Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dating, Dining, and Desperation by Melody Carlson

is introducing
Dating, Dining, and Desperation
B&H Books (March 1, 2014)
Melody Carlson

Chapter 1

Daphne Ballinger never imagined that life would turn out like this. As she sat on the front porch of the restored Victorian house, peacefully enjoying her coffee and morning sun, she felt pleasantly amazed. After so many years in New York, she'd nearly forgot- ten how lovely summertime in Appleton could be. And since it was nearly August, she wanted to make the most of this glorious season before it all frittered away.

But like the fly in the ointment, she was also reminded that she now had less than ten months to find Mr. Right, plan a wedding, and seal the deal . . . that is, if she wanted to continue living here in Aunt

Dee's lovely old home. And she did!

Oh, she tried not to pay too much heed to the calendar, and she wanted to trust God to send her the perfect man, but as days slipped into weeks, a quiet niggling tickled the back of her brain. What if it didn't happen?

"Que sera, sera." She leaned back into the wicker rocker. "What will be will be." Then she took in a deep breath. No sense fretting over situations she had almost no control over. And no sense getting bummed about it either. Admittedly she'd been feeling a little blue the past few days. As a result she'd spent those days sequestered in Aunt Dee's office—rather Daphne's office, although that seemed more uncertain lately depending on the day or her mood.

Still she was getting a lot of writing done. She was caught up on the advice column and had even managed to draft several more chapters for her novel. Whether it was good or not still remained to be seen, but at least she'd been productive. And productivity seemed a good antidote to hopelessness.

Daphne sighed, remembering how hopeful she'd been several weeks ago. The future seemed exceedingly bright—almost as if the stars were aligning, as if God was about to shed his favor upon her. She truly believed that her aunt's attorney, Jake McPheeters, was genuinely interested in her. Hadn't he insinuated as much? And she knew without a doubt that she was interested in him. Although true to her nature, she had not said as much. But that was only because she wanted to take it slowly, wanted to savor each moment, wanted to be absolutely positively certain before she threw caution to the wind and jumped in with both feet.

And for the better part of July, it seemed like she was getting closer to the jumping-in place. Her confidence had been growing daily and she felt herself getting ready to become very vulnerable. She saw Jake almost daily. And every time they were together, conversa- tion flowed freely, and they both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. It had been perfectly lovely!

Then just a week ago, everything seemed to change. Just like that glass of soda that's been left in the sun too long, it all seemed to fizzle and go flat. It started with a little disagreement over the column. Jake had wanted Daphne to start sending her pieces directly to the man- ager of the syndicate—just like Aunt Dee used to do. But Daphne put her foot down, telling him she wasn't ready for that yet.

"Sure, you're ready," he told her.

"But I like having another set of eyes on it."

"You already have plenty of eyes on it." Then he listed off the various editors who went over each column with care and expertise.

"But I don't know them personally," she said.

"Maybe . . . but they know you." He held up the local newspaper as if to make his point. "You see their work after they finish their editing and proofing. You don't have any complaints, do you?"

"No, of course not." She frowned. What she'd wanted to say was that having Jake read her work wasn't just about not trusting the edi- tors. The truth was, it was simply reassuring. Plus it made her feel closer to him. It was intimate. And she wasn't ready to let go of it yet.

"Besides," he said lightly. "What will you do when I'm gone?" "Gone?" A wave of panic rushed through her.

He had simply shrugged, then looked away. "On vacation for instance."

This had led to some more disagreeing. Nothing terribly toxic or concerning. But it was the first time they'd been at odds like this. Finally recognizing that she was not going to win this argument, she had reluctantly given in. Perhaps he was right. Maybe it was time for her to take the next step as a writer. Maybe she needed to grow up . . . stand on her own two feet.

But as soon as she'd agreed to send the columns directly to the syndicate, she felt a distinct sense of snipping. Just like a pair of sharp, invisible sheers had cut some vital thread that had been joining them together. Oh, she knew it was silly and she was probably just imagining things. But when most of a week passed without a word from Jake, she felt fairly certain that something was wrong between them.

It was only her pride that kept her from calling him and demand- ing "what gives?" However, when her teenaged cousin Mattie Stone stopped by to pick some zucchini on Thursday, Daphne was not above making a subtle inquiry. After all, Mattie was best friends with Jake's daughter, Jenna. She'd probably know what was up.

"They went on vacation," Mattie said as she cut the stem of a long dark green zucchini. "They left a couple days ago. They'll be gone two weeks."

"Oh . . ." Daphne nodded like this was no surprise to her. "Now that you mention it, Jake did say something about vacation. Kind of slipped my mind."

"Yeah. They have this awesome cabin on Lake Tamalik. With a dock and a ski boat and Jet Skis and canoes and everything. I've been up there a lot. I would've gone this time too, but marching band practice begins on Monday. I can't believe football season starts in just a few weeks."

"This summer is flying by."

"Tell me about it."

Daphne handed her another zucchini. "So what's your mom going to do with all these?"

"She makes zucchini bread."

Daphne looked at the nearly full grocery bag. "That's a lot of zucchini bread."

"She doesn't make it all at once. She grates and freezes the zucchini to use later on."

"Oh." Daphne stood up straight. "Good idea."

"I think this is enough," Mattie told her. "Especially since I'm on my bike. But at least I have a big basket."

"Well, be careful," Daphne warned as she walked Mattie around to the front yard. "I've noticed that a heavy load in my bike basket makes steering tricky."

"Yeah, I know." Mattie glanced at Daphne with a slightly con- cerned expression. "I hope you're not feeling too bad about Mr. McPheeters being gone and all that."

Daphne forced a smile. "No, of course not."

"'Cause according to Jenna, her dad was pretty surprised that her mom wanted to go too. It's not like he planned that or anything."

Daphne tried not to look shocked. "Mrs. McPheeters is at the lake too?"

Mattie nodded as she put the bag of zucchini into her metal bike basket. "Yeah, it's always been a big deal for their whole family. A bunch of Jenna's relatives have cabins up there too. It's like they have this big, old family reunion every summer. It's always the first two weeks of August. But Mrs. McPheeters doesn't usually go. Not since the divorce anyway."

Daphne's smile stiffened. "Guess you can't blame her. A family reunion like that sounds pretty fun."

"Yeah." Mattie frowned. "I wish I was there too."

Daphne just nodded. "Well, being in marching band sounds like fun."

"Marching in the hot sun?" Mattie shrugged as she swung her leg over the bike frame. "Anyway, thanks for the zucchini."

"Tell your mom hi." Feeling slightly blindsided, Daphne watched her young cousin riding down the tree-lined street, slowly disappearing into the leafy shadows. She hadn't wanted to admit it to anyone, but in that moment, she felt like crying. Jake was off taking a two- week vacation—with his ex. It felt as if someone jerked the ground right out from under her.

Today Daphne was tired of moping. She was determined to put her confusion and hurt behind her. During the weekend she had rationalized the whole thing into a tidy explainable package. She had convinced herself that Jake had only meant to offer her his professional advice as well as a platonic level of friendship—right from the beginning. She had simply misread his signals, making it into something he had never intended. And it wasn't the first time she'd been mistaken about a man. In all likelihood it would not be the last. Chock it up to hopefulness and just plain desperation. It was her mistake and she needed to own up to it. The next time she saw Jake, probably not until mid-August, she would act perfectly natural—she might be slightly cool, but she would be kind.

