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Excerpt, A Place to Belong

I stood there in a silent hell, motionless, feeling like a ten-ton pickup had just slammed me onto concrete. Every bone shattered, organs punctured, seconds from death.

I deserved no less but some small, aching part of me had clung these past years to the desperate hope that one day, somehow, I would see her again.

And there she was, less than a block away on a crowded city sidewalk.

I realized I couldn't approach her, that it had been a stupid fantasy all along, a hollow dream. Shredded by this proximity to her after all this time I knew I should do the wise thing and turn and walk away. But I couldn't find the strength. My heart throbbed with need and love, in equal, tortured measures. No use pretending otherwise. Millie Jo Gordon only a few dozen steps away, walking hand in hand with a guy I wanted to kill on sight. Violence swelled in my body, curling my hands to hard-knuckled fists. Of course it was an empty threat at best; I could no more confront them in this moment than I could lift my arms and fly.

My last sight of Millie had been that July morning she climbed into Rae's idling truck, begging Rae to drive away before I could reach her. Tangled hair spilling down her back, refusing to look my way, less than an hour after we'd made love for the final time. Did she ever think about that morning or the night before, let alone revisit it obsessively as I had so many times I'd long ago lost count? I was pretty damn sure she did not.

The late-afternoon sun slanted between buildings and spangled the long, dark ripples of her hair, rimming her head with a halo of pure golden light. She was twenty-two now, a college graduate; she had accomplished the first of many goals. Pain annihilated me as I stood frozen in the shadow of an awning, able only to observe. She and the guy paused beside a small storefront, turning to examine something in the window while I studied her profile, destroyed anew.

She wore a white sleeveless blouse, bright green shorts, and sandals with straps that wound halfway up her calves; a delicate silver bracelet decorated her right wrist. As I watched, mute and destroyed, the guy released her hand to skim his along her spine, up beneath her loose curls. He leaned in, saying something to make her laugh, and she tucked momentarily close to him, resting a palm against his stomach. My throat closed off. It was time to go. Now.

It was pure chance, a coincidence, nothing more, but Millie suddenly looked my way, her precious, beautiful face wreathed in laughter, and our eyes met. I felt the impact of her sudden awareness the same way I would have a physical blow to the bridge of my nose. The smile fell from her lips as swiftly as if she'd just witnessed an accident and I turned blindly away, making tracks in the opposite direction. It was cowardly, hypocritical to the extreme, but I knew if I stayed put I would be forced to meet the guy and I couldn't bear it. It hurt too fucking much. It was already terrible enough to be caught in what amounted to stalking her, even if that had not been my intent.

"Wyatt!" I heard her cry and realized she was coming after me. “Wait! Please, wait!”

The sound of her voice broke like glass over me; unconditional need to be close to her stalled my feet. I turned and saw her hurrying in my direction and my entire being jolted as though the switch had been thrown in an electric chair. Speechless, heart thrusting, I stood rooted in place as she reached me, halting two feet away, staring up at me with wide, disbelieving eyes. Her cheeks were flushed, her breasts rising and falling as she drew deep lungfuls of air attempting to catch her breath. Everything I had lost rose to confront me in that moment; it took all my will to keep from reaching for her.

"Wyatt,” she said again, a stunned whisper of my name. We seemed trapped in a dream, a step outside of reality; the bustle of the city faded to gray static. There was only Millie. There had always been only Millie.

I wanted to say her name but words were dust on my tongue.

"What are you doing here?” Stunned, unblinking, she held my gaze. Her hands fluttered toward me before she thought better of it and clasped them tightly together at her waist, a gesture I recognized as one of tension and uncertainty. Creating a shield with which to block potential pain.

"I...I just wanted...” I could have punched my own lights out, I sounded so stupid. Though I stood without moving I was a wreck on the inside, a quaking, all-out wreck. Sweat formed beads down my spine.

"You're here." She couldn't believe it any more than I could. "You're really here."

If she only knew how often I'd dreamed of seeing her again, of being close enough to touch her. The passage of time meant nothing; it might as well have been the morning after our first night together, wrapped around each other in that little orange tint. My eyes tracked her face, devouring the sight. She was more beautiful than ever, the lowering sun accentuating the gold in her irises and casting auburn highlights in her brown hair. I hadn't explained my presence here in the city where she lived, too overcome, and suddenly the guy she'd been walking with joined us, taking his place at Millie's side with what could only be described as a proprietary air.

"Joel Jefferson," he said succinctly, extending a hand.

Millie swallowed hard before releasing a small, pent-up breath as I shook with Mr. Joel Jefferson, unable to ignore the customary gesture without looking like more of an asshole than I already did; the bastard's eyes were on a level with mine and I clearly saw the questions he was restraining. He didn't offer a smile or any additional commentary, and I felt the way he squeezed with just enough pressure to let me know he meant business.

"Joel, this is..." Flustered, her cheeks brighter than ever, Millie stumbled over potential ways to describe our connection to one another.

"Wyatt Rawley," I said, and released his hand.

Joel immediately slung an arm around Millie's waist. He may not have a clue who I was but he was observant enough to sense that something was off.

"My brother is married to Millie's aunt," I said to fill the gaping silence.

Oh, Joel said without sound; his brows drew inward.

Millie had never been able to hide her feelings and I damned myself for doing this to her, for putting her in this terrible and unexpected situation in the first place. All I goddamn did was hurt her. Tucked against Joel's side she continued to stare at me as if I was a ghost, as if I might disappear between one blink and the next. I had to walk away and I knew it; showing up this way was unforgivable. Selfish and stupid beyond compare. But then all at once I saw something in her eyes and my heart thrust with enough force to bruise my insides.

Joel said, "Well, nice to meet you. We're just headed back to my place for dinner." He felt compelled to add this detail and I quelled the vicious desire to deck him straight in the teeth. I briefly imagined the sound of my fist making contact and his subsequent plunge to the sidewalk.

"How long are you in town?" Millie's voice was faint.

"I got here earlier today. I'm driving up to Landon this evening." I kept my tone light, with effort. Of course I was not headed to Landon but the lie rolled off my tongue; I couldn't admit to driving to Minnesota for no other reason than to see her, not now.

Millie, Millie, oh God, my sweet Millie, what would you do if I swept you into my arms and started running?

Do you still somehow care for me or was I just imagining that?

"They're expecting you tonight?" Barely a whisper.

I nodded before mustering a cheerful tone; I couldn't manage a smile. "It was good to see you. I'll tell everyone 'hi' when I get there. And everyone in Jalesville says to tell you the same."

I was about to lose it and so I turned without waiting for them to respond, feeling Millie's gaze beating against the back of my neck as palpably as if she'd thrown a clump of weeds. I ducked my head, fighting tears, and strode away through the crowd. Dying inside. Wishing for things I had right to wish for. And this time, she didn't follow.



Before I knew what was happening, before I could make sense of the insanity of the situation, Wy had turned and walked away, head lowered, hands in the front pockets of his faded jeans. Speechless with shock, totally blindsided by his sudden appearance after five years of total absence, I watched him put distance between us as though standing just outside my physical body. If I'd harbored even the fainest shred of a notion that I was over what had occurred that summer, seeing him just now shattered those notions to dusty bits. Emotions stormed my senses with ruthless disregard – it was as though no time had passed at all and I both welcomed and feared the onslaught of memories. I'd never come close to loving another man the way I'd loved Wy. And therefore I'd never since allowed myself to feel that level of pain.

"Mills, what was that all about?" Joel was asking; his arm remained locked around my waist and I was struck with the sudden urge to duck away from his touch. Clearly concerned, he added, "Are you okay? Who is that guy?"

Joel and I had been dating for a grand total of about two months, not that time had anything to do with it; I'd never discussed Wy with any of the men I'd dated during the course of my undergraduate years at the university. I couldn't bear the agony of remembrance. Rae, Ruthann, and Marshall remained the only other people who knew the whole story. I didn't respond to Joel's nosy questions; Wy was about to disappear from my sight among the throng of people headed out to enjoy the balmy evening.

And sudden anger invigorated my every nerve.

I tore my eyes from Wy to implore Joel. "I'm sorry, but I have to talk to him. I'll be right back."

"Wait, what?" Joel appeared flabbergasted. He complained, "In the middle of our date?"

While I liked Joel, and enjoyed his company for the most part, I knew he really meant 'right before we were about to go have sex in my apartment,' and resentment served to ratchet my anger up another hundred notches. I'd noticed the way Joel had attempted to assert himself, to stake some sort of claim on me, like he had to prove something to Wy.

"I'll call you later!" I promised, and then took off at a jog.

