Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Doctor's Devotion

Doctor's Devotion
Love Inspired (June 19, 2012)
Cheryl Wyatt

Chapter 1

"Change of plans, carrot top."

Suitcase in tow, Lauren Bates smiled at Grandpa Lem's voice coming through her cell phone. "What, you're picking me up in your tractor?" She exited Refuge Airport. Southern Illinois welcomed her with breezy warmth and a bouquet of bright June colors she wasn't accustomed to in Texas.

Lem chuckled. "Ought to since you haven't come to see me in five years."

Guilt whooshed in like planes on runways nearby. "I know, Grandpa. I'm sorry. What's this plan change?"

"Accompany me to the ribbon-cutting of a new trauma center Doc Wellington founded at Eagle Point? Starts in half an hour."

Anxiety knotted her gut. Not only was she weary hearing about Dr. Wellington, a medical facility was the last place she wanted to be. She sighed. "For you, Grandpa, I'll endure it."

"Good. We're in a blue Dodge Ram. See you in a few."

"We?" She maneuvered past people cluttering the sidewalk.

"Yes. Dr. Wellington's helping me pick you up."

"Why would you need help?" Lauren canvassed curbside cars and spotted a spiffy blue truck near the front.

"I don't drive on streets anymore. Only fields."

Alarm slowed her steps. "Why not?"

"In case you forgot, I'm nearing a hundred."

She almost pointed out he was only turning seventy, but swift remembrance of her reason for this spur-of-the-moment trip halted her. Anticipation spiked as Lem exited the truck.

"Look who's here!" Grinning and hunched, he seemed older and slower than she remembered. Lauren rushed him with a hug. His bear strength was gone. Tears welling, she squeezed thin ribs.

She'd come because of his sudden uncharacteristic fear over turning seventy. Terror struck her now, too, but according to that Dr. Wellington he always spoke of, Lem was healthy. Still, she'd had to come see for herself. She should've come sooner.

"I'll take your bags," a deep voice said behind her. Strong hands reached around and deftly lifted Lauren's purse and colossal suitcase from between her and Grandpa.

Lauren turned. Grandpa leaned aside. Up stepped the most gorgeous creature ever.

Lauren gulped then remembered her manners. The tall man looked less like a doctor and more like a landscaper, with his deep tan and fit build. Intense and chiseled, yet polished like an airbrushed movie star. And he was her age. Not Grandpa's.

The doctor's easy smile tilted her world. His eyes were a stunning mixture of mostly silver with hints of blue. She gawked like a junior high geek facing the football captain.

"Mitch, this is my granddaughter," Lem said.

"Lauren, pleased to finally meet you."

Ooh, his voice! Pleasant. Deep. And, wow. He knew her name? She blinked. He blinked. Her gaze inched to the hot pink handbag draped over his manly shoulder. She tried not to laugh at the sharp contrast of megamuscles toting a tiny pink purse.

As though the striking doctor with the black hair cut in a military buzz and epic eyes suddenly caught on about the purse—and also diagnosed this weirdness between them as attraction—he lowered her handbag. He offered a sheepish grin and a masculine hand. When she settled hers into the strength of his, the warmth flowing from it enveloped her entire being.

No dead-fish handshake here. His was firm. Confident. Alabaster teeth gleamed from a mouth framed by a strong jaw. His grin gave way to a shy laugh.

She knew the feeling. She'd been bamboozled by attraction, too. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Wellington." She rescued his endangered ego by retrieving her purse from his fingers.

"It's Mitch." He tilted his head, openly assessing her. His hearty smile expanded and he seemed in no hurry to look away.

She cleared her throat and searched for something else exciting to stare at. Unfortunately, sidewalk cracks weren't near as interesting to behold as the dashing doctor.

Observing them, Grandpa chuckled as if having a private party with himself. Mitch moved first. He placed her suitcase behind the seat then assisted her in so she sat in the middle of the truck's seat. His grip was as sturdy, warm and steady as his fond gaze.

Mitch approached Lem. "Up you go, Gramps."