Today she just wanted to get on with her life. It was time to pick herself up, dust herself off, and get back onto that proverbial horse. And maybe, if she stayed motivated, she might already be dating someone else by the time Jake returned from his cozy reunion vacation. At least that was her goal. As she sat on her porch, looking out over the sunny neighborhood, she was determined not to be discouraged or disheartened by her flattened expectations over Jake.

The only problem with her recovery plan was that she still needed to explain it all to her good friend Olivia. And Olivia would prob- ably pick it to pieces. She had been banking on Jake being the perfect guy for Daphne. And even though Olivia was keeping quiet about it, Daphne was certain she was already planning the wedding. Olivia would see right through Daphne's game face, and to make matters worse, she'd probably be all sympathetic. The last thing Daphne wanted right now was sympathy. That would be her undoing.

"Yoo-hoo! Hello?"

Daphne peered across the street to see a blonde woman waving eagerly from the other side. Wearing only a short pink kimono robe, she had a little dog in her arms and a frustrated expression on her face.

"Hello there, neighbor," the woman called out. Daphne stood and waved, hurrying down the porch steps to see what was going on.

"Hello," Daphne called as she crossed the street. As she got closer, she could see this petite, albeit scantily, clad woman was exceptionally pretty. But when she was a couple feet away, the brown ratlike dog in her arms began to bark wildly. Daphne had never been fond of Chihuahuas, but when this one started baring its teeth and fiercely growling, she was ready to hurry back across the street.

"Don't you mind little Tootsie here." The woman spoke with what sounded like a Southern accent. "His bark's way worse than his bite." She giggled. "Although I'll warn you he does bite occasionally.

He's very protective of little ol' me."

Daphne cautiously folded her arms across her front, keeping a safe distance. "You must be the new neighbor. Didn't I see you moving into the Tremonts' house over the weekend?"

"That's right. I didn't arrive until late Saturday night. I followed the moving vans all the way up here from Atlanta—what a gruelingly long day." She paused to quiet the still-barking dog, then finally gave up. "I think it's taken a toll on poor Tootsie."

"Welcome to the neighborhood," Daphne said loudly to be heard

over the nonstop yipping. "I'm Daphne Ballinger."

"And I'm Sabrina Fontaine. I feel just terrible to interrupt your quiet morning. It looked like you were enjoying yourself on your porch. But I find myself in need of a good neighbor at the moment."

Wanting to cover her ears to block the sharp barking, Daphne made an uncomfortable smile. "Well, you're surrounded by good neighbors, Sabrina. This is one of the sweetest neighborhoods on the planet."

"It's certainly pretty enough." Sabrina shook her finger in front of the dog's nose now. "Tootsie Roll Fontaine! You knock it off, you hear?" Now she clamped her hand around the dog's muzzle. To Daphne's relief, the obnoxious Chihuahua was silenced. "I was completely blown away when I got up on Sunday morning," Sabrina continued, "just to see how charming and pleasant it is here. All the big green trees and flowers and neatly mowed lawns."

"You moved here sight unseen?"

"I discovered this house on the Internet. The photos were marvelous. My mama told me I was a complete fool, but I loved the house and immediately made an offer."

"Really?" Daphne considered this. "That was brave."

"I suppose it seems brave, but the truth is, I just wanted a place to start all over and I'd already picked Appleton. But there wasn't a lot of real estate listed." Sabrina smiled. "Isn't Appleton just the sweetest name for a town?"

Daphne nodded. "I like it too. Now what can I do to be a good neighbor?"

"Well, I'm embarrassed to ask, but I just don't think I can stand myself for one more day if I don't."

"Ask what?"

"May I please take a shower at your house?"

Daphne tried not to look overly surprised. "You don't have water?"

"Oh, I've got water. The problem is hot water. I didn't realize when I bought the house that the hot water tank requires propane. Apparently I've run all out of propane. Or else the hot water heater is broken, but I hope not. The water turned ice cold on me Sunday evening right in the middle of a shower. I called the Realtor and she gave me the number of the propane company. Of course, they were closed. So I called them today, but they couldn't schedule me until tomorrow. Anyway, I've been trying to get by with using my teakettle to heat water. You know, like our ancestors used to do. But I am just sick to death of myself now. Living amid a maze of boxes and feel- ing like a slob." She ran her fingers through her mussed blonde hair. "And seriously, I'm sick of being housebound. But I refuse to go out in public looking like a hot mess."

"Of course, you can shower at my house."

"Oh, bless your precious heart," Sabrina said happily. "I'll run and get my things and be right over if you don't mind."

Daphne pointed at Tootsie. "You might want to leave him home. I—uh—I have a couple of cats."

Sabrina laughed. "Oh, don't you worry. Tootsie likes cats just fine."

Daphne started to respond in defense of her cats, but Sabrina had already turned around and was happily hurrying back toward her house. Daphne had difficulty believing that devilish dog would like anything—particularly a couple of docile elderly cats. But one thing she knew, Ethel and Lucy would not like Tootsie one bit. Suspecting her new neighbor might bring that obnoxious little dog with her, Daphne hurried back across the street. She would make certain the kitties were safely cloistered in the spare room. Only when they were secured, did she place some fresh towels in the downstairs bathroom.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Ether: Vero Rising by Laurice E. Molinari

The Ether: Vero Rising
Zonderkidz (February 4, 2014)
Laurice E. Molinari

Chapter 1


Vero Leland had been trying to fly ever since he was old enough to stand. His earliest memory was standing on the rail of his crib, perfectly balanced like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam. He fully expected his mother to clap when she turned around and saw him. Vero remembers stretching out his arms, intending to fly into his mother's outstretched hands. But instead of clapping, she turned and let out a heartrending shriek. Startled, Vero hit the floor with a thud and cried hard as his mother cradled him.

But what Vero's mother, Nora, didn't realize was that Vero wasn't crying in pain. He was crying tears of frustration from failing to get airborne.

After the crib incident, Vero didn't stop trying to fly. Instead, he became quite the climber. He'd climb and throw himself off the kitchen table, his parents' bed, the piano, and pretty much anything with a few feet of air below it. . . until the winter of his fourth year. That's when his flying attempts reached a new and dangerous high.

It happened late one afternoon when Dennis Leland, Vero's father, was standing on a ladder and stringing hundreds of Christmas lights across the front of their two-story suburban house. Dennis was very particular about his holiday light display. Each bulb needed to hang exactly two inches away from the next, and they all had to extend fully, to just beneath the gutter. Christmas displays were taken very seriously in their suburban neighborhood of Attleboro, Maryland.

The men who lived on Vero's block had an ongoing competition, and each December the holiday displays grew more and more elaborate. Front yards were cluttered with inflat- able Santas, seven-foot tall snowmen, and animatronic reindeer. One dad even convinced his wife and young children to perform a live nativity each night, complete with a live donkey and goat. However, the goat was quickly sent back to the petting zoo after it ate the plastic sprinkler heads, causing impressive geysers that drenched his family and ruined the nativity.

It was a clear but chilly December day when Vero's father climbed down the ladder to test the magnificent light show. Wearing his one-piece brown coveralls and his checkered hat with earflaps, he rubbed his hands together and said, "This is it, Vero."

With great pomp and ceremony, Dennis dramatically picked up the plug of the extension cord. . .all of his hard work was about to come to fruition. But when he finally took a deep breath and plugged the extension cord into the outlet, nothing happened. The lights failed to illu- minate. Vero heard him use a word he'd never heard before, followed by, "I'm gonna have to check every stinkin' light bulb one at a time."

