he was supposed to watch over his sisters, too?

He rose, Odessa in his arms. “Is there anyone who can help us?” he cried.

Halfway down the car, a man rose, hat in hand, and a woman beside him. They hesitantly made their way toward the St. Clairs. Nic studied their faces, then saw the man’s collar. A preacher. Nic looked over his shoulder, hoping another was rising, a physician, a nurse, anyone. But no one moved.

“Not the doc you’re seeking, man,” said the tentative preacher. “But it looks like we’re the only ones. Why don’t you put your wife—”


“Put your sister down, and we’ll pray over her. Heading to the sanatorium, I take it? Best there is in these parts.”

“And not far,” put in his wife. “We’ll be there soon.”

Nic studied them a moment longer, then glanced down at Odessa in his arms and Moira on the floor in a heap. “Quit your weeping, Moira,” Nic hissed. “And get back on the seat. She’s not dead yet.” Her tears chafed at him, made him feel more helpless.

Moira only cried harder, but she rose and went back to the bench seat by the window as instructed. Nic gently set Odessa down beside her, head in Moira’s lap, then moved aside to let the preacher and his wife gain entrance to the bench seat facing them.

Moira kept crying, her slender shoulders shaking, one hand on her unconscious sister’s forehead, the other on the handkerchief dabbing at the corner of her eyes. Her face depicted the same horror Nic felt inside.

He pinched his temples between his third finger and thumb, trying to think his way out of this. “Use your brain as well as your brawn,” Father had said to him as they said good-bye in Philadelphia. “I’m counting on you as a St. Clair.” If he failed in this, failed his father again, here on the border of hope, if he failed his sisters … But try as he might, he could not think of what else to do.

“Nothing to do but pray,” said the preacher, staring up at him, waiting, as if reading his thoughts. The preacher’s wife stood beside him, silently seeking his permission with her eyes. Odessa was still deathly pale and her breathing now emerged as a tight, wavering whistle.

“No other option, I guess,” Nic groused. “Go to it.”

The preacher stared at him with eyes of understanding and pity. “It’s in God’s hands for sure, friend. Let’s ask Him to help her make it to the sanatorium. Let’s ask Him to restore her to life itself. Will you join us?”

Nic pulled back a little. “No. I mean, you do what you need to. I’ll … I’m going to go and ask the conductor how long until we reach the Springs.” He turned away and headed down the aisle.

The preacher’s wife handed Moira a clean handkerchief and patted her arm. “What’s her name?” she asked softly. There was something in her voice that soothed, warmed Moira. Something that reminded Moira of her own mother, dead and gone a year now.

“Odessa,” she whispered.

“Your older sister?”

Moira nodded. “By two years.” She smiled and stroked Odessa’s cheek. How many times, growing up, had Odessa held her, comforted her, nursed her when their mother had been so busy with the boys? “Do you think God will hear us?” she whispered, the woman’s face swimming through her tears. “That is, do you think He’ll actually save Odessa? I’ve never seen poorly.”

“I hope so,” the woman returned, reaching out to squeeze Moira’s hand. “All we can do is ask and hope. Hope.”

Moira glanced up to see her brother pacing, waiting to talk to the conductor, clearly not wanting to rejoin them. He had refused to go to church ever since their mother died, claimed he wanted nothing to do with a God who would rob them of so many dear ones.

Nic had gotten into trouble again and again; he’d even gone to jail for brawling. It had horrified her father, infuriated him. Nic claimed Moira’s incessant desire to perform, sing, had brought their father so low, but Moira thought Nic’s troubles and Odessa’s illness were the more likely cause.

Moira looked back down to Odessa, stared at her hard when she realized she wasn’t moving, wasn’t even taking the tiniest of breaths. “Odessa! Odessa!” she screamed. She cast desperate eyes toward her brother, and he came barreling back down the aisle. The preacher and his wife were on their knees beside Odessa, heads bowed, praying. Heart filled with dread, Moira forced herself to look back to her sister, terrified she’d see the same death mask steal over her lovely features as she’d seen on their brothers, their mother.

“Here, let me take her,” Dominic demanded, roughly squeezing between the preacher and his wife, pulling Odessa from Moira’s arms.

“Don’t be so rough, Nic!”

Nic ignored Moira and stared only at their sister. “You hold on, Odessa St. Clair. We are just minutes away. You hold on. This is where it begins, your new life. Wake up, wake up and see the mountains. See your new home. It’s beautiful, Dess. Beautiful. Wake up.”

Beat this curse. Fight it. Wake up. Odessa considered his words from far away, as if she were a judge hearing both sides of a case. She could give in to this demon, let it spirit her away, so her siblings could bury her at the foot of the towering Rockies and be free to open the bookshop, live their lives without her as a burden. Or she could find the sword at her side and strike back at the curse of her family, this dark cloud that had stolen her brothers, that now came back like a foraging, hungry monster seeking more sustenance from the St. Clair fields.

She could not tolerate that. She could not bear the thought of her father, so thin, aging so fast, coming west to simply attend her funeral. She longed for hope, for light to again settle into the lines of his face. To see a smile and not that dim look of desperation, defeat. I will fight, she thought. The words gave her strength. God almighty, You have the power of all in Your hands. Give me the strength to fight!

Odessa opened her eyes and then quickly closed them, blinded by the bright, clear sun shining through towering windows all about her. She had a vision of brilliant white and wondered for a moment if she had already landed in heaven. Recognizing that the tip of her nose and cheeks were very cold, and supposing that heaven was bound to be warm, not frosty, she chanced a second glance through squinting eyes.

She was on a covered porch, all painted in white, upon one of ten beds—only two others occupied—and covered in ivory sheets and blankets. A porch, a blessed porch, and off that cursed train! She saw that two windows on either side of the long porch were open, letting a cool draft wander past. But she was laden with heavy woolen blankets that were tucked neatly on either side of her, cocooned against the cold. And she was propped up against several pillows.

Outside, towering pines gave way to the majestic mountains, purple in the light of morning’s glow. One far outweighed all the others in girth and height; it had to be the famous Pikes Peak, the mountain that guided the way for the wagon trains heading west from as far away as Kansas.

They had made it. The St. Clairs had made it to Colorado.

She had survived, lived to awaken in the sanatorium where she might find the cure.

“Awake at last,” said a voice from down the porch.

Odessa turned her head, suddenly aware that she must look frightful. She tried to give an older man, also cocooned from the chest down in his own bed, a small smile. It was an odd situation, this. Being on a porch alone with two men, even at a distance of twenty feet.

“You’ve been here three days. Doubt you remember most of that.”

Odessa nodded and gave him a quick glance, not yet trusting her voice, uncertain of how to behave in such a foreign social situation. He was a small man, with a wild, wiry gray beard and eyebrows that appeared to be taking over his forehead. His eyes, sunken and darkrimmed from the consumption, were still alert, a spark of humor within.

He nodded at her, encouraging her to stay engaged. He seemed clearly bored with his hours of lying about. “Name’s Sam O’Toole,” he said. “I, too, came from Philly, but it’s been …” He paused to cough, a long, hacking process that Odessa tried not to listen to. It made her want to join him. And although she couldn’t take a long, deep breath, it was better than coughing and not stopping. She closed her eyes, tried to concentrate on the fact that she was alive, she hadn’t died on the train; she was in Colorado Springs....

“It’s been twenty years,” Sam continued at last. “I imagine it’s quite different now.” There was a note of sorrow, separation in his tone. He was quiet for a moment and then seemed to remember himself. “Our companion here is my neighbor from down south, Bryce McAllan.”

The other man, his cot set at an angle, was partially hidden by a canvas and easel.

Brown wavy hair. Kind eyes. He gave her a gentle smile and nod in greeting. He dabbed a brush in the paint somewhere that Odessa couldn’t see, laid his head back as if summoning the strength to move, and then lifted an arm to place the color upon the canvas. But then he looked her way again.

Where was the nurse? Her doctor? Her siblings?

“You need not respond to Sam’s idle chatter,” Bryce said. “We know your struggle well.” His smile faded and he returned his attention to the canvas. He dabbed his brush on the unseen palette, settled back among the pillows, took a few breaths, and then lifted his arm again toward the painting.

“We’ve met your brother and sister,” Sam said, then paused to cough again. He leaned his head back, exhausted from the effort, but couldn’t seem to stop himself from speaking. He pulled an age-spotcovered hand from beneath the covers and wiped his upper lip with a handkerchief. So he struggled with the fever, too. “Fine people. And I know your name is Odessa. I assume you know you arrived in Colorado Springs in the nick of time. They’ll be very glad to see you awake.”

Odessa moved a little and smelled the herbal poultice still upon her chest. Peppermint and sage and a deep, mossy scent that reminded her of the shady forest just after snowmelt. “My brother?”

“They’ll return soon, I’m certain. They’ve hardly left your side. Your sister appeared faint herself, so he left to take her back to the hotel. She’s been through an ordeal, between the journey west and their bedside vigil. Quite the beauty she is … almost as pretty as you, miss. If I was a few years younger—” He paused to cough and Odessa dared to glance his way, and further, to Bryce.

She fought the urge to squirm, touch her hair. She knew that he, too, was comparing her to Moira. She concentrated on the view outside instead. No wonder he painted it. Cloaked in springtime snow, the mountains were magnificent.

Bryce cleared his throat. His lungs sounded good, the way hers sounded on her best days. But she had seen the sheen of sweat upon his brow, how he leaned back among the pillows from the mere exertion of painting. She wondered so many things, how long he had been here, how many other patients there were...

