Sunday, February 28, 2010

Somewhere to Belong - Chapter 1

Somewhere to Belong

Bethany House (March 1, 2010)


Judith Miller

Chapter 1-Excerpt

March 1877 Amana Colonies, Iowa

Johanna Ilg Rigid as a barn pole, I stood planted in the parlor doorway with my gaze fixed upon the pink feather-and-plume bedecked hat. Sparkling pins held it atop wavy dark tresses that crimped and coiled. The girl’s hair reminded me of the curly leaf lettuce we forced to early growth in our hotbeds each spring. An artificial rose peeked from beneath the curvy brim like a vigilant watchman. Although the visitors to our villages sometimes adorned themselves in outlandish costumes, the hat perched upon this young lady’s head surpassed anything I’d ever seen. She appeared rather young to be wearing such an ornate headpiece. Not that I could imagine anyone attaining any age where they thought that hat becoming.

Touching her fingers to the garish chapeau, the girl’s lips curved in a patronizing smile. She’d obviously noted my attention. “The latest fashion from England. My parents purchased it for me on their last visit.

” My mother waved me forward. “Come in and meet our guests, Johanna.” I tried to force myself to look away from the hat, but my eyes betrayed me as I stepped into the room. I couldn’t stop staring at the unsightly mixture of fabric and fluff. My mother cleared her throat. “Come, Johanna. Meet Dr. and Mrs. Schumacher and their daughter, Berta. They arrived only a short time ago. You remember we’ve been expecting them.”

I turned toward the well-dressed couple who sat side by side on our horsehair-stuffed divan. Berta, who looked to be sixteen or seventeen years old, had obviously inherited her dark curls and fine features from her mother. As if prepared to take flight at the earliest possible moment, the girl sat balanced at the edge of her chair. And given the size of her hat, it would take only a slight wind to carry her aloft.

“I am very pleased to welcome you to Amana. I hope you will be happy living among us.”

Berta’s dark eyes widened to huge proportions. She shook her head with such fervor I expected the decorations to tumble from her hat. “Living?” She glanced around our parlor with a look of disdain. “We are merely vacationing for a short time. My father’s family is from Germany, and we have a distant relative living in Middle Amana. My father thought this would be a pleasant place for our family to visit. I think he wanted to provide us a glimpse of his homeland without the expense of a voyage to Europe. Isn’t that correct, Father?” When Dr. Schumacher didn’t immediately reply, Berta leaned forward in her chair, her eyes flashing with impatience. “Well, isn’t it, Father?” Her voice had raised several decibels and panic edged her words.

One look at my mother confirmed that I’d misspoken. I longed to stuff the welcome back into my mouth, but that wasn’t possible. The damage had been done. Yet no one had forewarned me. How was I to know Berta hadn’t been advised of her father’s plans to move his family to the Amana Colonies?

The multistriped woven carpet that covered the parlor floor muffled the stomp of Berta’s foot. I arched my brows and glanced toward my mother. The girl was behaving like an undisciplined two-year-old.


“Now, Berta, please. You must remain calm.” Mrs. Schumacher unclipped a hand-painted fan from her waist and handed it to her daughter. “Use this. I don’t want you fainting and embarrassing yourself.”

Berta grabbed the fan from her mother’s hand and slapped it atop her skirt. “I don’t need a fan. What I need is an answer to my question.” She waited only a moment. “Well, Father? How long will we be visiting in Amana?”

Dr. Schumacher shifted toward his daughter and inhaled a deep lungful of air. “We will be making our new home here in Iowa, Berta. I trust you will remain quiet until we can speak in private. I should have told you before we embarked on the journey, but I wanted to avoid a scene.”

“Did you?” Berta jumped to her feet, a horror-stricken look in her eyes. “You don’t really believe I’ll agree to live in this place, do you?”

Before either of her parents could respond, our parlor door opened and my father entered the room with his flat felt cap pressed between his callused fingers. A few pieces of straw clung to his dark work pants. He smiled, and crinkles formed along the outer edges of his sparkling eyes. Today his eyes appeared green.

When I was five or six years old, I’d asked him about the color of his eyes. He’d told me they were hazel, but my mother said they were brown. I argued they couldn’t be both.

“Hazel is light brown,” he’d explained before scooping me onto his lap. “But hazel eyes change and look different colors depending on what you wear. Sometimes they look green, and at other times you can see golden flecks.” He’d nuzzled my neck. “Some people call them cat eyes. Do you think I look like a cat?” he’d asked. Remembrance of that long-ago conversation warmed me. I was glad Father was home. Perhaps his easy manner would calm Berta.

He extended his hand and stepped toward the doctor. “Willkommen!” His deep voice filled the room. “We are pleased to have you join our community and to have another doctor in the villages.”

Berta glared at my father as though he’d committed a crime. “We won’t be staying in Amana, Mr. Ilg.”

My father’s brow creased. I was certain he was expecting Berta’s father to reprimand her for such rude behavior. Instead, Dr. Schumacher held a finger to his lips. “We will discuss this once we are settled in our rooms, Berta.”

“First, you must tell me we aren’t going to stay here more than one night,” Berta said before tightening her lips into a pout.

The doctor stood. “If you could show us to our rooms where we can have a private family discussion, I would be most grateful.”

Go here: To read the full chapter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Big 5-Oh! By Sandra D. Bricker - Excerpt

The Big 5-Oh!
Abingdon Press (February 2010)


Sandra D. Bricker


The evening ended on a high note, but dawn brought with it an old and familiar frustration; OLD being the operative word in this particular instance.

Liv checked the clock. 5:52 a.m. This was outrageous, even for Clayton Clydesdale!

Liv’s teeth were clenched so hard that her jaw ached. She pulled on sweat pants beneath the long sleepshirt she’d worn to bed and stalked toward the back door amidst a peel of barks and growls and snarls.

“Boofer! Quiet!”

With all of the unexpected strength that anger affords, she flipped on the patio lights and threw back the sliding glass door. Stomping out to the patio, she searched the water for any sign of Clayton or bright neon chartreuse swim trunks, or some equally shocking apparel.

Shocked is what Liv got, times ten. But not because of the color of any ensemble Clayton was wearing. In fact, Clayton was nowhere to be found.

Instead, moving steadily across the patio from the open screen door was an alligator. Destination: swimming pool.

Liv shrieked, and the five-foot reptile paused, turning its head full of teeth toward her. She tried to gasp, but her lungs were completely devoid of anything resembling air, and the world began to spin. She was locked in a cyclone of teeth, scales and very black eyes.

The ringing in her ears evolved into high-pitched barks, and she realized that Boofer had passed her by and was heading straight for the creature at the other end of the patio.

“Oh, n-nooooo,” she cried, finding her feet just in time to rush forward and pull the dog from the ground by the rim of her lampshade collar.

“Eeeeeeeeeyy-yyyeeeeeee,” she screamed, running on sharp tiptoe straight into the house.

Liv slammed shut the door and locked it before ever looking back. But when she did, the gator had transported itself completely across the patio and was no more than five feet away. She shot a quick and generic prayer of thanks upward for the wall of glass that separated them as she fumbled with the phone.

“Y-yes, hello? I n-need some h-help, please. There’s an in-intruder.”

Liv could hear her heartbeat pounding in her own ears, but the 911 operator was calm as she asked for Liv’s name and location and the whereabouts of the trespasser.

“Well, he was on the patio,” she said, wide-eyed as she peered out through the glass. “But now he-he’s in the pool.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Did you say the intruder has gone for a swim?”

“Y-yes. I just saw his tail disappear into the water!”

“His … I’m sorry. Did you say his tail?”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cowgirl at Heart by Christine Lynxwiler - Chapter 1

Cowgirl at Heart

Barbour Books (February 1, 2010)


Christine Lynxwiler

Chapter 1

Elyse McCord guided her Jeep down the gravel road for another slow pass. The white frame house on the corner lot hid its secrets well. Just like the guy at the café said, the tall privacy fence didn’t allow even a peek of the backyard. And driving back and forth all day wasn’t going to change that.

With no hard evidence, she was going to have to take his word about the starving dog in the backyard that could only be seen from his woods. She shuddered. And about the big, mean-looking guy who lived in the house, rumored to be fresh out of prison.

She turned down the side road and followed the privacy fence until it disappeared into the brushy thicket. The dark brushy thicket. Maybe she should just go home and call someone. Her hand hesitated on the gear shift knob. What if it was a false alarm? She’d look like an idiot. Or what if it was true and the dog couldn’t wait that long?

Her new Jeep bounced as she guided it onto the shoulder of the road and parked. That was her idea of living dangerously—buying a Jeep and not gripping the steering wheel with two white-knuckled hands whenever she hit a bump. This crazy mission she’d undertaken on the spur of the moment was just that. Crazy and out of character. Except that there was a dog depending on her. Her cell phone was fully charged and in her pocket. Once she saw the dog, she’d call the sheriff. She snagged a dog food pouch and water bottle from the console and climbed down.

In the woods, her heart pounded out a rhythm with her feet as she eased between the trees. She counted the dogwoods and maples as she went, their already changed leaves making them bright red beacons among the autumn mix of color. “One, two, three,” she whispered, moving forward on trembling legs. It was a trick she’d learned before she even learned to read. . .using mundane tasks, such as counting or sorting things by colors to take her mind off her fears.