A few minutes later, Dennis grumbled miserably as he started to climb the ladder with some extra bulbs in hand.

Vero called down to his father and said, "It's okay, Daddy. I can help." While his dad had been inside the house getting some fresh bulbs, Vero had climbed the ladder and now stood proudly on the roof. Being small and nimble, Vero thought he could walk along the steep roof and check each one of the bulbs for his dad, saving him numerous trips up and down the ladder.

Vero could tell his dad was thrilled with the idea because Dennis was standing completely still on the ladder and looking at Vero with huge eyes. But when Vero caught sight of the surrounding neighborhood below, his penchant for flying took hold of him again.

"Daddy! I could fly from up here!" Vero shouted, grinning wildly.

"No, Vero! No!" his father shouted. "Don't move! I'm coming to get you!" He took two more steps up the ladder before his boot slipped, and he fell smack on his back. Luck- ily, a small bush broke his fall.

"Daddy, are you okay?"

Then piercing shrieks were heard as Vero's mother ran out of the house wearing an apron splattered with powdered sugar. Her cries alerted the curious neighbors.

Mr. Atwood from next door was the first one on the scene, since he was already outside admiring his "It's a Small World" display. He didn't notice Vero up on the roof at first.

"For Pete's sake," he said. "Calm down the both of you.

It's probably just a bum light bulb." Then he glanced up and saw Vero peering down at them. "Holy cow!" he yelled.

"That kid's crazy!"

When Mrs. Atwood arrived moments later, Mr. Atwood wagged his stubby finger in his wife's stunned face and said, "I told you that kid was off, but you never believed me! Remember that time I found him in our tree trying to jump off a branch that was as high as the house? I almost broke my neck climbing up after him!"

"Quiet, Albert! I'm calling 9 - 1 - 1!" Mrs. Atwood yelled, cell phone in hand.

"Maybe it's all a big stunt to draw attention to his Christmas display?" Mr. Atwood muttered to himself as he watched more and more neighbors gather. "I wouldn't put it past Leland."

Vero's father, meanwhile, had regained his footing and was attempting to climb the ladder once again.

"Yes, hurry!" Mrs. Atwood shouted into the phone. "The wind is gusting. It could knock the boy clear off the roof!"

Mrs. Atwood ended the call and then turned to help Vero's mother, who looked to be in a state of shock. She took off her coat and wrapped it around Nora's shoulders. "The dispatcher promised the fire truck would be here any minute."

"Vero, please don't move. . . . . . . " his mother said weakly. Vero saw she had flour on her cheek, streaked with a teardrop.

"Don't cry, Mommy," Vero told her. "I know I can do it this time."

Vero's five-year-old sister, Clover, joined them outside.

She'd been baking cookies with her mother, and she had flour in her blonde hair and down the front of her shirt. She opened her arms wide and called up to her little brother,

"Jump, Vero! I'll catch you!"

Nora quickly clasped a hand over her daughter's mouth. By now Vero's father had reached the top of the ladder.

He tried to grab his son, but Vero was beyond arm's reach; so he only managed to graze Vero's foot with his fingertips.

As Vero inched away from his dad, he became unsteady on his feet, and a collective gasp rippled over the gather- ing below. Yet somehow Vero regained his balance, and the watching crowd breathed a sigh of relief.

It was all too much for Vero's mother who fainted. Luck- ily she landed in the lap of the inflatable Mrs. Claus.

Mrs. Claus is cradling Mommy like a baby, Vero thought. And that's when a shiny red hook-and-ladder fire truck pulled around the corner with its siren blaring.

Vero felt absolutely wonderful. He smiled broadly and stretched his arms out wide, feeling the cold rush of the oncoming wind. It was exhilarating!

The fire truck's ladder swiftly extended, and a fireman stood in the enclosed basket, ready to carry Vero back to the safety of the ground below.

Vero watched as Mr. Atwood cautiously approached the fire captain now standing beside the hook-and-ladder. When the fire captain finished barking orders into his walkie-talkie, Mr. Atwood said, "Captain, when this is all over, would you mind helping me out next door? I really need a lift in your basket. You see, I've got this Santa that I'd like to stick upside down in my chimney so it looks like he's diving in headfirst."

Fire Captain Conrad looked at Mr. Atwood incredulously. "Absolutely not," he said. Then he turned to the crowd and shouted, "Clear the area! We're trying to save a life here!"

Vero saw Mrs. Atwood slap the back of Mr. Atwood's head as they moved away from the truck.

"Hi, Vero," the fireman in the basket said, as the basket stopped level with the roof's peak. "Climbing onto a roof is a first for you, isn't it? We've done this in trees before, but never on a roof — at least not with me."

Vero looked at the fireman and smiled in recognition. "Hi, Fireman Bob," Vero said.

"It's okay, Vero. Don't be afraid. I'm gonna help you just

like I did before," Fireman Bob said slowly, as he reached his arms toward Vero.

But Vero wasn't scared. He looked down and saw that his mother was slowly waking up in Mrs. Claus's inflatable arms. And just as Fireman Bob almost grabbed him, Vero took a deep breath, jumped backwards off the roof peak, and disappeared behind the house!

The neighbors gasped. Vero's mother immediately passed out again.

After Vero leapt off the house, the wind whipped against his face, and he felt like a bird soaring through the sky! Free- falling felt as natural to him as breathing.

But Vero's flying ecstasy was short-lived. Some powerful force — something other than the hard ground — abruptly ended his peaceful flight. He felt a sudden tightening around his chest like a yo-yo being yanked backwards on a string.

Vero suddenly found himself in the arms of a man who'd somehow caught him in midair.

"Vero," the man said, "that's enough with the flying."

Vero didn't recognize him as one of the neighbors. He was an older man with longish silver-white hair, a closely trimmed beard, and violet eyes. He wore jeans and a red puffy winter coat.

"I can't always be here to catch you," the man said. "I need you to promise me you'll stop."

"But I have to fly," Vero told him.

"In time," the stranger replied, and he gently lowered

Vero to the ground. "Everything in its own time. But for now, I need you to promise me you won't try to fly again until you know it's the right time."

Vero looked hard at the man. There was something familiar and likeable about him, and Vero thought he could trust him. Yet at the same time, Vero knew the man meant what he said.


Four-year-old Vero nodded. "Okay, Santa," he said, and he grabbed the man's beard with both hands.

"I'm not Santa Claus."

"But you're wearing a red coat. . ."

The stranger chuckled and said, "I'm too thin to be Santa Claus." As they heard the frenzied crowd rushing toward the backyard from the front of the house, the man locked eyes with Vero and said, "I expect you to keep your word."

Vero nodded again.

"All right. Now, I'm sorry about this next part, but it has to look believable," the man told him. And with that, the man twisted Vero's left ankle.

Vero screamed in pain, "That hurt!"

"I'm letting you off easy. It's only a sprain. Protocol says

I should break both of them."

The panicked crowd descended upon Vero who was now sitting on the ground holding his ankle.

"He's alive!" shouted the fire captain.

Vero's father picked him up and hugged him tightly, and

his mother was right beside him. Vero saw tears streaming down his father's face, and his mom had flour-streaked tear marks across both cheeks now. Vero felt bad for upsetting them.

Clover walked up and said, "He's okay. The man just twisted his ankle."

"What man?" her father asked.

"The one sitting in that tree," she pointed.

Everyone looked at the tree. There was no man in it.

