This is a short story featuring a new character, Zelda, who is likely going to end up as a recurring, supporting character in the Lost River/Matt Kirchner universe. She’s a funny, warm, no-nonsense lady, and I hope you enjoy meeting her as much as I did. Happy Reading!
For the Love of Harry
T. L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
The steel of the shotgun was cold and intractably hard as it laid across her knees. Even though she’d been sitting with the fingers of her right hand wrapped around the barrel for close to two hours, the metal still felt icy.
Ignoring the ache radiating up her fingers through her hand, across her wrist, and into to her forearm, Zelda Delaney Grange shifted quietly in her chair, barely a whisper of sound escaping as she got more comfortable.
No one could see her from the street. The tall clumps of dead, decorative grass in front of the porch that she’d neglected to trim the previous summer saw to that.
Cutting the plants down every year was something Harry had always done. He’d not wanted her to get scratched up by the harsh blades. She’d not been able to muster the strength this past fall to deal with the emotions taking on that task would bring, so she’d ignored the plants.
Now, as she sat in the dark privacy the fluffy tufts and bone-dry blades provided, she was grateful for that moment of weakness. She’d never have been able to conceal her presence on the porch without having the grass to hide behind.
In the fifty-seven years she’d been on the planet, Zelda had seen a lot of things. For heaven’s sake, she’d spent a couple of years back in the nineteen seventies in Vegas as a showgirl. That experience alone had taught her as much about the human condition as the next decade—or three—combined.
That said, for the life of her she’d not expected what had happened last night.
With the one-year anniversary of the death of her beloved husband Harry rapidly approaching, Zelda was distraught. Exhausted from days of restless nights and too-little sleep, she’d gone to bed much earlier than usual. As she often did, she dreamed of Harry.
They were walking along a lazy, sparkling river in the sunlight, and she’d tucked her arm into his. He’d felt more real and solid to her than in any other dream, and grief rose up in a wave that nearly swamped her with its intensity.
“I miss you so,” she confessed softly, “I don’t know how I’ll stand waking up in the morning.”
He patted her hand, then gently smiled. “I’m always here when you need me, but you don’t need me that often. Not like you think. Regardless, I’m always watching.”
Anger rushed in, flaring with intensity. “‘Always watching,’ ‘always here.’ You say that like you could reach through to the other side and help me if I was in trouble.”
Harry chuckled. “Who’s to say I couldn’t? You should write me sometime, get things off your chest. Out of your system.”
Zelda laughed, her anger fading as quickly as it had come. “Write you? And mail the letters where?”
“I’m wherever you are, so use our address. If you put them in the box, I’ll get them. Don’t waste a stamp, though. The system is a little different over here—it’s a whole lot more efficient, I’ll tell you that.”
With a shake of her head, she leaned against him. “How silly an idea is that, to write a man who’s dead and gone?” Just speaking the words caused her throat to close up, the sharp ache of longing and loss slapping her like an open hand on an unhealed wound.
Harry stopped walking and turned, cupping her face with hands that felt so warm and real against her skin, she wept. “Wife, I’m telling you to write me. Those letters will find their way to me. I’ll see to it. Just put them in the mailbox after midnight and before the sun rises. Otherwise things get confused.”
With a gentle fierceness that was something of a surprise coming from a man who was larger than life, he kissed her. While her eyes were still closed, he started fading. The last thing she heard before the world they shared in her dreams vanished was his admonishing whisper.
Coming awake with a startled gasp, her lips still tingling from his kiss, she let out a shaky sob. “Write me, the man says. Fine,” she said from between gritted teeth as she threw the covers back and stormed from the bed. “I’ll write you a damned letter that will make your head spin!”
For more than an hour, she’d churned out words. Hard and fast scribbles, slow and mournful laments, tear-covered pleas that she poured her heart and soul into, not holding any of her emotions back. By the time she’d exhausted herself, she’d filled more than fifteen pages, front and back.
Drunk from sleep deprivation and emotionally bereft, she didn’t stop to think about what she did next. Grabbing a large envelope, she clumsily stuffed the letter inside, crushing the messy papers in her hasty efforts to make them fit. Addressing the envelope to Harry, she stumbled to the mailbox at the street and shoved it inside, raising the flag with a sharp puff of breath.
“What are you looking at?” she asked the full moon overhead, glaring at it for an instant before shuffling back inside. Drained, she fell into bed and slept soundly like she’d not done in months.
When she awakened just after eight the next morning, the entire episode felt like a dream. She realized the truth when she lifted her hand to rub the sleep from her eyes and saw the ink stains on her fingers. Stunned, she lay there for a minute, two, and then horror set in.
“Good God, if the mailman finds that letter, he’ll think I’ve finally lost my mind.” Slinging on her robe, with her hair standing up every which way on her head, she dashed to the front of the house and out the door. “Please don’t let anyone see me,” she muttered as she hurried down the walk to the mailbox.
Her heart skipped a beat when she saw that the flag was down. “Surely Ryan hasn’t been here this early. He never runs before ten o’clock.”
But when she opened the flap, sure enough, the box was empty. Not wanting to believe her eyes, she stuck her hand inside and felt around, thinking that maybe she’d gone blind in the night and simply wasn’t seeing things correctly. The curse she let out when her hand met only air and the metal sides of the box was colorful and descriptive. It did nothing to alleviate her anxiety, but it might well have gotten her in trouble if anyone had overheard it.
Eyes closing, she groaned. “Well, Zelda, you always did joke around and say you’d end up being that crazy old lady with the big roses and no cats.” Her heart was sinking, however. The idea that someone might read what she’d written, the personal and private thoughts she’d poured onto the paper, made her cringe.