She stepped out from the shadow of a giant cedar tree and tiptoed across the thick bed of brown needles. Ahead, battered, sagging chain link, about three feet tall, marked the beginning of a backyard. Another step forward. A limb snapped beneath her foot. She stopped, letting the cedar scent calm her, fighting the need to bolt back through the woods to the safety of her Jeep.

Then she saw the dog. Yellow lab from the look of him. Dust caked his ridged sides, each rib distinctly visible. He tucked his tail and watched her, big soulful eyes fearful as though begging her to be kind.

In a flash of emotion almost foreign to her, Elyse wanted to hit something hard with her fist. What kind of monster would treat a dog this way? “Hey, boy,” she said softly as she walked up to the fence.

His tail relaxed and he gave a feeble wag.

She pulled the water bottle from her pocket and poured it through the wire into a dusty bowl.

The dog lapped at the stream, not letting it hit the bowl first.

Hot tears pricked against Elyse’s eyelids. If she hadn’t overheard the hunters talking at the café. . . If she hadn’t come out here today. . . She shook her head, blinking hard. She’d learned a long time ago not to live in “what if” land.

The dog had stopped drinking and was regarding her curiously, one dusty ear raised. His collar hung loosely around his neck. A heart-shaped name tag dangled from it.

She bent down to read it. Pal. At some point, someone had cared about this dog. “Hey, Pal. I brought you some food.” She forced a smile. Better to stay alert than to give into emotion. Keeping a wary eye on the house, she knelt down near a spot where the ground dipped and slid the open pouch of dog food under the fence. “I wish I could have mixed you up some of my special recipe, but it was short notice.”

Her dogs always smelled their food before they ate it. But Pal gulped this down, barely chewing.
While he ate, Elyse considered the house. One faded green shutter was missing. The other hung askew into a window box full of dead, brown flowers, giving the impression of a distorted wink. Was someone watching her now? She squinted at the windows. The blinds were down. And even though the back screen door gaped open, a wooden door behind it appeared to be solidly closed. Jagged glass framed a broken basement window. No movement anywhere.

Relief pushed air into her lungs and she slowly exhaled. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath. She squeezed two fingers through the nearest diamond-shaped opening in the chain link and scratched the dog’s head. “I’m going to call someone and get you help,” she whispered.

He cowered away from her.

“Don’t be afraid. We’ll get you out of here.”

His tail wagged as if he understood. He stepped closer to her again, allowing her to scratch his head. Then he moved a few feet away and watched her.

Empathy welled up inside her. He wanted to trust her, but he wasn’t sure if he could. She remembered that day sixteen years ago when Jonathan and Lynda McCord had reached out to her. She’d been afraid to believe that they would really love her. “It’s hard to let go of the fear, isn’t it, Pal?”

He smiled at her. She’d taken a lot of teasing in her life for thinking dogs could smile. But he did smile. And his smile hooked her.

“I’m going to get help,” she said softly. “Right now.” She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and slid it open.

Without warning, the dog barked, took a step back and bared his teeth. The dirty hair along his spine stood up like a porcupine’s quills. A low growl sent shivers up Elyse’s own spine and she froze.

“What’s wro—” A hard tug on her hair yanked her to her feet. “Oww!” Pain raced along her scalp. She twisted around to face her attacker and stared down the barrel of a pistol.

At the sight of the gun, her legs collapsed, but the grizzled man held her up by her hair with one meaty fist. He kept the snub-nosed pistol pointed at her with the other and gave her a shake as if she were a dog toy. “You snoopin’ around here, tryin’ to butter the dog up so he won’t growl when you break in later?”

She shook her head. The bright sunlight seemed to fade. “He. . .he. . .he was hungry.” The gun in her face was too much to bear. She almost wished she’d just pass out. But even as uncontrollable shaking worked its way through her body, her vision came back into focus. No escape.

The man’s eyes, beady and mean above a bulbous red nose, narrowed farther. “You tryin’ to tell me you’re just a good S’maritan?”

She swallowed hard, still trembling all over. If she didn’t answer him, he’d kill her. She knew it. “I just wanted”—she gulped again—“to give him some food and water.”

He let out an obscenity of disbelief.

She gagged at the strong smell of alcohol on his breath. Think, she commanded herself. Think. Don’t give into the fear. She needed to calm down and assess the situation. Her attacker was obviously mentally unbalanced and drunk as well. Her only hope was to be rescued. Her phone, still clutched in her hand, caught her eye.

“Seriously.” She winced at her fearful voice, but she continued, “You. . .probably didn’t realize how hungry he was.” She nodded toward Pal.

He glanced instinctively at the dog.

She worked her fingers slowly, trying not to call attention to her hand. 9-1—

He snatched the phone from her and threw it on the ground. She gasped as it broke into pieces. He shoved her hard against the fence. The sagging chain link molded around her like an upright metal blanket and dug into her sides. She couldn’t hold back a groan. Behind her, Pal growled low in his throat.

“I heard what you said about gettin’ help,” the man snarled. “You’re nothing but a liar.” He waved the gun at her. “Now on your feet.”

Elyse closed her eyes. Please, Lord, help me.

“On your feet.” He grabbed her by the arm.

Pal gave three short excited barks then resumed growling, louder this time. “It’s okay, boy,” she murmured as she stumbled to a standing position. If she couldn’t make the dog calm down, the man might snap completely and kill them both. “He needed food and water.”

The man gave her another rough shove. “I’ve heard all that garbage I want to hear from my sister. ‘Feed Pal, Zeke. Make sure he has water, Zeke.’ ”

His high pitch mimic sent a fresh shiver up Elyse’s spine. Pal jumped against the sagging fence, snarling at the man, but unable to get to him.

“A bullet through his head is what he needs. And that’s what he’s gonna get.”

She glanced back at Zeke just in time to see him turn the gun toward the dog. “No!” she roared and threw herself at him.

He grabbed her by the shirt collar and shoved the gun against her throat. Madness and rage glittered in his eyes, his foul alcohol-saturated breath hot on her face. “You’re gonna pay for that.” He yanked her hair and shoved her forward again, pushing her along the chain link fence toward the privacy fence that spanned the sides of the backyard.

She’d almost forgotten what gut-wrenching fear felt like, but dizziness and nausea brought the memories rushing back. The last thing she saw as she stumbled around the corner next to the privacy fence, the gun jabbing in her back, was Pal, watching. At least she’d gotten Zeke and his gun away from the dog for now.

“I’m gonna teach you a lesson you won’t ever forget,” Zeke said, his voice slightly slurred.

“You’re not teaching her anything,” a deep voice drawled from behind the man. “Not today or any day.”

Behind her, Elyse felt Zeke swing around to face the voice. She knew she should probably run for the road, but she spun around, too, just in time to see the newcomer kick the gun from Zeke’s hand.

Zeke grabbed his hand and swore. “I oughta. . .”

The other man narrowed his eyes and shook his shaggy blond head. The instant she looked into his deep blue eyes, her panic subsided. She was safe. She silently thanked God for answering her prayer.

Her rescuer looked like a good-looking beach bum in his paint-splattered cutoff jeans and pocket t-shirt. But he stood like a martial arts expert, his hands as ready as a pair of deadly knives.

Zeke paused as if considering hand-to-hand combat. Then he fell to his knees, scrambling around for the gun.

With one muscled arm, the young Chuck Norris grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him upright. He held the wiggling man easily and reached down to pick up the gun. The weapon looked comfortable in his hand.

For the first time since his arrival, a tendril of unease curled up Elyse’s spine. “Um, thanks. . .”

The man nodded. “You’re welcome. I’m Andrew. I’d shake your hand but I’m a little busy. What’s your name?”

“Elyse.” The unease evaporated as quickly as it had come and she didn’t even stammer.

“Elyse, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?”

“I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on,” Zeke broke in, his face red and splotchy. “She’s trespassin’. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

Andrew’s presence gave Elyse courage to be angry again. “There’s a dog starving to death here and I came to feed and water it.” She glared at Zeke. “Just for the record, I was outside of your fence when you grabbed me.” And thanks to her eavesdropping this morning, she knew the woods belonged to the guy in the café.

“Besides,” Andrew said, shoving Zeke toward the front yard, “last I heard, convicted felons couldn’t own guns.”

“How’d you—” Zeke started then snapped his lips together in a grimace.

Andrew shrugged. “Small town.”

Elyse stared at him. Yes, Shady Grove was a small town. So why had she never seen either of these men until today?

Zeke slumped his shoulders.

Andrew pushed him around to the front of the house and up the wooden porch steps toward a straight-backed plastic chair. “Sit.”

Zeke sat.

Elyse walked slowly up the steps to stand beside Andrew.

Andrew pulled out his cell phone and punched in 911. “This is Andrew Stone. I interrupted a possible kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon at the corner of River Road and River Trail.” He listened intently. “No. I’ve got him here.” He held the gun steady, aimed at Zeke. “He’s not going anywhere right now.”

Zeke swore under his breath.

Andrew flipped the phone shut and glanced at Elyse. “You okay?”