Mr. Atwood shook his head and muttered, "She's just as crazy as her brother."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Sky Without Stars by Linda S. Clare

A Sky Without Stars
Abingdon Press (February 18, 2014)
Linda S. Clare


Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Frankie Chasing Bear

I did not come to quilt-making easily. The urge to piece together shapes and colors wasn’t my gift.

But when I was twelve, Grandmother said soon the quilt might be all that was left of what we once were. By the time your children wrap quilts around themselves, she told me, the star and all it stands for may be a dim memory, lit only by the fire of ancestors, clouded by ruddy smoke hanging in the sky.

Grandmother’s face was crisscrossed with fine lines showing off sharp cheekbones, a strong square jaw, hard work. A silvery gray braid, straight as the truth, hung down her back. I tried to make my stitches as small and even as hers, but my childish hands proved slow and awkward. She said I only needed practice and showed me again: up, pulled through, and down.

Just before she died, Grandmother and I sat together one last time. She stopped to smooth a small wrinkle in the quilt top. “Lakota were favored among tribes,” she said. “Our people stood at the top of the hills. The buffalo and the deer bowed to our warriors and we lived together in peace. The peace pipe showed us how to live and the stars helped us find good hunting grounds.”

Grandmother had told the story a thousand times, but I didn’t interrupt. I was fighting the thread again, scribbled into a hopeless knot. She looked up and said, “Keep the thread short.” I obeyed.

Her brown fingers reminded me of an old tree branch, but they deftly worked the needle: up, pulled through and down, up, through and down. “One day, the sun rose on white men. They brought their religion, but they often did not listen to their God’s teachings.” She paused to watch my crooked stitches take shape, nodding when I got them even. “We were brought low and herded like animals.”

Again the nod of approval for my efforts. “They had no explanation, except to point to their Book. We were to love their God and love each other.”

Grandmother laughed. “Lakota need no instruction on love.” Tears glistened in her tired black eyes. She’d seen some- thing terrible in the smoke, she said for the hundredth time. A red rose, unopened. Blood, a river of blood. Another day was coming, she said, when words from the Book would take place: We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

I dared not remind her she prayed to the God of the Bible. That she stood in two worlds, fully Lakota, fully Christian. I worry it’s not possible for me. Indians who go to the church are shunned by their kin and by the whites. Outcasts, their feet in no world at all.

Before we traveled to Arizona, Grandmother made me promise to make this Lakota Star for my son. Sew love into every stitch and remember: abed without a quilt is like a sky without stars. The quilt will help this child remember who he is, she said. The star will tell him how much he is loved and the light will save him at the last day.

Chapter 1

Mid-August 1951
Outside Phoenix, Arizona

Frankie Chasing Bear eased the old Chevy pickup to the side of the rutted dirt road. If she hadn’t run out of quilting thread, they’d have stayed home on a day this hot. A plume of steam rose from the radiator and disappeared into the pale sun-bleached sky.

She slapped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. “Not again!” A stab of guilt penetrated deep, an ache she’d carried since Hank’s death. At the time, leaving South Dakota for the West seemed to be the only answer. But now, Arizona looked a lot like the moon, dry and far away. And life here wasn’t any better.

She squinted out the driver’s side window. Dotted with the gray-greens of mesquite and cactus, the desert went on for miles. She swiped at her cheeks—her son shouldn’t see her cry. Was getting stranded out here worth a few spools of thread?

Ten year-old Harold shifted in his seat. Frankie already knew how he felt about the Lakota Star quilt. As far as he was concerned, quilts were for babies. And why, he’d asked, would you need one in a place this hot?

She’d told her son the story again and again. Before her death, Grandmother had made Frankie promise to finish the coverlet depicting stories once told around tribal fires. Grandmother had been adamant—the quilt should also reflect faith in God. Today, Frankie wasn’t sure about any of it, but she’d promised. If nothing else, her son should learn to keep his word.

“Rotten luck,” she said, smiling at her son.

Harold’s smooth face remained impassive. “We should’ve checked the water back at the store.”

Her son had wisdom beyond his years. She patted his hand. “Good thing we wore our walking shoes, eh?” Her eyes closed, she sighed. “I’ll get the cans.” Harold shook his head and stared at the floorboard.

Frankie got out of the cab and went around to the truck’s rusty tailgate. The blue cotton dress she wore was no match for the wind, which kicked up her skirt unless she held it down. She used her free hand for a visor and searched the road, hop- ing to spot the dust cloud from another vehicle. The heat of summer combined with a light wind to blast every inch of her as she scanned the horizon, but the only movement was from a couple of dust devils twirling in the distance.

She hefted the empty cans out of the bed and tapped on the truck’s back window. “C’mon, it’s only a mile or so to the gas station.”

Getting out of the cab, her son moved like a tortoise, the way he did when he was being stubborn. With the heat bear- ing down on the crown of her head, she was crankier than usual. “Harold. Come on.”

They started toward the gas station Frankie had hoped they could avoid. The fabric store had been bad enough. Elbow to elbow with a bunch of ladies wearing shapeless dresses and face powder the color of dust. All scooting away from her and Harold.

She’d figured the old truck had enough water in it to make it home, but she’d figured wrong. Now Stu, the sassy guy who manned the pumps at the Texaco might taunt her son—call him little Hiawatha, like last time. Stu’s kid Orval, a pudgy boy with an ax to grind, had already jumped Harold once after school. Bully. Her mouth was dry. She ran her tongue across her teeth.

She glanced at Harold. He was a good boy and handsome, too, or at least he would be in a couple more years. Tall for his age, he could outrun the kids back home. And he hardly ever complained. Frankie had been thankful for it, all the way here. She smiled as she tried to match his stride. The kid prob- ably weighed as much as the empty gallon can which knocked against his knees.

She pushed her damp bangs off her forehead. “Want me to spot you?”

“Naw. I got it.” Harold’s face glistened with sweat that dripped onto his brown plaid shirt.

Harold’s stick-straight hair was cut short for summer. Even without braids, he looked like his father, Hank Sr. But she was determined he wouldn’t turn out like his old man: prone to drink and violence. She shuddered at the memory of Hank’s murder only six months before, still ashamed of the small ways she was glad. He could never hurt her or Harold again. If there was a God, her husband’s passing was a gift.

Frankie kept a bright look on her face and began singing one of the Lakota songs she’d learned as a child. “C’mon, it’ll pass the time,” she said, and started again. In Pine Ridge, Harold was always a good sport about these things. But now he stared ahead, as if he didn’t want to associate with his own mother. She walked on the road’s soft shoulder and hummed to herself. Like it or not, Harold was growing up.

Ahead, the station shimmered, mirage-like—the red Texaco star a gleaming beacon. As they walked across the blacktop, heat radiated through the bottoms of her cheap sneakers. She glanced at Harold, who ran up to the concrete islands in front of the pumps. She walked faster.

The smart-mouth owner was on duty. Stu, dressed in white from head to toe, a cap sitting sideways on his pathetic crew cut. “Hey,” he said to Harold. He turned to Frankie. “It’d be nice if you bought something now and then.” He wiped his hands on a rag. The place reeked of oil and gas.

She pulled out her charm, the same charm she’d used to get that radiator filled a dozen times. She brushed her bangs aside. “Hey, Stu. You wouldn’t mind helping a lady out would you?” Maybe she should’ve worn the red top with the ruffles again. Gas station attendants seemed to like red. She laughed behind her hand, an old Lakota habit she’d grown up with. When she was nervous, he couldn’t stop.