“There’s no hope for it. You’ll have to catch Ryan tomorrow and see what he did with the letter. Maybe you can convince him you aren’t ready for a trip to the looney bin courtesy of the guys with the butterfly nets.”
Ryan was an absolute sweetheart. She’d known him since he was a small boy, and given that she was distant friends with his mother, she might be able to talk him into keeping the whole matter to himself. Resigned that what was done was well and truly done, she headed inside and got ready to face the day. But ninety minutes later, she stepped out on the porch in time to see Ryan driving his little white truck slowly down the street.
“What in the world?” Hands clenched together in a pose not dissimilar to that used for praying, she walked to the mailbox and waited for him.
“Morning, Mrs. G. How are you today?” His smile was sunny and normal and held no hint of wariness for the crazy lady.
“I’m well, young man. Surprised to see you, though, given that you’ve already been down our little street once. Say, Ryan, that letter that you picked up earlier… I don’t suppose I could have it back, could I? I didn’t mean to mail it, you see.”
He frowned as he handed over her stack of mail. “This is the first time I’ve been down here today. Someone took your letter?”
Not sure what to think, Zelda stared at him, envelopes clutched to her chest. “You… didn’t pick the mail up early this morning? Before eight o’clock?”
“No, ma’am. I didn’t get to the office until almost eight. There was a big traffic snarl up at the new roundabout, and I got stuck behind it. If someone stole something from your box, we need to report it. That’s a serious offense, Mrs. G.”
Confused, she turned to look at the innocuous mailbox. “Well, I… maybe I stashed it somewhere in the house. It was very late last night—this morning, really—that I finished it. Yes, I’m sure that’s it. I simply was too tired to remember correctly. Who would steal a letter from my box?” She forced a small laugh. “Don’t pay any mind to me, Ryan. I’m having an off day, that’s all.”
His smile was sympathetic, something she’d both come to expect and learned to hate during the past year. “It’s all right, Mrs. G. We all do that from time to time. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Of course. Have a nice day, you hear?”
He tipped two fingers to her and drove to the next mailbox two houses down.
Zelda stood there as he finished delivering to the rest of the street. The whole time, her mind was racing. “If you didn’t put it in the box, where the hell did you put it?” she muttered as she pivoted on her heel and walked briskly back up to the house. “I guess you’ll just have to figure that out, won’t you?”
By six o’clock that evening, she’d turned the house and the potting shed in the backyard upside down. Three searches—one frantic, two methodical—had netted her a lost scarf, two pairs of shoes she’d thought she’d donated to the thrift store years ago, several stashes of jars of nails Harry had placed throughout the house, and a very racy romance novel he’d teased her about so mercilessly, she’d thrown it at him.
That, she’d found in the corner of the garage he’d used as his workshop, and given that several pages were dog-eared—a practice she found abhorrent—she knew he’d stolen it in order to read it. That discovery had made her laugh, then cry, then laugh again. But there was no overstuffed brown envelope, no letter. She’d even searched the trashcans and paper shredder bin to no avail.
“Where the devil are you, you stupid thing?” she muttered for the thousandth time as she stood in the kitchen, hands on her hips. The question was answered by the ringing of the doorbell, which made her jump. Hands at her chest, she hurried through the dining room and into the hall.
“What in the world is going on?” Helen Breeding asked as Zelda unlocked the storm door. Clearly concerned, her eyes scanned Zelda from head to toe. “Why aren’t you ready for dinner? I’ve called you half a dozen times. What’s wrong, honey?”
“I forgot about the dinner. That’s tonight?” Zelda cursed. Helen was her best friend in the world, and they were both members of a murder mystery book club that met once a month at local restaurants. Since Zelda’s car was in the shop, Helen had planned to pick her up this evening. “I’m sorry, Hel. It completely slipped my mind. I don’t think I’m up to going.”
Arms crossed, Helen shook her head as she glanced into the messy rooms. “Did you have a break-in? What happened?”
With a sigh, Zelda led her to the kitchen. “No break-in, nothing like that. I feel so utterly stupid, I could just scream.” She pulled a pitcher of sweet tea from the fridge, pouring two glasses on autopilot and handing one to Helen. “I lost something, and I can’t find it anywhere. Though I’m really starting to wonder if it ever even existed. I’m afraid I’m losing my mind.”
Helen eyed her shrewdly. “You seem sane enough to me. What did you lose?”
Knowing she could tell Helen and not be made fun of, Zelda explained about the letter. “I’m sure I wrote it. For goodness’ sake, my hands were covered in ink this morning. I even had it on my chin, my cheeks. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out where it is.”
“You’ve walked through your steps, I’m guessing?” Helen asked.
“Of course I have, several times.” Zelda sank down onto a chair at the table with a tired grunt. “What could I have done with it?”
Helen shrugged. “If you can’t find it in the house, if you’re certain you mailed it, then the only other explanation is that it really was stolen.”
They looked at each other for a pregnant minute. “Who the bloody fricking hell would steal a letter to a dead man?” Zelda asked in a hushed voice. The idea was one she’d entertained in brief moments throughout the day, a thought she’d shied away from time and again, not wanting to believe that someone she knew, someone she’d perhaps lived near for years, could be so duplicitous.
In the end, that was the only explanation she and Helen could come up with. After assuring Helen she was fine to stay on her own, she shooed her out the door to the dinner. Too tired and weary to deal with the mess she’d created, she grabbed a banana to eat, then headed to bed.