Elyse nodded and considered her knight in paint-splattered denim. Was he a local? Someone she knew? His shirt and shorts weren’t the only things dotted with paint. His unruly blond curls had a few flecks of white enamel in them and his tanned face was lightly speckled too. His starburst blue eyes returned her scrutiny with an amused expression. She looked away. He wasn’t someone she was likely to have forgotten.

“That’s my sister’s gun,” Zeke said. “I’ve never seen it before in my life until I found it when I saw this nosy. . .” His face twisted into a snarl.

“Watch what you say.” The steel in Andrew’s voice left no room for argument.

Zeke blew out his breath. “Anyway, I saw this girl messin’ with our dog.” He shifted his gaze back to Andrew and gave him a slightly off-kilter smile. “For real. This is my sister’s house. That’s why I said no when you came by asking about painting it. I’m just here taking care of her while she’s sick.”

Taking care of her? Like he took care of the dog? A sudden shard of terror pierced Elyse’s heart. “Where’s your sister?”

He shifted in the chair but didn’t answer.

Andrew took a step toward him. “Answer her question, Zeke. Where’s your sister now?”

Zeke tossed his head toward the house. “She’s in bed. Not doin’ too well. I was about to call an ambulance when I got distracted by Miss Nosy here.”

Elyse took off for the front door.

“Wait.” Andrew held the gun out to her. “Take this and watch him. I’ll go in the house.”

She stopped. “You think it’s a trap?”

“You’ll have to be wondering that for the rest of your life, girl,” Zeke muttered, his earlier ingratiating manner gone in a flash. His eyes flamed with hate. “I’ll get you for this if it’s the last thing I do.”

Elyse shivered.

Andrew shook his head and trained the gun back on the man. “Don’t listen to him, honey,” he said softly. “Take the gun.” He stepped back as if waiting for her to step in front of him and put her hand on the gun.

She stared at the weapon in his hand, memories making her legs go weak. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. All you have to do is shoot him if he moves.” His voice was as hard as the gun metal.

Her breath closed off and she whimpered. “I. Can’t.” She hated her weakness but she could feel her body start to shake.

“Whoa,” Andrew said softly as if she were a frightened pup. He kept the gun aimed at Zeke and squeezed her shoulder with his free hand. “It’s okay.”

They stood without speaking for a few seconds.

Finally Elyse found her voice. “I’ll go check on his sister.”

He nodded. “Holler if you need any help.”

She started for the door.

“Wait!” Andrew’s voice stopped her again. He kept his gaze and gun trained on Zeke as he stepped over to the door and pushed it open then waited. From behind him, Elyse could see a foyer, just like a million other foyers, a mirror on the wall and a small bench beneath it. She saw Andrew’s shoulders relax and he stepped back to allow her to enter.

“Thanks.” In the foyer, she stopped and wrinkled her nose. The house smelled of mildew and ruined food. “Hello?” Her voice sounded unnaturally loud. The only answer was the faint hum of the refrigerator.

Her heart slammed against her ribs, but she squared her shoulders and started down the hall. If the painter out on the porch could kick a gun out of a man’s hand and not even break a sweat, she could surely check on a sick woman without fainting.

Andrew Stone stared into the beady eyes of the man he’d been staking out for the past two weeks. He’d painted every house within a mile radius dirt cheap just to be able to keep an eye on this guy without arousing suspicion. Lie low and watch. That had been the plan. But all it had taken was a beautiful brunette on the wrong side of a gun to change his plan.

Keeping the gun steady, he pulled the gold and amethyst necklace from his pocket and inspected it one more time before holding it up in the sunlight. It looked exactly like the one Melanie had worn all the time. If he knew for sure it was the same necklace, he wouldn’t be able to trust himself with a gun on this guy. “Where’d you get this?”

Zeke’s eyes widened but he quickly looked down. “Never saw it before in my life.”

Red hot anger bubbled at the edges of Andrew’s consciousness, but he ignored it and subtly pushed the gun a little closer. “That’s not what the guy at the pawn shop said. He got a real good picture of you on his security camera when you came in to pawn it.”

Zeke grunted. “Why do you care? Who are you anyway?”

Andrew stepped closer, his anger and frustration spilling over. “Your worst enemy if you don’t tell me where you got the necklace,” he growled through gritted teeth.

Beads of sweat glistened on Zeke’s round face as sirens sounded in the distance. “It was my mother’s. My only inheritance.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Andrew!” Elyse’s voice was shrill with panic. “Help me!”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Pastor's Wife - Chapter 1

The Pastor's Wife
Abingdon Press (February 2010)

Chapter 1

Hold the elevator!”

Maura Sullivan ran across the lobby as fast as she could in high-heeled pumps. Once again she second-guessed her choice of attire for this meeting. She didn’t plan to stay in town long. Just get in, talk to the lawyer, and run out again. But in a place the size of Granger, Ohio, there was a good chance she’d run into someone she knew. And if that happened, she wanted them to see a successful, self-sufficient businessperson, not a frazzled woman barely holding it together.

The elevator doors were almost shut when they stopped, then slowly started to move in reverse. Maura sighed in relief. Maybe her luck had changed.

“Sorry,” a male voice said from inside the car. “I couldn’t find the right button and—”

The man in the elevator gaped at Maura, his finger glued to the button panel. Meanwhile, Maura’s stomach fell to the tips of her shoes. If not for her impractical footwear, she’d be jogging up the stairs right now instead of staring like an idiot at her almost ex-husband.

So much for her luck. It was just as bad as ever.

“Maura?” He found his voice, but his body didn’t move an inch.

“Hi, Nick.” There were probably lots of things she should say, but none came to mind. Instead, she forced herself to take three steps forward and enter the elevator.

Nick’s eyes never left her. His head just swiveled as she moved in next to him. He finally removed his finger from the “door open” button, letting his hand fall against his thigh with a slap. “What are you doing here?”

Trying not to faint. Telling myself I won’t be sick. Both true, but neither facts she wished to share. “I have a meeting.” She leaned around him and hit the second-floor button. The doors slid closed.

Nick squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “Is your meeting with Wendell Crowley?”

“Yes.” Dread worked its way down her spine. How could he know that? She was clearly the last person he expected to see today. If he hadn’t known she was coming to town, how could he know anything about her meeting?

Nick made an unintelligible noise and muttered to himself. “Great. How could she?”

“Look, I’m sorry we ran into each other like this.” Maura’s heart thudded in her chest as she tried to ease the tension in the small moving box. “I promise, as soon as I meet with the lawyer, I’ll be out of here and you’ll never see me again.”

Nick looked at her, his eyes drawn together. “Afraid not.” “What?”

“Your escape won’t be that neat and tidy.” The elevator stopped, bounced, and the doors eased open. “We’re going to the same meeting.”

This had to be a joke.

Nick and Maura sat in matching chairs on one side of a heavy oak desk. On the other side sat Wendell Crowley, reading from the Last Will and Testament of Miss Harriet Lenore Granger. The elderly attorney had been a close personal friend of Miss Hattie’s, making the reading of this particular will more emotional for him than most.

Nick was emotional, too, but for a completely different reason. As the lawyer read on, making less and less sense, Nick’s fingers squeezed around the arms of his chair. Beside him, Maura’s hands were clenched together in her lap so tightly that he could see her fingernails digging into her flesh. She was obviously just as shocked as he was.

Nick had spent a great deal of time with Miss Hattie in her last days, but she’d never alluded to what she planned in her will. Then again, maybe she had, in her own subtle way. He was at her bedside the night before she died, and as always, the woman encouraged him to hold on to hope.

“It’s not too late for you,” she’d said. “I know you’re too stubborn to go after that wife of yours, but you never know . . . she just might come back to you.” Rather than argue he’d squeezed her hand and prayed with her. That night, his dear friend had died peacefully in her sleep.

Now that whole encounter took on new meaning in light of what Wendell had read. Maybe the woman’s intentions were good, but it didn’t make him happy about the outcome.

Nick glanced at Maura. She had a lot of nerve showing up in town after the way she left him. From the way she was dressed, she must be managing just fine in California. She didn’t look so good now, though. The red blush that had stained her cheeks in the elevator was gone, replaced by skin so pale he thought she might faint. She wasn’t dealing with the terms of the will any better than he was.

He turned to Wendell. “Let me see if I understand you correctly. Miss Hattie left Maura the Music Box Theatre, but there are two conditions.”

Wendell smiled. “Yes.”

“Would you repeat those conditions, please?”

“Certainly. First, the theatre must be used for at least one church function, such as a play or concert. Second, Maura must move into the church parsonage.”

The room was quiet as a mime convention as Nick rolled that fact around in his head. “With me?” he finally asked.

Wendell didn’t hesitate. “Yes. With you.”

That snapped Maura out of her stupor. “Is this even legal?” Her voice was shrill, and she leaned so far forward, Nick feared she might fall out of her chair. “I mean, it’s the kind of stunt they pull in soap operas. Can you really tell two people they have to live together as a condition of a will?”

“You can,” Wendell answered. “And Miss Hattie did.”

“But I can’t,” she sputtered. “I’m not . . . we’re not . . . I just can’t!”

The smile never left the man’s face. “It’s not a problem. After all, you two are still married.”

“But we’ve been separated for six years.” Maura’s voice was almost a whisper, as if she were sharing a secret with the lawyer that the whole town wasn’t already privy to.