But Stu’s jaw muscles worked side to side. “Dry radiator, again?” He scowled at her. “I can’t keep giving out free services to you people,” he said. Harold stood in back of Stu, narrowing his eyes at Stu, the same way he’d seen his dad do when other men looked at her.

“All’s we need is a little water to make it home,” she said. Stu was such an ornery cuss—he got maybe three customers on a good day. The wind came up and gusted against her cheeks, then died. Frankie tasted dirt.

They all turned back toward the road. A rumble and dirt-colored cloud trailed a government truck. Stu waved them back. “I got a real customer. You’ll have to wait.”

Frankie and Harold moved a couple feet and set down the cans. She poked Harold and pointed to a drinking fountain. “Go get a drink,” she said.

The white pickup, with “Bureau of Land Management” in raised letters on the door, braked to a stop. She folded her arms. Let Stu attend to Mr. Important.

A light-skinned but dark-haired lanky man stepped out. His eyes were hard to see under his hat’s brim. He wore cow- boy boots and an agate belt buckle. The buckle gave him away. Most of her male relatives wore the same type of agate buckle. He had to be part Lakota—and who knew what else. The man, in his tan government uniform and all, sparked some- thing in Frankie. His voice was deep, melodic. “Can you fill it up?” The man wasn’t sarcastic the way Hank Sr. always was. No, this guy was more than polite and didn’t let Stu’s attitude chase him up a tree. The man nodded at the most expensive gas pump. “I reckon the government can spring for ethyl,” the man said.

Stu nodded, although he seemed a tad disappointed he was serving another Indian. Stu went to work, the gas pump dinging. “Can’t say I’ve seen you round here.” Stu pulled a squeegee across the bug-encrusted windshield. “You new?”

The stranger smiled; his teeth were white and straight. “Nick Parker,” he said, touching his hat’s brim. “Just transferred down from Nebraska.” He took off the hat and used his forearm to mop his brow. “I’m still getting used to the heat.”

Harold snorted. Frankie elbowed her son, but it was too late. The man turned. “You from the Rez?”

Frankie and Harold looked at each other. The local Pima- Maricopa reservation?

Harold shook his head. “Nope.” He raised his chin. “Lakota.”

Frankie’s throat burned, but she couldn’t force herself to move away from the stranger. “Go on, son, and get a drink.” She pointed again to the fountain.

“Ma! Stop treating me like a kid.” He sat on the curb.

Nick seemed interested in the boy. “Where you from then?” He sat next to Harold, arms resting across his knees.

A guy who likes kids, Frankie thought. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the man spoke with her son. Nick’s thick, coppery hair swept back from his forehead. But the handsome ones could be dangerous.

Stu pulled the gas nozzle out and hung it on the pump. He came over. “Want me to check the water and oil?” He shot Frankie and Harold a look. “You can overheat pretty easy on a day like this.”

Nick laughed, and his eyes brightened and sent a chill up Frankie’s back. “Sure,” he said. “Don’t want to overheat out here, right?”

Right. Her breath caught, as if she were viewing the Milky Way for the first time. Whoa. She didn’t believe in love at first sight anymore, especially when love later grew fists.

An awkward moment passed, as if he’d heard her thoughts. He stood up and turned to the pair. “Are you here to stay or just passing through?”

Frankie drew her shoulders back. The man stood straight, proud; his eyes were a whiskey shade of brown. It would be easy to get sucked in, too easy. She locked her heart. But in the next moment, Frankie let the wind take her caution. “We’re hoping to make our home here.” She laughed, forcing her hand to stay at her side. “It’s the wrong time of year to be snowbirds.” She wished again she’d worn red. “As Harold said, Lakota,” she said. “We’re Lakota.”

Nick’s eyes lit up. “Not many Lakota this far from South Dakota. What made you want to come live in the desert?”

Frankie shrugged. Why they’d left South Dakota was complicated—too complicated to talk about. “We thought we’d like the nice, cool Arizona summers,” she said. “I’m Frankie and this is my son, Harold.”

Stu barged into the conversation again. “That’ll be three dollars,” he said. Nick dug out a bill and handed it to Stu.

“I’ll get your change,” Stu said.

Nick turned to Frankie. “Huh.” He paused. “What a coin- cidence. Growing up, I spent my summers at Pine Ridge.” He used his hat like a fan. “It’s got to be a hundred and ten.”

Stu corrected him. “Hunert and eleven.”

Nick grinned. “Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Slouched beside a gas pump, Harold broke his silence. “Ma overheated the truck ’bout a mile back,” he said, pointing to the water cans. “She just had to buy thread. Today.” Frankie gave him a look, but this was a good sign. If Harold said more

than two words, it meant he liked you.

Nick picked up the cans. “Let’s get these filled,” he said. He looked deep into Frankie’s eyes and held his gaze steady. “Could I give you a lift back to your truck?”

Nick spooled out the water hose and filled up the cans, studying the young woman and her son. Prettiest girl he’d ever laid eyes on. Her free-falling black hair danced in the wind as she said, “Oh, no, we can make it all right. But thank you.” She looked away, giving Nick a moment to appreciate her profile. Water overflowed onto his boot. It’s what he got for gawking. He prayed for forgiveness.

She spoke softly. “Harold, get a drink before we go, OK honey?”

Harold dragged himself to the drinking fountain attached to the side of a soda pop cooler outside the repair bay. For five cents, the cooler’s top slid open and you could pull out an ice cold drink. Summers in Pine Ridge, Nick and his buddies had pilfered a soda or two from a machine like that. Then, got beat up by a bully named Moose.

He let the water hose reel itself back in and picked up the full cans. He faced the woman named Frankie, the wind press- ing her thin blue dress against her body. “These things weigh a ton,” he said. Her figure was better than the Rodeo Princess up at Prescott. He said, “You got a bum radiator?”

Frankie shrugged. “Got to get that thing fixed.”

Nick hoped he wasn’t too pushy, but he didn’t try to stop himself from being drawn in, either. “Your old man won’t help you?” He set down the water, which sloshed onto his boots again.

She ran her fingers through her hair. “Not exactly.” Her hands were plain, capable and strong, not fancied up with polished nails or jewelry or even a wedding ring. Nick liked simplicity. A practical sort, not like his ex, Carolyn. She’d about driven them into the poorhouse with her beauty parlor treatments and whatnot. He preferred her story to Carolyn’s version, hers blamed Nick and a friend named alcohol.

The bottle had claimed his dad and half his relatives at Pine Ridge. Nick had nearly ten years sober, and had broken the Parker family tradition—Carolyn hadn’t give him enough credit.

He tried to make eye contact, but Frankie stared at the horizon. “You planning on staying out here?”

Her gaze flitted to Harold at the drinking fountain and back again. “The kid’s dad died in South Dakota.” She paused, as if thinking up a good explanation. “Hank Sr., that’s my husband, used to say he had relatives here, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” She took a breath, and finally returned his stare.

He took off his hat and got lost in her deep brown eyes. He said, “Sorry. Got to be tough on the boy.” He wanted to ask if she was seeing anyone, tell her he liked her simple beauty, offer to cook her dinner sometime. His tongue balked.

Before he could say anything, Stu’s voice rang out. “You thievin’ injun, pay up!”

Harold raced past Frankie and Nick, with Stu in pursuit. A wet stain down Harold’s shirt looked suspicious. Frankie fin- gered the spools of thread in her pocket, wondering if Stu was in a bartering mood as Harold hid behind his mother.