Lauren's irritation overrode Mitch's appeal, as he helped Grandpa in, then approached the driver's side. His shoulders were broad enough to require a rather pleasant pivot to enter the vehicle and, once inside, for her to move closer to Grandpa.

Not that she noticed.

"Where to?" Mitch asked Lem.

"Since Lauren's flight was delayed, she's coming to the ribbon-cutting so you're not late to your own party," Lem said.

Mitch laughed. The sound both grated and soothed. Grated because of the closeness he obviously shared with her grandpa, which stirred a surprise pot of jealousy. Soothing because Mitch's Grand Canyon voice could make a typhoon swoon.

At a red light, Mitch caught her stare. The corner of his mouth slid into a colossal smile.

"I expected you to be older," Lauren explained. "Grandpa talks about you nonstop."

"Likewise," Mitch said. "I feel like I know you."

Yikes! What all did he know? The failure she'd been?

"So, Lauren, how long will you be in town?" Mitch asked.

"Three months!" Lem announced. "I couldn't be happier." He beamed. Mitch did, too, which meant he obviously cared about Lem. How close were they? Drizzles of dread seeped into her stomach.

"How'd you manage to get so much time off?" Mitch asked.

"I'm between jobs right now. I'm opening a specialty shop in Houston with a friend this fall. We started the business from scratch in her home a year ago. Our client list and workload grew to the point where we needed more space."

"What's the specialty?" Mitch kept a keen eye on traffic.

"Sewing. We're leasing an historic building in town after receiving permission from local government and the Historical Society to open it. It'll be called Ye Olde Time Seamstress Shoppe. We're restoring the building's nineteenth-century period decor. Took a lot of wrangling and red tape but it's in the renovation stage now, so this was a perfect opportunity to finally visit Grandpa."

"She's getting over a much-needed breakup," Lem inserted.

Lauren smirked. "Grandpa's not letting me live it down."

Lem harrumphed. "Told you from the start he was no good."

Lauren noticed that Mitch navigated the roads with extra care. "You're a very safe driver," she commented. "I like that."

"A welcome change from her ex who regularly drove ninety. I know because she called me, often upset," Lem announced.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Search

The Search
Avon Inspire; Original edition (June 19, 2012)
Shelley Shepard Gray


“I’d love to say drugs are never a problem in Crittenden County. I’d love to say it, but it wouldn’t be true.”

Mose Kramer

December 31

Perry Borntrager had been taking drugs again.

Frannie Eicher had suspected it when she first spied his glazed expression, then had known it for sure when she heard his slurred words. Now, here she was, alone with him on the outskirts of the Millers’ property. Not a soul knew where she was, or that once again she was meeting him in secret in a place where they weren’t supposed to be at all.

Oh, she was sure he wouldn’t hurt her. Perry wasn’t dangerous. But knowing that they were completely alone, that no one would hear if she cried out for help, was unsettling.

Especially since at the moment Perry wasn’t acting like himself.

The Perry she’d known all her life had been patient. Methodical. Years ago, he’d been slow to smile and even slower to frown. Everyone far and near had agreed that he was a good man. A man who was easy to get along with, a steady kind of man.

That was not the case anymore.

“Glad you finally made it.” His voice was snide, clipped.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I had a terrible time getting out of the inn—everyone wanted ‘just one more thing.’ ” Frannie smiled sheepishly. Then waited, half hoping he’d take her bait and ask about her cherished bed-and-breakfast.

He didn’t.

“It didn’t matter if you came on time or not. Nothing would change my feelings. I hate it here. I always have.” A low laugh erupted from his chest. “But you knew that, right?” He was walking somewhat unsteadily. In a zigzag way. As if he was having trouble placing his feet just so on the uneven ground
beneath them.

“You hate being here at the Millers’ farm?” she joked as she struggled to keep up with his awkward pace.

He didn’t realize she was kidding. “Jah,” he said over his shoulder as they approached the abandoned well on the edge of the property. “The Millers’ farm, Marion, Crittenden County. Kentucky . . .” His voice grew louder. More hostile. “What’s the difference, anyway? I hate it all.”