Old Sam kept coughing, sitting up now to try to get on top of it. As if reading her agitation, Bryce set down his brush and settled long, strong fingers around a glass bell. It looked desperately dainty and a bit silly in his big hand. She met his eyes, wide and blue, and then noticed his hair was streaked, his face weathered, as if he had spent many summers in the sun. He smiled, and his eyes crinkled again at the corners appealingly.

He was handsome. Terribly thin, but handsome. And only a few years older than she.

Blessedly, the nurse arrived then. “Oh!” she cried in delight. “Miss St. Clair, you’re awake! The doctor will be so pleased. Let me go and fetch you some water—no doubt you are parched—oh, and Sam, you too …” She turned back to Odessa. “I’ll make the doctor aware of your condition.”

“Thank you,” Odessa croaked.

“Not at all,” said the nurse with a bob of her head, and with that she hurried out as quickly as she had arrived.

“Nurse Packard,” Sam managed, still coughing as he grinned Odessa’s way. “A saint in white.”

“Everything is white around here,” Bryce muttered.

A few minutes later, the nurse arrived with a pewter pitcher that was sweating from the blessedly cool contents within, and a tin mug. She poured a cup and set it against Odessa’s lips. “There now, just a few sips. All right, one more. I know you must be terribly thirsty. But we must take it easy. We don’t want it coming right back up now, do we?”

Odessa closed her eyes and pushed back a frown at the woman’s words. She concentrated on the cold liquid she could feel slide all the way down her throat, easing, soothing, calming.

Nurse Packard set the mug on the table beside her, and Odessa noticed that she, too, had a bell beside her bed. “I’ll return with the doctor,” she said, and with another bob of her head, was gone.

“They’ll bring food at some point,” said Bryce. “More food than you’ve ever seen in your life. I’ve gained ten pounds in my two weeks here.”

Odessa said nothing, thinking only of how perilously thin he must have been if he was already ten pounds heavier.

“Are you from the East as well, Mr. McAllan?” she said at last.

“Betrayed by the accent, eh? Bangor. But I’ve been in Colorado for five years running our horse ranch near Sam’s land,” he said easily. “It’s in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. Have you heard of the Sangres?”

She shook her head.

“The way they rise off the valley floor, it makes these mountains appear as princes to their kings.”

“They are taller than Pikes Peak?”

“Ten that rival her. Another couple of dozen not far short of reaching her height. But it’s more that there is one after another, marching together as if in some grand parade.”

“It sounds magnificent,” Odessa said.

Odessa heard no response from Bryce. She imagined he was irritated with the doctor’s patronizing manner. But she understood his motivation. If they were to be ensconced in beds, all together as men and women … it was highly unorthodox.

“Is there not a separate porch for women?” she asked gently.

The doctor shook his head with a small smile and reached out a hand for hers. “I am Doctor Morton, Miss St. Clair. Forgive our arrangements, but we have twenty-two patients and only five of them are women. We are nearly at capacity. There is little choice but to intermingle our patients.”

“Only five women? How is that possible?”

He gave her another small smile and a shrug of his narrow shoulders as Nurse Packard brought him a chair on which to sit. “You’re in the West now. We have a preponderance of men, all intent on seeking their fortunes. And here, mining, ranching, farming, all subject them to uncommon levels of dust, weakening their lungs. They are primed for consumption. And others arrive from the East—those from coal mines or printer’s shops. Still more that have lived in the shadows of factory smokestacks. We receive them all.”

He took some papers from the nurse and gazed down at them. “I’ve seen to your welfare since you arrived on the train. We were expecting you, of course, but had hoped you would not arrive in such dire straits.” He looked her in the eye. “It is fortunate you arrived when you did, Miss St. Clair.”

“I am aware of that. Do you … do you believe you can help me? Heal me?”

Doctor Morton smiled more broadly and patted her hand. “We have brought you this far, haven’t we? Back from death’s door? I see no reason why you won’t enjoy a complete recovery and live a long life. But it will probably have to be here, near the sanatorium, in case you experience any setbacks.”

Odessa stared at him for a long moment. “I can—I can never go back? To Philadelphia?”

Doctor Morton’s face sobered. “I would advise against it. I tell all my patients to settle here, make this your home.” His eyes slid over to the men at the end of the porch and back again. He was quiet for a moment, carefully choosing his next words. “Your father did not tell you? I was quite clear about it.”

Odessa barely shook her head, aghast when her eyes began to fill with tears. Papa had sent her off, sent her off knowing he might never see her again, that she might never return to him. How could he? How could he?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rose House - Chapter 1

Rose House

WaterBrook Press (May 5, 2009)

Chapter 1

It seemed to be a cottage that was alive, but it was only the vines twining in on themselves and clinging to the structure that were living, not unlike the memories and feelings people had attached to the house over time, making it mean more than mere sticks, pieces of wood, nails, and peeling paint could ever imply on their own.

The camera zoomed out to trace the rose brambles wrapping along the awning, curling over the banister and into the flowering borders along one side of the porch.The rest of the house gradually came into view, filling
the scene with an abundance of roses in shades of scarlet draping the windows like curtains, then rambling across the roof, around the chimney and sweeping to the edges of the house, where they seemed to reach
out their thorny branches toward passersby.

The lens didn’t capture the woman’s form at first as it swept away from the house down toward the yard and footpath with its border of snow white Shasta daisies and purple coneflowers. It leisurely zoomed in on a mass of daisies, capturing the breeze that sent an occasional ripple through the border, until the camera was forced to pause at the surprise interruption: a foot that intruded on the otherwise perfect scene.

To the artist behind the lens it was an exquisitely formed foot with a milky white ankle and pink-painted toenails. The lens suddenly tightened its view to capture the sandal decorated with pink and white pearlescent beads and a delicate pink ribbon that wound around the ankle and tied neatly above the heel.

The camera’s focus rose to the hem of a white peasant skirt that billowed softly in the breeze. Traveling upward, the lens skimmed long sleeves of gauzy blue adorned with tiny silver beads that crisscrossed both shoulders, edging along the neckline where beads dangled from the ends of a pink ribbon tie. The camera paused on a silver cross pendant that sparkled with the morning sunrise, glinting off the red jewel nested in the center.Moving up her profile, the lens traced blond tendrils escaping from beaded combs that held back her amber-streaked hair threatening to tumble from a loosely arranged bun. The lens paused, studying the dampness of her flushed cheeks, the unsteady rhythmto which her shoulders rose and fell, how her slight body slumped forward just a little, as if she might throw herself at the mercy of the house.

She straightened, startled,when a succession of clicks broke the silence surrounding the Rose House. Rather abruptly, the lens zoomed out. She was looking directly into the camera. More clicks. Her reddened eyes
grew wide as she turned unexpectedly and ran down the path toward the main house of the Frances-DiCamillo Vineyards.

The camera zoomed in on her departing figure, following her for a moment, capturing in its lens the way her glossy hair slipped fromits bun and cascaded over her shoulders. After a few more clicks, the lens panned
back to the house, zooming in on a flawless, wine-colored blossom. It was a perfect rose, a work of art.


Lillian dropped her camera into INTOher pocket. She had thought she was alone, but someone else was there, taking pictures of the Rose House—and of her. Ice encircled the nape of her neck as she recalled the words of the investigators.

“You probably shouldn’t be alone until we have this figured out,” they had said. But she’d gone against their advice, not even telling them she was taking a trip alone to La Rosaleda.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jillian Dare: A Novel - Chapter 1

Jillian Dare: A Novel

Revell (May 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Life is full of surprises: some kissed by joy, others stabbed by sorrow. My own life had experienced more of the latter in its brief span. I was, therefore, embarking on a new job and a new situation with an ambivalence borne of hopeful anticipation and cautious dread.

The first surprise on my journey was the deer that suddenly leaped out of the woods and across the roadway. I slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid hitting it. I must confess that my fear of auto accidents borders on phobic.

My little Honda Civic lurched and stalled.

“Great,” I muttered as I fiddled with the ignition, and then I looked up. I sucked in my breath and exhaled loudly. “Oh my . . .”

Emerging from the tree-lined boulevard across a vast lawn, Carter Plantation sprawled before me—a gracious three-storied brick Federal mansion with a portico supported by white Doric columns. On either side of the central building spread identical two-storied wings in that perfect balance typical of the Georgian style.

What wasn’t typical was the sheer size of it all. I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a large house before—and I was on my way to work there. I had accepted a job as a nanny to Cadence Remington, a little toddler of thirteen months, an age I felt perfectly competent to manage. But this enormous house was more than I had bargained for. The image of Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music, cowed by her first glimpse of the von Trapp mansion, flashed into my mind. As I slipped my car into gear, I tentatively and then more boldly sang Maria’s tune, “I have confidence in confidence alone!”

Driving up to the mansion, I recalled my job interview at the Strasbourg Inn just a week earlier when I had met a small elderly woman with soft white wooly hair and bright blue eyes. She looked as huggable as a lamb and smelled faintly of lilacs.

“You must be Jillian,” she had said warmly, extending her hand.

I had grasped it firmly. “Mrs. Remington?” I asked with some confusion.

She laughed lightly—her laughter had a pleasant musical sound like wind chimes. “No, dear. I’m Mrs. Carter. I should have introduced myself. I’m Elise, Ethan Remington’s aunt.”