“Yes, I know. But legally and in the eyes of God, you’re still married.” Wendell turned to Nick, lowering his head and looking over the edge of his tiny reading glasses.

Nick’s eyes narrowed in response. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Miss Hattie hoped to reunite him and Maura. And it stood to reason she’d gone over her scheme with Wendell ahead of time to make sure everything was legal and in order. But charging two people to live and work together with no parameters didn’t make sense. There must be something Wendell hadn’t told them.

“I’m confused,” Maura said. “Are you telling me that in order to own the theatre, I have to live in the parsonage for the rest of my life?”

Good question. Nick looked at the lawyer who shook his head.

“No, not at all.” Wendell pointed to the will. “You only have to fulfill the conditions for six months. At that time, the property becomes yours free and clear.”

“No strings attached?” Maura asked.

“None. At the end of six months, you can live wherever you want. You can even sell the building, if you’re so inclined. Of course,” he said with a dip of his head, “I hope you won’t be.”

Nick listened as Maura and Wendell talked about the property. She was actually considering going through with this crazy proposition. Nick’s entire life was about to turn upside down, and it seemed he was powerless to stop it.

“Excuse me,” he blurted, interrupting Wendell in midsentence. “What about me? Don’t I have any say in this?”

The two looked as if they just remembered he was in the room. “Of course, you do,” Wendell answered. “What in particular do you want to address?”

Nick looked pointedly at Maura. “What if I don’t want her to live with me?”

She flinched, and Nick pushed away the guilt that tried to settle in his heart. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he had to tell the truth. Besides, whatever discomfort she felt now couldn’t compare to the pain he felt the night he came home to an empty house and a good-bye note on his pillow.

Wendell’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Naturally, you have the right to refuse to let Mrs. Shepherd—”

“Ms. Sullivan,” she corrected him.

He nodded. “You can refuse to let her move into the parsonage. But if you do, it will nullify the will.”

“Then what happens to the theatre?” Maura asked.

Wendell flipped over a few pages. “It would be sold, but I’m not at liberty to say what would be done with the proceeds.” He turned to Nick. “By the way, did I mention that if the conditions are met, after six months the church will receive a sizable donation?”

Ah, here was the other shoe. Nick ground his teeth. “No, you did not mention that. Just how sizable?”

“Ten thousand dollars.”

Nick crossed his arms and sat back hard against the seat. Ten thousand dollars might not seem like a lot to some folks, but to him, it was an answer to prayer—an answer Miss Hattie decided to help along. She knew all about the programs he wanted to implement, the staff he wanted to bring on, if only the money were there. She knew exactly how to get to him. He could endure six months of almost anything if it meant bringing much-needed funds into the church. Still, he didn’t want to rush the decision.

“I need some time to think this over.” Nick rose, ending the meeting.

Wendell stood with him. “I understand. In fact, I’d advise the two of you to go some place private so you can discuss the matter.” The lawyer reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a key ring, which he handed to Maura.

She took the keys as she stood up. “Are these for the theatre?”

“Yes. I think you should take a look at the place before you make your final decision.” Wendell smiled as he walked them out of the office. “I know you have a lot to talk about. Please call me as soon as you come to an agreement.”

Following behind Maura, Nick mulled over what had just happened. He had a feeling the meeting had gone exactly as the lawyer and Miss Hattie planned. Not only were Nick and Maura considering this weird arrangement, but they were leaving together to the theatre. After six years of living alone, it seemed his destiny was once again entangled with that of his wayward wife. And there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love Finds You in Bridal Veil, Oregon - Chapter 1

Love Finds You in Bridal Veil, Oregon
Summerside Press (January 1, 2010)


Bridal Veil, Oregon

July 1898


The simple word staring up at Jacob Garvey from the piece of white paper hit him so hard it nearly knocked him to his knees. He’d been afraid of something like this for weeks. The note tucked in the wooden box lying under the tree confirmed his fears.

Maybe this wasn’t what it seemed. Jacob turned the piece of paper over, hoping to find an explanation. His hand trembled as his gaze slid over the words printed in the bold handwriting.

Margaret. I’m leaving town this evening and not coming back. I want to marry you. I’ll come for your answer after work. If I find the word Yes, then I’ll meet you here after dark. Only bring what you need. I love you and can’t wait to make you my wife.


P.S. If I don’t find your reply, I’ll know you can’t go through with it.

A soft groan passed Jacob’s lips, and he rocked on his heels. His eyes returned to the answer written in his daughter’s clear script—willing it to change, willing it to disappear. Yes. Margaret was every¬thing to him and had filled the awful void after his dear wife died. His sweet girl deserved so much better. There had to be a way to protect her from her own immaturity.

Why did Margaret persist in seeing Nathaniel Cooper? To Jacob’s way of thinking, the man had no prospects and even less ambition. The Garvey family might not have much in the way of money, but they had history—their roots extended back to some of the hardy pioneers who helped settle this land.

What did that young man have? Hopeless dreams and no family—at least, none that Jacob knew of. A drifter with no prospects whom Margaret had met only a scant six months ago. From what he’d heard, Cooper jumped from one job to the next, with no thought for the future. He’d lasted less than a year here and was already moving on. Margaret could end up destitute if that ne’er-do-well wasn’t careful. Besides, she was only sixteen.

Jacob placed the paper back in the box and stood. He’d hide the box with the note inside until he was sure Margaret’s future was safe. When Nathaniel came back, he’d think she didn’t want to marry him and leave town. Jacob snapped the lid shut and hurried back down the trail, anxious to get home.

The gate hinges squealed when he pushed through into his yard. He paused with a glance at the house, praying Margaret hadn’t heard. Now, where to dump this box? Starting a fire might raise questions, with the forest so dry this time of year. His gaze lit on his shovel lying next to an unplanted rosebush bound in burlap. He’d prepared the hole but hadn’t unwrapped the roots or set the bush. He glanced at the box in his hand, then back at the hole.

Hurrying over to the small rosebed, he peered over his shoul¬der, praying Margaret wouldn’t offer to help. When no movement showed through the windows on the south side of the house, he bent to his task.

He withdrew a sharp knife from his pocket and cut away the bur¬lap from the roots of the rose, then wrapped a strip around the box and laid it aside. Quickly he enlarged the hole, creating a side pocket at the base, then slipped the box and its message into the cool grave. The rose took its place in the hole, then he tamped in the soil and watered the rose. Another glance at the house assured him of success. Margaret would never know. His daughter’s future was safe.

Chapter 1

Four years later

Late May 1902

Margaret hurried to the two-story house set against the base of the tree-clad hill, anxiety dogging her steps. Papa had been tired when he’d left the house early this morning, but he’d been working at the mill long hours of late. Nothing to worry about, he’d assured her— he just needed the Sabbath to catch up on his rest, and he’d be right as rain. But she didn’t believe it. He looked peaked and moved as though weights were attached to his limbs. Best to keep an eye on him, in case he was coming down with the grippe.

“Papa? You home yet?” She flung off her sweater and dumped her books on a nearby table. She’d not meant to stay so long at the school, but little Mark James had thrown one of his temper tan¬trums and needed a talking to. Then the chores had to be done— the floor swept, the board erased, her desk straightened—all things that didn’t normally take much time, but Gertrude Graham had stopped by on her way home from the Company store and slowed her down further. Gertrude was a sweetie, but everyone in town knew her propensity for gossip ran as deep as the nearby Columbia River.

Margaret had at last made her excuses and headed home. Part of her hoped Papa had kept his promise to leave work early and rest, while the other part wanted to light the stove and get supper going before he arrived.

Dusk wouldn’t settle in for another hour or so, but she lit one lamp just the same, wanting a cheerful glow to penetrate the gloom when he made his way down the trail.

An hour later she glanced out the window again, hoping to see his familiar figure trudging up the path. Nothing. She dusted the flour from her hands and finished mixing the dough for the chicken and dumplings, then dropped globs of dough onto the steaming mix¬ture in the pan and covered the large cast-iron skillet with a domed lid. At least the house was warm. In a few minutes the dumplings would rise, filling the room with their fragrance. Her mouth watered at the thought, and her lips tipped up at the happiness that would light Papa’s eyes when he stepped through the door.

Just then the front door rattled, and her hand flew to her throat. Papa wouldn’t shake the door handle or knock; he’d stride in with his booming greeting and big smile. Margaret stood in the middle of the kitchen frozen by uncertainty—but only for a moment. Could it be a neighbor in need of help or one of the unsavory characters riding the railroad cars of late? Hobos had been increasing in number, and her father had warned her not to open the door to a stranger if he wasn’t home.

She reached for the heavy wooden rolling pin resting on the painted countertop Papa had built and gripped it tight. “Who’s there?” She took a step toward the door in the nearby living room.

No reply. The knob moved again but this time with less energy. What in the world? She gripped her makeshift weapon tighter and crept to the door.

A quick twist of the round metal knob and a jerk of the door brought her face-to-face with Papa slumped against the doorjamb, his head lolled to the side. Margaret dropped the pin, and it clattered to the floor. She grasped his shoulders and gave him a small shake. “Papa? Are you sick? Papa!” She ran her gaze over his body, trying to find any sign of what might be wrong.