Fury clouded my vision and clogged my lungs, only gaining in mass as I hurried around the elbows and shoulders, my purse bumping along on my hip, all but shoving strangers out of my path. How fucking dare Wy show up this way with no warning, after five years of nothing? Not a word, a phone call, nothing. What did he hope to prove? I could only assume he was actually in town to see me – but how had he possibly imagined the moment playing out? Where was Hannah, or Zane? And then to just walk away like that, with zero explanation.

He's headed to Landon this evening?

What the fuck?

Why didn't someone tell me he was coming to Minnesota?

I hated myself for the deep-seated ache of love that had never fully withered away. I hated that someone possessed the power to hurt me so brutally. And worse yet, I'd allowed him that power over me. I thought of his letter, read nearly to bits and tucked in my top drawer even now; I'd never been able to part with it, no matter how many times I'd tried. Instead, I'd memorized every word.

Wy is married. He's a father. What good will it do to chase after him this way? What could you possibly have to say to each other?

And yet another part of me wept, You never even said good-bye to him that day, you never even told him how sorry you were.

I saw him then, headed for a truck parked near a narrow alley between two brick buildings. I elbowed around a middle-aged couple, gasping an apology, and then darted down the sidewalk. Maybe twenty paces away, I shouted, "Wyatt!"

He froze, slowly looking over one shoulder as if he couldn't quite believe his ears.

Too angry and out of breath for any sort of embarrassment, not caring that it was obvious I'd chased him, I gasped, "What...are you doing here?" Evening sun cast a long, slanted beam over us, as if we were suspended in thick, brilliantly-glowing honey.

I was out of breath, unable to look away from the dark, lonely eyes I would have sacrificed a great deal to forget, once and for all. And yet…I could no more deny the radiant joy flowing from my heart than I could have prevented its next beat. I hadn't seen Wyatt Rawley since that terrible morning on the edge of the highway outside Itasca. I absorbed the familiar – the shape of his lean body, the width of his shoulders, the dark hair on his strong forearms; the deep brown of his eyes, his long nose, his beautiful lips.

And that which had changed in the passage of years – his wavy, shaggy hair was now short, trimmed much closer to his scalp; his mouth was framed by a dark goatee; small lines of strain were visible at the outer corner of his eyes and there was a distinct maturity about him. He was all man, no lingering hints of boyishness remained, and a hot, pulsing awareness beat through my blood, beyond my control; an unspoken acknowledgment of what we had once shared. He was a doctor of veterinary medicine now. I remembered well his devotion to his studies, how hard he had worked to earn the degree and title. Of their own accord, my eyes roved to his lithe, long-fingered hands, imagining them delivering a foal.

My heart skittered, missing several beats in a row. He wore no wedding ring.

"Millie," he whispered, and my gaze flew back to his face. He stood motionless, just watching me, his posture as tense as if I'd aimed a gun at his sternum. Pain had tightened his features.

I located my voice.

"You show up out of nowhere and then you were just going to walk away?" I demanded, but with far less steam than I'd originally intended. "Is...anyone else with you?"

He slowly shook his head. "No. And I'm sorry, I'm so sorry to show up like this, without letting you know."

"Letting me know?! I haven't heard from you in five years." We stood close enough that I could see my reflection in his pupils; I inhaled, catching a hint of cologne atop his warm, perspiring skin. I wanted both to punish him and feel his arms slide around my body. I wanted relief, I wanted closure. I wanted to make love with this man until the sun crested tomorrow's horizon, until I was sated and absolved, free from pain. I wanted him. I'd never not wanted him. But I knew better now. I was no longer a naive young girl, and I would never be her again.

A Place to Belong, excerpt

Cool it, Wy. Jesus. My guilty conscience thrummed a steady drumbeat against my skull, attempting to override other, less civilized parts of my mind. You’re older and wiser, for Christ’s sake. Millie is strictly off-limits to you. She’s only seventeen! No-man’s land, do you hear me? Do you?!

I hear
, I muttered, with grim severity.

I clamped down on all thoughts of lifting Millie from the truck and straight into my arms, instead opening the passenger door and stepping to the side. But it did less than no good – her gaze held steady on mine as she climbed down and it would have required blindness combined with a critical head injury not to notice her.

Holy God, Millie, you have no idea what you do to me.

Everything about her reduced me to shreds. Quivering, tight-in-the-chest shreds, like I was about thirteen years old.

She’s a high school senior! My conscience continued badgering. A kid!

But the straight-up truth was that Millie was no kid, and hadn’t been for the past two summers – at least, not in my eyes. Of course I recognized the fact that to everyone else concerned, she was a kid and I was, at twenty-three, an adult. There was no middle ground. No gray area. End of story. To complicate matters and despite her obvious efforts to hide it, I knew she liked me. A whole lot.

And I couldn’t let my elation over this fact show any more than I could let on that I returned those feelings, and then some. I wouldn’t, if it killed me. I couldn’t risk such potential damage. She was so young, with so much ahead of her. One of us had to know better.

Millie Joelle Gordon.

In my family she was referred to, almost without fail, as sweet Millie Jo. Mathias and Camille’s oldest daughter, a pint-sized baby doll the first time I’d ever seen her, as a flower girl in her mother’s wedding. I’d been eight years old that long-ago autumn, Millie edging toward three, not that anything like our ages mattered back then. We were just kids in those days, enjoying each other’s summertime adventures. It didn’t matter if we were out in Montana exploring the rangy foothills and hanging out in the horse barn, or here in Landon spending lazy days lounging in the lake, we always had fun together.

The July following their wedding, Mathias and Camille drove out to Jalesville to visit us for two weeks, hauling along Millie and her new twin brothers, creating a tradition which endured to this day. In that way, Millie and I grew up together. My most vivid early memories of her revolved around our mutual love of horses; I remembered being impressed that she was never afraid, despite having no experience, and I’d been proud in my strutting, boyhood glory to show off for her, detailing how much I knew about animals. My family stabled between six to ten horses at any given time and I’d learned to ride around the same time I’d learned to walk. The first time Millie ever rode had been on the back of my first horse, a gentle mare named Oreo; I’d been the one to teach her the rudiments of saddling, mounting and dismounting, and handling the reins.

You want to be a vet? I heard her asking, deep in my memory. Nine or ten years back. A horse vet, right?

I’d nodded confirmation, both of us with our sunburned arms dangling over the top beam of the fence; we’d climbed the lower rungs for a better view of the corral.

Do horses get sick like people? Do they get the flu?

Horses get sick, I’d responded. But not like how you’re thinking.

Sweet Millie Jo, looking up at me that afternoon with such trust, at my side beneath a hot July sunbath with bits of hay decorating her tangled curls. Her beautiful eyes, hazel-green with endless golden depths, like creek water in bright sunlight, already seemed to see inside me. That was the first time I’d felt a distinct shift in my gut. Far too young and uncertain to understand such feelings, let alone consider acting on them, I’d felt that shift all the same, powerful as an incoming tide or a gravitational force.

And then for a time the gap in our ages was all but impassable, creating an unwanted gulf between us; even still, the summer she was fifteen Millie had pleaded to stay behind in the barn and watch Twyla, one of our mares, give birth. Her persistence won out and I’d been amazed all over again at how much I truly enjoyed her company. It seemed we could laugh about anything and everything, a level of undeniable ease that had never failed to exist between us. Millie was the oldest among her siblings while I was the youngest; she had always carried herself with self-possession and a maturity beyond her age…or maybe that was just my hopeful perception.

Twyla’s labor extended into the evening and as we’d waited together, Millie’s elbow periodically bumping mine as we leaned over the stall, the realization struck me like a dart. Some day our age difference won’t matter at all. Immediately I’d recoiled from such thoughts, beyond ashamed of myself; for the love of God, she’d been fifteen to my twenty-one that summer. I’d tightly reined in any and all notions of Millie’s then-distant eighteenth birthday, feeling guilty as hell, almost criminal. I deserved a preemptory ass-kicking, which Millie’s dad, Mathias, would have been more than happy to deliver had he suspected the direction of my thoughts.

I’d been in my second year of college at the time and my focus was narrower than a train tunnel, pinned on the light at the end – earning my doctorate of veterinary medicine. I’d worked like hell all through high school with that one goal in mind and when I was later accepted into the program at the University of Washington, I reveled in the feeling of rightness, of treading the correct path. To say I was startled when I experienced the same exact flash of feeling standing alongside Millie in the barn as we witnessed the birth of Twyla’s foal was justifiable understatement.

The bulb above our beloved mare’s stall created a cone of light allowing Millie and I to observe the scene as it unfolded; by that point I’d observed or assisted with dozens of foalings, many of them Twyla’s, but it was Millie’s first and she was completely absorbed, engrossed and full of questions.