She stopped a few feet away from him. Where it was safe. She did remind herself, though, that he would never hurt her. “If you don’t like it here, what are you going to do?”

“Get away when I can.”

She shouldn’t have been shocked, but she was. “And go where?”

“I don’t know. Anywhere. Someplace else.” Slumping against the stacked rocks that surrounded the top of the well, he looked at her contemptuously. “What about you, Frannie? Don’t you want to get away?” The cold air made his breath appear like little puffs in the sky. It also made her aware of how cold she was.

And how much colder their relationship had become.

She felt his gaze skim her whole body, as if he was looking at her from the top of her black bonnet covering her kapp to the toe of her black tennis shoes, and had found her wanting. “I’ve never thought about leaving here,” she said hesitantly, trying to negotiate the conversation that made no sense at
all. “Crittenden County is home. Besides, I just took over the Yellow Bird Inn.” Unable to stop herself, she added, “I refinished the wood floors, you know, and it looks so pretty . . .”

Perry merely stared.

She swallowed. “Um. I . . . I could never leave it.”

“You could never leave it.” His blank stare turned deriding. “That inn ain’t nothing special.”

She’d spent the last month helping two men paint the outside a wonderful, buttery yellow. The yellow color went so much better with the name of the inn than the black-and-white paint ever did. The Yellow Bird Inn needed yellow paint, surely.

Because it was a special place. And very special to her. “One day it might be.”

He spit on the ground. “It’s not going to make any money. No one comes here unless they have to.”

She fought to keep her expression neutral. To pretend he hadn’t hurt her feelings. “My great aunt seemed to do all right with it. And some people have come to visit and stay.” Lifting her chin, she said, “Why, just the other day an English couple all the way from Indianapolis said they’d tell their church friends about my B&B.”

His voice turned darker. “The only reason the English come here is look at the Amish.”

“They come for the scenery and the greenhouses, too.” She bit her lip. “We are blessed to live in such a pretty place, you know. Why, we are surrounded by trees and hills and valleys.”

He laughed softly. “Frannie, you need to get your head out of the clouds. The English come here to gawk. To take our pictures with their camera phones.” His voice deepened. “You’re not going to make any money. You ought to leave that place.”

“And do what?”

His mouth opened, then shut again quickly. Like he was having difficulty forming his thoughts.

She waited. As she stood there, her toes began to burn from the cold ground. Her eyes watered from the brisk wind.

Oh, how she wished Perry would act like himself again. When they’d begun to court, she’d been well aware of his problems. But since they’d known each other all their lives, she’d been sure that she could change him back to how he used to be.

If he’d only try just a little bit.

“The guys I’ve been working with, they’ve promised me big things,” Perry finally said, his voice strained tight with emotion. “You . . . you could come with me. If you changed.”

If she changed? Frannie knew that the men he’d been working with were Englischers. Englischers of the worst sort. They weren’t local. They only came to their area with the intent of causing trouble, of encouraging more people to take the drugs Perry was now so fond of.

“I don’t want to be different, Perry.” Feeling her way through the conversation, she looked beyond him, looked into the dense, lush woods on the outskirts of the Millers’ property. “I like it here. And I like how I am.”

And though she didn’t want to be prideful, she felt disappointed that he didn’t see her attributes. Most boys had found her pale blue-gray eyes and auburn hair pleasing. Most people found her effort to take over the bed-and-breakfast once her aunt got sick to be commendable.

It was obvious he did not.

“Let’s be honest, Frannie. You are stuck in an old boardinghouse in the middle of a county down on its luck.”

She gritted her teeth. “Perhaps.” And smiled slightly, determined not to let him see how nervous she was becoming. “But I don’t think it’s so bad. I mean, I like to look on the bright side of things, for sure. I’m still the same Frannie I’ve always been.”

For a moment, his gaze softened. Just like he, too, remembered how they’d once played tag in each other’s yards after church. How they’d been friends before he’d ever courted Lydia. Before he’d finally looked her way with a new appreciation, as if she hadn’t been there all along just waiting for
him to notice.