A low groan escaped his pale mouth, and his head rolled like a broken-necked doll. His eyes opened, and he raised a shaking hand. “Not. Feeling well. Help me. Inside.”

She slipped her arm around his waist and tried to support his sagging weight, stumbling as his feet barely cleared the threshold. Somehow she managed to half carry, half drag him to the worn couch against a nearby wall. He settled down with a groan and started to shake. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead, and his breath came in shallow gasps.

“What’s wrong, Papa? Where does it hurt? Should I go for Doc Albert?”

Margaret leaned over her prone father and clutched his hand, willing her own to stop trembling.

His eyes fluttered open, and the stark pain in them revealed the effort it took to speak. “Chest. Hurts. Shoulder. Jaw. It’s bad. No time.”

“Hush, Papa. You’ve been working too hard, that’s all. Let me go for the doc.”

He gripped her hand with a sense of urgency and persisted. “No time. You need…to listen.”

“No. Don’t talk, just rest. You’ll be fine.” She bit her lip, wanting to race down the path to the doctor’s home a quarter mile away but was terrified to leave him alone. Instead she lifted the knitted afghan off the back of the couch, spread it over his shaking form, and smoothed back his hair.

A movement outside the window caught her attention, and she squeezed his hand. “Hold on, Papa. I’ll be right back.”

She flew to the door and jerked it open in time to see eight-year-old Harry Waters swinging up the path with a fishing pole over his shoulder. “Harry?”

The boy halted midstride and turned toward her. “Yes, Miss Garvey? You need somethin’?”

“Yes. Run as fast as you can and get Doc Albert. Tell him my father is ill, and we need him to come. Hurry!”

The black hair flopped on his forehead as he nodded in assent. “Yes, ma’am.” A flick of his wrist tossed the pole into the nearby brush and the boy was off, racing along the path on the shortcut back to¬ward town.

Margaret rushed inside and sank to her knees next to her father. She drew in a deep breath, suddenly frightened by his face drained of color and his tightly closed eyes. “Papa? Are you awake?”

There was a slight movement of his head. Then something resem¬bling a frown crossed his face, but it could have been a spasm of pain. “Sorry, Beth.” His pet name for her slipped out as his eyes struggled to open. “Forgive me.”

“Shh, it’s all right, Papa. There’s nothing to forgive. Rest now.”

“No. Shouldn’t have done it,” he panted. “Tried. To fix it. Forgive me.” The words trailed off, but his imploring eyes didn’t leave her face.

“Of course I forgive you. Hang on, Papa. Doc Albert will be here any minute.”

A deep sigh escaped, and his eyes closed again. Margaret grasped his hand tighter and prayed. God couldn’t let her father die. She wouldn’t allow it. Mama had died twelve years ago, and her grand¬father just last year. Between that and losing Nathaniel… That was enough for one person to bear. Papa had the grippe. He’d be back on his feet soon, laughing and teasing about her temper matching her auburn hair and living up to Mama’s Irish heritage.

That moment her father’s body convulsed. The muscles around his mouth tightened, then suddenly relaxed, and the already weak fingers grew limp in her hand.

“Papa?” She gently disengaged her grip and stroked his forehead. “Papa, can you hear me?”

He lay still with not even a twitch of his eyelids.

Panic sucked the breath from Margaret’s lungs, leaving her dizzy and faint. She shook her head, drew a deep breath, and forced the reaction away. No time for foolishness. Papa needed her strong.

She drew close to his face, praying for movement, hoping for another breath. “Papa. You can’t leave me alone.” Asob tore at her throat and slipped out in spite of her effort to quell it. “I need you, Papa. Please, please stay with me.” She lifted a shaking hand and pat¬ted his cheek, hoping and praying he’d respond.

All of a sudden, realization struck her with its deadly truth, and she moaned. Frantically she searched for some sign of life—breath¬ing—a flicker of his eyelids. But there was nothing. Papa was gone. He’d never smile or tease her again. Never enjoy the meal she’d pre¬pared or sit in a church pew beside her on Sunday mornings.

How could she stand it? What would she do now? Oh, why had God seen fit to take him when he was still young and she had no one else in her life? She dropped her head on his shoulder and sobs welled up from a place so deep, a place terrified of the pain and lone¬liness she knew would come. Just like it had with Mother. Just like it had with Grandpa. And just like it had with Nathaniel. No. She’d not wallow in that now.

A knock sounded at the door, and the knob turned. She only vaguely felt gentle hands stroking her hair and a strong arm wrap¬ping around her shoulders, drawing her away from the still figure on the couch.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Walking on Broken Glass - Chapter 1 & 2

Walking on Broken Glass
Abingdon Press (February 2010)

Chapter 1

Cruising the sparkling aisles of Catalano’s Supermarket, I lost my sanity buying frozen apple juice.

Okay, so maybe it started several aisles before the refrigerated cases. Somewhere between the canned vegetables and cleaning supplies. I needed to kill the taste of that soy milk in my iced vanilla latte. Darn my friend Molly, the dairy Nazi. I blamed her for my detour to the liquor aisle. Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. What to pour in my Starbucks cup? Amaretto? Kahlua? Vodka? And the winner was . . . Amaretto. Perfect for an afternoon grocery event.

Ramping up the coffee seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. I’d left the end-of-the-year faculty party and thought I’d be a considerate wife and pick up dinner for Carl on the way home. He told me before he left for work that morning that he’d meet me at the party. Probably he had one too many meetings, which, since I’d probably had one too many beers, made us just about even. Don’t know if we matched spin cycles in our brains, though. That was the point of the coffee. A rinse cycle of sorts.

I’d just avoided a game of bumper carts with the oncoming traffic in the organic food aisle when I remembered that I needed juice. On the way to the freezer section, I maneuvered a difficult curve around the quilted toilet tissue display. My coffee sloshed in the cup in tempo with my stomach. I braked too swiftly by the refrigerator case, and a wave of latte splotched my linen shorts and newly pedicured toes. Ick.

Rows of orange juice. Apple juice was on the third shelf down. I reached in and, like a one-armed robot, I selected and returned can after can of juice, perplexed by the dilemma of cost versus quality. Okay, this one’s four cents an ounce cheaper than this one. But this one’s...

My face would have reflected my growing agitation, but the stale icy air swirling out of the freezer numbed it. I held the door open with one hand, tried to sip my coffee with the other, and wondered how long it would take before full body paralysis set in. I stared at apple juice cans. They stared back. Something shifted, and my body broke free from a part of itself, and there I was—or there we were. I watched me watch the cans. The rational me separated from the wing-nut me, who still pondered the perplexities of juice costs. Rational me said, “Let’s get her out of here before she topples head first into the freezer case and completely humiliates herself.”

I abandoned my cart, a lone testament to my struggle and defeat, near the freezer cases and walked away. If I could fill my brain with alcohol like I filled my car with gas, it wouldn’t have to run on empty. It wouldn’t leave me high and dry in the middle of a grocery store aisle.

No, not dry this time. High. My brain is either high or dry, and it doesn’t seem to function well either way.

So that was my epiphany for sobriety.

Apple juice.

Chapter 2

Carl was late, too late to watch me as I weaved my way from garage to bedroom.

What was today?

Friday. Forgot.

Carl’s poker night. Reprieve.

I opened my bedroom closet door and considered changing into my scrubs, but that would’ve meant negotiating a path to the laundry room to pull them out of the dryer. Since I’d submerged my internal GPS in an Amaretto bath, I doubted I’d make it. The T-shirt and shorts I wore would do just fine. I peeled away the layers of comforter and blankets on my side and let the sheets tug the weight of my weariness into bed.

Two bathroom visits later, I felt the mattress concede as Carl’s body plowed onto his side of our bed. As usual, he reached his arm toward me, his right hand landing on my hip. As usual, I didn’t move and waited for the morning.

I woke up a rumpled mess, still wearing my coffee-stained shorts and black tee. I didn’t need a mirror to know my flatironed hair was smashed to my head, except for the twisted front bangs, which stood off my forehead in a lame salute. The sunlight from the bay window drilled through my eyelids. I slapped my face into the pillow but instantly regretted disturbing what could only be tiny thunderbolts in my brain. I needed to see a doctor. I woke up with far too many head throbs.

I felt the swaddled tightness as I rolled over. Carl always tucked in the sheet on his side of the bed as if to prevent me from rolling out. I turned toward the empty space on the other side of the bed to escape the sharpshooter sun.

I plucked the note left on his pillow. Thin, angular letters: “Golf at 8. Call Molly.” At the bottom, smaller print but all caps: “LET YOU SLEEP. CAN’T WAIT FOR YOU TONIGHT.” I shoved the note under his pillow and tried not to breathe in the whisper of his musky orange cologne.

Why did I remember what I wanted to forget, yet forget what I wanted to remember?

I stared at the ceiling, my eyes stung by my own thoughtlessness. Molly was probably geared up for major annoyance. Saturday mornings were reserved for our two-mile trek through the greenbelt trails of Brookforest. Late was not a time on her clock. I still wore my watch, and late ticked away: 9:00.

Molly Richardson and I met two years ago at the Christmas party for Morgan Management. Both of our husbands had recently joined the firm. She and I had barreled into the bathroom, about as much as one could barrel in ruffled silk chiffon and elastic-backed, three-inch spiked shoes. We crashed reaching for the door handle.

