Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's Not About Him - Prologue and Chapter 1

It's Not About Him

Sheaf House (September 1, 2009)




Prologue


Ever have a decision to make that was so awful you wished it would go away? I did. But I couldn’t ignore the problem. It had a time limit. So not making a decision was still making one.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. But I learned some things from my experience. For one, I found out there are plenty of people willing to give advice, most of which is not at all helpful.

The thing is not many people understand how hard it is to make a decision when no matter how you choose someone gets hurt. I’m not talking about easy stuff like what you want to order at a restaurant. I’m talking about dishing up someone’s future. Deciding who will take care of the most precious gift you have ever received.

Honestly, I was so out of it I don’t remember much about the night my life was forever changed. Yet I still had the consequences to deal with. And I had to grow up fast.

Jeff, God bless him, tried to help me. But he made it harder for me, because it’s not about him, or my dad, or what anyone else thinks is best. It’s my child’s future that had to be considered, not just what I wanted.

The pain caused by making this decision was excruciating. But it taught me that my pain doesn’t have to define me, nor does a mistake. I am not what I did.

In the end, what matters most is love, because only love will get you through the most impossible situations. And while that doesn’t make everything better, it does make sense of something that makes no sense.

In the end, all I had was God. But He was enough.



Chapter 1



Susie Ziglar groaned and she leaned against her grocery cart until the nagging pain eased. She exhaled and then sipped from her cup. The ache in her back seemed to be getting worse. She needed to hurry up and finish her grocery shopping so she could sit and rest a minute. Pressing her hand into her lower spine, she set her drink down and straightened, then arched her back.

“My back is killing me.”

Jeff Rhodes, her constant companion and best friend for the past six months, eyed her with brows raised. “You think it’s time?”

Susie grimaced. “How should I know? I’ve never been through this before.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Oh, man. What if it is?”

“I doubt it. I’m not due for two more weeks. Anyway, my back has been aching like this for days. I can hardly sleep!” She sighed as the ache eased even more. A kick told her the baby didn’t like the squeezing sensation any more than she did.

They resumed shopping and Jeff steered her down another aisle. She was suddenly surrounded by baby products—with pictures of babies on boxes and diapers. Before she could take her next breath, her eyes flooded with tears. Her muscles tensed as she turned and pushed her cart down the aisle, her head bowed.

“I didn’t realize . . . ” Jeff sounded contrite as he tried to keep up.

She sped around the corner and marched away from him so he wouldn’t see her cry.

What she had to go through was hard enough, but did she need to be reminded of it everywhere she went? What did women do when they had miscarriages? She couldn’t imagine.

Her chest tightened and a tear slid down her cheek. Angrily she brushed it away. Pregnancy hadn’t been so bad. She never even got sick, at least not after the first few months. Oh, how she would miss the little person who’d been inside her for so long.

“I’m sorry, Snooze. I should’ve paid better attention.”

“Don’t worry about it. Besides, I can’t stop it once it—Ooof!” Her shirt suddenly jumped, as if someone punched from the inside, then floated down like a mini-parachute.

Jeff’s gaze fixed on her belly, and his mouth pulled into a sly grin. He spoke to her tummy in a funny voice. “Is my little girl doing jumping jacks again?” He patted her stomach as if expecting a response.

She moved his hand away. “Don’t.”

How she wished Jeff wouldn’t refer to the baby as if he knew it was a girl. When she had the ultrasound, she’d told the doctor she didn’t want to know the sex of the baby as the Passels wanted it to be a surprise.

The more Jeff talked about her child with such delight, the more she questioned her decision. But she couldn’t go back no matter what he said to try to change her mind.

Jeff rubbed his hand across his lips, and a faraway look appeared in his eyes.

She stopped pushing the cart. “What?”

He shook his head as if he was trying to snap out of whatever had pulled his thoughts away from her. “Nothing. Let’s get this done. What else do you need? Cheese? Bread?”

Releasing an exasperated sigh, Susie insisted. “Don’t give me that. You look worried again. I’m not stupid.”

Jeff’s attention settled on her eyes, and his voice lowered. “I know. I just can’t help wondering . . . Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”

She squinted at him, ignoring the stabbing pain his question caused. “Of course I’m sure. I want this couple to adopt my baby. I can’t see myself raising a child alone.”

“I’ve told you a hundred times. You don’t have to—”

“That’s not reality, Jeff,” she snapped. “I don’t have any way to care for this baby. The last thing this innocent child needs is a struggling single mother when there are two wonderful people who can raise my baby in the love and security of a Christian home.”

A flash of memory from the night of the party zipped through her mind. But as usual, she didn’t see any faces. Everything was one huge blur.

She closed her eyes and sighed, hating the painful reality of her situation. “I can’t even collect child support since I’ll never know who the baby’s father is.”

“I know. But won’t you at least consider my offer?”

Susie chewed her lip and avoided looking into his hazel eyes. “I love you…as a friend. But we can never be more than that. It would ruin everything.”

His hand touched her shoulder, and he gently squeezed. “But, I still think—”

She tossed a box of cookies in the cart and shrugged him off. “I refuse to be a charity case. I won’t marry you just so you can help me raise another man’s child. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us. Marriage is forever. Why can’t you see that?”

“I know what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem right. I’m glad I wasn’t aborted, but I still wonder if my real parents are out there somewhere wishing they could find me.”

“Which is why I’m doing an open adoption. I’ll know who they are, and my child will know me.” She grimaced as another ache started in her lower back.

He pushed back her long bangs and tucked them behind her ear. “But Susie—”

“No! We’ve discussed this—” She cast her gaze down, trying to ignore the warm sensation his touch had created. Tears threatened to unleash, but she shook them off. He couldn’t see her weakness, because then he would try even harder to wear her down.

“I can’t help wondering if my real parents would have done a better job, you know? Especially since my dad never seemed to like me.”

She peered up and caught the wistful look on his face, then darted her gaze away. Raising this child would not heal his pain. “But this isn’t about you. I can’t fix what your parents did wrong. Neither can you.”

“Just think about it. Please.”

Something in his rough tone made her glance up. Tears stung her eyes as she glimpsed the intense pain in his. How she wished she could heal his heart, his past.

“Please, Susie.” His voice was so quiet she almost didn’t hear him.

She had to be strong. “Listen. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’m signing my baby over to them, and you can’t change my mind. My child will always know who I am. It won’t be anything like your experience—I’m sure of it.”

“Suz.” He tipped up her chin and brushed her cheek with his thumb.

She stepped back, swallowing hard. The gesture was too intimate for mere friendship. And he’d been touching her a lot lately. His tenderness stirred feelings she was determined to snub. She couldn’t be attracted to him. That would ruin everything.

“But nothing.” Pressing her lips with determination, she added, “Because I care I won’t let you throw your life away.”

“Who says I’ll be throwing it away? I’m a big boy. I can make my own decisions.”

She turned her face away, pained by what she was about to say. “You know you don’t love me like that.”

“I could…” His voice was soft, gentle.

Frustration made her want to scream. Didn’t he realize how hard he was making it for her? How could she convince him to stop?

“Look at me!” she shouted, pointing at her stomach, and earning them a glare from another shopper. Anger…she needed to feel anger to stay in control. “I’m a beached whale.”

“No, you’re not.” His gaze softened, and he offered a tender smile.

She could feel her chin quivering. A knot lodged in her throat. Why did he have to be so sweet, so wonderful now that she’d made up her mind?

“Cut it out. And stop looking at me that way. We’re just friends, and that’s all we’re ever going to be.” If only her heart would listen…

“I don’t know why we—”

She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to shove the cart away and flee. “Because I don’t want that kind of relationship with anybody! I just want to get through this pregnancy and get on with my life. Please stop trying to change my mind.”

Before she could stop him, he cupped her face, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Just think about it.”

Here stomach fluttered in response to his touch. She glanced at his lips and jerked her chin away. Her insistence was not working, so she heaved a loud sigh. She did not want to talk about this kind of stuff in the middle of the grocery store.

“I love you.” Peeking up for a moment, she added, “just not that way.”

Closing her eyes, she pondered the irony of her statement. It wasn’t that long ago that Dan kept telling her the same thing, and she refused to listen. She’d been so angry with Annie, but that was in the past. How much her life had changed in such a short time. There was no going back to the way things had been, and for that she was thankful.

A former boyfriend from the tenth grade in high school entered the aisle where they’d huddled in the corner. She wished she could shrink and hide behind Jeff, but Mark had already seen her and headed in their direction. Once, she’d had a major crush on Mark, and they’d dated until he’d dumped her for a new girl who shared his faith.

“Hey, Susie. I didn’t know you got hitched. Congrats, girl!” He turned and offered his hand to Jeff. “Do I know you?”

Jeff received his hand and quickly let go. His neck reddened to his ears, and he directed a quick glance at Susie. “I’m Jeff . . . um, Susie’s . . . ah . . . friend.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Mark.” Her former boyfriend’s gaze strayed to her hand. “Then who’d you marry?”

Susie’s throat squeezed and she had trouble forming a response. It wasn’t the first time someone assumed she was married because she was due to give birth. Closing her eyes for a moment, she forced the words out. “I’m not.”

Mark’s gaze strayed to her protruding belly and returned to her face. “Oh. Sorry.”

She tried to sound upbeat. “Jeff and I are good friends. We go to the same church.”

Cocking his head to the side, Mark asked Jeff, “Yeah? So where do you attend?”

“First Christian. You?”

Mark straightened. “My family goes to the Ward on Fourth Ave.”

An awkward silence ensued. Susie recalled going to church a few times with Mark when they’d dated, but she’d never felt comfortable around his family. There were too many kids, and she’d been an only child. His house felt more like a circus with the constant activity and people coming and going all the time.

“Well, it’s good seeing you, Mark,” Susie said hastily. “I’ll catch you around.”

“I doubt it. I moved to Washington State. I’m just visiting my family for the week. Well, bye.” Flicking his wrist, Mark turned the corner without looking back.

Susie exhaled. She’d almost forgotten Jeff was standing next to her.

“Hmmm….”

“Wow,” she said without enthusiasm. “He still looks the same.”

“Well, of course he does. It hasn’t been that long since you graduated.” His smile faded. “You like him?”

