Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Nurse's Secret Suitor by Cheryl Wyatt

The Nurse's Secret Suitor
Love Inspired (October 1, 2013)
Cheryl Wyatt

Chapter 1

Decorated military veteran turned civilian trauma nurse Kate Dalton was known for keeping a cool head under fire. But she'd never faced anything like this.

Here she was, back in the United States, biting back bile and terror as strong as any she'd experienced overseas. When she was in a combat situation, she was braced and prepared for things to go wrong. Here at home, her guard was down. Ten minutes earlier, she'd been enjoying the reception at her friends' masquerade-themed marriage ball. But then the text message arrived.

Phone clutched like a pinless grenade, Kate strode from the wedding reception room to the nearest exit. There. Patio. Best way out. If she could get there before hurling blissfully consumed cake.

Regal-hued LED lights danced over her sapphire costume and skin tanned by a three-year deployment under Middle Eastern sun. She probably looked striking—if you didn't notice the tension in her shoulders or the frown on her face.

"Breathe, Dalton, that's an order. You can't fall apart. Especially not where everyone you know can see you. You don't break down. You don't give in to fear. That's not who you are."

Despite her drill-sergeant self-talk, Kate's thumb quivered as it scrolled again over Mom's frustratingly cryptic text.

I'm afraid I have some upsetting news. Call me when you've got time to talk.

Unable to wait, Kate had found a quiet corner of the room and called immediately, but Mom was too distraught to talk. Mom never cried. Something was really wrong. Worse, Dad wasn't answering his personal or military phones.

Terrible scenarios raced through her head. Had something happened to her father? Or to her grandfather, who was scheduled for surgery? She knew the procedure was risky already—her career-military grandfather had ruined his lungs inhaling so much military jet fuel over the years. Had there been another complication? Or maybe her parents had bad medical news of their own. Cancer, heart disease…the possibilities went on and on.

Kate couldn't breathe. Her chest tightened, eyes burned. She rushed out a side door hoping no one saw. She couldn't be around people right now, not until she composed herself. In a secluded corner of a low-lit garden patio, she hid under an ornamental fuchsia tree. Heaving fresh Southern Illinois air, she redialed her mother's number.

An answering click, then sniffles sounded. Kate's jaw clenched. "I'm not getting off this phone till you tell me what's going on. Don't make me leave my good friends' wedding to drag it out of you."

"The wedding! I forgot, Kate. I shouldn't have texted you."

"Did something happen to Dad?" He was a deployed war general, sure, but he hadn't been near danger, had he?

"No. Your dad is safe. It's…honey, it's us."

"What's 'us' mean?" Kate paced. "Me and you?

You and Dad?"

"Your dad and I. I didn't want to tell you by phone, but I fly out in the morning for Grandpa's hip recovery. That'll keep me out of touch for days, and I don't want you hearing secondhand. Kate, I need to tell you, your dad and I are divorcing."

"Div—" Kate choked on the last word she expected to hear. Surely Mom is kidding. Right? Her mind couldn't wrap around it.

"Kate, Grandma's calling in, probably with a surgery update on Grandpa. We'll talk later, okay? I love you." Click Teeth grinding, Kate redialed Dad, stat.


Finally! "Dad?" Kate hated that her voice broke in front of her five-star military hero dad. "Please tell me it's not true."

A deep sigh. "I'm sorry. She served me papers today."

Kate's voice and composure broke. "Daddy, why?"

"Your mom can't handle me overseas all the time. She waited to break the news until she was sure. Kate, are you okay?"

"Not with this. She texted me while I was at a wedding."

"Mitch, your surgeon friend, right? He's one of the ones who founded Eagle Point Trauma Center, isn't he? I remember now. Kate, sorry about the poor timing. With her dad so ill, your mom probably wasn't thinking. Neither am I."

"Clearly. You both aren't thinking. How can you flippantly throw thirty years of marriage away? Our family? And to do it now, when we might be losing Grandpa. Daddy, don't let—"

A presence stirred behind her, and Kate froze. "Gotta go," she barked out, suddenly eager to end the conversation as quickly as possible. "I'll call later, okay?" The last thing Kate wanted was to ruin the festive mood of Lauren and Mitch's wedding by letting one of the guests overhear her having a breakdown. Or let anyone see this crack in her tough-girl image. She never cried. Ever. Not even in the worst combat scenarios overseas or trauma cases here.

Kate flicked a tear but others followed. "Nice night out," she called to the tall shadow over her shoulder. She pretended to gaze at brilliant stars glittering against a raven sky to keep from turning and letting whoever was there see her tears.

No answer—not out loud. Instead, the figure moved; a strong hand weighted her shoulder and turned her around. Heady masculine cologne mingled with pleasant garden scents. Kate tucked her chin to hide red-rimmed eyes, but a leather-gloved finger lifted her face.

Oh, my. The most gorgeous, mysterious man stood before her. What she could see of his masked face seemed carved from exquisite stone. His eyes, etched in ebony and concern, were so piercing they arrested her breath. His impressive height strained her neck as her eyes skimmed a firm jaw and sensual mouth and a muscular build that showed serious dedication to fitness.

Silent as a sniper, he removed her fancy feather mask and dabbed her eyes with a blue camouflage-patterned kerchief, the item odd and out of place with his all-black Zorrotype ensemble.

"Thank you." She hated how her warbling voice revealed how she was falling apart. What did the masked intruder want, anyway? "May I help you?"

Dark eyes bored into hers, so intense she startled backward. Embarrassed by her reaction, she opened her mouth to apologize and found herself rambling instead. "I must look raccoonish with mascara running down my face. I didn't even bother to buy the waterproof kind—I wasn't expecting to cry. Not that I'm not happy for Mitch and Lauren, it's just… I don't cry." She let out a brittle laugh. "Except for now. My parents just informed me they're divorcing after a lifetime together." Her voice fractured as the words, spoken aloud, made the truth suddenly become a cruel kind of real.

His chiseled face softened, compassion shining out of his eyes as if he really cared about her, cared about her pain. But how could he? He had to be a stranger. She'd helped each costumed guest sign in and knew each name on the list. No one had been conspicuously absent. He must be a wedding crasher. That she didn't know the guy made him seem infinitely safe. He didn't know her, so he wouldn't judge her for breaking down.

As though sensing her thoughts, he shifted his stance and sweetly adopted a listening pose. Kate drew herself up, surprised at the level of relief she felt at being able to say how she really felt to someone she'd likely never see again.

"My friends inside…they all think I'm strong enough to do anything. I served overseas as a trauma nurse in the army. After that, anything should be easy, right?" Tears pressed for release again. "The problem is, people expect me to be some kind of superhero all the time." Her voice dragged to a whisper. "How can I let them see me cry like this? Especially here. It's a wedding—we're supposed to be happy and hopeful and…and all the things I'm not."

His grip strengthened on her shoulder, fingers gently kneading. She wanted to lean into him. So she did. He stood so near, the leather on his jacket cooled her cheek.

"It's not just because of my parents," she admitted in a low voice, barely more than a whisper. "It's me. The truth is, I hate weddings. They make me scared I'll end up alone after all my friends pair off. I look at brides and grooms who seem so in love, so wrapped up in each other, and I know no one's ever made me feel that way. I've never been able to let go and get lost in the moment and the person I'm with. Maybe I'm too practical to ever truly fall in love. I worry so much about not making a mistake that I never take a relationship risk, never fall into anything—not even love."

His sustained presence girded her with courage. His gloved hand settled against her back, nearly a hug. Stalwart. That's what he was. Plus a stranger. Which meant she could spill her guts without leaving behind an emotional mess she'd have to clean up, explain away or deny to death later. And something about the night…the moon…the masks…made her embrace being honest, being vulnerable. What could she possibly have to worry about when being in his arms felt so safe?

He responded by drawing even closer. Care ebbed off him in waves, dangerously appealing combined with his handsomeness. It didn't even occur to Kate to protest as he dipped his head and covered her mouth with his in a mesmerizing dance.

He exuded strength, mystery, masculinity and hints of delectable spearmint. His breath, his kiss were so soft. So delicious. Everything else fogged. Stress from her parents' devastating news melted. Her world contracted to the cove of his arms, the core of gentleness driving his kiss and the calming rhythm of his breathing.

He broke contact to press his mouth to her ear and whisper, "Hang in, sweetness. Darkness never defeats the dawn." His voice held a gravelly quality, as if he'd disguised its coffee-rich depth. She tilted her chin up.

