In case there are some of you who aren’t subscribed to my New Release Newsletter (which is fine, no pressure!), or in case someone wants to come along and read this later, here’s the letter “Lily” wrote to readers to let them know about her story, Murky Pond. Enjoy!
When I was summoned for the purpose of writing you a letter, I’ll admit to being a bit nervous. First, I’m not anywhere near being the correspondent my grandfather Owen is, and there are quite a few of you who’ll be receiving this missive. That’s intimidating.
Second, when I was informed that the purpose of this letter was to let you know about my book, “Murky Pond,” and to give you reasons to consider purchasing said book, I really wanted to back out. I hate pimping and promoting, even if I do think you’d enjoy reading the story of my relationship with Warren Sullivan.
That said, it is a good story, a sweet and poignant tale, so I’ll do my best. Plus, it’s a cold day here on Dragonfly Creek Farm, and if I can take a few minutes in a warm office with some coffee, I’m not going to argue.
Bulleted lists seem to work best, I’m told, so let’s see what I can come up with.
- It’s a love story. Who doesn’t love a good romance?
- There are horses.
- You get to see the Campbells again, lots of them—and they can admittedly behave quite like certain rear parts of horses from time to time. Not me, of course, but the rest of the family. I’m perfectly laid-back and easygoing. Someone has to keep the stubborn mules in line, right?
- There’s heart-wrenching tragedy… poor Warren goes through so much in his life. Is it any wonder I gravitated toward him and held on tightly? The answer is a resounding “no” but you’ll have to pick up “Murky Pond” to know exactly what I’m talking about. And it isn’t just Warren who suffers this time around. We all do, thanks to a horrible event that could have turned out much worse than it did. Don’t worry—we’re all still here. It was just a close call.
- We have a ton of good food that I hear made the author quite hungry as she was writing. (And my recipe for truly yummy chicken salad is in the back of the book if you like that sort of thing.)
- If nothing else, our story is one of the power of hope in the face of unspeakable adversity. Not just how we fell in love, but from start to end, everyday life to the romantic scenes, it’s about keeping on and not giving up even when you want to hide (or when we do try to hide, even). I think we can all use that sort of thing from time to time, that sense of hope.
- Did I mention the super-sexy, funny, charming, stubborn man? Yeah. There’s that. Of course, I’m somewhat biased.
I hope you’ve seen enough reasons to give “Murky Pond” a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
I’d best sign off for now. There’s a ton of work to do here on the farm, and I’m helping Mom and Dad decorate the house. We’ll be hosting the whole family in a few weeks, and it’s important that we get the halls decked and festive. It’s been a very difficult year for us Campbells as a whole, but we’re all stronger for what we’ve been through, and we want to celebrate that strength.
There were two lines in the window of the pregnancy test. Two. Not one.
“Oh, God.” Emma Campbell Gibson’s breath shuddered out of her body. She reached for the hand of her best friend and sister-in-law, Zanny Campbell. “I’m pregnant.”
Zanny didn’t say anything, simply waited for Emma to get her emotions under control.
It wasn’t that Emma being pregnant was a bad thing. But since she’d married Archer Gibson, the love of her life, three years earlier, she’d had two miscarriages. She was afraid now to hope and dream and feel joy.
“Does Archer suspect?” Zanny asked.
“I don’t think so,” Emma said. “There hasn’t been any morning sickness. If I wasn’t late… Do you think that’s a good sign? It’s how things were with Sydney. And I was so sick the other two times.”
Sydney was her eight-year-old daughter.
“Maybe. I’ll take a positive sign—no pun intended—where I can find one,” Zanny said. “What do you want to do?”
That was an interesting question. “Sit here and not move?”
“Okay. I’ll have Sam take over your appointments.”
They were at the photography studio Emma owned and Zanny ran. They’d come in early so Emma could take the test in privacy. Her assistant, Sam, would be in soon.
Zanny went to open the shop, and Emma did just what she’d said she wanted—she stayed on the couch in the sitting room upstairs and stared into space. After a little while, though, she had to do something. Crossing to the phone, she called her doctor’s office and made an appointment, then went downstairs.
“I’m going to go see Dr. Jones,” she told Zanny. “They got me right in, considering. Wish me luck?”
Zanny stood and hugged her tight. “Good luck. Want me to go with you?”
“No. I need to do this alone.”
Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long at the doctor’s office before she was called back. While she got into the gown the nurse had provided her, she thought about the other pregnancies. She and Archer wanted kids so badly, wanted to add to the family they had with Sydney. And since she’d not had a single problem with that pregnancy, there was no reason to expect problems in the future. But twice now she’d made it to eight weeks only to end up losing the baby.
Emma wouldn’t say the losses had put a strain on her marriage, exactly, but some of the joy she felt at building a life with the man who was her soul mate was marred. Not a tremendous amount, but enough that the edges of that happiness were burnt. Archer had never once made her feel like he thought she was less than a woman because of the losses, but Emma herself had started to carry a bit of that burden. She’d never confessed that truth to him though she had discussed it with Zanny, who’d suffered her own loss several years earlier.
So this time around when her period was first late, Emma didn’t say anything. Archer had to go out of town for one of his rare conferences the same week she was scheduled to start. She didn’t tell him she’d missed a period when he returned. Maybe it was duplicitous of her to let him assume she’d had one, but she didn’t want to get his hopes up if she was wrong.
When the time came around for her second period and nothing happened, she knew she had to take a test. She’d put it off so far, thinking that if she didn’t know she was pregnant, maybe she wouldn’t lose the baby.
Zanny, who was aware of the first missed period, had shaken her head at Emma’s recalcitrance. But she’d kept her mouth shut, supporting Emma’s decision to wait. That quiet encouragement and love had kept Emma sane the last few weeks.
As she was only a few days late past the second period, she didn’t think Archer suspected anything just yet. But she knew time was up—if he didn’t suspect now, he would soon. Her breasts were getting tender and fuller, and she’d almost swear she was starting to develop a tiny baby bump. And while she hadn’t had any morning sickness in the traditional sense of the word, certain smells were becoming rather off-putting, like that of peanut butter and of tomato soup, of all things.
A soft tap sounded on the door.
“Come in,” Emma called.
The nurse poked her head in with a smile, then came inside. “He wants me to get some blood and urine so we can do some labs while he examines you.”
By the time her doctor came in several minutes later, Emma was a nervous wreck. “Well?” she asked before he even had a chance to close the door.
He smiled. “Congratulations. You’re definitely pregnant. Hop up on the table and we’ll see what we see.”
Scared to death, she did as instructed. “Are you going to do an ultrasound?”
“That depends. How far along do you think you are? The chart said you’d missed two periods?” He settled in the chair and started the exam.
“Yeah. And I’m not sure how far along. I’ve been afraid to even consider it, given my history.”
“Does Archer know?”
“No. We’re doing an ultrasound, right?”
He finished the examination, then moved back and stripped off his gloves. “Are you going to be able to sleep if we don’t?”
Emma sat up halfway, propped on her elbows. “You’ve been my doctor for ten years now. What do you think?”
“I’ll get the machine.”
Ten minutes later, she was ready to come apart from nerves as he hmmm’d and pursed his lips as he stared at the black and white screen.
He turned it so she could see better and pointed. “Right there’s the baby. Everything looks perfectly normal. Heart’s beating just fine. Want to see if we can hear it?”
With tears choking her, all Emma could do was nod. He pushed the buttons that turned on the sound, and a minute later, what sounded like a tiny, fast washing machine could be heard.
“Judging from what I’m seeing, you’re almost nine weeks along. You’ve passed the mark,” he said quietly. “So stop worrying about that. Is that why you waited to come in?”
She took the tissues the nurse gave her and wiped her face. “Yes. I was afraid to get my hopes up. It’s really okay?”
“As far as I can tell,” he said, putting the equipment back in its holder. “There’s no guarantee, but I’m hopeful. I’ll print you out a couple or three of these images. I imagine you’ll want to take them home?”
Now that the exam was over, she felt like she was going to throw up. As she got dressed and took care of paperwork on her way out of the office, all she could think about was how in the world she was going to tell Archer. She called the office to ask a favor from Zanny.
“Could you get Sydney tonight?” she asked after she’d relayed what the doctor had said.
“Absolutely. I’ll pick her up at Mrs. Hendricks’ when I get my brood. Want her to spend the night with us?”
“Is that going to be too much trouble?”
Zanny growled. “Emma Jean. I can’t even…”
“I had to ask. Thanks, Zan. You’re a lifesaver.”
“Any idea how you’re going to break the news?”
Emma blew out a breath. “None. I’ve got a little while to figure it out, though. Wish me luck?”
“As much of it as I can send your way, sweetie.”
She got home a little past one, having stopped to grab a salad from a drive-thru for lunch. But she was so tired she didn’t even want to eat it, so she stuffed it in the fridge and headed up to the bedroom, printouts in hand. Stifling a yawn, she looked at the bed with longing.
“A good, old-fashioned nap sounds like an excellent idea,” she muttered. She quickly changed into one of Archer’s T-shirts and crawled under the covers with a sigh. “Just a few minutes of rest, and then I’ll figure out how to tell him.”
Before she could even form another thought, she was sound asleep.
Archer hurt from his shoulders to his waist. When he walked into the house that evening, all he wanted to do was take a hot shower and relax. The day had been rough, and spending time with his two favorite girls was high on his list of priorities. Even though he’d been married for three years now, he still felt a welcoming rush of love just thinking about home, much less when he walked in the door.
But the house was dark, quiet. Emma’s car was in the garage, but if she and Sydney were home, he didn’t hear them.
“Em? Syd?” he called, turning on the lights as he went in the kitchen. “Hello?”
Nothing answered him but the welcoming meows of their two cats, Huff and Puff, as they wound around his legs.
“Maybe they went for a walk,” he said as he gave them some kibble. He wasn’t terribly concerned—they’d been known to get stuck talking to a neighbor here or playing with a friend there—and he decided to head upstairs and get that shower. He’d just reached the door to his and Emma’s bedroom when he heard her soft sigh. The rustling of the bedclothes sounded, then a quiet snore.
Archer frowned and turned on the switch next to the door that controlled the bedside lamps. Sure enough, Emma was curled up in bed, sound asleep.
“She must be sick,” he said, inching closer. But when he saw the printouts on the nightstand, his breath caught in his throat. With hands that shook, he picked the top one up.
An ultrasound, dated today. With Emma’s name on it.
The shape on the image was fuzzy, a little tiny blob that he wasn’t even sure he was supposed to be focusing on. He might not know how to read an ultrasound, but the significance… They were pregnant.
His first instincts were to grab her up in his arms, wake her up and question her, kiss her, love her. But he didn’t want to get ahead of himself. He could be reading things wrong. This might not be good news. Besides, he was covered in grease and oil and grime from work, and he’d get her filthy. Some days that had its advantages but not today.
He put the ultrasound back on the nightstand and quietly went to the shower. As soon as he was clean, he’d crawl in bed with her and find out what was going on. He figured Zanny probably had Sydney. Again, he didn’t know if that was a good sign or bad. Praying for all that he was worth that it was good, he started scrubbing.
Emma woke up when the bed dipped and strong arms came around her. She smiled as Archer’s hand touched her face.
“Wake up, sleeping beauty,” he said, his voice low as he kissed her forehead.
“Mmm, no. I like this dream just fine.” She snuggled close to him, running her hands over his bare chest. When he jerked and drew in a breath, her eyes flew open.
But he wasn’t. There was a large bruise on his chest between his shoulder and his heart. Sitting up so fast she got dizzy, she reached out a hand, stopping just shy of touching him. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing. One of the guys at work swung an engine around. I walked into it. It’s just sore. I’m fine, Em.”
“Did you get checked out? Nothing’s broken, is it?”
He moved his arm in an arc, wincing when he stretched it up over his head, but managed a clear range of motion. “I’m fine. I promise. How are you?”
She blinked at him. “Um.”
“Something you want to tell me?” he asked patiently. Even so, she could feel the concern coming off of him, as well as the coiled tension.
Emma couldn’t find her voice. She bit her lip, staring at him.
Archer sat up, reaching past her to the nightstand. He handed her the printouts. “Maybe this will help,” he said, his lips quirking up at the corners.
Trembling all over, she set the pictures aside and wound her arms around him, taking care not to put pressure on the bruise. “I’m afraid if I tell you, it won’t be real anymore. And I want it to be real more than just about anything in the world.”
He held her close, pressing soft kisses to her hair. “I can wait until you’re ready, then. But are you okay?”
She nodded. “I love you, you know that?”
“I do. And I love you back.” He kissed her, this time fully on the mouth.
Emma was more than happy to follow him down to the mattress, to help him get her naked, to feel his body pressing against hers as they made love. He knew about the baby without her telling him, and that was sufficient for now. That he understood her fears and didn’t press her for more of an explanation only made her love him more.
The world blew up the next morning. As it was Saturday, they’d not set the clock to go off, deciding to sleep in late. Emma hated their alarm clock, had threatened to replace it a thousand times. But she would have preferred its raucous screech to the sound that did wake her—the sound of her husband gasping for air and not being able to find it.
The memory of that morning would be etched on her mind for the rest of her life. Archer’s face so pale, his lips blue, his eyes frantic as he tried to breathe but couldn’t. The 911 call and miraculously fast response time. Getting dressed in whatever clothes she could find so she wasn’t naked when the EMTs got there. The ride in the ambulance to the hospital. The sight of her husband being rushed away from her, and the terror of not knowing whether that was the last time they’d see each other or not.
At some point, someone called her parents. Emma didn’t remember telling anyone not to notify them, and she didn’t much care how they’d found out. Owen and Sarah were just there. Soon after, other members of her family started trickling in. When Logan, Archer’s brother, came in with his wife Emma’s sister Amelia, Emma burst into tears.
“What happened?” he ground out as he hugged her. “Em, what happened?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. He couldn’t breathe. And they haven’t told me anything. I had to sign some papers. He’s in surgery.”
Sarah had been trying to find out details, and she came back in then with Emma’s cousin Michelle, who was a pediatrician. Both their faces were grim.
“It’s not good,” Michelle said bluntly. “Apparently, when he was shot all those years ago, they missed a bullet fragment. He’s got a big bruise on his chest that Emma said came from getting hit at work yesterday. The surgeon thinks that knocked the fragment loose. They’ve got to get it out. It’s lodged between his lung and his heart.”
“Wh—what are his chances?” Emma asked faintly, sinking into her chair.
Michelle sighed, taking a seat beside her. She grasped Emma’s hands tightly. “The surgeon who’s operating has good hands, steady hands. If anyone can get it out, he can.”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
Michelle hesitated. “Not good. Less than thirty percent.”
“Oh, God,” Logan said. He sat as well, leaning into Amelia, his head in his hands. “That’s not enough.”
Emma nodded slowly as she took it in. “Where’s Sydney?”
John, Zanny’s husband, spoke up. “At our house.”
That was the last thing she said until the surgeon came out three hours later, dark circles under his eyes. His scrubs were soaked with sweat and, Emma saw, there were spatters of blood on the legs. Archer’s blood. She steered her mind firmly away from that line of thought.
“He’s critical, but he made it through the surgery,” the man said. He thanked the nurse who’d followed him as she handed him a cup of coffee. “The next few hours are crucial. He may not survive, and if he does, I don’t know if there’s going to be any permanent damage. He went into cardiac arrest a couple of times on us. I’m sorry I can’t give you any better news.”
All around her, the family reacted. Logan was angry, pacing, and cursed under his breath as Amelia tried not to cry. Her parents sagged against each other. John and Ben, her brothers, asked questions about what to expect. Rachel, her other sister, who was seated beside her, put her arm around Emma’s shoulders.
“I need some air,” Emma said, patting her hand before standing carefully. “And then I want to see him.”
“He’s being brought to the ICU. You can only stay a few minutes,” the doctor said.
“No. I’ll stay until he’s awake. I know you and your team need to work. I won’t get in the way. But I’m not leaving him.” She raised her chin and dared him to contradict her.
The surgeon eyed her with a shrewd gaze. “If you do get in the way, that’s it. You won’t get back in.”
She let Rachel and Sarah guide her to the bathroom where she promptly threw up. When she came out of the stall, they watched her with worried eyes.
“I’m fine, Mom,” she said as she splashed her face with cold water. “Will you and Daddy make sure Sydney’s okay? She’ll be worried.”
Sarah’s mouth compressed in a thin line, but she nodded. “If you need anything, just say the word.”
“Who has all the kids?” Emma asked as they made their way to the ICU waiting room.
“Aunt Gilly, Nonny, and Uncle Eli are at Zanny’s, and I’ll probably head out soon to help,” Rachel said. “Easton’s with his dad, but Bear goes on shift in a little while. Do you want me to bring you more clothes? Anything?”
Emma glanced down at herself. “Whatever you think I’ll need. Thank you.”
The surgeon had left word with the ICU nurses to expect Emma, and they let her and Logan go in.
“You can stay ten minutes, no more,” a short, pudgy nurse with a soft voice told Logan. “Mrs. Gibson, Doctor Davies said you’d be staying. If we have to get in there to work, you will wait outside the glass. Understand?”
Emma heard the steel in her voice and respected it. “Yes.”
When they reached Archer’s bay, he was hooked up to what looked like every piece of equipment in the hospital. Emma staggered against Logan. He caught her easily, but she wondered if she wasn’t holding him up as much as he was her.
Archer wasn’t a small man at six feet four, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he looked pitiful lying in that hospital bed. It was almost more than Emma could bear.
“I’m okay,” she told them after a moment. “I’m okay. How can I help?”
The nurse directed her to a chair on the opposite side of the bed. “Don’t touch any of the equipment, and don’t try to wake him up. Right now, he needs to stay as quiet as possible.”
There was a wide bandage running down the middle of Archer’s chest. Realization struck Emma.
“You had to open him up?”
The nurse nodded. “It was the only way to get to his heart.”
Logan, on the other side of the bed, laid a hand lightly on his brother’s head. “Another scar to add to the collection. Sydney’ll love the bandage.”
“She will. Can I hold his hand?” Emma asked.
“Of course. And you can talk to him. Just keep your voices low, and like I said, don’t try to wake him up. Push that red button on the wall if you need anything.”
She left them alone, pulling the curtain part of the way across the glass window in the front of the room.
“I thought we were past this,” Logan growled, leaning in toward Archer. “We agreed we wouldn’t do this anymore, remember? We’re not supposed to disturb you, little brother, so I won’t give you too hard of a time right now. But when you get out of here? I’m going to kick your ass for scaring me like this.”
She saw the tears on his cheeks and had to look away to keep from screaming.
After he’d gone, Emma carefully wound her hands around Archer’s. That hand was the one spot on his body he didn’t seem to have a tube or line or electric feed attached to.
“Don’t think you’re getting out of parenthood so easily. I made it past the eight-week mark, Archer. This baby is happening. I was so afraid to tell you I thought I was pregnant. You are not leaving me to raise your children on my own. I still need you. I’ll always need you,” she whispered. “So you rest, you heal, you fight this thing. And when you wake up, we’ll go on with this happily ever after we’ve been living. You hear me, you stubborn bastard?”
His fingers tightened around hers. That was all, just a slow movement that could have been a muscle spasm. But she knew better. And that gave her hope.
Five weeks later, Archer was sitting in his recliner, his feet propped up in front of him, trying not to laugh as Emma rattled around in the kitchen, cursing the stove, the recipe, her father, and the universe for not giving her the cooking gene. He’d offered to help her get supper ready, but she’d glared at him with such a ferocious snarl that he’d held his hands up and backed out of the kitchen in self-defense.
Owen, who’d shown up not long after Archer had retreated to the living room, stood with a sigh. “Guess I’d better try to help her.”
Archer grinned. “Good luck with that.”
A minute later, Emma came stomping out of the kitchen, hands on her hips. “I almost had it,” she called back.
Whatever Owen’s muffled response was, Archer got the impression from the way Emma’s eyes narrowed that he would be better off not asking his father-in-law to repeat it.
“Come here,” he said instead, holding his hands out.
With a tiny pout, Emma took his hands. “You did not marry a cook.”
He laughed and tugged, not letting up until she eased into his lap. “I didn’t, no. But I love you anyhow.”
“Mm-hmmm,” he said, kissing her lightly. “But once I’m allowed back in the kitchen, don’t expect to eat spaghetti again until this baby’s a year old.” Spaghetti was the one dish Emma did well, and they’d had it so much the last few weeks, even eight-year-old Sydney was starting to curl her lip at the dish.
She settled in against him with a sigh as his hand came to rest on her belly. “We’re going to have to tell the family soon.”
What with Archer’s surgery and recovery, letting everyone know they were expecting had fallen by the wayside. But now that he was almost well again, they were starting to get some funny looks.
“They’ll figure it out soon enough. It’s getting hard to disguise,” he teased.
“Mmm, that it is,” Emma said around a yawn as she drifted off. Archer tucked her closer against him, enjoying the feel of her safe and sound in his arms.
When Owen came out of the kitchen a couple of minutes later, wiping his hands on a dishtowel, he smiled. “I saved the chicken. It’s in the oven, should be ready in about half an hour. She’s wiped out, huh?”