“We dated in high school.” Susie gasped. She bent over, clutching her stomach as a strong squeeze radiated through her abdomen.

Jeff stood behind her and put his arms around her waist to hold her up. “You okay?”

She felt a strange sensation, then a spike of pain. Without warning, her water broke, spilling the clear fluid all over the floor. “Oh no!”

His eyes widened. “No way. Not here—”

Heat suffused her cheeks. Of all the places to have her water break, why the grocery store? She tucked the folds of her long skirt between her knees to contain some of the amniotic fluid. How would she get to the car without making a bigger mess?

“Jeff, can you get the manager? See if he has a towel or something.”

“Sure.” Jeff darted around the corner and returned moments later with a towel. The store manager trailed behind. Jeff gave the concerned-looking man a quick wave and thanked him, then took her arm and guided her toward the door.

“Hang in there, babe. We’ll go straight to the hospital. You wait right here, and I’ll go get the car.”

“Like I’m going to take off,” she muttered.

She hardly got the words out before another pain reverberated through her. She wrapped her left arm around her abdomen and dug the fingers of her other hand into Jeff’s arm, making it impossible for him to leave. What felt like a long menstrual cramp—only more severe—stole her breath until her eyes filled with tears.

Why didn’t I sign up for those Lamaze classes? Then I’d know what to do.

“Hurry!” she grunted when the pain eased, and pushed him toward the door.

Giving her a terrified look, Jeff squeezed her hand, then darted out the door and sprinted for his car.

Susie watched him run, and a wave of loneliness washed over her. Jeff had been so good to her over the course of her pregnancy. At first, she knew it had been out of guilt because she’d been raped while passed out during one of his many parties. But the more time they spent together, the more things improved between them. Now they really enjoyed hanging out with each other. And things had been great until today.

But once she placed her baby with the Passels, she didn’t know where that would leave their relationship. She could only pray he’d still want to be friends. And that he wouldn’t be angry with her for giving her baby up for adoption. She’d promised her child to the Passels months ago, and she refused to back out on their agreement, especially when they were so hopeful and longed to adopt another child. She couldn’t break their hearts.

This life-changing decision was hard enough, but if she lost her best friend in the process, she didn’t know how she’d make it through. While loathe to admit it, deep down inside she knew she needed him. And that terrified her.



Sweat formed on Jeff’s brow. He swiped his forehead, wishing he could calm down but knowing he wouldn’t. Not until it was over. His heart pounded like a basketball dribbled against his ribs, the force of it pushing so hard it took his breath away.

With a shaky hand, he reached for Susie. She grabbed his fingers in a death grip and squeezed as she hunched over. After the pain eased, she straightened, peering up at him with frightened eyes. She looked so young and innocent. It broke his heart to think about what she must be going through emotionally.

He smiled to assure her as he gazed into her gorgeous, light brown eyes. Warmth filled his chest, covering his heart like a cozy blanket. Maybe if she wouldn’t listen to him or believe him when he tried to tell her he cared about—no, that he loved her, then he would have to show her through his actions.

One of these days she might actually believe him, and maybe, just maybe, she’d let him into her heart. Until then, he’d work to penetrate the shell surrounding it, and melt the protective ice barrier with the heat of his unconditional love.

When Jeff set his mind to something, he didn’t give up easily. Like the day he quit drinking. Once he realized his behavior didn’t honor God, and it made Susie uncomfortable, he’d stopped cold turkey. He’d never linked his drinking with Susie’s father’s alcoholism. Not until she brought it up one night during a heated argument.

He still remembered the pain from that night five months ago, the night he thought he’d lost her friendship because he’d finally gotten up the courage and admitted his true feelings to her. She hadn’t believed him then either. She’d just rolled her eyes and told him she refused to love a man who drank booze.

That night he swore off drinking. Since then, his life had not been the same.

It’d been so much better.

“Come on, Snooze. Get in.” He opened the car door and gestured toward the seat. She poked his ribs and he jumped. “Ah!”

With a lop-sided smirk she crooned, “You know I can’t stand that nickname. Until you stop teasing me, Jiffy pop, I’m not—Ahhhhh.”

She clutched her stomach and sucked in her breath.

Jeff’s pulse pounded at the sight of pain etched on her face. Blood whooshed in his ears, and dizziness filled his head now that her contractions were closer together.

God, let her be okay. I couldn’t take it if anything happened to her.

He watched in mute fascination until her face slackened and he knew the pain had eased. Childbirth was such a mystery to him.

Susie lowered herself and tried to slide onto the seat. Covering her hair with his hand, Jeff guided her so she wouldn’t bump her head.

His heart squeezed as he gazed at her beautiful face no longer contorted with pain. He longed to touch her creamy skin with his fingers, to kiss her full pink lips and nuzzle her dimpled cheeks. If only she would agree to marry him. Then she could keep her baby, and they would be a family. Why did she have to be so stubborn?

With a defeated sigh, he shut the door and climbed into the driver’s side. He turned the key, praying silently as he drove to the hospital. Lord, bless Susie and be with her as she goes through this difficult time. Give her peace, God, whatever she decides, and help me to show her I love her even if I don’t agree with her decision.

The whimpers and moans coming from her lips as the headed to the hospital made his lungs constrict. He would do anything to help ease her pain. He reached for her hand and offered a reassuring squeeze, knowing it was inadequate. But it was all he could do given the circumstances.

Another contraction overtook her. She squeezed his hand so hard his knuckles crushed into each other. “We’re almost there, Snooze. Hang on.”

With a flick of her wrist, she slapped his bicep and grunted through the pain. “Cut it out, Jiffy pop. I mean it.”

“Ow, man, you’re good with those stingers.” He rubbed his arm. “Remind me to avoid teasing you when you’re hurting.”

He glanced over to gage her response to his teasing and he noticed tears filling her eyes. She bit her lower lip, and her shoulders shook as if she was trying to contain her grief. He felt like such a jerk. Why did he have to mention pain at a time like this!

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

After several seconds of silence, Susie sniffed. “No, it’s okay. It’s not you.”

“Then what is it?” His gaze darted between her and the road as he closed in on the hospital and prayed no cops were lingering in hopes of catching a speeding car. He couldn’t afford another ticket. Though only twenty four, he’d already gotten his share of moving violations, and the insurance costs were getting ridiculous.

“It’s just…I miss my baby and I haven’t even done it yet.” She choked on a sob, wiping her wet eyes with the back of her hand. “Oh, Jeff… This is so hard.”

His vision blurred briefly as he blinked back tears. The sound of her grief shook him. He cleared his throat and spoke, his voice low and deep. “It’s not too late to change your mind. You don’t have to sign the papers. My offer still stands.”

She shook her head vigorously and sniffed hard. “No. I’m doing this.”

Part of him admired her tenacity, and the other part wanted to shake some sense into her.

Her body tensed with another contraction. “Ahhhh! This hurts way more than I ever thought.”

Jeff pulled into a parking space near the entrance to the ER and slammed on his brakes. He leaned in front of her stomach to grasp the door handle.

She stopped him by grabbing his arm. “Wait! Please. Just be my friend. I don’t want to be mad at God for letting this happen to me. I have to see this as His way of using me to bless someone else. Otherwise, I’ll go mad from thinking about it.”

Susie looked up with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Don’t make me feel worse.”

His eyes burned and he willed himself not to cry. Her grief deepened his pain and made him feel weak when she needed his strength right now. Quashing his unresolved emotions for her sake, he covered the side of her head with his palm and stroked her silky hair, resolving to be the strength she needed. “I’ll do whatever you need. I promise.”

“Good.” She offered a weak, tremulous smile, before inhaling deeply.

He smiled and tried to show his support through his response to her.

“Can you call Dave and Diane before we go inside? I don’t want them to miss this.”

“Sure. No problem.” He resisted the urge to grasp her head and gently kiss her hair. Instead, he removed his cell phone from the clip on his belt. He flipped it open and scrolled until he found Dave’s number.

“Dave’s Corporate Consulting. How may I help you?”

“Dave? It’s me, Jeff. Listen. Susie’s in labor. She wants you guys to meet her at the hospital as soon as you can. Her contractions are pretty close together.”

“Praise God!” Dave shouted in his ear. “Honey, Susie is in labor and wants us to meet her right away.”

Jeff heard Diane’s voice in the background. “Oh…” Diane squealed. “Tell Susie we love her… and…and… we’re on our way.”

Dave chuckled into the phone. “Did you hear that? My wife is bawling her eyes out. I’m a bit choked up myself. Tell her we’ll be there as quick as we can.”

His heart pitter-pattered at the sound of their joy. Maybe Susie was right. Maybe she was doing what was best for her child and he was the one being selfish. “Will do.”

Flipping his phone closed, he returned it to his belt.

Susie clutched her stomach, taking short breaths like he’d seen a woman in a movie do when she was in labor. “I can’t wait much longer. Jeff, oh Jeff. Help me up. This hurts so bad. I feel like someone is stabbing me and squeezing my whole body! She moaned as she reached for the door handle, now sobbing.

Jeff hopped out and ran around the car to help her up. “Here.”

She grabbed on to his arm. Yanking her purse from the floor with her other hand, she slung it over her shoulder and winced.

She put one foot in front of the other, holding her stomach as she shuffled along. “What did they say? I couldn’t hear them.”

“They cried and said they loved you and they’re on their way.”

“They said that?”

“Yeah. Why does that surprise you? Lots of people love you, Susie. You’ve changed so much; it’s like you’re a different person now that you’re a Christian.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“Why do you think I started listening more in church? Your change of heart touched a lot of people. No offense, but it was like you were really mean before, and now you’re just…sweet, and loveable, and gorgeous.”

Her adorable dimples appeared in her cheeks and her wistful smile made his heart flutter. “Thanks, Jeff. You’re so kind. I just wish my dad would talk to me. Ahhhh!”

“That’s enough reminiscing, hon. We’ve gotta get you checked in. You ready?”

She bit her lower lip and nodded. A minute later she sighed as the contraction eased. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Her gaze locked onto his and she grew serious. “Pray for me, Jeff. This is gonna be so hard. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

Jeff pulled her into his arms and rubbed her trembling back. His throat knotted when the baby shifted in her belly and pressed against him. The movement reminded him of what was to come. It tore at his heart when he thought about how it would be over soon. He whispered into her hair, “Of course you are, Susie. You’re the strongest girl I know. You can do this.”

