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Sneak away for a quiet moment with these nine free titles starting with The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1) by Kathleen Shoop

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The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)

by Kathleen Shoop
3.9 stars – 279 reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

“Gripping historical fiction—A tale of two women finding meaning behind all that went wrong in their lives. A timeless tale of redemption with the best plot-twist at the end I’ve seen in a long, long time. Can’t wait for book two!” New York
Times and USA Today bestselling author, Melissa Foster

Katherine wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t found the letter…

In the summer of 1905 Katherine Arthur’s mother arrives on her doorstep, dying, forcing her to relive a past she wanted to forget. When Katherine was young, the Arthur family had been affluent city dwellers until shame sent them running for the prairie, into the unknown. Taking her family, including young Katherine, to live off the land was the last thing Jeanie Arthur had wanted, but she would do her best to make a go of it. For Jeanie’s husband Frank it had been a world of opportunity. Dreaming, lazy Frank. But, it was a society of uncertainty–a domain of natural disasters, temptation, hatred, even death.

Ten-year-old Katherine had loved her mother fiercely, put her trust in her completely, but when there was no other choice, and Jeanie resorted to extreme measures on the prairie to save her family, she tore Katherine’s world apart. Now, seventeen years later, and far from the homestead, Katherine has found the truth – she has discovered the last letter. After years of anger, can Katherine find it in her heart to understand why her mother made the decisions that changed them all? Can she forgive and finally begin to heal before it’s too late?

**Independent Publisher Awards**
2011 Gold Medal, Best Regional Fiction-Midwest

**National Indie Excellence Book Awards**
2011 Finalist Award-Historical Fiction
2011 Finalist Award-Regional Fiction

**USA Best Books 2011 Awards**
Winner, Fiction–Western
Finalist, Fiction–Historical
Finalist, Best New Fiction

**International Book Awards**
2011 Finalist Award-Historical Fiction
2011 Finalist Award-Best New Fiction

★★Discount Links & Free Books★★

Check out our Free Book Search Tool for a boatload of free books or check here for the best deals today on Kindle!




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A NYC Werewolf: James and Lucy (The NYC Werewolf Book 1)

by Bert Murray
3.7 stars – 5 reviews
Kindle Price: $2.99
FREE with Kindle UnlimitedLearn More
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

“When my mother was very sick my father left her and moved in with another woman who he was having an affair with. I will never forgive him for what he did. I did my best to help my mother when she was sick and alone.

Before she died she somehow left me with the magical ability to shift into an enormous and powerful wolf with very large teeth and sharp claws when I face danger or a threat. I can run faster and have better hearing then any man alive when I become the wolf.

I feel very lucky that Lucy, the beautiful young woman I am dating at the college, accepts that I am part wolf and is willing to embrace the passionate, but dangerous love that I offer her. She has arranged for me to see a psychic on the Upper East Side to help me better understand my supernatural powers so that my wolf side doesn’t get out of control.” – James Hatton, The NYC Werewolf

***This is part one of a four part werewolf paranormal serial.

All four books in this series are now available on Amazon:

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The Mashego File

by Ian Patrick
4.8 stars – 12 reviews
Kindle Price: $2.99
FREE with Kindle UnlimitedLearn More
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Heinous crime. Brutal and barbaric perpetrators. Overworked police and forensics investigators. Vigilante justice replaces the institutions of law and order. As things fall apart, Detective ‘Nights’ Mashego investigates. But he carries his own dark burden…

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The Tannenbaum Tailors and the Secret Snowball

by JB Michaels
4.7 stars – 38 reviews
Currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:


They are the Tannenbaum Tailors: elves charged with maintaining Christmas trees in homes around the world.

Without the Tailors’ efforts, families might lose their Christmas spirit. And this year, one team of Tailors will be tested like never before.

With the North Pole itself under attack, newly promoted Captain Brendan is assigned a special mission: conceal the source of Santa’s power within a Christmas tree in Chicago. On Christmas Eve, Santa will pick it up.

The job would be simple, but the Tailors find themselves facing a serious threat””the thieving Spiritless elves, already responsible for sabotaging the North Pole Home Tree, will do anything to gain control of the very thing that makes Christmas possible.

˃˃˃ Equally bad, Christmas spirit is at an all-time low in the Chicago home where Brendan’s assigned.

The family’s mother even wants to take the tree down before Christmas Eve! To save Christmas, Captain Brendan and his Tailors will have to use every spirit-raising trick they know””and possibly even bend a few rules to pull it off.

* * *

Just Different Devils (Hetta Coffey Series Book 7)

by Jinx Schwartz
4.8 stars – 466 reviews
Kindle Price: $3.99
Currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members
FREE with Kindle UnlimitedLearn More
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

Here’s the set-up:

Hetta Coffey is a sassy Texan with a snazzy yacht, and she’s not afraid to use it—most of the time.
She’s an intrepid cruiser, but wild rumors of marauding gangs of flesh-shredding giant Humboldt squid on a rampage in the Sea of Cortez could keep even Hetta tied to an expensive dock. However, when the opportunity for an intriguing and highly lucrative charter arises she talks her best friend, Jan, into signing on for a mysterious cruise.
Damn the calamari! Full bank account ahead!

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The Christmas Cake (The Holiday Collection Book 2)

by Joyce Swann
4.2 stars – 19 reviews
Currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members
FREE with Kindle UnlimitedLearn More
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

“If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?” Like the ghosts from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, this question haunts Tatiana Richards on Christmas Eve. With the help of Esther Cook’s Christmas Cake, Tatiana’s daughter Michelle will try to explain to her mother the real message of Christmas—eternal life through a relationship with Jesus.

“After someone has eaten the Christmas Cake one time, they always want more. Whenever I attend anything where everyone brings food, whoever is in charge says, ‘bring that apple cake.’ Whenever people experience Jesus Christ, they always want more too. He is the only thing that always satisfies, but in order to understand that you must experience Him.”

Book Two of our new Holiday Collection, The Christmas Cake, features a recipe that has been in the author’s family for several generations. It is our hope that both the story and the cake will become part of your holiday traditions.

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Winging It!: Confessions of an Angel in Training (Confessions of an Angel-In-Training Book 1)

by Shel Delisle
4.4 stars – 235 reviews
Currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

She Just Wants to Fly.

Ever decided to do something that seemed like a good idea and in the second before there’s no turning back think, I musta been totally mental when I came up with this? And, then, Oh, well, here goes.

That’s how Angel inTraining Grace Lightbourne felt right before she asked the Big Kahuna to go straight to Earth on a mission as a Guardian Angel. The problem? She never was a great student and now she won’t even finish her last three years of school. To make matters worse, Archangel Michael isn’t happy about her special assignment, but Grace is convinced she’s on a fast track to her wings. Besides, how hard can it be? She’s working with humans, after all.

Winging It! is the first book in the Angel inTraining series, an irreverent and light-hearted take on Angels, Heaven and everything else that’s divine.

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Beautiful Heartbreaker: A Pam of Babylon Novella

by Suzanne Jenkins
4.3 stars – 24 reviews
Kindle Price: $1.99
FREE with Kindle UnlimitedLearn More
Text-to-Speech: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

“Don’t look now, but Jack Smith is right behind you,” Marian whispered. A flush of pleasure cruised through Genevieve’s body, but later, she thought it might have been a warning.

The years of Jack Smith’s coming of age occurred during the best and worst times in Manhattan’s history. The son of Upper West Side elitists, raised with the best of everything, one secret aspect of his childhood set him apart from others in his class.

Beautiful Heartbreaker tells the story of Jack’s transformation from a young, innocent boy to a larger than life icon who took the city by storm.

For followers of Pam of Babylon, Beautiful Heartbreaker fills in some of the blanks his death left unanswered. Will the mystery of Jack ever be unlocked?

1. Pam of Babylon
2. Don’t You Forget About Me
3. Dream Lover
4. Prayers for the Dying
5. Family Dynamics
6.The Tao of Pam
7. In Memoriam
8. Soulmates
9. Save the Date
10.I’ll Always Love You
11.Beach Spirits
12. South Shore Romance
13. Meet Me at the Beach
14. Pam’s Adventures in Babylon
15. Second Chance
16. If I Ever Leave You
Short Stories: We’re Just Friends, Julie Hsu, When I Was Young, Gladys andEd’s Big Adventure, Beautiful Heartbreaker, Pam of Babylon Romance Boxed Set
Free on author’s website: First Sight, A Good Beach Day

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Next Christmas in Girouette (Adventures in Girouette Book 1)

by Michael Welch
4.6 stars – 48 reviews
Everyday Price: $2.99
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Next Christmas in Girouette is the first in a series of novels set in a ghost town on the eastern porch of the Montana Rocky Mountains. This book will appeal to people of all ages—nine to ninety-nine—who want to share a classic, heart-warming literary adventure at Christmastime.

Next Christmas in Girouette is the story of a brother and sister—Autry and Oxana Quinn—who find themselves stranded in a Girouette, a virtual ghost town, from Thanksgiving through Christmas when their father is taken seriously ill. Their grandfather, a Marine Captain long retired, plus an eccentric old café proprietress, a Blackfeet Indian horse trader who once served as the town’s mayor, a couple who published the local newspaper and an ancient deaf-mute trapper are the only remaining inhabitants of Girouette. These self-styled, “diehards” all seem to have one thing in common. Thanks to a mysterious event 60 years earlier, they still believe in Santa Claus.

* * *

When the deadly fog finally clears, the loss of trust and faith leaves the Pavlesic family—and the whole town—splintered and shocked…
Award-winning author Kathleen Shoop’s historical romance AFTER THE FOG

After the Fog

by Kathleen Shoop
4.2 stars – 171 reviews
Everyday Price: $3.99
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

***2013 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist***
***Independent Publisher Awards: 2012 Silver, Best Regional Fiction–Mid-Atlantic***
***National Indie Excellence Awards: 2012 WINNER– Literary Fiction***

Historic, environmental drama wrapped in a love story…

It’s 1948 in the steel town of Donora, Pennsylvania, site of the infamous “killing smog.” Public health nurse, Rose Pavlesic, has risen above her orphaned upbringing and created a life that reflects everything she missed as a child. She’s even managed to keep her painful secrets hidden from her doting husband, loving children, and large extended family.

When a stagnant weather pattern traps poisonous mill gasses in the valley, neighbors grow sicker and Rose’s nursing obligations thrust her into conflict she never could have fathomed. Consequences from her past collide with her present life, making her once clear decisions as gray as the suffocating smog. As pressure mounts, Rose finds she’s not the only one harboring lies. When the deadly fog finally clears, the loss of trust and faith leaves the Pavlesic family—and the whole town—splintered and shocked. With her new perspective, can Rose finally forgive herself and let her family’s healing begin?

“This is a well-written story set authentically in a historic place and time, around an intricate plot which includes most of the elements that provide for a good “soap opera,” or a book that would be accepted by Oprah Winfrey”–Historical Novel Society

“WOW! What a truly amazing story! I was amazed how Ms. Shoop managed to wrap a totally believable storyline around this tragic [true] incident. I thought the writing was flawless…” –Book Princess Sophia–Goodreads

Authors and Publishers: How to Sponsor Kindle Nation Daily

A sweet romance that touches the heart, mind, and soul. Return to Love (The Endless Love Series Book 2) by Kathleen Shoop. After tragedy can Hale & April learn to love again?

Return to Love (The Endless Love Series Book 2)

by Kathleen Shoop

Return to Love (The Endless Love Series Book 2)
4.8 stars – 35 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Or check out the Audible.com version of Return to Love (The Endless Love Series Book 2)
in its Audible Audio Edition, Unabridged!