The attendant wagged a finger. “All right Frankie Chasing Bear,” he said. “That’ll be a nickel. And I’ve got a mind to charge you for the water. That boy of yours is getting to be a real headache.”

Nick gave Frankie a puzzled look, but dug into his pocket. “Here,” he said, producing a nickel. “Indian head, no less.”

Stu took the money.

Frankie pulled Harold around to face her. She spoke in a low, even tone. “You did this?”

Harold looked ready to cry. “No, Ma.” He raised his tee shirt to reveal his waistband. “See?”

Frankie nodded. “Look Stu, my kid didn’t take anything.” Stu narrowed his eyes. “How do I know he didn’t stash it somewhere?”

Nick stepped toward Stu. “The kid says he didn’t steal it.” He dug out more change. “But we’d like cold ones for the road.” Nick strode to the cooler and brought back three bottles.

Stu glared, but nodded and straightened his cap.

Nick handed a cold, sweaty bottle to Frankie. “Thank you.” She wouldn’t let on, but RC Cola tasted like heaven. She elbowed Harold. “Where are your manners?”

“Thanks.” Harold tipped back his soda and began walking back down the road.

“Harold! Wait!”

But Harold waved her off and kept walking. The kid could be as stubborn as his dad.

Nick brought her attention back. “Let me take you back to your rig.”

Frankie hoped her son’s moodiness wouldn’t embarrass the both of them. “Harold’s got a mind of his own,” she said. “Some days I think one of us won’t live to see Christmas.” She smoothed her bangs with her palm. “Sure, I’ll take a lift.”

Nick smiled too. His forehead and cheekbones had a noble hint that tugged at Frankie. She wanted to ask him which Lakota band his mother was from, was he related to any of the famous chiefs. He tilted his head toward the truck. “C’mon, let’s get that rascal.” He held the driver’s side door open.

Frankie climbed into the cab and slid across the bench seat, still gripping the soda bottle. Nick got in after her and started the truck. When he slammed the door, she picked up a whiff of sage.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Once Upon a Winter's Heart by Melody Carlson

Once Upon a Winter's Heart
Center Street (January 7, 2014)
Melody Carlson

Chapter 1

"Romance is officially dead," Emma Burcelli proclaimed as she reached for the last empty crate. She pulled off the lid and dropped several pairs of jeans into the plastic box, packing them down.

"That is so coldhearted." Lucy frowned as she handed Emma a small stack of wool sweaters. "Why would you say that?"

Emma looked sadly at her roommate—her soon-to-be ex- roommate. "Because my grandparents were the last of the true romantics and now my grandfather is gone." She let out a long sigh. "I honestly don't know what my grandmother will do without Poppi. Those two were inseparable. I doubt they ever spent a night apart."

"How old is your grandmother?" Lucy handed her the plastic lid.

"I think she's eighty-six now." Emma snapped the lid into place. "They just celebrated sixty-five years last summer. And they both seemed in such good health . . . I felt certain they'd make it to their seventieth anniversary." Emma stood. "But now Nona is having some health problems, and today she forgot to take her blood pressure meds. My mom's predict- ing Nona won't last long on her own. I've heard it's not so unusual, I mean, when a couple has enjoyed such a good marriage, that one partner follows the other within the year."

"I'm sorry about your grandfather." Lucy shook her head.

"And that's why I need to go. Nona was like a second mom to me when I was growing up, when my parents were so busy with their careers. I couldn't forgive myself if she passed on too without me getting to spend some time with her." Emma set the last crate onto the stack by the door. "But I hate leaving you in the lurch like this, Lucy. Are you sure you can find someone to share the apartment?"

"I already told you it's okay, Em. Family is important— you need to go. And there's always someone at work looking for something in the city. If I get a girl in here right away I can reimburse you for February."

Emma hugged Lucy. "Thanks for being so understanding." "Let me help you get this stuff down to your car." Lucy picked up a crate.

After several trips, the compact Prius was packed to the gills and it was time to go. Emma gave Lucy one last hug, blinking back tears. "I'm gonna miss you, Lucy."

"Me too." Lucy's eyes filled. "You better get out of here if you want to beat the commuter traffic."

"Yeah, and I want to get home before dark." Emma got into her car and, giving the old apartment complex one last glance, she waved to Lucy. Really, she reminded herself as she backed out the car, she was overdue for a change. She'd en- joyed her time in Seattle . . . at first . . . but these last couple of years had been nothing but disappointing. And she would not miss her job at all. Selling badly illustrated, poorly writ- ten, and overly sentimental e-cards was not the career she'd dreamed of while securing her degree in marketing. It was not what she'd signed on for when she'd joined the so-called up-and-coming Seattle marketing firm. They called them- selves BrightPond, but DullPond would better describe that company and the "boys" who ran it.

As Emma drove down the freeway she tried to distract her- self from feeling blue about Poppi by listening to the radio. But when an Adele heartbreak song started to play, she turned it off and let out a loud sigh. Okay, she knew it was some- what cold and hard to go around proclaiming that romance was dead, but that was exactly how she felt inside. Not only because Poppi had died, although that placed a definite excla- mation mark on her opinionated statement, but also because of her own personal experiences. Too many times she'd discov- ered that men like her grandfather were all but nonexistent. Truly Poppi had been the last of a dying breed.

Of course, she knew that Poppi would probably argue this with her. He would launch into a passionate lecture about how love was alive and well for those who were willing to take notice. "Just open your eyes," he would often say to people, "love is all around you." But Emma had never been able to see it. Poppi had been lucky in the romance arena. He'd met Nona, the love of his life, in Napoli shortly after World War II—the war that had devastated much of Italy. But despite losing family and suffering deprivations, they'd managed to hold on to this wonderful sense of optimism and hope and love. Shortly after marrying, they immigrated to America, starting new lives in Seattle near some of Nona's relatives. Later on they moved their little family to a small town in the mountains, and they opened a bookstore in the 1960s.

Her grandparents' story had always sounded so romantic to Emma as she was growing up that for years she believed something that wonderful and magical would happen to her . . . someday. In fact, she had fully expected it. But after more than a decade of disappointing relationships, most of which she preferred not to remember at all, Emma had grown seriously jaded about love and romance . . . and men in gen- eral. Most of the men she'd dated had proven to be self- absorbed, shallow, and immature. Whether it was just bad luck or bad choices, she'd eventually grown weary of dating in general. And over the years she'd become increasingly cer- tain that good, decent, chivalrous men, like an endangered species, no longer existed in the real world. True romance was only to be found in old movies and classic books.

Even Emma's parents seemed to have missed out in the love and romance department. For as long as Emma could remem- ber they'd bickered and fought over almost everything. The fact they were still together probably had more to do with the image they liked to maintain than real love. With highly vis- ible careers, her parents thrived on keeping up appearances. Although they shared the same building on Main Street, with her dad's law practice on the first floor and her mom's design firm up above, anyone who knew Saundra and Rob Burcelli per- sonally knew that this couple lived very separate lives. And any- one who knew them really well, like their close relatives, knew that Rob and Saundra slept in separate bedrooms. Emma's mom claimed it was due to Rob's snoring, but Emma knew bet- ter. And, really, it wasn't all that surprising. For as long as she could recall Emma had known and accepted that her parents' marriage was nothing like Nona and Poppi's.

Tired of these depressing thoughts, Emma turned the radio back on. Even listening to sad love songs was preferable to getting bummed out like this. But now that she was off the freeway and heading into the foothills, the Seattle station was breaking up. Plus it was starting to rain. Turning off the ra- dio, she knew it was time to focus on her driving. At these elevations and this time of year, it could be icy out here.