Archer nodded. “I feel guilty about that.”
“You shouldn’t. Sarah was almost narcoleptic with a couple of her pregnancies. Em doesn’t seem overly tired, just pregnantly tired. You may have noticed we’ve all been pitching in to keep her as rested as possible.”
“I had noticed that,” Archer said with a happy smile. “Thank you. When did you figure it out?”
“About a week after you had surgery. Sydney told us all that her mommy had a baby in her belly.” He sat down on the couch, studying them. “How far along is she?”
“Fourteen weeks or thereabouts. Finally in the safer zone and out of that first trimester, thank God.”
Owen’s smile grew a bit misty. “Good. When’s she going back to work?”
“As soon as I can convince her I’m okay. I should get the all clear from the doctor next week, so hopefully that’ll help.”
They talked about some of the books they were reading as they waited for Sarah to arrive with Sydney, who’d had her own doctor visit that afternoon. Owen and Sarah stayed for dinner, and after they left, Archer got Sydney upstairs and bathed.
Emma came up soon after. “I locked up downstairs. Once we get her in bed, can we just hold each other? Maybe watch TV in the bedroom?” she asked as she hugged him from behind.
They’d not been intimate since he had surgery, something else Emma had put the kibosh on despite his doctor’s telling them he was safe to resume those regular activities at last week’s visit. So when Sydney was asleep and they retired to their own room, Archer sat down on the bed and pulled Emma to him, caressing her hips.
“I need you.”
She traced his lips with a finger. “Archer…”
“Em, I’m fine. We can be careful, we can go slow, but I need you.”
“I know. I’m asking you to do this for me.” He slid his hands under her top and eased it over her head, then undid her bra. She’d already had to go up a size, and he cupped the tender flesh gently. “I promise you’ll enjoy it,” he cajoled.
A reluctant smile spread across her face even as she arched into his touch. “What if I hurt you?”
“I’m already hurting.”
She scowled, not amused, and he sighed. Sliding his hands to her hips, he drew her so that she was in his lap, her knees on either side of his hips.
“You didn’t hurt me before. Making love is not what put me in the hospital.”
Emma tugged his shirt off, then placed her hands carefully on his chest on either side of the new scar. “If we do this and you have any chest pain, any pressure, you tell me right away. We’ll stop. Promise?”
She stared at him for another minute, then shook her head. “I’ve missed you like this,” she confessed as they kissed.
There were no more words as they touched one another, the heat building to a flashpoint that made going slow impossible. When Emma settled over him, warm and welcoming, Archer buried his face in her throat. Their movements were fast and frantic after that, need driving them each to a stunning climax. It came too soon and not fast enough, and Archer could hardly wait to do it again.
The second time they made love, the pace was slow, unhurried, and just as intense. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get enough of you until we’re ninety and living in a home somewhere. Not even if we do this every single day,” he whispered once they’d come down. “And I have my doubts that I’ll be satiated even then. You’re addictive.”
Emma wrapped her arms and legs around him and held on tightly. “So are you. I love you.”
Though he would have been more than happy to go for round three, she wasn’t willing to risk it. So he pulled her into his arms instead, more than content to hold her close as they drifted off to sleep.
The purring woke her. “Huff, Puff, ask Archer to feed you,” Emma said as warm cat breath lifted her hair off her face. She buried her head deeper into the pillow. “After last night, I think he’s more than able to open a can of cat food.”
A hoarse rawr answered her as the purring faded, and the bed shook hard. Harder than it normally would have with Archer or the cats getting up. Opening her eyes, Emma glanced at the bedroom door. It was closed. The room was bathed in morning sunlight, even though the clock only said seven.
A second rawr sounded, this one closer, as the purring resumed. A very solid head butted her behind, and a large tawny paw came across her hip, resting there. A paw that was as big as her own hand, bigger even.
With a shocked gasp, Emma rolled over and sat up, coming face to face with a beautiful mountain lion who was gazing at her with something akin to impatience.
The cat yawned, showing off impressive teeth, then licked its paw. Satisfied she was awake, he rolled over and into the floor. From the twitching of his tail, she wondered absently if he’d intended to fall off the bed or not.
“Logan, this isn’t funny.” She clutched the sheet to her, grateful beyond words she’d had to put her nightgown back on last night after she and Archer had finished making love. “What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded in a whisper. “It’s not even eight o’clock in the morning! Where’s Archer? I’ll skin you two alive for this.”
Letting out what sounded suspiciously like a sigh, the cat padded to the door and scratched at it, not using his claws. He looked back over his shoulder at her as if asking her to let him out.
Emma scrambled off the bed. “Does Amelia know about this?” She let him out, then closed the door behind him, hanging her head. “Shape-shifters. God bless ‘em, I’m going to strangle those men.”
Archer didn’t know quite what to do. He’d never expected Emma not to realize it was him. He knew she didn’t typically come fully awake until she’d had a cup of coffee, but for her not to know what was going on… Maybe it was pregnancy brain, he thought as he twitched his tail, annoyed and frustrated at not being understood.
Thanks to his enhanced hearing, he knew she was in their bathroom. With an aggravated huff, he crossed the hall to Sydney’s bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. Emma might not recognize him, but he was betting their daughter would. She rolled around and played with Logan every time she was around him after he shifted.
More than a decade earlier, Archer’s first wife had decided widowhood was cheaper than divorce. She’d pumped two bullets into his chest, not counting on him surviving. But he had, for the most part. The part of him that could shift into a mountain lion? That had died on the table.
Or so he’d thought.
Sydney, who could sense certain elements about some people, had said ever since she was five that his cat was asleep. His brother Logan’s cat, on the other hand, was not. The family had long taken that to mean Archer’s cat was dead.
When he’d awakened a short time earlier, his entire body tingling from head to toe, Archer had thought he was dying. He’d gotten to his feet, then fallen to his knees, somehow without disturbing Emma. He was terrified he’d not be able to wake her in time to say good-bye. But then he’d shifted. The change into the cat had happened so fast, he hadn’t realized what was going on until it was done. Even then, he wondered if he’d died or was dreaming. He’d gone through some strange things while he was unconscious in the hospital, after all.
But after a couple of minutes, he figured he wasn’t dead. He wasn’t in a weird coma or something. He had, somehow, someway, gotten his cat back. And he desperately needed to run.
Easing Sydney’s door open, he crossed to the bed. One of her little feet was sticking out from under the covers, and he butted his head against it, purring loudly as he rubbed.
“Uncle Logan?” she said, coming awake almost instantly. She rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes, then reached for her glasses. Archer rolled onto his back, then got up on his feet and stood there, watching her patiently. He saw the moment when she put it together.
“Daddy?” she whispered, her eyes huge.
He nudged her bed again with his head.
She was off the bed in a flash, her arms thrown around his neck as she squealed with excitement.
“Mommy! Mommy, Daddy’s a cat! Daddy’s a cat!” Sydney ran across the hall to their bedroom, opening the door without knocking to dash inside. “Mommy!”
Emma was coming out of the bathroom, dressed, toothbrush in hand, frowning. “What did you say?”
“He’s a cat, he’s a cat, he’s a cat!” Sydney grabbed her hand and danced in place for a second, then dashed back to where Archer stood and hugged him. “Look!”
Emma’s face paled. “He can’t be.”
Archer let out a rumbling, growling purr and did his best to nod.
“Oh, my God.” She leaned against the doorjamb. “Oh, my God.”
“Can we take him to the farm? Please?” Sydney begged. “And let Grandma and Grandpa see him?”
As that was exactly what he wanted to happen, Archer prayed Emma would agree. He chattered and paced, not taking his eyes off her.
“You need to run?” Emma asked faintly.
This time, the roar he let out was louder than he’d intended, and she jumped.
“Okay. Okay. I’ll call Daddy and then we’ll go. Sydney, grab your robe. Get dressed. Shoes. You’ll need shoes. I need shoes,” she said as she went to the closet. “Shit, the phone.”
She was panicking, the last thing Archer had wanted. Desperate to calm her down, he went to where she stood and raised up on his back legs. Pinning her to the door, he licked her neck and face, trying to tickle her and make her laugh.
“Stop it!” she said, dodging his tongue even as she giggled. He’d never heard her giggle before, and he chuffed at the sound, amused. He let his head rest on her shoulder for a moment, then got down. She was laughing now, still shaking but no longer completely freaked out as she grabbed the phone off the nightstand and dialed.
“Daddy? I’m bringing you a cat.”
Archer went back in the closet while she got her shoes on and tugged on a pair of his jeans. He pulled so hard the hanger broke, pieces of plastic flying everywhere.
Emma got the message. “You’ll need clothes. Okay. Stop that and move before you tear something down.” She hastily pulled an outfit together, including shoes when he nudged them, and they were out the door.
“Sydney, we’re going to cover him up so that no one else sees him,” she said as they piled in her SUV. She grabbed a blanket from the back and tossed it over him as he settled in the backseat next to Sydney. “Thank God I parked in the garage yesterday.”
Archer was concerned that she’d wreck, but before she backed out of the garage, she drew in several breaths. He peeked out from under the blanket and was relieved to see that she’d calmed considerably. “Okay, I have this. Let’s go.”
He couldn’t tell how fast she was driving, but she handled the vehicle well enough. That’s my girl, he thought. It seemed to take forever to reach the farm, but they finally did.
As soon as she opened the door and uncovered him, he was out. Owen and Sarah were standing on the porch, their mouths open with shock. A quick glance around showed him he was in the clear. Letting out a loud roar, he ran like hadn’t been able to in years.
Owen and Sarah hurried down the steps, meeting Sydney and Emma halfway to the car.
“What in the world? When you said you were bringing us a cat, I thought you meant one like Huff or Puff. Was that Logan?” Owen asked.
Emma shook her head, laughing. “It was Archer.” And she promptly burst into tears.
Half an hour later, she was sitting on the porch steps, alternating between laughter and tears. Owen had his arm around her, laughing as much as she was. Sarah’d taken Sydney in for some breakfast.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I thought he was Logan when I woke up and he was in the bedroom, and that they were playing some kind of trick on me. I was ready to skin them both.”
“I imagine so.”
They watched as Archer trotted around the side of the barn across the meadow, then turned ninety degrees to dash as hard as he could toward the spot the family often set up for picnics at.
“He’s playing.” She sniffed back her tears. “Oh, Daddy. How is it possible for your heart to break from being so happy?”
“It just is. Happened to me every time one of you kids was born. Every time we have a new grandchild to love on,” he said, sending her a sidelong glance.
Emma smiled. “Yeah, about that.”
He kissed her temple. “Congratulations, sweetheart. I couldn’t be happier for you.”
She sighed happily and watched Archer roll down a grassy slope. “I wish I’d brought a camera.”
“Your mom might have one inside somewhere.”
An hour later, Archer was having some bacon and eggs when Logan and Amelia arrived. He’d been running nonstop, and he’d needed to refuel. But when he saw his brother’s truck, he stiffened, every muscle in his body going on alert. Before Logan could even get the driver’s door open, Archer was beside him.
Emma’s tears, which had calmed down, started again. Sarah just patted her shoulder and handed her a box of tissues.
Logan had been devastated when he’d learned about Archer losing the cat. It had taken him a long time to get over that loss. Now, he got out of the truck and sank to his knees, laughing as Archer nudged him and head-butted him.
“How much do you want to bet me they run together?” Owen said as they headed to the truck to help Amelia with the kids.
“Oh, I’d put money on it,” Sarah said.
Logan looked up as they approached, the biggest grin Emma had ever seen on his face, not counting when his and Amelia’s two sons had been born. Tears were coursing down his cheeks. Unashamed, he wiped at them with his hands.
“Can you believe it?”
Archer took advantage of his position to knock him over, then settled across him and licked the top of Logan’s head. He let out a self-satisfied purr as he glanced at Emma and chuffed.
She snickered, wiping away her own tears. “No, I can’t. I thought the two of you were playing some kind of trick on me this morning. Oh, Logan.”
He stood and hugged her, then went to the barn to change clothes and shift so he and Archer could run together. As the rest of the family sat on the porch, Amelia—who was also a shifter—shook her head.
“If he hadn’t gone through what he did a few weeks back, he probably never would have been able to do this. All this time…”
“It’s hard to think about him losing the cat, especially now,” Emma confessed. “He’d accepted it. I never saw real regret in his eyes when you all would shift. But now, I wonder.”
Owen patted her hand. “I think he’d made his peace with it. He’s happy, no doubt in my mind about that, and he has been since you two got married. But sometimes you don’t know how much you miss something until you get it back after you think you’ve lost it and you’ve accepted that loss.”
When they’d finally run enough, the brothers shifted and got dressed, then made their way up to the farmhouse. Logan was still smiling, even though he was rubbing his hip. Archer was as relaxed as Emma had seen him… well, since ever.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
He kissed her hard. “Human again, if that makes sense. And starving to death.”
They all laughed, and Sarah waved a hand toward the door. “Sandwich fixings are laid out in the kitchen, boys. Help yourselves.”
That night when they were home, once again wrapped around each other in bed after making love, Emma propped herself on an elbow and studied him.
She shook her head and traced his scar, which had healed quite a bit more since the previous night, one of the benefits of being a shifter. “Just thinking. Feeling beyond grateful for everything we have.”
“It’s a lot,” he said, touching her face. “I was scared to death this morning. I didn’t know what was happening at first. I kept thinking ‘I can’t go out this way. I can’t do this to Emma, to Sydney.’ And then I shifted, and if a cat can cry, I did. Did you see Logan’s face, Em?”
“Oh, yes. Daddy said this morning that you’d made your peace with losing the cat, but I don’t think Logan ever did. You gave him a part of his heart back today.”
He pulled her down and kissed her forehead, then tucked her under his chin. “I love you. Thanks for calling him.”
“You are very welcome. And I love you, too. I’m so glad you fought for us, did I ever tell you that? That you never gave up on Sydney and me? On our family?”
Archer rolled them so that she was on her back, then gently placed his hand over her belly. “You tell me every day.”
The look they shared was more intimate than words, deeper than a touch.
Emma smiled and ran a hand through his hair. “My very own big cat.”
“Forever and ever,” he whispered as he lowered his head. “Amen.”
Excerpt copyright T. L. Haddix.
All Rights Reserved.
Sunday morning, Joely hit the hotel’s gym to do her morning yoga routine. She’d walked into the hotel last night expecting to grab a room and crash, but when she’d reached the front desk, she’d been stunned to find her brother Jason checking in. As his room was a double, they’d ended up rooming together.
As much as she’d wanted to know what in the heck was going on, considering that Jason had been married barely over a year and by all rights should be home in his own bed, she hadn’t had the energy to find out. She hardly remembered the ride up in the elevator or changing into her pajamas in the bathroom. If she’d moved after she’d hit the bed, she couldn’t tell it.
Jason had still been tucked up in his bed when she woke up, and feeling the need to move after having been cramped up in a flying tin can for so long, she’d headed to the gym. She’d had the place to herself until about ten minutes ago when a spray-tanned and well-coiffed man had joined her. He’d been eyeing her rather blatantly, but thus far as he lifted weights, he hadn’t approached her. When Jason came in dressed in running gear five minutes later, her relief was almost palpable.
“What time did you wake up?” He got on one of the treadmills and started it up.
“About an hour ago,” she said, taking the treadmill beside him. “Wanna race?”
Jason glanced at her. “You think you can keep up with me?”
Joely shot him a cocky grin. “I’ve been working on myself since you saw me last. Come on, old man. Let’s see what you have.”
And they were off. Fifteen minutes later, she was gaining on him when his phone rang. He hopped off the treadmill with a shrug and a “what can you do” grin, and Joely rolled her eyes. She slowed down, stopping in time to hear the tail end of his conversation. The sour expression on his face surprised her.
“Who in the world was that? You look like you’ve sucked on a lemon.”
“Gordon’s brother, Garrett.”
Joely’s interest ratcheted up. One of the perks of coming home was the idea of meeting Garrett Gordon. She’d known his brother for a couple of years now, and she’d never hidden the fact that she thought he was gorgeous, teasing him by calling him “the hottie.” The nickname never failed to get a laugh from Stacy, his wife, and Joely used it as often as she could. That it flustered the otherwise confident former FBI agent was whipped cream on top of the sundae.
Galen, known simply as Gordon to just about everyone aside from his brother and his wife, was a member of the extended Hudson family by proxy. He’d gone to law school with Chase, and last spring, he’d married Detective Stacy Kirchner. He was Garrett’s older brother by ten years, and as she understood it, it was only after they’d become adults that the two men had formed a relationship.
As Stacy and Joely were friends, they’d kept up with each other online after Joely left for college. While she’d heard quite a bit about Garrett, Joely had never met him. That said, Stacy swore he bore a striking resemblance to Gordon, which intrigued Joely. The pictures she’d seen showed only a slight resemblance, but Stacy assured her it was much stronger in person. And Garrett’s four-year-old daughter, Emma, bore an even more marked resemblance to Gordon.
Jason took a shower first, then hurried downstairs to the breakfast area where he was scheduled to meet Garrett. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to see the mysterious man for herself, Joely rushed through her own shower and got dressed in the warmest clothes she had with her—a pair of thick leggings under cotton trousers and a tunic-style, long-sleeved shirt. She pulled her hair up and back in a clip, grabbed her key card and her tea kit, and headed downstairs. She hoped to have some time to interrogate Jason about what was going on with Carrie before Garrett showed up.
When she reached the breakfast area, she saw that Jason had a full plate of food in front of him. She grabbed a mug with some hot water and a small dish of fruit and joined him.
“What’s that?” he asked as she started building her cup of tea using medicinal herbs.
“Ayurvedic tea. Want some? I drink it every morning.”
She’d radically changed her diet after arriving in India and getting very sick, so sick that she’d been hospitalized for over a week. Given her mother’s penchant for overreacting where she was concerned, Joely had figured that as soon as Jackie heard, she would have had someone from the U.S. consulate there to extract her from the wilds of India. Either that or Joely herself would have gotten a long lecture on how she had brought the illness down on her own head. So she’d not mentioned it to them. Telling them now was not something she was anticipating.
Jason was eyeing the dried herbs with suspicion. “I’ll pass, thanks.”
“So what’s going on with Carrie?”
As they ate, he brought her up-to-date on the inquiry into Ron Smith’s death, which had turned into a homicide investigation. They were in the middle of an intense discussion when a dark-haired man walked into the room, then headed their way.
Joely sucked in a breath. Stacy hadn’t been kidding. She’d have known him as Gordon’s brother anywhere. And damn the luck, he was just as attractive as Gordon, perhaps even more so. She struggled to hide her reaction, not wanting Jason to see how flustered the simple sight of the man had made her.
As he approached the table, his scowl deepened. She realized how it must look, her sitting so close to Jason in the lobby of a hotel this early in the morning. At least for a split second, until she figured he had to know who she was. His words as he sat down dispelled that notion, however.
“Does she know you’re married?” Garrett asked.
A flash of true anger flared in Jason’s eyes. “Excuse me?”
“Yes, she knows he’s married. She was in the wedding,” she told Garrett, deciding to tease him a little. His eyes were a bright, sparkling blue, sapphire and brilliant. She leaned forward, smiling at him coquettishly even as she gave an internal whimper of appreciation. “So you’re the hottie’s brother. It’s a shame your eyes aren’t green like his.”
Liar, she told herself. Garrett’s eyes were compelling, and she almost felt entranced as she watched him watch her.
One of his eyebrows went up. “I’m assuming you mean Galen?”
God, even his voice was sexy. She’d seen purple prose in romance novels that described the hero’s voice as gravel over silk or some such, but she’d always discounted that sort of flowery language. But hearing Garrett… she could listen to him read the phone book. He had a low timbre to his voice and just a hint of a Southern drawl.
There was little doubt in her mind the man sitting just across the small table was dangerous for her equilibrium, and that made keeping her cool even more vital. Going along with her role as the ingénue, she nodded. “The hottie. Yes.”
Garrett’s eyes narrowed, and for a split second, speculation flickered in his gaze. “He’s married, too. You’d do well to remember that. My sister-in-law doesn’t take kindly to other women getting too familiar with her husband.”
Joely sighed dramatically. “You’re single, though, right?”
What was your name again?
I’m terrible with names. I didn’t used to be, but once I hit about thirty, it seems that all the room in my head set aside for names has been shifted to cover other things… I’m not sure what exactly, but it’s probably something useful like knowing how to swallow food without choking. Or how to spit words out backwards. It’s definitely that–I’ve become a real pro at that the last few years.
Regardless, this can make for some interesting times when you write two series with enormous casts. In other words, I like the same names for people. And I use the same names. Unintentionally.
I finished the fifth Shadows/Leroy book before starting the second Firefly Hollow book. And in that fifth Shadows book, we meet Garrett Gordon. Garrett’s daughter is named Emma, and her mother was named…Rachel. Well, if you read Firefly Hollow, you’ll recognize those names. Owen and Sarah Campbell have three daughters, who were named AFTER I wrote Shadows #5. Two of their names? Emma and Rachel.