Uncertainty flickered in his eyes before his lips found hers again. This kiss felt final. Declarative, like a seal over a covenant. Dizzy and disoriented, Kate swayed. Strong arms braced her up as he pulled her in for a hug that felt more like pure comfort. Then he bolted.

"Kate?" The voice of her best friend Bri Landis drifted from a doorway. No wonder the bandit had fled. The crasher had sensed company before Kate had, and hadn't wanted to get caught.

After the sensation of being stun-gunned subsided, Kate faced his retreating back. "Wait! Who are you?"

But her bandit had already scaled the eight-foot-tall wood fence, cape flying behind him like a flag, and she lost sight of him.

"Marvelous Masked Intruder, come back," she whispered into the inhospitable night. Bri's voice neared, reeling Kate back to reality. Kate banged her forehead on the fence. Why hadn't she chased him down? Simply put—she couldn't.

He had taken her by such sublime storm and surprise, and that kiss had so incapacitated her, she wondered if she'd imagined it. She put fingers to her lips and tingles there whispered she most certainly hadn't.

Kate couldn't kick the insane urge to find him and spend time with him again. Not only because of the amazing kisses, but also for the way it had felt to have someone she could really talk to—someone who would listen without judging and comfort without questioning. All the things none of her friends would imagine she'd ever need and that this stranger had offered automatically. That kind of thing could go to a girl's head. It made her sad to think that the beautiful moment they'd shared would be the only moment they'd ever have.

"Hey!" Bri approached, dressed to the nines in a frilly-winged fairy costume but with a warmly concerned look on her face. "I got worried when I couldn't find you. Everything okay?"

Kate slid onto a nearby bench. "Yes. No. I don't know." Bri was the one person she could talk to about this. Kate thanked God Bri was who He sent.

Bri sat next to her. "What's going on?"

Where to begin? "Well, there was Mom's mysterious text and thirty years thrown away like yesterday's trash, then a man dressed as a bandit in black leather appeared out of nowhere. We talked—well, I talked and he listened. And then…we kissed. He swept me off my feet, really—until he vanished. Jumped the fence when he heard you coming out to find me. Night swallowed the most appealingly compassionate creature who ever lived."

Bri blinked slowly. "Wait, text? What text?"

Kate calmed herself and took time explaining everything from the first text from her mom, to the blue camo handkerchief wiping away her tears, to the kiss that ended with her bandit disappearing over the fence. She only left out the part where she'd confided her fears about never finding love. Bri was currently engaged and blissfully happy—Kate didn't want to make her friend feel bad. That part of her little breakdown could remain a secret between her and her bandit.

"Kate, there's no one remotely dressed like a bandit here. I took photos of each and every person in their costumes for Mitch and Lauren's memory-book gift."

Kate shrugged. "I know. He had to be a stranger." Kate left out the part where knowing he was a stranger made him easy to talk to. It would hurt her best friend's feelings to be told Kate found it easier to pour her heart out to someone she didn't know. "Probably a wedding crasher who heard about the masquerade theme, since he knew enough to show up in costume. Whatever his reasons for being here, he did manage to show up at exactly the right time, when I needed someone to listen to me unload about my family fracturing apart."

Bri nibbled her lip. Kate flinched at what she'd said and the painful memories she might have stirred. If anyone knew what fractured family felt like, Bri Landis did. Her father had been the first to drop out of her life—he'd walked out on the family when Bri was a child. Now he sat incapacitated in a nursing home with all hope of reconciliation gone. Her mom had passed away recently, leaving Bri to tend a run-down family lodge alone. Her brother, Caleb, the only family she had left, was deployed overseas, dedicated to building his military career.

Kate sighed. "I'm sorry, Bri. I shouldn't be melodramatic, in light of all you've been through."

Bri shook her head. "Nonsense. Things are looking up for me. While I desperately miss my geeky gun-toting army-medic brother, I'm freakishly in love and freshly engaged to Eagle Point's most gorgeous anesthesiologist." Bri wiggled her ring-embellished finger, reminding Kate how much there was to be happy about. Yet a twinge of sadness hit Kate instead. Mom, Dad…

"I'm also fulfilled being a mother figure to Tia. Though she's only five, you and I both know Ian's daughter is an amazing gift and constant source ofjoy. And of course her daddy and our wedding plans are equally bright on my horizon."

Bright horizon. Kate recalled the bandit's admonition that darkness never defeats the dawn, as the confidence that usually carried and defined Kate ebbed back. Grandpa could still get better. And her parents' divorce wasn't finalized yet—maybe things could still be fixed. If not, as Bri had reminded her, there was still so much to be thankful for.

Like a moonlit kiss from a handsome stranger.

Kate brushed the thought aside. She'd probably never see the bandit again. He was just someone God sent her way to give comfort she needed at her lowest moment. She'd weathered it, and was ready now to be strong on her own again—as always.

"Speaking of that handsome fiance of yours, let's go back in before he wonders where you are." Kate rose to her feet.

Bri stood, as well. "Sure you're all right to go back in?"

"Of course." Kate flashed Bri the grin that used to win her the tiara back in her beauty-pageant days. "I'm always all right."

For a second, Bri looked as though she wanted to argue, but with a shrug she let it go, leading the way back into the reception hall. Kate followed her with a quick, confident stride.

And if she paused for a moment before stepping through the door to look back at the spot where she'd last seen her bandit.. well then, that was no one's concern but hers.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Raw Edge by Sandra D. Bricker

Raw Edge
Abingdon Press (September 17, 2013)
Sandra D. Bricker


Shh, let’s not wake Daddy.

The intent of the sweet and simple whisper accomplished the very thing Jenna had warned against, but Gray kept his eyes closed as he listened to them. He’d been doing a lot of listening lately—and watching. He wanted to soak up as much of it as he could, while he still could.

He’d moved from the bed to the chair somewhere around three a.m. He’d been tossing and turning, and he didn’t want to wake Jenna after she’d finally drifted off somewhere around two. He didn’t know how long ago Sadie had found her way into the bedroom, but she seemed to be doing that in the early hours more and more often lately.

“Mommy, read me one more, ’kay?” “All right. Just one more.”

Gray couldn’t resist a moment longer, and he carefully opened his eyes to a gentle squint, watching them through the murkiness of predawn in unobtrusive silence.

Sadie flicked on the bright red flashlight Jenna had given her. After a weeklong bout of nightmares resulting from a scary movie she’d seen, it had really done the trick in alleviating some of Sadie’s nighttime fears. Its dim yellow light flooded over the pages of the leather journal open on Jenna’s knee, and Sadie caressed the dark blue ribbon draped over the slope of her mother’s blanket-covered leg. The light bounced off the pages and cast strange shadows over the faces of the two females Gray loved most in the world.

Jenna’s reddish hair protruded upward into a ponytail at the top of her head in a way that always made him think of Pebbles Flintstone. Her blue cotton nightgown had begun to hang loosely on her now, and it drifted off the shoulder on one side. Sadie sat next to her, those long and crazy spirals of dark blond hair—uniquely hers in every way—pointing out in all directions, still wearing the tie-dyed t-shirt she’d worn to school the day before.

“Find a good one,” Sadie urged Jenna, and Gray’s chest squeezed at the sight of them. A mist of emotion steamed his vision, and a tear fell before he could stop it.

“Oh, here’s one,” Jenna said, wrapping her arm around seven-year-old Sadie and drawing her close.

“What’s this one called?” the child asked, wide-eyed. “I called it The Importance of Being Silly.”

Sadie giggled, snuggling into her mother. “Let’s hear it,” she whispered.

“As much as we love him,” Jenna read softly, “and as many things as he’s really good at, you and I both know your father has not mastered the art of being silly the way we have.”

Sadie covered her mouth with both hands to muffle her laughter as she nodded vehemently. “That’s the truth,” she exclaimed through her open fingers.

“You and I know the importance of laughing until milk comes out of our noses. We share a deep appreciation for word games and silly songs, and we know the importance of Friday pizza nights wearing our favorite pajamas and socks—”

Sadie snickered. “Even if the socks might have a hole or two in them.”

“Even then,” Jenna replied with a nod, and she smoothed her daughter’s wayward hair with the palm of her hand before kissing the top of her head.

Gray noticed the glint of tears in Jenna’s tired eyes, and it just about killed him on the spot.