Here’s the set-up:

Sweet Romance… Fresh off their whirlwind nuptials and unexpected, but joyous pregnancy, April and Hale Abercrombie are gleeful about their life together. But, while Hale is serving his country in Vietnam, he receives news of the loss of their newborn daughter.

Back home on leave, Hale can barely wait to hold his wife. Their reunion is passionate and their physical connection, strong and soothing. His embrace, his touch, and his love are just as perfect as April remembered. But nothing, not even Hale, can ease April’s heartache.

Hale stumbles through his attempts at convincing her that their future will be rich and full of wonder despite their loss. His good-hearted, but take-charge approach causes her to retreat. Even in grief, April recognizes Hale’s earnestness, yet she can’t help but distance herself from him. With only a short time before Hale must return to war, the couple begins to understand that hope starts with them—that the bliss they once knew will return only if they are willing to trust again.

Set on the beaches of the Outer Banks, Return to Love is the second book in the Endless Love series. Book one, Home Again, was named a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.


“Just when you think that Kathleen Shoop has delivered her most heart-breaking and sensitive romance, along comes Return To Love, book two in the Endless Love series…  Kathleen Shoop creates a wonderful, forward-thinking man in Hale Abercrombie, who recognises the injustice of a society determined to view women’s emotions as weaknesses. The rebuilding of Hale and April’s relationship is bittersweet but ultimately rewarding.”– K.C. Finn for Readers’ Favorite– 5 stars

“So. Good. Sad crying. Happy crying. This one has it all!” –Becky on Books… And Quilts–4.5 stars

“Kathleen Shoop has done it again with Return to Love… This is a profound and emotional book that is an excellent follow-up to Home Again. Return to Love will run you through a wringer of emotions and answer the deeper questions about the durability of love.”– Bil Howard for Readers’ Favorite– 5 stars

“A sweet Romance…I enjoyed every page of this book and following the story with Hale and April. This book is truly a love story and a love story that isn’t perfect. It is like real life; we have triumphs and we have falls and we must learn to hold each other’s hands and find our way back to hope and love again.” —Kathryn Bennett for Readers’ Favorite–5 Stars

“The author has tackled this love theme beautifully on many levels. The emotions are palpable and relatable and this story of tears and love will strike a chord within readers. A romantic story of love, hope and healing, the author’s style of writing also contributes to the rhythm and cadence of the plot.”– Mamta Madhavan for Readers’ Favorite–5 Stars

Visit Kathleen Shoop’s BookGorilla Author Page

And here, in the comfort of your own browser, is your free sample of Return to Love (The Endless Love Series Book 2):


For every parent forced to make heart-wrenching decisions… for every daughter who thinks she knows her mother’s story… comes this deeply moving novel by bestselling author Kathleen Shoop: THE LAST LETTER

The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)

by Kathleen Shoop

The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)
4.0 stars – 254 Reviews
Kindle Price: 99 cents
On Sale! Everyday price: $5.99
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Katherine wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t found the letter…

In the summer of 1905 Katherine Arthur’s mother arrives on her doorstep, dying, forcing her to relive a past she wanted to forget. When Katherine was young, the Arthur family had been affluent city dwellers until shame sent them running for the prairie, into the unknown. Taking her family, including young Katherine, to live off the land was the last thing Jeanie Arthur had wanted, but she would do her best to make a go of it. For Jeanie’s husband Frank it had been a world of opportunity. Dreaming, lazy Frank. But, it was a society of uncertainty–a domain of natural disasters, temptation, hatred, even death.

Ten-year-old Katherine had loved her mother fiercely, put her trust in her completely, but when there was no other choice, and Jeanie resorted to extreme measures on the prairie to save her family, she tore Katherine’s world apart. Now, seventeen years later, and far from the homestead, Katherine has found the truth – she has discovered the last letter. After years of anger, can Katherine find it in her heart to understand why her mother made the decisions that changed them all? Can she forgive and finally begin to heal before it’s too late?

**Independent Publisher Awards**
2011 Gold Medal, Best Regional Fiction-Midwest

**National Indie Excellence Book Awards**
2011 Finalist Award-Historical Fiction
2011 Finalist Award-Regional Fiction

**USA Best Books 2011 Awards**
Winner, Fiction–Western
Finalist, Fiction–Historical
Finalist, Best New Fiction

**International Book Awards**
2011 Finalist Award-Historical Fiction
2011 Finalist Award-Best New Fiction


“Gripping historical fiction—A tale of two women finding meaning behind all that went wrong in their lives. A timeless tale of redemption with the best plot-twist at the end I’ve seen in a long, long time. Can’t wait for book two!” New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Melissa Foster

Click here to visit Kathleen Shoop’s BookGorilla Author Page

Get the ebooks YOU want – Free and Bargain quality eBooks delivered straight to your email everyday! Subscribe now http://www.bookgorilla.com/kcc


KND Freebies: Bestselling novel THE LAST LETTER is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

“…I cannot get the characters out of my mind…beautifully written…”

For every parent forced to make heart-wrenching decisions…
For every daughter who thinks she knows her mother’s story…
comes this deeply moving novel by bestselling author Kathleen Shoop.

Don’t miss THE LAST LETTER while it’s 75% off the regular price!

The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)

by Kathleen Shoop

The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)
4.1 stars – 226 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Katherine wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t found the letter…

Katherine Arthur’s mother arrives on her doorstep, dying, forcing her to relive a past she wanted to forget. When Katherine was young, the Arthur family had been affluent city dwellers until shame sent them running for the prairie, into the unknown. Taking her family, including young Katherine, to live off the land was the last thing Jeanie Arthur had wanted, but she would do her best to make a go of it. For Jeanie’s husband Frank, it had been a world of opportunity. Dreaming, lazy Frank. But, it was a society of uncertainty—a domain of natural disasters, temptation, hatred, even death.

Ten-year-old Katherine had loved her mother fiercely, put her trust in her completely, but when there was no other choice, and Jeanie resorted to extreme measures to save her family, she tore Katherine’s world apart. Now, seventeen years later, and far from the homestead, Katherine has found the truth—she has discovered the last letter. After years of anger, can Katherine find it in her heart to understand why her mother made the decisions that changed them all? Can she forgive and finally begin to heal before it’s too late?

Praise for The Last Letter:

“Gripping historical fiction—A timeless tale of redemption…”
-NY Times bestselling author Melissa Foster

“…Shoop’s characters breathe…a gifted writer with a bang-on sense of atmosphere, time, place, and social class…”

“…like Little House on the Prairie on steroids in the best possible way!…”

an excerpt from

The Last Letter

by Kathleen Shoop

Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Shoop and published here with her permission

Chapter 1


Des Moines, Iowa

Katherine rubbed the second knuckle of her pinky finger–the spot where it had been amputated nearly two decades before. The scarred wound pulsed with each heartbeat as her mind flashed through the events that led to its removal. Was it possible for an infection to form inside an old sore?

Don’t think about it. Just do your work.

She snatched the clump of metal from the stone saucer and scrubbed the iron pot as though issuing it punishment. She caught her forefinger on blackened beans. Damn. She sucked on the nail. With her free hand she yanked the plug from the soapstone sink then opened the back door. Hot, thick wind brushed her cheeks and forced her eyes closed as she yanked the rope that made the dinner bell clang.

With a jerk of her hip she booted the door closed and wiped her hands on the gravy-splattered apron that draped her body. A crash came from the front of the house. A ball through the window? Another wrestling match over the last “up” at bat? She dashed to­ward the foyer to see what her children were up to.

She tripped over the edge of the carpet and caught her balance, gaping at the sight. There on the floor was her husband, Aleksey, kneeling over her sister Yale. A shattered flow-blue vase lay scattered around them.

Yale burped sending a burst of gin-scented breath upward.

Katherine recoiled as the odor hit her nose.

“She’s drunk? Take her to my mother’s!”

Aleksey looked up, his face strained.

“Just help…”

She couldn’t handle Yale. Not right then. She turned and headed back toward the kitchen. Their mother would have to res­cue Yale this time. As though being scolded from afar, her missing finger throbbed again, like a knife scraping at the marrow deep inside her bones the pain forced her to stop. Her mother hadn’t been there when she lost the finger. Her mother was never where she was supposed to be.

Katherine looked over her shoulder at the pair on the floor and clutched her hand against her chest. Yale gurgled, growing pale grey. Aleksey hoisted her and carried her to the couch.

She looked down at her smarting hand, against her heart, and clarity took over. It wasn’t Yale’s fault she was fragile. She’d been born that way. She’s your sister. Do something. She puffed out her cheeks with air and then released it. Her anger receded taking the throbbing pulse in her hand with it.

She grabbed a pot of hydrangeas from a side-table and ran out the front door, shook the billowy, blue flowers out of the pot send­ing coal-black dirt splashing over the wood planks.

Back in the house she slid onto the couch, Yale’s head in her lap, pot perched on the floor to catch the vomit. Aleksey paced in front of the women.

“She was at Sweeny’s. Alone. Men, tossing her back and forth like a billiard ball. I barely…”

Katherine covered her mouth. She had enough of her mother’s failures.

“I knew this kind of thing would happen. And, now-”

“She’s your sister and I know you love them even if you say you don’t care. Your mother’s dying. We have to help them.” Aleksey’s jaw tensed.

Katherine bit the inside of her cheek, struck by his rare disapproval of her.

“You can’t ignore this one more minute,” Aleksey said, “seven­teen years is long enough to forgive.”

Without warning, Yale bucked forward and vomited, spack­ling Katherine with booze-scented chunks before passing out again. Tears gathered in her eyes. Hand quivering, she swiped a chunk from her chin with the back of her hand then smoothed Yale’s black hair off her pale, clammy forehead.

She gulped and gritted her teeth.

“If Mother can’t take care of Yale, then it’s time for the institution.” The words were sour in Katherine’s mouth, yet she couldn’t stop them from forming, from hanging in the air, the spitefulness making Aleksey break her gaze.

Aleksey pulled the pot from between Katherine’s feet and held it near Yale as she started to gag again.

“Yale can stay here. They both can.”

Katherine rocked Yale, not wanting to let her go, but knowing she had to hold her mother accountable. She was the mother after all. She shook her head and slid Yale off her lap, patting her head as she stood.

Aleksey rolled Yale to her side as she heaved into the pot.

“I’ll call Mother,” she said heading toward the stairs.

“I recall a time,” Aleksey said as he held Yale like she was one of his own, “when you called your mother, Mama, and the word swelled with adoration.”

Katherine turned from the bottom step, her posture straight and sure, like she was headed to dinner and a play rather than to scrape someone’s vomit from her skin. She gripped the banister trying to channel the mish-mash of emotion into the wood rather than feel it.

“I don’t recall that. Calling her Mama, feeling warmth in the word. I don’t recall it a bit.” And with that she trudged upstairs to peel off the rancid clothes and to stifle the rotten feelings that always materialized upon the sight of her family, drunk or not.  



Chapter 2


Dakota Territory



Jeanie jumped at her daughter’s thin voice. Katherine lay below her in tall sinuous grasses that bent with the wind, covering and uncovering her with each shifting gust.

“I’m hot and tired and when will Father be back?” Katherine rose up on her elbows. “I understand complaining is like an ice-pick in your ear, but I’m plum hot and plum parched and tired of wait­ing.” She jerked a blade of grass from the ground and bit on it.

Jeanie nodded and rubbed her belly. She was pregnant but hadn’t told anyone. Cramps pulled inside her pelvis. Would she lose this one? Nervous, she grabbed for the fat pearls that used to decorate her neck and smacked her tongue off the roof of her arid mouth.