*insert first facepalm here*
I didn’t realize this until I went back and picked up writing on the Shadows series. So now, I’m not only confusing myself by having Garrett have a four-year-old named Emma (versus Emma having a four-year-old named Sydney), Rachel is Emma’s mother. We don’t meet the unfortunate Rachel in the Shadows series as she is deceased (and has been since before we met Garrett, even.) But it’s still a bit confusing.
Just for kicks and giggles, there is Gordon. Galen Gordon. Garrett’s older brother. The only people who call him Galen and get away with it are his brother, his wife, and his former mother-in-law. To everyone else, including the readers, he’s Gordon. But wait! There are now TWO Gordon males living in my Olman County. Two! So I’m going to have to poke some fun at myself by having another character call out “Gordon,” only to get both men’s attention. And someone will remark sourly that a person could get confused. Know, when and if you read that scene, the person truly confused is… me.
I have a note at the beginning of the manuscript for my editor to watch out for Garrett being called Gordon. ‘Cause, you know. I’m addled. And ditto for Emma to be Sydney in this one. Same reason.
There are several other instances of names crossing over but most of them are minor characters that we don’t (hopefully) have to worry about. And I do plan, as soon as I get off this deadline I’m on right now, to sit down and make a little wiki that I can post on the website which lines everyone out. Mostly me, ‘cause I’m addled.
Now, it would be bad enough if my scatterbrainedness was only in the fictional world. It isn’t.
I recently had replied to one of y’all on Facebook wherein I completely hosed up your name. (DeAnn, you are not LeAnn. I know this. I do apologize.) It wasn’t personal. I just had a brain spasm. I kept thinking “don’t you type LeAnn. Don’t you do it.” So what’d I do? Typed it and hit enter before I could backspace.
*insert second cringing facepalm here*
I’ve been known to call one of my aunts and ask her how her husband, Fred, was doing. Yeah. Fred’s not her husband. I don’t think I even know any Freds. No idea.
Glendon, my hubby? He’s been called everything from his name to some weird mix of names that doesn’t make sense, depending on what I have on my mind that day, to the cats’ names, to Ethan. Gordon. Yep. Owen once, I think.
Our cat Squiddles, she has thyroid disease. That means she is HUNGRY. All The Time. She woke us up squalling one morning when we didn’t get up fast enough to suit her. (Thank God for automatic feeders, you know?) I remember responding to her with a loud “Shut up, Bill!”
To which end hubby comes fully awake, sits up in bed, and looks at me to ask, somewhat irately, “Who’s Bill?”
There’s a roundtable show we watch. One of the commentator’s name is Bill (or former commentators as he is no longer on the show.) And everyone was always picking on him. I was dreaming I was on the panel (yeah, let’s not go there) and so Squiddles became Bill. Hey, the rest of the panelists chorused it with me.
I got funny looks from hubby for days after that.
So if you and I ever encounter each other in the real world and I don’t know your name (or my name – it could happen and wouldn’t surprise me in the least), please don’t take it personally. I’m just an addled writer with an addled brain, trying to remember what I came in the room for. 😉
As promised, here is the excerpt to the upcoming Firefly Hollow installment, Cricket Cove. This is Amelia’s book, and is slated for release in early-mid February.
If you are a cat lover or know someone who is, please, please take a few moments to go here and read this post. You could save a cat’s life.
~ *~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The scene played out in front of her as though it were a movie. Candles gave the room a warm, intimate glow. The couple on the bed was completely wrapped up in each other. They were mostly naked, and his dark hair contrasted against her fairness.
The heat was delicious, unbearable. His touch roamed her body with hands that were warm and slightly rough. The feel of his exhalation in the hollow of her throat, then of his lips trailing down her chest, caused her own breath to hitch. His lips started to close around her nipple, and she arched her back with a moan.
Amelia Campbell came awake with a start, the gasp of pleasure still caught in her throat. For several stunned seconds, she sat in her dark bedroom, propped up on her elbows, trying to clear her head. When she realized she’d been dreaming, she let herself fall back onto the mattress with a frustrated growl.
Even in sleep, Logan Gibson was driving her nuts.
He’d felt so real this time. So solid, so warm, so… sexy. Realizing sleep wasn’t going to come again easily, she threw the covers back and got up. It was after three a.m., and she had really hoped to get a solid night’s rest tonight, but apparently that wasn’t in the cards.
“Third time this week. I’m going to have to do something about this if it continues,” she muttered as she went into the bathroom. The house was cool, the mid-November weather starting to stamp out the last remnants of the unusually warm fall they’d had. She had yet to turn the heat on, though she had used the fireplace a few times, but if it got much cooler, she’d have to flip the switch.
In the kitchen, she got the milk out along with the cocoa, sugar, and vanilla. As she stood at the stove and waited for the hot chocolate to heat, she ran a hand across her tired eyes. Between her writing duties, filling in for her sister-in-law Zanny while she was on maternity leave, and planning her sister Emma’s wedding to Logan’s brother, Archer, Amelia was beyond tired and approaching exhausted.
Normally she could have handled all three projects with one hand tied behind her back. But thanks to the stalker she’d apparently picked up, she was feeling nervy. As a result, her sleep had been completely disrupted in the last few weeks, and she was starting to feel it. Without even trying, she’d lost five pounds. So far no one in her family had commented, but she knew if she lost much more they’d say something. With that thought in mind, she grabbed the heavy cream from the fridge and added a healthy dollop to the small cooker.
Just thinking about her stalker made Amelia’s hands clench. She had a good idea of who he was—Roger Mullins, husband of her best friend, Lori. He didn’t like Amelia, never had, and he wasn’t happy that Amelia was trying to get Lori to leave him.
Amelia didn’t care. He was abusive, both verbally and physically, and he’d caused Lori to have several miscarriages over the not-quite-three years they’d been married. Lori’s parents were just as determined to break the two of them up as Amelia, but so far none of them had been able to budge Lori.
She felt perilously close to giving up. Every time she’d think she made a step forward, Roger would figure it out and change his attitude just long enough to make Lori think he’d reformed.
“At some point, this is going to become a futile battle that’s going to drag on until we’re old,” she muttered. “Though with the stalking…”
Amelia had done research on stalkers and on abusive spouses. She was fully aware the statistics were not good for Lori, and that the fact that Roger was now stalking her meant he was escalating in his boldness. It meant he was starting to turn his attention to Amelia, and as much as she tried to brush it off, the change scared her.
She took the hot chocolate to the door, hating the fact that she hesitated before unlocking it. She’d grown up at the top of the mountain and had spent a good portion of her childhood tooling around at her uncle and aunt’s house just up the road from where she now lived. She should have felt safe, and she loathed Roger for taking that security away from her.
After a cautious visual inspection of the yard around the trailer, she stepped onto the porch and made her way to the comfortable swing on the end near her bedroom. She curled her feet up underneath her with a sigh, letting her robe cover them, and wrapped her hands around the mug. The moon was full and the creek across the road glistened in the moonlight. It gurgled soothingly, quietly, but even the calming sound didn’t work at relaxing her.
She closed her eyes, letting the sound of the creek wash over her. As much as the stalking disturbed her, thinking about that was almost preferable to letting her mind drift to Logan.
Six-feet-two-inches of solid muscle, with slightly curly hair that was almost blue it was so black. Grey-green eyes that reminded her of moss-covered cliffs in winter, and a chiseled face that was saved from being too beautiful only by the presence of a scar bisecting his left cheek. He was the most exasperating, attractive man she’d ever met in her life, and he drove her to distraction.
For the last five years, Amelia had heard about Logan Gibson. His brother Archer had joined the family five years earlier. A mechanic who worked with her uncle, Jack Browning, Archer had come to the family’s Fourth of July celebration. Amelia had immediately connected with him despite their age difference, and she’d adopted him as a third older brother. Almost as soon as they’d forged their friendship, Amelia had seen that Archer was drawn to her sister, Emma. She’d spent the last five years waiting for a chance to push the two of them together. This past summer the time had finally been right, and after a rocky and tumultuous courtship, they were engaged. The wedding was in a matter of weeks, as neither Emma nor Archer wanted to wait long.
Given what she knew about Logan, Amelia had expected his personality to be similar to Archer’s, only quieter. More solemn. She’d been dead wrong. Instead of the easygoing, mischievous, laid-back sweetheart her sister was marrying, Logan was a surly, grouchy, self-righteous grump.
At least with her.
The same man who seemed to disapprove of her very existence was charming and polite to her sisters. He’d even unwound enough to joke with them at Archer’s birthday party a few weeks earlier. It was only when he interacted with Amelia that he turned into an unpleasant ogre. Not one to back down from a challenge, Amelia gave as good as she got. Being the youngest of five siblings had taught her a few things, after all. Every chance she got, she needled Logan.
Archer had been stunned by their grating interactions with each other, and Amelia had caught similar questioning looks from other members of her family.
“Pip, you can get along with anyone. But not him. What in the world?” Archer had asked after one particularly biting exchange that had her stomping off in the opposite direction of Logan.
It was true. The only person she’d ever not gotten along with, Logan aside, was Roger. And it wasn’t that she thought Logan was like Roger. She didn’t. But his attitude pushed every button she had, and she couldn’t resist pulling his tail.
The fact that he was the most attractive man she’d ever met in her life only made things worse.
Amelia was known amongst friends and family for being something of a Cupid. Her father, Owen Campbell, suspected it was one of her abilities. In a family with an assortment of unusual talents and “gifts,” hers wasn’t too shocking. Since she’d turned sixteen, she’d paired up ten couples who had gone on to become engaged or get married. Her mother laughed because guys who started out flirting with Amelia often ended up happily settled down with her friends and were left scratching their heads as to how it had happened.
She’d gone on dates, of course. All her other responsibilities aside, Amelia had an active social life. She’d even had a serious boyfriend once upon a time, but that had ended in disaster. So even though she was twenty-two years old and still a virgin, she kept a safe distance between any man she dated and her heart. She let them know up front that she was only interested in friendship.
The truth was that ever since her heart had been broken when she was nineteen, she’d never met a man who tempted her to let her walls down, emotionally or physically. She had always thought she’d just know when she met the man who was “it” for her, like her parents and grandparents had before her, like her brothers had with their wives. It hadn’t happened, and eventually, she’d stopped expecting it to.
But then there was Logan. And dear God, she was tempted. Sometimes it felt like she was holding back the force of a dam with one finger, having to be near him and not touch him. She’d honestly thought the first time she had seen him that she’d been electrocuted. Every part of her body had lit up, and she was stunned he hadn’t noticed. Astronauts in outer space should have been able to see her attraction.
So she avoided any sort of touch with him, even the most casual. That was something else that hadn’t gone unnoticed within the family. Amelia was a hugger, always had been. But she kept a careful distance between Logan and herself.
Amelia wasn’t sure what to do about it. She figured at first that she would just ignore it and the zing would go away. But it hadn’t. It had leveled out some, yes, so that it wasn’t almost painful to be in the same room with him. But she could still tell without looking when he walked in. She didn’t like the sensation one bit.
More than anything, her attraction to the man was embarrassing. If she’d had any hope there was a chance the two of them might have a romance at some point it wouldn’t have been so bad. But thanks to a conversation she’d overheard, she was painfully aware of what Logan thought about her. Even now, weeks later, remembering brought a stinging blush to her cheeks.
She’d been at the homeplace in the hayloft of the barn, having gone there for some solitude and quiet. Archer and Logan had apparently decided to stretch their legs, and she’d watched from the window as the two of them came toward the barn. Though Logan was dark where Archer was fair, there was no denying they were brothers. The way they walked was strikingly similar, even with Logan’s limp. He’d just moved to Hazard after leaving the Army, where he’d been nearly fatally injured earlier in the year. Though the wounds were mostly healed, a faint limp remained.
When they came inside so Archer could show Logan around, she’d thought about speaking up. But she didn’t expect them to stay long, so she’d kept quiet. Her head was throbbing from having stayed up very late the night before, and she closed her eyes, hoping they’d soon leave.
Instead, they’d started talking. When the conversation had been about her, she’d not known how to react. Humiliation and pain had frozen her in place.
“How’s this?” she heard Archer ask.
Logan let out a sigh that was audible even from a distance. “Perfect. Thanks.”
“Yeah, it was just a little too close in there. That’s a noisy bunch you’ve affiliated yourself with. You looking forward to officially being tied to them?”
“You know, I really am. Pip likes to tease that they adopted me years ago, and I feel like they did. But it will be nice to have it on paper. To be able to point to Emma and Sydney and say ‘that beautiful woman and her daughter are mine and I belong to them.’” He paused briefly. “So is it just the crowd that made you so tense? Or is it something else? Someone else?”
Logan hesitated. “I’m just feeling a little hunted, that’s all.”
“Your Pip. I can’t leave the room without her following me. I feel like I’m back in high school again. She’ll be asking you to pass me notes soon at this rate.”
Archer coughed. “I beg your pardon?”
“What are you saying? That I’m imagining it? You’re the one who called her a Cupid.”
“Yeah, but she’s not… Pip isn’t chasing after you. But if she were, would getting caught be such a bad thing?”
“Yes, it would.” Logan half-growled the words. “You know what I think about her. She’s all fluff, very little substance. And that dress she’s wearing today? Farm girl meets sex kitten? It’s sad, like a little girl playing dress up. She’s trying to imitate her sisters but she can’t quite pull it off. She’s a pale imitation. She’d do better just going back to her usual self, the jeans and jerseys. At least she wouldn’t look so ridiculous then.”
Amelia looked down at the comfortable sundress she wore underneath a light cardigan. It was an outfit she’d worn at least a dozen times over the past year. She could see the farm girl comparison, but sex kitten? If she hadn’t been so hurt, she would have laughed.
There was a long silence down below, then Archer finally spoke. “I don’t know what to say to that, other than you have your head up your ass. Amelia isn’t like that. She’s not wearing anything she doesn’t usually wear.”
“What about her makeup? Seriously, did she put it on in the dark?”
“What the hell is your problem? She’s done nothing to deserve this kind of derision from you. And she’s not wearing much makeup. She hardly ever does.”
“She’s just like Mom. Irresponsible, only concerned with the moment. She has a brain in her head but she doesn’t use it. And you might not think she’s chasing me, but damn it, Archer, I know what I know. Can’t she find a man any other way than to trap him? Corner him into compliance? Maybe that works with the boys around here, but I’m not giving in to her machinations.”
Silent tears tracked down her cheeks, and her hand came up to cover her mouth. She could hardly believe what she was hearing, and from the anger in his voice, Archer was right along with her.
“If you weren’t my brother and I didn’t know you don’t believe that, I’d knock you to the ground for saying what you just did.” Archer’s voice was so low, it vibrated. “You haven’t even known her for two weeks.”
“I’ve seen enough.”
“You stupid ass. Amelia is one of the most responsible women I know. If you took the time to actually see her and not some warped version of what you believe to be true about her, you’d be sick knowing how wrong what you just said is. But you’re attracted to her, and you’re chicken-shit afraid of her. And that’s just wrong, Logan. You need to fix it.”
“I’m not attracted to her. I don’t go for little girls. I like real women. You know that. And she doesn’t come close to qualifying as such.”
Amelia bit the heel of her hand so hard she almost broke the skin. The words and tone were so close to what Jimmy had said to her the night they’d broken up she could hardly bear it. If they didn’t leave soon she was going to give her location away. There was no way she could hold the pain back much longer.
When Sydney hollered for Archer from a short distance away, Amelia’s eyes closed with relief. The men left the barn, no more aware of her presence than they had been when they walked in.
For long, long minutes she stayed where she was, perfectly still, afraid that if she moved she’d break into splinters of pain. She waited until she was certain they were far enough away from the barn, then cautiously crept down the ladder. She cut out through the rear door and sprinted for the woods, then hit the much-traveled path that led down the mountain to her trailer.
She called back to the farmhouse when she got home and told her mother that she’d had to change clothes.
“I’m really not feeling that well. I think I’ll lie down and take a nap. Try to get rid of this headache.”
Sarah Campbell’s voice was concerned, but she hadn’t pushed. “Okay, sweetheart. Just call if you need us.”
Archer took Logan to the airport a couple of days later, and thankfully Amelia hadn’t had to see him again. That had been a few weeks ago, and she’d had time to school her emotions. He’d be returning soon, and she’d just have to deal with him.
When she’d heard from an excited Archer that Logan was taking a position at the local vocational school and would be moving to Hazard by the end of November, she’d wanted to howl with frustration. Even shifting into the wolf that was her spirit animal and running herself stupid hadn’t helped. She’d gone on an hour-long run before bed this evening and every night this week, and it hadn’t done a bit of good.
“You’ve put up with Roger and his shenanigans. You can deal with Logan. Eventually you won’t even remember what he said,” she told herself as she finished off the last of the cocoa.
It was just too bad she didn’t believe that for an instant. No, something told her she’d be hearing his words in the back of her mind for a long, long time to come. She kept second-guessing herself when she dressed for the day, trying to determine if she was dressing inappropriately or not. For a couple of weeks after he’d gone, she was afraid to put makeup on. If she hadn’t been working at the photography studio she wouldn’t have. And she hated that she’d let him have that much power over her.
For the first time in her life, she was truly jealous of her sisters. Being the youngest of five, with her nearest-in-age siblings being two beautiful, accomplished women, it would hardly have surprised anyone if Amelia had self-esteem issues. For one thing, both Emma and Rachel were stunningly beautiful, whereas Amelia could only be considered cute or pretty. They were both quite a bit taller than her, too. Rachel was five-foot-seven, and Emma five-foot-ten. Amelia was barely five-foot-three, and she was curvy. She wasn’t fat or even overweight, but she had what her grandmother called a “womanly” figure.
She was blond, but both of her sisters had dark hair, though Emma’s had a warmer tone than Rachel’s. And they could stop men on the street with a smile. She’d seen it happen. Emma and Rachel could make a man think about sex without even trying. Amelia made them think about home-cooked meals and nurturing. She knew that. Enough of her male friends had told her as much.
Despite that, until Logan had come along and said what he did, Amelia had never felt second-rate. Except with Jimmy, and she’d long since learned that was a time best forgotten.
“It’s enough to give a girl a complex,” she told the moon with a tired yawn. “And these stupid dreams…”
Perhaps the worst part about the dreams was that, aside from what she could do for herself, there was no way she could gain any relief. She just wasn’t the kind of person who sought out strangers or friends and had casual, uninhibited sex. Her parents and older siblings, the still-single Rachel not included, had set the bar pretty high for happy, meaningful relationships. And as much as she protected her heart, Amelia wanted to belong to someone. She longed to have someone to share her life with. She wanted it desperately, more than she wanted anything. If Logan had reacted with even half the animosity toward her that he’d exhibited so far, she would have made a play for him. But given his words that day in the barn, it was out of the question. She’d sell herself on a street corner first. It would be less demeaning.
Standing, she stretched the kinks out of her back and hips. She’d run fast and hard earlier that evening, and soreness was her reward. The last thing she wanted to do was return to her empty bed but she had to be up early in the morning to meet her sisters and Zanny for a trip to Lexington, to look for wedding and bridesmaids dresses.
She looked over her shoulder at the creek and the field that stretched out toward the opposite mountain. The landscape was stark, quiet, cold. Just like her bed and her heart. Logan wasn’t for her as much as she wished he were. For a few seconds she let herself imagine what it would be like to go back to bed, to find him there, to curl up next to his side and feel him tuck her in close. To be loved. The sharp pang of longing that wound its way down her body brought tears to her eyes.
She no longer had any faith that such a happy ending was in her cards. Every bit of hope that hadn’t been stomped out by Jimmy years earlier had died that day in the barn.
Tomorrow she’d wake up and be Pip, the cheerful, optimistic baby sister. She’d put on the face her family expected to see, and for the most part, she’d fill the role honestly. But tonight she felt old and brittle. And what scared her most of all was the growing hopelessness that she felt. She worried that the darkness inside might take over her daylight self one day and then she’d cross a line she’d never come back from.
Amelia wasn’t the only one having a restless night. Several hundred miles away in Virginia, Logan Gibson was sitting at a table in an all-night diner trying to drink enough coffee to drive away the demons that plagued him.
“Nightmare?” Sal Hudson, the diner’s owner, asked as he came over to refill Logan’s coffee cup.
“Yeah. Same ol’, same ol’.”
Sal sat down with a grunt. “They’ll fade with time. Doesn’t help you much in the here and now, though.” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, then offered the pack to Logan, who declined. “You packed up yet?”
“Yeah. All I had was a couple of trunks. I head out day after tomorrow.”
Sal tapped his lighter on the Formica table. “Going to see your buddy tomorrow?”
Logan nodded. He saw understanding and pity in the older man’s eyes. A Vietnam vet, Sal knew all about survivor’s guilt. “His fiancée finally showed back up today. Says she’s back for good now. Came to terms with her new reality.”
Logan knew his voice was bitter but he didn’t care. His best friend, Colin, had been horribly injured in the same incident that had almost cost Logan his life last summer. They’d both been discharged with honors but Logan felt like he’d gotten off light. His injuries weren’t nearly as severe as Colin’s. And the two men were the only ones who’d survived the ambush on their unit. Six other soldiers had died that day. He and Colin, grateful as they were to be alive, were still trying to figure out why they’d been spared.