I hadn’t meant to frown, but I must have looked puzzled because Mrs. Carter added, “Ethan asked me to conduct the interview for him today. His work keeps him very busy. He’s the founder and CEO of his own international company—Remington Telecommunications or RemTel—you’ve heard of it?”

I nodded.

“Much of his business is in the UK, so he travels quite a lot. His father was British, and the Remingtons still own an estate over in England.”

This explained the enticing part of the job description I had read at the agency, calling for a nanny willing to travel to England. That was what had really appealed to me, a young woman who had never been farther away than the beaches of Delaware but who had, nevertheless, procured a passport just in case the opportunity to travel presented itself.

“You see,” she continued to explain, “both of his parents have passed on, so everything has fallen on him. But with his business to run and two estates to manage, he really can’t do it all on his own. It’s just too much. That’s why I’m tasked with the interview.”

“And Mrs. Remington?”

Mrs. Carter shook her head mournfully. “I’m sorry to say Mrs. Remington is no longer with us.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I murmured. How dreadful for Mr. Remington to have lost so many loved ones! “That’s so sad for him and for his daughter.”

“Yes, yes, it is very sad. A terrible business.” She sighed heavily. “It’s a mercy the baby is so young and doesn’t know any better. Poor Ethan has been a single father practically since she was born, which is why we must have a full-time nanny. I’m just getting too old to be chasing a toddler around the house all day.”

Mrs. Carter brightened. “Now if you decide to take the job, your contract states you will have afternoons and three evenings a week off, plus a full weekend every month. I’ll try to give you lots of privacy, and I think you’ll find your rooms quite nice. And you should know that Ethan is very generous to his staff. He’ll pay your social security, health insurance, and your travel expenses. And he’ll put money in an IRA for you too. We’ll have the month trial period, but I do hope you’ll be happy with us and everything works out.”

She paused and went on cautiously, “I thought Caroline, our former nanny, was happy, but then she quit quite suddenly. I’m not sure why, but it left us high and dry.”

“It all sounds perfect to me,” I said. “But, Mrs. Carter, I’m sure you’d like to ask me some questions first.”

“Oh yes, yes, of course. Now let me see . . .” She rummaged around in an enormous black handbag until she pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “Here it is!” She laughed as if delighted with a wonderful discovery. “All of Ethan’s questions.”

And with that, Mrs. Carter conducted the interview and promptly hired me for a one-month trial period, which brought me to this moment of singing, “I have confidence in me!” as I pulled up to the portico of the mansion. I breathed a silent prayer, mounted the stairs with all the confidence I could muster, and rang the bell. I endured a very long wait while that confidence began to evaporate.

Suddenly the door swung wide and there stood Mrs. Elise Carter.

“Jillian!” she cried. “Do come in. I’m sorry to keep you waiting so long. We rarely use this door. We all park around back near the kitchen and come in that way.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Carter. I can move my car.”

“No, no. We can take care of that later. I’ll ask Jack to move it and carry your things to your rooms. Now please come in and make yourself at home.” She stepped back for me to enter and opened her arms in greeting. “Welcome to Carter Plantation, Jillian! We’re so glad you’re here.”

“Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here.”

“Do you need to freshen up, my dear? There’s a powder room just down the hall. And after that, could I get you something to drink? Some sweet tea, perhaps?”

I gratefully accepted both offers and was astonished that Mrs. Carter bustled about until I was comfortably sipping iced tea on the veranda under the portico roof. I wasn’t certain what to expect on my arrival at Carter Plantation, but I hadn’t expected to be treated as a guest.

Mrs. Carter settled into a wicker chair opposite mine. “There now. I love to sit out here when the weather’s nice. Isn’t this a grand view?”

I agreed that it was. The prospect looked over the gently sloping lawn to the boulevard lined with trees sporting their autumn cloaks of scarlet and orange against a brilliant azure sky. The periwinkle shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains loomed in the distance beyond the rolling hills of Fauquier County in northern Virginia. Although it was October, the bright sun of an Indian summer afternoon spread along the veranda, and I lifted my face gratefully to its warmth.

“I never tire of this view,” Mrs. Carter said cheerfully as she sipped her tea. “I was so blessed to marry into the Carter family. You know, Carter Plantation has been in this family for generations—ever since Robert ‘King’ Carter was granted about half of Virginia from King George II back in the colonial days.”

Now I really was confused. “I thought Mr. Remington . . .”

Mrs. Carter’s laughter chimed. “Oh, the estate does belong to Mr. Remington now, but it’s still in the Carter family. You see, my sister-in-law was Ethan’s mother. His full name is Ethan Carter Remington. Sadly, my dear husband and I were never blessed with children. So when George passed away, he willed the house to Ethan. But since Ethan travels so much, he’s happy to leave me in charge here. And of course, he wants me here to look after Cadence while he’s away.”

“Mrs. Carter,” I asked, “what is Cadence like? Could you please tell me a little more about her?”

“Oh yes! She’s a darling, precious little girl.” Her face lit up. “Very precocious and curious and absolutely delightful. She’s very energetic, though, and I just can’t keep up with her—even with Jack and his wife, Marta, to help. But Cadence is the joy of my life! Really, of everyone’s life, especially Ethan’s. My, how he dotes on her! By the way, Cadence is napping now. So you arrived at just the right time, because I’m quite at leisure to show you around the house.”

Mrs. Carter rose, and I followed her about the mansion, trying to process all the information she poured forth as well as to orient myself so I would not lose my way later. The Carters had fastidiously maintained the integrity and elegance of the original Federal era structure. The more modern additions had every contemporary convenience without compromising the overall architectural harmony.

I could barely contain my delight when shown my own set of rooms. My own rooms! And not just one—but a suite complete with private bath, sitting room, and fully equipped kitchenette. Although I could enter the apartment from the main house, I also had my own separate entrance, which opened on to a patio overlooking the gardens in the back.

“We hope you’ll take most of your meals with the family,” Mrs. Carter was saying as I ran my hand over the shining teakettle in the kitchenette. “But if you prefer not to, especially on your evenings off, we’ve tried to make everything as comfortable as possible for you. Whatever suits you. By the way, Ethan has everything wired so that you have your own cable television and a laptop computer.” She paused for a moment then asked almost anxiously, “So, Jillian, how do you like it?”

How could I explain to this sweet woman, who was so eager to please, that I could be satisfied with very little? Having grown up in a progression of foster homes, I had never had a room of my own—let alone an apartment. I looked around the cheerful, well-appointed au pair suite and exclaimed truthfully, “Oh, Mrs. Carter, I love it!”

“I’m so glad.” She beamed at me with genuine pleasure. “There’s one more thing. Let me show you how the security alarm works.” Leading me over to a control panel, she demonstrated how to check that the system was operating.

I paid close attention. I was accustomed to living out in the country, but in the Shenandoah Valley, even the wealthiest people seldom locked their doors, and I mentioned something to that effect.

“I know, I know,” Mrs. Carter replied. “We didn’t lock our doors either when I lived here all those years with George. But after those teenagers murdered that doctor up in Loudoun County, Ethan insisted on putting in this system. If anyone tampers with the doors or windows, the police are automatically alerted. I suppose since he’s gone so much, he worries about little Cadence.”

She glanced down at her wristwatch. “Now we just have time for you to meet the household staff.”

She led the way to the kitchen and introduced me to Jack and Marta Thornfield, an affable couple in their late fifties or early sixties, who managed the house and grounds and lived across the yard in a renovated cottage beside the garage and stables. Jack stood tall and wiry while Marta was plump and doughy. Jack Spratt and his wife—that’s the mental image I could hang his name on. But Marta would be harder to remember. Mrs. Carter interrupted my thoughts, explaining that a cleaning crew as well as a gardener came in several times a week for the heavier chores.

As we chatted in the kitchen, a handsome black Labrador retriever rose from his bed near the stone fireplace and approached me, wagging his tail with friendly curiosity. He sniffed my shoes and I held out the back of my hand for him to investigate before venturing to pet him.

“This is Ranger, Ethan’s dog,” Mrs. Carter said.

“He’s beautiful,” I murmured as I ran my hand over his thick coat. “I love labs. They’re so good-natured.”

“Seems you meet with his approval too. I’m glad you like dogs. But we should finish our tour. It’s time you met Cadence.”

I followed her back to my wing of the house and the nursery suite next door to mine. She tapped lightly on the closed door and opened it to a playroom painted in bright primary colors. A pretty teenaged girl with straight shoulder-length blond hair slouched on a sofa. She looked up from her reading as we entered.

“Hello, Corinne,” Mrs. Carter cheerfully greeted the girl. “Meet our new nanny, Jillian Dare. Jillian, this is our babysitter, Corinne Cooke. She comes over every weekday afternoon during the baby’s naptime and keeps an eye on her until supper. That will give you a few hours every day to yourself.”

“Hi, Corinne,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”

Corinne eyed me. Did I note a look of disdain or was it just bored indifference? I guessed she wouldn’t be very impressed with my lack of stylishness. Although I was only a few years her senior, I had tamed my curly waist-length light brown hair by braiding it and twisting it into a neat bun. I had also carefully chosen my outfit to reflect a serious, mature professional. I wore a long gray jersey skirt and a modest royal blue sweater set, which would enhance the blue of my eyes. I’m never sure how to fill in the blank on forms requesting the color of my eyes. They are an indeterminate and constantly shifting color—gray, green, or blue. Like the color of the sea that reflects the sky, my eyes reflect what I’m wearing.