It was just getting dusky when she pulled up to Nona's house. The familiarity of the Craftsman style home glowing in the rosy twilight welcomed Emma just as it had always done. De- spite the frosty air, the bungalow's windows seemed to prom- ise golden warmth and respite and love. How many times had she and her younger sister arrived at this haven in search of refuge? Only now...things had changed. Poppi was gone.

She swallowed against the lump in her throat as she parked in front of the house. But as she got out of the car, she was slightly taken aback by the sight of her mother's late model Cadillac in the driveway. What was she doing here at this time of day? As Emma hurried up to the house, she grew worried. Had Nona's health gotten worse? Her mom had mentioned that Nona had neglected to take her blood pres- sure medicine yesterday. What if she'd suffered a stroke or heart attack today? It was bad enough that Emma hadn't been able to say goodbye to Poppi. But what if Nona was gone as well?

She ran up the porch steps and, knocking on the door, waited a moment before testing to see if it was locked, which would be highly unusual. Then Emma let herself in. "Nona?" she called softly. "Hello? Mom?"

"Oh, there you are." Saundra Burcelli rushed toward her, smelling like Obsession perfume and looking typically elegant in her pale blue cashmere sweater set and freshwater pearls. She held her arms open and hugged Emma. "Welcome home, darling. Did you have a good drive?"

"Yes," Emma said quickly. "Is Nona okay?" She peeled off her parka, glancing anxiously around the living room. Everything looked pretty much the same. Except that Poppi's recliner was sadly empty. She turned away, unwilling to break into tears again.

"Nona is fine. I made sure she took her medicine today. And she's resting right now." Her mom tipped her head to- ward the closed bedroom door on the other end of the living room. "It's been a long day for her. Tending to arrangements for the memorial service and all that. I told her that I could handle it for her, but she insisted on being involved with ev- ery last tiny detail. She wants everything to be just perfect for Poppi."

"I got here as quickly as I could." Emma hung her parka on the hall tree by the door. "And I can help her with everything that needs doing from here on out, Mom."

"I'm still surprised they let you off work in the middle of the week like this, Emma. And with such short notice." Saundra peered curiously at her. "I was under the impression you worked for some horrible slave driver."

"As a matter of fact, my boss refused to let me take time off." Emma stuck her chin out defiantly. "And so I quit."

"You quit?" Her mother's blue eyes widened in alarm.

"I've hated working there almost from the get-go." Emma lowered her voice and moved away from her grandmother's bedroom door. "I've been considering leaving them for over a year now."

"But in this economy, Emma? Can you really afford to do that?"

Emma shrugged. "I wanted to be free to help Nona. But not just for a week like you suggested. Now I can stay as long as she needs me. I'll help her with household chores and I can drive her to appointments and to the grocery store and whatever—just like Poppi used to do. And I can help with the bookstore too."

"Yes . . ." Her mom sounded doubtful. "And I'm sure she'll appreciate all that. But don't forget Virginia and Cindy still work at the bookstore."

"I know, but without Poppi around to manage things . . . well, the bookstore might suffer."

"But I don't like to see you sacrificing your career for—"

"My career was sacrificing itself." Emma ran her finger through some dust on the mantel. "That marketing firm was going absolutely nowhere, Mom. And I was going nowhere with them. I needed a break . . . a chance to regroup and refocus. You know?"

Saundra made an uncertain nod. "If you say so."

"What's that smell?" Emma sniffed the air. "Is something burning?"

"Oh, fiddlesticks!" Her mom turned to the kitchen. "I was attempting to make us some dinner and I completely forgot to—"

"You're cooking?" Emma tried not to sound too alarmed as she followed her mom through the dining room and into the kitchen.

Saundra bent to open the oven door, using a dishtowel to wave away the smoke now billowing out. Meanwhile Emma turned on the exhaust fan over the stove and peered down at what looked like a blackened animal of some kind. "What is it?" she asked.

"It was going to be roasted chicken. But I forgot to turn the timer on to remind me to turn the temperature down. It was only supposed to be that high for five minutes." She scowled at the clock. "It's been at least forty-five."

"Oh . . ." Emma grimaced. "Is there any saving it? Maybe we could peel off the burnt layer and—"

"No." Her mom shoved the forlorn bird back into the oven and, firmly closing the door, she turned off the oven. "Fortu- nately we have lots of casseroles and other dishes in the fridge. Everyone has been very generous with your grandmother. I just thought it would be nice to have a roasted chicken, that's all."

"Maybe I should take over from here," Emma suggested. "I mean if you need to go home and fix Dad's dinner. Or do you ever do that anymore . . . I mean cook at home?" Emma's mother had never been into cooking, but even so she usually ate dinner with Rob.

"I know what you're thinking, Emma Jane. But it may in- terest you to know that my cooking skills have improved of late. I even took a French cuisine class at the community col- lege last fall." Her mom patted her platinum blonde hair into place as if she were getting ready to pose for the cover of a new cookbook.

"French cuisine?" Emma frowned as she reached for a dish- cloth. "What's wrong with learning to cook Italian food?" Emma had grown up hearing her father bemoaning the fact that his wife refused to learn how to make the simplest Italian dishes. Saundra Burcelli couldn't even make decent spaghetti. Of course, her mom's usual reaction to her dad's complaints was to angrily tell him if he wanted Italian food, he could go to his parents' house to eat. And sometimes he did, because everyone knew that Nona always had something delicious bubbling away in her little old-fashioned kitchen.

Her mom scowled. "What's wrong with French cuisine?"

"Nothing." Emma glanced around the messy kitchen. Hopefully Nona hadn't seen it like this. Was all this chaos the result of her mother's attempt to simply roast a chicken? "But, really, Mom, if you need to go home and take care of—"

"I do not need to go home," her mom said sharply.

"Okay . . ." Emma started clearing the counters and

straightening the kitchen, all the while wondering why her mother was in such a foul mood right now. Certainly, she was sad over Poppi's sudden demise . . . but then so was everyone.

"As a matter of fact, I do not plan to go home at all," her mother abruptly declared.

Emma paused from wiping the countertop. "Wh-what?"

Saundra turned away from Emma. Fussing with the old

spice rack, she meticulously turned each little jar to face out. "I wasn't certain you were coming, Emma," she said slowly. "So I have, uh . . . well, I've made plans to stay with Nona for a while myself."

"But I told you I was coming—and that I'd be here this evening." Emma dropped the dishrag into the sink and placed a hand on her mother's shoulder, forcing her to turn around, face to face. Locking eyes with Saundra, Emma was determined to get to the bottom of this. "You knew that, Mom. So why are you acting like you didn't? Or that you need to be here when you knew I was on my way? What's up?"

Her mother looked uneasy as she fingered her pearls, press- ing her lips tightly together as if trying to come up with an appropriate answer.

"What is going on, Mom?" Emma studied Saundra closely . . . something was not right.

"Nothing's going on." Saundra looked down.

"I can tell something's wrong. What is it?"

Saundra folded her arms across her front with a stubborn look.

"Does this have to do with Dad?" Emma demanded. "Did you guys get in a fight?"

"Fine. If you must know, I've left your father."

"What?" Emma blinked. In all the years . . . all the fights . . . her mom had never left her dad before. Not that Emma knew of anyway.