But then he blinked. “You aren’t the same. Just like me, you’ve changed over the years. Don’t deny it. Change always happens. It can’t be helped.”

“People do change, that is true.” She bit her lip. How much did she want to say when he was in this condition? But she was tired of tiptoeing around him. Didn’t her heart mean anything? Didn’t her soul and desires count just as much as his feelings did?

“Perry, I don’t want you to move away. And I don’t like the men you’ve been keeping company with. I wish you’d move on—” She ached to tell him more, to beg him to seek help.

But his thunderous response stopped all that.

“What are you? My mother?”

“Of course not,” she said quickly.

His gaze darkened. “I don’t need another mother, Frannie. One nagging woman in my life is more than enough.”

“I know. I mean, I know that, Perry. I’m only offering my opinion. That’s all.”


There was a new anger in his voice, and she knew she’d put it there. It was time to go. Perry had chosen his path and he certainly wasn’t going to change it for her.

He wasn’t going to tell those Englischers goodbye. Maybe the drugs weren’t ever going to loosen their grip on him.

She stepped backward. “I’m going to go home now.”


“Jah. I . . . I think it’s best. I mean, I don’t think we have
much more to say to each other.”

He stared at her for a long moment, then held up his hand. “Hold on. I . . . I brought something for you.” He fumbled in a pocket in his coat, then pulled out a pair of sunglasses. “These are for you.”

Walking to his side, she took his gift. “You brought me sunglasses?” She couldn’t imagine a more peculiar thing for him to give her. Especially on such a cloudy, wintery day.

“Yeah. They’re nice, ain’t so? Expensive, too. Cameron, one of my friends from Louisville, picked them up for me. He got two pairs.” He threw off the comment, just as if she were no more important to him than an afterthought.

She was confused. He’d brought her men’s sunglasses, given to him from one of his drug-dealing friends? Holding them up in front of her face, she turned them this way and that. “Whatever would I do with them?”

“Wear them, of course.” His voice grew impatient. “Try them on, Frannie.”

They were only sunglasses. Though it wasn’t the norm for Amish to wear sunglasses, it wasn’t unheard of, either.

But these sunglasses looked expensive. And worldly. These screamed English and were built for a man’s face, not her own.

They seemed to stand for everything she was not.

And right then and there, she knew she couldn’t accept them.

Every time she looked at them, they’d symbolize everything that was wrong with them. With her. With Perry.

“I don’t want them.”
“You’re not even going to try them on? What’s wrong, Frannie? Afraid you’re going to get tainted?” His voice was loud now—loud enough to reverberate around them.

But there was no one to overhear.

She stepped farther back. “I just don’t want them.” Holding out her hands, she attempted to give them back. “You should keep them.”

His eyes narrowed. Then, to her great surprise, he stepped back. “Nee.”

Oh, she hated when he acted like this! “Perry, please—”

“If you don’t want them, get rid of them yourself.”

She was so frustrated, so hurt, so mad at herself for continually thinking she could make a difference to him, she did what he suggested. In one swift motion, she tossed the glasses into the woods. Frannie followed their path with a lump in her throat. And immediately felt guilty.

“I’m sorry. I’ll go fetch them. I shouldn’t have done that.”

He stopped her with a firm grip on her arm. “No, let them be. If you don’t want them, I don’t, either. We’ll leave them for the Millers. Maybe their cows can use them.” He grinned at his joke.

She shivered at his dark tone. Who had Perry become? With a jerk, she pulled her arm from his grasp. “I’m going to leave now.”

“Jah. I think you should. Go, Frannie. Go on, now.”

She stepped backward, relieved to be leaving him, but so disappointed about his troubles. “Maybe we can get you some help—”

“I don’t need help, Frannie. And I don’t need you. Just go. And let’s hope we never see each other ever again.”

She turned. And headed home.

And realized as she heard his laugh behind her that finally. . . finally they had something in common.

She, too, hoped she’d never see him again.

But of course, she doubted she would ever be that lucky.