The babysitter grunted a return greeting and gathered up her schoolbooks, which had been scattered over the couch. “Should I wake up Cadence now?” she asked.

Mrs. Carter checked her watch. “Yes, dear. Why don’t you? If she naps too late, we’ll never get her to sleep tonight. Plus I’d like for Jillian to meet her.”

While Corinne went into the adjoining room to wake the child, Mrs. Carter pointed out the amenities of the nursery suite. The layout was identical to mine with a kitchenette, but entirely childproofed and looking much like a well-equipped preschool. The playroom contained a child-sized table and chairs, a flat-screen television with a DVD player, and organized bins and shelves full of toys, puzzles, books, and craft supplies. Evidently a tremendous amount of thought and care had gone into designing this nursery suite.

Mrs. Carter mentioned that Mr. Remington’s rooms connected to Cadence’s bedroom, just as mine connected to the nursery sitting room.

“He likes to be able to check on her easily when he’s home, but unfortunately he does travel a lot. You have a monitor in your apartment so that you can hear her if she should wake in the middle of the night, and we also have monitors throughout the house. Ah, here is our little darling!” she exclaimed as Corinne carried the toddler into the playroom.

And Cadence was a little darling—huge blue eyes, dark curly hair, and pudgy cheeks. At first she shyly hid her face in Corinne’s shoulder, but when she was put down it only took a few minutes for her to warm up to me and to begin to bring me toy “gifts,” plopping them in my lap.

She won my heart in no time, and I hoped that I would quickly win hers. The expense and consideration that had gone into her care made me wonder even more about her father and when I would be introduced to him. My curiosity about the owner of Carter Plantation would not be satisfied for another two weeks—and even after I met him, Mr. Remington remained a mystery to me for quite some time.

I actually first made his acquaintance in cyberspace. After dinner and Cadence’s bedtime, I began to put away my few belongings and acclimate myself to my new rooms. Beside the computer, I discovered a set of instructions for activating my “nanny” email account. When I logged in, I was surprised to find two messages in the inbox. The first was from Ethan, my boss and Cadence’s father.

Dear Miss Dare:

Welcome to Carter Plantation. I am pleased you have decided to take care of my daughter and trust we will work well together providing for her needs. I hope you have found everything to your satisfaction. Please let me know if there is anything lacking in your accommodation or provision. I plan to return to Virginia in a fortnight’s time. In the meantime, feel free to contact me via email with any questions or concerns you may have. In case of emergency, you may call my mobile phone. My aunt has the number.

Best regards,

Ethan Remington
Although his email was appropriately businesslike in tone, I felt pleased that my new boss had been thoughtful enough not only to provide me with a computer and email account but also to be solicitous of my needs.

The second message also had the RemTel domain address. The sender’s name appeared simply as CC. The subject line read “Nanny.” Surprised, I decided I should open it. The three words all in capital letters on the otherwise blank page made my stomach flip.


Instinctively, I whipped my head around. Of course, nobody was there. How silly of me. But who would write such a thing? And how did they have my address?

I rapidly hit the delete button and shut down the computer. Rising quickly, I slipped through the connecting door and crossed the nursery sitting room to check on Cadence. She was sleeping soundly, and the baby monitor seemed to be working properly. I locked her hallway door from the inside, and when I returned to my suite, I locked mine as well. Next, I tried the door to the outside patio to make sure it too was securely locked. After checking that the security alarm was working, I peered under the bed and in the closets and opened the shower curtain.

While I dressed for bed, I puzzled over the mystery message. Who could CC be? So far I’ve met only Marta, Jack, and of course, Mrs. Carter. Could Elise Carter possibly be CC? She hardly seems the type to send threatening emails. But was it a threat or a warning? She mentioned that in the next county some teenagers had killed a doctor. The thought of teenagers brought the babysitter Corinne to mind. What’s her last name? Cooke. Corinne Cooke. Could she be CC? And what about the former nanny—Caroline? Then again, there must be hundreds of employees who work for RemTel and have access to their email account. But why would anyone send me such a message?

My mind whirled and I tried to reason myself out of my fears. Placing a flashlight and the phone within reach on my bed table, I left on a nightlight and lay on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin until I finally fell asleep

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ulterior Motives by Mark Andrew Olsen

Ulterior Motive

Bethany House (March 1, 2009)


Mark Andrew Olsen

Chapter 1

The boy's outline danced across the razor-thin crosshairs of a spotting scope. Trying to follow its exuberant path caused the hidden watcher to grit his teeth in frustration. Even the finest military-grade optics could not keep his lens focused on the youngster's manic figure. The child would not quit leaping out of view, veering away, seized by peals of laughter.

The excitement was understandable. It was, after all, Robby Cahill's sixth birthday party.

At last, the boy paused to catch his breath. Just as quickly the intruder took advantage of the interval to reacquire the young body in his sights and bore in on his tousled head. He lingered over those eyes, glowing green in the sunlight. Cheeks ruddy as an apple. Sandy hair swaying in a leaf-scented breeze.

Good, he thought. Almost within range.

The intruder's stealth grew more pronounced with every passing second. The closer he crawled beneath layers of concealing leaves and shrubbery, the more he worried about early detection—an inadvertent reflection from the scope, a stray glint of light which could instantly give him away.

The man wouldn't let that happen. He was too good for that. Too experienced.

And today the stakes were too high.


Neither Robby nor his mother, Donna, could see the man, but they each suspected, in their own silent ways, that he might be near. Only brief, sidelong glances betrayed their suspicions. And yet they had no idea he'd already made it so close to their location, inching toward them through the underbrush.

The very potential of his presence had brought the police cruiser there, idling beside the curb in the shade of Armstrong Park's vast hundred-year-old magnolia tree. It was the reason for the drawn, tight mouth of the boy's mother. And for the unusually terse nature of her comments to the other boys' mothers. Donna Cahill was taking no chances.


At that moment, the intruder was in fact less than one hundred twenty yards away from the birthday party, slithering through a cluster of pungent rosemary bushes under an improvised mat of native twigs and leaves. He wore camouflage perfectly suited to the ground cover, selected on several reconnoitering trips the week before. His face and lips were covered in carefully applied swirls of camo paint. Even his army boots were smeared with dark polish to prevent any shine and to blend into the terrain.

The man was so well concealed that the boy might have stepped on his back without ever seeing him, without even a second's awareness that anyone was underfoot.

The factors capable of betraying his presence ticked through his mind in a cascade of crucial data. Time, brightness, temperature, wind, sun position—each contributed to the play of light upon him. He had chosen the shadow of these bushes for the angle and blending of illumination they would provide at this time of day. His mind continually monitored the exact position of both key persons—Robby and Donna—to make sure he did not move while they were facing his way. Fortunately, there were no dogs about; one of the worst threats to a well-hidden asset. He had nothing left but unobstructed brush to traverse before reaching the perfect position.

He kept the mother firmly planted in his peripheral vision. She ranked first on his list of vigilant, even paranoid, observers of whom to beware. He knew she would be looking for him. He also knew that she remembered what kinds of areas to watch. Indeed, the woman knew more than most folks did about sniper stealth tactics. Fortunately for him, she had been eyeballing the trees all morning rather than the ground, distracted by her knowledge that most people rarely looked upward, and that as a result leafy canopies made the ideal approach route.

Luckily for him, she now seemed engrossed in chatting with the other mothers over by the picnic tables. Better still, her glances around the park had grown more and more sporadic. He reckoned that she might be, at last, entertaining the prospect that he might not be here after all. And yet, he could tell, she was also wrestling with a vague, emerging awareness of his presence.

He wriggled one more foot closer. The boy would be in range soon. He reached into a side pocket and extricated the tool he had chosen for the mission.


"Donna, you seem tense," said the mother of Robby's best friend. "Is everything okay?"

"Nothing unusual," replied the party's hostess with a quick world-weary grin. "Just a little tired."

"I was wondering about the police car," the mother persisted. "Are you sure there isn't anything we should be worrying about?"

"No!" she responded, a bit too emphatically. "There's nothing for you to worry about. It's, uh, just a new regulation . . . something about private parties on city property. Gotta pay for police protection."

"I didn't know that," said her friend. "It's just that you seem on edge today."

Donna Cahill looked down at the ungarnished hot-dog bun in her hands and sighed. "Nothing new. You know how parties are. No matter how well you think you've prepared, there's always something that goes wrong at the last minute."

"Don't I know it," the woman laughed.

Donna shook her head. "Good thing the kids are clueless about what we go through," she said, "or no one would have any fun at all."

Twenty yards away, little Robby Cahill was also looking around for signs. He had seen none, but then he'd been playing hard with his friends. Star Wars Jedi combat, laser tag, and even Transformers, stomping around the yard and growling as pretend robots.

But his gaze kept drifting back to the sidelines, scanning for a glimpse.

Suddenly the event he'd waited all morning for happened. His eyelashes flickered against a blinding assault, and he winced. A small flare of light glittered in his retinas, washing out his world. Robby knew right away what it was, and that it was too strong and steady to be an accidental reflection from a passing car. Robby shielded his eyes with an uplifted hand.

Then he jumped high in the air and squealed.

He started running toward the light. He giggled loudly, pumping his arms and stocky legs like a superhero.

Donna screamed and lunged for the boy. Her fingers grazed his waist but failed to capture him.

"Stop him!" she shouted in the direction of the police car. "It's him! It's him!"