Molly grabbed the knob, steadied herself, scanned me, and said, “We have to stop meeting like this. People will talk.”

A woman with a sense of humor and cool shoes in the midst of granite-faced consultants. Our friendship had expanded since then beyond the boundaries of business. We knew almost everything there was to know about each other. Almost everything.

I willed myself to vertical and plodded to the phone on Carl’s side of the bed. One of our concessions after we moved into this house: blinding sun in my eyes; ringing phone in his ears.

I punched in Molly’s number.

One ring. “You up?” she said.

“Meet you there in fifteen.” I hung up knowing Molly would understand that fifteen meant twenty. I yanked on clean shorts and a sports bra, but kept the leftover T-shirt from yesterday. Yesterday. Apple juice. Was today the day I would practice not drinking? Did I pay for groceries? No bags on the kitchen counter. A half bagel waited on a plate.

I passed on breakfast and grabbed my keys from the top of the washing machine. Carl really needed to hang a key rack. I locked the leaded glass doors, unlocked the wrought-iron gate, and walked through a gauntlet of Tudor and French provincial houses. Molly and I always met at the cul-de-sac entrance to the trails at the end of my street.

Molly was in her ready zone. She alternated long, bouncing genuflects to stretch her legs.

“I’m always amazed that your calves are almost as long as my legs,” I said and slid the fuzzy banana-yellow headband hanging around my neck to around my head to tame my disobedient hair.

“Save that for one of your hyperbole lessons.” A tint of anger edged her words.

“Hey, Moll, I’m sorry. Carl forgot to wake me up when he left for golf this morning.”

“It’s his fault you’re late?” I knew tone, and her tone definitely indicated she thought exactly the opposite. “Did he wake you up for school too?”

Sarcasm lesson. “Sometimes,” I said.

She smiled.

I moved close to forgiveness. “Okay, almost always.”

A laugh.

Suffering over.

“Let’s get started before the sun sucks the life out of us,” she said.

Only a silo-sized vacuum cleaner hose could suck the energy out of Molly. Twenty years younger and she’d be on meds for hyperactivity. Instead, she’s on meds for infertility. She and Devin had been baby practicing for almost two years. Practice had not made perfect. Over a year ago, when I told her I was pregnant, I almost wanted to apologize. Carl and I hadn’t planned to be parents. But we were. For six weeks. Then Alyssa died. I stopped feeling guilty around Molly. Mostly I stopped feeling.

I bent over, pretended to adjust my shoelace, and hoped Molly didn’t see the grief floating in my eyes.

“I’m ready.” I popped up. Perky trumps pity. “And wait till you hear what happened.”

When I chronicled the latest school dramas, my body didn’t feel so heavy as I pounded my way down the path. A paralegal for trial attorneys, Molly didn’t share many details about work. We entertained ourselves some days imagining which kids in detention would become lawyers and which ones would need lawyers.

“So, get this, I’m handing out tests, and—”

Her power walk shifted down two gears. She held up her hand and said, “No, Leah. Stop.” American manicure this week, I noticed.

I looked over my shoulders thinking some school person had materialized behind us and Molly had just rescued me from embarrassment and possible unemployment. No one.

“Safe. Trail clear of suspects.” I rattled on.

Another shift down. We now strolled.

“I have to talk to you about something, and it has to be today.” She tucked her shoulder-length cinnamon-shaded hair behind her ears, a habit I’d learned meant she was ready for serious.

I sidestepped a clump of strange goo. “What’s up?”

Molly pointed to a bench where the path split to lead to the pool or school. That always struck me as an unfair choice for kids on their way to school in the mornings.

She sat. Scary news was sit-down talk. I paced.

“You drink too much.”

My feet stopped, but my soul lurched. My ship of composure pitched suddenly on this wave of information. I willed myself to calmness, “Who are you, Molly? AA’s new spokeswoman?” The ten-year-old inside of me rose to the surface. “Oops, gender bias. New spokesperson?”

“I’m serious. No more jokes. I’ve been praying about this for weeks, not knowing how to say this to you. After last night, I knew it couldn’t wait.”

“Oh, so God told you to talk to me. Got it.” I scattered pinecones with the tip of my Nikes.

“I don’t think you get it,” Molly said. “God hasn’t text messaged me about you.” Her cool hand wrapped itself around my wrist. “Would you sit down, please?”

I wanted to walk away—run, really—but her words anchored my heart. I couldn’t move. I waited. I waited to breathe again. Waited for the tornado of emotions to stop swirling in my chest. I sat.

“Yesterday, Carrie called to see if you’d made it home. She wanted to drive you, but you absolutely refused. When she asked about whether to call Carl to pick you up, you told her . . . well, that’s not worth repeating.”

“So I had a few too many. It was a party. People drank. I drank. I’ll apologize to Carrie for whatever I said.”

“You don’t remember, do you? Do you remember that night we went to Rizzo’s for the company dinner?” She paused while two tricycling kids and a set of parents meandered past us.

If my brain had a file cabinet of events, the drawers were stuck. Dinner at Rizzo’s. Retirement. Somebody retired. I tugged at the memory and tried to coax it out.

“Of course I remember. That guy, what was his name? He retired.” I leaned back and wished the wrought-iron bench slats were padded.

“And?” Not really a question.

“And, what? Since you already know the answer.”

“Leah,” she said and leaned toward me. I still couldn’t look at her. “Dinner was late. You grabbed the wine bottle from the waiter, gave him your wine glass, and then told him you two were even. You said if we’d pound our silverware on the table, we’d be served faster. You almost dropped a full bowl of gumbo in your lap. You said it looked like something you’d thrown up the night before.”

I wanted a button to zap a force field around me. I wanted silence. A piece of me had broken, and Molly had found it. If I talked too much, other pieces might shatter. I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk turning inside out.

“You were out of control,” she said, the words filed by her softness so the edges were smooth when they pushed into me.

Yes, and out of control was exactly what I’d planned.

I couldn’t look at Molly yet. I couldn’t admit to my best friend in the universe that Carl told me almost every night something was terribly wrong with me. I thought I’d managed to divide myself quite nicely: Leah in the bedroom and Leah outside of the bedroom.

“I want to disappear,” I said to the grass blades mashed under my shoes.

“You are disappearing. That’s the problem. You’re my friend. I want you here.” She slid next to me and placed her hand on my shoulder. “In the two years we’ve known each other, your drinking has gotten worse. I know you suffered after losing Alyssa. I know you still do. But you need help, or something awful is going to happen.”

I wanted to hate her. But how could I hate a friend who loved me enough to save my life?


“I lost my sanity at the apple juice case,” I repeated to Dolores, the intake clerk who scribbled information onto whatever form they used to admit the inebriated. She placed her pencil on the glass-topped desk, clasped her hands over the clipboard, and peered at me over her reading glasses.

“Were you buying it to mix drinks?” she asked quietly, as if afraid the question would hurt me.

I’m being admitted into rehab by a woman who clearly failed to understand that apple juice mixed with few, if any, hard liquors. My galloping knees knew that was something to be jittery about. Hadn’t I explained the twelve-pack of beer in the grocery cart? Why would I be worried about mixing? Did rehab centers hire teetotalers so they’d never have to worry about employee discounts for services?

“Noooo. It just seemed too overwhelming to decide which brand to buy. You know, the whole cost per ounce thing.” No doubt Dolores knew I was ready for admission after that, but she persisted. She asked who referred me.

“This was all my friend Molly’s idea. She even made the appointment for me. This morning after our walk. Before my husband’s golf game ended.” Good grief. My inner child needed a nap.

This information about Molly seemed both unsurprising and amusing to Dolores. “Yes, it often works that way. People see in us what we can’t see in ourselves. Don’t need mirrors here.”

Thirty minutes later, Dolores and I agreed I would voluntarily admit myself the morning of July 4.

Leah Adair Thornton. Age 27. Middle-stage alcoholic.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hunter's Moon - Chapter 1

Hunter's Moon

Bethany House (February 1, 2010)

Adelia, New York

A line of venerable sugar maples stood between the Baxter home and the private road, half obscuring the residence from anyone following the winding route up the hill until the moment the cobblestone driveway appeared, as if from nowhere, on the right. Built in the Federalist style, with its Palladian windows and narrow chimneys, the large house had looked down on Adelia from its perch atop Franklin County's highest point for more than two hundred years, the frame taking shape almost a full decade before the Redcoats' 1813 jaunt up the St. Lawrence in pursuit of General Wilkinson. Three hundred mostly wooded acres, as long a part of the Baxter holdings as the house itself, stretched out from the back porch—a massive tract of undeveloped land thick with white pine, interspersed with stubborn popple, and filled with whitetail, rabbit, and fox. Eight generations of Baxters had culled game from this land, and when the British made the mistake of taking their chase through the southeastern corner of the acreage, the list of acceptable prey was righteously amended to include them. Beyond the unmarked graves of these trespassing soldiers, past the far boundary that marked the Baxter property line, the wilderness continued almost without interruption to the feet of the Adirondacks.