She sniffed before reading on. “We understand the lan- guage of puppies, the art of slurping spaghetti, or planting the image of a kiss on the top of an ice cream cone. These are very important things in life, Silly Sadie.”

“I love it when you call me that, Mommy.”

“And when I’m not around to remind him, it’s up to you to remind Daddy that these are things that little girls and future young ladies need in their lives. So I want you to be silly at least once each day, without exception, so that Daddy can remember how important it is.”

Jenna closed the journal and wrapped the blue ribbon around the large leather button until it fastened shut. She set it on the nightstand before sinking down into the mound of pillows behind her and tilting her head back.

“I promise, Mommy,” Sadie said as she wiggled her way against her mother’s body. After a moment, she added, “I just wish you didn’t have to go.”

“Me too, baby,” Jenna replied without opening her eyes. Gray rose from the chair in the corner of the bedroom and plopped down on the bed. “Me, too,” he added, and Jenna smiled.

Sadie tugged at him until he’d sandwiched her between the bodies of both her parents, and the three of them laid there quietly as the sun began to rise over the horizon outside the window.

A new day dawning, Gray thought.

And he wondered how many more of those they might have together.

Chapter 1

Gray glanced at the dashboard clock before he pulled the key from the ignition and pressed the button to lower the garage door.
“Ten twenty-six,” he said aloud, punctuating the time with a weary sigh.

Sadie would likely be fast asleep by now, probably floating over angry strains of resentment toward her careless father who had missed their Friday pizza night together for the first time in years. He tried to justify it with the fact he had a good reason, but he knew it was one Sadie’s nine-year-old mind couldn’t understand.

He closed the door behind him and walked softly through the kitchen into the family room where Essie Lambright sat reading.

“Oh, good evening, Grayson,” she said in her barely-there trace of Florida twang.

Essie smoothed her silver hair and removed her reading glasses, placing a ribbon to mark where she left off before clos- ing the book on her lap.

“Hi, Miss Essie. How were things tonight?” he asked. “I didn’t notice any torches or pitchforks when I came in. Am I safe?”

“I’m sorry to say you are not,” she replied. “I think you’re going to have to earn your forgiveness, and she’s a pretty tough customer.”

“She certainly can be,” Gray said with a chuckle. “Can I give you a lift home?”

“No,” she chided. “It’s a beautiful Tampa night. I can walk the two blocks and enjoy the breeze off the bay.”

Gray hadn’t even noticed the weather on his drive home. He’d been lost in the maze of his thoughts and, looking back on it now, he couldn’t remember a thing about the commute.

“There’s chili in the slow cooker,” she told him on her way toward the kitchen, “and fresh cornbread wrapped in foil on the counter.”

“She didn’t go with pizza?” he asked, surprised. “Apparently, it’s not Friday pizza night if you’re not here.

So we decided to enter into the realm of the unknown with turkey chili.”

Gray grinned. “Well, thank you.”

“Oh,” she said, placing a finger to the side of her face and stopping in her tracks. “She is considering the merits of going vegan, by the way. But she’s still on the fence.”

“Vegan,” he repeated. “Where does she come up with these things?”

“It seems Steffi Leary is going that direction, and they share a table in the lunchroom.”

Gray shook his head and followed Essie through the kitchen toward the back door. “Thanks again.”

He flipped on the light and watched after her as the older woman followed the sidewalk around the curve of the house.

When she disappeared from sight, he turned it off and bolted the lock on the door.

The spicy scent of the chili caused a rumble to erupt deep within his stomach, and Gray pulled a bowl from behind the glass cabinet door, scraping the silverware drawer open and plucking a large spoon from inside before gliding it shut again. Just about the time he sat down on one of the stools at the island and took his first bite, the familiar rub of sock-against- ceramic-tile drew his attention to the doorway.

“What are you doing awake?” he asked, and Sadie groan-sighed, as Jenna used to call it.

“It’s her anniversary, you know,” she sort of spat out at him. “And you missed it.”

Gray’s heart pounded hard before flopping over and sinking. He’d convinced himself that she wouldn’t remember.

“I’m sorry.”

Sadie scuffed toward the refrigerator and removed a small carton of sour cream and a plastic container of grated cheddar cheese.

She slid it across the marble counter toward him and climbed up on the closest stool.

“Miss Essie says her chili cries for these. I tried it, and I think she’s right.”

The corner of his mouth twitched as he allowed her to sprinkle cheese into his bowl, followed by a dollop of sour cream. As he took a delightful bite, Sadie unwrapped the corn- bread and grabbed a hunk for herself before pushing the foil mound toward him.

“We had warm honey butter,” she said over a full mouth. “You woulda had some, too, if you’d come home at a decent hour.”

Gray arched one eyebrow and gazed at his daughter.

Nine, going on twenty-nine, he thought.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Born of Persuasion by Jessica Dotta

Born of Persuasion
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (September 1, 2013)
Jessica Dotta

Chapter 1

LATER, when I allowed myself to confront the memories, to dwell on the particulars, I realized my arrival at Am Meer marked the beginning.

Not the mysterious letters that drained the life from Mama.

Not her suicide.

And not the two men arriving at dusk, stomping mud from their boots in the foyer, bearing ill tidings. Nay—not even the disconcerting news that I had a guardian, one who intended to keep me sequestered. For those happenings were not my story. I was sinless there.

They were the end result of events set in motion long before I arrived at the cottage. I could no more have stopped their unfolding than I could have prevented my own birth.

Those of you who were alive that year might well remember the early frost of 1838. My arrival coincided with the hardship faced by the farmers that August. Though harvest hadn’t quite begun, an overcast sky stretched over the rolling farmlands bringing a reminder of winter’s cruel bite. How well I remember the carriage jostling down the familiar lane, its wheels grinding through the familiar ruts. I felt no premonition of danger, only relief, sharp and undefiled. At Am Meer, home of my dearest childhood memories, I hoped to find that which I needed most—a respite between the past and my uncertain future.

The cottage stood beautiful as ever at the end of the pebbly drive. A thick, thatched roof covered grey stone walls with Breton blue shutters. Sleepy sunflowers nodded over amethyst larkspurs. Ivy and roses cambered over the sides of the house, rambling into holly bushes. For the first time in months, happiness swelled within my breast as I spied Mrs. Windham bustling about her herb garden.

Above her, Elizabeth pushed open wooden shutters and leaned over the planter boxes filled with begonias. Her reddish- blonde hair glinted in the sunlight as she watched the carriage. Uncertainty passed over her features before she disappeared, leaving the window open.

There was scarce time to notice her dismay, much less interpret it, for the carriage braked, swaying me forward. Without waiting for the coachman, I attempted escape and ended up clinging to the nickel-plated handle as I tripped upon layers of petticoats. I hastily wiped away the tears that wet my cheeks.

“Oh, Julia! Oh dear!” Mrs. Windham tottered down the stone pathway, holding scissors aloft. Beneath the crook of one elbow she clutched an oversized basket, and with her free hand, she clutched an apron full of clippings. Breathless, she reached over the wooden gate and unlatched it. Scatterings of rosemary and lavender fell about her feet, scenting the air. “Julia dear, what on earth?Tomorrow, tomorrow, not today. Depend upon you to come early. Oh, and I had such a lovely dinner of stewed pigeon planned, too. Now we shall have to eat rabbit pie and cold beef. Oh, it’s all been ruined.”

Talc filled my senses as she clutched me to her overlarge bosom. I shut my eyes and forced back tears. Too soon, she held me at arm’s length and surveyed me. Wrinkles creased her forehead and her mouth pressed into a firm line. While I had never fulfilled her ideal of beauty—only Elizabeth, a younger version of herself, measured up in that regard—I knew why she frowned. Months of pacing empty rooms stagnant with grief had taken their toll on me.

Since Mama’s death, I’d warded off callers, withstood Sarah’s fears that our crime would be discovered, and endured endless hours with the parish vicar, who gobbled up a day’s worth of food in one sitting as he lectured me on the danger of my eternal damnation.

“Shame on you, Elizabeth.” Mrs. Windham twisted and looked over her shoulder as Elizabeth approached. “Hiding Julia’s intentions to arrive today. I thought you had outgrown such pranks.”

“Mama, surely you don’t think I had an idea of this?” Elizabeth laced her fingers together.

I gripped Mrs. Windham’s sleeve and silently entreated Elizabeth for news. Words were unnecessary. She knew the information I sought.