He and Sal talked for a few more minutes. When some men dressed in fatigues came in, Sal got up to take care of them. He laid a solid hand on Logan’s shoulder as he passed. Logan had been coming in the diner for several weeks now, and he and the older man had built a rapport.
With Sal gone, Logan’s thoughts went back to the letter he’d been penning. He’d gotten in the habit of writing his brother during stressful times, and even though he’d be arriving in Kentucky and moving in with Archer almost before this letter made its way through the postal system, the familiarity of the exercise calmed him.
I’m torn, he wrote. I know I’m doing the right thing by coming to Hazard but I hate to leave Colin by himself. I just don’t get a good feeling from his fiancée. She’s fickle. The kind of woman who would set Dad’s radar off from a mile away.
How are the wedding plans coming? I’ve heard those can get to be quite the headache. If you need to run away once I get there, we’ll go. We can hide out until the big day. With the annoying one in charge, I can’t imagine you’re getting much peace.
Logan stopped writing to take a sip of coffee. Amelia. The annoying one. Pip, as Archer and most of her family called her. A petite blonde bombshell full of energy and laughter, she was stunning and unexpected. She was younger than him by almost eleven years. His body didn’t seem to care about the age difference, and that indignity had set a torch to Logan’s temper, turning him surly at every encounter they had.
The first time he’d met her in person, he’d been blown away. Even dressed in a pair of jeans that had clearly seen better days, and an oversized baseball jersey that did nothing to hide her curves, she’d made him sit up and take notice. Her hair ranged from pale blond to deep, burnished gold, and cascaded halfway down her back in a wavy curtain. And her smile…
He’d been curious for years. Archer had shown him pictures, but a snapshot was hardly a good gauge of a person’s truth. And if he was being honest, Logan was expecting Amelia to someone he could be friends with. He already admired her for what she’d done for Archer. But the reality of her was the furthest thing from what he’d expected to find when he finally met her, and had thrown him off balance.
When he had received his first letter from Archer after his brother had connected with the Campbell family years earlier, Logan was intrigued. Most of the letters he’d gotten from Archer over the years were short, to the point, and written in simple, childish words that belied his brother’s intelligence. Archer was functionally illiterate, a guilt Logan carried that weighed heavily on his shoulders. But this letter had been different. The script was elegant and flowing, and its tone was almost chatty, full of responses to his own letter. Amelia had written it for Archer, the letter had disclosed, and Logan had wondered then if his brother was involved with her.
Curious, he had written back, and then eagerly awaited Archer’s response. He’d been subtle, digging without flat-out asking if they were dating. Over the next few letters, it became clear that while his brother was not involved with Amelia, he felt a great regard for the young woman. When Logan received the first full-length letter written by Archer himself, revealing that Amelia had been teaching him to read and write, the emotions had been almost more than Logan could bear. If he’d been able to get his hands on the girl he would have kissed her.
As time went on, Archer’s confidence grew. Logan could measure it by the contents of his letters. And when Emma Campbell and her daughter Sydney kept popping up in those letters, Logan started to get a sneaking suspicion about where his brother’s heart lay. Once he was injured and had returned stateside, those suspicions were confirmed. He’d been concerned, especially after Archer’s relationship with Emma had soured. After all, his brother’s first marriage had ended in disaster, literally—Candace had shot Archer and almost killed him. So as soon as he was able, Logan had traveled to Kentucky to find the truth for himself.
What he found was a warm, loving, boisterous family who’d accepted Archer as one of their own. Emma, instead of the seductress he’d half-feared her being, was head over heels in love with his brother. And Archer was happier than Logan had ever seen him, which had caused part of the guilt Logan had long carried over Archer’s childhood and young adult years to fade.
“I’m at peace. I feel like I’m finally where I belong and I’m doing what I should be doing, Lo. If I died tomorrow, I’d die a happy man.”
What made Archer’s peace more astonishing was the fact that when his ex-wife had shot him, she’d killed the mountain lion that was a part of him. Logan and Archer came from a long line of shape shifters, and that Archer could be so calm about the loss blew Logan’s mind. Logan had wanted to drive to the women’s prison where Candace was still housed and rip her apart. Archer had talked him down as they drove back to the airport in Lexington so he could fly home.
“I’m okay with it. And I know I should have told you sooner, but please believe that I didn’t mean to hide it from you forever.”
“But how can you really be so accepting?” Logan had asked. “That’s what I don’t understand.”
Archer was quiet, not answering for a few miles. “I was still pretty angry when I got to Hazard. But I got to know the Campbells, and I got to know Pip. She really helped me move past the anger, the grief. I thought I had but she realized I hadn’t. She made me face it in that gentle way she has. Made me not just see but believe I could be more. That I wasn’t defined by what had happened, by what I’d lost. That what was left was more important. And I guess I just healed.”
The brothers were both quiet, and after a while Logan shook his head. “I have a hard time reconciling what I know about her with the person I met. She just doesn’t seem to fit. I certainly didn’t expect her to be so damned annoying.”
Archer sighed, the sound tense. “You keep telling yourself that. You’ll regret it someday.” Talk had turned to other topics, a change for which Logan was grateful. They’d had an argument a couple of days earlier about Amelia, and he’d spent enough time thinking about her.
Like now, when he was trying to write Archer. He forced his thoughts away from the memory of the curve of her cheek when she smiled and the sound of her laughter, and back to his letter.
I’m planning to head out early day after tomorrow. That will come as no surprise to you, I’m sure. I might stop in Ashland, say hi to some old friends, but I’m just as likely to come straight in. Depends on how I’m feeling once I get there. The SUV is pretty comfortable for short distances, but we’ll see how she does on the open road.
Give Emma and my niece a hug. I’ll see you soon. Looking forward to rooming with you again until you get married. I’ll have to plan a bachelor party with Emma’s brothers, if for no other reason than it would annoy the Pip. I swear, she’s a conundrum. She’s a flighty little thing, but at the same time, a more disapproving woman I’ve never met, not outside catholic school. Does she wear a chastity belt? Maybe that’s the problem. She has one, and threw the key away. More likely she lost it. Someone needs to buy her a pair of bolt cutters for Christmas, so she can get rid of the thing and lighten up. But you didn’t hear that from me.
He realized as he sealed the envelope and put the letter in the mailbox that thinking about Amelia Campbell’s sex life, or lack thereof, just prior to trying to sleep probably wasn’t a good idea. As frivolous as she was, she’d been haunting his dreams ever since he’d laid eyes on her. Between Amelia and his frequent nightmares, he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. The knowledge did nothing to endear her to him.
“Maybe I should plan on stopping somewhere along the way for some old-fashioned R and R,” he mused as he walked back to his efficiency apartment. But his heart wasn’t in it. As frustrated as he was, the thought of exposing himself physically to a stranger, or even a friend, left him feeling raw.
Logan had come home scarred and wounded. He’d regained an astonishing amount of physical strength but his endurance was gone. His doctors told him it wasn’t likely to ever return. He couldn’t argue with them that he was a shifter and he healed differently from regular humans, so he kept his mouth shut. But he had a nagging worry in the back of his mind that they were correct. At least he still had his cat, though he hadn’t been able to fully shift yet.
Time would tell just how much he would heal. Even if he never regained his full physical abilities, he’d learn to deal with what he was left with. He hadn’t come this far to give up now. Besides, focusing on the pain of healing meant he had less time to focus on a young blonde he had no business thinking about in the ways that he did.
Amelia was late. She hated being late. It was rude, it was irresponsible, and most of the time it was entirely preventable. Today was an example of a good exception.
She’d gone to her car, coffee and keys in one hand, book satchel in the other, ready to go to work at the photography studio. She was running on time, which meant she was going to be a few minutes early. With any luck, she’d arrive in time to get a bear claw from the bakery next door before they sold out.
As soon as she saw her tires, she knew that bear claw was not in her cards today.
All four were flat.
“Okay, that’s odd.”
It didn’t take ten seconds for her to figure out how and why. When she unlocked her door to set her bag inside, the tire valve caps were lined up in a neat little row on the ledge in front of her odometer. All the air rushed from her lungs with a sickening wheeze.
There really wasn’t another explanation. Given their encounter in the grocery store the day before, she had been expecting something. But not this.
The first time she’d realized Roger was toying with her was the same day she’d met Logan for the first time. Almost a month ago, on her father’s birthday, Amelia had overslept. It was an unusual occurrence, to say the least. When she’d called up to the farmhouse at the top of the mountain and apologized, explaining that her power was off and the clock’s alarm hadn’t awakened her on time, they had told her they had power. So did her aunt and uncle who lived just up the road, almost within sight of Amelia’s trailer. That had been odd, but she hadn’t made the connection until she’d walked out into the yard to see Archer standing with Logan. They were discussing her power outage, which had apparently been caused by the quick connection having been knocked loose.
Whoever had disconnected the power had also taken her favorite pair of ratty sneakers, which she’d left on the porch after having gotten them wet the night before. Logan had discovered them tied together, hanging across the power line on the other side of the road.
The taunts hadn’t ended there. A few mornings later, she’d gotten up to find a small pile of white gravel on the rug at her front door. She came home from work a few days after that to a dark porch, and once she’d unlocked the door and set her things inside the house, she discovered that the lightbulb had been removed from the fixture. The globe had even been replaced.
Things were mostly quiet after that. She’d started to relax, thinking that maybe it had been kids after all. But then yesterday at the grocery store, she had turned the corner and her buggy had collided with someone else’s. The apology had died on her lips as she saw Roger’s smirking face.
“Well, well, well. Lookie here. Amelia Campbell. Fancy running into you.”
She was immediately suspicious. “Roger. Where’s Lori?”
He gave a negligent shrug. “Home. Not feeling well, as usual.”
Amelia knew he never let Lori go to the grocery store without him for fear that she’d speak to another man. And she knew Roger wasn’t the kind of husband who just went out and bought groceries for the family because his wife didn’t feel up to it. His cart was empty, save for a six pack of beer. The suspicion that he’d followed her into the store crawled into the back of her mind.
“I’ll have to stop by and see her, then. Has her mother been by to check on her?”
She didn’t miss the way his hands tightened on the handle of the cart or the way his mouth flattened into an ugly line. “I think it’s best if you stay away. She needs her rest right now, and seeing you always tires her out. I’ll be home the rest of the day with her, once I get back from the store and running errands, of course.”
Amelia’s heart crept into her throat. That meant he’d probably beaten Lori again. As soon as she could get to a pay phone she’d stop and call Lori’s mother, Christine. She tried to pull her buggy back, but he pinned her against the shelves again.
Undaunted, she raised her chin. “Then I’ll check in on her soon.”
Roger sighed. “You know, I wish you wouldn’t. She really does better when you aren’t around. We’ve had this discussion before.”
She brought her buggy back as far as she could, and then using all her strength, slammed it into his. The wire frames hit so hard, his tires left the floor.
“Temper, temper, little girl,” he half growled, jaw clenched. “Some man needs to teach you a lesson or two.”
The light that entered his eyes as he looked her over caused Amelia’s stomach to turn. “You listen to me, you stupid son of a bitch. One of these days you’re going to go too far. And when you do, someone’s going to rip your throat out. I just hope I’m there to see it.” She knew better than to antagonize him, but stretched as thin as she was, her caution went out the window. “You stay the hell away from me, and you keep your hands off Lori. If her father was able, you’d already be a dead man.”
Lori’s father, Edward, had undergone open-heart surgery the year before. He’d never fully recovered and Roger used the man’s illness to do whatever he wanted to Lori.
Taking advantage of the curiosity of a passing shopper, Amelia got her buggy loose from Roger’s and hurried past him. The mocking sound of his laughter had followed her down the aisle, and she barely managed to hold herself together long enough to pay for her order.
Now, standing beside her disabled car, she felt like crying. Alternatively, if Roger had suddenly materialized in front of her, she knew she would have killed him. Stretched to her emotional breaking point, she put her belongings in the car and unlocked the trunk to get the small compressor she carried out of her emergency kit.
“Thank you, Daddy, for putting this kit together.” She sighed as she plugged it into the cigarette lighter. The compressor was slow as molasses in January, but it would do the job.
By the time the four tires were aired back up and she’d washed up, she was going to be at least twenty minutes late getting to Emma’s. She called and left a message on the machine so her sister wouldn’t worry, then hit the road.
“I don’t know how in the world I’ll explain this. I don’t want to lie but I refuse to worry her,” she told the empty car when she stopped at a light. Aside from the power connection incident, she hadn’t said much of anything to anyone about what Roger was doing. She knew that wasn’t smart but she hated being a burden. It was one of her biggest faults, Amelia knew.
“If he does much more, I’ll have to tell Rick. He’ll know what to do.” Rick was her cousin, Jack and Gilly’s son, and a deputy sheriff. “I just don’t have any way of proving it’s Roger. As evil as he is, he’s smart.”
When she glanced to her right, she saw that the person in the car next to her was staring at her with suspicion. She laughed ruefully and shook her head. “I’m turning into a crazy person who talks to herself. Pretty soon I’ll be the old lady at the end of the street who has a houseful of cats. Ah, well.” The light changed, and with a quick wave, she pulled away from the other car.
She knew she couldn’t ignore Roger’s antics forever. She knew the time of putting his actions to the back of her mind was coming to a close. But today she just wasn’t up to facing the reality of what she was up against, what she’d gotten herself into by trying to defend her best friend. Admitting Roger was spooking her would be admitting a bitter defeat and she wasn’t strong enough to deal with that reality just yet.
When Logan and Archer walked into the Campbell farmhouse the Thursday evening before the wedding, they were met by a pacing Amelia. The planning binder he’d hardly seen her without since he’d moved from Virginia was tucked under an arm. Logan groaned.
“Sure you don’t want to just fly to Vegas?” he muttered to his brother as he slid his shoes off and set them in the line of shoes next to the door.
“I heard that. Don’t you even think about it, soldier boy,” she threatened. “I’ll string both of you up by your toes. We’re in the living room.”
His brows snapped together in a fierce scowl. Before he could bite back at her, Archer pulled her into a loose headlock.
“You know I wouldn’t ruin all your planning, Pip. He’s kidding. What do you have for us?”
“Some last-minute details, that’s all.”
“If we’re talking about flowers and dresses and frou-frou, I’m going home. I’m starving,” Logan commented as they followed her through the wide double doors.
“Oh, is that why you’re so grumpy?” she asked. “Your blood sugar is low and it’s making you cranky? I’m sure Sydney has some animal crackers she wouldn’t mind sharing with you.”
“Pip,” Archer warned under his breath. She didn’t respond, but she stopped with the biting remarks.
A round of hellos greeted them when they walked in. Archer waved at the couple sitting on the hearth in front of the empty fireplace. “Hey, Ben. Ainsley. When did you get in?”
“A couple of hours ago.” Emma’s twin brother and his wife lived in Lexington. “Getting nervous? Only a few days to go.”
“Nah. Excited. Where are the boys?” Archer asked.
“They’re upstairs playing, out of the way,” John, Emma’s oldest brother, answered from his seat on a second loveseat. His wife, Zanny, was beside him, feeding their infant daughter, Molly, with a bottle.
“You could go up there with them,” Amelia suggested to Logan innocently, her smile as fake as a three-dollar bill.
“It would probably be more fun than whatever you have planned,” he shot back.
“Oh, dear God, tell me they aren’t still at each other’s throats?” Emma asked Archer with a groan. “Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be bickering?”
Archer went to the loveseat where she was curled up with Sydney. “Absolutely not. That’s a myth.” He bent down and kissed her, then took the space beside her. The happiness on his brother’s face made Logan smile. The smile faded when he saw that the only empty seat was on the couch next to Amelia, and he gave an inward curse as he sat. He wondered if she had planned it that way, then decided it didn’t matter. He could sit anywhere in the room and she would still annoy the piss out of him.
“So, here’s where we are. We’ll start decorating the church and reception hall tomorrow.” For the next thirty minutes, Amelia went over the plans with an eye for detail and discipline that would have served her well in the military. He tried to pay attention to the words but the light floral scent she wore kept distracting him. As if that weren’t bad enough, they were sitting close enough on the couch that he could feel the heat of her along his right side. Their arms brushed several times during the discussion. Logan had worn his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow, and the tingles that ran along his skin when they touched made him regret that decision.
Just when he thought the talk was winding down, with Amelia having been distracted by a question Rachel had about the catering, Sydney got up and came over to him. She stood beside him for a minute, her head tilted.
His eyebrow quirked. “Yes?”
“Up, please.” Without waiting for his response she carefully climbed into his lap and settled down. She pushed her glasses up on her nose, then reached out with a small hand to do the same to his. Satisfied, she nodded once. Logan winked at her, and she giggled.
“Are you flirting with my daughter?” Archer teased.
Sydney sighed and laid her head on his chest. She patted him three times, then started toying with the buttons on his shirt. “Uncle Logan, I got a question for you.”
“Okay. Ask away.”
The little girl pursed her lips and blinked up at him. Logan could practically see the wheels turning in her head, and a glance at Archer told him his brother was waiting with bated breath to see what she would ask. Sydney was known for being precocious, to say the least. The question could be anything from wanting to know what was for dinner to asking where baby brothers came from. She’d hit him with that bombshell the first time he’d talked to her on the phone, and he’d stammered his way through an “I don’t know.” Fortunately she was five, and she’d bought it.
“Well, I know you got a kitty cat inside. Right? Just like my new daddy used to have, but his kitty cat went to sleep. Yours isn’t asleep, though. So when you turn into the kitty cat and somebody rubs your belly, do you purr? Noah’s pet kitty cat purrs when someone rubs her belly.”
An awkward silence spread across the room. Logan gave a slight shake of his head as though he weren’t quite sure what he’d heard.
“I beg your pardon?”
Sydney huffed, and her scowl was straight Emma Campbell. “When you’re a kitty cat, do you purr?”
Logan had no idea what to say. He looked at Archer, whose eyebrows were nearly to his hairline. Emma looked similarly astonished. Looking around the room, he saw that the only ones who didn’t seem surprised were her grandparents, Sarah and Owen. Owen was even shaking his head, half amused.
Emma straightened from where she’d been leaning against Archer. “Sydney, sweetheart, um… do you remember when we talked about what was okay to bring up and what wasn’t?” Emma asked gently.
Sydney bit her lip and turned to her mother. “Yes. But it’s just us here. Not strangers. And I’m not picking my nose or showing my bloomers.”
“Oh, boy.” Archer was fighting a smile. When Emma narrowed her eyes at him, he held up his hands. “This one’s all you.”
“Fine. You can handle her first boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend? She’s five!”
Logan coughed to hide his laugh at his brother’s horror. The narrowed look Archer sent him told him he hadn’t been entirely successful.
“You just wait. Someday you’ll have a daughter, and we’ll see who’s laughing then.”
“Oh, hell no. I’m not having kids. You know that.”
Emma rolled her eyes at their exchange. “She won’t always be five. Sydney, we don’t just ask people about their shifting abilities like that. Not everyone has an animal inside them and they wouldn’t understand. It might upset them. Okay?”
Sydney turned her face up to Logan. “Are you upset?”
“No, but your mom is right. Shifting is a secret.”
Her shoulders slumped with disappointment. “Okay, then. I won’t ask again.” She got down, dejected, and Archer held out his hands. She let him pull her into his lap, and he gave her a smacking kiss.
“Where did you hear about Uncle Logan’s kitty cat? Do you mind telling me?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t hear about it. I felt it.”
Archer frowned and exchanged a puzzled glance with Emma, who shrugged. “What do you mean?”
Sydney gave a half shrug. “I don’t know. It’s like when I listen to you here.” She tapped him on the chest. “I can feel that you used to have a kitty cat but it’s asleep now. And I can feel that he still does. When Aunt Zanny had Molly in her belly, I could feel her. And I can feel Aunt Ainsley’s baby, too. It’s just this big. It’s a girl, too,” she whispered as she held her fingers two inches apart.
The silence and shock that filled the room was almost palpable. As one, the family turned to Ben and Ainsley, who wore sheepish but pleased looks.
“Ben?” Owen asked quietly.
“We, uh, we weren’t going to say anything for a little while, but yeah. We’re pregnant.” He put his arm around Ainsley and kissed her temple. “We found out a couple of weeks ago.”
The laughter and tears that filled the room told Logan more than words that this pregnancy was a very unexpected, very welcome event.
Emma was the first to reach the couple, and she pulled both of them into a tight hug. “How?” she asked tearfully. “Have you been trying? IVF?”
Ben’s face turned red but he was laughing. “The usual way, and no. It just happened. We’ve been talking about adoption lately and then Ainsley started throwing up. We thought it was the flu.”
“This wasn’t supposed to be possible,” Ainsley said with a joyful smile. “We’d accepted that years ago. We’re not sure how it’s come to pass, but it has. Jonah said it happens sometimes, especially when a couple starts seriously exploring adoption.”
“Jonah’s a friend who’s also a doctor,” Archer explained when Logan looked to him questioningly.