She hacked up a clump of phlegm, turned her back to Katherine and spit it into the air. A sudden blast of air blew the green mu­cus back, landing on her skirt. Hands spread up to the sky, she stared at the ugly splotch marveling at how quickly her life had transformed. She would never have believed it possible before the scandal hit her own family.

With clenched teeth she wrenched a corner of her petticoat from under the skirt to wipe away the lumpy secretion. Her thoughts tripped over each other. Jeanie would not let doubt lin­ger, mix with fear and paralyze her. She would be sure the family re-grew their fortune, that they reclaimed their contentment, their name, their everything. If only Frank were more reliable. Damn Frank was never where he was supposed to be.

Arms wrapped across her body, Jeanie tapped her silk-shoed foot. They should head for water, but she didn’t think that was prudent. She’d heard people could lose direction quickly in such expansive land. That frightened her, not being in control, but she also thought perhaps the people who ended up wandering the prai­rie lost were simply not that smart or were careless. Slowly, as she ran her fingers down the front of her swelling throat, each scratchy swallow symbolized the wagonload of errors Jeanie had made and she started to understand that intelligence and survival did not always walk together.

Damn him. Five hours. They’d waited long enough for Frank. She pushed away the rising tears that grew from think­ing of the mess her father and darling husband had made for them. Be brave.

They needed to take action or they’d prune from the inside out.

“Let’s head for water.” Jeanie clasped Katherine’s hand and pulled her to standing. We can do this, Jeanie thought. Frank had tied red sashes around taller bushes that were scattered in the direc­tion of the well. Katherine wiggled free of her mother’s grasp and raced-as much as a girl could dart through grasses that whapped at her chest-over the land.

“Stay close!” Jeanie stopped and pulled her foot off the ground. She sucked back her breath as her slim-heeled shoes dug into her ankles. Katherine looked up from ahead, waving a bunch of purple prairie crocus over her head at Jeanie.

Jeanie turned to see how far they’d moved from the wagon. She could only see the tip of the white canvas that arched over it. She looked back in the direction of the well, of Katherine. The wind stilled. The sudden hush was heavy. The absence of Katherine’s lavender bonnet sent blood flashing through her veins.

“Katherine?” She must be pulling more flowers, Jeanie thought and rose to her tiptoes. “Katherine?”

Jeanie looked back at the wagon.

“Katherine!” Jeanie stomped some of the grass hoping the de­pressed sections would somehow stick out amidst the chunky high grass when they needed to return.

Katherine!” Jeanie’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat and shouted again. No answer. She shivered then clenched her skirt and hiked it up, thundering in the direction of Katherine.

KatherineKatherineKatherineKatherine! Bolting through the grasses, the wind swelled, it pushed Jeanie back as she pressed for­ward, turning her shouts back at her, filling her ears with her own words as she strained to hear a reply.

Jeanie stopped as though slamming into a wall, swallowing loud breaths hoping the silence would allow Katherine’s voice to hit her ears. Nothing. She ran again, right out of her luxurious, city-shoes, while cursing the mass of skirts and crinoline that swallowed her legs. Her feet slammed over the dirt.

The grasses tangled around her ankles, tripping her. Jeanie scrambled back to her feet and took three steps before taking one right off the edge of the earth. She plummeted into water. A pond. Jeanie stood and spit out foamy, beer-colored water. At least she could touch bottom.

“Katthhh-errrrrr-ine!” She slogged through the waist deep water, her attention nowhere and everywhere at once. The sounds of splashing and choking finally made Jeanie focus on one area of the pond. She shot around a bend in the bank to see Katherine’s face go under the water taking what little wind Jeanie had left in her lungs away.

Katherine shot back up. “Mama, Mama!” She dropped back under.

Jeanie lunged and groped for Katherine as the bottom of the pond fell away. Jeanie treaded water, the skirts strangling her ef­forts to be efficient. A bit further! The bottom must be shallow or Katherine couldn’t have bounced up as she had.

But the bottom didn’t rise up and Jeanie choked on grainy water. She burst forward on her stomach, taking an arm-stroke, her feet scrounging for the bottom. Her face sunk under the surface.

We’re going to die, Jeanie thought. Frank would never find them. Her boys!

Bubbles appeared in front of Jeanie and she reached through the murky water for Katherine. Finally, hands grabbed back, grip­ping Jeanie’s. She could feel every precious finger threaded through hers. Jeanie jerked Katherine into her body, lumbered toward the bank then shoved the floppy girl up onto it. Katherine lay on the grass, hacking and inhaling so deep that she folded over, gagging. Jeanie squirmed out and pulled Katherine across her lap, thump­ing her back until there was nothing left but empty heaves.

Silent tears camouflaged by stale, pond water warmed Jeanie’s cheeks. Her hand shook as she pushed Katherine’s matted hair away from her eyes, rocking her.

“We’ll be fine, Katherine. We’ll build a life and start over and be happy. We will. Believe it deep inside your very young bones.”

Katherine snuffled then blew her nose in her filthy, sodden skirt. Her voice squeaked. “Oh, Mama.” Katherine burrowed into Jeanie’s chest and curled into a ball in her lap.

Jeanie wiped Katherine’s mouth with the edge of her skirt, streaking mud across her cheek. She used her thumb to clean away the muck. Her daughter in need was all that kept Jeanie from roll­ing into a ball herself.

“My, my. We’ll be fine,” Jeanie said. And as her heart fell back into its normal rhythms heavy exhaustion braced her. “We’ll enjoy the sunshine all the more if we’ve had a few shadows first. Right? That’s right.” Jeanie knew those words sounded ridiculous in light of all they’d been through, but still they dribbled out of her mouth, as though simply discussing a broken bit of Limoges.

Katherine nodded into her mother’s chest. Jeanie shuddered, a leaden tumor of dread swelled in her gut. She wouldn’t let it settle there.

“Shush, shush, little one,” Jeanie kissed her cheeks. If Katherine and she lived through that they could live through anything. The pond event, as it came to be in Jeanie’s mind, was evidence they’d paid a price and would be free to accept all the treasures the prairie offered from that point forward.

“Are you crying Mama?”

Jeanie forced a smile then looked into Katherine’s upturned face.

“We’re not crying people.” Her fingers quivered as she tucked the stiff chestnut tendrils into Katherine’s bonnet. “Besides there’s nothing to cry about.”

Katherine gripped her mother tighter.

“I knew you’d save us, Mama. Even in Des Moines, I knew that no matter what, you could save us.”

Jeanie hugged Katherine close hiding the splintered confi­dence she knew must be creased into her face. What did Katherine know? She couldn’t know the details of their disgrace. She must have simply picked up on the weightiness of their leaving the fam­ily home for this-this nothingness.

Jeanie squeezed her eyes shut, trying to find the strength in­side her. She would not fake her self-assurance. She believed that kind of thing lived inside a person’s skin, never really leaving, even if it did weaken from time to time. Yes, Jeanie told herself, she was the same person she had been three weeks before. Losing every­thing she owned didn’t mean she had to lose herself.




Jeanie stood at the edge of the pond and inventoried her most recent losses: impractical shoes she shouldn’t have been wearing anyway; silver chatelaine that held her pen, paper, and watch; pride. Well, no, she was determined to salvage her self-respect. She clutched her waist with both hands, considering their options, then pulled Katherine to her feet.

“This standing pond water will poison us. We’ll continue to the well.”

Katherine patted her mother’s back then bent over to pluck some prairie grass from the ground.

The wooly sunrays seemed to lower onto their heads rather than move further away, settling into the west. Their dresses dried crisp-the pond-water debris acted as a starch-while the skirts underneath remained moist and mealy.

Jeanie wiggled her toes. They burned inside the holey stockings.

“Our new home will have a spring house, right Mama? Icy, fresh spring water?”

“I’m afraid, no, little lamb.”

“Oh gaaaa-loshes,” Katherine said.

Jeanie slung her arm around Katherine. “Let me think for a moment, Darling.”

The endless land looked the same though not familiar, appearing perfectly flat, though housing hidden rises in land and gaping holes that were obvious only after it was too late. All Jeanie could remember was running straight to the spot that ended up being a pond. Her heart thudded hard again reminding her she had no control of her existence.

A sob rumbled inside Jeanie, wracking her body, forcing an obnoxious, weak moan to ooze from her clenched lips. Toughen up. She pushed her shoulders down as her throat swelled around an­other rising sob.

Katherine pushed a piece of grass upward, offering it to Jeanie to chew on.

“You said you came around a bend, Mama.”

Jeanie closed her fingers over the blade of grass and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“We’ll curve back around to get to the point where we can head straight back toward the wagon. Then we’ll know where the well is from there.”

They held hands, traipsed around the edge of the pond and rose up a gentle hill. From there, they could see a tree. Just one. Tall, yet knobby, as though surrendering to death a bit. But, even in its contorted form, Jeanie could see its vibrant green foliage and white blooms.

Katherine pointed.

“I forgot the world had trees.”


“I’m thirsty Mama.”

“Don’t feel out of spirits. We’ll find the well. Better to ignore the thirst until then.” Jeanie wished she could take her own advice but she’d felt parched since she first perched atop the wagon seat three days before.

Katherine squeezed Jeanie’s hand three times saying “I love you” with the gesture. Jeanie squeezed back to say the same then looked away from the tree into nothingness.

They hugged the edge of the pond, following the bends back to the spot where Jeanie’s foot caught the cusp of the pond, tearing out some earth. Facing directly east, they headed back to where Jeanie thought the wagon sat.

“Get on my shoulders,” Jeanie said.

They faced each other with Jeanie’s wrists crossed, hands joined. Jeanie bent her knees and exploded upward swinging Katherine around her back. Katherine wiggled into a comfortable place on Jeanie’s shoulders and fastened her ankles around Jeanie’s chest.

“You all right, Mama?”

“My yes, Sweet Pea. All is well.” She was going to make all of that true. “Peel your eyes for the wagon.” Jeanie plodded, feeling Katherine’s weight quickly, thinking of the baby inside.

“Yes, Mama.” Katherine hummed a tune.

“Concentrate on the looking,” Jeanie said.

“The humming helps me look.”

“Well, then,” Jeanie said through heavy breaths. “Keep those eyes wide as a prairie night.”

“Wide as a what?” Katherine said.

“A prairie night,” Jeanie said. Katherine’s legs stiffened and she pulled hard around Jeanie’s neck.

Jeanie halted, absorbing Katherine’s tension.

“What’s wrong? What do you see?” Jeanie looked upward at Katherine’s face above her. She squeezed Katherine’s thigh to get her attention. Were they about to step into a snake pit, be tram­pled by a herd of cows?

“What is it?”

“A man,” Katherine said.

“Who?” Ridiculous question in light of them not knowing a soul in Dakota.

Katherine’s legs kicked-she gripped Jeanie’s bonnet making its ties nearly choke her.

Jeanie’s heart began its clunking patterns again.


Katherine didn’t respond so Jeanie swung her from her shoul­ders and tucked her behind her skirts. Jeanie glanced about the ground for something sharp or big. There was nothing that could be used as a weapon against a small rodent let alone a man.

Katherine clenched Jeanie so tight that the two nearly flew off their feet. Steadied, Jeanie couldn’t see anyone coming toward them. Her bare feet pulsed with pain making her feel more vulnerable. Katherine must be hallucinating, the thirst taking its toll on her.

Jeanie spun in place, craning for the sight of a man, the sound of feet, but a windblast made anything that might emit noise, soundless.

For a moment Jeanie was tempted to burrow into the grasses, hide there, play dead, anything to avoid the man, if there was a man. A new burst of sweat gathered at her hairline and dripped down the sides of her face. Katherine’s fingers delved into the loos­ened stays of Jeanie’s corset.

“Who’s there?” Jeanie yelled into the wind. She shuddered. She could feel someone watching them. She whirled again, Katherine whipped around with her.