Her gaze, however, shifted downwards and focused on a clump of woundwort, which she bent to harvest.

“But, what on . . . ? Julia, where’s your carriage?” Mrs. Windham pulled me close and glared at the coachman untying the cords which held my trunks, as if he were to blame for my humble arrival. “Mercy! Tell me you haven’t travelled alone. And by coach! I cannot conceive it. Where is Sarah?”

I shook my head. A lump in my throat rendered me unable to speak. Earlier that week, my guardian had discharged the woman who’d first been Mama’s nursemaid and then mine.

Elizabeth noticed and took my hand. “How selfish we are. Poor Julia must have travelled through the night. You must feel exhausted.”

“Selfish?” Mrs. Windham’s chest swelled. “I’ll have you know that I instructed Hannah just today to air my best wedding linens for her room and—”

The driver approached, removing his hat, clearly expecting a tip. Color rose through my cheeks. Though I’d managed my fare yesterday, I had nothing left.

“Harry,” Elizabeth called to the manservant who arrived to carry my trunks. “Run along and fetch a crown for the driver.” Her eyes widened with questions she did not ask. “Come, dearest.”

“I am quite vexed with you.” Mrs. Windham placed a slice of lard cake on a plate. She eyed my dress hanging loosely over my frame, then added another sliver alongside a gooseberry tart. “Why did you not tell us your mother was ailing? Had I knowledge, I would have visited before she passed; indeed, I would have.”

My hand faltered as I reached for the plate. While I’d known the topic of Mama’s death was unavoidable, I had not expected it so soon.

“Mama.” Elizabeth cast her mother a disapproving look over the rim of her teacup. “You can scarcely blame Julia for it.”

“Blame Julia?” Mrs. Windham dabbed her eyes with the corner of her gardening apron. “What a notion, child.” Then to me, “Did she linger in much pain? Did she send me remembrances? Did she call for me in her deep despair?”

Tightness gathered in my chest as I sought for an explanation, knowing full well the Windhams wouldn’t be fooled into believing Mama had pined herself into an early grave over my father’s death.

I placed the plate on my lap, then set about tearing the cake into bite-sized pieces. “She called for no one. The cholera took her quickly.”

Elizabeth froze, midsip, as if detecting my lie. Mrs. Windham frowned, but I wasn’t certain whether she sensed deception or simply disliked being robbed of the notion that Mama had died crying out for her.

Mrs. Windham turned toward the window, pressing her lace handkerchief against her mouth. “Well, if you’re going to try to spare me, I am sure there is nothing I can do.” Her voice trembled. “I have lost my dearest friend, but why should anyone consider me?”

A long silence ensued, during which Elizabeth frowned and I twisted my cup in its saucer. We both knew trying to start a new conversation would be useless until her mother had been properly indulged.

After a minute, Mrs. Windham’s mouth puckered. “Humph. Well, do not think yourself cleared on all accounts. I am even more outraged you agreed to have this . . . this guardian. I scarcely believed my own ears when I heard the tidings. Nothing, no, nothing, could have made me believe you would choose this person over me. Whatever are you thinking?”

I tore the cake into yet smaller pieces.

Elizabeth darted an apologetic look at me, wrapping her hands about her cup. “Mama, you can scarcely blame Julia for whom her parents selected as her guardian.”

“What else am I to think? Especially when Lucy wrote me a mere month before her death begging me to care for Julia should this very thing happen. Well, all I can say is that Julia has certainly made it clear whom she prefers. Surely this person has no tie, no claim over you. I never heard of such an odd thing in all my life. Not give a name, indeed! And that man who came. That rude man! Is it so unreasonable to assume your guardian would have taken it into account that I have a daughter, and as such made allowances? See if I merit approval. Of all the insults.” She snorted into her half-empty cup.

I shot Elizabeth a questioning look. She’d not written anything about my guardian sending someone to Am Meer. Instead of meeting my eyes, her gaze drifted to the open windows.

“I never met such a rude man as that Simon.” Looking at my untouched food, Mrs. Windham fluttered her handkerchief at it. “Indeed, I wish we’d begun dining amongst higher spheres before I listed our acquaintances. That would have swept the smug look off that Simon’s face.”

Elizabeth let out a short sigh. “His name was Simmons, not Simon.”

“I think I should remember better than you, missy. I tell you it was Simon, and I cannot imagine a more disdainful or trying butler.”

“Butler?” I asked, more perplexed than ever. “Are you saying my guardian’s butler came here?”

“He was no butler; trust me,” Elizabeth said. “He dressed the part of a gentleman. I think he was a solicitor.”

“You can hardly expect a butler to wear his black tie when travelling. Take my word, the man is a servant, one who holds much too high an opinion of himself.”

“But, Mama, think upon it. What sort of person sends a servant to make those types of inquiries? Who would run the household during his absence?”

“Are you never to tell me of what you are speaking?” I finally said. “What does this man and his lists of acquaintances have to do with my guardian?”

Elizabeth gave her mother a look that plainly asked if she was satisfied now that I was upset. “Well, we were not supposed to mention the visit.” She glared a second longer at her mother. “Three months ago he arrived, stating he’d come to make certain Mama was a suitable chaperone for a visit.”

“Very rude, he was, too. I should not have thought there was such a rude man in all of England.”

Elizabeth took a sharp, annoyed intake of breath. “He gathered the names of all our acquaintances—”

“He dared to ask what we required as compensation for keeping you here for a month or two. The very idea, expecting to be reimbursed for keeping Lucy’s child! He made it sound as though you were living on—” Mrs. Windham stopped suddenly and eyed the patch on my threadbare dress. The tinkling of the wind chimes was the only sound filling the space for a half minute.

“I heard nothing about this visit,” I said, forcing an even tone. “Pray, did he happen to mention the name of my guardian?”

“No, indeed. This is all very strange.” Mrs. Windham spooned more sugar into her tea. “I think your guardian must be very ill-mannered. What sense can there be in keeping one’s identity hidden, I ask?”

She paused, eyeing me for all she was worth. But I had no suitable answer. I no longer even wanted to know about the man who’d been sent here. His visit only increased my unease, making it harder for me to find the nerve to do what I must. If I succeeded in accomplishing my goal, then this Simon or Simmons person mattered little.

A soft knock on the door interrupted us.

“Yes?” Mrs. Windham sank back into her chair, glaring. “What now?”

“I beg pardon.” Their stout housekeeper managed to open the door and curtsy at the same time. “Only the room’s ready, and Miss Lizbeth asked me to come fetch her.”

“Thank you, Hannah.” With undisguised relief, Elizabeth stood. “Mama, poor Julia must be exhausted. Surely you will excuse her.”

Mrs. Windham waved me away with her handkerchief. “I have no wish to talk further regardless, what with her upsetting the household. My poor heart is pounding after such a distasteful tea. When you wake, I insist you write your guardian. Tell him this whole affair upsets my digestion, and that you wish to be transferred into my care. For I cannot conceive he wishes such vexations upon me. And—”

“What shall we do about a lady’s maid for Julia?” Elizabeth had the mercy to interrupt. “Betsy scarcely has time in the mornings to arrange our toilette, much less someone else’s. What about that girl Nancy?”

“Yes, yes, anyone will do,” agreed Mrs. Windham, picking up her teacup. “I am quite certain Julia shall not mind.”

That night, I startled from my dreams to the sound of rain slashing against the window. I blinked at the tall furniture casting long shadows over the bed, trying to reorient myself. Then recalling I was safe at Am Meer, I turned over. I’d slept long past the hour of dinner, evidenced by the plate of food next to my bedside. My stomach soured as I evaluated its contents. The hare had dried and shrunken from the bone. Granules of fat clung to the potatoes, and what looked like a petrified lump of dough served for bread.

I wrinkled my nose, sliding from the crumpled bed linens. My nightgown and hair were damp from perspiration, so I took up the heavy, woollen shawl draped over the end of the bed.

The dreams were always the same—wraithlike visions of Mama, tortured and frenzied in the netherworld, trying to warn me from across a vast chasm.

I sank before the expiring coals and rested my head against the cool fireplace tiles. Though I never heard what Mama was trying to tell me, I didn’t need to. I tightened my shawl recalling my last visit to Am Meer, three years previous.

And how very different that trip was.