By the time she finished putting the house back in order the next day, she was steely-eyed and determined to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of the letter. To that end, she figured the only sensible solution would be to replicate the situation. She roughed up some papers, shoved them in an envelope identical to the one the letter had been in, and waited until one thirty—the time she’d mailed the original letter—to march back out to the mailbox.
She even stopped to glare at the moon as she had two nights earlier, though fog was starting to move in, obscuring the otherwise clear night sky. Then, back to the house she went, going inside, closing the door, and making a production of turning off all the lights.
When she reached her bedroom, she shed the robe she’d worn over her warm, dark clothes, and picked up the shotgun, checking to make sure it was loaded even though she’d done that same thing not five minutes earlier. Then she went back downstairs, moving carefully through the darkened house. As quietly as she could, she opened the door and slid out onto the porch. Taking a seat in the sturdy, comfortable chair she’d positioned earlier in the day, she waited.
Over the grief-stricken days of the past year since she’d lost Harry to a freak accident, she’d learned the value of holding still for long periods of time. That stillness had been the only thing that had held her together as the pain that washed over her was too sharp to be borne. Only by closing her body off from her mind had she been able to endure the loss of the man who’d been her life for more than thirty years.
All that holding still had given her a valuable skill, that of being able to remain motionless while sitting, keeping quiet while waiting for trouble to show up. She gave an inward laugh at the idea that in dealing with her own private hell, she’d been learning how to hunt the enemy. Surely, whoever had stolen the letter was just that. Anyone who had been playing a prank would have returned the missive once discovering its contents.
So she sat and she waited and she pondered who the perpetrator might be. A new family had moved into a house down the block a few months back, a harried couple who couldn’t seem to be bothered with parenting their teenagers, three children who were smart-mouthed little pricks who had a lack of respect for anyone or anything that didn’t directly affect them. They were just like their parents in that regard.
Those kinds of kids were too prone to getting into stupid trouble, she knew, and unless someone gave them a wake-up call, they’d only go on to cause more grief for the hapless people they encountered. To that end, she’d filled the gun with rock salt, modifying the shells herself to make them nonlethal, and she almost relished the idea of peppering the backsides of the little thief or thieves with the material.
They’d be picking it out of their sorry hides for days, and the stinging burn that would accompany the load… oh, it was a fitting punishment for the crime. Much more fitting than anything the postal service could deliver. And besides, she thought, it might turn them around, scare the bejeesus out of them, and straighten them into being somewhat decent human beings.
However, by the time four o’clock came around, she was starting to lose hope that she’d catch the miscreants this night. Her bait didn’t seem to have attracted any attention, and she was starting to fear the thieves’ identities would never be known to her. How many nights will I have to sit out here?
At some point, the watching would become ridiculous. She figured she had a ways to go before that happened—her anger would carry her through at least a week or two. With any luck, she wouldn’t have to wait that long. The pests’ curiosity would be stronger than their need for safety and they’d pop up any moment now to steal the second letter.
Even though she was warmly dressed, the chill was starting to get to her. Plus, thanks to having slept so poorly the night before, she could hardly keep her eyes open. Just when she thought she was going to have to pack it in and give up, a faint rustling sounded from the other side of the tall, decorative grass.
Adrenaline surged through her, jolting her wide awake, and she held perfectly still as she waited to see who the letter thieves were. I have you now, you sorry excuses for human beings, she thought.
To her surprise, though the rustling continued, growing in intensity and with the added sound of irate—if muted—grumbling thrown in, no one appeared at the mailbox. Instead, tendrils of fog that appeared to be lit from within whorled around the flower bed at the base of the post, then climbed upward toward the metal box.
When the distinct sound of the squeaky hinge opening, then closing, reached her ears, Zelda stood with a gasp. Still clutching the shotgun, she hurried down the steps and across the grass as quickly as her stiff joints would allow.
What she was seeing made no sense. The glowing light inside the fog faded as she approached, winking out completely by the time she reached the mailbox. Spinning around as though it was caught inside a drain, the decoy letter she’d placed was wrapped in foggy fingers. Even as she watched, it became translucent, then disappeared entirely. Only tiny wisps of fog remained on the grass to indicate the spot, and before she could do more than gawk, those vanished as well.
“I’m losing my mind,” she whispered. “I’m really and truly losing my mind.”
With care, she sank to her knees, running her hands over the grass. The ground felt solid beneath, with no rabbit holes or soft spots that might offer an explanation for what she’d seen. Heart racing, feeling sick to her stomach, she sank back on her haunches and stared at her hands, hands that were shaking and damp with dew.
“How is this possible?”
A whisper of sound to her left, from over by the tall grass, had her whipping her head back toward the house. In the moonlight, she could easily make out the shapes of three garden gnomes. The statues had always been Harry’s favorites, little whimsical touches he’d placed here and there throughout the yard. Whenever she would remark upon them, he’d chuckle and call them his “guardian gnomes.”
“See—I told you they’d look out for you long after I was gone, didn’t I?”
She heard his voice as clearly as though he were standing beside her. Certain she was hallucinating, or thinking that perhaps she’d gone to sleep, she smacked herself in the face—hard. “Better pinch yourself just for good measure,” she muttered, doing just that. She didn’t feel any different afterward, aside from now having a stinging cheek and a sore spot on her belly where she’d pinched so hard. She surely didn’t feel any more or less awake than she had.
With shaking knees, she got to her feet and managed to get to the front of the mailbox. Drawing in a deep breath, she closed her eyes and offered up a brief prayer, then opened the flap.