The police car's engine switched off. The door flew open, and a young officer jumped out and sprinted across the grass, fingers fumbling with his gun holster.

Seventy yards away, the ground erupted in a flurry of upward motion. The bushes flung debris up and around a figure that rose from their midst. Leaves and branches flew about the standing man, who was clad in shades of green.

Running to catch up, Donna fell to her knees, transfixed at the bizarre sight. Her breathing stopped and her heart seemed to flutter to a halt in her chest. For a moment, the sight struck her as an apparition disgorged by the earth itself, like some gnarled creature of soil and root.

The man stood and extended his arms, hands empty to the sky.

Robby Cahill kept on running, his face contorted with emotion. His mouth opened and a shout ripped forth from his heaving lungs.

"Daddy! Daddy!"

Beloved Counterfeit - Chapter 1

Beloved Counterfeit

Barbour Publishing, Inc (May 2009)


Kathleen Y'Barbo

Chapter 1

July 1819

O’Connor Plantation, Jamaica

“You were supposed to be watching.”

“I have been. Not a ship’s approached.” Claire O’Connor turned at the sound of her sister’s voice and held up the most special shell in her basket of prizes. “I found some sand dollars. Come and look. This one’s the biggest yet.”

“No, I don’t want to see them.” Opal hurdled over the small dune and bounded toward Claire. “You weren’t watching, either. He’s back.”

Looking toward the horizon, Claire spied nothing but low-hanging clouds and a sun hot enough to shrivel all that it touched. With no slaver in sight, the only reason for the announcement was obvious. “Papa?”

“Yes, Papa. Who else?”

“He couldn’t be.” Claire set her basket down carefully, making sure not to spill the shells she’d spent the morning collecting. “If Mama had expected Papa to return, she’d certainly have sent away her gentleman friend.”

That’s what Mama made her and Opal call them, but none of the fellows who climbed the stairs of the big house while Papa was away ever looked like gentlemen to Claire. And they certainly weren’t friendly.

Most of them weren’t, anyway.

“Now, come on over here and help me look,” Claire said. “I don’t think I’ve seen this many sand dollars on the beach since the big storm blew over last fall.”

No explanation of their destination was required as nine-year-old Opal raced across the sand to catch Claire’s wrist and give it a jerk. “I think Papa killed this one.”

“Don’t be silly,” Claire said, even as her heart thudded against her ribs.

Though Claire was almost a full year older, her sister’s legs were already longer so keeping up took some effort. By the time she reached their secret hiding place beneath the front steps, Opal had already lifted the loose board and shinnied inside.

The hurricane that was their father’s voice rose and fell like heat waves and blew past toward the dry expanse of land that tumbled downhill toward the beach. By contrast, their mother’s bird-like responses chirped across the storm with all the effect of a whisper in a gale. Words like slave and bankrupt and oaths against the monarchy and Parliament bounced past, all just a part of what they’d heard from Papa since the news that the slavers would be arrested should they dare bring their cargo into Caribbean waters.

Thus far, nothing had been said about what went on while Papa was at sea. Perhaps things weren’t as bad as Opal claimed.

Claire pressed her finger over her lips to hush her sister, then crept toward the parlor window. She might have risen up to look inside had something not whizzed past her head and landed in the yard, sending Claire racing back to the steps. A glance over her shoulder told her the object was the sparkling necklace Mama had put on for the first time this morning.

“Hurry up,” Opal called in an urgent whisper. “You can’t let him see you.”

“I’m not afraid of him,” she blustered even as her trembling fingers refused to take instruction. Claire let out a long breath. “He can’t get you here. He can’t get either of us.”

Finally, the board slipped back into place, and Opal hauled Claire back. They cowered against the rocky foundation in a spot the pair had claimed as their own so long ago neither remembered who found it first.

“’Sides, he’s mad at King George again, not Mama,” Claire added. A reminder to herself and her sister that, no matter who took the blame, someone or something other than them generally started the ruckus.

“Tommy says the slaves are gonna kill us in our sleep,” Opal whispered. “He said he hears things when he’s on the ship with his papa.” She paused. “Evil things.”

“I told you to stay away from that boy,” Claire hissed.

“He’s nice, Claire, and I’ll not hear another word about him.”

“You will so.” Claire held her tongue a moment. “’Cause if I find out you’ve been talking to him, I’ll tell Mama.” Another pause to appreciate Opal’s gasp. “No,” she said slowly, “I’ll tell Papa.”

Opal put on her stubborn look and let loose of Claire’s arm. She’d hit on a sore subject, sure enough, but she’d not be the one to make things right again. As the older sister, it fell to Claire to keep Opal from things that would hurt her.

And keeping company with a boy whose papa supplied half the Caribbean with slaves could lead to nothing but trouble. The fact he was some years older and had already begun to sprout whiskers didn’t seem to matter to Opal, but to Claire it meant soon he’d be just like Papa and the others who called themselves grown men.

Claire rubbed the spot on her leg that still plagued her when she stepped on it wrong. Every bruise she got was another reminder of what grown men were capable of.

“Tommy said his papa would take us far away from here.”

For just a moment, the idea tempted. Far Away. It was a place where her dreams took her, though she never expected her feet would ever land on the spot.

“I don’t like him, Opal,” Claire whispered. “Bad things happen on his papa’s ship, so we can never sail upon it. And he calls me Ruby Red, though he knows I hate that.”

Heavy footsteps thundered overhead, signaling the brawl had moved from a respectable inside spat to a potentially public one. Claire’s heart sunk. Those were always the worst, and it was either Opal or she and not Mama who would likely bear the scars of the day’s battle.

“Don’t leave me, Claire,” Opal whispered as she scooted closer.

“Never, ever,” Claire said.

“Vow it,” her sister said so softly Claire almost missed the words.

Claire held up her pinky and Opal did the same. Linking trembling fingers took some work, but they managed. “I vow it,” they whispered in unison even as their father’s shouts nearly covered up the statements.

A determination welled up in Claire as Papa’s footsteps faded. Despite the fact their combined age didn’t add up to twenty, she’d leave this place soon enough and take Opal with her. And as the big sister, she’d surely see that nothing happened to Opal ever again.

Right then and there she promised it—swore it before the Lord who the Methodists down in Port Royal called on every Sunday—even as the footsteps turned and headed back their direction.


November 1828

Galveston, Texas

Nine years later, and Claire could still remember the day Papa hauled her and Opal from under the stairs. Likely she always would, for every time she lifted her dress, the scars reminded her. Most times, however, the gentlemen didn’t notice. She, in turn, tried not to notice they weren’t gentlemen at all.

It was an agreement between them, this mutual ignorance of plain fact. A bargain struck in coin and flesh that promised should they pass on the street neither would acknowledge the other.

Yet here in this rented room with the window shut against the sea breeze and the curtains closed to the prying eyes of anyone who might be strolling by, names were whispered and secrets shared. Sometimes she played the old piano jammed against the far wall, but most times it remained silent once the lamps were turned low.

Much as she hated what transpired here, Claire nonetheless entertained banker and businessman, politician and policeman, and others whose names and employment she never knew. During the day, the same rented room hosted children whose mamas insisted they learn to sing a fine tune or play the piano.

To these children, she was Miss Claire. To their mothers, she was Miss O’Connor. More than one of their fathers, however, called her endearments that would scorch the ears of any who listened.

All of it, she endured rather than experienced. It was how she managed. Perhaps it always had been.

Claire sighed even as she waited for the door to close and the heavy footsteps to fade into silence. When the clock struck the hour, another would arrive, so she hurried to set herself and the room to rights.

It bore hard on her that she’d found no other way to supplement the pittance she made teaching, but time would be kind to them, of this she was sure. She just had to get through the next hour. Then the next day and week, and eventually time would pass—and so would their situation.

In the meantime, Opal and all the respectable wives and daughters of Galveston would know Claire O’Connor as a woman who taught piano lessons in a rented room above the Cotton Exchange and kept to herself in the little row house three blocks from the ocean.

Sitting at the piano to play helped Claire pass the time and gave anyone within hearing distance the idea she had another lesson. She played louder, faster, and with more abandon than she’d played in ages.

Tonight, she felt different. As if something were about to happen. Something big. Something that would change things.

Then came the familiar knock, and she knew nothing had changed at all.

Later, she shut her door against the fellows who might show without warning and donned her winter coat. Though November’s chill touched Galveston with a gentle brush, it nonetheless painted the streets with ice on this rare occasion.

Of late, Opal had taken to spending her evenings away, so Claire smiled when she saw the lamps burned bright in the front parlor. At eighteen, her sister could hardly be called a girl anymore, but to Claire, she would always be more child than woman. Too young, indeed, for the potential suitors who gathered on the porch or called to her from the street.

The price of finding refuge on a slaver all those years ago had been the knowledge that Tommy had known what became of them. Two girls left on the Galveston docks might have found nothing but a bad end, but Tommy’s papa saw to placing them in a home with an elderly relative of his who was in need of cooking and cleaning.

Claire had hoped both father and son would forget them, but Tommy never did. To her great chagrin and Opal’s delight, the slaver’s son had arrived unannounced some months ago. Thankfully, his visit had been brief and not repeated, for the years had not been kind to the man.

Oh, his looks were unaffected, for he was quite a handsome fellow. But something else about Tommy Hawkins, something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, bothered Claire. Maybe it was the way he watched her, or it might have been the easy and familiar way he treated them.

Whatever it was, the man’s presence set her on edge.