“Is she hurting?” she’d wanted to know right away, concerned for Twyla, who by that point lay on her right side atop mounded hay, legs extended, issuing deep, periodic grunts.

“Well, it’s damn hard work,” I had replied, with a touch of humor. I supposed that to someone unaccustomed to the sight of a laboring mare it seemed barbaric to watch without attempting to help or ease the pain. But I knew from long experience that a healthy mare needed no assistance to deliver her foal, just a clean stall, plenty of hay for bedding, and patience. A foaling was such a common occurrence in our barn that Dad and my brothers left us alone, trusting me to keep vigil once it was apparent it was Twyla’s time. Camille and Mathias, along with the rest of their kids, had driven over to Tish and Case’s place earlier that afternoon, leaving behind Millie, at her insistence.

I explained, “This is Twyla’s fourth live birth and she knows what to do. The foal is positioned properly, I checked earlier, so now we just wait and keep an eye for any signs of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” she demanded, eyebrows making concerned arcs.

“At this point we should expect the birth to happen within thirty minutes or so, any longer could mean trouble. Or if the foal is positioned incorrectly, that’s a real problem.” I considered for a second. “The baby should emerge like he’s doing a surface dive. We should see one foot, then the second about six inches behind, then the foal’s head. The legs emerge separately so the foal’s shoulders aren’t squared and taking up too much space in the birth canal.”

Millie nodded with all due seriousness, not quite able to contain a wince as Twyla’s legs jerked; the mare issued a low-pitched groan, almost human-sounding.

“Are you sure you want to stay out here?” I didn’t want her witnessing more than she was ready for, but Millie stood straighter at once, determination replacing the concern on her face.

“Ruthie told me how amazing it is,” she insisted. “Let me stay. Please, Wy, don’t make me go back inside.”

Gladness filled my heart; how could I refuse? I stole a look at her in my peripheral vision, just to my left, her glossy-dark hair arranged in a thick braid that hung over her shoulder. She was all arms and legs that summer, her nose sunburned and dusted with tiny freckles, her sensual prettiness yet contained in sweet innocence. A lone curl trailed along her jaw. Sweat created a faint shine along her hairline and her eyes were wide with wonder. A force field of intense proportions surged in my chest, inspiring protectiveness on a level previously unknown to me; I thought, If anyone ever hurts this girl, I will kill him.

Behind us, the open barn doors allowed the last of the long summer day’s violet light to filter inside the barn. Stars were already spangling the western sky, visible above the corral. Twyla’s laboring had advanced to the point where I expected the emergence of the foal’s first foreleg at any moment. Earlier in the afternoon the mare had displayed signs of imminent labor, growing anxious and restless in her stall, occasionally biting at her own flanks. She was now well into the second stage, sides heaving, tail lifted to expose the birth canal. It was a natural process that would only get messier but Millie displayed no further signs of squeamishness, which impressed me.

“Has a foal ever presented wrong while you were watching?” Millie asked, glancing my way with such an abundance of trust that I felt almost undeserving.

“We’ve been pretty lucky that our mares have had uncomplicated deliveries, as a whole. A few years ago Banjo had a foal that presented the wrong way.” I paused, recalling that tense evening. Marshall had been adamant we do everything in our power to save Banjo and her foal; Banjo was Ruthie’s mare and he knew she would be devastated by her loss. “Dad knew how to help, thank God, because the closest vet was about seventy miles away at the time. Most of the local ranchers have a rudimentary knowledge of what to do in an emergency and Dad and Marsh were able to turn the foal in time.”

I found myself talking to Millie like she was my age, a fellow student rather than a fifteen-year-old girl. But it felt entirely natural and she listened with silent attention.
I indicated the stall to our immediate right, currently empty, since Ruthie and Marsh were out riding. “The baby was just fine and Ruthie named him Dusty.”

“I remember Aunt Ruthie talking about him,” Millie said. “That’s part of why you want to work as a vet, isn’t it? Because there aren’t many in the area.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that’s definitely part of it. But also because I couldn’t imagine any other line of work.”

Millie glanced around at the additional stalls in the darkening barn, three of which were occupied by other mares. She spoke with a tone of muted awe. “It’s like they know Twyla is suffering. You can almost hear them worrying over her.”

It struck me deeply that she would notice; it was true, the other mares always seemed to murmur among themselves when one of their own was laboring, offering wordless encouragement and support. “I think they are. They care about each other and they can sense what’s going on.”

“Look!” Millie suddenly cried, leaning so far forward she was in danger of toppling into the stall.

A beat of excitement held us in suspension, forging another connection. I grinned at her enthusiasm. “See? Perfect presentation.” To Twyla, I added, “There’s a good girl. Good girl!”

I stood poised to intervene if the mare needed me but she was an old pro in the delivery room, legs straining, heavy head tucked low as she pushed. Amniotic fluid wet her flanks and back legs and the surrounding hay; her bulky body quivered with strength, her vulva red and swollen, stretching unimaginably far to allow new life to enter the world.

“Is he all right? What the heck is he in?” Millie cried, astonished, lips dropping open at the spectacle of the foal easing free of his mother’s womb in what appeared to be a big, slippery, bluish-white bubble.

“It’s all right, it’s just the birthing sack, I should have told you it would look like that. Good girl, Twyla, there’s a girl!”

Dad called from the outer corral fence, “How’s everything, son?”

“Great!” I yelled back. “Twyla’s almost delivered, Dad, come see!”

“There’s his head!” Millie yelped, trembling with excitement. “Oh, my gosh, Wy, look!”

I entered the stall to ease nearer to Twyla, speaking to her in low, comforting tones. The foal was roughly halfway free of her body and I knelt to gently slip the birthing sack away from his little face; it was slick and wet, almost rubbery, the last physical link between the foal and his mother. Once completely free, it would be up to him to shift his legs enough to break the umbilical cord. The wonder of birth never failed to touch me, the miracle of a perfect little horse appearing as if by magic. I laughed and was stunned to feel tears prickle in my eyes.

“Hey there, little guy,” I murmured, even though I wasn’t entirely sure yet if he was a colt. I knelt near his head and forelegs, making sure I left enough room for the full delivery.

Millie had followed right on my boot heels but I was not about to reprimand her. She knelt at my side in the hay, tears streaking her cheeks, hands clasped together at her lips. The hay was wet with fluid but Millie appeared not to notice, fixated on the foal. Her fingertips rested like small, precious birds on my shoulder as she whispered with reverent awe, “Oh, wow...”

“He’s almost out. He’s a beauty, look at him.”

“Oh, look...oh my gosh...”

“Here he comes!”

The foal slipped free, the birthing sack still encasing his forelegs, the thick white umbilical cord trailing over his back. Twyla grunted and heaved and a last gush of fluid stained the hay while the colt – and it was a colt, I could now tell – rolled to his belly and attempted to stand.

Tears streamed down Millie’s cheeks. “Oh, he’s so beautiful! Oh, Wy. Oh, my goodness.”

Twyla repositioned to offer maternal assistance, licking her newest baby with long strokes of her tongue; now that he was delivered, you’d never guess at the mare’s struggle to get him here. Twyla nosed his ribs and nuzzled his neck, licking his shiny hide as he tried again to rise to all four tiny, wobbly hooves.

“A colt,” I confirmed, letting him nose my palm, grinning so wide I thought my jaw might bust. “Isn’t he pretty? He’s a strong one, already trying to get up.”

Millie turned my way and threw her arms around my neck, squeezing with pure exuberance.

“Can I touch him?” she begged.

“Of course. Just move slow.”

“He looks just like his mom,” she observed, sounding giddy with happiness, stretching a hand palm-up toward the baby’s long, slender nose. His hide shone dark gold under the overhead light, gleaming with dampness; by contrast, his mane and tail were a deep brown.

His little ears stood straight up, at attention, inquisitive eyes unblinking as he momentarily abandoned the attempt to stand and let his slender legs fold gracefully beneath him.

Millie murmured, “Hi, baby. Oh, you’re the sweetest baby on earth. Look at you, you’re the cutest thing I ever saw.”

The colt nosed her palm and she giggled. I was equally enraptured by Millie, my gaze eating up her enchanted expression, and my spine twitched when Dad said, right behind us, “Well, would you look at that. Good job, you-all.”

“We didn’t do anything! It was all Twyla,” Millie contradicted, caressing the colt’s nose, unable to tear her eyes from him. Twyla, accustomed to us and unconcerned, continued to clean her baby, concentrating her efforts on his flanks.

Dad held my gaze as I remained in a crouch, forearms on thighs, and I wondered, with a sudden heart-pounding tension, if he somehow suspected what I felt for Millie. What a twenty-one-year-old college student felt for a girl six years his junior. Dad never missed a thing when it came to his sons. But then he smiled, adjusting his glasses as he nodded toward Millie with wry, fond amusement, tickled to see her lavishing such love on the colt. I allowed a small exhalation of relief.