Pushing away from him, she exhaled a shuddering breath. “I can do this. I can. Please, Jesus, help me do this.”

She continued praying, uttering just loud enough for Jeff to hear even through her sobbing. “I know You’ll get me through this, Jesus.”

Silently agreeing with her, Jeff added. Lord, help us both.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow - Chapter 1

The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow

Abingdon Press (September 2009)



Chapter 1


Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.Ruth Knickerbocker



If you get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the Jack Frost Ski Resort exit, turn left, and travel twenty-two and one quarter miles, you’ll see a sign that reads: Bright’s Pond, Home of the World’s Largest Blueberry Pie.

While it is true that in 1961 Mabel Sewicky and the Society of Angelic Philanthropy, which did secret charitable acts, baked the biggest blueberry pie ever in Pennsylvania, most folks will tell you that the sign should read: Bright’s Pond, Home of Agnes Sparrow.

October 12, 1965. That was the day my sister, Agnes Sparrow, made an incredible decision that changed history in our otherwise sleepy little mountain town and made her sign-worthy.

“I just can’t do it anymore, Griselda. I just can’t.” That’s what Agnes said to me right before she flopped down on our red, velvet sofa. “It ain’t worth it to go outside anymore. It’s just too much trouble for you—” she took a deep breath and sighed it out “—and heartache for me.”

Agnes’s weight had tipped a half pound over six hundred, and she decided that getting around was too painful and too much of a town spectacle. After all, it generally took two strong men to help me get Agnes from our porch to my truck and then about fifteen minutes to get her as comfy as possible in the back with pillows and blankets. People often gathered to watch like the circus had come to town, including children who snickered and called her names like “pig” or “lard butt.” Some taunted that if Agnes fell into the Grand Canyon she’d get stuck. It was devastating, although when I look back on it, I think the insults bothered me more than they did Agnes.

Her hips, which were wider than a refrigerator, spread out over the sofa leaving only enough room for Arthur, our marmalade cat, to snuggle next to her. “I think I’ll stay right here inside for the remainder of the days God has set aside for me.” She slumped back, closed her eyes, and then took a hard breath. It wiggled like Jell-O through her body. I held my breath for a second, afraid that Agnes’s heart had given out since she looked so pale and sweaty.

But it didn’t.

Agnes was always fat and always the subject of ridicule. But I never saw her get angry over it and I only saw her cry once—in church during Holy Communion.

She was fourteen. I was eleven. We always sat together, not because I wanted to sit with her, but because our father made us. He was usually somewhere else in the church fulfilling his elder’s responsibilities while our mother helped in the nursery. She always volunteered for nursery duty. I think it was because my mother never really had a deep conviction about Jesus one way or the other. Sitting in the pews made her nervous and she hated the way Pastor Spahr would yell at us about our sins, which, if you asked me, my mother never committed and so she felt unduly criticized.

Getting saddled with “fat Agnes” every Sunday wasn’t easy because it made me as much a target of ridicule as her. Ridicule by proximity. Agnes had to sit on a folding lawn chair in the aisle because she was too big to slip into the pew. And since she blocked the aisle we had to sit in the last row.

Our father served Communion, a duty he took much too seriously. The poor man looked like a walking cadaver in his dark suit, white shirt, and striped tie as he moved stiffly down the aisle passing the trays back and forth with the other serious men. But the look fit him, what with Daddy being the town’s only funeral director and owner of the Sparrow Funeral Home where we lived.

On that day, the day Agnes cried, Daddy passed us the tray with his customary deadpan look. I took my piece of cracker and held it in my palm. Agnes took hers and we waited for the signal to eat, supposedly mulling over the joy of our salvation and our absolute unworthiness. Once the entire congregation, which wasn’t large, had been served, Pastor Spahr took an unbroken cracker, held it out toward the congregation, and said, “Take. Eat, for this is my body broken for you.” Then he snapped the cracker. I always winced at that part because it made me think about broken Jesus bones getting passed around on a silver platter.

I swallowed and glanced at Agnes. She was crying as she chewed the cracker—her fat, round face with the tiny mouth chewing and chewing while tears streamed down her heavy, pink cheeks, her eyes squinted shut as though she was trying to swallow a Ping-Pong ball. Even while the elders served the juice, she couldn’t swallow the cracker for the tears. It was such an overwhelmingly sad sight that I couldn’t finish the ritual myself and left my tiny cup of purple juice, full, on the pew. I ran out of the church and crouched behind a large boulder at the edge of the parking lot, jammed my finger down my throat and threw up the cracker I had just swallowed. I swore to Jesus right then and there that I would never let him or anyone hurt my sister again.

Which is probably why I took the whole Agnes Sparrow sign issue to heart. I knew if the town went through with their plan it would bring nothing but embarrassment to Agnes. I imagined multitudes pulling off the turnpike aimed for Jack Frost and winding up in Bright’s Pond looking for her. They’d surely think it was her tremendous girth that made her a tourist attraction.

But it wasn’t. It was the miracles.

At least that’s what folks called them. All manner of amazements happened when Agnes took to her bed and started praying. It made everyone think Agnes had somehow opened a pipeline to heaven and because of that she deserved a sign— a sign that would only give people the wrong idea.

You see, when my sister prayed, things happened; but Agnes never counted any answer to prayer, yes or no, a miracle. “I just do what I do,” she said, “and then it’s up to the Almighty’s discretion.”

The so-called Bright’s Pond miracles included three healings— an ulcer and two incidents of cancer—four incidents of lost objects being located miles from where they should have been, an occurrence of glass shattering, and one exorcism, although no one called it that because no one really believed Jack Cooper was possessed—simply crazy. Agnes prayed and he stopped running around town all naked and chasing dogs. Pastor Spahr hired him the next day as the church janitor. He did a good job keeping the church clean, except every once in a while someone reported seeing him howling at the moon. When questioned about it, Pastor Spahr said, “Yeah, but the toilets are clean.”

Pastor Rankin Spahr was a solid preacher man. Strong, firm. He never wavered from his beliefs no matter how rotten he made you feel. He retired on August 1, 1968, at the ripe old age of eighty-eight and young Milton Speedwell took his place.

Milton and his wife, Darcy, were fresh from the big city, if you can call Scranton a big city. I suppose he was all of twenty-nine when he came to us. Darcy was a mite younger. She claimed to be twenty-five but if you saw her back then, you’d agree she was barely eighteen.

Milton eventually became enamored with Agnes just like the rest of the town and often sent people to her for prayer and counsel.

But it wasn’t until 1972 when Studebaker Kowalski, the recipient of miracle number two—the cancer healing—that Agnes’s notoriety took front seat to practically everything in town. Studebaker had a petition drawn up, citing all the miracles along with a dozen or more miscellaneous wonders that had occurred throughout the years.

“Heck, the Vatican only requires three miracles to make a saint,” he said. “Agnes did seven. Count ’em, seven.”

Just about everyone in town—except Agnes, Milton Speedwell, a cranky old curmudgeon named Eugene Shrapnel, and me—added their signatures to the petition making it the most-signed document ever in Bright’s Pond. Studebaker planned to present it to Boris Lender, First Selectman, at the January town meeting.

Town meetings started at around 7:15 once Dot Handy arrived with her steno pad. She took the minutes in shorthand, typed them up at home on her IBM Selectric, punched three holes in the sheet of paper, and secured it in a large blue binder that she kept under lock and key like she was safekeeping the secret formula for Pepsi Cola.

That evening I settled Agnes in for the night and made sure she had her TV remote, prayer book, and pens. You see, Agnes began writing down all of the town’s requests when it became so overwhelming she started mixing up the prayers.

“It’s all become prayer stew,” she said. “I can’t keep nothing straight. I was praying for Stella Hughes’s gallbladder when all the time it was Nate Kincaid’s gallbladder I should have asked a favor for.”

Nate ended up with Stella’s prize-winning pumpkin and had to have his gallbladder removed anyway. Stella had apparently entered the same contest as Nate and asked Agnes for God’s blessing on her pumpkin. Stella forgave Agnes for the oversight, and Nate agreed to share the blue ribbon with her. But, as Agnes said, God blessed her blunder because Nate and Stella got married six months later. They’ve been raising prize-winning pumpkins ever since.

After the pumpkin debacle, Agnes wrote down all the requests in spiral notebooks. She color-coded the names and petitions, reserving black ink for the most severe cases, red for less dire but still serious needs (marriage troubles and minor illnesses like warts and bunions) and blue ink for the folks with smaller troubles like broken fuel pumps and ornery kids—that sort of thing.

“I got to get going now, Agnes,” I told her a few minutes before seven. “The meeting’s about to start and I don’t want to be late.”

“Could you fetch me a drink of juice and maybe a couple tuna sandwiches before you go? And how about a couple of those cherry Danishes left over from last Sunday?”

“I’ll be late, Agnes, and you already had your dinner.”

“It won’t take but a minute, Griselda, please.”

I spread tuna salad onto white bread and poured a glass of golden apple juice into a tall tumbler with strawberry vines. I was standing at the kitchen sink rinsing my fingers when I heard rain start—hesitant at first. It was the kind of rain that started with large, heavy drops and only a hint of ice in them but would soon turn to all snow. Most of the time foul weather meant a smaller crowd for town meetings, but with the Agnes Sparrow sign debate on the agenda I doubted the weather could keep folks away.

“I better go,” I said. “I want a seat in front on account of the sign situation.”

“Phooey,” Agnes said. “I told you I don’t want a sign with my name on it. I don’t want the glory.”

“I know.” I took a deep breath and blew it out. “I told you I’d take care of it.”

Agnes took another bite of her sandwich and turned on the TV while I buttoned my coat and slipped into yellow galoshes. I was just about to step outside when Agnes spoke up. Her high voice made her sound like a little girl.