The decoy letter was not there. What did linger inside the mailbox was a single wisp of fog, glittering and sparkly as it escaped the dark confines and was touched by the moonlight. It drifted past her face with what felt like a caress, soothing the place where she’d hit herself, and then was gone.
Shocked to her core, all she could think to do was gather up the shotgun and make her way back to the house.
“Maybe this will all make sense after a good night’s rest. Maybe this is all a dream.”
But when she reached the steps, she glanced down at the gnomes. When she saw that the three inanimate statues were gazing up at her, their eyes sparkling as they grinned, she nearly passed out. Before she could do more than blink, however, they’d reverted to their normal, non-living selves.
It was simply too much. Unable to handle another single, blessed, weird thing, she hurried inside and slammed the door shut behind her.
“You don’t even think about what just happened. Just go to bed and forget it. Everything will be normal and sane in the morning.”
Clinging to that hope, that’s what she did. By now, it was a quarter till five. Certain she wouldn’t be able to shut her eyes, much less sleep, she kicked off the heavy clothes and crawled in bed, too upset to even get into her gown.
The next thing she knew, it was morning. Sunlight was bathing the room in a happy, warm glow, birds were singing outside the window, and the clock read ten till nine. With her head feeling stuffed full of cotton, she propped herself up on an elbow to stare at the empty spot where Harry should have been. Memories of the night’s activities rushed through her, clearing out the fog.
“I don’t know if I feel better or worse,” she said as she swung her feet to the floor, sitting up for a minute before trying to stand. She felt as though she’d gone ten rounds with a boxing champion, probably a side effect brought on by sitting too long on the porch in the cold and damp.
After a warm shower, she made her way to the kitchen. She’d just brewed a pot of coffee when the doorbell rang. The last person she expected to see when she opened the door was Helen. Her face was tight, her mouth drawn, and concern was written in every line of her body.
“What’s wrong? Is it Kenny?” Zelda asked as she unlocked the storm door and let her friend in.
“No. He’s fine. I need to ask… Did you come by the house last night?” Helen stood just inside the door, her arms folded tightly over her middle.
Zelda narrowed her eyes, studying Helen. “To your house? No. No, I did not. Come on back. I need coffee. Why do you ask?”
“Are you certain, Zel?”
Helen’s tone stopped her in the kitchen door. Looking back across the foyer to where Helen stood, not having moved, Zelda felt a chill race down her back. “My car is still in the shop. I’m pretty sure I didn’t walk close to an hour to get to you, and I didn’t call a cab or bum a ride. So yes, I’m certain I didn’t come by your house. What’s going on?”
Without saying a word, Helen crossed to her and held out a familiar envelope. “This was on the table on the porch this morning when we went out to have coffee.”
“What?” Zelda took envelope, the one that had held the decoy letter. It was much thinner now, and the seal had been broken. Afraid to breathe, she opened the flap and pulled out the single, ragged piece of paper inside.
When she saw Harry’s handwriting on the paper, she gasped and staggered, hitting the door frame beside her with enough force that she knew she’d probably have a bruise. “Oh, God.”
It wasn’t a dream. I told you that you weren’t alone. With all my love, Harry.
The house was silent as she and Helen stared at each other.
“Why don’t you tell me what this is about?” Helen suggested, her voice soft. “Let’s sit down and get that coffee, and you can tell me what the hell is going on. I’m guessing this is about the letter you sent him.” She guided Zelda into the kitchen, easing her down into a seat at the Formica topped table.
Incapable of speech, all Zelda could do was run her fingers over the paper as tears rolled down her cheeks. By the time Helen had the coffee in mugs and creamer on the table, she’d almost regained control of her emotions. In a halting voice, she told Helen about the “stakeout.”
“And when I looked in the box, it was gone. How can that be possible, Helen? Tell me how it can be possible. Please?” She wiped her cheeks with a napkin from the holder on the table.
Helen was disturbed, her face reflecting her unease. Her hands were wrapped tightly around the coffee mug she held on the table in front of her, and she slowly shook her head. “I can’t tell you how that’s possible any more than I can tell you how a letter from a dead man ended up on my breakfast table. All I know is that it did happen. I’ve never… I’ve never believed in any of that paranormal bullshit you see on TV or read about in books. But this… Zel, I’m at a loss to explain this. I was hoping you could.”
“Not without sounding insane, I can’t. What did Kenny say?”
Helen shrugged. “He didn’t know what to think. If he hadn’t had an emergency call come in right after we discovered it, he would have come over here with me.” Helen’s husband was a dentist with a practice in town. “How in the world is this even possible? Do you think someone is trying to play a cruel trick on us?”
Though the question was serious, Zelda didn’t even have to consider her answer. Something in her gut was telling her that wasn’t the case. “No. Yesterday, it was the only explanation I could come up with. But after what I saw this morning and seeing this letter, I think… as crazy as it sounds, I think this is all Harry. Somehow, someway. It’s him. Just don’t ask me how I feel about that right now because I don’t know.”
Helen stayed for a while after that. Zelda figured they each needed the comfort of the other as they worked their way through and around the minefield the letters had created. By the time she left, Zelda was no closer to understanding what was going on than she had been, but at least she knew she wasn’t alone—and not just in the way Harry had indicated in the letter. Helen and Kenny would have her back no matter what, and that was comforting even if the circumstances were somewhat harrowing.
As she watched Helen back out of the driveway and head off down the street, she let out a hard sigh. Never in her wildest dreams had she expected to be able to communicate with Harry again while she was still on this side of living. She still didn’t believe it was happening, even though she knew it was. And she wasn’t sure how in the world to go forward in this new reality she’d been thrust into.