No one can know how you feel about her. Not yet, anyway. Not for a long damn time.

“She needs to deliver the placenta,” I said after a minute, hating to drag Millie’s attention from the foal. “We have to get her up on all fours.”

Millie nodded at once, tipping forward to kiss the colt between his eyes, where a pale blotch stood out against his blond hide.

I said immediately, “You name him.”

Her gaze flew to mine for the first time since the colt made his appearance. “Me?”

Dad rested a hand on the edge of the stall above his head, his long arm making a right angle, grinning to observe her joy. “For sure, Miss Millie. The honor is yours.”

Without hesitation she announced, “Scout.”

I nodded agreement. “It suits him.”

“That’s my favorite name right now,” she said. “I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my next school year.”

“But Scout’s a girl in that.”

“I know. So what? It’s a great name, boy or girl.”

“Fair enough.” I addressed the colt next, trying out his name. “Hey there, Scout. How’s it feel to be on the outside?”

A Place to Belong, excerpt




Wyatt, I thought, and let the familiar spell wash over me.

Just his name was enough to spark a sizzle in my blood and I shivered, my nipples becoming rounded peaks inside my bikini top. I wrapped both arms around my bent knees, pressing my breasts hard against my thighs, studying the far shoreline from my position on the dock, the lake draped now in soft, encroaching darkness. Alone in the gloaming I allowed my thoughts to fly along wild paths. I was dying to be touched, so much that my nerves felt electric. My fantasies were not indiscriminate; only one man ever starred in them, and had for longer than I could remember. Of course when I was younger I had not imagined straddling Wy and gripping his jaws as we kissed, or pictured the expression in his dark eyes as he untied my bikini top and slipped it from my shoulders. But since the summer I was fifteen, two years ago, my imaginings had grown increasingly erotic.

You are crazy, Millie. You know this.

I loved him so much there was no other word for it.

The logical part of my brain nagged that it was impossible to be in love with someone I had never dated, had never really touched beyond occasional roughhousing or the kind of friendly hug you’d give a family member. I’d known Wy since I was a kid traveling west with her parents to visit Jalesville. He was present in some of my earliest memories, very much there, and always sort of larger than life. I’d noticed him immediately, even as a little girl; had been drawn to him the way a compass needle is tugged north, an instinct beyond its control. There wasn’t a logical explanation; I just knew what I felt.

At age five I'd told my parents I was going to marry him someday, a story they related to the entire family, numerous times and always amid laughter, not realizing I'd been dead serious. I’d done my damnedest to capture Wy's attention from nearly the first moment we met. Before I realized it was embarrassing on my part, I tagged along on his heels, asking endless questions, finding any excuse to be at his side; being near him felt as natural to me as breathing. I'd seen him every July of my life and anticipated summer with fervor beyond reason.

My cousin Rae was the only other person who knew the true depth of my feelings for Wy; Mom and Aunt Ruthie called it a 'crush' and assumed it would pass. I didn't resent this; they couldn't realize what I felt. Despite the fact that I kept almost no secrets from my mother I had never told her I was in love with Wy. I couldn't bear the resultant talk which would center around our six-year age difference.

Rae was of the same opinion, considering Wy way out of our league; she recognized my sincerity, that my feelings were no simple crush, but attempted to reason with me nonetheless. Just last night, lying in Rae’s bedroom in the dark after Grandma made us get out of the lake, she'd turned my way. I’d been on my back, wrists stacked atop my forehead, staring upward at the dim ceiling beams and replaying every interaction I’d had with Wy so far this week. I figured Rae was asleep and her hushed words startled me from my thoughts.

Using my nickname, she murmured, “Mills, this has to stop.” She allowed these words to penetrate before adding, “I get it, I really do. Wy is great. He’s funny, he’s gorgeous. But he’s a man. You can’t flirt with him like you were just now.”

I kept quiet, refusing to answer or roll toward her atop the mattress of the full-sized bed we'd shared during sleepovers since we were little girls. Even though I knew Rae would never intentionally hurt me, her words stung all the same. Pressing hard against my closed eyes, I muttered, “I wasn’t flirting.”

“You were totally flirting. Climbing on his back like that.” Rae poked my ribs with an index finger. Her tone was anything but judgmental; I detected a hint of humor despite her concern and it reminded me of Aunt Jilly. She muffled a giggle. “The poor guy was probably like, ‘Shit, I can’t think about Millie this way, she’s just a kid, but I’m really hard because I can feel her boobs on my back.’”

Rae,” I groaned, laughing along with her.

My mild embarrassment had been completely worth the bliss of Wy’s strong, wet, half-naked body pressed against mine. I’d pretended to freak out over a fish biting my ankle, taking “cover” by hooking my arms and legs around Wy from behind and monkeying onto his back. He had laughed and played along; probably by reflex, he’d cupped my thighs on either side of his waist, keeping me in place. I latched my arms around his neck, trying not to shiver at the proximity of his warmth and muscles and lanky strength; he smelled so good it was dizzying. My breasts rested on his shoulder blades until he’d dunked us both, gently displacing me; I could still feel the exact spot on either leg where his hands had touched my bare skin.

I demanded in a whisper, “Oh God, do you really think he was hard right then?”

Just the thought set my blood to sizzling.

“I’m sure he was!” Rae propped on an elbow, long golden hair falling over her shoulder. Her eyes gleamed through the darkness as she added, giggling, “You were draped all over him and your bikini doesn’t exactly cover much.”

“That was right before Grandma made us get out of the lake,” I recalled, shivery with the remembrance of being so close to Wy. “And he didn’t follow us up the bank!”

“Because he was hard!” Just the word, let alone the notion, sent us into hysterics. We muffled our laughter so her parents wouldn’t yell at us to pipe down.

“Do you really think he still thinks of me as a kid?” I mourned a few seconds later, digging the heels of my palms against my eye sockets.

“You don’t look like one anymore but in his eyes you are still for sure a kid.” Rae’s adamant words went right for the jugular. “I mean, if you were eighteen it would be one thing. At least Wy wouldn’t go to jail for having sex with you.”

The phrase ‘having sex with you’ erupted like volcanoes along my lower belly, hot and thrilling and ultimately forbidden. The thought of kissing Wy was enough to send my heart into a seizure, let alone the thought of having sex; I’d never had sex with anyone, had never come close. I’d kissed a few guys and once let Sam Mulvey get to second base, but none of the boys I attended school with compared to Wy. How could they? They had no hope of measuring up to my ideal.

Now, hours after that particular conversation, I shifted position on the dock boards. The surrounding air had altered almost beyond my perception, becoming darker in tiny increments. The western horizon, minutes ago painted over with a glossy, gossamer yellow, was now the hue of worn denim. I tucked more securely into my beach towel, recognizing the inability to continue sitting out here; the mosquitoes would begin swarming any second. But I was reluctant to move, having foregone dinner with everyone just to stay behind at home and mope.

Did Wy wonder where I was, did he miss me this evening? Of course I couldn’t help but wonder. Maybe he didn’t even notice I wasn’t in attendance; the thought created a painful hollow space inside my chest. I turned to glance up at Shore Leave, which would be in full swing on a typical summer Saturday night but now appeared somber and peaceful in the gathering twilight, its wide front windows reflecting the last warm streaks of sunlight. The porch lights glowed with welcome but a dismal, blue-gray mood had settled over me; it seemed I was determined to feel sorry for myself this evening.

Shore Leave had been my home since birth, since the summer my mom met my dad and became pregnant at seventeen, my exact age. Hanging on the wall near one of the booths in the dining room was a framed black and white picture of Mom, Aunt Tish, and Aunt Ruthie from Trout Days that particular summer. Grandma Jo had enlarged the original print and added it to the collection of family photos already adorning the walls. All three were dressed in swimsuits and jean shorts, sunglasses and the silly foam-fish headbands they always sold at the festival, standing with Aunt Ruthie in the middle, arms around each other’s waists.

Wide, carefree smiles, their curly hair glowing with a bright rim of hot midday sun. Mom not yet pregnant with me because she and Noah had only met a few days earlier. She looked impossibly young. Way too young for sex, let alone the responsibility of motherhood; and yet, here I sat, the exact same age, feeling more than ready for at least one of those things.

I’d spent hours of my childhood studying the thousand and one tones in that image, an endless variation on gray, searching my mother’s teenage face for clues. Clues to what, exactly, I couldn’t articulate. Hints of her life before my entry into it, I supposed, traces of my features in hers; everyone always said how much we looked alike. Except Mom, who thought I resembled Aunt Ruthie more than anyone else. My great-grandma, Joan, and my Grandma Joelle had also been young mothers; I knew the odds of breaking the cycle of teen motherhood were not in my favor.