“The Lord just gave me an idea,” she said, swallowing. “Tell that town council of ours that the sign should read, Bright’s Pond. Soli Deo Gloria. That’s Latin. It means—”

“I know what it means. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” That was when all the trouble started. And I don’t just mean over the silly sign. I thought the town’s enthusiasm to advertise Agnes’s prayers got something loosed in the heavens and trouble came to Bright’s Pond after that—trouble no one could have ever imagined.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One Imperfect Christmas - Chapter 1

One Imperfect Christmas

Abingdon Press (September 2009)



Chapter 1


Natalie Pearce padded into the kitchen in her new velour robe and fuzzy orange-and-white slippers that looked like little foxes. They were a Christmas present from her husband, Daniel, just three weeks ago. The gift tag had read: “To one foxy lady!”

First thing in the morning, straw-blonde hair still tangled from sleep, she felt anything but foxy. Still, her cheeks warmed as she considered inviting Daniel back to the bedroom for a few more minutes of snuggling. Then she remembered this was Saturday—her day to play “coach’s widow.” After nearly fifteen years of marriage she still hated her husband’s erratic schedule. On Christmas Eve her parents had celebrated their forty-eighth wedding anniversary, a legacy of love Natalie hoped she and Daniel could emulate. But was such a dream even possible when the two of them seemed to operate in different time zones?

She paused at the breakfast table and set her hands on her hips. As usual, he’d left the newspaper in shambles, the comics pulled from one section and the sports page decimated after he’d clipped all the articles covering Putnam Middle School’s athletic teams.

Daniel breezed into the kitchen, sneakers squeaking on the ceramic tile floor. “Hey, hon, sorry about the paper.” He planted a toothpaste-flavored kiss on her parted lips. “I’d sort it out for you, but I’m already running late. I’m meeting Carl at Casey’s Diner to carpool to the tournament.”

Natalie fought to keep her smile in place as she gave him a playful punch in the stomach. “What’s new? Get out of here before I decide not to let you go at all.”

“Promises, promises.” He wiggled his dark eyebrows. “Seriously, before you go . . . ,” she said in her sexiest voice. She clutched the lapels of his red Putnam Panthers jacket and pulled him toward her.

With a seductive grin, Daniel drew her into his arms. “Sweetheart, I told you, I’m already running late.”

She chuckled and bit his ear. “Sorry, Coach, I just wanted to ask you again what time your parents will be here.”

“Woman, you break my heart!” He slammed a hand to his chest as if he’d been shot. “Ah, now I get it. You want to know exactly how much time you have to clean the house.”

So she wasn’t the world’s greatest housekeeper—one trait she didn’t inherit from her mother. Who cared about a little clutter on the kitchen counters, or last night’s pizza pan still soaking in the sink? So what if she hadn’t dusted since Thanksgiving? Hard to do with Christmas decorations covering every flat, dusty surface in the house.

Daniel seemed to read her thoughts. He tilted her chin until she reluctantly met his gaze. “Next weekend. Promise me, okay? The Christmas decorations need to come down.” She pushed out her lower lip. “Only if you stay home and help. It’s depressing to do it all by myself.”

“I’ll check my schedule.” He gathered up his car keys and canvas briefcase and then slicked a hand through ash-brown hair still damp from his shower. “Mom and Dad won’t get here before three at the earliest, so you’ve got plenty of time to enjoy your coffee.” He glanced at his watch. “And I don’t. I’m out of here, sweetie. With any luck, I’ll be home in time for dinner.”

“That’ll be the day.”

The door to the garage banged shut behind him, sending a puff of wintry air into the kitchen. Moments later Natalie heard the ancient green Bronco grumble a couple of times before starting up. The poor thing must have nearly 200,000 miles on it. How Daniel kept it running, she hadn’t a clue, but what with paying the mortgage on their dream home and keeping their thirteen-year-old fashionista daughter in designer jeans, replacing a vehicle wasn’t in the budget. She sent up a quick prayer for Daniel’s safety on the road and hoped the weather held. The last she’d heard, the predicted snow wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow morning.

Her chest caved. Much as she enjoyed the visits with Daniel’s parents, Alice Pearce was an even more meticulous housekeeper than Natalie’s mother. No way around it—the cleaning had to get done. Maybe Natalie could bribe her daughter into helping. After all, half the mess was Lissa’s school books, art supplies, and discarded shoes dropped haphazardly between the kitchen door and her bedroom upstairs.

So much for getting back to the watercolor landscape Natalie had begun last weekend. At least her freelance graphic design assignments had tapered off now that the holidays had passed. The extra income supplemented Daniel’s small-town coaching salary, but Natalie dreamed of making her living as a fine artist—thanks to her mother’s teaching and inspiration. She’d much rather pursue her own creative visions than those of her finicky clients.

She poured a glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee and then dropped an English muffin into the toaster. She’d barely sat down to spread the muffin with her mother’s homemade apricot jam when Lissa flounced into the kitchen, her long blonde hair pinned up with mismatched butterfly clips. Natalie suppressed a laugh and lifted her hands in mock surrender. “Is this the part where you say, ‘Take me to your leader’?”

“Oh, Mom, how juvenile!” Lissa swiped her finger through the jam jar and licked off a sticky, amber glob. “Have you seen my pink sweater—the one with the gray stripe across the front?”

Natalie sipped her coffee. “Did you check the laundry hamper?”

“Yes, twice.”

“The floor of your room?”

“Mother!”

“How about the closet? Any chance you actually hung it up?”

Lissa clenched her fists. “Mom, I need some help here. Jody and her mom are picking me up in twenty minutes.”

Natalie gave her daughter a blank stare.

“Earth to Mo-ther.” Lissa rolled her eyes.

“Oh, rats, the youth group skating party.” No help cleaning from Lissa today. With a sigh, Natalie bit into her English muffin. “Sorry, honey, but I have no idea where your sweater is. Can’t you find something else to wear?”

The ringing telephone halted whatever sarcastic retort Lissa was about to spit out. She squinted at the caller ID on the kitchen extension and grabbed the receiver. “Jody! Did I leave my sweater over there when I spent the night last weekend? Great! Bring it with you. I’ll put it on in the car.” She hung up and dashed through the den, yanking clips out of her hair and tossing them on the sofa.

“Lissa!”

“Sorry, Mom. I’ll get them later, I promise!” Lissa’s bedroom door slammed with finality.

Right, when pigs fly. Sure, Natalie could insist Lissa pick up after herself before leaving for the party, but a battle of wills with a headstrong preteen? No-brainer—it was guaranteed to ruin the entire day for both of them. She made a promise to herself, though, that one day very soon she and Daniel would sit down with Lissa and lay out some ground rules— before Lissa’s adolescent self-centeredness got completely out of hand.

Natalie refilled her coffee mug and carried the remains of the newspaper to the den. Fifteen more minutes and she’d have the house to herself and maybe a little time to work on that watercolor before she got serious about cleaning.

Lissa had been gone barely five minutes when the phone rang again. Natalie, settled in the recliner under a snuggly fleece throw, was tempted not to answer it—probably another of Lissa’s perky seventh-grade friends calling to ask what she planned to wear to the party.

Then the answering machine picked up, and after Natalie’s recorded greeting and the beep, she heard her mother’s voice. “Hi, Natalie, just me. Guess you’re out running errands. I’ll call later—”

Natalie shook off her annoyance and jumped up to grab the kitchen extension. “Hey, Mom, I’m here.”

“Oh, good, glad I caught you.” Her mother’s cheery voice turned cajoling. “It’s that time again, sweetheart. Can I twist your arm to help?”

Apprehension propelled Natalie into the nearest chair. Her mother didn’t even have to speak the words. “Oh, Mom, does it have to be today? Taking down Christmas decorations is my least favorite chore in the world. Daniel’s already on my case about ours.” She gave a weak laugh. “You know me. I’d leave them up year-round if I could.” Someday she’d do just that and hire someone to come in and dust them off once a month.

“I know, and I’m sorry to even ask.” Mom sounded genuinely sympathetic. “But your dad went to that horse auction, and it’s my turn to host the church ladies’ book club tomorrow afternoon.”

“Did you try Hart and Celia?” Natalie’s brother and sisterin- law lived just a few miles from the farm.

“Hart went with your dad to the auction, and Celia’s taking Kurt and Kevin to their basketball game.” Mom paused. “I’ll make apple dumplings and hot cider.”

“Bribery—that is so not fair.” Natalie patted her stomach. “I already need to sweat off at least five pounds of Christmas goodies.”

“Lifting Christmas boxes is good exercise.”

Obviously, Mom wasn’t going to give up. Natalie stared out the bay window. She needed to come up with some logical reason why Mom should postpone this depressing annual chore. Her gaze settled on the bank of gray snow clouds looming on the horizon. She shivered just thinking about venturing out on this frosty January day.

She offered an idea. “Think of how much the ladies would enjoy the decorations. It wouldn’t hurt to leave them up a little longer, would it?”

“Natalie, the tree is completely dry and dropping needles all over the carpet. It really must come down today.” A note of apology tinged her mother’s voice. “I should have asked your father to help me earlier in the week, but the time got away from us.”

“You know I’d do anything for you, Mom, and if it were any other weekend—” Yes, come to think of it, she had a ready-made excuse. She tried not to let the rush of gratitude creep into her tone. “Remember I told you Daniel’s parents are driving over this afternoon? Daniel’s at a tournament in Fielding to scout basketball teams, and Lissa’s at a skating party. I need to clean house and shop for groceries before they get here.”

Not that she actually intended to do all that much. If her mother had asked her help for anything else—rearranging furniture, washing windows, even shoveling snow off the front walk—she’d have driven out to the farm on a moment’s notice.

But taking down Christmas decorations?

Her mother gave a wry laugh. “It’s okay. Don’t worry, I’ll manage by myself.”

Mom’s disappointment tarnished Natalie’s brief glow of triumph and raised a moment of concern. Her stubborn mother would “manage” all right. She’d take on the whole project by herself, arthritis and all. Natalie pressed the phone against her ear. “Now, Mom, don’t you try to carry all those boxes out to the barn. You’ll aggravate your bad wrist again, and you won’t be able to paint for a week.”

“Natalie—”

“I mean it, Mom. Stack the decorations out of sight in the downstairs guestroom, and I’ll come by one day next week to help you pack everything away.”