Who’s there?” Jeanie shouted. This time her words tore through the air, the winds momentarily still.

“It’s Howard Templeton! Jeanie Arthur? That you?” A full, gruff voice came from behind. Jeanie and Katherine twisted around a final time. Jeanie’s body relaxed. If he knew her name it must be a good sign. She tensed again, maybe not. Maybe he tortured Frank and the boys and…she wouldn’t think about it. This Templeton sported a pristine black hat. His ropy limbs were strong though not bulky, not threatening in any setting other than that of the naked prairie.

Jeanie shaded her eyes and looked into his six feet two inches, meeting his gaze. A crooked grin pulled his mouth a centimeter away from being a smirk.

“Mrs. Arthur, I presume? There. That’s more proper, isn’t it? Don’t be nervous.”

“It was the wind,” Jeanie said. You scared me blind, she wanted to say, but wouldn’t. “I couldn’t pinpoint…well, no matter.” She wasn’t accustomed to making her own introductions. It felt rude to say, who are you? So, she said nothing.

Templeton removed his hat and bent at the waist, lifting his eyes. Was he flirting with this dramatic bow? She grabbed for absent pearls then smoothed the front of her dress before pulling Katherine into her side.

He straightened, replaced his hat.

“I met your husband, Frank, on his way to stake a claim.”

Jeanie flinched. Where was Frank?

Templeton jammed one of his mitts toward Jeanie, offering a handshake. She stepped backward while still offering her hand in return.

He clasped her hand inside both of his. They were remarkably soft for a man ferreting out a home on the prairie. He held the handclasp and their gaze. Jeanie looked away glimpsing their joined hands. She cleared her throat and wormed her hand out of his.

She wished there had been a manual pertaining to the etiquette of meeting on the prairie. Etiquette should have traveled anywhere one went, but she could feel, standing there embarrassed in so many ways, how unreliable everything she had learned about life would be in that setting. Jeanie ran the freed hand over her bonnet, straightening it then smoothing the front of her pond-mucked skirt.

Templeton shifted his weight, and drew Jeanie’s attention back.

“I advised your Frank to jump a claim. To take up in the Henderson’s place. That family never proved up and rather than you starting from scratch, I figured you might as well start from something. Besides, I miss having a direct neighbor. Darlington Township might have well over a hundred homesteads settled, but it’s really the few closest to you, the ones you form cooperatives with, that matter.”

Jeanie swallowed hard. She eyed his canteen and had to hold her hand back to keep from rudely snatching it right off his body.

“Well, I’m not keen on jumping a claim, Mr. Templeton. I’ll have to consult my own inclination before we put pen to paper on that.”

She bit the inside of her mouth, regretting she’d lost her man­ners, her mind.

“I’m sorry. My manners. It’s a pleasure to meet you. This is my daughter Katherine.”

Katherine smiled. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Templeton shook her hand then folded his arms across his chest.

“You, Katherine, are the picture of your father. Prettier though, of course, with your mother’s darker coloring, I see.”

Katherine reddened, peered upward from under her bonnet then darted away, leaping and spinning.

“Stay close!” Jeanie said.

“So what bit you with good old prairie fever?” Templeton asked.

Jeanie looked around as though something drew her attention. She hadn’t considered what her response to that query would be. Her heart burst at the chest wall. Templeton’s quiet patience, his steadfast gaze heightened Jeanie’s discomfort.


“I know all about circumstances,” Howard said.

“I don’t mean to be ill-mannered, but…” Jeanie eyed the can­teen Templeton had slung across his body.

He rubbed his chin then slid the strap over his head.

“Frank sent me with some water, figured you’d need it, that I’d be the best person to find you.”

“Water, thank you, my yes.” Jeanie licked her lips.

He handed it to Jeanie. Her hands shook, nearly dropping it as she unclasped the catch. She would give her daughter the first drink.

“Katherine! Water!”

Katherine skipped toward them. She took the canteen, shoul­ders hunched, eyes wide as they had been on Christmas morning.

“Watch, don’t dribble.” Jeanie held her hands up under the canteen. She forced her gaze away, knowing she must look crazed, staring at Katherine’s throat swallowing, barely able to wait her turn.

Katherine stopped drinking and sighed, eyes closed, content. She held the canteen to her mother.

Jeanie threw her head back, water drenching her insides. The liquid engorged every cell of her shriveled body. She took it from her lips and offered it back to Katherine.

“You finish up,” Jeanie said, cupping Katherine’s chin, lifting it to get a good look into her now glistening eyes.

“There’s got to be plenty back at the wagon now, right, Mr. Templeton?” Jeanie said.

He didn’t reply. He squatted down, squinting at Jeanie’s bare feet.

“You’re not going another inch with naked feet and phalanges. What a great word, I haven’t had use for since, well, never mind that,” Templeton said.

Katherine’s eyes widened.

“I’ll thank you to find your manners, Mr. Templeton,” Jeanie said stepping back.

“Don’t be harebrained, Mrs. Arthur. Allow me to wrap your feet so they’re protected should you step on a rattler, or into a go­pher hole. I’ll be as doctorly as possible.” Templeton stood and unbuttoned his shirt.

Jeanie waved her hands back and forth. “No, now, no, now please don’t do…” But before she could arrange her words to match her thoughts, Templeton ripped his shirt into strips and helped Jeanie to the ground. He turned her left foot back and forth. Jeanie’s eyes flew wide open, her mouth gaping.

Katherine sighed with her entire body.

“Sure am glad we stumbled upon Mr. Templeton. My mama wasn’t trying to be dis­agreeable. She’s just proper is all.”

“Katherine Margaret Arthur.” Jeanie snatched for her daughter’s arm, but she leapt away, humming, cart-wheeling. Jeanie’s face flamed.

Templeton’s deep laugh shook his whole body. He began to wrap her foot. “These feet look to have been damaged by more than a simple run across the land.”

Jeanie bit the inside of her cheek. She wouldn’t confide her utter stupidity to a stranger.

“Let me guess,” Templeton said. “I’d say you had a little trou­ble parting with your city shoes? Perhaps? The way your feet are lacerated below the ankles, as though stiff shoes meant for decora­tion more than work had their way with you?”

“Stay close Katherine!” Jeanie shouted to avoid admitting that in fact, she’d kept three pairs of delicate, pretty shoes and only traded one for a pair of black clodhoppers. The clodhoppers that bounced out of the back of the wagon just beyond their stop in Yankton.

Jeanie flinched as Templeton bandaged the other foot.

“Did I hurt you?”

Jeanie covered her mouth then recovered her poise.

“No. Let’s finish this production and get moving.” It was then Jeanie realized she was shoeless-and not temporarily speaking. She wouldn’t be able to sausage her swollen feet into the pretty shoes and she had nothing utilitarian in reserve. Frank was a miracle worker with wood, but wooden shoes? That wasn’t an option.

Templeton whistled.

“Nice you have such a grand family to cheer you while you make your home on the prairie. Times like this I wish I had the same. No wife, no children to speak of.”

“You’re unmarried?” Jeanie smoldered at the thought that not only a strange man handled her feet, her naked toes, but one who was batching-it! A scandal in the eyes of many. Thankfully, there were no prying eyes to add this outrage to her hobbled reputation.

Templeton snickered repeatedly as he moved with a doctor’s detachment. The feel of hands so gently, though firmly, caring for her, nearly put Jeanie in a trance. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had done such a thing for her.

“There. Good as new. Until we get you to the wagon, anyway. I assume you have another pair of boots there.”

“Well, I uh, I…” She told herself to find her composure, that she was one step away from a reputation as an adventuress or an imbecile if she didn’t put forth the picture of a respectable woman.

“Had a shoe mishap?”

“It could be characterized that way.” Jeanie wanted to die. How stupid could she have been?

She turned one foot back and forth and then the other before having no choice but to look at Templeton and thank him for his assistance. Blood seeped through bandages and she nodded know­ing he had been right. She’d have been wrought with infection and open to the bone if he hadn’t wrapped her.

“Thank you Mr. Templeton. I thank you sincerely.” Jeanie put her hand over her heart.

He pulled Jeanie to her feet.

“My pleasure.” Templeton gave another shallow bow then tied an extra shred of his white shirt to a small cobwebby bush to use as a landmark, to show Jeanie and Katherine how the prairie land could work against even the most knowledgeable pioneer.

Jeanie knew she’d been careless that day, but she certainly didn’t need white ties all over the prairie to keep her from getting lost again. She’d be more vigilant next time.

Move on, Jeanie. No time for moping. Jeanie drew back and lifted her skirts. She stepped onto the fresh bandages then snapped her foot back in pain. She held her breath and pressed forward ignoring the pain.

“It’s this way,” Templeton said. “You’re turned around.”

Jeanie halted. Her face warmed further than the heat and anxi­ety had already flushed it.

“I suppose I’ve made some dire errors today, Mr. Templeton.”

“I suppose we all do at first, Mrs. Arthur.”

Jeanie puckered her lips in front of unspoken embarrassment. When was the last time she’d faced a string of endless failures? Never. She wondered if that could be possible, or if she was just making such a fact up in her mind.

“This way, my sweet!” Jeanie pushed her shoulders back, tugged her skirts against her legs and took off in the correct di­rection, Katherine beside her with Templeton just behind, gently guiding them back to Jeanie’s family, back to the life she didn’t think she could actually live with, but would not survive without.


Chapter 3


Des Moines, Iowa

In the three days since Yale had stumbled drunk into Katherine and Aleksey’s home, the couple had made the decision that their Edwardian home, even with four children, allowed more than enough space to care for both the cancer-stricken Jeanie and Yale, who was slow. There wasn’t much to do in the way of transporting her sister and mother’s belongings into Katherine’s home for other than two trunks and some hanging clothes; they did not own a single item that needed to be moved.

It wasn’t Katherine’s decision to have them come. She resisted with all her might but Aleksey, had for the first time in their mar­riage, asserted the type of overbearing male dominance so many men reveled in regularly. He told Katherine she had no choice but to let Jeanie and Yale live with them. It was Katherine’s duty to nurse her mother back to life or onward to death and it was her job to comfort and house her struggling sister.

Katherine stood in their doorway and watched Aleksey help Jeanie, one awkward step after another, up the front steps and across the porch. Katherine may not have remembered any warmth toward her mother, any sweet, shared moments or precious mother/ daughter secrets, but she felt them from time to time, inside her skin, down in her soul, coursing through her body. Below the surface of her conscious mind was the memory of a woman she once adored. Normally when that flash of love for her mother shot through Katherine, she pushed it away, and let the resentment, the gritty hate that seemed to be layered like bricks, weigh on the goodness, squashing it out.

But now, with her mother being ushered into her home for Katherine to tend until she took her final breath, she let the shot of warm feelings sit a bit; saturate her mind, hoping the sensation would allow her to cope.

As Aleksey and Jeanie entered the front room, Katherine watched Jeanie’s gaze fall over the carved-legged mohair davenport, velvet chair, and an oil painting done by Katherine herself. The thick Oriental rug drew Jeanie’s attention, then when Katherine pushed the button, the diamond-like chandelier jumped to life, drawing Jeanie’s gaze before she settled it back on Katherine’s painting, one she’d done when they lived on the prairie.

Jeanie’s once graceful posture was hunched over an ugly black cane as her hand opened and closed around the handle as though the action soothed her. Jeanie’s brown hair, pulled tight into a bun, was thin, sprouting out of the severe style. The frail woman straightened, stared at the painting then brushed the front of her dress before falling hunched over her cane again.

Katherine told herself to find the love she wanted to feel. She took Jeanie’s elbow and helped her to the couch, hoping it didn’t smell like the old hound that often curled on one corner.

