Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Protector - Excerpt

The Protector
Avon Inspire; Original edition (June 28, 2011)
Shelley Shepard Gray


Nine years ago

“Come on, Ella,” Corrine said, grabbing her mitten-covered hand. “If you walk much slower, we’re going to be the last to arrive.”

“That wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Ella murmured, though she clasped Corinne’s hand and obediently followed her friend down the rocky incline toward Loyal Weaver’s house. “Maybe we don’t even need to go?”

Corrine looked at her like she’d just sprouted two heads. “Of course we do! Loyal invited everyone over for his birthday. It would be rude not to show up.”

Ella pushed the center of her glasses back up on the bridge of her nose and picked up her pace. “Do you really think he meant everyone?” she asked uncertainly. “Maybe he didn’t really mean that.”

After all, through all their years together in school, Loyal had never gone out of his way to be her friend. “Of course he did.” Corrine squeezed her hand. “Come on, Ella, don’t be so worried. It will be fun. You need to relax and smile more.”

The Weavers’ house was now in view, its white twostory frame looking tall and majestic on the hill in front of them. Scattered across the snowy front lawn were dozens of kids. It looked like Corrine had been exactly right. No one from their school had decided to miss the party.

But that was how it was with Loyal Weaver, she mused. He was the most handsome boy in her grade—maybe even in their school. But what was even more special than his looks was his attitude. Loyal was perpetually happy and chatty. He befriended everyone. It was rare to see him ever standing by himself.

Unlike her.

That had to be what happened when you were an only child, Ella mused. Her parents were naturally reticent and quiet. She was, too. But added to that was the feeling that she was never going to completely fit in like everyone else did. She wasn’t super slim. She had glasses. And she had plain-old brown hair and brown eyes. In short, she was the complete opposite of smiling, golden-haired, blue-eyed Loyal Weaver.

Perhaps that was why she seemed to be the only person in their schoolhouse who didn’t jump at the opportunity to visit him. They had nothing to say to each other.

“Oh, there’s Paul! And Mattie! And Peter, too.” Dropping Ella’s hand, Corrine quickened her pace. “Do you think Peter will want to talk to me today?”

“I’m sure he will.” Corrine was pretty and sweet and had her own share of admirers. Ella smiled. “I bet he’ll walk up to you first thing.”

“Maybe.” Raising her voice, she called out, “Hi, everyone. Sorry we’re late. Have we missed much?”

Mattie ran up to meet them, followed by Peter and Loyal and four others.

“All you’ve missed is Mrs. Weaver passing out hot cider and cookies.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Corrine smiled at Loyal. “Your mamm is a wonderful-gut cook.”

“There’s plenty of treats inside, Corrine,” Loyal said. “Go on inside and help yourself.” He grinned. “But first, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to get by Peter. He’s been standing here like an oak, waiting for you to appear.”

The other kids laughed. Beside her Corrine blushed, then was wrapped up in the circle of the group, everyone walking in unison to the house.

Ella slowed. Not a person had acknowledged her. Or said hello. Or was even waiting on her. As usual, it was like she’d never even existed.

Suddenly, she knew she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t walk into the Weaver’s home and sip cider and pretend everyone there wasn’t ignoring her. She didn’t want to stand off to the side, smiling awkwardly, hoping no one would notice how she didn’t have her own group of friends.

But most of all, she didn’t want to look at Loyal Weaver and chance that he’d see her watching him. Thinking how cute he was, how lucky the girl he chose to court would be. Even after all this time, it didn’t even seem like he knew she existed.

She stopped, half waited for someone to call her name. Then, realized she was standing there by herself. Forgotten again.

There was only one thing to do. Ella Hostetler turned around and walked away.

Chapter 1

No matter how hard she tried, Ella Hostetler found it almost impossible to look away from the white canvas tent that covered the majority of her front yard.

She swallowed. Oh, it wasn’t even her yard anymore. It, along with the house, barn, and most of the possessions inside, belonged to other people.

Now she had practically nothing.

“Ella, please don’t stand and stare any longer. Watching you makes my heart break,” Corrine said, her voice turning more troubled by the second. “Ach, but I knew I should have made you come over to my house today.”

Corrine was a good friend. Her best friend in the world, next to Dorothy. But even good friends couldn’t make difficult things go away. “I had to be here,” Ella said. “Someone had to stay in case anyone bidding had a question.” She tried to smile. “And it’s not like there was anyone else to take my place.”

Pure dismay entered Corrine’s eyes. “Oh, but you’ve had such a time of it. First your father passed away, then you had to nurse your mother before she passed on, too— all while taking care of the house. All by yourself.”

“I am an only child, Corrine.”

“I know. But sometimes, I just feel so bad for you, having to sell everything.”

Privately, Ella felt bad for herself, too. But hearing the doom and gloom in her girlfriend’s voice pushed her to try to sound positive. “It will be a relief to not have so much to take care of,” Ella said, almost believing it to be true. “And the money earned today will guarantee my future.”

“Oh, Ella. You sound like you will never marry. You will.”

“Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps I’ll just be like Dorothy. She seems to be doing fine on her own.”

Something flickered in her best friend’s eyes. Was it distaste? Or distrust? “You are not like Dorothy. I’ve never met a crustier woman.”

“She’s not so bad.”

“She’s difficult and bitter. I wish you could have found a different person to move next to.”

“The other half of her duplex was empty. Plus, she’s excited for me to live there. We’re going to work together at the library, you know.”

“I know.” Corrine pursed her lips. “I just can’t help but feel that you’re about to lock yourself away from everyone all over again, Ella. You should be making plans to see more people. To laugh a little. Not work and live next to Dorothy Zook.”

A burst of the auctioneer’s gavel sang through the air, preventing Ella from responding.

Casting another worried look her way, Corrine looped her arm through Ella’s and pulled. “Come on. Let’s go sit down.”

Though Ella let herself be led away from the crowd, she couldn’t help but look over her shoulder. She could feel the knot in her throat expanding, making it almost too hard to continue talking. “I . . . had no idea I had so many things.”

“We all have more than we need, jah?”

Ella flinched. Corrine’s words were true . . . to a point. She’d known auctioning off her family’s farm would be difficult. But this was so much more than that.

First her land and the buildings on it had been bought. And now so many others were picking and choosing through what remained of her parents’ lives . . . putting a value on items that to her mother had been priceless.

Her feet slowed as she again couldn’t resist looking over her shoulder. Against her will, tears sprang to her eyes as she watched the auctioneer point to her mother’s pie safe.

Corrine paused, too. Bit her lip as he called out a price. “Ella, what is important are the memories. That is what everyone says.”

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