Mom and I talked openly, and always had, and therefore I knew that despite her initial shock and fear over an unexpected pregnancy, my arrival in her life was a blessing. I trusted her, and had never doubted my parents’ love; while I knew and cared for my biological father, Noah Utley, I would always consider Mathias Carter my real dad. I clearly recalled a time before Noah entered my life, but not my dad. My birth certificate read Millie Joelle Gordon, Mom’s surname at the time, but in my heart I was a Carter, same as my siblings.

I believed in fate, I believed in things working out as they were meant to; but lately I’d spent more time than ever pondering the ways in which Mom may have spun the tale of my birth in order to spare my feelings. For example – how could you possibly implore your child to abstain from sex, and therefore the possibility of young parenthood, without indirectly admitting that her very existence was a mistake?

“‘Mistake’ is a really harsh word,” Rae had said during one of our late-night talks. “Your mom doesn’t think of you as a mistake!”

“I know,” I allowed. “But you have to admit it’s ironic. ‘Don’t have sex because you might get pregnant, just like I got pregnant with you!’”

“Can you imagine having a baby right now?” Rae demanded. “You’d love it, no doubt, but think of how much your life would change. Good-bye, college! Good-bye, future plans! Your mom just wants you to have a chance to live your life on your own terms.”

“Just like she didn’t get a chance to,” I threw back, determined to edge Rae toward my overall point.

"But that still doesn't mean you were a mistake to her, Mills." As usual, Rae would not be budged.

I rested my palms against the soft material of my t-shirt, my splayed fingers creating a small circle with my belly button in its center. Mom had carried me inside of her at age seventeen; a girl whose world had been turned upside down, she gave up plans to attend Northwestern University in Chicago and moved in with Grandma Joan and Aunt Ellen to raise me as best she could on a limited budget and with no help from my biological father; Noah had struggled to accept my existence, not becoming an active part of my life until years later.

Mom eventually met and fell in love with Mathias; they were married the autumn I was two. I'd been their flower girl and remembered the day as a vivid, joyful spectacle, punctuated by laughter and dancing and family. My brothers were born the following spring and our home became the nineteenth-century cabin in the woods beyond White Oaks, a warm, cheerful space that Dad and Grandpa Bull had spent almost a year remodeling, taking care to preserve the original structure. Our family numbered seven these days and there was hardly room to turn around on any given day, but I loved my home.

I can't imagine Mom as a scared, pregnant teenager.

I'd only ever known her in her capacity as my mother, a busy, happy woman whose family was her entire world. But of course she was many other things, and always had been, whether I was aware of them or not. I figured a burgeoning awareness was better than none, acknowledging the dearth of information I possessed regarding Mom at my age. Had she sat on the dock that summer, in the exact spot I sat now, bathed by the mellow evening light, fantasizing about Noah Utley? Had the sight of him sent wonder rushing through her bloodstream like something alive, pulsing and wild and splendid? Where in tiny, nosy Landon had they ever found a place to make love? Shore Leave was always so crowded – definitely not here. And for sure not out at Grandma Marie’s farm. Maybe in Noah’s car? Out near the softball field where kids from school went to park?

God, it’s weird to think of Mom and Noah being teenagers and having sex.

But they did. Did Mom enjoy it? Is it what she wanted? Or just what she thought she wanted?


As close and trusting as our relationship was, I had never asked my mother such questions; too personal, too close to the secret heart of her that wasn’t a single bit of my business. I would never have dreamed of asking Noah these questions, either. But I was still curious.

Mom had obviously considered herself mature enough for sex at my age. And Noah had been older, definitely past eighteen.

And look what happened!

But you wouldn’t get pregnant.

Like Mom thought she was going to get pregnant!


I reflected that while I could easily imagine my belly swelling like a round melon with the bulk of a new life, I could not in all fairness comprehend the reality of it; even in the abstract, it was a daunting, almost frightening, thought.

Blue Honey, Excerpt



I probably could have guessed long before he finally told me the truth.

It wasn’t as though the signs were absent; what was missing in the long term was my own self-awareness, my ability to see what was before my eyes. Instead I was blinded, daily, by the petty things, the minutia. So many excuses, each more demanding than the next – job, household, needy teenagers. When I heard the garage door and then the sounds of Dan’s car that evening, I was stealing ten minutes to catch up on the local news – I’d been so busy with the final flurry of tax season that I’d not been allowed a moment’s indulgence in the past few weeks – lounging on the arm of our couch with a bowl of Rainier cherries perched on my knees, a plastic keg cup into which I spit each subsequent cherry pit clutched in my right hand. With my left I fiddled with the remote, muting the volume so I could call hello to my husband, home after three days away at an academic conference in Omaha.

“They wonder why no one is jumping at the change to go,” Dan had joked a month ago, when informed where the conference series he was required to attend was held.

“Right?” I agreed. I’d been folding laundry during that particular conversation. Catching a towel beneath my chin to crease it, I added, “Shoot for Orlando or Vegas next year. Then you’ll get the whole department, with no complaints,” and was gratified by my husband’s laughter; I’d always been able to make him laugh so easily.

I heard Dan hanging up his coat, the closet opening as he stowed away his umbrella and briefcase, and then Jeff’s footsteps thumped across the floor upstairs; seconds later our fifteen-year-old leaned over the railing to catch a glimpse of his father in the entryway. Lisa’s bedroom door remained shut. Only a few years ago I would have heard her stereo blasting, but with the advent of smartphones and earbuds, my daughter might as well have resided on a distant planet. I hated the silence, finding it eerie, louder than any blaring music; the press of quiet lodged in my ears like a recrimination.

Jeff called, “Hi, Dad! Welcome home.”

I stood and set aside both pit cup and remote, noticing a streak of purple-red juice that had dripped over my left breast, unmistakable against the light gray of my sweatshirt. I wore matching jogging pants, my hair slung in a low ponytail, my feet in fuzzy slipper-socks since the April air still retained a chilly bite. I rounded the corner a second ahead of my son, truly glad that Dan was back on this Friday evening, and felt the first splash of trepidation; something in the way his eyes met mine and held steady, conveying a silent message that only those married for many years – in our case, nearly twenty – can exchange. He remained stooped, tugging at a rain boot, the entryway bulb highlighting the small balding spot which had appeared on the crown of his head in the last year, picking out each individual hair follicle. For a horrible moment I was sure he was going to tell me he was ill. That he’d only just discovered this fact, and that I’d be left raising our children without him.

I was always one to leap to dramatic conclusions.

Oddly, my anxious initial inkling would prove closer to the truth than I could have imagined. Dan, it turned out, was not ill. In fact he’d never felt healthier. I would, however, be without him from roughly this week forth.

He said, “Aura,” in a voice I barely recognized. Standing to his full height, my husband regarded me with his brows and lips set in solemn lines. His gaze moved at once to Jeff, on my heels, and his entire expression changed as he smiled and held out both arms to his son; Jeff, though a high school sophomore, remained unashamedly a daddy’s boy, and hugged his father without compunction.

Dan ruffled Jeff’s wavy hair. “Hi, bud. Where’s Lisa?”

“Upstairs texting Brent, where else?” Jeff said, referring to his sister’s boyfriend.

“You want to run and get her for me?” Dan asked, and another few inches seemed to bottom out of my stomach; other than speaking my name in a voice reserved for funerals, Dan hadn’t yet directly addressed me. I could tell he wanted us to have a moment alone, hence the request for Jeff to run up to Lisa’s room. I crossed my arms and pressed hard against my midsection.

“Sure,” Jeff responded with his usual affability, and jogged up the steps hollering, “Lisa! Dad’s home!”

“What is it?” I demanded, not quite accosting my husband, but not far from it; I held my ground, feeling my erratic heartbeat against my crossed forearms. “What’s wrong, Dan?”

“Aura, I have something to tell you,” Dan began.

“I can see that,” I interrupted, and my voice emerged in a hoarse crackle. “And you’re freaking me out.”

Dan’s posture changed as he approached to enfold me in his arms. I leaned against the familiar strength and scent of my husband and he tucked his chin over the top of my head; my concern only amplified. This embrace left me with an absurd feeling of finality; Dan had returned from an academic conference in Omaha to bid me farewell.

“Are you sick?” I drew away and studied his tanned, handsome face, the periwinkle of his eyes. Dan’s irises were the clearest blue I’d ever seen, angelic-looking, a feature which he’d gifted Lisa. I had never seen an expression quite like the one in my husband’s eyes just now. My heartrate ratcheted up another ten notches. I insisted, “Tell me.”