Monday, June 18, 2012


David C. Cook; New edition (June 1, 2012)
Linda Windsor



Late sixth century AD


Merlin was dead. The nightmare had begun for the Cymri—every Briton, Welshman, Scot, and Pict—be they Christian or still cling¬ing to the old ways.

Kella O’Toole bent over her desk in the queen’s scriptorium, well aware that her countrymen’s freedom to worship a god of choice in his or her manner was at stake, not to mention that the threat of civil war loomed. This small room adjoining Gwenhyfar’s personal quar¬ters was the only place the official palace scribes and priests would not know what Kella was about.

Her heart beat with each scratch of her quill as she hurried to finish the last page of the copy of one of the most precious books in all Albion. She’d hoped to work with the original Hebrew scripts, those recorded by the hand of Joseph of Arimathea or
one of Christ’s apostolic family, to practice her translation of the language. But Merlin Emrys and Queen Gwenhyfar had hidden them away.

Kella’s pen smoothly glided over the artificially aged vellum: Arthur, Prince of Dalraida. Only untold hours of practice as the queen’s scribe and translator kept her hand from shaking. This copy had to be flawless. Kella had been working on it for the last year under Merlin Emrys’s orders. She’d known he’d been ill, yet the news of his death that morning had still come as a shock. It didn’t seem real that the man of so many faces—abbot, adviser to the king, teacher, astrologer, and man of science—had gone to the Other Side.

Only a week ago, he’d retired to his cave with none but his devoted abbess Ninian to take his final confession and give him his last rites. Now that Merlin Emrys’s last breath had expired, Ninian prepared his body to be sealed in the farthest reach of his cave for a year. Once the flesh fell away, leaving clean bones, the Grail priestess would return to transport them to Bardsley Island to rest in one of its holy caves with the bones of Albion’s greatest holy men and kings. Gwenhyfar would transport Arthur’s similarly one day.

A wave of nausea swept through Kella’s stomach. Her pen froze. Please, Lord, no. Not now. She put the quill down and relied more on a sip of now-cold tea laced with mint and elderberry than prayer for relief. God was so distant, she often wondered if He was real. Not that she’d ever mention her doubts aloud. She took another drink of the tea and flexed her stiff fingers.

In the opposite wall a peat fire in the hearth offset the damp chill of early Leafbud in the chamber. This was no time for illness, nor anything else to distract her from her duties. The heritage of Albion’s faith rested on her being able to finish this before Archbishop Cassian took total control of the church and its documents. The Davidic lineage passed on through the Milesian Irish royal families was well documented and kept in Erin, but Kella’s project protected the foundation of the British church laid by Jesus’s family and follow¬ers. Tradition had it that they’d come to Britain in the first century after the Sadducees set them adrift on an unforgiving sea, in a boat with no supplies, oars, or sails. Yet God waived the death sentence so that Joseph of Arimathea, his niece Mary—the mother of Jesus— and their company made it to the safety of Iberia, Gaul, and on to the Northern Isles, from there to spread the gospel throughout the Western world.

And here Kella was, a humble warrior’s daughter with no such holy or royal connection—at least not within the relevant last nine generations of her family—taking part in such a vital task. Kella would write for the queen until her fingers fell off.

Father, help me, Kella prayed, taking another swallow. Even if I am unworthy, fallen in Your eyes, I’m trying to help Your cause.

Nothing. Kella felt no relief from the threat of her stomach— only more frightened and alone than ever. Maybe she was the only one God didn’t listen to.

Father, I know I have sinned and am unworthy, but I beg You, help me.

Kella started from her introspection as Queen Gwenhyfar, garbed in hunter-green robes with embroidered trim, entered the rooms. A band of beautifully worked gold crowned her long, braided raven hair. Her sleek, dark beauty was a contrast to Kella’s untamable honey-kissed curls, pale complexion, and robust build. While it pleased Kella to hear her father say how like her fair-haired mother she’d become since she’d matured to womanhood, how she longed to be one of those light, willowy girls instead of small but well-rounded.