The road that passed in front of the Baxter place—a one-lane thoroughfare called Lyndale that until two months ago had been gravel but now looked slick with fresh asphalt—separated the property from the ninety-foot drop-off that allowed the residents of the home to survey the town below. The road was a splinter off SR 44 that linked the interstate a hundred miles south with the 122 across the U.S.–Canada border, but when the Baxter ancestors first cut the trail up the hill, the main road was little more than a rutted wagon path, and Eisenhower and his interstate 150 years off.

As Artie Kadziolka made his way down one of Adelia's uneven sidewalks, keys in hand, arthritis sending streaks of sharp pain through his knees to supplement the perpetual throbbing, his eyes found the house on the hill, more easily spotted now that fall had shed the maples of half their leaves. He counted six cars and trucks parked in the semicircular driveway and guessed that meant the old man was on his way out. A twinge of sadness made a sudden appearance but was gone almost before Artie recognized it. Death had been lingering outside that house for a long while, and Sal Baxter had done all he could to keep him hovering around the maples, but the unwelcome visitor had finally carried his terrible scythe across the doorstep.

The keys jingled in Artie's hand as he walked, and he grimaced against the stiffness in both knees. The arthritis had gotten worse over the last few months, and his prescription medication was no longer doing the job. So last week he'd doubled up on the pills, which had helped a little. He knew the walk to the hardware store did him good—helped him to loosen things up—but it was becoming clear that no amount of pills or exercise was going to keep things from growing progressively worse. Still, it wasn't the legs that worried him; he could run his business without full use of them. What worried him was how he would keep the store going if the arthritis took to his hands with the same vengeance with which it was working on his lower appendages. It would be foolish to operate a table saw without the ability to keep a firm hand on the wood passing through the blade.

He crossed Third Avenue, the road empty except for a yellow dog that Artie saw disappear down the alley separating Maggie's Deli from Walden's Drug. In another thirty minutes a group of men would gather outside Maggie's waiting for coffee, and Maggie would tsk at them through the window while she readied to open, which she wouldn't do until seven o'clock. She hadn't opened even a minute early once in the last twenty years, and yet there wasn't a morning when the men didn't gather, peeking through the window, trying to catch Maggie's eye. Often Sal Baxter's son, George, was among them, although Artie suspected such would not be the case today with what was happening up the hill.

Artie had fond memories of hunting with George in the woods behind the Baxter home, years ago—in the late fifties, when both attended Adelia High. Artie would follow George up the gravel road to his house with a few of the other boys lucky enough to be included in George's circle. Artie carried his Winchester. Mostly they were after squirrel, although once they took an eight-point out of season; it was George's shot that had brought the deer down. This was back when the Baxters cast a longer shadow over the county—when there was talk of Sal running for governor. Back then, Artie ate at their table, teased George's sister, chopped wood for Sal, and nursed a desperate crush on George's mom, who was the local standard of beauty for years.

Then George had gone off to college.

Artie had carried on with George's sister for a while, yet that ended before George came home for Christmas break, a different person than the one who'd left. After that, the only times the two talked were those few occasions when George needed something from Artie's father's store—the store that now belonged to the son. George still came in now and then, to buy the odd tool or coil wire, and they would chat for a few minutes—always cordially, never too familiar. But not once had Artie been tempted to change his daily routine to join the men who gathered in front of Maggie's every morning, even when George was among them.

Artie almost felt bad about his involvement in the pool, although it didn't stop him from wishing that the elder statesman of the Baxter clan would hold on just one more day. Artie stood to win a cool thousand dollars if George's dad passed into the great beyond tomorrow. On the heels of this last thought he reached his destination and started sorting through the mess of keys on the ring.

Kaddy's Hardware—the name coming from Artie's grandfather's belief that people might be reluctant to enter an establishment whose name they couldn't pronounce—occupied the corner of Fifth and Main. It was the perfect location, with ample parking in the side lot, and Ronny's Bar & Grill next door. From eleven to five, a steady stream of customers came through—mostly for small-ticket items, but those added up. Artie made a good living on duct tape and caulk, and aerator rentals.

As the keys clinked against each other, a city services truck rolled around Sycamore and up Fifth, Gabe at the wheel. Artie waved as it passed by, turned and headed up Main toward the town center. In the back, a sign for the Adelia Fall Festival swayed dangerously, and Artie watched until the truck straightened, expecting the heavy wooden placard to topple to the pavement, but it remained in the bed and the pickup continued on. By midmorning several of the signs—some of them the original ones hand- painted by the founders of the Fall Festival back in 1931—would line the streets surrounding town hall, and in the weeks leading up to the event, seasonal decorations would pop up and then the big banner would be strung across Main. The Festival, whose seasonal synchronicity placed at the height of football season, was the most anticipated event in Adelia, punctuated by the arts and craft fair along Main, the town dance, a parade, a lawn fete at St. Anthony's, and officially culminating in the Adelia High home game against rival Smithson Academy, of neighboring Batesville. The two teams, historically evenly matched, had come near to splitting forty years' worth of games, although Adelia had won the last three. But Smithson was strong this year, projected to go to the state championship.

Unofficially, the Fall Festival found its end much later in the evening, when students from both schools met at the town line to pummel each other with tomatoes under the amused eyes of the adults. This tradition was like most modern incarnations of long-lived events, a neutered version of the original occasion, when men from Batesville had shown up at the first Fall Festival to throw rocks at the Adelia revelers, who responded in kind. In the seventy-eight years that followed, the only time period during which some form of the confrontation did not happen was between 1937-1942 when Batesville, with its overwhelmingly German citizenry, suspected an escalation to more deadly projectiles should they make their customary appearance.

His key found the lock and he gave it a turn, wincing against the pain that shot up the back of his hand to the wrist. He released the key still in the lock and opened and closed the hand. Then, with a shake of his head, he pushed open the door. He knew it was only a matter of time until he couldn't do this anymore, and unlike his father, he didn't have a son to whom he could turn the business over. When he retired, Kaddy's would be gone.

That brought a small laugh from his thick frame, and as he stepped into the store he winked at Cadbury. The scarecrow offered its toothless grin in response from its spot in the corner. Artie was acting as if the absence of his store would have some kind of lasting impact on Adelia. The town, though, would do just fine; it would remain long after someone else had filled this prime piece of real estate.

Before he could shut the door, he caught sight of movement on the newly paved road. A pickup was taking the steep part of the hill, heading toward the Baxter place. He watched until it hit the flat and swung into the driveway, disappearing behind one of the ancient maples to take its place in the line of vehicles belonging to the rest of the vigil keepers. He supposed that was something he had in common with the oldest family in Adelia. Long after Sal was gone, the Baxter clan would still be there.

As the door shut behind him, he found himself wondering if Sal's death would finally bring CJ back.

Excerpted from:
Hunter's Moon by Don Hoesel
Copyright © 2010; ISBN 9780764205613
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Never Say Never - Chapter 1

Never Say Never

Bethany House (February 1, 2010)

Chapter 1

Donetta Bradford

You'd imagine, livin' high and dry in the middle of Texas, with the jackrabbits and the prickly pears, you wouldn't close your eyes at night and feel the water. In this country, people think of water like the narrow string that runs over the rocks in Caney Creek, or drifts long, and slow, and lazy down the Brazos or the Guadalupe. But when I close my eyes, I feel the kind of water that surrounds you and seeps into your mind and soul, until you breathe in and out with the tides.

Where, in heaven's name, would a person get a dream like that in Daily, Texas, where the caliche-rock ground's so hard the county's got no need to pave roads—they just clear a trail and let folks drive on it. It'll harden up quick enough and stay that way three quarters of the year while the farmers and the ranchers watch the sky and hope for rain. Life here hasn't got much to do with water, except in the waiting for it. But every night when I close my eyes, I feel a tide, rockin' back and forth under my body. I been feeling it for sixty-nine and a half years now, long as I can remember. I never did anything about it, nor told anybody. They'd think I was nutty as a bullbat, and when you're a businesswoman in a small town, well, you got to protect your reputation. That goes double if you're the hairdresser, and a redhead. We all know what kind of reputation hairdressers and redheads got.

All that's even more important for someone whose people, historically speaking, ain't from Daily. In a little town, even if you been there all your life, you're not native unless you can trace your roots back generations. There's still folks that'll point out (in a backhanded way mostly, because they're all gonna need a haircut sooner or later) that I'm only a Daily girl by half, on my father's side. On the other side, there's a bit of scandal the biddies still cluck about.

My daddy was what you'd call a prodigal. After leaving behind his fine, upstandin' family and a half-dozen brokenhearted girls of marriageable age in Daily, he wandered the world for so long everyone thought he'd either landed in jail or got hisself killed in a barroom fight. Then one day, he showed up at my grandparents' hotel building on Main Street, as mysterious as he left. He wasn't alone, either. He was driving a 1937 Chevy folks thought he musta got in a bank robbery, and he had a girl in the passenger seat. When she stepped out, my grandma Eldridge fainted right there on the spot. The girl was pregnant, and she was Cajun, and a Catholic. She was thumbin' a rosary ninety-to-nothin'.

It's hard to say which one of them three things Grandma Eldridge fainted over, but it took her two full weeks to get over the shock and humiliation, and welcome my mama into the family. By then, I guess there wasn't much choice. My daddy was married to the girl, and I was on the way. Grandma Eldridge was happy as a boardin' house pup when I come out with the Eldridge bluish-gray eyes and light-colored skin.