Aleksey kissed Jeanie’s cheek and took her cane, supporting that side as they shuffled to the davenport. Acid rose up inside Katherine and blossomed into full envy at the warmth Aleksey showed Jeanie-the fact that he could touch her without looking as though his skin would combust on contact, as Katherine felt hers would.

Katherine gritted her teeth as she and Aleksey turned Jeanie and settled her onto the davenport. She sighed and squinted at Aleksey. She loved him more than anyone except their own children, but this may be too much.

“I’ll get that sweet tea you made, Katherine.” Aleksey headed toward the hall.

Katherine couldn’t have guessed exactly what her mother was thinking, but the puckered lips and narrowed brows didn’t look positive.

“Well,” Jeanie said. “You’re a little late with your spring cleaning, but the place is respectable all the same. I can see you purchase things that last.” Jeanie smoothed her dress over her knees then smiled at Katherine.

“I know you mean that as a joke, Mother, but I don’t appreci­ate it.”

Jeanie scowled and Katherine flinched, waiting for hard words in return. Her mother opened her mouth and closed it then stared toward the painting with reed straight posture.

The pounding of the ice pick as Aleksey split the ice into cold slivers mimicked Katherine’s heartbeat. She took a deep breath. How could a person feel so uncomfortable with the very person who gave her life? She prayed for Aleksey to speed it up in the kitchen as time moved like a fly in honey for the two in the front parlor.

With a startling jerk, Jeanie grasped Katherine’s hand. She jumped in her seat, so surprised that her mother actually touched her. She stared at their hands then at her mother’s profile. Jeanie gazed at the moody landscape Katherine had created on that awful day so long ago.

“You were such a beautiful artist,” Jeanie said. “I remember when you did that one.”

Prickly heat leapt between their hands, making Katherine sweat with anxiety. Jeanie caught her confused expression then squeezed her daughter’s hand three distinct times. I love you. Each unspoken word was hidden in the three contractions of Jeanie’s grip. Katherine nearly choked on swelling anger as she fought the burst of tears that threatened to fall.

With her free hand, Jeanie brushed some hair back from Katherine’s face. Katherine, still as marble, wanting her mother to stop touching her, cleared her throat, feeling like she might pass out.

“Oh, I know,” Jeanie said. “So very serious you are. I was once that way…I…well. I’m sorry, Katherine. I shouldn’t have…I should have told you everything years ago, but…” Jeanie’s gaze went back to the painting. “I want to explain.”

Katherine nodded once but angled her shoulders away, trying to put as much space between them as possible. Katherine couldn’t go down that old prairie path again. It was too late for explana­tions. She would have sprinted out the door, but her legs were numb. The only energy in her body seemed to exist inside the space between her and her mother’s intertwined fingers. Hurry Aleksey. Katherine closed her eyes. Aleksey returned with a tray and tea, ice cubes clinking in the tall glasses.

He set the tray on the table in front of the women. Katherine silently begged him to notice her blood had rushed to her feet, that he should hoist her over his shoulder and take her away from this woman who, in merely touching Katherine, made her unable to render useful thought, to move, to live.

Trust Aleksey, Katherine told herself. She told herself to hope, to believe that something would be gained from this operation- from what Katherine saw as self-inflicted torture.

But, with Aleksey standing there, handing out tea, acting as though it were perfectly normal that Jeanie was there, with Yale asleep upstairs, Katherine decided she might never speak to Aleksey again.


Chapter 4


Dakota Territory

Jeanie, Katherine, and Templeton crested a hill and stopped. Jeanie was eager to get to their wagon but relieved to give her smarting feet a break. She lifted one foot then the other, grimacing, as Templeton discussed their trek up to that point. He motioned back in the direction they had come, where he had tied a piece of his shirt to a bush, saying that even though the path to the crest upon which they stood had risen slightly and slowly, that Jeanie should always be aware of how deceptive the prairie land could be.

She turned in place, taking it in, seeing that on that sloping land the world seemed to open up but also it hid things. The fat, blue sky stretched in every directio

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Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Shoop and published here with her permission


Chapter 1

I stood at my blackboard, detailing the steps for adding fractions. It wasn’t exciting stuff. It was stab-yourself-in-the-eye boring, as a matter of fact, but it was part of the job—part of my brilliant plan to change the world. And I had constructed a downright solid lesson plan.

Said lesson was met with exquisite silence. I looked around. Thirty-six fifth and sixth graders. All seated, almost all of them paying attention. So what if six students had their heads on their desks.

I told myself my dazzling teaching skills must have finally had an impact on their behavior. The bile creeping up my esophagus said I was wrong. The truth was they had probably stayed up too late and now were sleeping with their eyes open. I ignored the heartburn. I willed myself to revel in the tiniest success.

“Tanesha, what’s the next step?” I asked brightly.

Tanesha sucked her teeth and threw herself back in her seat.

I opened my mouth to reprimand her but the sudden sound of chairs screeching across hardwood filled the room. The resulting flurry of movement shocked me. Some students bolted, scattering to the corners of the room. Others froze in place. My attention shot back to the middle of the classroom where two boys were preparing to dismantle one another.

Short, fire-pluggish LeAndre and monstrous Cedrick sandwiched their chests together, rage bubbling just below their skin. Different denominators, I almost told the class. Right there, everyday math in action.

“Wait a minute, guys.” I held up my hands as though I had a hope of stopping them with the gesture. These daily wrestling matches had definitely lost their cute factor. “How about we sit down and talk this—”

LeAndre growled, then pulled a gun-like object from his waistband and pressed it into Cedrick’s belly. I narrowed my eyes at the black object. It couldn’t be a gun. The sound of thirty-four kids hitting the floor in unison told me it was. No more shouting, crying, swearing—not even a whimper.

“It’s real.” Marvin, curled at my feet, whispered up at me.

I nodded. It couldn’t be real. My heart seized, then sent blood charging through my veins so hard my vision blurred.

“Okay, LeAndre. Let’s think this through,” I said.

“He. Lookin’. At. Me.” Spittle hitched a ride on each syllable LeAndre spoke.

“I’m walking over to you,” I said. “And you’re going to hand me the gun, LeAndre. Okay?” I can do this. “Please. Let’s do this.” I can do this. I can do this. There were no snarky words to go with this situation. There was no humor in it.

Cedrick stared at the ceiling, not showing he understood there was a gun pressed into him. I stepped closer. Sweat beaded on LeAndre’s face only to be obliterated by tears careening down his cheeks. He choked on sobs as though he wasn’t the one with the gun, as though he wasn’t aware he could stop this whole mess. The scent of unwashed hair and stale perspiration struck me. The boys’ chests heaved in unison.

I focused on LeAndre’s eyes. If he just looked back at me, he’d trust I could help him.

The whine of our classroom door and the appearance of Principal Klein interrupted my careful approach.

“Ms. Jenkins!”

He startled everyone, including LeAndre and his little trigger finger.


In the milliseconds between Klein’s big voice bulleting off the rafters and the gun firing, I managed to throw myself in front of a few stray kids at my feet. I can’t take total credit for my actions because I don’t even remember moving. Suddenly, I was there on the floor, thanking God that Jesus or some such deity had been bored enough to notice what was going on in my little old Lincoln Elementary classroom. LeAndre fell into Cedrick’s arms, wailing about the gun being loaded with BBs—that it wasn’t real.

My foot hurt, but I ignored it and assessed the kids while Klein focused on LeAndre. Could everyone really be all right? I checked Cedrick, who appeared unfazed. He was injury-free, simply standing there, hovering, as though guarding everyone around him.

I moved to other students—no visible harm. I hauled several up by their armpits, reassuring them with pretend authority. A firearm-wielding child usurps all of a teacher’s mojo in a short, split second.

I made up comforting stuff—words of phony hopefulness that might convince them that nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred. And with each lie came the odd feeling that I was actually telling the truth. A little gun in a classroom was nothing.

Klein stuffed the piece into his pants and carried the withering LeAndre out of the room in his arms as a man would carry a woman over the marital threshold. His voice was devoid of its usual venomous tone and soothed LeAndre’s gulping sobs. Perhaps he’d been shot with a dose of compassion during the melee.

Stepping back inside the room, still holding LeAndre, Klein shoved his thumb into the air, giving us the old Lincoln thumbs-up. No one returned the gesture, but I figured that was all right this once. The school counselor came into the room and announced she’d take everyone to the library while I met with the police. Leaving the room, I noticed Cedrick’s face appeared to have been drained of blood and finally revealed his true feelings about what had happened. The rest of the students—their faces expressing the same shock I felt inside—wrapped themselves in their own arms, shook their heads and trailed the counselor out of the room.

It was like watching a scene through a window that wasn’t mine, that I couldn’t remember stepping up to. I forced calm into my voice and actions as I funneled the kids still inside the room to the door and told myself I could let the impact of what just happened hit me later. To get through the day, to be the type of teacher who could handle a weapon in the classroom, I had to leave the assimilation of the events for later.

These poor freaking kids. Where the hell did they come from and how did they end up with this life? I thought I’d known the details of their lives. Apparently not.

“Ms. Jenkins,” Terri said. She stopped and pointed at my foot. “Your boot.”

I gasped at the sight of the leather. It gaped like a jagged mouth, tinged with blood. I wiggled my stinging toe making more blood seep through my trouser sock. Nausea slammed me. LeAndre’s shooting arm had obviously moved in my direction when he’d been startled by Klein. Had that really been just a BB-gun?

I straightened against my queasiness. “Terri, go on. I’ll meet you in the library in a minute.”

She left the room. I collapsed into my desk chair and removed my boot and the torn, bloody sock. “Jeez. That hurts like a mother,” I said. I turned the boot over and a teeny ball fell out of it and skittered across the floor. I swiveled my chair and took my Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel down from the wall. I dabbed my toe with it, staining the towel red.

I thought of the reason I’d become a teacher. That I’d searched for a way to make a difference in the world and thought, well, damn, yes, a teacher. I could save the urban youth of America. I just needed a little help and some time. I was only two months in to my teaching career, and I already knew chances were I wouldn’t be saving anybody.

The footfalls grew louder as they neared my room. I knew it was her. I turned my attention to the doorway. Our secretary, Bobby Jo, wheezed as she leaned against the doorjamb. With new energy, she pushed forward and barreled toward me. I set the Terrible Towel on the desk and stood to move out of her path, but she caught my wrist and swallowed me into the folds of her body with what she no doubt imagined was a helpful hug. She gripped the back of my head and plunged my face into her armpit. The spicy fusion of ineffective deodorant and body odor made me hold my breath.

Aside from being a secretary, Bobby Jo was an emotional extortionist. She pushed out of the hug, but, still gripping my shoulders, stared at me. Her labored breath scratched up through her respiratory system. I squeezed my eyes closed in anticipation of her “I’m Klein’s right-hand woman” crap. Not today, Bobby Jo. Not now.

She glanced around the room, and then dug her fingers nearly to my bones. “The boss is so upset.”

I gave her the single-nod/poker face combo, as disgust welled inside me. He’s upset? I weighed my inclination to tell her to leave me the hell alone with the ensuing sabotage that would follow if I didn’t kiss her ass hard and immediately. I wiggled out of her grip and leaned against my desk.

“The boss,” Bobby Jo said. “He’ll be in as soon as he’s off the phone with the superintendents from areas four, five, and six. They’re using your sit-u-a-tion as a teaching case.” Bobby Jo’s plump fingers with their fancy, long nails danced stiffly in front of her as if she could only form words if her hands were involved.

Man, this school year was not going as planned. I might have been delusional to think I’d alter the course of public education in just two months, but I hadn’t expected to be held up as a “what not to do in the classroom” example for one of the largest counties in the United States. Fame was one thing, scandal was another.