“I’m nearly done, milady. Only Arthur’s late sons to add.” She paused. “And King Modred.”

Wryness twisted the skillfully painted heart-line of Gwenhyfar’s lips. “Leave room for Urien of Rheged.” At the surprised arch of Kella’s brow, the queen added, “Cassian may yet have his way.”

“Aye, milady.” The Roman archbishop just might, but Kella didn’t have to like it. The stern, richly robed priest had joined Arthur in Rome on the High King’s return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Nothing had been the same since. Cassian’s presence damp¬ened the gaiety of the court, as if it were a sin to enjoy life. As for Arthur—

“Rome has found a new way to conquer,” Gwenhyfar told Kella. “Christ didn’t come to dictate, but Cassian has.”

Rumor was that he’d even convinced the High King to renounce his cousin Modred as his successor in favor of Urien of Rheged. Considering that Arthur’s queen and the territory he fought most to protect were Pictish, choosing a Briton would not be a wise move.

“Be sure Modred’s name is written in first,” Gwenhyfar warned her. “We want Cassian, should he get his hands on this, to believe he has the original. ’Twould be as good as he would want to destroy any record of the British church having been established with equal authority to Rome’s.”
“Why is the king so blind to this man’s purpose?” Kella asked. Nausea rolled over her again. She fought the urge to put her hand on her stomach, instead embracing the tea with both hands.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mary's Blessing

Mary's Blessing
Realms (May 15, 2012)
Lena Nelson

Chapter 1

"Pa?” Mary Lenor a Murray shouted back over her shoulder as she picked up the heavy picnic basket. “You ready to go?” Why does he always drag his feet when we’re going to church?

Her father came through the mud room into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam shut behind him. He smelled of heat, hay, and sunshine, with the strong tang of muck from the barn mingled in. By the looks of his clothes, attending church was the farthest thing from his mind. His ratty trousers held smudges of several dark colors. She didn’t even want to guess what they were. And the long sleeves of his undershirt, the only thing covering his torso, were shoved above his elbows. Grayed and dingy, the shirt would never be white again, no matter how hard she tried to get it clean.

Mary bit her tongue to keep from scolding him as she did her younger brothers and sister when they made such a racket entering the house. No doubt he would give her some excuse about having too much work to go to church. Not a big surprise. She’d heard it all before too many times.

He set a bucket of fresh water beside the dry sink and gripped his fingers around the front straps of his suspenders. That always signaled he was about to tell her something she didn’t want to hear.

“I’m not going today.” This time he didn’t really make any excuses, just this bald-faced comment.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm her anger. She’d give him a sweet answer even if the words tasted bitter in her mouth. “The new pastor is coming today. We’re having dinner on the grounds after the service. Remember, I told you when we got home last Sunday.” She flashed what she hoped was a warm smile at him and prayed he couldn’t tell it was fake.

“What happened to the last one? He didn’t last very long, did he?” Pa started washing his hands with the bar of homemade soap she kept in a dish on the shelf. “Don’t understand why that church can’t keep a pastor. Someone musta run him off.”

Mary couldn’t keep from huffing out a breath this time. “I told you about that too.” She clamped her lips closed before she asked the question that often bounced around her mind. Why don’t you ever listen to me? At seventeen she was close enough to being an adult to be treated like one, and she’d carried the load of a woman in this household for years.

“His wife died, and his father-in-law begged him to bring the grandchildren closer to where they live, so he headed back to Ohio. Living in the same community as their grandparents, he’d have a lot of help with the younger ones.”

Mary had never known her own grandparents, none of them. Not her mother’s parents. Not her father’s parents. Not the par- ents of whoever gave birth to her. She didn’t wonder about any of them very often, but today her heart longed for someone who really loved her.

With bright red curly hair and fair skin that freckled more every time she stepped into the sunlight, she didn’t resemble anyone in this family that had adopted her as an infant. Since they were black Irish, they all had dark hair and striking blue eyes, not like her murky green ones. And none of them had ever wanted to know what she thought about anything—except her mother.