When she'd tell me that story, years after my mama'd passed on, I never understood it. My mama, with her hair the deep auburn of fall leaves, and her olive skin, and her eyes so dark you couldn't see the centers, was beautiful, exotic like a movie star. When she talked, the words fell from her mouth with a lilt that made her voice ebb and flow like the currents in the bayou. Mama's people knew the water. They lived on it, and farmed rice alongside it, and felt it in their very souls.

Every summer, Mama gathered me and my little brother, Frank, and carried us on the train to southeast Texas to see her people. I'd come back afterward and tell everyone in Daily that Mama's family lived on a plain old farm, just like folks in Daily. That was as far from true as the east is from the west. Those trips to see the Chiassons were like going to a whole other world.

After my mama passed on, there weren't any more lies to tell. Daddy never sent us back to her people, and I didn't hear from them, and the secrets from that final summer, when I turned fifteen on the bayou—the biggest secrets of all—never got told.

I thought I'd take the secrets to my grave. And maybe I would've if Imagene Doll, my best friend since we started school together at Daily Primary, hadn't got a wild hair to celebrate her seventieth birthday by catching a cruise ship out of the harbor near Perdida, Texas.

It's funny how from seventeen to seventy can be the blink of an eye, all of a sudden. Every time we talked about that cruise, I had a little shiver up my spine. I tried not to think too hard about it, but I had a strange feeling this trip was gonna change everything. That feeling hung on me like a polyester shirt straight out of the clothes dryer, all clingy and itchy.

The day we sat looking at the map, using a highlighter to draw the path we'd take to the coast, static crackled on my skin, popping up gooseflesh. I imagined them east-Texas roads, the piney woods growin' high and thick, towering over the lumber trucks as they crawled with their heavy loads. I followed the line down to the bayou country, where the rice farmers worked their flooded fields and the gators came up on the levies to gather the noonday sun. Where the secret I'd kept all these years lay buried, even yet.

"Are we really gonna do this?" Imagene asked, tracing the road with her finger. A little shimmy ran across her shoulders. Imagene'd never got out in a boat on anything bigger than a farm pond in her life. Even though we'd already booked the trip and paid our money, she was trying to wriggle off like a worm on a hook. Sometimes what looks like a wild hair at first looks harebrained later on.

Across the table, Lucy, who came from Japan originally (so she ain't afraid of water), had her eyebrows up, like two big question marks in her forehead. Her mind was set on taking the cruise. After all these years away from the island country where she was born, she wanted to see the ocean again.

They were both looking at me, waiting to see what I'd say, since right now the vote was one for and one against. I knew they'd probably go for it if I told them, Oh hang, let's just go to Six Flags instead. It'd be lots easier. We can ride the loop-de-loop and say we done somethin' adventuresome before we turned seventy.

I sat there, staring out the window of my beauty shop, where the wavy old glass still read DAILY HOTEL—from back in the day when wool, cotton, and mohair kept the town hoppin'—and it come to my mind that I'd been staring at that same window almost every day of my whole, entire life. How many times over the years had Imagene and me hatched an idea to do something different, then sat there and talked ourselves right back into the same old chairs?

Imagene swished a fly away from her cup. Early September like this, the flies hung thick as molasses under the awnings on Main Street.

"You know, it's maybe not the smartest thing to be headin' down to the coast when there's a hurricane coming in," Imagene pointed out.

Lucy frowned, her eyebrows falling flat. "I hear it on TV the storm is head to Mec-i-co." That was Lucy's way of saying she thought we ought to go ahead with the cruise, but she wasn't gonna be pushy. If Lucy had a disagreeable bone in her body, it hadn't poked through the skin in the forty years she'd been in the beauty shop with me.

Imagene's lips moved like she had something stuck in her teeth and couldn't get it out. She did that when she was nervous. If I let her cogitate long enough, she'd spit out our adventure like a bone in the sausage. She'd decide it was safer for us to stay home, because that's Imagene—careful as the day is long. She was already in a fret about packing all the right things, and asking my brother, Frank, to water her flowers and feed her cat. She was even worried about whether the cat (which was a stray she didn't want to begin with) might get lonely and run off.

Last night, she'd sat down and wrote letters to all of her kids and grandkids. She left them on the kitchen table—just in case we, and the whole cruise boat, got shipwrecked on a desert island and never come back.

"We're goin' on this trip," I told her, and Imagene sunk in her chair a little. She was hoping for Six Flags. "I checked on the intra-net this mornin', and it said the boat was leavin' at four p.m. tomorrow out of Perdida, right on schedule. I even called the toll-free number, and they told me once we get on the boat, it'll sail right around the storm, and there's not a thing to worry about."

"That's just what people say when there is somethin' to worry about." Imagene took a sip of her coffee, her lips working again. "Hurricane Glorietta's somethin' to worry about. She's a whopper. A person hadn't ought to be goin' out on the ocean when there's a storm like that around, Donetta. It's ... silly ... reckless, even."

Reckless. The word felt good in my mind. "We're near seventy years old, Imagene. If we're ever gonna get reckless, we better start now."

"I hadn't got any desire to turn reckless." Imagene tipped her nose up and squinted through her bifocals. She looked a hundred years old when she did that.

"The lady from the cruise line said boats sail around storms all the time. They got to durin' hurricane season."

Imagene's eyes went wide, and I knew right away hurricane season was the wrong thing to say. I got that All-timer's disease, I think, on account of I'm all the time saying things I didn't even know were in my brain yet. I don't lie much because mostly these days, there ain't time for it.

"We ought not to of booked a cruise durin' hurricane season." Imagene's voice was shaky, and she had worry lines big as corn furrows around her mouth. "Someone shoulda thought of that." By someone, she meant me. It was me that finally (after weeks of idle yappin' about how we were gonna do this big thing) got on the intra-net, looked at prices, and found us a cruise.

"They're cheaper right now. We saved almost half." I didn't mention it, but without the savings, Lucy never coulda come up with the money to go in the first place.

"Well, that right there oughta tell you somethin'." Imagene was headed into a nervous rigor now, for sure.

"What oughta?"

"That it's cheaper by half. Of course it's cheap when you might get sucked up in a hurricane and never come back."

"Like Gilligan I-lans," Lucy popped off, and grinned. It was hard to say whether the joke was helpful or not.

"Those ships hit things sometimes." Imagene stared hard at the pecan pie she'd barely touched. "They hit a rock, or a iceberg, and next thing you know, you're in the drink."

I leveled a finger at her. "You turned on Titanic last night, didn't you?" The minute I saw that movie was on, I'd called Imagene's house and told her not to go to channel 136. She musta clicked it right away.

She tipped her chin up, like a kid turning away a spoonful of green peas. "I just saw a minute's worth."

"I watch it all," Lucy chimed in.

"For heaven's sake, you two! There's no icebergs in the Gulf a' Mexico." I stood up and started gathering coffee cups, because if we sat there any longer, our trip would be ruined. "If we don't go like we planned, every last soul in town's gonna know about it, and we'll be the laughingstock. Just think what Betty Prine and her snooty bunch'll say." I pictured the next meeting of the Daily Literary Society. They'd be happy as cows on clover, havin' us for lunch right along with the finger sandwiches. Betty'd been thumbing her nose at me and whispering for weeks about how three ladies our age didn't have any business driving all the way to the coast alone. "Come wild horses or high water, we're going on this cruise. We're getting up in the mornin' and we're headin' for the water, and that's it. I'll be over to your house at seven a.m. to help load the cooler, Imagene, then we go after Lucy and we're off."

"We're off, all right." Imagene looked like her dog'd just died, instead of like a gal headed on vacation. "Frank said he'd take my van tonight and gas it up, then check all the belts and hoses one more time, just to be sure. He thinks we hadn't ought to be driving to the coast by ourselves, though. And especially with a hurricane comin' in."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Imagene, you and my brother act like we're about to get the roll call up yonder. We're grown women. It's six hours' drive—if that. And Kemp's got me fixed up with a special page on my new little laptop computer. It tells everything about the cruise. I've had the computer going all day long, and nothin's changed with the weather or the boardin' time. I tried to tell Frank that, but you know how he feels about computers."

"Frank's only looking after us." Imagene was defending Frank, of course.

Lately, when Frank and I had the kind of disagreements brothers and sisters have, Imagene took Frank's side. My brother'd been over at Imagene's even more than usual—mowing the lawn, helping her with her garden, stopping by to get a sample when she was baking pies for the Daily Café. Once or twice, I'd looked at the two of them and wondered ... well ... him being a widower, and her a widow, and all ...

I slapped a hand on the table to knock Imagene out of her funk. "Come on, y'all. Take off them long faces. We're gonna have an adventure bigger than our wildest dreams. I can feel it in my bones!"

That night, what I felt in my bones was the water. Ronald was down the hall snoring in his easy chair, the sound rushing in and out like the tide. I closed my eyes and let the waves seep under my bed, lifting the mattress, floating me away to that secret place I'd never told anyone about. Imagene and Lucy didn't know it, but this trip to Perdida was gonna take us within a whisper of the mystery I'd been wondering about since my last summer on the bayou.