Dan kept hold of my shoulders and I saw what it cost him to deliver the words. Upstairs, our children were bickering about something. I heard the fridge resume its tuneless, intermittent hum. A car rumbled past on the wet pavement of the street outside. Lisa’s bedroom door slammed and Jeff’s footsteps were once again headed our way.

Dan spoke quietly, without challenge. “Aura, I’m gay.”

***


The landline rang later that very same night. April eleventh, a gray and sullen day, complete with weeping sky, had yet another blow to deliver before giving way to the twelfth; I groped for the cordless phone on my nightstand, knocking it to the floor. I’d been wallowing in an exhausted stupor, a grim mix of shock and denial, since Dan’s announcement only hours ago. The bedside clock’s green display read 11:52.

“Shit,” I muttered, slogging over the edge of the mattress to catch up the receiver. Maybe Dan was calling. Maybe he was going to tell me this was all one big fucking joke. I brought it to my ear and croaked, “Hello?”

A small and trembling voice inquired, “Is this Aura Clausen?”

“Who’s this?” I demanded ungraciously, wrapping a hand over my aching forehead. I stretched out with my senses, hearing Jeff watching television in the living room but perceiving no trace of Lisa; after attending the short, tense, “family meeting” Dan requested to inform his children of his homosexuality, she had walked right out the front door and into the drizzling rain. I chased her, yelling for her to come back, but of course this only propelled her faster in the opposite direction. Dan immediately followed in the car but Lisa, never without her phone, had already called or texted Brent. Dutiful boyfriend that he was, Brent arrived to collect her at the end of our street, near the orange fire hydrant Lisa had loved to climb atop as a little girl.

Look at me, I’m a fireman! Lisa would announce, showcasing her teeth as she grinned and bounced, riding the hydrant like a pint-sized pony.

Dan had waited in the car, parked at the curb a couple blocks from our front door until Lisa, hair and clothes inundated, had climbed inside Brent’s truck.

“This is Lillian Evans,” warbled the hesitant voice in my ear. “Do you remember me?”

I blinked into the gray dimness of my bedroom. The rain had finally stopped and I thought of a line from one of the kids’ old Dr. Seuss books, about how the drops stopped dropping so the storm could start stopping; it was funny how those old picture books stuck with your subconscious. I sat up, wincing at the pain in my head. “Of course I do. How…” I stumbled over pleasantries, disoriented. “How are you?”

And why the hell are you calling me?

“I’m so sorry to phone this late,” Lillian rushed on, and I pictured the small, birdlike woman who, the last I knew anyway, was my father’s girlfriend. I imagined Lillian with the phone braced between one shoulder and her ear, wringing her fragile hands, which were blue-veined and wrinkled, her fingers decorated by silver-wire rings she crafted herself.

“It’s all right,” I muttered, gruff with impatience. I figured after Dan’s big news nothing else could shock me, probably ever again. But I was wrong for the second time that night and a needle of dread dug into the silence before she spoke again.

With quiet dignity, Lillian whispered, “Your dad passed tonight, Aura.”

I bit back a hard lump of air, which then jammed the hollow space behind my breastbone. A buzzing filled my ear canals. “What…”

Like heavy gray water cresting a crumbling dam, her words came gushing. I could tell she was crying but it didn’t impede her rapid speech. “I took him in just after supper, I made him go in, I mean. He told me his chest hurt while I was making the cornbread and I said, ‘Paul, let’s go to the ER.’ And he said, ‘It’s all right, Lil, don’t worry. You always make something out of nothing.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s nothing,’ but we ate supper just the same. And then right after he lay down on the couch and I knew he was hurting. I said, ‘Paul, get in the car.’ I blame myself, I do. I should have insisted.”

Unable to speak, I listened to her continued self-flagellation.

“I should have bullied him into going before we ate, and I am so very sorry. This is my fault. In the car he was having terrible gas. I’m sorry, I know that’s awful to tell you. And then he crumpled over in the passenger seat and I was so scared. I’ve never been so scared. He crumpled right over.” She gave way to weeping.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “Oh, my God.”

Lillian collected herself; I envisioned her pressing her knuckles to her trembling lips. “I got him to the ER and they wheeled him away, but he passed. He passed once they got him back there. My last sight of Paul was him getting wheeled away…”

My first thought was, I want Dan.

And then I thought, harsh and selfish, Goddammit, Dad. You stayed stubborn to the end, didn’t you? But why did you have to pick tonight to up and die on me?

Paul Leeward had not been the world’s worst father. In fact, he’d been a pretty darn good one, especially when I was little, before the advent of boys and backseats, cigarettes and pilfered booze, small-town teenage elements by which he quickly lost control of his only child. I felt an imaginary eulogy bubbling up inside my chest, settling in the small, dark space of my voice box, waiting for its subsequent delivery.

Our last name means ‘protected,’ Dad told me when I was in second grade and crying about not having a mom like the other kids did. My father, an auto mechanic, possessed wide, flat fingernails constantly rimmed with a black semi-circle of grease. I recalled absently tracing my index finger over the unkempt nails of his right hand as he said, I wish I could protect you from all the ugliness in this world, honey-bear, but I can’t. But I promise to do my best. Our house will be like the leeward side of a mountain, how’s that? You can come in here and be sheltered from the outside world.

Our “house” was a doublewide trailer with dented permanent siding the color of dead daisies, boasting a view of a rundown playground possessing two swings – one with a broken chain – attached to poles faded even then to a muted mud color. Hard clumps of sand beneath a sheet-metal slide; the backs of my thighs burned if I slid down in the middle of a hot summer day. Dad took me there if he wasn’t too tired in the evening. Later, once I’d been deemed responsible enough, I could play at the park on my own. I saw my old self, my little-girl self, sitting on the swing whose chain was intact, poking listlessly with bare toes at an anthill erupting in the dirt, and was overwhelmed by a surge of self-pity so powerful I couldn’t draw a full breath; a hunk of lead settled upon my chest.

The exterior of our trailer was bleak, the yard consisting of a strip of concrete bordered by loose gravel, a small, rusted-out charcoal grill, and Dad’s blue lawn chair; I made do with a sawed-off log for a seat. But Dad had always taken care to tend the hollyhocks that grew in a towering array of color on the south side of our home – bulbs planted by my mother in a burst of uncharacteristic sentimentality when I was one or two, shortly before her permanent exit from our lives. Two summers ago, the last time I’d visited Dad and the summer he’d put up the trailer for sale, the hollyhocks were in full, splendid bloom, well over six feet tall, scarlet and plum and magenta in color. Dad was planning a move to Lillian’s place back then; she also lived in a trailer park, but one located the next town over, just across the Chippewa River in the northern Wisconsin countryside where I’d been born and raised. Dad had asked during that visit if I wanted to take anything from the trailer, but I hadn’t. My memories were more than enough baggage to haul around.

A different evening flashed through my mind, unbidden and wholly unpleasant; Dad saying, If you need money, come to me. December, 1988, and I had just turned nineteen. Bon Jovi was crooning “Bad Medicine” on the radio atop the fridge and in the glow of the Christmas lights strung on our old tinsel tree, stationed as always on top of our television set, Dad had studied me with a somber set to his face; the wrinkles crisscrossing his forehead gouged deep crevices. He held a can of beer but had not popped the top, searching my eyes as though for clues, gauging a possible way to reach me. I don’t have much, but enough that my daughter doesn’t have to work as a stripper. Jesus Christ, Aura.

Exotic dancer, I had the audacity to counter. Besides, I make so much cash at the club. I’m saving it. I don’t need your money, Dad.

When Lisa was born, in February of 1994, Dan and I made a pact, at my insistence, that we never tell our kids that their mother made her living for a time as an exotic dancer. To this day, I had never revealed this personal fact to my children. It wasn’t that I was ashamed, exactly…

Your name is actually Aura? Randy had asked at my interview, rolling his office chair back and forth. He laughed and slapped his desk with the butts of both broad palms. That’s fucking priceless. I couldn’t come up with a better one myself. Shit. Welcome to the family.

Randy had offered to buy me new breasts within the first three months, after I’d earned him a pile of money and in this way proven myself. I worked damn hard as a dancer, performing three weeks on, one off (which was typically the week of my period), and at that particular moment in my young life I’d been short-sighted enough to believe I would continue down this career path until I met my goal of saving twenty thousand dollars, an arbitrary amount to which I never came close, always too quick to spend, rather than squirrel away, my cash. At least I had been smart enough to turn down the implants.