After eliciting her mother’s assurance she wouldn’t take on too much, Natalie said good-bye. Just a few more days to psych herself up for the end of the holidays, that’s all she asked. Shrugging off the last twinges of guilt, Natalie snuggled into the recliner to finish her coffee.

Around ten, she finally talked herself into exchanging her comfy robe and those adorable slippers for paint-stained sweats and grungy sneakers. Like it or not, she needed to do a cursory cleaning before her in-laws arrived. She’d just finished loading the dishwasher and returned from the garage with the sponge mop when the phone rang again.

This time it was Daniel’s father, calling to say the winter frontal system had already hit their part of the state. With two inches of snow on the ground and more expected, they’d decided not to chance the drive.

A crazy mix of relief and disappointment flooded Natalie. Daniel didn’t get to see his folks that often, and Lissa had been planning an after-Christmas shopping trip with her grandmother ever since they’d first mentioned coming. But an excuse to postpone housecleaning? Definitely cause for celebration. Natalie loaded the stereo with her favorite Christmas CDs, set up her easel and paints in front of the bay window, and settled in for her version of the perfect Saturday.

Hours later, she was adding the finishing touches to a winter landscape when the phone startled her. The paintbrush skittered across the canvas, marring a stately pine with aquamarine streaks. Natalie mumbled a few choice words and glanced at the mantle clock as she wiped her hands on a paint rag. Five already? Where had the day gone? Daniel and Lissa would be home soon. She needed to wrap things up and figure out something for supper. Mentally sorting through the freezer contents for a quick and simple meal, she picked up the kitchen extension.

“Natalie?” her dad’s voice sounded ragged—choked with panic. “Come to the hospital right away. It’s your mother.”

Her stomach plummeted. She pictured her mother at the bottom of a ladder amidst a pile of Christmas decorations. “What happened? Is she okay?”

Sprained ankle? Broken hip? Oh, Mom, why couldn’t you wait?
“Just . . . get here.” Her father clicked off before she could press him for details.

Dread coiled around her heart. She threw a parka over her sweats and grabbed her purse and keys off the counter. When she gunned the engine to back out of the garage, her trusty silver Saturn screeched in protest. The side mirror nicked the doorframe, and she barely missed taking out the mailbox and the neighbor’s trash can. She drove like a maniac to Putnam General, all the while berating herself for ignoring Mom’s request for help. After everything her mother had sacrificed for her, she could only pray these new injuries wouldn’t cripple her mother for life.

Natalie burst through the ER entrance and scanned the faces in the congested waiting area. A mother holding an ice pack against her son’s forehead. An ashen-faced woman dozing against an elderly man’s shoulder. Whimpering babies. Frightened children. Anxious parents.

She spotted her father’s silver-gray head across the room, where he paced in front of a set of double doors. Her brother, Hart, stood close by with his hands tucked into his blue-jeans pockets, rocking on his heels.

Natalie rushed over and touched her father’s arm. “Dad, how’s Mom? Tell me it’s not serious.”

Her father turned and looked at her—looked through her. “They think it’s a stroke.” His face crumpled as his thin veneer of strength collapsed. He pressed a fist to his mouth and pulled her to him, squeezing her so tightly, she could hardly breathe.

Natalie struggled away and stared at him, not comprehending. A stroke? Ice-cold terror crackled through her veins. She spun to face her brother and seized his wrist. “Hart?”

“It’s bad, Nat. Real bad.” He drew her into his arms, and she felt her brother’s fear in every tense muscle of his body.

A tall, bearded man in hospital greens pushed through the double doors. “Mr. Morgan? I’m Dr. Wyatt.” He indicated a frayed blue sofa, the only empty seat in the waiting area. “Why don’t we sit down.”

Natalie blocked his way. “Just tell us, how is my mother? She’ll be okay, right?”

“I wish I had better news.” The doctor glanced at the chart he held.

“But there’s stuff you can do for a stroke these days. I saw it on TV.”

“It isn’t that simple. Please try to understand.” Dr. Wyatt attempted to explain her mother’s condition, tossing out phrases about blood clots and clot-dissolving medications and something about a three-hour time window before irreversible brain damage set in.

A sob tore from Natalie’s throat. “Are you saying she got here too late? That there’s nothing you can do?”

“We’ll continue to do all we can to minimize the damage, but under the circumstances . . . ” The doctor gave a oneshoulder shrug. “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dawn's Prelude - Chapter 1

Dawn's Prelude

(Bethany House - October 2009)



Chapter 1


Kansas City, Missouri

Early April 1870

I have no intention of Lydia inheriting any of Father's money," Mitchell Gray announced. "She's nothing to this family—an outsider imposed upon us after the death of our mother. She's entitled to nothing."

"Hush," his younger sister, Evie, replied. "She's just in the next room."

Sitting alone in the formal parlor that had displayed her husband's closed coffin only hours earlier, Lydia Gray rocked quietly. She allowed the hatred of his grown children to wash over her and numb any concerns or fears she might have otherwise given credence. With exception to Evie, they had hated her from the first moment she'd entered their home—not that Lydia could blame them. She'd hated nearly everything about her twelve years of marriage to Floyd Gray. Nothing would change their feelings now.

And so she rocked.

I'm only twenty-eight, she reasoned. Twenty-eight years old, and nearly half of those years had been spent in an abusive marriage to a man who treated his horses better than he'd treated his wife. His second wife.

Lydia glanced up at the portrait of the children's mother. The oil painting had been commissioned at Charlotte Gray's request for her husband's Christmas gift in 1858. After presenting it to him in the morning, Charlotte promptly excused herself from her family's revelry and leaped to her death from the widow's walk. She had been thirty-seven years old and had left behind two grown sons, a twelve-year-old daughter, Jeannette, and four-year-old Eve.

The sorrowful gaze of the blond-haired Charlotte stared down from the wall. Her lonely expression had haunted Lydia since she'd first come to this house—it bore a look of pain that Lydia understood firsthand. It was almost as if the two shared a bond that crossed between the living and the dead. Many had been the time Lydia had come to this room just to rock and stare at the painting.

"The will can be read immediately, and once we see what that has to say," Marston, Mitchell's twin, announced, "we can be rid of her. I can't imagine that Father would have left her anything. I believe we should give her until the end of the month to settle her affairs and leave. It's not like she has much to concern herself with. Father never gave her anything of her own. It all belonged to Mother. The jewelry, furnishings, and servants will stay here."

"Then why give her until the end of the month?" Jeannette Gray Stone questioned. Jeannette had resented the intrusion of her father's second marriage. It wasn't that she missed her mother all that much, but she didn't like her position as lady of the house being usurped by a stepmother—especially one only a few years older than Jeannette herself.

Lydia listened to them argue about how long they should give her to be gone from their lives. They had already established she should have nothing that had belonged to their father. No reward for enduring twelve painful years of marriage to a cruel and vicious man. No sympathy for all she had suffered.

She glanced up again. Charlotte's gaze seemed sympathetic, almost soothing. She seemed to silently suggest that only death would ease Lydia's miseries.

And so she rocked.

Shadows danced across the elegantly flowered wallpaper. The diffused light of early evening gave them a specter-like appearance. Perhaps Floyd Gray had come back to torment her. It would be just like him.

"Less than a month hardly seems reasonable, and her father was killed in the same carriage accident that took our father," Eve told her siblings. "You don't want society saying we were heartless."

"She never loved our father, and she certainly isn't mourning the loss of him now," Mitchell declared.

"But what of her own father?" Eve asked. "She has lost him, as well."

Marston quickly countered, "They were never close."

"That's right," Jeannette agreed. "Not only that, but she made Father's life miserable. He told me so on more than one occasion. She was cold and indifferent to his needs."

Frowning, Lydia folded her gloved hands and sighed. She had tried to be the perfect wife to Floyd, despite being married against her will at the tender age of sixteen. The arrangement had been her father's idea, and his alone. He had betrothed her to Floyd Gray as a business arrangement; Lydia's mother had been appalled to see her only child wedded to a man who had been widower for two short months. She died the following winter after a bout of pneumonia weakened her heart.

"Perhaps we should wait to decide until after the reading of Father's will on Monday," Eve suggested.

Lydia didn't know why the young woman even bothered. At seventeen, Genevieve Gray Gadston had only been married six weeks herself. Her older siblings gave this no bearing, however. She was still a child in their eyes and would always remain so. Her comments were given little credence.

"I suppose a day or two can't possibly matter," Jeannette replied.

"Very well," Mitchell declared, thoroughly surprising Lydia. "We will wait to decide, but as soon as the reading is finished, we will dictate our wishes with the lawyer as our witness."

This was agreed upon in hushed murmurs before the foursome entered the parlor to address Lydia. She didn't bother to glance up from where she sat; she had no desire to see their hard, hateful expressions. She was unwanted and unloved by this family, but very soon, she would be free of them.

"We have decided," Mitchell announced as the family spokesman, "that you will remain here until the reading of the will is complete. We are to meet with the lawyer on Monday."

Lydia picked lint from her black gown. "Very well."

"It would be prudent, however," Jeannette said, "to have the maids begin packing your clothes."

"Except for the furs," Mitchell interrupted. "Those will remain here to be given to our sisters and my wife. They were much too costly, and I'm certain Father never intended for them to leave the family."

Still Lydia rocked and refused to meet their eyes. "Very well."

"It would also be in your best interest," Marston added, "to inquire as to what options are available to you for your living arrangements. No sense waiting until the last minute to decide where you will move."

This was his way of informing her she would not be allowed to remain there. None of the Grays had ever been hard-pressed to deliver orders or unpleasant news, but for some reason, Mitchell and Marston seemed uncomfortable with actually commanding her to leave. Who could know their reasoning? Perhaps they did worry about what Kansas City society might say. Maybe they feared the newspapers would pick up the story and capitalize on their scandalous behavior.

"I need to leave for home," Jeannette finally announced. "I must see the children before Nanny puts them to bed for the night." She left the room without another word.

"Come, Marston, I'll drop you to your house on my way home," Mitchell said. "We can discuss how best to split up the business."

Only Eve remained as the men's voices echoed down the hallway until at last they exited the house. When Lydia finally looked up, Eve was watching her.

"I should be going, as well. Thomas sent the carriage for me some time ago. He'll wonder why I haven't returned."