Mama had been with me, head high and erect. I suffered no anxiety for my future then, no fears or rejection. Instead, I felt certain of what was to come. I’d begun wearing stays, which decreased my waist size, enhancing my femininity. My hair was swept up and coiled in glossy, thick locks. At fourteen, I was old enough to be wed. Certainly old enough to enter a betrothal, which had already been promised me when I reached this age.

Poor Mama never suspected my exhilaration had little to do with Am Meer. How placidly she watched the sheep grazing over the windswept hills, her eyes seemingly fixed, her thoughts spreading far from me.

Our carriage had scarcely arrived before Elizabeth tore from the cottage and sprinted down the flagstone path. Crimson ribbons freed themselves from her hair as she ran.

“Julia! Julia! Oh, Julia!” She grabbed my hands, knocking me off balance, then swung me around and back to my place. Excitement flushed her cheeks as she bounced up and down on her toes. “Oh, you’ll never guess. You cannot guess!”

With a slight smile, Mama shook the dust from her skirts.

My heart pounded, for I knew by the gleam in Elizabeth’s eyes her news had to do with our favorite topic—Lord Auburn’s sons. I gave her a slight, panicked shake of my head, which she failed to note.

“Edward . . . learned of your arrival.” She paused to catch her breath, and as she did, she grinned—a grin only achieved by youth unaware of how quickly hopes can be blighted.

With a look of horror, Mama froze. Until that moment, I’d taken great pains to keep her from suspecting my attachment to Edward, the younger son. Our lazy afternoons had been kept far from prying eyes in leafy, cool coppices. The hours had been private ones, dwindled away chatting, safe within haystacks, or with our bare feet dipped in the icy waters of gushing brooks.

Elizabeth pumped my hands to bring my attention back to her. “Edward postponed a visit to his aunt—and she’s a viscountess, too—simply refused to go, to make certain he saw you. He said to tell you he had something important to discuss.” Her voice rose with excitement as she said the last line. “Had you seen the look on his face, there can be no doubt, none whatsoever, what he intends to ask. If we go now, right now, I bet we can find both Henry and Edward in the village.”

Doubtless, Elizabeth would have riven me from Am Meer and had me flying down the lane had not Mama’s hands clutched my shoulders.

“My word,” she said, sounding as if she’d been struck and could scarcely breathe.

The weight of my betrayal increased as I drew my eyes up to her, but she was not looking at me. Her face, emptied of color, turned toward Mrs. Windham. Though Mama kept her voice pleasing, an intense shudder rippled through her arms as she tightened her grip on me. “Edith, surely you knew nothing of this. The girls are far too old for such antics. There might be rumors, misunderstandings.”

I could scarcely draw breath. My only hope lay with Mrs. Windham, which did not promise much. Poor Mrs. Windham. At that time, her highest ambition was to keep Elizabeth’s name linked with the Auburns’. She looked nearly as dismayed as I felt.

“Well, upon my word, Lucy,” was all she managed at first, tottering to join us. “Surely no one would mistake children . . .” Ill- advisedly, she gestured to Elizabeth, whose panting chest filled out her dress rather well. Mrs. Windham must have thought so too, for she frowned and quickly turned in my direction. Her eyes darted up and down my flat bodice before fluttering the lace she clutched in her hand toward me. “They are mere children. Who could possibly mistake their capers for more than that?”

“Mr. Henry Auburn is nineteen now, is he not?” Mama’s voice was steel.

Elizabeth, impatient to be off, rolled her eyes. Mama had never stood in her way; therefore she could not perceive the storm gathering above us.

“Well . . . as I breathe,” Mrs. Windham said, “I am sure I cannot recount Master Henry’s age. Certainly he cannot be—” her face drooped—“as old as all that.”

“Elizabeth?” Mama’s voice took on a crisp tone.

The impatience drained from my friend’s countenance as realization sank in. Her face turned scarlet. “Ma’am?”

“How old is Master Henry?” Mama did not ask Edward’s age, for I think even then she could not bring herself to speak his name.

Elizabeth glanced at me for help. I felt like crying. Our perfect afternoons were ending, and there was nothing I could do.

“He is nineteen, ma’am.”

“Ah.” Mama fixed her stony gaze on Mrs. Windham. Her disapproval chilled even the misty air. “Surely you knew nothing of this scheme.”

Mrs. Windham blinked as her mind absorbed the abrupt change. When Mama arched her eyebrows, Mrs. Windham seized her only chance of separating herself.

“Upon my word, Elizabeth.” She grabbed Elizabeth’s upper arm and walloped her through her thick petticoats, propelling her toward the house. “Such notions! Such carrying on! Such a thing I would not have imagined from you.” She looked over her shoulder at Mama. “I had not thought she would suggest such a brazen act. Go find the Auburns in the village, indeed.” She raised her hand and larruped Elizabeth’s backside. “Get in the house! Do not let me hear one peep out of you. Of all the indecent, bald-faced . . .”

Elizabeth wore too many petticoats to be much disturbed. She cast me a determined look that promised we would see Henry and Edward this summer, no matter what.

Mama caught her meaning too, for her hand stopped trembling on my shoulder. From that moment forward, she became my jailor. Gone were my afternoon walks and Elizabeth’s and my trips to the village, where we wove through the merchant stalls and cried out greetings to those amongst our class.

Mama found excuses not to visit Am Meer thereafter. The horse had clubfoot. The rain made it too muddy for safe passage. We needed to tend our garden. Her excuses were as lame as she claimed our horse was.

Mrs. Windham faithfully sent her yearly invitation, and pain creased Mama’s face as she read each missive. Not even a stranger would have mistaken Tantalus’s hunger in her eyes. To this day I ache when I consider the cruelty she endured to keep me from Edward—the drunken rages, the swift, savage hand of my father. She could have escaped, spent her summer afternoons sewing in peace amongst Mrs. Windham’s roses. But Mama held firm to her belief that Edward would devastate my life. Of all people, Mama should have known that we have no control over fate, not even our own.

Her efforts were vain, regardless. For despite her keeping me under lock and key during our last visit to Am Meer, Edward had managed to find me.

My faith in Edward had been so strong that even the afternoon I learned I had a guardian, I scarcely listened to his terms. That afternoon, I still had not been able to weep over Mama’s death, as it was self-inflicted. I walked in a blur. Thus when Mr. Graves, my solicitor, informed me I had a guardian who intended to send me to Scotland as a widow’s companion, I sat expressionless as he read my guardian’s instructions.

My calm must have disturbed him, for when he finished he looked over the page and frowned. “Did you understand any of what I just read?”

“I understood.” I kept my hands folded on my lap, refusing to change expression.

He clearly hadn’t expected this, for he paused, looking annoyed.

I swallowed hard, wondering what a normal response was. Did he expect me to object to my lower status? Was I supposed to weep and wail? Or was he waiting for me to thank my guardian profusely for overseeing my future?

Twice Mr. Graves cleared his throat, an indicant he wished me to speak. Tugging his cravat, he stared, waiting. “Well, haven’t you anything to say?” he finally demanded.

A slow smirk crept over my lips as I fought the urge to shriek with laughter. Say? I mused. When had it ever mattered what I said? My words were as empty as air. No one consulted me about concealing Mama’s suicide, addressed the cost of the funeral, or even bothered to tell me that should my parents die, I’d have a guardian. No, I would not speak. I’d learned early that women did not escape their bonds. But neither would I thank my guardian. I would do nothing except sit here, hands folded.

Mr. Graves was not a particularly insightful personality. Instead of recognizing someone worn down from grief, he saw a girl who smirked when he didn’t want her to. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Well—” he stood, stuffing papers back in his bag—“I’ll take my leave, then.”

I remained motionless until his footsteps died. Even as fear slowly curled through my body, a ray of sun sliced through the dust and landed near my feet. It was as warm and shining as my last hope—Edward.

The smattering of rain on the panes recalled me to Am Meer. I shook off the shawl and pattered to the bed, where my satchel lay. Stashed within the first compartment was the portrait of the life Mama had left me.

The page had come to me during the last meeting with Mr. Graves. When he stood to leave, it fluttered unnoticed to the floor. It had taken all my effort not to stare at it as he turned and walked from the room.

I opened the paper that I had folded and refolded so often the words had rubbed clean in the creases and could only be read from memory.

As far as I could tell, the letter was written to my guardian and discussed the conditions of my going to Scotland. It read:

. . . for if she’s unused to Scotland’s damp air, I daresay, she’ll suffer without proper wool, boots, and cape.