The celebration over the joyful news disrupted the planning session so much that even Amelia had to concede defeat. “We might as well go in and eat. I don’t think any of us can focus on the wedding right this minute,” she teased as she hugged her brother.
After they sat down around the dining room table, plates full, Emma’s attention turned back to Sydney. “So tell me about this feeling you get, sweetie.”
The little girl shrugged. “It’s like a little tickle, right here.” She pointed to her own belly, down low. “And then when the baby gets bigger, the tickle gets bigger and then the baby kicks and stuff. Just like Molly. ‘Cept I don’t feel the kicks, just the tickle.”
Zanny cleared her throat. “When I first found out about Molly, before I told anyone, even John, Sydney kept running over to me for hugs. She’d put her head against me, then giggle and run away. I thought it was a game at the time, but… With this family’s abilities? Maybe it isn’t surprising that she can feel things.”
Everyone looked to Owen, who was studying his granddaughter with speculation. “I’ve come to the conclusion that anything is possible with this family. I grew up hearing about women who were healers, who could lay hands on a person and know what was wrong with them. I’ll do some digging.”
“I’m surprised you’ve not come across that kind of folklore before,” Rachel commented. “As many years as you’ve been doing genealogy and research.”
“I’ve seen some articles and journals that mention it, but that sort of thing was never at the top of my list. I know where to start, though.”
Sarah laughed from the opposite end of the table, her smile warm for her husband. “Does this mean we’ll be spending the night in the studio tonight while you do research?”
Owen’s answering smile was just as warm. “Maybe.”
Logan knew that Owen had a studio located a short distance away from the main house, set back into the tree line a bit. “Is that where you write?” he asked.
“And it’s Mom and Daddy’s getaway,” Amelia teased. “I’m surprised the two of you haven’t moved back out there now that we’re all out of the house, as much time as you spend there. I guess you’re showing Mom all your new sketches, hmmm?”
Owen reached over and tapped her on the nose. “Hush.”
Emma’s cheeky grin matched her baby sister’s. “I’m with Pip, here. I think we should be seeing a lot more books than what we do, as often as you need Mom’s ‘opinion’ on something.”
Their father looked down the table to Sarah, laughing helplessly, his cheeks flushed as teasing laughter sounded from around the table. “Daughters. I told you sons are easier, but no. You insisted on having girls, too. See what you’ve done?”
“Not by myself,” came the pert response. “And if Sydney is right, you’re about to be overrun by granddaughters, Owen Campbell.” He didn’t look too put out by the idea, if his happy grin was any indication.
“Yeah, what about that?” He looked to Archer and pointed. “Get busy on some grandsons, would you? After the wedding.”
Archer’s face turned red so fast, and he coughed so hard, Logan thought he was going to have to do the Heimlich maneuver on his brother. But he was laughing so hard himself, he didn’t know if he could do it if he had to. Around the table, most everyone was laughing along with him, enjoying Archer’s embarrassment.
When the laughter died down a little, Amelia looked at Logan with amazement.
“Oh, my God. You do have a sense of humor. Who would’ve thunk it?” She widened her eyes and batted her lashes at him from across the table. “Someone should take out an ad in the paper. Emma, where’s your camera?”
Emma couldn’t respond for the tears streaming down her cheeks. She snorted when she tried to answer and could only shake her head.
Logan scowled. “I have a good sense of humor, thank you very much. Just because I don’t think everything is a joke doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humor. Ow!”
Archer poked him in the side. “Cool it, dude. She has a point. You have gotten pretty serious.” His eyebrows were raised, his face set in a challenging look as he watched Logan.
“Yeah, well, where I’ve been the last few years, there hasn’t been a lot to laugh about.” He thought he heard Amelia mutter something about him having a stick up his ass and that not helping, but a quick frown from her father had her flushing and looking down at her plate.
“I guess I could tell them all about some of your more embarrassing moments from childhood,” Logan conceded to Archer. “Some of the stunts you pulled were pretty funny.”
For the rest of the meal, partly in an effort to smooth things over and partly to prove Amelia wrong, he kept them in stitches with exaggerated tales of Archer’s antics as a young boy.
“Be careful when he’s sick or if he, um, over-imbibes,” he warned Emma. “He has a tendency to strip down buck naked. When he was a little guy, it was all we could do to keep clothes on him. I think he finally grew out of it when he was about eight or nine.”
“That’s not true. I was much younger,” Archer protested indignantly. “And I’m not planning on ever over-imbibing again, you’ll be happy to know. I’m too old for that.”
Logan held back a smile when Amelia snickered from across the table.
“Turning over a new leaf, are you? Because I remember a day not that long ago when you had to take Aunt Gilly’s headache remedy.” She made a face at Archer and stuck her tongue out.
Archer made a face back. “Extenuating circumstances, you know that. When’s the last time you saw me… indisposed before that?”
She tapped her cheek with a finger and pretended to think. “Let’s see…”
“Uh-huh, you can’t think of anything can you?” Archer asked smugly after she had hemmed and hawed for a few seconds. “I’m the picture of sobriety. Most of the time.”
“Dang it, you are. This is why it’s so hard to roast you at your birthday. You just don’t get into trouble. Maybe Emma will be a positive influence on you.” Her smile showed how deep her affection for his brother was, and Logan wasn’t happy to feel a strong pang of jealousy. If she ever looked at him with that much love, he’d probably be incinerated on the spot.
After dinner they went back to the living room and wrapped up the planning. Archer walked Logan out to his car when they were finished.
“Thanks for backing off in there.”
Logan shrugged. “I don’t mean to get so short tempered around her. But she just irritates me to the point that I can’t seem to help it.”
Archer’s words floored him. “I think you’re attracted to her.” Denial instantly sprung to his tongue, but before he could protest, Archer continued. “I’m not happy about that, to be honest. I think if there was less animosity between the two of you, you might be a good match. But there’s so much anger there it worries me. I think you could end up hurting her. She’s not as irreverent and lighthearted as you seem to think, Lo. She’s been hurt a lot, as much as she’s the baby in the family, and has everyone protecting her. She’s very sensitive. And I’m glad you’re here but I don’t want to see the two of you tear each other apart. So be mindful, okay?”
More than his words, Archer’s serious tone spoke volumes. It gave Logan pause. “Is this about what I said a few weeks ago?”
“Partly. But it’s also because of the way the two of you seem to grate against each other. Amelia doesn’t react like that to other people. I’ve only ever seen her this defensive with one person, and that’s Roger. So I think there’s something else going on with her as far as you’re concerned, but I don’t know what. I can’t get her to talk to me. That’s also a first.”
Logan blew out a sigh. “You think it’s a defensive thing?”
“It’s the only explanation I can come up with that makes sense. Really, she gets along with everyone. She can give advice to people that most of us would get our heads knocked in for suggesting and then get thanked for it. I’ve seen her coax smiles from some of the most bitter, sour people you can imagine when she helps Emma out at the studio, and she does it with genuine warmth. But you…” Archer shook his head slowly. “I don’t know what’s going on there, and it worries me. It reminds me too much of how she was after she and Jimmy broke up a few years back.”
“Jimmy?” There was that damned flare of jealousy again.
“Long story. They were friends from childhood, he was Lori’s brother, they dated for a while. He cheated on her, got the other woman pregnant, finally grew enough balls to break up with Pip, and then promptly got killed in a car wreck. It changed her. She’s just in the last few months started acting like her old self again. It really shook the family up. They got to see a side of her I don’t think they knew existed.”
“I remember you writing something about that when it happened,” Logan said. “You were worried for a while.”
Archer nodded. “Emma and I didn’t think we were going to get her to pull out of it. I know it scared Emma nearly to death. She’d never seen Pip like that.”
Logan studied his brother. “But you weren’t surprised.”
A cloud of steamy breath rolled away from them as Archer exhaled. “I guess because I hadn’t known her all her life, I could see it. She wears this mask, this free-spirit persona. It makes a lot of sense if you know some things about her childhood. I think she does it because she doesn’t want to worry anyone, and yes, part of it is who Amelia is. She really is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. But there’s a deep well of loneliness hiding inside her, a darkness. When everything happened with Jimmy, she couldn’t hide it as much.”
Logan was uncomfortable with the revelation. He wasn’t about to tell his brother that Archer had guessed correctly, that he was attracted to Amelia. He certainly wasn’t going to confess to Archer that what he’d just said made things worse instead of better. As long as Logan could dismiss Amelia, he knew he wouldn’t even entertain the idea of an entanglement with her. But if he saw her as an adult, then she became that much more dangerous. And since they clearly wanted very different things from life, any sort of relationship beyond casual friendship could prove disastrous.
“I’ll try to keep a lid on it, but you’re going to have to get her to back off. I promise I won’t start anything, but if she pushes me too far, I can’t promise I won’t finish it.”
Archer nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. Hopefully some of this stress is just the wedding. Emma and I are the ones who are supposed to be keeling over from the tension, but Pip’s fighting to keep most of it off of us. No matter how much we try to do so she doesn’t have to. Speaking of, I’ll see you tomorrow around three at the church?”
“I’ll be there with bells on.”
That caused a wide grin to spread across Archer’s face. “I’d pay money to see that.”
“Yeah, well. See you tomorrow.”
His mind didn’t waver from Amelia and what Archer’s words meant, even in sleep. For most of the night he chased her through his dreams, only this time it wasn’t the erotic give and take he’d grown used to over recent weeks. This time they were running through a forest, the woods filled with thick fog that hid and revealed her in turn. She stayed several paces ahead of him and kept looking over her shoulder with an expression so full of hurt and sorrow that it left shards of sadness in Logan’s mind all through the next day. Like the shrapnel that had ripped into his body months earlier, the dream left bleeding tracks across his conscience.
He kept thinking about the accusations he’d carelessly flung at Archer in October, when they were in the Campbells’ barn. Archer had said then that Logan would be sick if he realized just how badly he’d misjudged Amelia. His brother was right. Logan was horrified.
“Thank God I said it in private. Archer would never tell her about that conversation. Still…” Guilt was eating at him as he thought about how dismissive he’d been. Ashamed of what he’d said, he let himself admit that he’d only been so defensive where she was concerned because he was deeply attracted to her. He had fought that attraction with disdain that she didn’t deserve, his instincts kicking in to protect him from a threat to his heart he knew was real.
Logan and Archer had lost their mother to a senseless accident when they were eight and six, respectively. Their father, Steve Gibson, had not dealt well with the loss. He drank too much, blaming Tamsin herself for dying.
“She was so damned impulsive, lost in her own world so much of the time,” he’d tell Logan bitterly as he drank himself into a stupor. “She was a dreamer and she didn’t think about how other people would be affected by her actions. Do you know how many times I came home from work and you boys were hungry or dirty and she was in her room, painting? Or to find that she’d gone outside to the garden and left a pot on the stove? Never trust a woman who’s like that, Logan. Sure as hell don’t have children with her. You boys will pay for the rest of your lives for my mistake. I never should have married your mother. I wish to God I hadn’t.”
As he got older, it was hard for Logan to hold on to the good memories he had of his mother. Her laughter, her lightness. Instead, his memories were poisoned by Steve’s vitriol. Logan had struggled through his own grief and loss to try to protect Archer from their father’s bitterness as much as he could, but it came at a high cost to his own self.
He rubbed a hand over the scar on his left cheek that Steve had given him a few weeks before his death. He’d come in from school one afternoon, determined to speak up to his father, to tell him to man up and get help. When he’d approached Steve with the speech he’d prepared, the man had struck out physically. In all the years, through all the misery, he’d never gotten physical with either of his sons. But he lashed out at Logan unthinkingly, the piece of metal in his hand slicing deep into Logan’s face.
Steve had apologized profusely, but the damage was done. Archer, underage, had driven him to the hospital. The ER staff had called the police, and a report had been filed. Steve had spent the night in the drunk tank, and after a stern talking to, had promised to reform. Logan was on the fence about pressing charges. He wanted to give his father the benefit of the doubt, at least this once.
Two weeks later, he’d walked in from school to find his father’s lifeless body stretched out across the bed he’d shared with Tamsin. He written a short note that stated simply he couldn’t live with the pain of her loss any longer, that his sons would be better off without him, and he’d stuck his .45 in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Logan knew Archer had never forgiven their father for the way he’d killed himself, for leaving them in such a mess, for dying in such a violent way without regard for whichever son found him.
Logan himself wasn’t so harsh on the old man. He understood that Steve had loved his wife too deeply, too much, to go on without her. Their father had died the same day their mother had. It had just taken his body eight years to catch up.
So with that knowledge planted firmly in his mind, Logan had sworn to never let himself be vulnerable to any woman the way his father had been. He’d had a string of relationships through the years that were superficial, lightly affectionate. If they showed any danger of becoming too deep, Logan backed out fast. He wasn’t promiscuous, and he didn’t treat sex lightly, but he had never been in any danger of becoming seriously involved with any of the women whose beds he’d shared.
He knew Amelia would be different. Contrary to his words weeks earlier, he knew she had substance. She was a dangerous package—physically, emotionally, in every way. He resented that she was so lighthearted because she made him want to be free, to not be weighed down by the past and his memories. She was the kind of woman a man could build a life with, could grow old with and still feel young. Soothing and warm and indescribably sexy all rolled into one small, perfect package. She made him want things he had no business wanting.
She was his worst nightmare, the perfect trap, and the attraction he felt for her wasn’t something he could slake with a casual friends-with-benefits relationship. Even if she wasn’t his brother’s best friend and his own soon-to-be sister-in-law, Logan would have run far and fast from the temptation that was Amelia Campbell. Because while no other woman had ever tempted him to let himself be caught, she did. And if he let her catch him and he lost her? He knew he wouldn’t be able to stand the loss. He’d be left a shell of a man, just like his father had been. And God forbid if they had children. The thought of going through what his father had made him shudder.
On top of that, if he got close enough to her to satisfy the physical urges she stirred in him but then pulled back, it could devastate her. He didn’t want to do that, and not just because of Archer. But because he didn’t want to hurt her. And that scared him most of all.
~ * * * SPOILER ALERT * * * ~
This excerpt is from “Hidden in the Shadows.” It’s comprised of the chapters where Beth and Ethan find out they’re pregnant. If you are bothered by spoilers, you may not want to read this post.
For those of you familiar with the storyline from HITS, this picks up after some of the news of the extortion letters has broken. It takes place not long after Ethan and Wyatt’s conversation in Wyatt’s kitchen, just a couple of days later. The picture of Beth hugging Raven has been posted on the town’s Internet forum, and Ethan’s parents have not reacted well, to say the least.
I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ethan had a bad feeling about attending his stepfather’s birthday dinner Saturday afternoon, but he was having no luck convincing Beth to stay home. “If they start in on you, I’m not going to stand for it,” he said as he pulled into his parents’ driveway.
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” When he turned off the engine, she slid across the seat and gave him a soft kiss. “If we don’t at least try, it could make things worse than they already are.”
She started to sit back, but he snagged the front of her coat and tugged her toward him.
“We could still turn around and go home. I’m feeling the sudden urge to lie down,” he murmured against her lips. He deepened the kiss, and after a couple of searing minutes, pulled back with a satisfied grin. A becoming flush had spread across his wife’s cheeks, and her gaze was a little unfocused.
She cleared her throat. “Nothing says we have to stay here for the entire party. I guess we could just offer our felicitations and head home.”
They both jumped when Ethan’s smiling brother-in-law tapped on the window.
“Wave at your uncle and aunt, Connor,” Eric told his two-year-old son, whom he held in his arms. The little boy complied as they got out of the truck. “We didn’t think the two of you were going to make it. Everyone’s inside.”
Ethan grabbed James’s present from behind his seat and closed the door. As they started for the house, he reached for Beth’s hand, needing the connection. “How’s Lina?”
Eric shot him an exasperated look. “Her usual charming self. No offense, but I’m glad I’m married to your other sister.”
“No offense taken. I guess you’ve heard about what happened?”
Setting Connor on his feet, Eric opened the door. “Go on inside, buddy. I’ll be in shortly.” He closed behind him before answering. “I’m sorry to say we’ve all heard about it. Honestly, if I were the two of you, I don’t think I’d be here today. And I’m sorry you’re having to endure this crap. Allison and I don’t believe it for a minute. If there’s anything we can do to help, please let us know.”
Beth squeezed Ethan’s hand. “Maybe we shouldn’t go in.”
Ethan agreed, but before he could speak, his mother was at the door. “Too late,” he muttered
Stella opened the door with a smile and gave him a hug. “Ethan! You came.”
She turned to Beth with a cool nod. “Beth.” Not waiting for a response, she started back into the house. “Don’t stand out here all day. We’re holding up dinner.”
Ethan sent Beth an apologetic look as they followed his mother. He helped her out of her coat, hanging it on the rack in the hall.
“Just go with it,” she told him, touching her hand to his back as they went into the dining room. An uneasy silence greeted them when they entered the room, and when Ethan saw that his and Beth’s chairs had been separated, his eyebrows drew together into a scowl. It was a not-so-subtle message and one he wouldn’t let ride. He turned to his nephew.
“Devon, you don’t mind scooting down one place, do you?”
“Nope.” The boy quickly moved to another chair, oblivious to the undercurrents in the room.
Handing James his present, Ethan gave him a tense smile. “Happy Birthday.” His stepfather thanked him as they eased into their seats.
There wasn’t much conversation as everyone filled their plates. After a couple of minutes, some of the tension in the room had abated. Surreptitiously, Ethan watched Beth put food on her plate. When she only took small portions, bypassing the mashed potatoes entirely, it was all he could do not to break into song and dance. His wife had a true weakness for mashed potatoes, and if those didn’t tempt her, something was definitely going on beyond the stomach flu.
Though she tried to hide it, Ethan caught the sound of her sharply indrawn breath as the creamed spinach was passed. With a tight face, she excused herself and headed down the hall to the bathroom. Glancing around, he saw that no one else had noticed, and he wasn’t about to enlighten them. His happiness was short-lived, however.
“I didn’t think she’d dare show her face here today.” Lina shot him a triumphant glance, and all around the table, utensils and drinks froze.
“Devon, take your sister and go to the living room. You can watch TV today while you eat,” James said. An ecstatic Devon quickly obeyed, the adults sitting tensely until the sound of the TV came on.
His movements very precise, Ethan folded his napkin and put it on the table, keeping his gaze on his sister’s face. “You are not going to start this. Not here, not today.”
Her lip curled into a sneer. “Oh, really? And why is that? Because you can’t stand to hear the truth? She’s been leading you around by the short hairs long enough. It’s sickening to watch.”
Stella scolded her. “Lina! That’s an ugly thing to say.”
“It may be ugly, but it’s the truth. She’s got him so brainwashed, she’s able to have her little affairs right under his nose. I know you’ve wanted to get in Miss High and Mighty’s pants for several years now, but you’ve had almost a year of chances to screw her. You should have it out of your system by now.”
“Watch your mouth,” Ethan warned, his voice low. “That is my wife you’re talking about.”
With a scoffing laugh, she waved his words away. “Oh, please. A marriage you’re so proud of that you did it in secret? Without even a minister?”
“You know that isn’t how it was.” Back in the spring, he had narrowly escaped serious injury during a call. Deciding that life was too short and that they’d already lost enough time, he and Beth had quietly gotten married at the courthouse.
“You are such a man, Ethan. Put a pair of tits and some ass in your face, and you’ll believe anything. You cannot seriously believe this marriage is permanent. Can’t you see that she’s using you?” Her husband placed a hand on her arm, but she shrugged it off, determined to say her piece.
“All these months, we’ve had to watch you moan about how Ms. Rich Bitch can’t get pregnant. Do you know why, Ethan? Do you?”
Ethan stood. “You’re going too far, Lina.”
Her eyes went to something behind him, and she sneered. “Oh, I’ve just started. Your little slut of a wife is on the pill. That’s why she can’t get pregnant. She doesn’t have any intention of having your whelp. As soon as she’s done with you, she’ll be gone with some doctor or lawyer, and you’ll be alone. You’ll crawl back into a whiskey bottle, just like always.”
As her words echoed around the room, Ethan fought for control. He looked to his mother, who wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Mom? Is that how you feel? Like Beth’s using me, and that I’m going to start drinking again?” When his mother finally raised her gaze, he saw the answer and felt something inside of him break. “Is it?”
Slowly, she nodded. “I’m afraid so, honey.”
Ethan felt tears prick his eyes, and he had to blink rapidly to keep them from falling. “What the hell has happened to you?” Not waiting for an answer, he turned back to his sister and spat across the table. As the spittle hit her in the face, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Until you apologize to me and to Beth, and you mean it, you are dead to me.”
His mother gasped. “James, do something.”
James stood and started toward Ethan, but when Ethan shot him a gaze full of pain and loathing, he stopped.
“You’ve done enough already, thanks. Don’t make it worse.”
A soft hand came to rest on his arm, and Ethan looked down. Beth’s hand, her gold wedding band glinting up at him, closed gently around the bunched muscles. “Let’s go. We’re done here,” she murmured. He could tell she was upset, but she was still much calmer than he was. Without another word, he left the dining room and headed for the front door.