I looked back at my shoe, hoping Bobby Jo wouldn’t mistake my attempt to ignore her for the need for another hug. I was about to ask if I could see our nurse, Toots, about my wounded foot.

“It was only a BB-gun. You’ll be fine,” Bobby Jo said. “I don’t know why everyone’s so worked up. I heard the whole thing.” She ran one hand through the other, massaging her fingers.

“What do you mean, you heard?”

Bobby Jo looked around the room again. “Okay, okay, you got me. I’ll just spill.” Her eyes practically vibrated in their sockets. “I heard the entire thing because I was listening on the intercom.”

What?” You can do that?

“The boss. He tells me to. Says your classroom techniques warrant that I get a handle on what’s happening.”

Chills paraded through my body as though they had feet and marching orders. No wonder he knew every move I made, was able to appear in my room at the worst time of the day—every day.

I readjusted my poker face.

The shuffle-clack-shuffle-clack of Klein’s clown feet stopped me from telling Bobby Jo what she could do with her intercom. She shambled back toward the door. “I’ll finish the report, Boss.” They gave each other the Lincoln thumbs-up—Klein’s way of encouraging school spirit while sucking it out of me.

I hobbled around my desk and picked up a paper that had flown off it. “I’m okay. Boy, that was something. I knew LeAndre had big problems.”

“Jenkins,” Klein said, “because of this incident, I have four meetings to attend before the day’s over, so we’ll have to meet about this on Monday.”

Guess that wasn’t newfound compassion I’d witnessed him offering LeAndre.

He crossed his arms across his chest and spread his legs, his pelvis jutting forward as though he needed the wide base to hold his slim upper body erect. “You’ll have to meet with some parents. Bobby Jo will bring the police in as soon as they get finished with her interview.”

He blew out a stout puff of air, the sound you heard when a bike pump was removed from the tire mid-pump. “I need you to think long and hard about how this transpired—about how I’ve gone twenty years with nary a gun incident and as soon as you show up, the kids start packing heat.”

Please, I’d been at Lincoln two months sans gun incident. “You can’t be serious. I’m not their mother. I only have the kids seven hours day. I didn’t—”

Klein held up his hand to shut me up. “I don’t have the whole story. LeAndre actually had two guns. The BB and another one that’s convertible from toy to real. That one was still in his pants. Doesn’t matter. What I need is for you to get your kids under control because there’s a reason this happened in your room and not in one of the other classrooms.”

“The reason is,” I said, “I’m the one with a child who is just this side of certifiable. I love LeAndre, I feel bad for him, but he’s not normal. I can’t get his mother to come in to see me or call me back. Maybe now he’ll be expelled and get help before he kills someone.”

“I wouldn’t count on that.”

“Which part of that?”

“LeAndre won’t be expelled. There are many reasons not to take that action. What good will it do him to sit at home all day, not learning anything? We can service him here.”

“He talks to clouds at recess,” I said. “He has conversations with himself all day. And not the kind you and I have when we’re trying to remember what we need at the grocery store. I swear there is something really wrong with him.”

Klein thrust his hand into the air again. “I’ll see you first thing Monday, Carolyn Jenkins,” he said. “And, for the last time, when I give the Lincoln thumbs-up—” he shoved his thumb nearly into my chest “—I don’t care if you’re in the grip of a stroke, I expect you to return the gesture.”

Oh, yeah. I’ve got the perfect gesture for you, buddy boy.


Two hours into my three-hour meeting with parents, police and suited men with thick, gold-plated pens, I realized Toots, the nurse, wasn’t going to swoop in and provide me with any sort of medical care. So while enjoying a lovely interrogation as to my role in the shooting, I rehung my Terrible Towel and fashioned a bandage from Kleenex and Scotch tape.

Once everyone had left, I was ready for a drink. Okay, ten drinks in a dank bar where I was a stranger, where I wouldn’t have to rehash the shooting. There was nothing like a good mulling over of Lincoln Elementary events in the company of my roommates. But as I limped to my car, a no longer frequent, but still familiar blue mood bloomed inside me.

It stopped me right there in the parking lot. I’d forgotten how the dread felt, that it actually came with warmth that almost made me welcome it. Driving down the boulevard, I decided not to go to the Green Turtle to meet Laura, Nina and my boyfriend, Alex. I wanted to be alone at The Tuna, the bar where nobody knew my name.


I drove my white Corolla to The Tuna and pondered my most recent teaching experience. Two months ago I’d been busy dreaming about saving the world and such. Man, those were the days. This afternoon’s event did not resemble my educational pipedreams in the least. I couldn’t stop replaying the shooting in my head.

Okay, so LeAndre hadn’t been aiming at me. And the bullet had only grazed my toe (but ruined one of my beautiful patent leather Nine West boots) and the bullet was actually a BB, but still, I’d been shot and frankly, it offended me. I loved those kids and apparently that meant shitola to them.

The further I drove from the school, the more I realized each and every county administrator and police official who’d interviewed me had implied I was somehow responsible for being shot by a disgruntled fifth grader. That left me feeling like I’d undergone a three-hour gynecological exam. The only logical next step was to get drunk.

Once in the parking lot of The Tuna, I shuffled across the pitted asphalt, squeezing in between a splotchy Chevy Nova and a glistening, black BMW. I paused and looked back at the vehicle. Who the hell came to The Tuna in a BMW? What did it matter?

Inside, I fussed with my purse while giving my eyes a chance to adjust to the murky atmosphere. The thick beer stench—the good kind—loosened the grasp of self-pity that had taken hold of me. I wove through mismatched tables and snaked a path to the roughhewn pine bar. The thunk of billiard balls punctuated quiet rhythms wafting from the jukebox. Several men cloistered at one end of the bar sent assorted, non-verbal hellos my way.

Before I reached my stool, the bartender I’d met the week before—the one with the sausage arms, overstuffed midsection and blazing red buzz cut—cracked a Coors Light and set it at my seat. I chugged the ice-glazed beer and swallowed the unladylike burp bubbling in my belly.

I blew out some air and thought about the day. Crap Quotient: 10/10. At least that bad. I’d coined the phrase Crap Quotient (C.Q.) after spending an entire day in grad school with a head cold, zero ability to smell and a hunk of dog crap on the bottom of my shoe. I’d traipsed around campus without any sweet soul letting me know I’d become the embodiment of the word stink.

I glanced at the hefty barkeep. He cracked a second beer before I had to ask. There was something precious about not knowing the person’s name that knew the beer you wanted at exactly the moment you needed it. I raised the bottle to salute him. He smiled while drying glasses and silverware. I wondered if that was part of the attraction promiscuous girls felt toward anonymous lovers. It was a near-miracle that a relative stranger could serve you in some perfect way even for a short time.

I plucked at the sweaty label on the bottle with my nail, thinking about Nina and Laura, my sisters in education. The greatest roommates a girl could have, except they were forever including my boyfriend, Alex, in everything we did. I’d have to get rid of Alex if I were to reap the full benefits of having such terrific friends. Alex and I were simply not a fit and me wishing exceptionally hard that I’d fall back in love with him wasn’t going to make it happen.

Because I’d missed lunch, the beer quickly did its job at anesthetizing me and eliminating the sensation that my skin had been removed and reattached with dental floss. A dark haired man slid onto the stool next to me. Great. Some slack-ass cozying up after the kind of day I had? I watched him in the blotchy, antique mirror across from us. He ordered a Corona then minded his own beeswax, thus, instantly becoming interesting. He was dressed in jeans and a blue, wide-ribbed turtleneck sweater, and his wavy hair whispered around his ears and neck. This was a guy with purpose, I could tell. I could feel it.

I admired someone who could communicate with nothing more than his appearance and manner—someone who had his shit together. That was exactly why we could never be a pair. I knew nothing about who I was. My shit was all over the place. Still, I was drawn to him as though we’d been destined to meet. I studied him. Maybe thirty-five years old. The cutest thirty-five-year-old ever.

This guy got points for reminding me of my eleventh grade creative writing teacher, Mr. Money. We girls had sat in class and fantasized that while reading our words, Mr. Money was falling in love with each of us.

The Mr. Money parked beside me in The Tuna made the air crackle and me want to grind my pelvis into his.

“All the parts there?” He swigged his beer.

“Hmm?” I swiveled to face him, studying his profile.

“I’d say take a picture, but that’d be wickedly clichéd.” He turned fully toward me. His knees touched mine, sending sizzling energy through my body. I shivered. I was in love. I clutched my chest where just hours before, searing, crisis-induced heartburn had made its mark. Now there was a good old-fashioned swell of infatuation.

“That’s a good one,” I said. We lingered, staring at each other, his direct gaze making me feel as though I’d come out of a coma to see the world in a new way. I turned back to the mirror and stared at him in the reflection again. He slumped a bit, and looked into his beer in that brooding way that made men attractive and women reek of need.

I searched for something interesting to say to a guy like this. I had nothing. If I couldn’t converse with a perfectly good stranger in a perfectly dingy bar, would I ever control my life? I didn’t have to marry the guy. Just have a freaking conversation about nothing. Not school, not my students, not my principal. Just brainless talk. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel like tossing myself off the Key Bridge.

I swiveled toward him again. “Okay. I’ve had a hairy day and now I’m here and you’re here, too. Wearing those fantastic, understated cowboy boots. You don’t look like a cowboy. And your sweater and jeans—all blend to create a look of nonchalance.” I circled my finger through the air. “A man unconcerned, I might say.”

His profile, as he smiled, absorbed me. I could feel him watching me in the mirror.

“Hmm.” Mr. Money emptied his Corona.

“That’s all you have to say?” I said.

“That’s it.” He swung the bottle between thumb and forefinger in a silent signal to the bartender, who brought him another one.

“Humph.” I swiveled back toward the mirror and peeled the entire Coors Light label from the bottle in one piece. I must be losing my looks—the most important component of my Hot Factor. A person’s H-Factor (which was sometimes influenced by the level of her Crap Quotient, though not always) rated her appearance, potential for success, attitude toward life and sense of humor in one easy-to-digest number. One’s H-Factor was simply a person’s market potential.

I was never the girl who drew the most attention in the room with an effervescent personality or magnificent golden locks, but I was pretty. When attempting to discern her own H-Factor, a girl had to be brutal about her shortcomings, but glory in her strengths. And like my roommate, Laura, who had an irrefutable IQ of 140, I had indisputable good-lookingness.

“Your lips. They’re nice,” Money said. We made eye contact in the mirror. “Boldly red,” he said, “but not slathered with bullshit lip gloss. Perfect.” He sipped his beer.

“That’s better,” I said. “Mind if I call you Money?”

“What?” He gave me the side-eye.

“Nothing. An inside joke. So you’re okay with it, right?”

“Inside with whom?”

“With me,” I said.

“Very odd.”

Categories free kindle nation shorts Tags ,

KND Freebies: Sexy, poignant romance anthology BLISS is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

Home is where the heart is…

Five romantic novellas by five different authors make up this sweet, sexy anthology set over centuries in one stately residence on North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound…
with an excerpt today from award-winning and bestselling author Kathleen Shoop’s novella,
Home Again, from BLISS.

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Bliss: An Anthology of Novellas (Bliss Series Book 1)

by Jamie Denton, SK McClafferty, Kathleen Shoop, Marcy Waldenville, JD Wylde

Bliss: An Anthology of Novellas (Bliss Series Book 1)
4.8 stars – 11 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Bliss, the stately residence on North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound is home to five stories of spellbinding romance. Take The Long Road Home as Civil War torn lovers are reunited. Witness the recovery of a Titanic widow’s heart as she finds love in The Healing Garden. Become Spellbound when a marriage of convenience turns passionate. Come Home Again during the heartrending conflict of the VietNam War as a runaway bride discovers love with her childhood friend. And finally, a divorced couple questions if love really can exist for them Beyond the Checkered Flag.