"I understand," Lydia said. Only then did she still the chair's movement.

Eve seemed reluctant to go. She started to leave, then turned back. "What will you do?"

Lydia shrugged. "I don't really know. I've not had much chance to think about it. I'm still in a state of shock over the accident."

"It's hard to believe he's really gone," Eve admitted.

All of Floyd's children had known his harsh demands and heavy hand. Eve was certainly no exception to that. Many had been the time Lydia had watched helplessly as Floyd had backhanded his youngest child for the slightest infraction of his rules.

Rising from the chair, Lydia drew a deep breath. "But he is. He's gone, and he cannot hurt us anymore."

Eve's frown deepened as if she didn't believe her stepmother, but she made no attempt to correct the comment. "Good-bye, Lydia. I suppose I shall see you on Monday."

* * *


"I know it is rather soon to bother you with this," Dwight Robinson announced in greeting on Saturday morning, "but it was necessary that you see this before the reading of the will."

Lydia looked at her father's lawyer and then to the letter he extended. "Very well. Please come in."

Thunder rumbled outside and rain began to pour in earnest as the butler secured the door against the wind. Lydia led the way to a smaller, informal sitting room. She suppressed a yawn. All through the night she had tossed and turned, listening for Floyd's footsteps in the hallway. Then she remembered he was dead and could no longer hurt her. She had fallen asleep sometime around four in the morning, only to be awakened some four hours later to start her day.

"Please be seated. Should I ring for refreshments?" Lydia asked. "It's rather chilly in here; perhaps you'd like some coffee?"

"No. I'm fine." He gave her a sympathetic smile. "I suppose this has been very hard on you."

Lydia shrugged. "No more so than anything else." She took a seat on the richly upholstered silk sofa while Mr. Robinson settled himself on an ornate Baroque-styled chair. The piece had been one of Mr. Gray's favorites.

Again Robinson extended the letter. This time Lydia took it. "What is this?" she asked, turning over the folded pages in her hand.

"It's from your father. He left it with me some months ago, with instructions that should anything happen to him, you were to be given this missive."

Lydia frowned. Her father had barely spoken two words to her since forcing her into marriage. She tried to imagine what he could possibly have to say to her now.

"I think you will be ... well, perhaps comforted by the words," Robinson said, giving his thick mustache a stroke. The rather portly old man studied her for a moment, then added, "He had me read the letter."

"And what does it say?"

"Why don't you simply read it, and then we can discuss any questions you might have. It isn't all that long."

She had thought to read it later in the privacy of her bedchamber, but seeing that Mr. Robinson had no intention of leaving until they were able to converse about it, Lydia nodded. Unfolding the pages, she drew a deep breath at the sight of her father's large script.

My dearest daughter,

For so long, my heart has been burdened with the mistakes I have made. I caused you great misery in forcing your hand in marriage to a man I knew to be ill-tempered and harsh, and all for the sake of financial security.

I pray you find a way to forgive me. So many times I desired only to come to you and plead my case, but deep in my heart, I knew there was no excuse for what I had done. I was a greedy man, whose only purpose was to build a vast fortune. That it came at the expense of those I loved was not something I considered. I believed that in time, my choices would not only be understood but applauded. Now I see the truth of the matter and know that I have done you a grave injustice.

If you are reading this letter, then I have passed from this life into eternity. The purpose of leaving this missive behind is twofold. First, the terms of my will are complicated and were never intended to cause you grief, although they most certainly are destined to do so. Second, I have left money in trust with Mr. Robinson that no one else knows about. This money is for you. It is enough to help you get a divorce or whatever other living arrangements you might desire.

The rest of the letter repeated the request for forgiveness, but Lydia was too stunned to read further. She looked up at the lawyer and shook her head.

"I don't understand."

"Your father wanted to give you a way out of your marriage. He spoke to me about it on more than one occasion. We knew it would be most difficult to help you obtain a divorce; however, that is no longer an issue."

She silently refolded the pages. "I suppose I should be happy that he came to realize his mistake." It seemed too little, too late, but Lydia didn't wish to sound as lacking in feeling as her late husband.

The older man once again shifted his bulky frame. "Your father grieved his decision to see you married to Gray. He hoped that something—anything—could be done to change it. Of course, you know that your husband was a powerful man. Most were too intimidated by his ruthlessness to do anything but yield to his will. Your father found himself in that position."

Lydia wasn't ready to feel sorry for her father. She felt the boning of her corset dig into her waist and straightened. "He mentioned that the terms of his will were complicated. Might you enlighten me in this area?"

Just then, there was the unmistakable sound of someone in the foyer. No one had bothered to knock, so Lydia knew it must be one of the children.

"It would seem we have company," Lydia said, loud enough to draw the attention of whomever had entered.

Marston Gray looked into the front room as he doffed his black hat. "Robinson? What brings you here?" he questioned, ignoring Lydia.

Lydia watched him cross the room to shake the older man's hand. Robinson had gotten to his feet and was clearly uncomfortable with Marston's appearance.

"I had business with Mrs. Gray."

"Truly?" Marston looked at Lydia in disbelief. "And what caused my stepmother to summon you?"

Robinson cleared his throat rather nervously and focused on the floor. Lydia hated to see the man take this stance. Marston loved to see people intimidated. He fed upon it, just as he did now. His expression turned almost cruel as he sneered at the older man.

"Surely in her state of ... mourning ... it would be appropriate to have the guidance of a family member in any legal matter."

"Mr. Robinson was just leaving," Lydia interrupted. She came to the man's side and motioned toward the foyer. "Allow me to show you out."

Marston wasn't going to stand for this. He blocked the doorway. "I'm only looking out for you, Lydia. Was there some question you had about your future?"

Lydia met his pale blue eyes. "If there were, I certainly wouldn't be asking you."

She saw the anger course through her stepson. If her father's letter was true, and she had no reason to think it wasn't, then she was free of this man and his siblings. She had no reason to fear him anymore.

Standing her ground, Lydia squared her shoulders. "Now, if you'll excuse us, Mr. Robinson has other important meetings, and I have a headache and intend to lie down."

Marston said nothing more. He pulled back, much to Lydia's surprise, and allowed them to pass. Lydia could feel the man tremble slightly beneath her touch. She felt sorry for him, knowing that he was embarrassed by the entire encounter.

"Oh, there is one other thing," Robinson stated as they reached the front door. The butler arrived with his hat in hand, then turned to open the door.

Lydia glared at the man until he took his leave. The servants were always trying to overhear her conversations. Seeing that she no longer required his service, the butler bowed stiffly and left them. "You said there was something else, Mr. Robinson?"

"I wish to accompany you to the reading of the will on Monday. As your father's lawyer, I have made arrangements with Mr. Gray's lawyer. We will both need to be present for the reading, due to those complications of which your father spoke."

"I see." Lydia glanced over her shoulder to find Marston watching her. She lifted her chin and spoke loudly enough for him to hear her. "I would be very glad for you to accompany me. What time shall I expect you?"

"I will arrive for you at nine-thirty. The reading is set for ten."

Lydia nodded. "Very well. I shall await your arrival."

As soon as Robinson had departed, Lydia hurried upstairs before Marston could stop her. She nearly ran for the sanctuary of her bedroom and locked the door behind her before allowing herself another glance at her father's letter.

If he had provided enough money, then Lydia knew exactly what she wanted to do. Her only living relative, Aunt Zerelda, lived in far-off Alaska in a tiny island town called Sitka. It had long been Lydia's desire to join her there.

Perhaps now I can do exactly that. After all, it would resolve all of her problems. Moving to such a remote place would put her well beyond the reach of her vindictive stepchildren. It would also allow her a fresh new start.

She went to her desk and took out pen and paper. It would take considerable time for a letter to reach her aunt. It would be best to get started and allow Zerelda knowledge of what had happened. She didn't yet know of her brother's death.

For the first time in years, Lydia felt a spark of hope. She glanced across the room to where her violin awaited her. Forgoing the letter momentarily, Lydia crossed to the instrument and lovingly took it in hand. She tested the strings and tuned it before drawing the bow.

Music filled the air and sent soothing waves across the stormy seas of Lydia's heart. Throughout her life, she had known no comfort like that of her music. For a moment she lost herself in the haunting melody of Bach's Mass in B Minor.

She had once thought of having this music played at her funeral. Now, however, her death seemed far away. A new future awaited her.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Danger At The Door - Prologue & Chapter 1

Danger At The Door

(Desert Breeze September, 2009)


Prologue


The door slammed behind him as lightning flashed across the summer sky. A boom echoed as thunder struck the ground. Moist summer air filled his lungs and electricity raised the hair on the back of his neck. He savored the scent and held it in like smoke from a cigarette. With a grunt, he exhaled, wishing he had something more powerful than tobacco to inhale.

The unpredictability of monsoon season shot bolts of excitement through him. It gave him energy. Made him want to go on the hunt for someone weak.

A slow grin tugged at his mouth. It had been a long time — nearly a year — since he could do as he pleased. How he hated being restricted like a child, and jail felt like one big time-out. Idiot guards thought they could control him. But he made sure to wish them dead whenever he was forced to comply.

After all, it had worked on his Momma.

If only she’d used time-out with him instead of her wicked ways.

He clenched his fists and blocked the memory, resisting the urge to smash his knuckles on the brick wall. Sporadic drops of rain pelted his head, cooling him off.

His cottony mouth made him long for a strong drink. Something with kick, like whiskey.
Resisting the urge to open his mouth and let the raindrops quench his thirst, he pressed his lips together.

Childhood had abandoned him long ago.

He imagined going to Jeepers Creepers pub and finding an easy woman to keep him company tonight. But this time he’d watch himself and make sure she didn’t have a jealous husband waiting in the wings. Yeah, tonight he’d pick a gal that he could crash with until he got his life together.

There was only one woman he really wanted. She just didn’t know it yet. Their reunion would be sweet, or she’d regret it. He’d make sure of that.

Soon the tangy taste of adrenaline would flood his veins. He missed the tingling sensation, the warmth coursing through him when a woman begged him for mercy. There had been many cries echoing in his head over the past few years. But none of them satisfied his craving. He imagined his first night with her. Yeah, he’d make their time together memorable.