Chaos erupted behind them as his other sister, Allison, started to deliver a blistering lecture. Beth grabbed their coats as they went past the rack. Ethan didn’t realize he was shaking until they reached his truck.
Stepping between him and the truck, Beth said, “I’ll drive.”
He started to protest, but as he looked down at his unsteady hands, he realized she was right. Handing her the keys, he opened the door for her. Once she was in, he hurried to the passenger side.
The drive only took three minutes. Halfway up their driveway, though, Beth slammed on the brakes. She threw the truck in park, then jumped out of the cab and threw up in the grass.
Ethan shut off the engine and hurried around to where she crouched on hands and knees. He held her hair back as she retched again. He silently cursed his family to perdition. Once she was finished, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her around to the passenger seat.
“I’m sorry.” She shuddered as she reached for a bottle of water in the middle console. Rinsing her mouth, she stood and pushed past him to spit on the ground.
“You don’t have a damned thing to apologize for.” When she started to speak again, he placed two fingers against her lips. Turning to look up at the house he’d bought from his mother and James four years ago, he gave a defeated laugh. “I don’t know if I can stay there tonight. Not when we’re surrounded by their land.”
Beth reached for his hand. “I can call Mom and Dad, see if we can borrow their guest room. Or we could get a hotel room for the night. Why don’t we do that?”
Ethan swallowed, feeling wild. The shock was starting to wear off, and was becoming replaced by pain. “No, you’re sick. We should stay here.”
“Actually, I feel fine now. I think a little change of scenery would do us both good. Why don’t we get a room at the state park in Madison, make a little trip out of it?”
He studied her closely. Her color had improved, and if he hadn’t seen her throw up, he’d never know she’d been sick. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Come on. Let’s go pack a bag.”
Once they arrived in Madison, Ethan suggested they get something to eat. “I know you said to not mention food when we were at the house, but we should probably try.” He named a local restaurant famous for their soup and sandwiches.
Beth grimaced. “Okay, but I’m not making any promises.”
The meal itself was quiet, and he was gratified to see that she’d managed to eat more than a few bites. As they left the restaurant, he spotted a drugstore and decided to stop. “I need to grab something. Why don’t you call and get us a room?”
Inside the drug store, he quickly found the aisle he was looking for, but the number of choices was overwhelming. Giving in, he asked the lady stocking the shelves for assistance.
“This your first time?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He gave her a sheepish grin.
The older woman made a selection. “This is probably the most reliable pregnancy test on the market, plus you get two in this package.”
“Good luck, honey.”
The purchase made, he hurried back out to the parking lot. Beth was resting, her eyes closed. She stirred when he opened the back door and tucked the small bag into a side pocket of their overnight bag.
“What’d you get?”
“Hemorrhoid cream,” he told her with what he hoped was a straight face.
She smacked his arm lightly as he got in the driver’s seat. “Fine, don’t tell me.”
He grinned. “What? I can’t have hemorrhoids?” When she laughed, he started to relax for the first time since they’d left his parents’ house. “It’s a surprise. I’ll show you when we get to the hotel.”
“Oh, sounds kinky.”
“No, it isn’t kinky.” He picked up her hand and placed a soft kiss on its back, then held it.
It didn’t take long to check in at the hotel. Inside their room, he set down the overnight bag and watched as Beth opened the curtains. She slipped off her shoes and coat, then sat down on the bed with a tired sound.
His own shoes and coat discarded, he eased onto the bed behind her, tugging her into his arms. They had a room with a view of the river, and for several minutes, they just sat there, watching the water.
“What a pisser of a day,” Beth finally said. “I’m so sorry. What in the world happened?”
He moved his shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know. Right now, though, I just… I don’t particularly want to try and figure it out. It hurts too much.”
Leaning back, she turned to face him. “So what’s in the bag, Detective?”
Touching a hand to her face, he gave her a soft kiss. “I’ll tell you in a minute, but let me ask you a question first. How do you feel?”
“A question answered with a question, hmm. I’m okay. Tired, sad, but okay. Why?”
“How’s your stomach?”
She turned more fully to face him. “Ethan…”
He gave her another soft kiss. “Bear with me.”
“It’s fine now. I was probably just reacting to the stress, or maybe it’s a touch of the bug from last week still. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
Gazing over her head, Ethan tried to figure out how to continue. He’d never imagined he’d be the one leading this particular discussion. Deciding the straightforward approach was probably best, he plunged ahead. “Sweetheart, I think you’re pregnant.”
Beth sat up slowly, staring at him in stunned disbelief. “What?”
“I think you’re pregnant.”
She moved to the edge of the bed. Arms crossed defensively, she slowly shook her head. “I think I’d know before you.”
“How long has it been since you’ve had coffee? And the mashed potatoes and spinach at lunch today?” When she grimaced, he gave her a tiny smile. “See? Even mentioning those foods makes you queasy.”
With a bitter laugh, she pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. A wet sniffle escaped her, and she turned to him. When he saw her wet eyes, he felt his heart break a little. “Oh, Beth.” Scooting forward, he wrapped his arms around her.
“I’ve wanted to be pregnant for so long, but it never happens. Every damned month, and it never happens. I can’t be pregnant now. I had my period a couple of weeks ago. How can you be so mean?”
She turned her face into his chest and cried, and Ethan felt like the lowest person on the face of the planet. His own eyes damp, he waited for her to calm down. Handing her a tissue for her nose, he used another to dry her cheeks.
“Didn’t you tell me that your period was very light this time?”
“I did a little research…” When she shot him an incredulous look, he held up a hand. “You aren’t the only one in the family who knows how to find information, you know. Anyhow, it’s not entirely unusual for women to have very light periods in early pregnancy. Add to that all the symptoms you have—the tiredness, the nausea around certain foods… and there’s this.” He touched a hand lightly to her breasts, and she winced from the contact.
“I think you’ve convinced yourself that we’re never going to have a child because of what happened last year, and that’s why you haven’t suspected that you’re pregnant. But honey, we’ve only been married seven months. And that’s not a long time to be trying, not even for couples without our history.”
She played with the tissue he’d given her and frowned. “So what’s in the bag? A pregnancy test?
“I don’t know, Ethan. I don’t know if I could stand finding out I’m not pregnant right now, not after everything else that’s happened.”
He tightened his arms around her. “I understand, and there’s no pressure at all to take the test. Okay?” Smoothing her hair back, he nuzzled her face with his. “One way or another, we’ll find out eventually.”
“I’m sorry I called you mean. You’re anything but.”
“Well, let’s keep that between us, okay? I do have a reputation to protect, you know.”
When she looked up at him and laughed, he felt a little of the pain around his heart settle.
“I adore you. Do you know that?” She snuggled closer, letting her hand rest on the back of his neck.
He placed a very soft kiss on the top of her head. “I had something of an idea, yes. Beth, about what Lina said… I don’t want you to think for an instant that I believed her.”
She was quiet for a minute. “You would have, not too long ago.”
“I know. And that stings, knowing I would have hurt you because of someone else’s lies.”
Sitting up, she straddled his lap and cupped his face with her hands. “I’m not worried about it, and you shouldn’t either. You know why?” He shook his head, and she smiled. “Because here and now is what’s important. Lina doesn’t understand that; she never has. She can’t let go of the fact that I got asked to the prom by her crush and she didn’t, for crying out loud. So don’t take this the wrong way, but your sister can go hang. The only thing she does with her vitriol is annoy me.” She winced. “That said, I wish I could say the same for your parents. It hurts that they believe her.”
He rested his face against her neck with a tired breath. “I know. I know it does. I have to think they’ll come around, though. They’re good people.”
“I hope so. And soon.”
~ * * * ~
Long after Ethan had gone to sleep, Beth lay wide awake. Her thoughts raced in vicious circles, from concern about her parents and the letter they’d received to the confrontation with Ethan’s family. His suspicion of her possible pregnancy just put the icing on the cake.
As much as she had tried, she couldn’t get her mind to shut off and allow sleep to come. Finally, at three o’clock, she gave up. Easing out of bed carefully so as to not disturb her sleeping husband, she padded to the bathroom. When she neared the overnight bag with the pregnancy tests, the sight stopped her in her tracks. She stared at the corner of the box that peeked out from beneath a pair of Ethan’s socks. When she reached down and picked it up, she felt as though that hand belonged to someone else.
Teeth clamped on her lower lip, she looked back into the shadowy bedroom. Ethan hadn’t moved, still sprawled on his stomach, sound asleep. The day had been devastating for him. They didn’t have to talk about his family’s actions for Beth to know that. As hurt as she was, the pain had to be ten times worse for him. His mother had always been loving and supportive. He’d told her more than once that Stella and James’s support had been one of the only reasons he’d managed to get sober once he’d hit bottom the previous year.
It just didn’t make sense that they would suddenly have such a stunning turnabout. Whatever had caused the change was serious, of that Beth was certain.
Looking down at the box in her hand, she gave a silent groan. Ethan was so certain she was pregnant, and after thinking about his arguments, she wondered if he might be right. Her empty hand went to her pelvis, settling lightly over the scars from her surgery. The injuries she’d sustained from being shot the previous fall had healed, but a lot of internal damage had been done, including the loss of an ovary, as well as a pregnancy. Though her doctors had assured her she shouldn’t have any problems conceiving and then carrying the child to term, she’d long felt it wouldn’t be possible. If Ethan was right, though, that news might make his family’s betrayal a little easier to take. If he was wrong… well, better to rip off the bandage quickly.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she hurried into the bathroom and closed the door. Moving as quietly as possible, she opened the box and pulled out one of the tests. She read the instructions three times, her heart pounding in her throat,
She met her own gaze in the mirror over the sink. “Okay. Let’s see if we have a miracle on our hands.”
~ * * * ~
Ethan felt the bed dip and the warm weight of Beth’s hip pressed into his as she sat down beside him. When she didn’t speak or move, he realized something was wrong. Disoriented and still more than half-asleep, he struggled to wake up as he reached for the lamp.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” He managed to get the light turned on, and was horrified to hear her wet sniffle. When he saw the test stick she held, his heart sank. “Oh, God. I was so sure…”
To his surprise, when she turned to him, she was smiling through her tears. Confused, he sent her a puzzled frown.
With a shaking hand, she held out the test. Ethan stared at her in disbelief, then dropped his gaze to the test. It took him a minute to figure out what the two lines meant, and then his vision blurred as understanding dawned. He sat up quickly, not sure he wasn’t still asleep and dreaming.
Beth nodded, excited laughter bubbling up as she threw her arms around his neck. Laughing and crying, she placed smacking kisses all over his face. She pulled back, and her smile was so bright it was almost painful to see.
Beth hadn’t been prepared to hear the news her doctor had just delivered, though from the indulgent look on the woman’s face, she was familiar with the particular brand of shock her patient now exhibited. “Twins? How?”
The doctor laughed. “The usual way.”
Ethan sat down hard in the chair beside the ultrasound table, still staring at the frozen image on the screen where two fuzzy blips represented the lives they’d created.
Beth reached out and touched his cheek. “Honey, it’s okay.”
He shook his head and pinned the doctor with his gaze. “No. You said it was a little risky for us to try so soon after her injuries last year. What does the fact that it’s twins bring to the table? Doesn’t that make it more dangerous?”
The doctor placed the ultrasound wand back in its cradle and handed Beth a warm towel. “It makes things a little more complicated, yes. What’s probably going to happen is that around the sixth or seventh month, Beth’s going to have to go on bed rest, just as a precaution. We’ll know more as the pregnancy advances, but right now, I think she’ll do fine.” She turned to Beth. “Have you been doing the pelvic exercises we discussed?”
“Religiously,” Beth told her.
“Good. That does make a huge difference. It helps the muscles rebuild and strengthen, and that can be the difference between a successful multiple pregnancy and one that isn’t, considering your injuries. We’ll keep a close watch on things, and I’ll send you home with a list of precautions you can take now–no heavy lifting, no strenuous exercise, that sort of thing.”
The doctor stood and handed Beth the printed picture from the ultrasound. “I’m going to give the two of you a little time to absorb things. Go ahead and get dressed. The bathroom’s right here if you need it.” She pointed to the door on the side of the room. “I’ll check on you in a few minutes.”
After the doctor left, Beth got down from the table and hurried to the bathroom. “I’m sorry. I have to go now. I think I drank a gallon of water this morning to prepare for this.”
Once she was finished, she came back in the room to stand in front of Ethan. He’d rested his head on his arms, which were folded on the table. When she touched his shoulder, he pulled her to him, burying his head against her abdomen without letting her see his face. His breathing was rough as she wrapped her arms around him.
“Oh, Ethan. I’m okay.”
“What if you aren’t? What if something happens?”
Beth’s eyes closed. She could hear the fear in his voice and knew he was probably tearing himself apart with guilt over getting her pregnant. “Then we’ll deal with it if it happens.”
He finally raised his head. “How can you be so calm? Aren’t you scared? What were we thinking?”
“Honey…” Beth felt her own eyes dampen as she wiped his cheeks dry with her thumbs. “Yes, I’m scared. Of course, I’m scared. But Ethan, there are no guarantees. You know that. We’ve done everything we could to get me healthy again. There’s no way we could have predicted twins. There’s no history on either side of our families that I’m aware of.” She gave him a tender kiss. “What if nothing bad happens? What if I go all the way to full term, and we have two healthy, bouncing babies to take home?”
Ethan swallowed. “I’m afraid to hope. That’s thirty-four more weeks we have to endure.” He must have seen the hurt on her face because he hastened to explain. “I want to be happy, I really do. I’m just so damned scared, Beth. What if I lose you? I can’t go through that. I won’t survive if something happens to you.”
“What happens if you go out on a call tomorrow and get killed? That’s always in the back of my mind when you leave for work. Are you just supposed to quit your job and stay home? Just so you can stay safe, keep my mind at ease?”
He sent her an affronted scowl. “That’s not the same thing.”
“That’s exactly the same thing, and you know it.”
For a couple of minutes, they kept their gazes locked on each other in a silent battle while Ethan fought his fears. Just when Beth thought he wasn’t going to accept her words, she felt him relax.
“I guess it is. I’m sorry.” He rested his head against her breasts. “I’m just scared.”
“I know. But Ethan, we’re pregnant. We’re honest-to-God pregnant, with twins. Can you imagine? Twins?”
With a sigh, he reached for the ultrasound print still lying on the table. Tracing the image with a gentle finger, he smiled. “No, I can’t imagine. I was just getting used to the idea of one baby. What are we going to do with two?”
Beth laughed softly. “Love them. What else?”
Yeah, you read that right. I’m pointing the finger at you, lady.
See, I had this all laid out in my head. There were two options to choose from at the top of the list. One was Confluence, the standalone romance based on a short story I’d written a few years back. It’s a danged good story, has some emotional punch, and I want to expand it and make it full length.
The second option was Inside, the story of an agoraphobic woman who helps solve a mystery while dealing with some very dark, very persistent personal demons.
Is either of those what I’m writing? Nooooooo….
Instead, I’m finding myself in Leroy, Indiana, in the middle of winter, causing poor Ethan and Wyatt and the gang to have to all sorts of difficulties to sort out. Dang it! And I blame you, DeAnn.
See, there was that blog post last week where she and Cory got to “sit down and interview” characters. Beth and Jason were elected to represent Leroy, and they got to bickering, and it just reminded me of how fun that universe can be. And how challenging.
So instead of writing about Cassie and Morgan and their love affair, or Lydia and her demons, I’m shoveling snow and murder in Leroy.
Now I’m eating crow. “Noooo,” I’d answered in that blog post, “I won’t be writing another Leroy book for a while. I have other things that are sparking my muse.” HA!!!! Oh, you muses, you. Playful little things. Just like cats, they love to prove you wrong after you’ve declared yourself.
I’m not really upset with DeAnn, in case any of you wondered. I’m fine with going back to Leroy. A little jetlagged and whiplashed from the one-eighty I ended up doing creatively, but I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. So far, we’re off to a smashing nearly six-thousand-word start.
What can I tell you about this book, you ask? Let’s see…
This book is Carrie’s story. Carrie’s a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department, and she’s played small roles in most of the other books. Who’s the hero? That would be sweet Robbie Bailey.
The book takes place about eight or nine months after In the Heart’s Shadow.
This book may or may not have a “Shadows” title. Why? Because holy cow, I don’t know if I can come up with another title that makes sense and fits the book with some version of “Shadow” in the title. I like to joke that the next book is going to be titled Secrets Under the Grave’s Heart of the Moon’s Hidden Shadows. Or perhaps even Shadows Book No. 6, just like Chanel. Because I would rather write three books than come up with a single title at this point. It’s that hard. (Hint hint, suggestions would be appreciated.)
When can you all expect this book? Let’s see, today is January 15th. If all goes according to schedule, meaning things take a similar route to what they have with my stuff over the past year, I’d expect it sometime in April or May. Hopefully sooner than that, but we’ll see. And there will be a T. L. Haddix release prior to that–the fifth book in the Firefly Hollow series, Cricket Cove, is at the editor’s now. So probably mid-February for that one.
Anyhoo, I have to go tackle some real-world errands for a bit, but then I’ll be back in my chair, plugging away. These poor characters. They’re going to get off to a rough start. Hopefully that will make for some good reading, though. It usually does. 😉
So a few days ago, an idea popped into my head. I’m still new at all this reader-interaction stuff, but I wanted to do something that would be fun. I asked fans on my Facebook page and Twitter feed to submit questions they wanted answered. These could be questions for me, questions about the books, questions about writing, or even questions for the characters. Several people responded, and several of the questions made me laugh out loud.
I’m going to answer those questions here and now. I’ll start with the non-character stuff. Then we’ll have some fun. 😉
Geraldine asks: Where did you go to school, and what do you write?
I went to school in Perry County, Kentucky. R.W. Combs for elementary, Dilce Combs for high school. I was supposed to be in the last graduating class, but construction delays made us the second-to-last. Interestingly enough, one of my uncles was in the first graduating class, way back in 1955, I believe it was.
I write romance, romantic suspense, erotic romance, and romantic parodies. I’m hoping to venture into a couple other genres in this upcoming year.
I have four series – The Shadows/Leroy series (romantic suspense), the Firefly Hollow series (romance with light paranormal elements), the Sunset Motel series (erotic romance), and the Vapid Vixens series (romantic parodies.)
Jaime would like to know the following: Where do your ideas come from? Have these characters been in your head for a long time or do you create them as needed? Will there be more books in the Shadows series? Who is YOUR favorite character?
My ideas come from… I’m not sure where they come from, to be honest. Not all of them. Some come in dreams. Some come from little glimpses of things I see in the real world. But beyond that, I have no idea. I used to tell myself stories when I was a young girl, and then as an adult, in order to go to sleep. Yes, I’m something of an insomniac. And that storytelling led me to where I am now. I still use that time to plot things out, work scenes out in my head.
The characters–both. Some are old friends. Some are new acquaintances. And just like in real life, getting to know them can sometimes lead to some surprises.
I’m not sure is the best answer I can give you about the Shadows series. I do have some ideas I’d like to play with for that series, but the creative muses are riding me pretty hard to do other things first. I’d like to come back to Leroy someday but for right now, other things are going to come first.
Who is my favorite character? Oh, boy. From the Shadows series, I really like Beth and Ethan. Their dynamic just… works for me, I guess you would say. And Jason Hudson. Someone asked me once in an interview which character I’d choose to spend a day with, and I answered Jason. He’d be a blast. He’s such a hoot, and I kind of hate that he hasn’t gotten his own book. I may remedy that some day.
From the Firefly Hollow series, it has to be Owen. He’s so sure that no one will ever love him, and he’s so confounded when he meets Sarah… He just melts my heart. I think Ethan has a little of that, too, and that’s probably why he’s my favorite hero from the Shadows series. Beth just walks in and loves him, and he doesn’t know what to do with her.
Ashley – She, too, asked about the next Shadows/Leroy book. She thinks Garrett Gordon needs his own story, and I tend to agree. Garrett is still a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve struggled for a while now trying to figure out who he is, and he’s just so stoic and surly, he won’t let me in. He isn’t ready, I suppose. And I do have someone in mind to pair him up with… but he’s being stubborn.
She also wants to know what has happened to all the other Leroy characters. Where are they now? They are plugging along. I’ve not quite figured out where I want certain storylines to go just yet, so I hesitate on giving specific answers. If I feel that I can do it justice, I may do a web-based series updating everyone. Little “slice of life” stories to keep you all updated. I’ll keep you posted on that and if I do decide to do that, I’ll send out notice in my newsletter. (If you haven’t signed up, the link is here.)
Now, the character questions. I’ve decided to have a bit of fun with this, so you all bear with me here, please. Those of you who asked character questions, I’m going to “write you in” to this scene. 😉 I hope you enjoy it.
~ * * * ~
When the call from T. L. Haddix went out early this past week for questions from readers for the characters, a collective groan went up from most of the men who appear in the books. The women, for the most part, were pleased as punch. On the date the post was to go live, they “gathered” in a room to do the interview.
“It’s nice to have someone interested in asking us questions,” Sarah Campbell said. “Exciting and more than a little flattering.”