“I’m late,” she said as she pressed open the door. “I hope you’ve not waited dinner on me.”

She stepped inside and found the parlor empty. A fire burned low in the hearth though the lamps still glowed bright. “Opal?” Claire called, even as she shed her coat. “Are you here?”

The kitchen echoed as she passed through, noting the cold pots on the stove. Claire doubled back to the eastern-facing bedroom where she found Opal’s bed still neatly made.

Moonlight slid across the wide boards and bade Claire enter. She did and found the note.

Opal was gone. Run off with the slaver’s son.

Thoughts scattered, then found their focus as Claire stalked through the house to the kitchen, then back to the bedchamber. She threw what little mattered to her in a bag, along with the note.

She would catch up to Opal and put a stop to this foolishness. Surely her sister didn’t intend to break the vow they’d made all those years ago under the steps.

“That’s it,” Claire whispered. “That Hawkins fellow’s got her brain addled. We’ll just see how sweet his words are when I find them.”

Closing the door to the little cottage, Claire walked out into the evening’s chill without bothering to extinguish the lamp or bank the fire. Surely Opal hadn’t gone far. Indeed, they’d both be back in time for a warm meal and a long chat about the bonds of family and the importance of keeping a vow once made.

But Opal didn’t come back. When Claire reached the docks, she found a familiar vessel about to weigh anchor. On the deck stood her sister.

“You’ve come,” Opal called. “I hoped but didn’t dare ask.”

Claire glanced behind her at the bustling port city she’d come to call home. How many years ago had she stood on this same platform and stared back at a Hawkins vessel in the hopes she’d found a new life?

It seemed like yesterday, yet she and Opal had lived a lifetime since them.

“That you, Ruby Red?”

Claire suppressed a groan. He hadn’t called her that since their childhood days.

Tommy tossed a rope to a crewman and came to stand by Opal. “Isn’t that something? I didn’t expect I’d get two lovely ladies for the price of one.”

Ladies. Price.

Claire sighed. An unfortunate choice of words, though she knew he likely did not make the same reference as she.

“You know what your problem is?” Tommy released Opal to lean over the rail. “You’re far too serious.”

“Am I now?” This from a man who hadn’t said two words to her in six months.

“Yes,” he said as he offered a courtly bow. “What if I promised to help you bury the serious Claire O’Connor at sea? Next time your feet touch dry land, you’ll be Ruby Red, sailor of the seven seas.”

His laughter was contagious, though she’d not let him know. “I never liked it when you called me Ruby Red,” she called back.

Tommy pretended to think. “How do you feel about plain old Ruby? Not that you are either,” he said.

“Look here, Tommy.” Opal came to the rail and gave Tommy a playful nudge. “She’s my sister, but I’m your wife, so you’d better be careful.”

“Your wife?” Claire swallowed hard. “Since when?”

“I married her weeks ago,” Tommy said, “but she was afraid to tell you.”

Opal looked apologetic. “I know you wanted big things for me, Claire, but I love him. We’d planned a fancy ceremony. You would have liked doing that for me, I know.” She linked arms with Tommy. “We didn’t count on being blessed with a little one so quickly.”

By degrees, the picture became clear.

“Come aboard,” Opal called. “I’ll play, and you can keep watch. When the baby comes, you can be her auntie Claire.”

“He,” Tommy corrected.

“Or perhaps one of each.” Her giggle sounded almost like the Opal of her youth. “Claire, please. We’ll have this adventure together.”

Together. In a moment, Claire made her decision; for a lifetime, she would regret it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Deceptive Promises - Chapter 1

Deceptive Promises

Barbour Publishing, Inc (2008)


Amber Miller

Chapter 1


Strattford House; near New Castle, northernmost of Pennsylvania’s 3 lower counties
Christina and Brandywine River Valley, late August 1774

Margret Scott started to hoist her petticoats, but decorum made her pause. She stood at the tree canopy marking the entrance to her family’s farm. Paying heed to the presence of the servants and field workers, she started at a brisk walk down the lane toward the main house. As it came into view, her speed increased. A moment later, mindful of her appearance, she resumed walking. Alternating between almost running and maintaining a lady-like pace, she finally reached the front porch. This was the most exciting news she’d heard in all of her fourteen years.


She burst through the front door, cringing when it slammed against the block of wood in the corner of the entryway. Mama would scold her for that one.

“Margret Scott!” Mama’s voice preceded her appearance from the kitchen into the main hallway. Elanna Hanssen Scott was a kind and generous woman, but she did not tolerate ill manners.

“Sorry, Mama.” Margret tucked her chin against her chest. She fought hard to catch her breath as she peered at Mama from under lowered lashes and offered an apologetic smile.

A grin tugged at Mama’s lips. “Child, what am I to do with you? You do try one’s patience.” Mama sighed. “Now, what is so important that you could not enter our house in a more subdued manner?”

Margret inhaled a sharp breath. “Oh, Mama! You will never believe it. You know that Papa and I were visiting at the Hanssen farm.” At Mama’s nod, Margret continued. “And I am quite excited!”

Mama wiped her hands on her apron and quirked one eyebrow. “And are you going to tell me or shall I have to wait until the news arrives from town?”

“There is a special meeting about delegates being sent from New Castle to Philadelphia. Grandfather spoke of a private meeting with the Assembly that is being held in secret.” Margret flung out her arms and spun in a circle then clasped her hands together just below her chin. “The mere idea is simply breathtaking!” She didn’t wait for a response. “They mentioned something about a congress and how every colony except Georgia is sending representatives. I do not know much more, but delegates from our very own Assembly have been invited. Oh, how I wish Papa or Uncle Edric was going. They could write to us of everything they see. Just imagine! Philadelphia. It is such a big city. They no doubt have the latest fashions and goods. What happens there is quite important. And men from right here in New Castle will be there with other delegates.”

“Margret, dear, will you take a moment to breathe? I fear you might expire from the long-winded account you have just given.”

Margret paused and stared. Had she really just rambled without pausing for air? It was a wonder she didn’t swoon. She started to calm, but the amusement on Mama’s face made Margret excited again. A grin graced her lips. “And I have yet to tell you the best part.”

“Pray, do tell me soon, my daughter, before you burst the linen in your stays.”

Margret grabbed hold of Mama’s flour-covered hands and squeezed. “Grandfather has persuaded Papa to allow me to accompany them into town, provided you come as well. Papa said a ship recently arrived in port, teaming with crates and barrels of all shapes and sizes. Can you imagine it? There will be so many people about, and the shops will no doubt be open to everyone. We can see the latest fashions and styles and perhaps even purchase a new bonnet.”

“A recent shipment of goods, you say?” Mama withdrew one hand from Margret’s clasp and reached up to touch her hair. “I suppose I should make myself a bit more presentable for a town visit to purchase a few necessities.” A twinkle entered her eye as she looked down at Margret. “We cannot have the family of Assembly members appearing less than fashionable, now can we?”

“Oh, Mama, you can be quite silly sometimes.”

“No more so than you, my dear.” Mama traced her finger down Margret’s face and tapped her on the nose. “Now, off with you. I am certain the men will not be far behind, so you should not tarry any longer with me.”

Margret threw her arms around Mama, then stepped back and pressed her hands down the front of her petticoats to smooth out the wrinkles. She winked, assumed a proper stance and tamed her expression into one of polite indifference. “I promise to present myself in the most genteel of manners. My decorum will be impeccable.”

Mama chuckled. “At least until you once again get caught up in the excitement of the moment.”

Although she tried hard, Margret couldn’t tame her expression. The smile pulling at her mouth finally won out, and she turned toward the stairs. Mama shook her head and disappeared again in the direction of the kitchen.

* * * * *

“Nicholas, come help your grandfather, please.”

Papa’s voice sounded from the other side of the carriage where he extended a hand to Mama. A moment later, Margret’s younger brother, Nicholas, skidded around the side and assisted Papa in helping Grandfather Gustaf onto his seat. Grandmother Raelene said she wanted to stay home and work on her quilt, but Margret knew wagon rides weren’t exactly comfortable for her. It wasn’t easy seeing either of her grandparents struggle, but despite their age, they both still had a firm command of the running of the farm. And they stayed abreast of the political developments as well. Margret didn’t have as much interest as her parents and grandparents, but she tried to pay attention to what was important. The results of the Congress gathering in Philadelphia were sure to become the center of conversation for some time. Speculation had been high in recent months. Margret knew something would happen soon. She only prayed they’d be ready when it did.

“Will you be joining us, young one, or do you intend to stand and stare as the carriage leaves you behind?”

Margret started at Grandfather’s voice and looked up to see him smiling down at her. His expression showed he had guessed her thoughts, but it reassured her at the same time. Leave it to Grandfather to put on a strong face for everyone. Accepting Papa’s outstretched hand, Margret climbed into the carriage and took her seat. Grandfather placed an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Margret snuggled against him, determined to enjoy the peaceful ride into town.

Before she knew it, they approached the outskirts of New Castle. The activity level increased tenfold. Wagons rumbled along the cobblestone, and horse hooves clopped as they pulled carriages or held lone riders. As Papa drove the carriage into the center of town, the raucous voices of the townspeople joined the symphony of sounds that represented town life.

Margret soaked up the palpable joy and enthusiasm shared by her fellow colonists at the latest arrival of goods. But another level of anticipation existed. Papa surreptitiously pointed out several gentlemen whose names Margret recognized from various conversations. Lace handkerchiefs held by the gloved hands of ladies waved in the air. Men raised their tri-corner hats high while others merely tipped them in acknowledgement of the honor bestowed upon the esteemed men. Their driver stopped the carriage to allow the throngs of people to part and allow them room to pass.
Nicholas leaned forward and tapped Margret’s knee as he jerked his head to the side.