Also, it is imperative the girl remains in full mourning. Mother and I are most severe upon this point. Your charge likely expects to make the transition into second mourning before her arrival. But such frivolity will little suit her life with us.

You wrote that you are concerned about whom the girl associates with. Allow me to assure you, neither Mother nor I tolerate intermingling amongst the classes. I do not encourage those beneath our station to look above their rank. In the rare event of guests, Mother will especially require the girl’s presence in the sickroom. Naturally, the same level of expectation shall continue where the staff is concerned—no mingling shall be tolerated. When Mama is sleeping, I personally shall make certain the girl’s free time is filled with useful employment lest she grow lazy and idle.

While I’m on this topic, Isaac wrote that she’s to be given a small allowance at your expense—enough to content the feminine mind. Sir, I cannot disagree more heartily with him upon the matter, and implore you trust my opinion as a woman over his. He is much deceived as to the nature of females. Not a single woman amongst my acquaintance defines her happiness as stemming from the substance of things. It would be a dangerous precedent to set.

Your protégé would needlessly spoil the girl, and with it, give her an air of discontentment. If she is penniless, work alone secures her future. If she is friendless, let discipline structure her thoughts. She must be taught that only through usefulness shall she find security. This offers her far greater contentment than mere baubles. Indeed, I have often observed—

Whatever had been observed, I thankfully was spared from learning. The page ended.

I clutched the note against my stomach, glad for the lingering hours before dawn. Every time I read the letter, fear assailed me. Much depended upon the next few weeks of my life. My guardian had given me two months before I left for Scotland. If I were to find a husband first, I needed to act quickly.

My summers at Am Meer had always been interludes of peace, golden drafts of mead. The halcyon summer days blended with country dances, laughter, and girlish dreams. And Edward had always occupied the center.

Now he was all I had left. A child’s whimsy.

One that I desperately needed to make real.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Shades of Mercy by Anita Lustrea and Caryn Rivendara

Shades of Mercy
River North; New Edition edition (September 1, 2013)
Anita Lustrea
Caryn Rivendara

Chapter 1


I shoved The Catcher in the Rye between the mat-tress and box spring when I heard Mother yell up the stairs, although I probably needn’t have. When I asked Mother for money to buy the book, she made it clear that it wasn’t one Mr. Pop would condone. But she gave me the money anyway.

I figured a book tucked below the mattress, hidden by a stack of quilts and under a layer of ruffles, was one Mr. Pop would not find. And, therefore, could not disapprove of my reading.

“Mercy,” Mother called again more insistently, this time from the landing, halfway up our staircase.

I cracked the door open—enough to poke my head out and let the cat in—never letting go of the glass knob. “Be right down.”

“Please hurry. You need to get something in you. Your father wants you to go get Ansley and Mick.”

I couldn’t hide my smile.

My mother smiled back, shook her head, and waved her dishrag in the air. I watched her walk back down the stairs. Watched her graceful hand, still lovely after all that hard work, as it glided along the polished oak banister.

I closed the door and leaned for a moment against its dark panels. My smile spread wider across my face. Plenty of fifteen-year-olds would’ve balked at the idea of a drive into town, to where Ansley and Mick and all the Maliseet lived in the Flats, built over trash in our town dump. But not me. I’d go anywhere, do anything to be with Mick.

Though, of course, Mr. Pop didn’t know this. He couldn’t know this.

To him, sending me—“You’re as good as any son, Mercy”—was simply prudent. I was a good driver, able to navigate the long road into town in any weather. And I was fearless. Unafraid of pounding on the plywood doors of the Flats, unafraid of pushing them open, stepping over and between bodies that huddled together or crisscrossed on the cold floors. Unafraid of clapping my hands, of announcing myself, even of shaking Ansley, Francis, Newell, and Clarence awake if I had to.

I suppose I should’ve been afraid, should’ve been more aware of the dangers that a teenaged girl stepping into a shack full of passed-out men might have presented. But these men wanted work, needed work. My presence was their manna. My knowledge of that kept me safe. Well, that and knowing Mick made these rounds with me.

I slid my nightgown off my shoulders and grabbed my shirt and blue jeans from the back of my desk chair. My flannel sleeve slid across the top of my desk and Lickers leapt toward it. She pinned the sleeve like she had a mouse’s tail. Her claws dug into the slick-stained wood and dragged back.

“Lickers! No!” I swept my arm across the desk. Lickers leapt with a meow. No.

I ran my finger over the scratch and shook my head, tried not to cry as I thought back to what it took to get this. All last harvest, I’d worked for this desk. And even before with all the rock picking, clearing the fields of rock so the plows could ready the ground. Then I’d spent so many hours, days, weeks bent and sore picking potatoes out of the hard, dry earth. Filling the basket, emptying it into the barrel, filling the basket, emptying it into the barrel. On and on. The repetition might have made me lose my mind were it not for our farmhands Bud Drake and Ellery Burt and their encouraging banter.

But besides the long, hard hours, I got tired of being alone. Even though I was with a crew, no one else filled my barrels. When encouraging words failed to do the job, Bud’s comments turned harsher toward us: “You’re too far behind.” “Your barrel isn’t full enough.” “Don’t forget to put a ticket on your barrel when it’s full.”

You’d think we’d never done this before the way he nagged. Then again, Bud was only trying to please Mr. Pop. As was I.

Plus, I was focused on a goal: my new desk. So I put up with nagging and hard work and then the waiting—through the end of last October and first half of November—for the Sears truck to deliver this next piece of furniture to the farm. The one I’d longed for more than even the dresser or the bed, which I’d worked for the previous harvest.

The desk represented so much of what I’d wanted. A space to keep my pens, my journals, my books, and my sketch pads. And the mirror above it—the place I could sit and not only feel like me—the real me—but also see me: the young (was I also smart? Maybe even pretty?) woman looking back at me in that mirror. Instead of the sturdy farmhand Mr. Pop apparently saw.

So once again, I looked in that mirror and took a deep breath. Now wasn’t the time to cry about a silly scratch. Not with Mother waiting to fill me with biscuits and eggs and fresh milk. Not with Mr. Pop waiting for me to bring back his workers. Not with Mick waiting just for me.
I put arms through sleeves and legs through pants. Pulled my hair back into a ponytail and gave Lickers a final glare. She licked her leg. She never noticed me.


“Morning, Mercy,” Bud said, scraping his fork against the plate. “Truck’s all gassed up and ready for you.”

“Thanks. And morning to you both.” I latched my hand around the porch post and swung a bit as I balanced on the top step, like I did every morning when I stopped to talk to Bud and Ellery, farmhands so trusted they were like family. Family that ate on the porch, that is.

I turned and raised an eyebrow at Ellery, wondering if his standard reply to Bud’s greeting, usually some silly ad-age passed down through five generations of solid Maine stock, would make sense this morning.

“When all is said and done, Miss Mercy, don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya.”

Ellery shoved another biscuit into his mouth, and I laughed. This old chestnut even got a snicker out of Mr. Pop.

“So, Ellery, Mother put the last of last night’s cheddar in those eggs this morning. What’d you think of it?”

Publicly, he’d eat anything. But privately, this man with the joke had quite the sophisticated palate. Sure, he’d eat anything. But knew what he liked.

“Wicked good,” he said. “Butcha know, that creamy Kraft cheese melts smoother than the cheddar. Wonder if she might try that sometime.”

I shrugged. Ellery slurped his milk and continued: “Hey, watcha think of them wax cartons they’re puttin’ the milk in these days? I want the glass bottles back. This’ll be a fad, you just wait.”

“I’ll mention it to her next time she places her order with Mr. Callahan,” I said. “You should’ve been a chef, Ellery. Could’ve been the new chef at Nelson’s. I hear they’re hiring.”

“Nah,” said Ellery, “I’d’ve missed all this.”

I followed his arm as he waved it out across the farm. This place was beautiful. Not just the house and the porch that Mother had made so lovely and welcoming, with tidy and warm places for anyone and everyone to sit and feel at home. But the land. It wasn’t an easy land to farm, with its hard-packed rocky soil and short growing season, but Mr. Pop always reminded us that it was the best. It was the very hardness of this place that made it so amazing, he said. The blessings of this place came right out of its trials.

Mother pushed open the screen door. “Mercy, honestly. Have you still not gone? Stop bothering Bud and Ellery and get on your way.”

“She’s no bother, ma’am,” Ellery said and winked at me. “We’re just talking about your delicious eggs.”