He leaned against the rough brick wall of the decrepit jail building. Grumbling, he popped his knuckles as he waited for his ride. What was taking him so long to get there?

He better not back out just because he found himself a woman with a kid.

First, he had to collect what his narc friend owed him. And if he felt generous, he might let him go without pounding his face in. Depending on how useful he’d be.

Just a running vehicle and some cash. That’s all he needed to get back on his feet. And a decent job. Something low-key to avoid having his background checked. But it had to be legit. Work that would make his probation officer content. Then, when he got himself set up in a place, he’d find that brunette who taunted him in his dreams.

Sam’s girl.

This time he’d get the right house.


Chapter One


Laney Cooper released a shuddering sigh.

She set the table for two one last time and ordered their favorite meal — spinach pizza and antipasto salad -- to celebrate Sam’s life.

Tonight marked the anniversary of her fiancĂ©’s death. She wanted the farewell dinner to propel her into a new year of hope, to help her move on. Blinking back tears, she lit tapered candles and dimmed the lights.

Her shoulders slumped. They had planned the perfect wedding. Images of her dress, the lace veil, and the three-tiered cake flashed through her mind. The perfect honeymoon, a two-week trip to Cancun.

Finding something to look forward to without him was proving more difficult than she’d
imagined. But she’d try. He would have wanted her to.

She approached the window and moved the blinds so she could check the road. Total darkness covered the Huachuca Mountain range in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The inky blackness smothered the sky as the last bit of sunlight faded on the horizon.

No headlights snaked up the mountain. Her shoulders sagged further as she backed away from the window. Dinner should have arrived half an hour ago. She ordered the same thing every week, but tonight she’d added cannoli — Sam’s favorite dessert — to her order. She wanted to end the commemorative meal with something sweet.

Flipping open her cell phone, she quickly bypassed a digital photo of Sam with his arm draped over her shoulder. The evidence of joy on their faces seared her heart if she lingered on the image too long. She’d delete the picture soon. Maybe after she ate.

It’d be hard, but she’d do it.

After dialing to check on her order, she squeezed her eyes shut. The phone rang numerous times before someone finally answered.

"Little Italy. May I take your order?"

She pushed the words past the lump in her throat. They didn’t know how much their lateness hurt. "I don’t need you to take my order. I need you to deliver it."

"Ma’am, I need your name."

She released an exasperated sigh as she ran her fingers through her bangs. "It’s Cooper. My food should have been here by now. You guys know me. I order the same thing every—"

"Please hold." The bored-sounding voice cut her off. She wondered if the man had even heard her complaint. As she waited, a local radio announcer introduced a country western song. Friday nights were always busy at Little Italy, but never so bad that they’d had to put her on hold and force her to listen to music about love gone sour.

A sob crawled up her throat.

"Oh, Sam. Why did you have to leave me? What am I going to do without you?"

Silence echoed in the dimly lit room.

As usual, nothing. Even God had clamped His lips shut.

Sudden longing to visit Sam’s grave one last time tugged at her need to remain cocooned in the safety of her home. When had she last visited the site? Three months ago? Six?

Yet the idea of driving anywhere sent shivers of fear skittering up her spine. The thought of getting behind the wheel of a death trap made her stomach lurch. Driving was simply too dangerous.

Even riding in a cab made her nervous these days.

Baby, her longhaired black Chihuahua, yipped.

Someone must be coming. Thankfully Baby paid attention and alerted her when anyone
approached her house. She didn’t like surprises.

The sound of crunching gravel captured her attention and her stomach knotted. At first she thought she heard people arguing, but when she listened closer she recognized the blood-chilling sound of coyotes attacking some poor creature again. Probably someone’s unfortunate pet. She rubbed her silk sleeves and tiptoed to the door, thankful Baby wasn’t the cornered animal.
Silence permeated the air for several long moments. Even the coyotes had ceased their frenzied howling. Her stomach suddenly growled, making her squeal and jump. She gasped and laughed at her overreaction. No way could such a hyper vigilant nervous system be healthy.

She paused and inhaled several deep breaths. Though eager for her dinner to arrive, caution still made her pause and peer through the blinds. If only she had a sense of security like her pet. Instead, she felt cornered like the hapless animal outside her door.

The past few nights she’d had strange dreams about being pursued by something sinister — like a band of coyotes — but she couldn’t recall the details after she woke up. Worse, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been watching her the past few days.

She shuddered and glanced over her shoulder, and then peeked through the blinds a second time.

Maybe she was just being paranoid. Wouldn’t be the first time she overreacted only to discover her imagination had been running wild again.

Most of the time her anxiety came from a credible source. Like the morning she found a snake dozing on her front patio. Thankfully she’d had the good sense to shut the door before it had a chance to react to being startled. Animal control sure came in handy in those situations. She had their number on speed dial… just in case.

It was bad enough she’d found scorpions in her home when she first moved in. The pest control man had searched for them with a black light to make sure he caught them all. She shuddered at the memory and recalled the hairy tarantula in the sink last month. There were enough creepy critters in the desert to make even the bravest woman swoon.

She shuddered again. Fortunately, her exterminator came every other month and killed the pests before they could sting her or her sweet dog. Without Baby as her companion, she would become even more of a recluse — if that were possible.

Hating her weakness, her fear of leaving the house, Laney rubbed her forehead and groaned. Maybe if she had a friend to talk to — someone other than her pet — she could get her life back to normal. But fear followed her everywhere these days, cutting her off from normal relationships. From love and friendship. It even smothered her faith.

You’re not alone…

She sucked in her breath. Had God finally spoken to her heart after all this time?

The doorbell chimed. Her heart jolted even though she’d anticipated the sound. She swallowed hard, fighting to calm her breathing. It seemed ridiculous that she’d expected the delivery, and yet the abrupt noise still made her pulse race.


Baby whined and wriggled in her arms, trying to break free. She stroked her dog’s fur, heedless of her pet’s pungent need for a bath. She sighed and kissed Baby’s head. It must be a new delivery boy, for her pet couldn’t be soothed this time.

"Shhh… It’s okay, sweetie."

But Baby wouldn’t relax and struggled even more.

Laney shouted, "Just a minute!" After jogging to the other side of the house, she placed her dog in her traveling cage so Baby wouldn’t scare the delivery guy. Though small, Baby sounded downright vicious when she growled, especially when an unfamiliar visitor entered her territory.

With a forced smile, Laney wiped her eyes and returned to the foyer. She peered through the peephole to make sure the person was safe before opening the door to them.

A little over a year ago a woman had been attacked in her home, which looked a lot like Laney’s house. The woman had lived less than a mile away. They never caught the man, and the frightened woman soon moved away.

Occasionally border patrol would stop by and check on her because she lived on the foothills. Year round, illegals would hike over the mountain to avoid detection. She appreciated the border patrol looking out for her, but at the same time they had her scared to death, filling her mind with visions of being attacked or robbed. She would rather not know about those situations in her area.

Yep. A person could never be too cautious. She scanned the man’s clothing and recognized his uniform —especially the Little Italy t-shirt. She opened the door and motioned with a wave to usher the deliveryman inside.

The olive-skinned Adonis stared at her, unmoving on her front patio. His gorgeous, light brown eyes fixated on hers. He had a distinct Mediterranean look, mixed with Russian or Greek descent. She stared back, mesmerized for a moment by the slow grin forming on his face. He stood several inches taller, forcing her to look up.

At least the delivery guys were getting better looking. So much so, she found herself gaping when he removed his baseball cap to reveal a thick head of hair and nodded.
The man’s smile grew wider. No doubt her staring flattered him. She couldn’t help admiring the gleam of his straight, white teeth, and the tiny dimple in his left cheek.

Flustered that he’d noticed her gawking, Laney combed her bangs with her fingers. Her cheeks heated as she glanced away and tried to collect her thoughts.

The man shifted his feet and tucked his ball cap under his arm. His grin faded and his brow furrowed. Maybe he’d never made a delivery before and didn’t know what to say.
He grew serious as he scanned her face, settling on her mouth for a fraction of a second, before returning to her eyes.

"Where’s Tom?" Her voice trembled, betraying her still-fragile emotions, her fear.

"Sick. He has bad cold." The corner of his mouth curved upward, and he held out the boxes containing her order. "Your food?"

"Please, come in?" she asked again and licked her lips, a nervous habit that used to drive her sister crazy. What she wouldn’t do to have her sister back, even if it meant getting nagged about her quirks all the time.

The man nodded and averted his eyes as he stepped inside, then captured her gaze again. A deep, tender expression teased his suntanned face.

Warmth melted her insides. It should be illegal to heat a woman’s heart with an intimate glance within minutes of meeting her.

Though the same intense look in the past — before Sam — would’ve made her desire an
invitation to dinner, this man’s attention made her melt on the spot. If only dating didn’t require leaving the safety of her house.

After hesitating a moment, she turned and muttered, "Just set the box over there, and I’ll be right back with a check."

The man nodded as he strolled to the table and set down the boxes. For a moment she watched him, fascinated by his graceful movement. So smooth, and yet so thoroughly masculine. She swallowed hard.

Admiring the chocolate color of his wavy brown hair for a moment, she quickly averted her attention. The fresh scent of his woodsy pine after shave wafted in the air, reminding her of Sam. She sped from the room before tears formed.

Looking at any man with appreciation seemed like betrayal of the worst kind. Especially today, since she’d intended to devote every minute to Sam’s memory. The attraction she felt toward the deliveryman was wrong.

She couldn’t be so lonely that she’d long to spend time with a complete stranger, no matter how nice looking he happened to be.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Just Between You And Me - Excerpt

Just Between You And Me

Thomas Nelson (September 1, 2009)



Buy
Read

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Blue Enchantress - Chapter 1

The Blue Enchantress

Barbour Books (August 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


St. Kitts, September 1718

“Gentlemen, what will ye offer for this rare treasure of a lady?” The words crashed over Hope Westcott like bilge water. “Why, she’ll make any of ye a fine wife, a cook, a housemaid”—the man gave a lascivious chuckle—“whate’er ye desire.”

“How ’bout someone to warm me bed at night,” one man bellowed, and a cacophony of chortles gurgled through the air.