Praise for BLISS:

A wonderful collection of stories…
“…will keep you captivated from the start…vivid in historical and modern details…The characters come to life, making you fall in love with each and every couple…”

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an excerpt from

An Anthology of Novellas
by Jamie Denton, S.K. McClafferty, Kathleen Shoop,
Marcy Waldenville & J.D. Wylde

Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Shoop and published here with her permission

by Kathleen Shoop


Autumn, 1969

APRIL HARRINGTON FINALLY arrived. Nine hours, straight through. After everything that had happened, she was simply drawn there. She swallowed hard—her raw throat ached as she stared in the direction of her brother, Andrew’s, memorial site. She missed him so much that she hadn’t been able to return since the service. Nothing had been the same since he died in Vietnam.

She stood where the cypress trees bowed to one another, forming a lace canopy of foliage that led the way to the dock. Her mind worked like a camera, snapping shots into neat frames that she filed away in mental drawers. Without trying, she compared all that she saw in present time with all that she recalled about Albemarle Sound. The call of the osprey that nested above the water drew April’s attention upward. What had she done to her life?

She looked down at her French silk wedding dress. She whisked her hands over the fabric, not believing she’d driven straight from New York in full bridal attire. She pulled her veil from her hair, peering at the fine creation that an elderly woman, with her bent, bulbous fingers, had lovingly fashioned for April’s special day.

The great blue herons screeched, their throaty voices as familiar as her breath. The toads, woodpeckers, hawks, and wolves—they set the rhythms of Bliss—the home where her family had spent every summer of her life before she left for college. She was sure she’d made the right decision to abandon Mason at the altar, but sharp guilt that she’d also left her parents at the wedding stabbed at her. She knew her parents would understand her not marrying Mason in the end, but they would not approve of her fleeing the scene.

She had worked so hard at Columbia University. A journalism graduate, she’d found her camera was her favorite way to observe the world, to tell a story. All that work—the elation she’d experienced when she crafted the perfect photo essay or framed the perfect shot, revealing someone’s soul in a single image—had been so fulfilling.

Yet she’d driven away from all of that and more. And standing there, April knew the deep regret of failure was dwarfed by what she’d seen in the photos from Woodstock, what she’d learned about life since Andrew died.

The hollow tone of wood thudding against wood made April head down the dock. The rowboat that had been carved 60 years before, shaped from one of the biggest cypress trees on the property, bobbed at the end of the dock. What would it be doing out of storage this late in the year?

She looked around as though there’d be someone there to answer her thoughts. A stiff wind dropped in and forced the waves to stand in sharp rows like soldiers marching toward the dock, bullying the boat. The gusts pressed April’s dress to her thighs, making it hard to walk. She raised her hand, the veil flapping in the wind. She opened her hand and the veil swirled around her fingertips, and then soared away.

At the end of the dock, she tried to squat, but the dress was too tight. Dammit. The dock creaked beneath her. She reached behind her and worked the buttons. It had been the one concession she’d made to her future mother-in-law; she’d had exquisite antique buttons sewn onto her otherwise decoration-free dress. She’d never imagined she’d be trying to wiggle out of the sheath on her own.

The woodpeckers and crickets performed as April reached up, then down her back to get at the last of the buttons. A wave tossed the rowboat upward, smacking it against the dock again. She took a deep breath and pulled at the dress, scattering buttons around her feet. A fresh wind broke over the mooring and blew the buttons in every direction, dropping them into the water below.

Another crash of the rowboat, and April refocused. She shimmied out of the dress then bent over and yanked the rope that tethered the boat.

The wind dropped away, bringing an eerie stillness that draped the water like a blanket. The boards creaked again. She froze. Her right foot pushed through the wharf. The dock couldn’t be breaking. Her father would never let that happen.

She pulled her foot out of the cavity and resumed pulling the rope. The creaking wood escalated into a whine, then a groan, and before she could react, the end of the dock collapsed, dropping April into the water.

It stung her skin. Its coldness made her feel as though her lungs were solid, unable to allow air in or out. She kicked hard; pulling toward the top, telling herself to be calm, a little chilly water wouldn’t hurt.

As her head broke the surface, the stiff waves pushed her up, throwing her nearly out of the water. She could see the boat was still roped to the piling—it was safer than her.

The sprays fell away as fast as they rose, and she plunged under water, brushing by a submerged tree stump. The punch of the severed cypress on her ribs almost forced her to inhale under water. She willed herself to ignore the pain and swim for the top again. She broke the surface and gasped as she stroked, head out of the water, toward the remaining part of the dock. A figure on the dock startled her. For a second she thought she was hallucinating—a man was there, kicking off his shoes and pulling his shirt over his head.

She waved and yelled before going under again. She struggled to stay above the rough water and fell back under as she felt hands around her. The man grabbed her waist and set her on his hip while he used his free arm to sidestroke toward the narrow beach.

He kicked hard, bumping her body up and down. Eyes squeezed shut, she panted and coughed up water. Once on shore, he threw her over his shoulder and headed to the veranda of the great summer home, where he settled her on the wooden floor. Lying there, her breath began to calm and the dizziness released her. She squinted at the man who was now lifting one of her arms, then the other, then one leg at a time, asking if this hurt or that.

It was him. She couldn’t believe it.

“Hale,” she said. Hale Abercrombie.

He raised his gaze from her leg.

They locked eyes. Those indigo eyes.

“Hi there.”

How long had it been since she’d seen those eyes looking back at her?

He flinched and rubbed his shoulder.

Her teeth chattered. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” he said.

April slowly pushed herself to a sitting position. The movements made her inhale sharp and loud. She felt awful to have put him through such trouble. He had scrapes across his broad chest where she must have scratched him. She touched one of his wounds.

He pulled back. “Just a branch. Got a little too close to the tree cemetery.” Hale took her hand and turned it back and forth. His muscular arms tensed and relaxed as he moved. “Does this hurt?”

She drew her hand back and rubbed her arms to stave off the chills. “No, I’m fine.”

“You sure?” he said.

She nodded and pulled her knees up to her chest. This move caused her to groan. She covered the spot where it hurt with her hands.

He put his hand over hers. “Lie back,” he said.

She hesitated as she considered the fact she was dressed in only wet underpants and bra. Then flashes of their childhood came to mind—they’d spent countless summers running the grounds in nothing but bathing suits. He was Hale, her brother’s best friend, not some stranger.

He shifted his six feet two inches to get a closer look. His wavy, golden hair was cut close to his scalp, as any officer’s hair would be. He pressed her ribcage where the red skin was already blackening. She winced.

“Just a bruise,” she said.

“That’s not.”

She lifted her head to see what he was pointing at now. “Appendectomy.”

His eyes widened.

“A few months old.”

He ran his finger down the center of the crosshatched stitching. She pushed it away.

His gaze slid up to meet hers. His expression bore concern. He’d always been serious, but this concern was a darker, more troubled kind of somber. That made sense when she considered what he’d been through with her brother.

“I…” he said.

April felt connected to Hale—she always had. But this was an entirely new sensation—so strong and confusing to her that she had to order herself to stop feeling it. “It’s fine, Hale. Just a bruise.”

She struggled to sit up again. He took her hands and pulled.

“I didn’t mean to touch you. Your scar.” He ran his hand through his hair but wouldn’t look at her.

“You’ve touched me a million times, right?”

He nodded. “A long time ago.”

Indeed, today’s touches had evoked far different feelings than the ones that had marked their childhood.

“You’re okay? Really?” he said.

“Fine. Fuddy-Duddy,” they both said at the same time.

He met her smile with his, making her stomach quiver.

“If you’re okay, I’ll get your suitcase,” he said. “I’m on leave for a month, and I came to fix the kitchen sink. I figured since I was here, I should…well, I ought to check over the place. I took the rowboat out earlier. When the winds kicked up I came back to bring in the boat.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Your parents—they didn’t say you were coming.”

She looked away. She couldn’t start explaining all that had happened.

“Well, your suitcase.” He started down the steps toward her car.

She scrambled to her feet, grimacing, following him.

She looked down at her barely clad body and stopped. “No luggage.” Heat rose in her cheeks. “Just the dress, my purse, my camera.”

“That white thing on the dock is your dress?”

April nodded. She should at least try to recover some of the precious buttons, if possible. He took her hand. His fingers squeezed hers, sending a chill up her spine. She looked away from him, embarrassed at the excitement that swept through her.

“It’s gone,” he said.

April raised her eyebrows. She felt dizzy.

“The wind took it. Right over the sound.” He whistled and pushed his hand through the air. “Took flight like, well, remember that big old heron we used to call Matilda?”

April smiled. Their familiarity, the tales, the troubles—all of it made her feel as though they’d crossed paths just the day before.

A fresh wind whipped the trees. April and Hale looked to the sky.

Hale’s face grew troubled. “Storm’s coming,” He squeezed her hand once more, then dropped it. She clutched her hand to her body, feeling the spot where the engagement ring no longer encircled her finger.

“I’ll grab my stuff and get the rowboat.” Hale pushed his thumb in the direction of the water.

She looked at his wet jeans, the way they molded to his thick legs. Him saving her was really no big deal. Hale had lived his entire life saving others quietly, so circumspect and aware of what people needed. So old-fashioned, she’d always thought when she was younger. Not much fun, she’d always teased him. Now she just felt grateful—fortunate that Hale had been there to comfort Andrew as he had died, and glad he happened along for her sake a few minutes before.

She couldn’t help comparing Hale to Mason. Mason and his family were philanthropists, but when they sprung into life-saving action, it was with a checkbook, not their bare hands. Who would have jumped in after her if Mason or his parents saw her struggling in the water? They wouldn’t let her drown. They’d send the butler, Henri, but of course. Hale’s family, year-rounders at the sound, had nothing in the way of money, but they were strong, steady, and loyal.

“Go in. Get warm,” Hale said.

She nodded. No clothes, no family, no husband, no job. She needed more than to simply get warm.

“I’ll come back tomorrow to fix the dock and the tile in the blue bathroom,” Hale said.

“Thank you,” she said. “For Andrew. For everything.” She’d thanked him before for having tried so hard to save Andrew, but for some reason, she felt the need to say it again.

He nodded, and then headed toward the sound, humble as ever. April made it as far as the front door and stopped. She couldn’t believe what she saw. Like an old man’s mouth, the pointing between the bricks that faced the grand mansion was gapped and jagged, leaving the house vulnerable to wind and water. She slid her finger into a hole between the red brick and released a shard of aged plaster. She turned it back and forth as though it could explain how or why her father would have neglected to maintain the house.

The wood trim around the door was pitted, the paint lifting off, curling in sections. She examined the sturdy oak door. It seemed to be the only part of the house that wasn’t falling in or marred with age. She swept her finger along the carvings that depicted the nine rivers that fed the Albemarle, still amazed at the gorgeous work a family ancestor had done.

April sighed. She had to be honest about what she was seeing—utter neglect. Regret coursed through her. In living the silver-spoon life in New York, she’d ignored her parents, their pain, what that meant for this house. She hadn’t meant to be blind to what her family needed from her. She should have made sure the house was being kept up—it had been in their family for two centuries, after all.

She shook her head. She knew the cost of the wedding had been high, that her father had had some rough times with some real estate deals over the years, but she never imagined those things meant her parents might let the house suffer. Perhaps they’d just been focused on the inside of the home and had let the outside go until…until what? She didn’t know. The guilt she felt right then twisted at her soul. What had she done?