Mother smiled, lowered her eyes, and stepped back in-side. She let the screen door slap closed behind her.

“I’ll see you in a bit then,” I said and hopped down the stairs, landing hard on my sneakers. “Wait. Mr. Pop said to ask you where you’ll be when I get back with the Maliseet workers.”

“Oh, I suppose the three-acre field would be best to drop them off. If you manage more than five of them this morning, bring half down back and the others to the three acres, off the back road.”

“All right. See you when I get back. Want me to feed the chickens and let the pigs out into their pen after that?”

“No, I’ll send Bud out to tend to the animals this morn-ing.”

Mr. Pop loved his animals. He might act annoyed with Lickers, but he loved seeing her pounce on mice in the shed or in the barn. And the pigs, well, we only had four, but he had them named before they’d been in the pen ten minutes. There was Gracie, after the beautiful and elegant movie star Grace Kelly, then Dorothy, named after Uncle Roger’s wife, Dot. I’m not sure how I’d feel having a pig named after me. Aunt Dot just laughed. I guess Mr. Pop knew she’d respond that way. Then there was Gertrude. Mr. Pop never said, but I always believed she was named after the most annoying woman on our party line, Mrs. Garritson. If you ever needed to place a call, you were almost guaranteed to be thwarted by Mrs. Garritson yapping on the phone. George rounded out the pigs, and no one knows where that name came from. Mr. Pop just pointed out that “He looks like a George!”

We had twenty laying hens that we simply referred to as the “girls.” Keep the girls fed, safe, and happy, and you’ll always have plenty of eggs. That’s what Mr. Pop said.

He always treated his farm animals well. They had names, a good place to live, and good food to nourish them. We all knew they’d be food on our table one day, and he wasn’t afraid to slaughter them, but he treated them with dignity and respect all of their living days. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Mr. Pop say, “Beware the farmer who treats his animals poorly. You could probably make a case that he doesn’t treat his family all that well either.”


The truck rumbled past the buttercups and clover down low on the roadside and the devil’s paintbrushes and lupine in little patches here and there. I never tired of driving into town alone. It gave me time to think. Going the main road meant I could keep the windows wide-open and catch the breeze. The main road was one of the few paved ways to get into town. There was great beauty in the back way, either the Ridge Road or the Border Road, but the dust from the gravel made you close the cab up tight. Today I enjoyed the wind in my hair.

Mr. Pop had taught me to drive when I was eleven—four years before. It was standard practice for fathers to teach their sons to drive at that age or even younger. Teaching daughters was something of an anomaly. I’m sure plenty of the folks in town—and even on the surrounding farms—raised their eyebrows a bit when they first saw me at the wheel, bouncing and lurching down the back farm road as I learned to work the clutch on the old Ford potato truck. Who knows what they must’ve thought hearing those grinding gears halfway into town, watching me slide around corners in the muddy buildup at the end of the potato rows. However, the people of Watsonville, Maine, were plenty used to Mr. Pop telling them I was as “good as any son—if not better” and had been used to seeing me raised as the son he never had.

And certainly by now the sight of me, Paul’s daughter, in that old potato truck was a regular one. I waved at Pas-tor Murphy and Mrs. Brown chatting in front of Fulton’s on Main Street, knowing that the place I was headed, and what I was off to do, still offered plenty of fodder for gossip.

It had become clear enough by last summer when I was fourteen that I was no son. And that Mr. Pop still sent me and my “budding womanhood,” Mother called it, to round up his Indian workers left many people shaking their heads and clucking their tongues.

If it had been any other father besides Paul Millar sending his daughter, it’d have been an uncontainable scandal, boiling over the entire town, through the farms, into the logging camps, and even across the border into New Brunswick. It’d happened with other stories.

But Paul Millar was a trusted, esteemed man. A true man of God and of honor. Although many folks questioned his decisions regarding me and the people he chose to hire, no one could question his heart and his mind. He was a good man. And everybody knew it. Everybody liked him.

Which meant that when Mother took me shopping in town—stepping into Fishman’s and Woolworth’s, our favorites for a chocolate soda and to look at magazines, pens, and diaries, or into the Chain Apparel and Boston Shoe Store for school clothes and shoes or browsing the beauti-ful dresses in Woodson’s that sometimes made Mother tear up as she rubbed her fingers against the fabrics—no one dared ask the questions they were desperate to. When we stopped into the IGA Grocery Store, Miss Maude’s checkout line would grow uncharacteristically quiet. She may have started her gossip about us the moment the bells jingled behind us, but at least she didn’t pry for information. Not the way she did with other people.


I slowed the truck.
“Molly! Molly Carmichael!” I yelled and waved out the truck window. But Molly just grimaced and waved me on. I stopped the truck midstreet to watch her kick off into a run. I hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to Molly much since school let out a few weeks ago. And I missed that. Molly was the only one I could talk to about Mick, the only one who understood. Molly’s older sister Marjorie and Glenn Socoby had been seeing each other on the sly since last Easter. Glenn was a Maliseet, like Mick. I was tempted to turn the truck to follow her, find out what was up, but Mr. Pop would’ve had my hide. I’d have to catch her another time. Mick, Ansley, and the others were waiting.

The truck croaked and lurched forward, causing heads to turn again on Main Street. But I kept my eyes on what lay ahead: the stately Second Baptist Church. I always wished we went there. Not just because our friends the Carmichaels were members, but because of its ivory stee-ple cutting into Maine skies, its creamy columns standing firm in front of scrubbed-each-summer clay bricks, and its English-born-and-bred preacher, Second Baptist breathed sophistication. Even though my family’s First Baptist had beaten Second Baptist to the punch years ago and won the Baptist Church Naming War, somehow our little country church, tucked back among potato fields, seemed like the loser.

Especially since Second Baptist got its new sign—the one Ellery called a “braggin’ sign.” Today it read: “Sunday at 9 a.m. Love Thy Neighbor.” I’d have to tell Mr. Pop this one. I knew what he’d say: “Better we love our neighbors all the time, Mercy. Not just nine o’clock on Sundays.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Threads of Change by Jodi Barrows

Threads of Change
River North; New Edition edition (July 1, 2013)
Jodi Barrows
Chapter 1

Aprils in Lecompte, Louisiana, were spectacular, especially af-ter a spring rain. New life was bursting forth with the world full of rainbow colors and delightful fragrances. The days could be long and lingering and the mugginess heavy, but it was all worth it in the beautiful countryside.

Liz sat across from her grandfather in the comfortable par-lor. The essence of gardenias and magnolias floated through the open window and filled the room with their sweet scents. The curtains fluttered and hung on the breeze.

She always felt secure and calm with her grandfather. Even at his advanced age, he still seemed strong as an ox. He stood tall, with a thick chest and a heart of gold. His thick gray hair and whiskered chin gave him a ruggedly handsome look.

With a smile that reflected the wisdom of many years, Grandpa Lucas took his work-worn hands and patted her small ones.

“So our decision has been made?”

It was a statement as much as a question. He looked at his granddaughter, and she remained silent. Liz had made her decision the night before while standing on the white porch as the rain poured down. But could she live up to it now? She knew her attitude would set the mood for all the other women. This plan had been in the making for quite some time and wasn’t new to any of them. But now, as the time grew clos-er and closer, she felt unsure. She had just lost her husband, Caleb, and now would be leaving her home too.

“Liz, I firmly believe this is the right thing to do. We will look back and be pleased with our decision.”

Lucas Mailly had always treated the women in his family with respect and allowed them to voice their opinions. He en-couraged their education and urged them to become leaders among their peers. He would never have forced any of this change on them.

Liz spoke softly and looked at his loving hands covering hers. “So do I. I’m ready to start planning and packing,” she said as she smiled at her grandfather, reassuring him with her choice. “We can be ready in a few weeks.”

Lucas stood up and faced the fireplace, his back to her. His hand went to the painting of his Claire up on the mantel and quickly moved to his face, making a rough sound on his cheek as an unexpected tear slid over the whiskers. This decision to leave, now upon them quickly, hit him unexpectedly.

Although he had turned away from her, Liz noticed as he wiped away the unwelcome tear, not meant to be seen by her. She blinked back a tear of her own and took a quick breath to steady herself. Trying to think of something to break the si-lence, she cheerfully said, “I got another letter from Abby and Emma yesterday. They received our letter and are coming with us! But their cousin Sadie won’t be traveling with us. Sounds like her father told her no.”