Owen, her husband, looked at her and sighed. “It’s flattering. I’ll give you that. I don’t know how exciting it is, though. You know I don’t like putting on a public face.”
Beth Hudson Moore, who “drove down” to Hazard from Leroy just for this occasion, nudged him with her shoulder. “Oh, now. It won’t be that bad. You’ll enjoy it, I promise. Those two ladies standing outside the green room looked as nice as they could be.”
Owen wasn’t convinced. He quirked an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Let’s get on with it.”
Beth’s brother, Jason, sent the older man a grin. “You sound just like Ethan would.”
“Doesn’t he?” Beth asked. “It’s sweet.”
Owen’s cheeks flushed, but a hint of a smile played around his lips.
T. L. stepped into the room with a wide-eyed look on her face. “Why am I so nervous about this? You all are getting all the questions.”
“Because you don’t want any of us to be uncomfortable,” Sarah answered. “Don’t you worry. We’re fine.”
“Okay. In that case, is everyone ready? The readers are a little anxious, especially Cory. She’s already run around the building three times, she’s so giddy. She may even squeal,” T. L. warned.
Jason grinned, his dimples and blue eyes making every woman in the room smile back in appreciation. “I’m used to making the ladies squeal. Bring her on.”
Beth smacked him while Sarah and T. L. snickered. Even Owen seemed amused. “You’re a married man now. Behave,” Beth admonished.
“And she hasn’t met you yet, besides,” T. L. told him. “You’re not the man who has her all aflutter.
Everyone looked at Owen, whose face turned pink. “Oh, you’re kidding me. Really?”
“Mm-hmmm. I told you our female readers just love you.”
When he groaned and covered his face with his hands, everyone laughed. Sarah turned to T. L. with a sparkling smile. “This is going to be fun.”
“I hope so. I’ll be right back.”
A minute later, she opened the door and led the two women into the room, directing them to the empty chairs she’d placed around the circle. Once they were seated, she made the introductions. “Everyone, this is DeAnn and Cory. Ladies, you know who these folks are. Well, Cory doesn’t because she hasn’t read the Shadows series yet.”
Beth waved from across the coffee table. “I’m Beth Hudson Moore, and this is my brother, Jason. My book is the second one, Under the Moon’s Shadow, and Jason makes an appearance in all of them.”
“Hey, I get my own short story,” he protested.
She rolled her eyes. “A whopping less-than-a-thousand words in a flash-fiction anthology. Big whoop.” Her wink told them she was teasing. Jason stuck his tongue out at her, and she gently pushed his shoulder.
“Remind you of anyone?” Sarah asked Owen in a soft murmur.
He smiled, looking much more relaxed than he had before. “Reminds me of five someones.”
A tiny squeak sounded from Cory, who was practically vibrating out of her chair, she was so excited. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were as big as silver dollars. She kept looking down at her papers, then up at Owen and Sarah. Particularly at Owen.
“Omigod, omigod. I just–you’re so–Eeeep!!! Omigod. He’s real!” Her feet tapped on the floor as she danced in her chair, and she grinned at T. L. “I can’t–omigod!”
Across the coffee table, Owen was looking uncomfortable, but Sarah was chuckling.
Without a word, T. L. handed Cory a paper bag. “If you start to hyperventilate, use this. Do you still want to go first, or do you think you need a few minutes?”
When Cory put the bag over her mouth and started breathing into it, shaking her head no, T. L. smiled and patted her on the shoulder. “DeAnn, looks like you’re first.”
DeAnn’s face was a little flushed, and she smiled at Beth and Jason nervously. “My question was actually about Galen, but T. L. explained that he had to stay home with Stacy and the baby. And she also made us meeting you conditional–I have to ask the question I brought up on Facebook,” she said, sitting forward to look around Cory to make a face at T. L.
There was a good amount of wickedness in T. L.’s answering grin. “It was a good question.”
DeAnn shook her head, but she was smiling. “I wanted to know if I could borrow Galen Gordon for a day or two. So I guess maybe my question was for Stacy, instead of him.”
Beth laughed. “Given the way she beat up on the skanky you-know-what down in Kentucky, I’d say you’d be safer to not ask. Though they both would be flattered that you did. The man is too attractive for his own good.”
“I’m going to tell Ethan you said that,” Jason teased.
“I’m sure you will. He can handle it. He’s not too jealous of Gordon anymore. It usually works to my advantage when he does get a flare of the green-eyed monster,” she told DeAnn with a mischievous wink.
Owen coughed. “I don’t even want to know.”
“You’d know if you read the books,” Sarah told him pertly. “As I understand it, though, Garrett is still single, isn’t he?” she asked Beth. “And he does bear a remarkable resemblance to his brother.”
“Only in looks,” Jason put in. “Once you get to know him, he’s a horse’s–” He scowled and rubbed his arm where Beth had smacked it. “Ow! What was that for?”
“Don’t say that about Garrett. He’s a nice guy. He just has some… issues to work through. That’s all.”
Jason huffed out an offended breath. “Well, I wish Tabby would hurry up and work them out for him.”
T. L. shot him a look. “Really? Tabby? I’m trying to be serious here.”
“Yeah, and you’re just going to have to be a serious Tabby.”
She shook her head. “You characters…. What am I going to do with you?”
“Write more books,” came Jason’s prompt answer.
“Working on it.” She exchanged a look with Owen, who was smiling. “You know how it is, meeting deadlines, keeping up the pace. I just want to rest for a day or two, but my brain won’t let me.”
“You’ll rest when you need to,” Owen assured her.
“So DeAnn, was that all?” T. L. asked.
The other woman nodded. “But this is fun. Thanks for inviting me.”
T. L. shook her head. “Thanks for asking in the first place. Cory, I guess it’s your turn. Are you ready?”
Cory blew out a comical breath, holding the paper with her questions on it out from her chest. “I can’t believe you’re making me ask this. If I wasn’t meeting Owen… I could make you disappear, you know.”
T. L. grinned. “Ain’t skeered. Ask your questions, girlie.”
Cory shot her a fake-evil look and sighed. Not looking at Owen and Sarah, she read from the paper. “Owen. If we were to make sweet, sweet love…”
Sarah laughed so hard, so fast, she snorted. She had to cover her mouth, though her laughter was plain to see on her face as she watched to see how her husband would react.
Owen scowled at her, his cheeks bright red flags. “You laugh. Go ahead. How in the world did I end up being a sex symbol?” He shook his head. “I can’t answer that, young lady. I’m old enough to be your father, you know.”
Cory, mostly over her intimidation, gave an innocent shrug. “You weren’t in the first book. And you’ve only gotten better with age.”
Sarah nodded. “Yes, he has.” She winked at Cory, who winked back. “So is that it?”
“No. Sarah–if Owen and I were to make sweet, sweet love…”
Owen was shaking his head, which was buried in his hand. But Sarah tried to answer seriously. “It wouldn’t be lovemaking. You know that.”
Cory sighed. “I do know that. But a girl can dream. Besides, I have my own Owen.”
“I’m glad. Everyone needs an Owen,” Sarah said with a smile.
“I do have a serious question for the two of you. What is the most difficult challenge you faced while raising your children?”
Owen, mostly over his embarrassment, exchanged a look with his wife. “That is a good question.”
Sarah nodded. “It is. And not easy to answer. We have five great kids. They weren’t angels, not by any stretch.”
“Especially Emma,” Owen added with a smile. “But they never did push the boundaries in ways that other kids tend to. Not even our little hellion. I don’t think our kids are going to be as lucky with the grandkids, though. Eli and Noah have been fighting a lot lately.”
Cory frowned. “Real fighting or just brothers fighting?”
“There’s some real angst there I never saw with our boys,” he answered.
Cory turned to T. L., instantly suspicious. “What do you have planned?”
T. L. spread her hands. “It isn’t me. It’s them. I’m just the transcriptionist.”
Though she didn’t look pleased, Cory turned back to the Campbells.
Sarah continued to answer her question. “I think the most difficult part of raising five kids was just the logistics of it from time to time. That and the worry.”
Owen was nodding. “Even though I was home with them, and Sarah was until after Rachel was born, being a work-at-home dad was a challenge from time to time. I didn’t get to spend as much time with them as I would have liked, especially when I had a hard deadline pressing down on me.”
“Although our kids never really complained about that,” Sarah added. “You did a fine job of balancing things for the most part, and when you didn’t, we let you know before it caused hard feelings.”
When Owen put his arm around Sarah’s shoulders, Cory practically melted in her chair. But she went back to something else Sarah had said. “What about the worry?”
Sarah’s smile was a little sad. “When we first became parents, I thought we’d get them out of the nes,t so to speak, and then we’d be able to relax. But that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if your kids are two or twenty-two, you worry about them.”
“That’s true. Even though they’re starting to settle down and have their own kids, you still fret about them being happy, about their kids being happy, about their spouses being happy. We’re lucky that we have great children-in-law,” Owen said.
“You do have a great family,” Beth surprised them by saying. “What? I read the books. I want to know what’s going on in the alternate universe, too.”
After some idle chit-chat, the question and answer session broke up. T. L. walked DeAnn and Cory out. “Thanks for coming, you guys. I really appreciate it. This has been a blast. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.”
~ * * * ~
And I seriously did enjoy this. Thank you all so much for the interest, for the questions, and for reading the books. I could not do this without your support, and I hope I continue to do you proud. 🙂
After they finished eating and had cleared away the meal’s remnants, Archer settled in under the sink. “Let’s see what we have.”
“I’m going to take Little Miss for a walk and get out of your hair while you work,” Amelia told them. She winked at Emma, as Archer was still examining the leak. Emma made a face at her but she just grinned. “Come on, Syd.”
“Okay,” came the disappointed response from under the sink, where the little girl had perched. “Archer, will you be here when we get back?”
“I should be.”
“Maybe you can read me a story?”
“Sydney!” Emma scolded. “We’re already imposing on him to fix the sink.”
A put-upon sigh sounded as she backed out of the cabinet and went to Amelia. “Or maybe not.”
The front door closed and Archer slid out from under the sink, smiling. “You know I’ll stay and read to her. I love doing that.”
Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “I know. But you don’t have to.”
“Yeah, but I like reading to her. She’s a fun kid. Let’s see if we can get this changed out before it causes a bigger problem.” He ducked back under the sink and Emma took the chance to study what she could see of him. Archer was tall, almost too tall to stretch out across her kitchen floor. The jeans he wore were old and worn and molded to his thighs in ways that did disturbing things to her insides. As he stretched to work on the fixture his shirt rode up, revealing a patch of skin covered with a light dusting of golden hair that thickened as it neared the waist of his jeans.
“Is the water turned off?”
The question snapped her attention back to the task at hand. Cheeks flushing, she confirmed that it was. “That was one thing I was able to do.”
“Then we’re ready to disconnect the old lines. I’ll have to take them off where they connect here at the bottom. Whoever installed this hosed it up at the top.” He moved out of the cabinet a little bit, then turned to gain access to the pipes. A few seconds later a string of curses sounded and before Emma could move, a stream of hot water hit her squarely across the thighs. She shrieked with surprise.
“Damn it. The shut-off valve doesn’t work.” His words were muffled by the sound of gushing water and some thuds. “Go shut the main off!”
For a few seconds Emma was torn as she tried to remember where the main shutoff was. “It’s in the garage. Shit, I’m sorry. I’ll be back.” She ran into the garage. Cursing under her breath, she moved the boxes out from in front of the panel where the main was housed. As soon as she had the water turned off she dashed back inside.
Water was puddled in several spots across the kitchen floor. The cabinets on the far wall were dripping wet and the paper towels had taken a direct hit. But by far, the worst of it was Archer. He eased out of the cabinet to sit on the floor in front of the open door, soaked to the skin. Horrified and terribly amused at the same time, all Emma could do was stare, her eyes wide, as he used a hand to push his dripping hair out of his face.
“Could I have a towel?”
“Mm-hmmm,” she managed, biting her lip as she turned and hurried from the kitchen to the utility room and the clean towels in the dryer. As soon as she cleared the door she burst out laughing.
“I heard that,” he called.
“I’m sorry,” she hollered back as she got the towels out in between bouts of laughter. “I’m so sorry.”
The laughter died when she went back in the kitchen to find him standing, in the process of pulling his shirt over his head. “Oh.”
In all the years she’d known him Emma couldn’t recall ever having seen Archer without his shirt. She knew the reasons why, that he wasn’t comfortable with people seeing his scars, but she’d wondered what kind of body was under his clothing. All her sisters, and even Sarah, had speculated. The reality was beyond words. Compared to the man’s beauty, the scars were incidental.
He had the kind of muscles typically found on a male model, and the golden hair she’d glimpsed earlier widened as it went up his chest. There was just enough of it that a woman could have fun playing with it but not enough that she would feel like she was running her fingers through a carpet. Despite the fact that as far as she knew he never took off his shirt, he was golden all the way to his belt. That made her wonder if his skin was warm as honey all over.
Hi, there! I thought I’d post an excerpt of my latest, Dragonfly Creek. It’s the third book in the Firefly Hollow series, due out later this month. We don’t yet have a working cover for it, but when we get one, I’ll add it. Book Bloggers, if you’d like an ARC, please just contact me via E-mail and I’ll be more than happy to provide you with one.
Here is the working description:
She left him devastated and alone…
When Ben Campbell returns home to Hazard, Kentucky after a five-year absence, the last person he’s expecting to run into is the girl who broke his heart. He’s done his best to move on, but he knows he’s only been going through the motions of living. Determined to exorcise her ghost, he approaches her with an offer that might destroy both of them.
He wasn’t supposed to be in town…
Ainsley Brewer Scott carries a lot of weight on her shoulders, weight that has left deep emotional and physical scars. Her dreams of an everlasting love with Ben were dashed thoroughly, thanks to her malicious and conniving mother. Back in town to wrap up the old woman’s estate, Ainsley’s world is turned upside down when she sees Ben.
When the truth behind Ainsley’s leaving comes out, the long-held secrets shatter the fragile trust they have started to build. Will they walk away from each other again, or will they stand together and fight for their future?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The minister’s voice rang out with confidence as he went through random Bible verses, vaunted prayers, and philosophical quotes. He’d conducted the actual service in the church, giving a sermon that had been as lengthy and tedious as Ainsley Brewer Scott had expected it to be. At the graveside, he still showed no signs of slowing down.
The minister was an unimposing figure a couple of inches shorter than Ainsley’s own five-foot-seven height. His face was pale and strangely unlined for a man in his profession. His skin practically glowed with health, but in a pink and soft way. Most of the women she knew would kill for his complexion.
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The tall, dark-haired man standing by her side squeezed her gloved hand where it rested on his arm. Jonah’s presence did comfort her even though she didn’t mourn the woman lying cold and stiff in the casket in front of them. Dr. Jonah Morissey had been a godsend to her over the years in so many ways.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!”
He delivered the last line with a ringing pronouncement that caused Ainsley—and half the people standing around the grave—to jump. Glancing at the rotund little man, she saw that the pink blush of his cheeks had deepened and was approaching rose, maybe mauve. But the color was definitely not the soft-petal blush it had been.
His words were amusing, but more bitter than funny. If being pure of heart and merciful were conditions of getting into heaven, Ainsley figured her mother was probably feeling toasty. The irony of the minister’s extolling words was not lost on her. The irony of the entire day, the farcical memorial service that had been her mother’s funeral thus far, was not lost on her. She wondered how many of the mourners saw it for what she did.
A cold blast of air wove through the cemetery, ruffling the edges of coats and the hems of dresses. It was late October, and far from being a bright and sunny fall day, the weather was miserable. Overcast and damp, the skies threatened rain. Ainsley thought it would be a miracle if they didn’t all come down with colds. As if to underscore her thoughts, thunder rumbled in the distance. She gave a mental groan. The day only needed a thunderstorm.
The pastor didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t pick up the pace, despite the uncomfortable shuffling of the people around him.
“If he doesn’t wrap this up, and it starts storming? I’m walking away,” Ainsley told Jonah in a low voice.
“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned. Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
This last verse caused several people to exchange knowing looks around the gaping wound in the ground into which her mother’s earthly remains would soon be lowered. Ainsley knew they were wondering just how giving she would be, in light of her mother’s vast fortune. She knew they didn’t expect her to be very generous—at least not without extracting a price first. After all, she was Geneva Brewer’s daughter, and the apple couldn’t fall very far from the tree, now could it?
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; for those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Ainsley saw Jonah’s head tip to the side ever so slightly. She chanced a glance at him, and he leaned closer.
His voice was a bare whisper. “Is that…?”
She answered just as quietly. “John Donne. Yes.”
“Mmmm.” The whole ceremony had been full of interesting choices.
The next verse to leave the pastor’s mouth shouldn’t have surprised Ainsley, but it did.
“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages; thou thy worldly task hast done…”
This time, Jonah’s incredulity was easier to read on his face. “Shakespeare?”
Ainsley gave a slight shrug. Not only was it an unusual choice, but it was tremendously inappropriate. After all, her mother had feared no one. She had ruled her little kingdom with an iron fist. She was the one who was feared. Perhaps the pastor had a sense of humor, after all.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…”
That was true, at least the “fearing no evil’ part. In Ainsley’s mind, her mother had been the evil. The thing to be feared. She tamped down firmly on that thread of consciousness, however. This wasn’t the time to let her mind drift into that minefield.
Finally, he uttered the words that would close the services, looking to Ainsley as he spoke. She gave a single shake of her head, and the pastor frowned, but he didn’t miss a syllable of his prayer.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
“Amen,” the crowd automatically echoed him.
He looked to Ainsley again, this time giving a subtle nod, but she shook her head. With a disapproving frown, he gestured to the funeral home attendants, who started lowering the casket into the ground. The levers they used squeaked slightly, and Ainsley knew if her mother had been present in spirit as well as body, Geneva would have taken the men to task.
The pastor shook hands with the man Ainsley knew was a representative from the mayor’s office, and together, they stepped over to her and Jonah. Both wore expressions full of sympathy, though Ainsley doubted their sincerity.
“Mrs. Scott, so very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a very influential woman, and she did a lot of good for our little town,” the politician told her smoothly. “The mayor sends his condolences. If he weren’t out of town at a conference, he’d be here in person.”
“I’m sure he would be,” Ainsley murmured politely. “Excuse me.”
Stepping around the men, she made her way to the graveside. Her mother’s casket was resting on the bottom, six feet below the surface. The gleaming oak was nestled inside the steel vault designed to protect it from the elements for all time. Ainsley knew without having to ask that the vault was the very best money could buy. Staring down at the box that held what was left of the woman who’d given her life, she felt a fine shiver run through her.
“What dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,” she whispered. Picking up a handful of the dirt piled beside the grave, she gripped it tightly in her hand and held out her arm. “I hope your dreams are everything that you deserve, Mother. Forever and ever, amen.” Opening her fingers slowly, she watched as the sand and clay fell, down, down, down, landing on the curvature of the coffin lid to slide off with a slithering hiss.
When she turned, Jonah stepped forward, his arm extended. Sliding her hand back into the crook of his elbow, Ainsley drew in what felt like the first full breath she’d managed since returning home to Hazard two days before.
They were the only ones left by the grave. The mayor’s representative and even the pastor had left, and Ainsley realized then that she’d lost time. That hadn’t happened to her in several months, and it gave her a jolt. It couldn’t have been too long, though, because Jonah’s expression wasn’t overly concerned.
She breathed out a tired sigh. “Let’s go home.”
“Don’t you want to go to the wake?”
She didn’t answer him until they were in his car, the heater going full blast to chase away the chill and the damp that wasn’t entirely physical. She laid her head against the leather headrest and turned to him. “No. I have no friends here, save Hershel Bowling and his wife, and we said goodbye at the church. There’s no one I need to worry about impressing. All we’d be doing is giving them more cause for gossip and speculation. I can’t tolerate their questions, Jonah. Not today. And I don’t care what message they take away from my absence. It isn’t worth the cost I’d pay down the road.”
He reached over and clasped her hand tightly. “Then let’s get you home. Byrdie will be anxious for the sight of you.”
“I’m anxious for the sight of her.” Byrdie Hagans was the woman Ainsley thought of as her true mother. She’d seen Ainsley through the worst days of her life, birth to present. An injury to her knee had kept her in Lexington, and only Ainsley’s concerned insistence that she stay behind had stopped her from joining them.
“You know they’re speculating about whether or not we’re lovers,” she told him after some miles had passed.
“All of her cronies were calculating the months since Doug’s passing in their heads. Five months isn’t nearly long enough, and you’re far too handsome to satisfy their imagined bounds of propriety.”
“I did get the feeling we were on display a few times,” he admitted, his lips turned up at the corner in a tiny, amused smile.
“I’m sorry.” Ainsley knew the speculation bothered him, but being a typical man, he would be able to brush it off easier than she would. Though, tweaking the tails of the old tabbies wasn’t without appeal. They’d never approved of her when she lived in Hazard, and sure as hell, they wouldn’t approve of her now.
Jonah fiddled with the knob of the gearshift. “A few people there seemed genuine. Especially the ones who knew Doug.”