“You’ll figure it out, Zel. You always do.” She gave a single nod, firm in her resolve. “A little mystery is good for the soul. Maybe this will be the push I need to start healing.” And with that hope foremost in her mind, she went back inside to get ready for the first day of whatever this next phase of her life turned out to be.
Copyright 2018 T. L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
September 9, 1971
John David Campbell knew if he had to spend one more second resting on the couch, he might well die from sheer boredom. Even with the TV on, the volume turned low, tuned to the one channel out of three that wasn’t airing those silly daytime soap operas people seemed to like so much, he was ready to expire from inactivity.
Five days earlier, he’d been scared to death, sick with pain and fear, and facing emergency surgery for a nearly ruptured appendix. John knew he’d had a close call. For a ten-and-a-half-year-old–the oldest son who was supposed to be mature enough not to be scared when he got sick, at least to John’s mind–the illness had been terrifying.
Although his parents had tried to hide their concern, they hadn’t quite been able to mask their emotions. Both his mom and his dad were still stopping at random moments to touch his hair or give him a hug. They’d been that way since he came out of surgery and since he came home from the hospital day before yesterday. Too, it wasn’t as though John never got hugs or attention. His parents were both very affectionate. You couldn’t be a Campbell child in this house and not know you were loved.
But the way they were acting now reminded John of how they’d been after his cousin had passed away a couple of years back. He knew some kids would be scared by that, but he was reassured by the extra concern.
None of that alleviated his boredom, however. He was feeling well enough now that he resented his confinement, but not yet healed enough to get up and do much about it. A glance at the clock told him only three minutes had passed since the last time he’d looked. With a groan that would’ve done a dying cow proud, he let his head fall back to the arm of the couch, landing with a soft thud.
“Rachel, what are you doing?”
John’s four-year-old sister had been playing with her dolls in the floor in front of the couch, but she’d gotten up and wandered away a few minutes earlier. He could tell she was fiddling around with something somewhere near the long table that sat behind the couch, between it and the wide doorway into the hall, but he couldn’t make out whether she was still in the room or if she’d moved into the hallway.
With another groan, this one containing no small amount of grumbling and put-upon irritation, he sat up. He was almost over his soreness from the surgery, but he was still on restricted activities per the doctor’s orders. He was well enough now that his mother had tasked him with keeping an eye on Rachel while she worked on getting supper ready in the kitchen.
He was also well enough now to feel some good-natured brotherly resentment at having to babysit. Shrugging aside his irritation, he swung his feet to the floor. “Come on, Rach. Answer me, would you?”
The sound that came in response to his demand had him shaking his head in confusion. A mix between a whistle and a snort, high-pitched and somehow familiar while remaining foreign, the noise didn’t sound right. He knew immediately that Rachel had gotten into something she shouldn’t, and since he’d been the one tasked with watching over her…
Before he could jump up and investigate, however, a tiny head peeked around the corner of the couch, causing him to do a double-take. With huge, soft-looking ears and brown eyes as big as half dollars, a baby deer stared at him, looking as stunned as John felt.
Infinite moments passed as they stared at each other, both frozen with surprise. So many thoughts ran through John’s mind, he couldn’t keep up with any of them. The only thing he could do was close his mouth and swallow down a gulp of sheer panic. Half afraid he was seeing things, he drew in a shaky breath, then did the one thing any normal ten-year-old boy would.
The yell came out louder than he’d intended, and the baby deer gave a wheezing, shrill whistle in response. Startled, it backed away, struggling for footing as its feet hit the hardwood floor. When a loud noise sounded from the direction of the kitchen, it jumped, scrambling for purchase before going down, its spindly legs going in four different directions.
John edged around the couch, moving as carefully as he could, not taking his eyes away from the deer as footsteps raced toward the living room. “Oh, man. Rachel, where’d you find a baby deer? How’d you get it in the house?”
“Johnny? What’s wrong?” Sarah Campbell appeared in the doorway, her eyes wide with fright. “Did you–oh, my God.”
Forever and a day, John would remember the look on his mother’s face as she stared at him and the deer. He knew the astonished wonder he saw in her eyes was reflected in his own.
“I didn’t let it in, Mom. Rachel must have. I don’t know where she is either.”
Sarah was shaking her head, and as he watched, she slowly sank to her knees. One trembling hand came up to touch her mouth, and she pressed her lips together. A laugh bubbled out, then a smile. She held her hands out toward the deer, who was still struggling to stand and getting nowhere.
“Oh, Johnny. I know exactly where she is.” She gestured to the pile of clothing–Rachel’s clothing–that was strewn haphazardly under the table behind the couch. “My darling girl, I knew this was coming. Sweet, sweet Rachel.”
In that moment, John put it together. Rachel hadn’t let a baby deer in the house–she was the baby deer. His sister was a shape-shifter, just like their father.
“Dad?” he managed to croak out.
Sarah nodded. “Go get him, please. Don’t run!” she admonished as he hurried from the room. “You shouldn’t run just yet.”
John obeyed her until he’d cleared the back door, but then he couldn’t hold back. He was too excited, astonished really, and desperate to get to his father who was working on preliminary illustrations for his latest book in his studio that sat behind the house. He was too excited even to give more than a perfunctory knock, an oversight that under ordinary circumstances would have earned him a stern look from Owen Campbell.
His father was standing at the sink, filling a glass of water when John burst in. Startled, Owen quickly turned. “What’s wrong?”
Panting, a bit more winded than he wanted to admit, John dashed across the room and grabbed Owen’s hand, tugging hard. “It’s Rachel,” he said breathlessly. “You have to come see–she’s a deer.”