“Well, I’ve gotta lot to do today.” Her father reached for the towel she’d made out of feed sacks. “You and the others go ahead. I might come over that way at dinner time.”

No, you won’t. Mary had heard his statement often enough to know he was trying to placate her so she would leave him alone. So she would.

“Frances, George, Bobby, come on. We don’t want to be late.”

She shifted the handle of the loaded basket to her other arm. “Frances, you grab the jug of spring water. We might get thirsty.”

Her father’s icy blue eyes pierced her. “Pretty warm out today.
No sign of rain.”

“We’ll be picnicking in the field between the church and Willamette Falls. It’s cooler there, especially under the trees with the breeze blowing across the water.” She started toward the front door.

“Keep your eyes on the boys.” His harsh command followed her. “Don’t let either of them fall into the river. They could drown. Water’s fast right there.”

She nodded but didn’t answer or look back at him. All he cared about were those boys and getting them raised old enough to really help with the farming. He already worked them harder than any of the neighbors did their sons who were the same ages.

Six long years ago her mother and older sisters contracted diphtheria when they went to help Aunt Miriam and Uncle Leland settle in their house on a farm about five miles from theirs. On the trip to Oregon one of them had contracted the dread disease and didn’t know it until after they arrived. No one knew they were all dead until Pa went looking for Ma, Carrie, and Annette a couple of days later. He saw the quarantine sign someone nailed to a fence post and didn’t go closer until he had help. When he came home, he told Mary she would have to take over the keeping of the house. Six long years ago.

When did my life become such drudgery? Had it ever been any- thing else? At least not since Ma died, which seemed like an eternity ago.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Harvest of Rubies

Harvest of Rubies
River North; New Edition edition (May 1, 2012)
Tessa Afshar

Chapter 1

On my twelfth birthday, my father discovered that I could read.

He came home long before the supper hour that night, an occurrence so rare that in my shock I forgot to greet him. Instead, I sat stupefied, clutching a forbidden clay tablet.

“What are you doing?” he asked, his gaze arrested by the sight of the tablet clasped to my chest.

My father, a royal scribe in the Persian court, treated his writing tools as if they were the holy objects from the Ark of the Covenant. Before I had learned to walk or speak, I had learned never to go near his scrolls and tablets for fear I might damage them.

“You know better than to touch this,” he said, when I didn’t respond right away.

I swallowed the ball of gathering dread in my throat, knowing myself caught. Truth seemed my only option. “I was reading,” I said, as I replaced the tablet on the floor with extravagant care.

He studied me from beneath lowered brows. “Even if you could read—which you cannot—you should not be anywhere near my scribal supplies. It is very wrong of you to lie, Sarah.”

“I am not lying, Father.”

He heaved a sigh. Spreading his hand in mock invitation toward the tablet, he said, “Demonstrate.”

The tablet was in Persian, one of the most complicated languages of the world. I could have chosen to teach myself Aramaic, a simpler language for a beginner and more appropriate for a Jew. But most Aramaic documents were recorded on parchment, and I had decided that there would be fewer chances of accidentally damaging clay or stone tablets than fragile parchment scrolls.

Licking my lips, I concentrated on the complex alphabet before me. The symbols looked like a series of delicate nails standing upright or lying sideways, an occasional incomplete triangle thrown in for confusion. With halting accuracy I began to read the first line from left to right. Then the second and the third.

My father sank to the carpet next to me, his movements slow. He was silent for a long moment. Then he asked, “Who taught you to read Persian?”

“Nobody. I learned by myself. I’ve been studying for five months.”

He seemed speechless. Then, with jerky movements, he fetched three small clay cylinders and placed them before me.

“What’s this word? And this? Can you make out this sentence?”

We must have sat there for hours as he tested my knowledge, corrected my pronunciation, and demonstrated grammatical rules. He forgot about my months-long transgression of secretly handling his scribal supplies. He forgot to remonstrate with me for having taught myself to read without his permission.