“That is the mayor of Wilmington, John McKinley.”

Margret turned to see a well-dressed gentlemen approach the print shop a block ahead of them. He certainly looked like a man of some importance. And the way several townsfolk stepped aside to let him pass showed they felt the same way.

“Papa and Grandfather Gustaf invited him for supper one evening a few months back.” Nicholas’ voice interrupted her thoughts. “He is quite influential. I remember Papa talking about his service during the war with the French a few years ago. They were both Majors, even though Papa served with a British regiment while Mayor McKinley commanded the New Castle militia.” He looked at Papa—whose face reflected admiration that his son knew so much—then continued with pride. “Standing next to him are the three lawyers being sent as delegates, Thomas McKean, George Read and Caesar Rodney.”

Margret straightened in her seat and squinted as she peered at the three men. “Mama, is not Mr. McKean the man who assisted you when that journalist tried to deceive you?”

That was one of Margret’s favorite stories she’d asked Mama to tell her over and over again.

“Yes,” Mama replied with a smile at Papa.

Margaret’s breath caught in her throat. Had it not been for Mr. McKean, Mama might have married the journalist and not Papa. “I wish I could have been there to see it.” She placed one hand on her heart. “Can you imagine having a man come to your home to call only to have his devious plans revealed by a notable statesman and the Deputy Attorney General?”

Papa took Mama’s hand in his and bestowed a loving smile upon his wife as the wagon moved forward again. “I owe my life to Mr. McKean. But had he not succeeded, I would have found another way to secure your mother’s affection.”

Looking back and forth between her parents, Margret prayed that one day she would be as fortunate as they in her future marriage.

“Papa, why has this meeting been called in secret?”

Nicholas’ question drew everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand.

“We have grown weary of the legislature across the ocean dictating to us how and when we are able to export and import our goods.” Papa cleared his throat then lowered his voice as two British soldiers crossed the street from the sidewalk near them. “We have protested the taxes that Britain attempted to levy upon us for stamps to mail our letters, tea to serve in our homes and sugar to sweeten our meals. And we will continue to protest until they realize we deserve the right to make those decisions for ourselves.”
Grandfather Gustaf continued. “But despite everything, they have not listened. Instead, their presence has increased, and their attempts to control us have almost become unbearable.”

Papa nodded. “That is the reason for the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia. But our meeting is to give a proper send-off to the three delegates and discuss the topics that may be part of the gathering up north.”

Nicholas leaned forward. “And the reason for the secret meeting is to prevent any British from knowing what is happening?”

“Yes, this is why we must do all that we can to gather unnoticed.” Papa signaled the driver to halt the carriage. He turned to Mama and touched her cheek. “This is where we part, my dear. We shall leave you and Margret to the tasks you have come to accomplish, and meet you again two hours hence in front of the town hall.”

Mama gathered a burlap satchel in her hands and three hand-woven baskets as she shifted toward the carriage door. The driver opened it and extended a hand first to Mama, then to Margret. When they were both standing on the cobblestone street, Mama looked up at Papa. “We shall be waiting by the steps when your meeting concludes.”

The driver closed the door and resumed his seat. As he snapped the reins and set the carriage in motion once more, Margret watched Papa, Grandfather Gustaf and Nicholas continue around the back side of the buildings to the rear of the print shop. She prayed the meeting would go well.

“Margret, dear,” Mama said as she touched Margret’s shoulder, “Let us not tarry long. We have many things to do and only a small amount of time in which to do them.”
She would never have been allowed to come to town without Mama, but Margret wanted to walk around the center of town, see the shops, and look in the windows. If she stayed with Mama the entire time, she might not have that chance.

“Yes, dear?”

“Would it not help us more if we each took a few items on our own?”

Mama tilted her head and regarded Margret with a curious glance. She narrowed her eyes, as if trying to determine whether Margret had an ulterior motive. A moment later, her lips twitched. “You wish to have additional time so that you might see the new items which have arrived on the shipment. Am I correct?”

Margret started to protest, but Mama didn’t look upset. Only amused. So, Margret grinned and extended her hands in a helpless gesture. “It is why I pleaded with Papa to allow me to come.”

Mama tapped Margret on the nose. “Very well. You will need to go to the candle shop, the basket weaver’s and the apothecary’s.” She held out the three baskets and Margret took them. “I will be at the silversmith’s when you finish. Please come find me there.”

“Yes, Mama.” Margret dipped into a quick curtsey then skipped off in the direction of the basket weaver’s. If she saw to her tasks first, she would have more than enough time to visit the other shops.

A little over an hour later, she closed the door behind her after leaving the apothecary’s shop and walked down the five steps to the sidewalk. Margret shielded her eyes and glanced up at the sky. By the sun’s position, she guessed she had about forty minutes before the meeting at the print shop ended. She was about five blocks from the silversmith’s. When she reached an alleyway, she stopped. The other end came out near the north end of the town square. And that would take her right past the main street of shops. Perfect.

Margret walked about a quarter of the way down the alley, but stopped when saw two men standing close to one another, speaking in hushed tones. She couldn’t make out much of a description, but she could make out the red coat of a British soldier. It was obvious by the way one of them kept glancing over his shoulder that neither one of them wanted to get caught. As quietly as possible, she took several steps backward, praying she could escape undetected. She had almost made it when her foot kicked a tin can lying on the ground.

She froze.

The two men stopped and looked in her direction.

Time seemed to stand still as she stared at the men, and they stared back. They looked at each other then again at her. She didn’t know what they were thinking, but if their choice for a meeting place was any indication, the fact that she saw them couldn’t be a good thing.

“I…I…” Margret swallowed against the lump in her throat, trying hard to slow the pounding of her heart. “Do excuse me. I did not mean to interrupt.” She took a shallow breath. “I shall just be on my way.”

One of the men said something to the other, and the second man left in the opposite direction. The one who spoke took a few steps toward her. Margret didn’t know whether to continue walking backward or turn and run. Either way, the man was sure to catch her. At least if she turned around, she had a better chance of avoiding him.
But as soon as she stepped out of the alley and into the street, she bumped into a man who was with a group of British soldiers. The sack in her hands fell to the ground, and a cloud of dust puffed out from underneath.

“Well, well, what have we here?” One of the men reached out and tipped up her face with his thumb and forefinger under her chin.

Margret attempted to regain her wits. Going from one frightening circumstance to another wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

“And what would cause a delicate young lady such as yourself to be sneaking about in the alleyways of this town?” the same man asked.

“Perhaps she is returning from a meeting with a secret beau and she does not wish her mother or father to learn of her whereabouts,” another soldier suggested.

“Or she might be going to meet a beau with the same thought in mind.” A third soldier snickered, but Margret couldn’t see him.

The first still lightly held her chin with his fingers. She dared not move. Fear at what they might do helped her feet stay rooted to the ground. From the corner of her eye, she saw a man exit the alleyway. She caught a flash of his red coat and her heart beat double-time.

Could her situation get any worse?

The soldier in front of her turned, and a smirk formed on his lips. “It appears we were both right.” He looked at his two compatriots then back toward the alley. “Only it seems as if our little lady was meeting her beau in the alley.”

Margret felt, rather than saw, the other man approach. As she watched the soldier in front of her, his expression changed from one of smugness to one of concern. In a flash, the soldier dropped his arms and tucked his chin toward his chest as he took a step away from her.

“Does your commander not keep you busy enough during your visit to town that you must resort to tormenting a poor, innocent girl?”

“Our apologies, Lieutenant.” The leader of the threesome doffed his hat and took another step away from Margret. “We were not aware that the two of you were acquainted.”

“Whether we are or not is none of your concern. But your treatment of this young lady is a concern.”

Margret wanted more than anything to turn and look at the man who rescued her, but instead, she focused on her shoes. From the corner of her eye, she did catch a flash of red and knew it was the man from the alley.

“Now, I do believe you owe her an apology. And once that is done, I expect you to return to your duties.”

“I am humbly sorry, miss,” the first said.

“My sincerest apologies, miss,” the second added.

“Do forgive us,” said the third.

And without a backward glance, they scrambled off.

Margret bent to retrieve her sack but her heel caught on the edge of her skirt and she lost her balance. Arms flailing, she attempted to remain standing, but it was no use. As she joined her sack on the ground, an even larger cloud of dust exploded around her.
A warm, masculine laugh sounded from above her head, and she braved a glance to locate the source. Words failed her as she gazed up into the face of a young man in a British officer’s uniform. No wonder the other soldiers hastened to obey him so quickly. Heat rose to her cheeks at her embarrassing position, but she couldn’t take her eyes off of the handsome man standing over her. A few unruly chestnut strands escaped the confines of his pigtail to blow about his shoulders as he looked down at her.

The soldier chuckled and extended his hand. “Do allow me to assist you to your feet. Then, perhaps we can exchange introductions.”

Margret swallowed her pride and accepted his help. His strong grip lifted her easily, and he held on a moment longer than necessary before releasing her hand. She fought back the shiver that threatened to run up her back. Gathering her wits once more, she faced the soldier.

“I do appreciate you coming to my aid, sir, and preventing me from a most embarrassing situation.”