“What?” For several seconds, Owen stared down at him as though the words didn’t make sense.
John supposed they didn’t in a way. After all, even in a family as unusual as his, it wasn’t every day that one of his siblings changed their form from human to animal. As a matter of fact, it had never happened before.
A mix of emotions ran across his father’s face, moving so fast John was only left with the impressions of what they might be. With a clatter, the glass Owen had been filling fell into the sink.
“Where is she? In the house? Does your mother know?” he asked as he started for the door, only slowing enough so that John could catch up.
John nodded. “Living room, and yeah. Mom’s with her. Go on without me. I’ll catch up.” He’d wanted to see Owen’s face when he laid eyes on Rachel in her deer form for the first time, but he had a little bit of a stitch in his side, and he knew better than to try to run back to the house.
Owen slowed instead and laid a hand on John’s shoulder. “I’ll wait for you.”
Those four, simple words embodied the very nature of Owen Campbell. John knew his father had to be desperately anxious to get to the house and see for himself what was going on, but he was willing to set aside that need on John’s behalf.
Even though John was only ten, he understood how special that made Owen. Not everyone was so lucky, including Owen himself if the whispers and quiet conversations John had overheard between his parents were any indication.
Although it took well under a minute for them to reach the house, it felt like hours had passed by the time they came to a stop at the end of the hall.
“Owen, look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?” Sarah was beaming with pride, petting Rachel, her fingers lingering over the white dots on Rachel’s tawny coat. They’d moved into the hall, where Sarah had taken a seat on the rug that ran the length of the hallway. “She can’t get any traction on the hardwood. It’s the funniest, sweetest thing, though it’s aggravating the stuffing out of her.”
Owen didn’t speak, simply dropped down and extended his hands toward Rachel. When she stood on shaky legs and stumbled toward him, he gave a broken laugh and pulled her close, rocking her back and forth as tears wet his cheeks. He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head, laughing again when her ears twitched, brushing his face.
“Come here,” Sarah told John, pulling him in for a hug when he reached her. “Oh, John David, what a surprise this is. You didn’t run too hard, did you?” She felt his face, her hands cool and smooth against his skin as she checked for signs of fever.
“No, ma’am. I’m all right.” Feeling shy, he let Sarah tuck him in closely to her side and rested against her. “I thought for sure she’d let the deer in. Wait until Benny and Emma hear about this. They’ll be sore they missed it. I can’t believe she’s really for real.”
Owen released Rachel and wiped his cheeks unashamedly. “Neither can I. But I don’t think your mother is that surprised.”
Sarah squeezed John tighter, then stood as the faint sounds of a baby’s cry echoed down the hall. “I’m not at all surprised that Rachel is a deer, but I have to say I was pretty startled by it happening so suddenly. I think the casserole is in pieces on the floor of the kitchen. We might be eating sandwiches for supper. I’ll check on Amelia, then get that mess cleaned up.”
As she passed Owen, heading toward their bedroom where the baby’s crib was set up, she touched his arm. It was a move John had seen his parents make a thousand times, an exchange of thoughts without a word being spoken.
“Johnny, why don’t we take Rachel out to the garden so she can run around on the grass between the beds and get her feet underneath her?” Owen asked. “It’s too pretty a day for you kids to be cooped up in here anyhow. The fresh air will do you both good.”
As he sat beside Owen on the wide steps at the back of the house a few minutes later, his face turned up toward the sun as Rachel gamboled awkwardly through the garden, John sighed.
“You okay?” Owen put his arm around John’s shoulders, pressing a kiss to the crown of his head.
“Yeah. Are you? Is it weird to see her like this, for you I mean? I know it’s weird for me, but it’s really cool too.”
“It’s a little weird,” Owen admitted. “But mostly it’s cool.”
John was pretty sure he was “normal,” that he hadn’t inherited any special abilities from his father. He figured he’d be able to feel that sort of thing deep inside if he had that gift. But he wasn’t so certain about the rest of his siblings. “Do you think Benny or Em or Amelia will be able to shift?”
“I don’t know. Time will tell, and if they are, we’ll know soon enough. What about you? Any urge to eat grass or howl at the moon?” Owen could shift into a deer, but he was also able to change into a wolf if he wanted to.
John wrinkled his nose. “Nah, not really. Grass is gross, and the other… I don’t feel anything special when the moon is full. I’m sorry.”
He ruffled John’s hair gently. “Don’t apologize. Even if you aren’t a shape-shifter, you’re still special. Never forget that. At least I don’t have to worry about you chewing on the furniture.” They both laughed.
Sarah joined them not long after that with John’s baby sister Amelia on her hip. She sat beside John on his left, sandwiching him between her and Owen. The four of them watched Rachel chase butterflies, something she was wont to do in her human form, as well. It was a perfect moment, a private moment that John realized he was privileged to be a part of. It was a gift, this time spent with his parents and sisters.
Even though he was getting to be a big kid now, on the verge of becoming a young man, he was still young enough to enjoy the wonder and the magic of this time. With a happy sigh, he kicked his legs out in front of him and stretched carefully, mindful of his wound as he leaned back on his elbows. For an afternoon that had been so boring, it was turning out to be quite an adventure, one that would live in his memory for the rest of his days.
By T.L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
Deputy Jason Hudson was almost ready to go off duty when dispatch paged him back out.
“What’s your twenty, unit sixteen?”
“Ten minutes out, just passing Heartfield,” he answered. Heartfield was Olman County’s latest subdivision.