But then he also forgot to ask me why I had wanted to learn. Although I was surprised by his lack of anger at my behavior, his lack of interest was all too familiar. In the years since my mother’s death when I was seven, my father had rarely spoken to me of anything save mundane household matters, and even that was rare. My desires, my motives, my hopes, held no appeal to him.

Late that night, after so many hours of his company, when I crawled onto my thin cotton-filled mattress, my mouth spread in a wide smile. I had finally found a way to hold my father’s attention. He had spent more time with me on this one night than he was wont to do in a fortnight. Months of hard work had won me the desire of my heart; he had found something in me worth his while.

After we lost my mother, Aunt Leah, my mother’s only sister, began coming once a week to our home to help us with the housework. She tried to show me how to sew and clean and cook. Our conversations around these topics tended toward frustration—for her—and pain for me.

“Weren’t you paying attention when I showed you how to pluck the chicken?”

“No, Aunt Leah. I beg your pardon.”

“You can’t use a broom like that, Sarah. You only move the dust from one spot to another. That’s not called cleaning. That’s a migration of dirt.”

“Yes, Aunt Leah. I beg your pardon.”

“This pot won’t clean itself just by you staring at it and sighing.”

Silence seemed the best response at times like this. I could not offend my only aunt by telling her the truth: that I would rather hit my head with the pot and make myself lose consciousness than have to face the frustrating boredom of scrubbing its black bottom.

My one consolation was that our house was small—four rooms and a hallway with a tiny garden the size of a large carpet in the back, so there wasn’t much to clean. The few rugs we had were woven rather than knotted, and I just beat them against the stone hedge outside. Our furniture, modest to start with, had served my family a good twenty years; even my impatient treatment of the pieces could not ruin them more than they already had been.

Aunt Leah came to visit the day after my twelfth birthday and discovered me practicing the Persian alphabet on a fresh clay tablet. The tablet fit comfortably in the palm of my hand; I held one blunt end with my thumb and used a stylus to carve new words on its wet surface. Since my father had uncovered my secret and seemed to sanction it, I felt no reason to keep it hidden any longer.

Aunt Leah slapped a hand against the crown of her head. “Are you writing now?”

“I am,” I said with pride, stretching my cramping legs on the crude carpet.

“It’s a scandal. What will your father say?”

“He is teaching me.”

“It’s a scandal,” she repeated. She made me put the tablet and stylus away and help her with the laundry until my father arrived.

Although I was dismissed from the room so that they might hold a private discussion, I could hear snatches of their conversation through the drawn curtain that separated the rectangular room into two parts. My heart beat an uncomfortable rhythm as I considered the possibility that Aunt Leah might convince my father to stop teaching me. I waited with fuming resentment, barely able to keep myself from marching in and demanding that she stop interfering with the first good thing that had happened to me in years.

“The child just wants to learn to read and write, Leah. There’s no shame in that. She even shows a glimmer of talent.” I was surprised to hear my father defend me; I couldn’t remember his ever doing so before. The simple words soothed my rising anger.

“The child is a girl.”

“Literate women are not unknown. The queen reads as well as any scribe, they say.”

“Sarah is not a royal Persian woman. She’s a simple Jewish maiden.”

I could not make out my father’s answer. Aunt Leah’s response came heated and fast, though. “No good will come of this, Simeon. You mark my words. Your stubborn refusal to listen to reason will cause that child nothing but harm.”

She stormed out of the house, not taking the time to put her shoes on right. As soon as she left, I gathered my practice tablet and borrowed tools and walked into my father’s room. He sat on the floor, his head bent, a hand covering his eyes.

With care I laid my bundle in front of him. “Would you like to see what I did today, Father? It’s not much; Aunt Leah interrupted my practice.”

This was new for me, this bold approach to my father. I had known for years that I was a bother to him. He found my conversation trying; my presence aggravated him. But my literary endeavor had given me a new confidence. I knew my father loved his work. I might be a nuisance, but the work wasn’t. I thought he would bear with me as long as we had a clay tablet between us.

He lifted his head and focused on me for a long moment. One corner of his mouth lifted. I let out my breath when he made no protest. “Let’s see what you have accomplished, then.”