The soldier bowed, never taking his hazel eyes off of her. “It was my pleasure. Now, may I introduce myself?” He straightened and proceeded without waiting for an answer. “I am Samuel Lowe, recently arrived from the area of New York formerly run by the East India Trading Company.”

Margret dipped into curtsy, but the packages in her arms prevented her from using her fan to conceal her face. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lowe. My name is Margret Scott.”
He regarded her for a moment. She wasn’t certain, but she thought she saw a brief flash of recognition in his eyes. Just as quickly, it disappeared. Instead, Samuel reached for her right hand and bowed over it, his self-assured smirk making her heartbeat race.
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you.”

* * * * *

Samuel straightened, but never took his eyes off of young Margret Scott. If his sources were correct, she was the eldest daughter of Major Madison Scott and the granddaughter of Gustaf Hanssen. But the importance of her family didn’t stop there. She also had an uncle who held an esteemed position with the Assembly. Perhaps more than good fortune brought her to cross his path.

“Now,” he began, extending his elbow toward her as he reached for the sack she’d been carrying, “let us return you to whatever it is that brings you to town, and perhaps you can enlighten me as we walk with a little more about yourself.”

Margret hesitated, darting a glance around her as if looking for someone or something. Samuel took that moment to peer down the alley and saw that Thomas had returned. He signaled his friend to wait for him and received a nod in return before turning his attention again to Margret. Slowly, she reached her right hand out toward him, but didn’t quite touch him.

Samuel tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and gave it a light pat. “By my troth, I promise that no harm shall come to you.”

That seemed to reassure her, but she didn’t offer any verbal response. That left it up to him to carry the conversation.

“So, how did you come to be walking about town without a companion?”

He felt her stiffen for a second, then relax. “I am not alone, Mr. Lowe. I have come to town with my mother and several other members of my family to…” She stopped and appeared to consider her words before continuing, “…to purchase some much-needed supplies.”

Samuel wasn’t certain, but she seemed to be withholding specific details. If his assumptions were correction, though, her vague response made sense. He knew of the secret meeting at the back of the print shop, but he couldn’t tell her about it without giving away his true identity.

“Ah. And are you to rendezvous with your mother or someone else in your family at any specific location?” Samuel tipped his hat at a passerby, receiving nothing but a look of disdain in reply. He couldn’t tell if his uniform elicited that response or the fact that he escorted a girl several years his junior. Either way, there was no respect offered from that gentleman.

“Yes.” Margret’s voice brought his focus back to her. “I am to meet Mama at the silversmith’s when I complete my purchases.”

“Then, to the silversmith’s we shall go.”

He started to cross the street, when she paused. The pressure against his arm from her hand stopped him as well.

“Mr. Lowe, would it not be faster if we were to take Second Street?” Her arm crossed in front of them both as she pointed to their right.

“Yes, of course.” He recovered his intentional blunder and turned them down the adjoining street. “I have not spent a considerable amount of time here, so certain shortcuts are unfamiliar to me. You, no doubt, are an expert at the layout of this town.”

“Yes, I journey north from our farm as often as possible. So much about life here excites me and begs me to take part. The people, the activity, the new fabrics Mrs. Thomason imports. It is far more interesting than life on our farm, although I do my best to see to my responsibilities there as well.”

Just as he had hoped, Margret’s curiosity turned the conversation away from him and offered him the opportunity to learn more about her.

“And is your farm located far from town?”

“No, but there is so much to do at home, that we do not often have the opportunity to come. Papa works at the shipyard in Wilmington, and Uncle Edric lives here in town. I visit when I am able, but it is not as often as I would like.”

If he had any doubts about her family, she had just given him reason to toss them all aside. “It might be best that you remain safely tucked away on your farm during times of unrest such as we have right now.”

Margret peered up at him with such an innocent expression that Samuel had to remind himself of her youth. Her widened light brown eyes and smooth complexion paired with the lappet cap that covered her honey-blonde braids pinned underneath showed a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman. Although she possessed a blossoming beauty that appealed to him, it wouldn’t be wise to encourage anything further at this point. The potential existed for more, but not yet. He had to gain her trust first.

“Unrest? Do you refer to the dissatisfaction of many colonists toward the British?” She gave him a once over and regarded his uniform with a mixture of apprehension and interest. “In truth, I do not know that it is safe for me to be seen in your company.”

Her guarded expression said far more than any words. And the way she paid close attention to each person they passed gave credence to her doubts. Samuel needed a way to convince her that he meant no harm. But what could he do?

Taking Tuscany - Chapter 1

Taking Tuscany

David C. Cook (May 2009)


Renee Riva

Chapter 1

All Greek To Me

“A. J., come over here and tell me something.”

“What, Mama?” I make my way over to the big picture window in Mama’s new guest villa.

“What is the first thing you notice when you look out this window?”

“A blue villa.”

Mama grabs my arm and escorts me into the bedroom. “And this window?”

“A blue villa.”

She grabs my arm again and pulls me into the bathroom. “And this window?”

“A blue villa.”

Exactly!” This time, instead of my arm, she grabs the peach
guest towels off the rack and hurls them at the window. Then she
runs into the bedroom and throws the new guest pillows at the bedroom
window. Out on the horizon Uncle Nick’s blue villa is basking
in the sunset over Tuscany.

“How am I supposed to act gracious at Aunt Genevieve’s birthday
party, knowing the opening of my guest villa will be undermined
by that blue monstrosity on the hill?”

“Oh, Mama, I wouldn’t take it personally. Uncle Nick just likes
the color blue.”

Mama looks at me like I have lost my marbles. “Just likes the
color blue? A. J., nobody in his right mind paints his villa blue. That
is the charm of Italy—rustic, natural stone structures on hilltops. You
don’t take a beautiful historic monastery and paint it putrid blue.”

“Maybe your guests won’t notice it.”

“Won’t notice it? How could anyone not notice?”

I turn my gaze back out the window and cock my head in every angle possible. “Maybe they’ll notice the poppies instead.”

Mama gives me the exaggerated eye roll. “Poppies, schmoppies. Sorry, little Miss Pollyanna, but from my perspective, the only thing out there is one big ugly blue villa …”

Daddy walks into the room, looks at Mama, then glances at the pillows and towels lying on the floor. He looks back at Mama with a hopeful smile. “Does this mean we get to stay home?”

I’m sure Daddy would like nothing better than to skip the whole encounter with the relatives. Sometimes Uncle Nick is just too much for him. Unfortunately Uncle Nick is married to Mama’s sister, Genevieve, who is turning forty-five tonight.

“No, it does not mean we get to skip the birthday party,” Mama says. “I haven’t had the chance to play Sofia Loren for the Greek relatives yet. The Italians sure fell for it at Adriana’s photo shoot in Rome last month. Miss Loren was born in Rome, you know.”

Daddy and I look at each other. “We know,” we say in unison. She’s only told us that five hundred times since we moved here.

Mama marches out of her guest villa back to Bel Castello, our rustic, run-down natural stone castle, to get ready for the party. It’s not a good sign that Mama is on her way to a party in her present frame of mind. The good news is Grandma Juliana—who insists we call her Nonna now that we’re in Italy—won’t be joining us tonight. She is still under the illusion that Uncle Nick is Italian, and would not be happy to discover the truth. She has something against marrying
outside of “our rich Italian heritage.” She also has a problem with Greeks. At the moment, she’s not the only one. Mama thought Uncle Nick was joking when he mentioned his plans to paint his villa blue. But … apparently not.

After slipping into my mandated outfit and looking in the mirror, I head straight to Mama’s room to try to talk her into letting me wear my denim overalls instead. As expected, the answer is no.

Mama is making her Miss Loren debut in a poppy red pantsuit and is sporting the latest Sofia Loren signature haircut. There’s usually a movie-star buff in every crowd. We’re all counting on one to notice Mama tonight so she can play her Sofia/Sophia autograph game. That’s all it will take to shake her foul mood.

One thing Mama has going for her—she looks more like Sofia Loren than the real deal. People notice her almost everywhere she goes. And when they don’t, she still looks great. Her sister, Genevieve, looks good most of the time but has these hips that won’t quit. Sometimes they look like they need to quit growing.

“Mama, how is it that you and Aunt Genevieve are sisters, but she’s always gaining and losing weight, and you just stay the same size?” She changes every time I see her.

“A. J., let me put it to you like this; inside every skinny woman, there is a chubby one fighting to come out. There’s one main reason my sister battles weight. She likes to cook. Let that be a lesson to you. The more you can stay out of the kitchen, the better you’ll look.”

“But how do you find a husband who doesn’t want someone who likes to cook?”

Mama smiles. “Watch this.” She calls to Daddy in the bathroom, where he’s getting dressed. “Hey, Sonny?”


“Would you rather have a great big wife who likes to cook for you all the time, or a slender bombshell who can’t cook?”

“A slender bombshell who can cook.”

“That’s not an option. How about a slender bombshell who cooks occasionally?”

“That’s you, baby. I’ll take it.”

Mama looks at me. “See that? He thinks he got a good deal—we both win. A good marriage is about making compromises you can both live with.”

Daddy comes out of the bathroom wearing a Don Ho–style V-necked shirt and black slacks. He wanted to wear his old parkranger pants from his days at Indian Lake State Park, so he could at least be comfortable. But Mama handed him the Don Ho outfit instead.

“So, Mama, where’s the compromise on what Daddy’s wearing tonight?”

Mama looks at the park-ranger outfit lying on the bed. “Some things are nonnegotiable.”