Liz knew that Grandpa Lucas Mailly had never been fond of the man who married his daughter. The Wilkes family owned a large plantation in Mississippi with many slaves. They had an arrogant nature about them and Lucas always felt they abused the women too. Katherine, his youngest daughter, had become a different woman after she married John and moved away to the Wilkes brothers’ plantation. He didn’t seem too surprised about Sadie not coming, and Liz knew he hadn’t been quite sure how his other two granddaughters could get away with leaving, but he’d been excited nevertheless with their decision to go.

Her grandfather had explained that he wanted to protect his family from the growing unrest in the South, and he felt it better to sell his timber mill now than to lose it in a skirmish. His son-in-law wouldn’t listen to him about selling out the Mississippi plantation and he called him a “crazy man.”

“Well, it’s just as well that Sadie isn’t coming. You may not realize it, Liz, but not all females are like you and your sister. Sadie could hold you back, even be a problem. Your cousins are not as strong as you and your sister.”

Liz blushed and answered, “It will be fine, Grandpa. I don’t want you to worry over it. Abby and Emma will be just fine with it all.”

She had grown accustomed to his praise and encouragement, well aware that women were treated differently in other families, and in the world in general.

Abby and Emma had confided in her and Megan about their father’s ways. They were going West, with or without their father’s blessings. But he was finished with the two rebellious daughters and more than ready to wash his hands of them. If their Grandpa Lucas wanted them, so be it.

Lucas paused, and Liz recognized the weighing of his words. “Liz, I know these last few months have been difficult. Caleb was a good man and a good husband. He was just like a son to me. And Luke isn’t little any more. He has grown into a fine young man.” Lucas covered his mouth and whiskers with his hand, holding his chin.

Liz spoke up. “Yes, this brings a thought to me. I’ve been thinking that Luke needs to stay here at the mill to work and go to school and . . . if Caleb is found . . . ”

“Sweetheart,” Lucas interrupted, “you know Caleb is gone. He won’t be found. We all saw the accident at the mill. You’ve got to accept that he is not going to find his way back here.” His hands rested on her shoulders as he lovingly but firmly spoke. “We have to move on. This thinking isn’t good, Liz. I know you know that.”

His eyes searched hers for a positive reaction. She blinked and shrugged. “It’s just easier.”

With a sense of urgency she stepped aside, brushed her skirt, and straightened her shoulders. She wouldn’t let her emotions get the best of her. For almost a year, she had been a weeping widow. The timber mill accident never strayed far from her mind and she hated the sense of losing herself to the horrible nightmare. She’d been drifting for months, and she wanted to take control of her life again. Her mind and heart demanded something else; selling the mill and making a move seemed to provide that. Luke had grown up so much over the past months and had grown even closer to his namesake, Grandpa Lucas.

The process of planning the move nudged the sadness away. Liz wanted and needed a new beginning, and the lurking trouble in the South was just the push to get her started.

Her dear cousins coming along would make it fun as they embarked on this adventure together, all of them starting a new chapter. New fortunes were ready to be made, the developing western territories ripe for the picking. The tremors of unrest in the South shook louder and longer, and they made her Grandpa Lucas even antsier to get his plan into action.

“Are you sure about Luke going west with us? It could be quite dangerous. I would feel so much calmer if he were here, safe with you. Who will see after you?” Liz gave a sneaky smile, trying to coax him to her way of thinking. She wanted the only two men in her life safe, away from the uncertainty before her.

“I can’t leave the mill and property until the sale is final. It could be months before I catch up to you.” He swayed back and forth as he pondered Liz’s request.

“Luke misses his dad, and he’s so content with you.”

He stepped closer to her. “Sweetheart, keeping Luke here won’t stop him from getting hurt, and it won’t bring Caleb back. I know it’s easier to just think of him as being away, but . . . ” His loving blue eyes embraced her tightly. “You know if he were alive he would have come back to us. The war is coming, we have a buyer for the mill, and it is a wise decision to go west. It’s not going to get any better for the South. With each election, the western expansion licks at the heels of the unrest. I’ve never had slaves at the mill, so some of it has eluded us, but nevertheless, we will get caught up in it.”

“Sorry. These senseless tears, I’m so tired of them,” Liz ad-mitted, pulling a lace hanky from her pocket to wipe her eyes. Grandpa Lucas stepped back and ran his hand across a wet spot on her cheek as Liz noticed Luke standing in the doorway. She would never forget what Caleb looked like as long as she had her son.

Her grandfather followed Liz’s gaze to the doorway where Luke stood straight as an arrow, his messy sun-streaked hair falling over his eyes.

Luke glared at Lucas as he pleaded, “Tell me you won’t let that happen, Grandpa. Tell me!”

Liz searched her memory for the part of the conversation that had angered her son. “You promised. You both said I was going west with the wagons!”

Grandpa Lucas’s expression told Liz he would handle the situation. “Yes, we are still considering all of the possibilities that lie ahead, Luke. The plans are still in the works. We know what you want and will consider that along with everything else.” He patted Luke’s shoulder as he walked through the doorway, finalizing the conversation.

“Good,” Luke huffed, his face flushed. “I thought I might have to go joining up with those Yankees!”

Lucas never turned around as he let out a big belly laugh, grabbed Luke by the suspenders, and pulled him out the door with him.

Liz watched the two of them from the window as they con-tinued to tease each other. She laughed. “Joinin’ the union?”

As they disappeared, she sank into a parlor chair. The sweet fragrance of flowers drifted across the room, reminding her to water them. Her eyes landed on the green Irish chain quilt she had made for Caleb as a surprise anniversary gift. That quilt—and her son—had been the only things to get her out of bed each morning after Caleb died. She had made it for their thirteenth wedding anniversary, and somehow the fabric squares held all of the joy and excitement of her married life. The quilt represented a celebration of their future together, her grief for the loss of her husband woven into every stitch .

Liz closed her eyes and dropped her head to the back of the chair. In an instant, she wafted back to the day that had changed her life.

The gray and gloomy day in May of 1855 had begun with clouds swirling. The rain left everything waterlogged and cold. It was the sort of day where something feels bound to happen; the sort of day where life’s brittleness is prodded from its sleeping place and made to crawl to the surface and roar for a while, out in the open.

The air didn’t feel quite right, and Liz recalled thinking that the rain seemed too . . . wet. She sat in the parlor, working on her most recent quilting project, the one she’d named CALEB’S CHOICE, when Luke crashed into the house, calling, “Mom, Mom, come quick!”

“What is it?”

“It’s Dad. He’s fallen into the logs.”

The saturated grass looked limp and lifeless as she rushed to the mill, her mind racing as the wind blew fiercely against her progress. Trees bent. Leaves clung. Horrible thoughts and possibilities pulsed like the intense rain against her face.

“A horse to slide, a dock to fall,” she’d said to herself as she approached the mill and waterway.

As always, they’d fallen behind on the timber orders. Grandpa Lucas and Caleb worked long and hard every day, never demanding more from their workers than they them-selves were willing to give.

Rain-soaked and muddy, she stood there with her hair pressed to her head. She watched the mill workers standing in silence with faces completely baffled and afraid.

“He’s gone, Liz. We couldn’t reach him,” Grandpa Lucas had confessed.

“I’m sorry, Liz; I couldn’t get to him in time,” Thomas, Caleb’s best friend, had cried in disbelief.

Their words still shot through her like the heavy bullets from a steel pistol. She’d looked away and fallen to the ground. No one revealed how long it had been between that moment and the one where she awoke in her own bed. Maybe days had passed. She recalled that the sun had broken through, leaving the property dry and the grass a brilliant green. She’d glanced down to find Luke asleep across the end of the bed. Her sister Megan sat in a chair that hugged the side of the bed as she threaded a needle with embroidery floss.

The clopping of horses’ hooves jolted Liz back to the pre-sent, her hands still shaking and damp with perspiration. She peered through the parlor window. Workers from the mill un-loaded wooden crates and old cloths for packing.

On the other side of the parlor, Caleb’s completed quilt rested over the back of a small chair. She walked over to it and brought it close to her face, hoping to smell Caleb on the quilt, even though he had never used it. She ran her hand over the sewn patches of tans, reds, and greens that represented their namesake.

Caleb would have loved this quilt, she thought.
Each piece and every stitch had come to memorialize his life with her. And now that completed quilt announced the final chapter of their book as well.