My husband is gay, I thought, stunned anew at this alleged fact; I hadn’t yet overcome my disbelief, despite Dan’s heartfelt explanation delivered just hours ago in the living room, with the bowl of cherries and my pit cup adorning the coffee table. I listened to my husband speak candidly about his sexuality wearing a juice-stained sweatshirt and slipper-socks. The kids had been seated on the couch, Jeff frozen in shock, barely blinking as he listened; Lisa’s eyes, by contrast, flashed with fiery energy. She still hadn’t returned home. My mind would not bump beyond these things.

My husband is gay. He wants to put his penis in other men instead of in me.

Dan was a graduate student at the university in Madison when I first met him, late November, 1990. He arrived at the club that night along with a bachelor party group, standard frat-boy fare, generic guys with Daddy’s money who drank plenty and expected favors of the blow-job variety, not that any of us obliged. I gave Dan a lap dance that very night while he sat dutifully on his hands, as per club rules, and seemed unable to remove his eyes from my face, which I’d found endearing. He kept saying, You’re so beautiful. And then finally, You look like a woman Klimt would paint.

Buckets of compliments had been dumped upon me by that point in my career – drunk men are especially free with them, most generally when your nipples are in the proximity of their eyebrows, but this was a first. I wasn’t familiar with the painter he named, uncertain if I’d even heard correctly over the club’s pumping sound system. Vanilla Ice was all the rage that autumn and “Ice, Ice Baby” vibrated from the speakers. My hands were braced on Dan’s shoulders – though I hadn’t known his name then – wide shoulders, strong beneath his dress shirt; I remembered even now that his top two collar buttons had been undone. He was handsome in a sensual way, with curved lips and wavy, honey-tinted hair, those clear blue eyes. Long eyelashes, almost as long as the falsies some of the girls at the club wore, and a serious demeanor I was completely unused to encountering. I’d been gliding rhythmically over his crotch, lightly grinding on him, letting my breasts brush his chin, and reflected that rarely did I notice such details about a man’s looks. Men were men were men as far as I was concerned, but Dan seemed different.

Encountering what probably looked a lot like pure skepticism on my face, he hurried to say, No, I mean it. Like the women he painted in his Golden Phase. Klimt actually used gold leaf in that particular phase, hence the name –

I had stopped moving, a little amazed at this explanation.

Dan babbled, I’m sorry, I’m just so nervous. I don’t know what to say or where to look. Or if I should even be talking right now.

Maybe that should have been my first clue, literally right in front of me the night we met.

But I'm still in love with him, I thought now, horribly wounded, raw with disbelief. What do I do about that?

Dan was so easy to love. He was kind, patient with students and strangers alike, a doting father. Even after what seemed like perhaps the most enormous marital confession outside of cheating, I couldn’t deny these attributes. He would have stayed in the house tonight, I knew, but I’d asked him to leave. Not in an angry way, not as an order or an ultimatum. No, it had been with quiet shock and bewilderment. I whispered Please go, and he left without drama, collecting his coat and the car keys, hugging Jeff and promising to call us in the morning. He said, I understand. I didn’t ask where he was going, nor did he offer.

Perhaps a minute had ticked by as Lillian continued waiting for me to speak, while I lay steeped in memories.

My dad is dead.

And for the first time in a long time, sobs heaved against the barrier of my breastbone.

***

Morning came at long last, a sunny dawn spilling over the windowsill with no regard for my shattered emotional state. I’d slept not at all but proved too exhausted for much tossing and turning; instead I spent the passing hours flat on my spine, wrists draped over my eyes. If I’d had the power to flip a switch and mute my thoughts, I would have paid any amount to do so.

The word why swimming through my head would not be drowned.

Dan was a gentle lover, a considerate one. He was always slow and steady inside my body, getting me there eventually even if I would never have described our lovemaking as incredibly hot, or wild. It was simply good enough, and after three years of stripping I was more than ready for a man who didn’t all but slobber at the sight of my vagina. Who didn’t flick a dollar bill my way for the privilege. After Lisa was born, Dan and I didn’t make love as often but I’d expected that, especially with the advent of a colicky baby girl; once Jeff came along, two years later, Dan and I were lucky to find time every other week to sneak in a quick round of sex. Every other week dwindled to every other month; these days, he held me and stroked my hair far more often than anything else. I couldn’t actually recall the last time he’d actually shucked his pajama bottoms in bed.

Remember when he told you on your tenth anniversary that he felt like it degraded you to give him head?

Shouldn’t that have been another clue? What man doesn’t want oral sex?


It was a crude thought but I hadn’t slept for a minute and enervation claimed the upper hand in my mind. Lisa had crept inside about an hour ago, tiptoeing up the steps to her room; the soft click of her door closing was almost imperceptible over the sound of Jeff snoring from the living room couch. No one had eaten supper last night, even though I’d made cornflake-chicken hotdish, a perennial favorite in our house. Surely the big red casserole dish containing it was still sitting front and center on the stovetop, awaiting our family, unless Jeff had thought to put it in the fridge.

Our family.

Hot tears welled in my sore, grainy eyes and I draped a forearm over them, blocking out all sight of the advancing day. I did not want the sun to shine so benignly; I needed storm clouds today, heavy pewter ones that would broil menacingly across the sky, perhaps kind enough to strike me dead with a stray bolt of lightning. It wasn’t that I was a coward (nor did I truly have a death wish); I simply did not want to deal with Day One, the first day of knowing my husband was gay, the day I would have to tell my kids that their grandpa in Wisconsin was dead, the last grandparent they’d had. Yesterday I’d been blissfully unaware of these giant stumbling blocks in my life. Yesterday my dad had been alive and I could have called him one last time. I could have said, Hey Dad, I know I haven’t always been the best daughter but I know you loved me. I know you did the best you could, but you were an alcoholic and had your own demons. I get it, I really do. At least you stuck around.

Oh, Jesus Christ…

What will I do now?

Writing Romance



Over the weekend I met a dear friend for dinner at our longtime favorite Greek restaurant. We hadn’t seen one another in some time, nor had we celebrated our mutual birthday which transpired months ago, and so ordered a bottle of Cabernet, grilled feta cheese dripping with hot olive oil, roasted grape leaves, and crispy fried squid – these just to start. It was a royal feast and our lengthy conversation covered a wide variety of topics and, as usual, strayed around random twists and turns. At one point, both of us mellow from the wine and mired in the quandary of whether we should choose baklava or galaktoboureko for dessert, she asked me why I bothered to write romance novels.

Now, this is a woman I’ve known since we realized, at age five and in kindergarten, we shared the same September birthday; she is one of my best friends. We knew each other back in the days when I wrote longhand in a wide-ruled notebook and read snippets of stories aloud to her at sleepovers. Of all people, she understands the fundamental, essential place writing holds in my heart. Writing is crucial to my spiritual and emotional wellbeing; it makes my life wider and brighter than almost anything else. And so I recognized that her question was rooted in pure curiosity; to summarize, she wondered why I would expend so much energy, not to mention time, crafting novels categorized within a genre long – ‘disdained’ is a fitting synonym – by the literary world. Despite perennial popularity among readers, romance novels are often ridiculed by self-proclaimed ‘serious’ fiction writers or purposely overlooked by prestigious reviewers; there is a pervasive condescending attitude toward authors of the genre. On a deeper level, am I actively participating in the perpetuation of a harmful fantasy revolving around blatantly unrealistic romantic and sexual ideals?

Ack.

These questions come with the territory in the romance-writing world and are therefore ones I’ve attempted to answer before, but this time I wanted to avoid clichéd responses. There's the many-times painted-over version of me that I consider my 'public' self, but I wanted to strip away those layers and really explore a deeper truth. Why do I choose to write romance novels? I would not describe myself as an optimist, a starry-eyed romantic, or naïve; I cringe away from the word 'soulmate.' My perception of the concept has taken some heavy fire; I sure as hell didn’t grow up witnessing a healthy union of two souls. My parents finally split up when I was a senior in high school. There are varying degrees of ugliness in any divorce; theirs was approximately an 8.593938 on a scale of one to ten. All the worst shit – vicious accusations (and one very real affair), mutual loathing, endless bad-mouthing, using the kids as pawns in a petty blame game. I despised my parents for their shitty choices, their lack of guidance; a heavy dose of my hatred was rooted in what I perceived as their overall immaturity. (It took years for me to realize a simple truth - that all too often parents are not walking the correct personal path, even if that path resulted in your existence.) Long story short, after graduating and shortly thereafter securing employment in another state, I fled Minnesota. Looking back was not part of the plan.