"You heard what I said, Emma. I've left him. I'm finished. I'm done." Her mother's lower lip trembled slightly as she reached for a tissue from the box that Nona always kept on top of the old refrigerator.

"But why?"

"Why?" She looked at Emma with teary eyes. "Because—

because it's over—that's why. And please, do not tell Nona about this. She is already stressed over losing Poppi and there's her blood pressure to consider. I don't want her to find out that her only son is a miserable excuse of a husband—not to mention a cad." And now she turned away and hurried from the room.

Emma just stood there feeling dazed. Poppi had died yes- terday. And now her parents' marriage was over as well? Not to mention Nona's health was suffering. What more bad news awaited her? She hadn't heard from her younger sister yet . . . hopefully Anne and her son, Tristan, were okay—although the recent divorce had probably taken its toll on both of them. Emma shook her head sadly as she opened the old fridge. Perusing the assortment of covered Tupperware containers and casserole dishes, trying to find something suitable for dinner, Emma realized that her family was quickly coming unraveled.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Gabriel's Bride by Amy Lillard

Gabriel's Bride
B&H Books (February 1, 2014)
Amy Lillard

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

The Lord was testing him. It was as plain as that.

Gabriel Fisher sat down on the bed, its quilt pulled up and neatly tucked in. She hadn't even slept in it.

He looked at the note in his hands as if seeing it for the first time. From downstairs, he could hear the sounds of the boys stirring around, arguing over who was going to eat what, too impatient in their hunger to wonder where their sister was.


He crumpled the paper, not needing to read the words again.

Not able to read them through the tears welling in his eyes. His daughter was gone. She had left, wanting to see what the Englisch world could offer her. She wanted to go to school, help animals, make more of herself than she could if she stayed in Clover Ridge.

Gabriel raised his eyes toward heaven. "Where did I go wrong, Becca?" He dipped his chin and shook his head. "I did the best I could."

He rose, his joints popping, his heart breaking. He felt old.

His baby girl was gone.

He tossed her good-bye note onto the bed, then retrieved it again, smoothing it back flat. He'd keep it. It might be the last he heard from her. At least for a while.

Quietly, he shut the door behind him when he really wanted to slam it to expel the growing remorse, regret, hurt, and anger that boiled in his gut.

He wanted to run after her, get in his buggy and scour the county. But she was long gone. Probably already in Tulsa. Staying with strangers. Or at least with people she knew but who were strangers to him. Englischers. Too many places she could go in a car. He'd never find her.

He took a deep breath at the head of the stairs, held it in. Let it go. Then started down.

His oldest bu, Matthew, stood in the middle of the kitchen, hands propped on his hips. He surveyed his brothers as if he wasn't

sure if he should intervene or walk away.

In that moment, Gabriel realized that Matthew was next. Steady and true, Matthew would turn sixteen next year and get his taste of the Englisch freedoms.


He hadn't meant to raise his voice quite so much, but there it was, and it was effective. Simon, who had been holding the remains of last night's pie above his head to keep it away from leaping David and bouncing Joseph, stopped his own jumping and stared at his father. All three of them turned as if only just now aware that their father was anywhere near.

Samuel quietly sat at the table waiting on someone to stop their nonsense and feed him. Poor child. He hadn't been the same since his sister, Katie Rose, had moved back in with their folks, but that was customary while she and Zane Carson were courtin'. But this . . . this would set Samuel back even more.

Gabriel took a couple more steps into the room, his boys still watching him closely. They knew something was wrong. Their sister had not been about this morning, cooking and laying out their clothes. There was no coffee brewing, no boiled eggs to eat on the way to the barn to jumpstart their morning chores. No Mary Elizabeth.

"Sit down." He nodded toward the table. There were chores that needed doing. Cows to milk, eggs to gather, horses to feed, but they needed to know first.

He waited until they had all settled themselves into their seats before he started. He took a deep breath. Carefully avoiding the empty seat where his dochder should have been, he looked at each of them in turn. "Mary Elizabeth has gone."

Matthew's eyes widened as if he understood, yet could hardly believe that what he had heard was true. He alone remained silent; the other bu we began speaking at once, talking over each other, but asking the same questions: "Where has she gone?" and "When will she be back?"

Gabriel shook his head, refusing to answer. "Now, go do your chores. I will make breakfast, and we will not speak of this again."

They hesitated, but only for a heartbeat, then the sound of their chairs scraping the floor filled the room. They trudged out the back door, their faces reflecting their unasked questions. But they all knew better than to push him.

All but Matthew.

His oldest son remained seated, his green eyes so like Gabriel's own filled with concern and dismay. "Dat?" His voice was barely above a whisper.

"There are horses to feed, Matthew."

"She's not coming back, is she?"

Hearing the words spoken out loud nearly broke his heart in two. But he had to push the pain aside. He had to remain strong for all of them. "The horses, Matthew." His voice came out gruff, not at all like it had the day before.

"Jah, Vatter."

Gabriel dipped his head as Matthew pushed his chair back and rose from the table. He didn't watch as his son reluctantly followed his brothers outside to complete the morning chores. Instead, he closed his eyes and uttered a small prayer for her safety and well- being. His Mary Elizabeth was smart, but unaccustomed to the ways of the Englisch. He could only hope wherever she was that she was safe and protected from the temptations which made up the outside world.

With an aemen and a sigh, he rose from the table and started breakfast.

About noon time, Gabriel came out of the barn, drawn back into the sun by the jingle of a horse bridle and the creak of a buggy. He blinked a couple of times to right his vision as Zane Carson, the fancy reporter who was bound to marry Katie Rose, pulled his buggy to a stop.

"Goedemiddag," the Englisch-man-turned-Amish greeted, jumping down from the buggy and smacking his horse affectionately on the rump.

For a fancy city boy, Zane Carson had adapted to the Plain ways as if he had been born to them. Yet the bishop had his reservations about allowing him in, making him wait over a year before he could begin classes to join the church. Amish folk leaving the district was more likely than the fancy joining up. With Gideon marrying his own Englisch bride . . . well, two Englisch asking to join in the same year had the bishop as wary as a fox.

Thoughts of leaving brought Mary Elizabeth's desertion back to the front of his mind. He sighed and pushed back those thoughts. She was in rumspringa. That didn't mean she wouldn't return. She hadn't joined the church. She wouldn't be shunned for testing Englisch waters, but she was his little girl, and he worried about her. Hadn't known that she was so unhappy with the lot God had provided for her that she felt there was more to be found in the world.

"Wie geht?" he asked his sister's intended.

"Gut, gut," Zane Carson said, with a dip of his chin. "Deacon Esh sent me. Katherine Yoder passed in the night."

Gabriel tsked and shook his head. What was it about the night that so many things turned for the bad? "Terrible sad, that.

Katherine was a gut woman."

"That she was. Uh, the deacon wants you to accompany him to the funeral."


Zane Carson shrugged. "I'm just the messenger."

Unsaid was the truth that Old Ezekiel Esh, for all his obedience to God and heavenly aspirations, was something of an odd duck. A little like Katherine herself. It would do no good to question him on the matter. Compliance was the surest way to discover the method of the old man's thoughts.

The more logical choice would have been Zane Carson himself, since he had moved in with the deacon, seeing after his farm while waiting for permission to become a part of the community.

No doubt Old Zeke had a motive, but Gabriel would only find out when the old man wanted him to know. Even though Katherine Yoder's house was no longer in their district, the deacon would naturally attend the services to pay his respects to the family.

"The funeral will be next Tuesday."