She wasn’t surprised when Jonah’s voice tripped over her late husband’s name. After all, Jonah had been in love with Doug for nearly ten years. That Doug had been Ainsley’s husband hadn’t changed that.
“There are nice people in Hazard. And yes, I think we met a few of them. But don’t think for a moment that the majority of people there yesterday and today were there out of any genuine regard for either Mother or me. Most of them were there because it was expected, and because they were curious. Probably a little afraid, too.”
“Afraid that if they didn’t show up, you’d have revenge on them?”
She nodded and stared out the window at the widening valley that surrounded the parkway. Even the sight of the trees decked out in a glorious and vibrant display of fall color didn’t lift her spirits. She was too entrenched in the scars from the past.
“That’s what she would have done, you know. It didn’t matter to her that the only reason they associated with her was because of what she had, what she was. All that mattered to her was the power. That’s what she got off on.”
A few more miles passed, and they hit the interstate at Winchester. An hour later, they would be home.
“Do you have any idea what you’re going to do with the holdings?”
“Sell them,” she answered promptly. “I know that much. And I know it’s going to take some time to arrange. We’ll have to go through probate. There are a lot of assets to inventory so the state can get its fair share. Mr. Thornton expects that to all be finished by late spring. I forgot to tell you that.”
Jonah seemed surprised. “It’s going to take that long?”
“Time in Hazard moves differently than it does in Lexington,” she told him. “If we rush through things, we run the risk of scaring off investors. They’ll think something’s wrong. I can’t do that to the employees of the companies she owned. It wouldn’t be fair to harm their livelihoods because I’m impatient to get the hell out of Dodge.” She sighed and rubbed the tense muscles in her neck. “I’ll have to go down there. At least for a month, maybe two, and close up the house. That’s the last thing I’m going to worry about now, however. The house will keep until the end.”
As much as her mother’s attorney had urged her to stay at the house, Ainsley couldn’t. She and Jonah had gotten connecting hotel rooms. Once upon a time, she would have forced herself to stay at the house despite her discomfort, just because it was expected of her. That time was gone, and had been for years. She’d politely declined Thornton’s offer and had booked the two rooms.
Jonah’s voice drew her back to the present. “When the time comes, I’ll be there if you need me.”
For the first time in days, she smiled. “I know you will. And I love you dearly for that.” She brushed her hand along Jonah’s arm, so grateful to have him.
She was twenty-four years old, an orphan, and a widow. If not for Jonah and Byrdie, she would have been completely alone in the world. Despite the hundreds of mourners who’d attended her mother’s services, Ainsley didn’t expect more than a handful of people to show up when she died. Seeing her mother’s casket and watching it be lowered, alone and lonely, into the ground had brought back the insecure, bitter feelings Ainsley had worked so hard to bury.
Death made her think about life, and often in the starkest, most unvarnished terms. Ainsley was alone. Byrdie and Jonah loved her, and she loved them in return. They would mourn her deeply if she died. But once she was gone, no one would remember who Ainsley Brewer Scott was. She would be a name and a few numbers on a headstone, an entry in a book of death certificates in Frankfort. And for the first time in months, that loneliness bothered her.
When he crossed over Pound Gap from Virginia into Kentucky, the butterflies that had been resting in Ben Campbell’s stomach took flight. It was dark, and the rain that had moved in complicated the drive. He’d lost the rock station he’d been listening to since Kingsport as he started down the mountain, and when he tuned into the mega-watt country station broadcasting from Hazard, he laughed. The song playing was about a truck driver on the road on a rainy night.
Ben wasn’t a truck driver, but he was driving a pickup. And since he’d been on the road all day, he felt a bit as though he were driving his life away.
The decision to return home hadn’t been an easy one. Although he’d grown up in Perry County, Kentucky, he’d been living in Georgia since he was nineteen. He and his sister Emma had both gone to college there, and his maternal aunt and grandmother lived in the area, as well. He had stayed in Savannah after he finished his degree and landed a good job at one of the huge commercial growers in the region that supplied landscape companies across the south. He’d enjoyed the work for the most part, but over the past summer, a restlessness had started growing inside him. Ben had ignored it as long as he could, but when he started getting short with his family, he couldn’t avoid the issue any longer.
His grandmother had been the first to approach him, after a quiet Sunday dinner at his Aunt Kathy’s one lazy August afternoon.
“You’re homesick,” Eliza Browning had stated as they sat on the porch swing. The large ceiling fans moving quietly overhead stirred the thick summer air. They worked with the evaporative cooler to make the temperature just bearable in the shade. “What are you going to do about it?”
Ben picked at a callus on his palm. “It’ll go away. It always does.”
She gently touched his hair. “I don’t think so. Not this time.”
“I don’t want to go back,” he admitted. Eliza was one of the few people in the world who knew why Ben had been so eager to leave Kentucky permanently a few years before.
“I think you do. Your heart’s always been there, in the hills. You’ve been away too long.”
“And what would I do if I went back? It isn’t like jobs in my industry are thick on the ground in eastern Kentucky.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you could go back to school, get that landscape architecture degree you’ve been thinking about.”
Ben’s gaze shot to hers. “How’d you know about that?”
Eliza smiled, and she looked so much like Ben’s mother, Sarah, that his chest tightened. It was like looking into a mirror of what the future held.
“Sweetheart, I don’t have to have any special abilities like your father’s people in order to know you’re bored with what you’ve been doing. And I know the idea has always intrigued you. The University of Kentucky has a good program, I hear.” She picked up her iced tea glass and took a casual sip.
Ben shook his head, amazed. “I’ve just barely started entertaining the idea, Nonny.”
“Well, I think it’s a good one. It’s too late for you to enroll this year, but that would give you a few months to get re-acclimated to the region, so to speak. Maybe to deal with some things you’ve been putting off far too long. You’ve set aside some money, I suppose?”
“I have.” His job paid well, and while Ben didn’t lead a Spartan life, he liked things simple. “You know, you might have to go back to Kentucky, too. I’ll miss you too much if you stay here.”
Eliza laughed softly, and her words surprised him. “You know, if you and Emma weren’t here, I might consider it. Kathy doesn’t need me like she used to. And I miss the hills. But I don’t want to leave Emma. This new boyfriend of hers… I don’t like the feel of him.”
“Yeah. Me, either. But she seems happy enough.”
They changed the subject as the object of their conversation came out onto the porch. Emma was Ben’s twin sister, older by just over five minutes. She never let him forget that, either. Tall, with their father’s dark hair and their mother’s fair complexion, Emma turned heads wherever she went. She was a photographer, working for one of the premiere studios in town. She’d worked hard to get where she was, and Ben was proud of her. He didn’t tell her that too often, though. After all, someone had to keep his sister on her toes.
The discussion with Nonny weighed on his mind for a few weeks. As much as he wanted to deny it, she was right. He was homesick. And so, when talk at work had turned to restructuring, Ben volunteered to leave. His boss had been disappointed, but there were practically ten other people lined up behind him, eager to fill his shoes.
He’d put off the trip as long as he could, eking out one excuse after the next, until Emma was frustrated enough to threaten to knock him out and send him home via the mail.
“What if the folks don’t want to see my ugly face?” he’d protested. “You know I haven’t mentioned the plan to them. What if they think it’s a bad idea?”
“Seriously? You do know our parents, right? Sarah and Owen Campbell would have all five of us back under their roof in a heartbeat. If Daddy hadn’t put his foot down, there’d have been at least three or four more little Campbells running around.” Emma turned serious, which told Ben just how concerned she was. “You need to go home, Benny. You never told me what sent you running, but whatever it was, it’s pushed you long enough. It’s time to push back. I want to see you happy and… you’re not.”
She was right. He sold as many of his belongings as he could, gave away most of the rest, and packed what was left into neat boxes, which he tucked away safely under the flat cover on his truck bed. On his way out of town, he stopped at Eliza’s. Emma had driven over for the send-off, and he hugged them both tightly, not wanting to let go.
“Remember, not a word to the folks. I’ll call you both when I get in, but I want to surprise them.”
Eliza smiled up at him, though her eyes were damp. “You always did love a surprise.”
“As long as he’s the surpriser and not the surprisee,” Emma added. She hugged him just as tightly as he’d held her a few minutes earlier. “Be careful out there. Give everyone my love.”
He got on the road before they all turned into blubbering idiots. Walking away had been harder than he expected. But the farther away from Savannah he got, the less restless he became. Going home felt right.
Now, as he stopped at a brand-new convenience store at the foot of Pine Mountain to stretch his legs and fill up the truck, he realized he felt a little like a kid at Christmas. He’d taken his time on the drive, and it wasn’t quite seven o’clock in the evening. He would be at the homeplace by eight. Just imagining the look on his parents’ faces made him smile. The woman filling up her car at the next gas pump gave a startled blink, then smiled back at him. Ben winked at her as he went inside to settle up with the gas station attendant.
The rain slacked off somewhat as he got closer to Hazard, and fog started to creep up, out of the rivers and creeks and into the hollers. Even though the evening was cool, he cracked the truck’s windows and let the mountain air wash over him. The scent of fall leaves mixed with the rain-washed air. Absent of the saltiness present in coastal Georgia, the dampness screamed “home” to him.
He stopped the truck at the foot of his parents’ driveway and just sat there for a few minutes. He didn’t really doubt his welcome, but he knew that once he drove up the long, long driveway, there was no turning back.
“You knew there wasn’t any turning back as soon as you left Georgia, Ben.” He put the truck in gear.
A full minute later, he reached the top of the mountain where he’d grown up. The farmhouse looked snug and welcoming, with lights on in the living room, as well as his sister Amelia’s upstairs bedroom. He parked next to his father’s truck and grabbed his jacket from the passenger seat.
The porch light came on before he was halfway to the steps, and Owen Campbell opened the door, an astonished look on his face.
“What in the world…?” He held open the screen door, but didn’t say anything else as Ben came up on the porch.
Owen looked into the house behind him, blinked twice, and then a lopsided smile spread across his face.
“Ben. You’re home.” Owen pulled his son in for a bear hug, holding on so tightly that it almost hurt. Ben’s eyes grew damp, and when his father finally let him go, he saw that Owen’s eyes were damp, as well. “What in the world are you doing here? Is everything okay? Emma? Nonny?”
“Owen? Is it Amelia?” Sarah Campbell’s voice called from down the hall.
“You’d better come here,” Owen told her. He had to clear his throat, and he kept an arm wrapped tightly around Ben’s shoulders as they took a few steps into the house. “We’ve got a visitor.”
“This late? Who…” Ben’s mother stopped in the doorway to the living room, her hands going to her mouth. “Oh, my baby.”
“Mom.” Ben crossed the space and lifted her off her feet. “I’ve missed you. Both of you.”
A couple of minutes later, their emotions were finally clear enough to talk rationally. Ben was the first to speak. “Where’s Pip?”
“On a date,” Sarah answered.
Owen scowled. “It isn’t a date. It’s a get-together with some of her friends, and a couple of them happen to be boys. She’s just sixteen. It’s not a date.”
Ben looked at his mother, who nodded.
“It’s a date. What are you doing here? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I might not let you go now that you’re here. But this is a little unexpected. Have you eaten?”
He shrugged. “I could probably handle a sandwich, if it isn’t too much trouble. Leftovers, whatever you have. And I, uh, was in the neighborhood.”
Owen raised an eyebrow and looked over his shoulder at the door. Hands in his back pockets, he turned back to them with pursed lips. “Savannah’s not that big.”
“It’s growing more every day, Dad.” Ben grinned at his father. “I thought it was time to come home. That’s all. Is it okay if I crash here until I find a place?”
Sarah kept his hand in hers as she tugged him toward the kitchen. “Of course you can. And are you telling me you’re home to stay?”
“I think so.”
She gave a mock scowl as she made him sit at the island. “You aren’t in trouble, are you?”
“No! Well, there was that one bank robbery,” he mused, scratching his chin. When his father wrapped him in a loose headlock, Ben put his hands around Owen’s arm, but didn’t try to move it. He knew he had to be wearing the goofiest grin in the world, but he didn’t care. “It’s so good to see the two of you.”
Owen tousled his hair. “You, too.”
Amelia came in a little after nine, and with typical teenage exuberance, squealed and danced happily around Ben. They stayed up late, catching up on the big picture and the little things.
Sitting in the presence of his family was a gift, Ben thought. As corny as he knew a lot of people would think it sounded, he enjoyed being with his parents and sister.
The next day was Sunday, and wanting to extend the surprise as much as possible, Ben parked his truck in the barn. His brother and his family were coming to the farm for dinner, and Ben was eager to see the look on John’s face when he walked in and realized Ben was there.
“Benjamin Wayne, you’re twenty-four years old,” Sarah scolded him mildly from the dining room door as he paced the hall, waiting for John’s arrival. “One of these days, you’re going to surprise someone, and it’s going to backfire.”
Ben rubbed his hands together as he looked out the small window beside the door. “Yeah, but not today. They’re here. Oh, wow. Noah’s half grown. And Eli’s so big! He’s walking?”
“He was what, five or six months old when you saw him last?” Amelia chimed in from her seat on the stairs. Ben joined her, trading places with Owen, who opened the door. “He’s running around everywhere now. They can hardly keep up with him.”
From the way his father’s eyes were lit up, Ben knew Owen was looking forward to John’s reaction as much as he was. However, Zanny, his sister-in-law, was the first through the door. She stopped dead when she saw Ben, her mouth falling open with shock.
“Oh, my God!” Dropping the diaper bag in her hand, she rushed over to him, arms open wide. Ben obliged her with a hug. “Are you really here?”
“I am. Hey, gorgeous.” Ben drew back and smacked a kiss on her forehead. “You get prettier every time I see you. John.”
“I’ll be damned.” His brother handed Eli to Owen and shook his head. A pleased smile crossed John’s face, and he stepped inside.
Ben met him halfway, grinning like an idiot. “Probably. You always were the mean one.” Despite the contentious words, they shared a tight embrace. There’d always been a healthy competitiveness between John and Ben, but no true animosity. Ben liked to tweak John when it came to Zanny, but only in a joking fashion. He had a lot of respect and admiration for his older brother, and much like with Emma, someone had to keep John on his toes.
“Where’s Emma?” Zanny asked as they got coats and bags out of the way.
“Back in Georgia. She and Nonny both send their love.”
Sarah directed everyone to the dining room. “Let’s eat, kids.”
As they took their seats around the long oak table, John asked Ben, “Are you just visiting, or are you here for a while?”
“I’m actually thinking about UK, and their landscape architecture program,” Ben confessed. “But I thought I’d hang around Hazard until next fall. Find a job I don’t have to think about too hard, take some time off. I’ve never really done that.”
He’d gone back to Savannah a few years ago after summer break, his tail between his legs, and he hadn’t slowed down except for major holidays spent with the family. He’d plowed through school, not even taking the summers off, and had graduated a year ahead of schedule. He’d gotten the job soon after and had only taken long weekends off since.
From the looks exchanged around the table, he figured there was some speculation going on, but no one said anything.
“Well, whatever reason you’re back, it’s good to have you,” Zanny told him with a smile.
“It’s good to be back.”
And for the most part, he meant it.
Sarah called Ben into her sitting room later that evening. “Hey, have a minute?”
He hesitated in the doorway. “Depends. Am I in trouble? That’s just about the only time I’ve ever been in here.”
Owen had built the quiet refuge for Sarah after Ben and Emma were born. To this day, no one was allowed in without her permission.
Sarah laughed. “No, silly. I wanted to ask you about your job plans. I’m guessing from what you said earlier that you want something temporary?”
“I do. You have something in mind?”
“Possibly. We have a girl at the library who’s getting ready to go on maternity leave. We’re having trouble finding someone to fill in for her. You interested?”
He crossed to the windows that looked out over the yard and kitchen garden. Sarah watched him stretch his arms up and behind his head, and she was struck by what a handsome man he had grown into. Owen Campbell’s stamp was all over Ben. His hair was a warm honey-brown streaked with gold instead of Owen’s dark-chocolate tresses, and he wasn’t quite as lanky as Owen, but there was no denying he was Owen’s son. Sarah figured if he did take her up on the offer, the library’s usage would go up dramatically, particularly by the female patrons.
“When would I need to start?”
“Week after next.”
He picked up one of the glass paperweights Sarah collected, carefully turning it this way and that. “I wouldn’t be taking someone else’s job?”
“No. Like I said, we’ve had trouble finding anyone who wants to fill in temporarily. You’d actually be doing me a favor.” She’d stepped into the role of assistant director a couple of years ago.
“How long is maternity leave?”
“Typically six to eight weeks. It’s her first child, so she isn’t really sure how long she’ll need yet. And then when she does come back, it will probably just be part time at first. I figure by the time spring gets here and you start getting restless to get outside, she’ll be ready to take her job back. It isn’t like you haven’t done the job before.”
The last summer Ben had spent at home before moving, he’d worked at the library with Sarah.
“I want to go up to Lexington, talk to some people at school. Make sure that’s going to be a good fit for me. I made the appointments last week,” he surprised her by adding. “I’d planned to go up there Wednesday.”
“You’ve given this a lot of thought. And here you’d led us to believe you just rolled home.”
Ben’s grin was full of mischief as he traded the paperweight he was holding for another one. “I’m not just another pretty face, Mom.”
“I never thought you were.”
“This is nice. When did you add it to the collection?”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. “This past Mother’s Day. Benjamin. Is there some reason you’re hesitating to take the job? Don’t worry about offending me. If you don’t want it, that’s fine.”
He sat the glass globe down gently and joined her on the couch with a sigh. Arms resting on his knees, his hands clasped between his legs, he shrugged. “The job sounds fine. Perfect, in fact. It isn’t that. I’m just starting to realize that I’m back in town for real, which sounded fine on paper, but I’m going to have to face down some demons.”
“And some of those demons are at the library?”
“Yeah. But that’s part of why I’m back. And that particular demon moved on years ago, so it’s just a ghost I’d be facing.” He reached out his hand. “Sign me up.”
Sarah shook the proffered hand, but held onto it. “When you left here, it wasn’t just a summer fling gone wrong, was it? That girl broke your heart.”
Ben kissed her hand, then gently pulled his free. “I let her get under my skin,” he admitted as he stood. “It’s time to get her out.”
Sarah thought about that long after he went upstairs. Owen found her still sitting on the couch some time later, lost in thought.
“Hey, are you coming to bed? It’s getting late.” He started rubbing her shoulders.
Sarah leaned into his touch with a satisfied sound. “I’ve just been thinking.”
“Of course.” She rubbed her face on his hand where it rested on her shoulder. “I didn’t think he’d ever come home, but here he is.”
“Did you ask him about the job?”
“Yes. He’s going to take it.” She stood and turned off the lamp, then joined Owen at the door. He wrapped his arms around her waist as she went past and pulled her back into him. When he nuzzled her neck, biting down gently, she smiled and turned in his arms. “So that’s why you came looking for me.”
Owen closed the door, then backed her into it. “No. I came looking for you because I missed you.” He leaned in and kissed her gently. “Think we can chance staying down here, having a little fun? The kids are both upstairs.”
Sarah started unbuttoning his shirt, enjoying the feel of his body pressed into hers as much as she had nearly thirty years ago, when they’d first been married. “Maybe. If we’re quiet. Or we could sneak out to the studio.”
“Now, there’s an idea.” The farmhouse they lived in had belonged to Owen’s parents. Because the farmhouse had too many bad memories for his comfort, he’d built his own house behind it after they passed away. After their family started growing, though, he and Sarah had renovated the farmhouse and moved in. He kept the smaller, more modern house as his workspace for writing and illustrating the children’s books he authored. They had used it over the years as a lover’s retreat.
His hands roamed her back, undoing her bra as they kissed again. Sarah had almost decided to be daring and hang the studio idea when she heard footsteps coming down the stairs.
“Mom? I can’t find my blue shirt,” Amelia called. She knocked on the door. “Mom?”
“Go away, child,” Owen grumbled. “Mom’s busy.”
“Seriously? You people are at it again? Gross!”
Sarah could practically see the teenager rolling her eyes, even through the heavy wooden door, but she was laughing, too.
“I can hardly wait until you have children of your own, young lady,” he growled with a frustrated glower at the door. “I hope they’re just like you.”
“I’ll be out in a minute,” Sarah told her with a chuckle.
“Take your time.” Amelia’s laughter echoed back down the hall.
“That girl has always had the worst timing of all our children. She has a gift for it.” He stepped back with a reluctant sigh. “You don’t know how happy I’ll be when she’s in college.”
“Owen!” Sarah laughed as she fumbled back into her clothing. “You will be completely despondent when she leaves the nest. You know it.”
He sat on the back of the couch. “I know. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Short rain check. Find your daughter her shirt and meet me in the studio. Threaten them with penalty of death if they come out there.”
“You know I have to be up early tomorrow.”
“You will be. I promise.”
As she hurried down the hall to help search for the elusive blue shirt, Sarah smiled. She’d gotten very lucky when she met Owen Campbell. If all her children were as happy with their spouses as she was with Owen, she would know she’d done her job as a mother.
“One down, four to go.”