She turned the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She checked behind the planter for the spare key. Nothing. She swallowed a sob, and then turned her back on the door. Hale must have the key.

She turned and saw him coming with the boat over his head.

She ran toward him as quickly as she could with the sore ribs. Thunder cracked, making her move faster.

He stopped and nearly buckled under the weight of his haul.

“I can get the bow,” she said.

“I have it,” he said through clenched teeth.

She reached to lift one end, but all she could manage was to blanch at the pain that emanated from her ribs and follow behind like a little kid.

When they reached the veranda, Hale stopped. “We’ll stow it in the crawl space for the night. I have to get going.”

He appeared irritated. He flipped the boat and set it gently down on its bottom. Together, they gripped it, shoulder to shoulder, pushed it under the veranda and reset the lattice that served as a door for the space.

“Oh. The key,” April said.

Hale appeared confused. She ignored his unasked question. She wasn’t ready to explain her flight from the altar to anyone, least of all old-fashioned, always-do-the-right-thing Hale.

He reached into his pocket, and then pressed the key into April’s palm.

The thunder rumbled. She hoped she wouldn’t lose electricity.

Hale looked to the sky again, then began to move quickly, fussing with the lattice again. “Shouldn’t be too stuffy inside the house. I had the windows open earlier.”

She started toward the front steps.

“I’ll let your dad know he doesn’t need me here anymore.”

“No!” April turned back to make sure he got the message.

He snapped his attention to her, eyes wide, before his expression turned to relief.

“Don’t do that.” She straightened and crossed her arms over her chest.

She needed time to sit with her decision, to be strong and decisive when she spoke to her parents next. She needed to reassure them she could handle her life alone.

Hale raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, sure.” He cleared his throat. “Careful there. The fourth stair is disintegrating. I’ll fix that, too.” He started up the stairs to show her the rotting board.

Thunder rumbled and he looked into the sky again so April couldn’t hear everything he said until, “Don’t suppose an accomplished Ivy League lady like you has much time for carpentry.”

April forced a laugh. Hale drew away. Her hands shook. Ivy League lady. Images of Woodstock, of the wedding, of the blurred faces she saw as she ran down the aisle and out the door snapped through her mind as though she were photographing the scene.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” Hale reached out but didn’t touch her.

April shook her head.

“You’re crying.”

She touched her cheek and studied the tiny puddle of tears that she collected on her fingertips.

She felt Hale’s gaze slip down her body, reminding her she was nearly nude.

April covered her chest with one arm. She needed to get into the house so she could fall apart in private. The thunder interrupted their silence, and he abruptly started down the steps.

When he reached the bottom stair, he turned back and poked at something. April moved closer to see what he was doing. Inside a tiny circle of pebbles was a furry, black caterpillar. Hale plucked some grass and sprinkled it into the miniature fortress.

April squinted at him.

He shrugged. “Little guy just needs some shelter. ’Til the storm passes.”

She looked into the mottled sky. “I guess so,” she said, not wanting to embarrass him.

He shrugged. “I’m really glad to see you.”

April nodded. She was comforted, relieved that someone on that day would be happy to see her. The air sizzled with the coming storm. “Come in, stay for tea.” But as she spoke those words, a clap of thunder broke, and he didn’t hear.

He hopped into his Chevy and drove away, his truck winding around the house and disappearing. April pushed the key into the lock and turned it. She opened the door and faced the great marble staircase that rose up from the worn, but still stunning, cypress floors. You’ll be fine alone, she repeated to herself.

The echo of silence between the thunderclaps embraced her. She wondered if it was going to be too quiet at Bliss, if she should have just slipped into a women’s hotel in Manhattan and gotten lost in the crowd. No. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. She would go on with her life, and she would do so in memory of Andrew and how right he’d been about everything.

She started toward the kitchen and passed the mirror in the hall, glancing at herself. Some of her golden hair was matted against her face and the rest was plopped on top of her head like a loaf of bread, still held in place with pins and elastics. Strands sprung out all around her scalp from where she’d pulled the veil off. Mascara ringed her eyes like the great owls that serenaded her summer sleeps.

No wonder Hale had run away as soon as he knew April was fine. She considered his Ivy League crack. She knew she’d hear that, coming back to Harrington. But she hadn’t expected it from Hale. She hadn’t expected him to be on leave at all.

April took her attention from her reflection to the empty space beside the mirror. She pinched one of the naked picture hooks between her fingers, twisted, then pulled it out. She turned slowly, surveying the fifteen-foot tall walls.

Her mouth fell open. Every single one of them was gone. Each of her mother’s treasured Albemarle Sound paintings had been removed. Only the silver picture hooks remained, scattered, winking at her in the soft foyer light. Where were they? Maybe Hale knew. She touched her belly where his fingers had traced her scar.

She gasped at the thought of his hands on her, the way he cared for her. She realized the sensation sparked by his touch—this quiet luring—was not new, but now, as a woman, she recognized the sentience for what it was.

There was and had always been a special bond between them even if she’d forgotten it was there for years. She wrapped her arms around her middle. Of course they were connected. They’d shared summers, her brother’s life and, most importantly, his death.


HALE DROVE THE Chevy back toward the road but had to stop. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, then strangled the steering wheel to make his hands stop shaking. His heart pounded so hard, he was sure he could track the rushing blood through his body from start to finish. He pushed his head back against the seat and clenched his jaw until the panic stopped.

The thunder. He hadn’t expected it to still bother him so much, not after two years. It had been a while since it had had this affect on him. He willed the terror to subside. It must have been finding April in the water, needing help. Yes, she was fine, but it had scared him. All it took was an unexpected hand on the shoulder, a door slamming, a clap of thunder… Any small, startling thing could trigger fright so vivid that sometimes, he threw up.

Dear God, please make it stop, make it stop. He pressed his feet into the floor of the truck, told himself he was grounded, he was safe. He re-gripped the wheel and said aloud, “You’re in the truck. You’re home.”

Gradually, his heart decelerated, his breath calmed, and the heat that scorched him from the inside out retreated. He could do this. He was okay.

He didn’t know how much time had passed before he opened his eyes. He looked at the back of April’s house. There were lights on upstairs. Had April seen him sitting there? He imagined her calling her dad to tell him she had arrived. He gripped his knee. The lie had been out of his mouth before he’d even consciously formed the thought. He had not been invited to take care of April’s family home.

No. He was on a month’s leave. A chance to get his head straight, his commander had ordered. So he’d come to the only place he might be able to do that…Bliss. The place he’d always found peace and plenty. Hale’s father had died when he was a baby, leaving his mother to cobble a living by watching over all the homes on the sound when the summer season was over. April’s family had become his in too many ways for him to parse. But he never thought he’d have to face April before he was ready to tell her the whole story.

It hadn’t mattered that he was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. He’d buried the medals inside the sweeping skirt of the giant cypress tree outside Bliss, near Andrew’s memorial. The idea that someone would award him for valor when his bravery hadn’t resulted in saving Andrew, well, Hale knew an empty gesture when he saw it, and he would never forgive himself for being the one who was alive.

He couldn’t sleep at night. Nearly every hour, he shot awake. The sharp screech of the missile hitting the plane rang through his head as though he was still in the rear of the F-14. He would wake standing in the middle of the room, or on the bed, feeling as though he’d just punched out of the plane. There amidst perfect safety he experienced the sensation of the entire seat rocketing out of the plane, his body shuddering as it had the very day it had happened. And as he came back to consciousness, he heard Andrew’s easy tone calmly narrating how he’d maneuvered them away from the missiles. That was what had happened every time, but once. Just once.

The part that affected him most was what happened after punching out. The ground fire. He couldn’t bear to envision it, but couldn’t shake it from his very being. The divot in his leg was nothing compared to the grooves that had been forever worked into his brain, his skin, his soul. Those memories—the missile, the odor of the fire—were creased into his core, which held onto that day, grasped onto the experience, making Hale sure that if he managed to pass a day without Andrew entering into his mind, every cell in his body would still recall his loss.

In fact, the events of that day had left him with the only thing that let them know he was still alive—pain. A fly buzzed near Hale’s ear. He swiped his hand through the air, capturing the insect. He opened his fingers and the fly flipped over on his palm and staggered back into the air, escaping to the back of the truck.

Hale put his hand over his chest. His pulse was even. He drew a deep breath. He would put his mind straight as he’d been ordered to do. He would. He put the truck in gear and started home. Glancing in his rearview mirror, a lightning strike made him jump as it lit the air and revealed the form of April at Andrew’s bedroom window.

His nerves leapt as he considered the attraction toward her sweeping through his body. He pushed away his misplaced feelings. No, April was just his best friend’s sister, and there was never any good to come from something like that. Not when she’d probably been left at the altar, and not when Hale was the reason her brother was dead.

In the kitchen, April threaded her fingers through the metal cabinet handle. She tugged and the hinges pulled right over the screws as though they were made of gelatin instead of metal. Her sadness deepened. What had been going on in this house? Had she spent too many spring breaks and summer vacations in Cayman Island resorts with the Franklins? Had Bliss always been run-down and she just never noticed?

She set the door aside and chugged down several glasses of water. She rubbed her chilled arms and went to find clothes. In her bedroom, she wiggled her toes on the worn Oriental rug. She jiggled the top dresser drawer then tilted it at just the right angle that would allow it to slide out. She dug between half-a-decade old undergarments. Girdles, for goodness sake. She’d sworn those off within the first five minutes of being in New York City.

She tried the next drawer. She held up some plain t-shirts. She was tall and angular and for the first time, seeing the small t-shirts as her only clothing option, she was grateful for her lean lines. Her closet was empty, and she needed pants.

She went to Andrew’s room. The light bulb was burned out, so she used the hall light to illuminate her quest. She excavated his drawers and found jeans she could cut into shorts. She went to the closet. Thunder continued to crash and rumble, bringing bright flashes of lightning with it. She fished through the closet and found an old tie of Andrew’s to use for a belt. She pulled a shirt from the shelf.

She held it to her nose. The aftershave smell she associated with her brother should have been long gone, but in the folds of the fabric, she swore there was a hint of him.

She buried her face in the shirt and sobbed. Her Andrew, her wise, fun-loving brother, had taught her so much about life. But it was his death that had educated her the most, that had helped make it so clear that choosing to marry Mason would mean a lifetime of awful.

She told herself not to cry that leaving him had been right, even if in the short run, it had felt so terrifically wrong. She gathered her new apparel, plucking Andrew’s old Converse sneakers off the closet floor. They would work until she figured out how she was going to reassemble her wardrobe, rework her entire life.

She sat on the edge of the tub while the water ran. She reached for the glass vial with the cut-glass stopper and opened it, inhaling her mother’s homemade orange oil. She turned it into the faucet letting the water carry the emollient into the bath.

Tucked into the water, she poked at the shiny islands of oil that floated on the surface. She patted at the bruise that formed where she’d hit the stump, then traced the appendectomy scar, thinking of Hale’s caring expression as he had stared at it.

This reminded her of the way Mason had gaped at the incision, turning grey, retching and nearly passing out, declining to assist her ever again.

It was true—the stitches had been relatively new. But with years of snapshots flipping through April’s mind, she realized how often he chose to turn away from her needs rather than step toward them.

She reclined further into the tub, her long hair floating like spider legs around her. The warm water cushioned her sore body. She would not let the loss of her almost-marriage feel like a death. Andrew’s absence and the experiences of soldiers who came home injured or simply forgotten were tragic. But April’s life, her loss? She shrugged at the thought. That was nothing.

She hadn’t felt so free in ages. Probably since the summer she’d left for college, when all was hopeful and everything she could imagine was possible. It had been at least that long.

… Continued…

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An Anthology of Novellas
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