“Sixteen, I need you to turn around and head back out to Frazier’s Grove. We’ve had a report of a six-oh-eight with an eight-ten. Fire department is responding, ten minutes out.” The dispatcher relayed the address.
Jason scowled. A domestic disturbance with fire involved. The two were never a good combination. “Isn’t that Don Hilton’s address?”
“Ten-four, dispatch. I’m heading that way.” As he turned around and flipped on his light bar, the radio crackled again.
“Sixteen, be advised that the suspect is wearing a pink Easter bunny costume and is carrying a flamethrower.”
He slowed the vehicle down and reached for the radio again. “Ten-nine, dispatch. Repeat that, please. I know I didn’t hear you correctly.” The dispatcher repeated the information, and he could tell she was trying to not laugh. “Carrie, is this a joke?”
“Negative, unit sixteen. Proceed with caution.”
Jason was tired. It had been a long four days, and he was looking very forward to having the next four off. The last thing he felt like dealing with was some practical joke his co-workers were playing, but he couldn’t ignore the call. Silently promising retribution, as pulling pranks at work was something at which he excelled, he accelerated. “Ten-four, dispatch. Sixteen out.” Hanging the radio up, he muttered, “I won’t forget this one, Carrie.” As he drove to the location, he started running through his repertoire in his head, trying to figure out which joke would be best suited for a response to this trick.
A few minutes later, it became readily apparent Carrie hadn’t been kidding. As he pulled up in the Hilton’s driveway, he saw that the large shed in the backyard was fully engulfed in flames. Dancing around the burning structure was a man dressed in a pink rabbit costume. Sure enough, he had a flamethrower strapped on his back.
Heart sinking, Jason radioed back in, then got out of the car. Don’s grown daughter, Ruth, met him as he reached the steps of the old, slightly dilapidated farmhouse.
“Thanks for coming, Jason. As you see, it’s Daddy again. I’ve tried to talk to him, but… you know how he gets.” Every few seconds, the older man would give a maniacal laugh and pull the flamethrower’s trigger. When the resulting stream of fire shot out, his laughter gave way to triumphant howls.
Jason did know how it was. Don was a regular with the sheriff’s department, always getting into this scrape or that, usually harmless and petty things that were more aggravating than illegal.
“What set him off this time?” Jason asked as he considered what the safest approach would be.
Ruth sighed. “He had a big ol’ fight with Mommy. She’s in the house crying. That’s her potting shed he’s torched.”
Jason scowled. “Is she okay?” Sirens sounded in the distance, and he hoped it was the fire trucks. If they didn’t get the flaming shed under control soon, the woods behind it could very easily go up as well.
“She’s fine. He didn’t hit her or anything. He knows better. She’d clobber him but good, and he’d end up dead or something. She’s sure mad as hell,” Ruth answered, “and possibly filing for divorce, but she’s fine.”
“At least there’s that. I’m going to try to talk to your dad. Stay back, okay?”
She nodded. “Just make sure you get his attention before you get too close. I hollered at him earlier and the bird bath bought it when he turned around too quick.”
Jason hid his curse under his hand. Squaring his shoulders, he moved closer to Don. As he did, the man turned around and spotted him. Unfortunately, he had been in the middle of another fiery spurt, and the flames followed, shooting in Jason’s direction.
Cursing again, this time more virulently, Jason’s hand hovered over his service weapon. “Damn it, Don! You want to watch it with that thing?” He wasn’t close enough to get burned, though the heat was uncomfortable during the few seconds Don held the trigger down. “Don’t make me draw this gun.”
“Oops, I reckon that’d be a bad deal for both of us.” With a rueful grimace, Don dropped the flamethrower’s gun to his side, letting it dangle harmlessly as he stomped across the yard toward the driveway.
“Didn’t see you there, Jason,” he apologized, his words slurred. “Sorry about that.” He stopped, still several feet away, when Jason held up his free hand.
“You want to take that thing off?” Jason wasn’t about to move his hand away from his weapon, just in case, until the man was safely parted from the flamethrower.
“Sure, sure.” With movements clumsy from the alcohol, Don unbuckled the harness from his chest and dropped the flamethrower to the ground. He grinned as he came closer. “You gonna take me in?”
“I’m afraid so. Your wife is pretty upset, and you’ve done some damage here tonight.”
With a proud grin, Don looked back at the shed. “Guess I have. I’ll go with you peacefully, you know. I could use a good night’s sleep. The old woman, she snores loud enough to shake the rafters.”
Shaking his head with exasperated disgust and reluctant amusement, Jason walked the now-docile man to his cruiser as the fire trucks drove up. “What the heck were you doing here, Don?”
“Well, see now, my Dorie? She says I drink too much. Says ‘pink snowbunnies will ski in Hell’ before she’ll let me back in the house after this round. I was just giving her what she asked for, stupid woman.”
Speechless, Jason pointed at the snowshoes the other man wore. They were attached to the costume feet with duct tape. “Okay, but why snowshoes?” he asked when he could make his mouth work around his astonishment.
Don shrugged. “Couldn’t find any skis.”
As he cut the tape away from Don’s feet and helped get the snowshoes off so he could load the man into the back of the cruiser, Jason shook his head. With his passenger closed safely inside, he cast his gaze heavenward. He could just imagine the teasing he was going to get for this. The report alone, which would no doubt be circulated within the department, was going to be hard to live down, never mind the story.
“Why am I the only one who gets these calls?” he asked the indigo sky. There was no answer, but he could have sworn the stars twinkled just a little brighter after he spoke, as though heaven itself found his situation amusing.