Hope slammed her eyes shut against the mob of men who pressed on three sides of the tall wooden platform, shoving one another to get a better peek at her. Something crawled over her foot, and she pried her eyes open, keeping her face lowered. A black spider skittered away. Red scrapes and bruises marred her bare feet. When had she lost her satin shoes—the gold braided ones she’d worn to impress Lord Falkland? She couldn’t recall.

“What d’ye say? How much for this fine young lady?” The man grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked her head back. Pain, like a dozen claws, pierced her skull. “She’s a handsome one, to be sure. And these golden locks.” He attempted to slide his fingers through her matted strands, but before becoming hopelessly entangled in them, he jerked his hand free, wrenching out a clump of her hair. Hope winced. “Have ye seen the likes of them?”

Ribald whistles and groans of agreement spewed over her.

“Two shillings,” one man yelled.

Hope dared to glance across the throng amassing before the auction block. A wild sea of lustful eyes sprayed over her. A band of men dressed in garments stained with dirt and sweat bunched toward the front, yelling out bids. Behind them, other men in velvet waistcoats leaned their heads together, no doubt to discuss the value of this recent offering, while studying her as if she were a breeding mare. Slaves knelt in the dirt along the outskirts of the mob, waiting for their masters. Beyond them, a row of wooden buildings stretched in either direction. Brazen women emerged from a tavern and draped themselves over the railings, watching Hope’s predicament with interest. On the street, ladies in modish gowns averted their eyes as they tugged the men on their arms from the sordid scene.

Hope lowered her head. This can’t be happening. I’m dreaming. I am still on the ship. Just a nightmare. Only a nightmare. Humiliation swept over her with an ever-rising dread as the reality of her situation blasted its way through her mind.

She swallowed hard and tried to drown out the grunts and salacious insults tossed her way by the bartering rabble. Perhaps if she couldn’t hear them, if she couldn’t see them, they would disappear and she would wake up back home, safe in Charles Towne, safe in her bedchamber, safe with her sisters, just like she was before she’d put her trust in a man who betrayed her.

“Egad, man. Two shillings, is it? For this beauty?” The auctioneer spit off to the side. The yellowish glob landed on Hope’s skirt. Her heart felt as though it had liquefied into an equally offensive blob and oozed down beside it.

How did I get here? In her terror, she could not remember. She raised her gaze to the auctioneer. Cold eyes, hard like marbles, met hers, and a sinister grin twisted his lips. He adjusted his tricorn to further shade his chubby face from the burning sun.

“She looks too feeble for any real work,” another man yelled.

The sounds of the crowd dimmed. The men’s fists forged into the air as if pushing through mud. Garbled laughter drained from their yellow-toothed mouths like molasses. Hope’s heart beat slower, and she wished for death.

The gentle lap of waves caressed her ears, their peaceful cadence drawing her away. Tearing her gaze from the nightmarish spectacle, she glanced over her shoulder, past the muscled henchmen who’d escorted her here. Two docks jutted out into a small bay brimming with sparkling turquoise water where several ships rocked back and forth as if shaking their heads at her in pity. Salt and papaya and sun combined in a pleasant aroma that lured her mind away from her present horror.

Her eyes locked upon the glimmering red and gold figurine of Ares at the bow of Lord Falkland’s ship. She blinked back the burning behind her eyes. When she’d boarded it nigh a week past—or was it two weeks—all her hopes and dreams had boarded with her. Somewhere along the way, they had been cast into the depths of the sea. She only wished she had joined them. Although the ship gleamed majestically in the bay, all she had seen of it for weeks had been the four walls of a small cabin below deck.

The roar of the crowd wrenched her mind back to the present and turned her face forward.

“Five shillings.”

“’Tis robbery, and ye know it,” the auctioneer barked. “Where are any of ye clods goin’ t’ find a real lady like this?”

A stream of perspiration raced down Hope’s back as if seeking escape. But there was no escape. She was about to be sold as a slave, a harlot to one of these cruel and prurient taskmasters. A fate worse than death. A fate her sister had fought hard to keep her from. A fate Hope had brought upon herself. Numbness crept over her even as her eyes filled with tears. Oh God. This can’t be happening.

She gazed upward at the blue sky dusted with thick clouds, hoping for some deliverance, some sign that God had not abandoned her.

The men continued to haggle, their voices booming louder and louder, grating over her like the howls of demons.

Her head felt like it had detached from her body and was floating up to join the clouds. Palm trees danced in the light breeze coming off the bay. Their tall trunks and fronds formed an oscillating blur of green and brown. The buildings, the mob, and the whole heinous scene joined the growing mass and began twirling around Hope. Her legs turned to jelly, and she toppled to the platform.

“Get up!” A sharp crack stung her cheek. Two hands like rough rope clamped over her arms and dragged her to her feet. Pain lanced through her right foot where a splinter had found a home. Holding a hand to her stinging face, Hope sobbed.

The henchman released her with a grunt of disgust.

“I told ye she won’t last a week,” one burly man shouted.

“She ain’t good for nothing but to look at.”

Planting a strained grin upon his lips, the auctioneer swatted her rear end. “Aye, but she’s much more stout than she appears, gentlemen.”

Horrified and no longer caring about the repercussions, Hope slapped the man’s face. He raised his fist, and she cowered. The crowd roared its mirth.

“One pound, then,” a tall man sporting a white wig called out. “I could use me a pretty wench.” Withdrawing a handkerchief, he dabbed at the perspiration on his forehead.

Wench. Slave. Hope shook her head, trying to force herself to accept what her mind kept trying to deny. A sudden surge of courage, based on naught but her instinct to survive, stiffened her spine. She thrust out her chin and faced the auctioneer. “I beg your pardon, sir. There’s been a mistake. I am no slave.”

“Indeed?” He cocked one brow and gave her a patronizing smirk.

Hope searched the horde for a sympathetic face—just one. “My name is Miss Hope Westcott,” she shouted. “My father is Admiral Henry Westcott. I live in Charles Towne with my two sisters.”

“And I’m King George,” a farmer howled, slapping his knee.

“My father will pay handsomely for my safe return.” Hope scanned the leering faces. Not one. Not one look of sympathy or belief or kindness. Fear crawled up her throat. She stomped her foot, sending a shard of pain up her leg. “You must believe me,” she sobbed. “I don’t belong here.”

Ignoring the laughter, Hope spotted a purple plume fluttering in the breeze atop a gold-trimmed hat in the distance. “Arthur!” She darted for the stairs but two hands grabbed her from behind and held her in place. “Don’t leave me! Lord Falkland!” She struggled in her captor’s grasp. His grip tightened, sending a throbbing ache across her back.

Swerving about, Lord Falkland tapped his cane into the dirt and tipped the brim of his hat up, but the distance between them forbade Hope a vision of his expression.

“Tell them who I am, Arthur. Please save me!”

He leaned toward the woman beside him and said something, then coughed into his hand. What is he doing? The man who once professed an undying love for Hope, the man who promised to marry her, to love her forever, the man who bore the responsibility for her being here in the first place. How could he stand there and do nothing while she met such a hideous fate?

The elegant lady beside him turned her nose up at Hope, then, threading her arm through Lord Falkland’s, she wheeled him around and pulled him down the road.

Hope watched him leave, and with each step of his cordovan boots, her heart and her very soul sank deeper into the wood of the auction block beneath her feet.

Nothing made any sense. Had the world gone completely mad?

“Two pounds,” a corpulent man in the back roared.

A memory flashed through Hope’s mind as she gazed across the band of men. A vision of African slaves, women and children, being auctioned off in Charles Towne. How many times had she passed by, ignoring them, uncaring, unconcerned by the proceedings?

Was this God’s way of repaying her for her selfishness, her lack of charity?

“Five pounds.”

Disappointed curses rumbled among the men at the front, who had obviously reached their limit of coin.

The auctioneer’s mouth spread wide, greed dripping from its corners. “Five pounds, gentlemen. Do I hear six for this lovely lady?”

A blast of hot air rolled over Hope, stealing her breath. Human sweat, fish, and horse manure filled her nose and saturated her skin. The unforgiving sun beat a hot hammer atop her head until she felt she would ignite into a burning torch at any moment. Indeed, she prayed she would. Better to be reduced to a pile of ashes than endure what the future held for her.

“Six pounds,” a short man with a round belly and stiff brown wig yelled from the back of the mob in a tone that indicated he knew what he was doing and had no intention of losing his prize. Decked in the a fine damask waistcoat, silk breeches, and a gold-chained pocket watch, which he kept snapping open and shut, he exuded wealth and power from his pores.

Hope’s stomach twisted into a vicious knot, and she clutched her throat to keep from heaving whatever shred of moisture remained in her empty stomach.

The auctioneer gaped at her, obviously shocked she could command such a price. Rumblings overtook the crowd as the short man pushed his way through to claim his prize. The closer he came, the faster Hope’s chest heaved and the lighter her head became. Blood pounded in her ears, drowning out the groans of the mob. No, God. No.

“Do I hear seven?” the auctioneer bellowed. “She’s young and will breed you some fine sons.”

“Just what I’ll be needing.” The man halted at the platform, glanced over the crowd for any possible competitors, then took the stairs to Hope’s right. He halted beside her too close for propriety’s sake and assailed her with the stench of lard and tobacco. A long purple scar crossed his bloated, red face as his eyes grazed over her like a stallion on a breeding mare. Hope shuddered and gasped for a breath of air. Her palms broke out in a sweat, and she rubbed them on her already moist gown.

The auctioneer threw a hand to his hip and gazed over the crowd.

The man squeezed her arms, and Hope snapped from his grasp and took a step back, abhorred at his audacity. He chuckled. “Not much muscle on her, but she’s got pluck.”

He belched, placed his watch back into the fob pocket of his breeches, and removed a leather pouch from his belt. “Six pounds it is.”

The silver tip of a sword hung at his side. If Hope were quick about it, perhaps she could grab it and, with some luck, fight her way out of here. She clenched her teeth. Who was she trying to fool? Where was her pirate sister when she needed her? Surely Faith would know exactly what to do. Yet what did it matter? Hope would rather die trying to escape than become this loathsome man’s slave.

As the man counted out the coins into the auctioneer’s greedy hands, Hope reached for the sword.