A Quick Note from Molly
Dear Awesome and Fabulous Readers,
Molly Campbell here. I’m getting ready to run away from home, and I didn’t want to just up and leave without letting you know I was going. See, life isn’t working out quite the way I’d hoped it would. My job ended in utter disaster, so for the past few months, I’ve been helping out here and there in the family where I was needed. However, I’m not feeling particularly useful at the moment, and that’s not a normal mode for me. I’m going to go stark, raving mad if I don’t find something to do.
Plus, if I stick around Firefly Hollow much longer, my sweet, loving, overbearing, overprotective, obnoxious brothers are going to have me running a daycare center for Campbells! As much as I love babies, particularly nieces and nephews and the like, I’m not signing up for Noah and Eli to be my bosses. No way, nuh-uh. Not in a million years. I’d maim both my brothers and then end up having to take care of them, given that I’m a nurse practitioner.
Grandma and Grandpa are giving me their full blessing and support, and I’m so grateful to have that. I’m also grateful that I’ll be off their radar so far as it pertains to the Campbell Matchmaking Machine. I’ll find someone on my own time, thank you very much. Not theirs. As much as I love and adore them, that’s a path I’ll start on my own. Sometime, maybe. A few years from now when I’m settled. The last thing I want in my life right now is the complication of a romance.
Well, I’d best run. It’s getting late, and I want to be well and clear of Perry County before midnight. I’m sharing a house with Easton at the moment, and he tends to get up for a literal midnight snack every blessed night. It’s best if he doesn’t know I’m gone till the morning.
Hope to see you out there on the road!
Hugs and love,
If you’re curious, here’s the blurb for Burning Springs. And yes, it contains that romance Molly is sure she wants to avoid. 😉
Molly Campbell never expected to find herself working as a waitress in a diner in the middle of small-town Tennessee. She certainly never anticipated that she would develop feelings for one of the diner’s patrons, never mind that she would find herself homeless and having to rely on his kindness for shelter. But that’s where she ended up, struggling to reconcile reality with her hopes and dreams in order to come to terms with both.
Jonah Sutton doesn’t trust the redheaded Kentucky girl his aunt hired to help out in the diner. Convinced she’s hiding something, he vows to stick close so he can keep an eye on Molly. It doesn’t take long for his suspicion to turn to intrigue, and when a crisis hits close to home, he’s more than happy to step up and offer her his support. He never imagined his toughest battle would be figuring out a way to convince her to stay in Burning Springs and build a life with him.
Burning Springs is the thirteenth book in the “Firefly Hollow” series, women’s fiction romances set in Appalachia that follow the Campbell family through generations. It contains paranormal elements of traditional Appalachian folklore. It’s available on Amazon, BN.com, iTunes, and Kobo as an e-book, and coming soon as a paperback. Happy Reading!
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.
By T.L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2014 T. L. Haddix
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, and 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 had married the love of her life, Archer Gibson, three years earlier, she’d had two miscarriages. She was afraid to hope and dream and feel joy.
“Does Archer suspect?” Zanny finally 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 work, 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 left her alone, going to open the shop, and Emma did just what she’d said she wanted–sat on the couch in the sitting room upstairs and stared into space. After a little while, though, she knew she had to do something. Crossing to the phone, she called her doctor’s office.
“I’m going to go see Dr. Jones,” she told Zanny a few minutes later when she came downstairs. “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.”
She didn’t have to wait long at the doctor’s office before she was called back, thankfully. While she got into the gown the nurse provided her, she thought about the other pregnancies. She and Archer had 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 happiness 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. 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?”
“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 sat 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. “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?”
“Please.” Now that it 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…”
“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.”
It was a little past one when she got home, having stopped to grab a salad from a drive-thru for lunch. But she felt 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 had been 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.
“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, and 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.
A 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. Somedays 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. 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 winced 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 with 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. A 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. Owen and Sarah were just there. Emma didn’t remember telling anyone to notify them, and she didn’t much care how they’d found out, just that they were with her. Soon after, other members of her family started trickling in. When Logan, Archer’s brother, came in with Emma’s sister Amelia, his wife, 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 the chair 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, leaning into Amelia, his head in his hands. “That’s not enough.”
Emma nodded slowly. “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 one of the nurses 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 cursing under his breath. 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, 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 an assessing 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 here 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 sagged 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 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 said, 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.”
After he’d gone, Emma carefully wound her hands around Archer’s. It 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. I was so afraid to tell you I thought I was pregnant. You are not leaving me to raise this baby and Sydney 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. 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.”
“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-hmm,” 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. And 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 grin. “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.
“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 sighed. “I’ve missed you like this,” she confessed as they kissed.
There were no more words as they touched one another, building the heat 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 was too soon and not fast enough, and Archer could hardly wait to do it again.
The second time they made love, it 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. 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 looking at her with something akin to impatience.
The cat yawned, showing off impressive teeth, then licked it’s 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 to not 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.
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 certain 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 waking Emma. He was terrified he’d not be able to wake her in time to say goodbye. 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 seen 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 heel 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. “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 over 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, 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. Move.” 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. “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. A quick glance around showed him they were alone, with Owen and Sarah standing on the porch, their mouths open with shock. 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?”
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. 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.”
Archer was having some bacon and eggs an hour later 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, and 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 they could run together. As the rest of the family sat on the porch, Amelia–who was also a shifter, as was Owen–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 that,” 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. But sometimes you don’t know how much you miss something until you get it back after you think you’ve lost it.”
When they’d finally run enough, the brothers shifted and got dressed, then made their way up to the farmhouse. Logan was still smiling, and 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.”
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. 🙂