An emotional train wreck on the inside, I worked feverishly to continue cultivating and displaying the persona which had served me well in high school – that of a bubbly, fun-loving, worry-free girl; this was my first, and most destructive, layer of paint. Nothing could have been further from the truth; I was constantly anxious, fearful, and insincere, an accident waiting to happen. On my own at nineteen, I made plenty of my own shitty choices - accountability was a blurry concept, hazy in the distance. I drank whenever I wasn’t at work – rum being my poison of choice. I justified scores of appallingly poor decisions with thoughts like this – I would never try something like cocaine or heroin. I don’t even smoke pot, just cigarettes. Nothing hardcore. I drink but it's no big deal. Everyone fucking drinks. When thoughts of college crept in like small, furtive mice I knocked them aside, with venom. If I spent time dwelling on the way I’d fucked off my senior year and graduated with something like a 1.5 GPA (a former honor student, no less), shame rose up like floodwater and proceeded to bathe me in its cold, invasive murkiness. Water in which there was no reflection of self – only an oily, opaque surface in which I often considered drowning. I would bet good money, however, that the people I knew that summer would never have guessed the truth. I was a great actor. My paint layers betrayed no cracks or chips - at least, not yet.

I lost touch with my Minnesota friends. I avoided contact with my family, including siblings. This was the late 1990s, basically the Stone Age of communication compared to today; I didn’t even have an email account. I remember making a very occasional collect call from the payphone on the guest ranch where I was employed as a housekeeper; these conversations were brief, tense, and ultimately obligatory. I felt disconnected from everyone and everything I’d ever known – except my writing. My stories continued to function as my recurrent and most effective escape; from early girlhood I had used writing as a way to feed and even, at times, soothe my starving, sensitive, anxious little soul. I created characters whose love for one another was rooted in trust and sincerity; the redundant expression I’d long associated with the relationships I wrote about was 'The Realest Real.' I craved to the truest, unbrokenest part of my heart an authentic, whole-hearted, real love. (Believe me, the irony is not lost on me that what I would describe as The Realest Real fits all too conveniently within the stereotypical relationship often portrayed in romance novels - a true love/hot lover who accepts all flaws, mends all former heartbreak, and keeps the terrifying, cruel, cold, and otherwise troubling aspects of the outside world at bay. Or at least renders them bearable entities.)

Anxiety drove its claws into my shoulders in early childhood and proceeded to hold fast for a long damn time. In truth, I've never been fully without its presence but I manage it much better now, as an adult far more capable of facing her personal demons. Who knows how to combat them; who recognizes them for what they are - smoke and mirrors, illusions. Another important personal awakening only time could reveal - the power, strength, and capability to walk away from my anxiety has always been inside me; the first step is realization, the second (and more important) is the act of actually Doing It. As a young woman, I was clueless to these truths; the Realest Real part of my life was the fictitious worlds in which I immersed myself on a daily basis. The core story for Heart of a Dove was developed in this period of my life, while living as a miserable party girl in Wyoming. There is no exaggeration in the statement that writing has saved my life countless times. My characters sustained me through aching loneliness, profound anxiety, battles with depression. They helped me grow in positive ways, to eventually face the world I'd left behind. I found the courage to move home to Minnesota, where I applied for college and worked my ass off as a server/bartender to pay for each subsequent semester. My self-esteem grew in fits and starts; I coaxed forth the former honor student. But this time she was a healthier individual, with no need to endlessly prove her worth through her intelligence.

Back to the original question - why do I write romance?

As aforementioned, I am no optimist. I am not a starry-eyed dreamer. A realist, rather. But I do consider love a restorative force more powerful than all others. The secret (in my opinion): understand that loving yourself is the critical, foundational step. Recognize that you are worthy of love. You know how I finally learned this truth? By attending Al-Anon as a 39-year-old woman. (But that's a survival story for another time.) Love comes from a thousand additional places - friends, children, extended family, partners; even, at times, like-minded strangers.

Love is universal. Indisputably ubiquitous but shaped, perhaps more than any other feeling, by individual experience. There are a thousand and more kinds. No one can tell you how to love. No one can make you love a person, or an animal, or a thing; you love a person, you love an animal, you love a thing – or you don’t. It’s that simple. But…what the fuck is love, anyway? Is it synonymous with/inextricably intertwined with happiness, safety, trust, loyalty, economic security, physical attraction, emotional compatibility, or a million other variables? My beloved paternal grandmother Ruthann’s advice on selecting a mate: He should make you laugh. Nothing is as important as a similar sense of humor. Another of her gems, and my personal favorite: If he doesn’t have an appetite for food, he won’t have an appetite for anything else. Heh. Was this Grandma’s veiled reference to oral sex? Desire in general? Maybe this is why, years later, when writing what are known as ‘love scenes’ but which are really scorching, sensory-stimulating sex romps, I make it a point to include partners for my main characters who possess a measurable amount of prowess in this type of foreplay. I hope my grandma would have approved. :)

What we often refer to as ‘love’ (and undoubtedly play with and explore in the pages of most romance novels) would be more aptly described as lust, romance, attraction, or infatuation – none of which are love. Consider for a moment how often we are willing to serve up our hearts to (i.e. ‘fall in love’ with) complete strangers. A sampling of my hyperbolic thoughts the first time I thought I was in love and then we broke up: I wanted you so much it was like a fever, an illness, and now that you’re gone there are puncture wounds draining all the blood and every feeling I’ve ever felt from my heart. I’ll never love again. I’ll never feel again. How could I let you destroy me this way? In the whole scheme of things I barely even knew you. We never had a conversation about anything important. Soon after I made a complete recovery. Was it love? Not even close. Did breaking up with someone I thought I loved hurt like a baseball bat to the gut? Um…yeah.

Do I believe in love? Hell, yes. Are romance and love one and the same? Hell, no. Do my books present a certain view of both concepts? For sure. I write about love (and romance) as I believe each should exist. I take care to create characters whose emotional strength is rooted in strong, multi-generational extended families – grandparents, aunts, siblings. My books consistently revolve around entire families and their interpersonal interactions, not just the pursuit of romantic relationships; I prefer to feature strong single parents. The eventual mates I create for my characters share personality traits that I consider of utmost importance – kindness, devotion, good humor. I wish (and I suppose this could be considered an instance of naivete) I could 'write' a sexy, loving partner for all the people I care about. In fact, the idea behind Summer at the Shore Leave Cafe was born when, years ago, a good friend's husband cheated on her with a coworker. During their divorce, she confided that reading romance novels in which 'things turned out' helped sustain her through disheartening meetings with her lawyer and the necessity of holding it together for the sake of her three kids; escaping into fantasy worlds was one of the ways in which her sense of hope stayed alive. She told me she wanted to read a book in which the spurned wife leaves her husband, returns to her hometown, and gets a second chance at love. And that very night I started writing experimental paragraphs in Joelle's heartbroken, thirtysomething voice. The initial story led to a nine-book series I never could have imagined that first winter evening I played around with ideas and storylines.

When all the paint layers are scraped away and I stand in the sunlight, the truth is that the most basic reason I write romance novels is because I just plain enjoy it. The process breathes life into my own (sometimes slacker-ish) sense of hope and overall expectation; it gives me a medium in which to explore family dynamics and situations, and the concept of love in its many guises. I draw upon my own life in countless ways - Joelle's three daughters, for example, began as loose interpretations of my own three daughters, but then, through the ever-evolving fiction-writing process, grew into their own individual entities. I will be the first to admit that I adore crafting love scenes. I find pleasure in writing dialogue to suit a myriad of situations, from dangerous to humorous. I consider how I would react to such-and-such versus how my characters react (they are 99% more likely to respond with an assertive verve I, then, aspire to. Sort of.) So there you have it. I write romance because I like writing romance. Because I owe so very much to the lifeline that writing provided for me when I struggled to get out bed. When I struggled to find any reason to love myself. When I outright fucking hated myself and every decision I'd ever made. Today, I write to perpetuate not an unrealistic, unreachable romantic ideal but instead entertaining and engrossing book series that intertwine on many levels. Twelve novels in five years isn't a bad start! And, I humbly hope, they represent only the beginning.

Back to the Greek restaurant. We ended up ordering both desserts.

Return To Yesterday, Excerpt

I had never attended an event at this particular venue but restrooms would be nearby; I skirted the flow of guests and hurried across the main entrance, high heels clicking over the tiles, passing the coat check and taking the first hallway to the left, a space blessedly free of people. I hurried along its carpeted length until I could no longer hear the sounds of the gala; at last I stopped and leaned my spine against the wall, unaware of my surroundings, overwhelmed by stress. Panic loomed close to the surface, hot and oily. I closed my eyes and pressed the back of one hand against my mouth, afraid I might vomit before reaching a toilet.

You can’t win. You know this. You’re totally and completely fucked.

How can you outwit a man who is capable of traveling through time?

Tell me that!


“Lovers’ quarrel?”

I gasped, eyes flying open to see Derrick standing a few paces away, feet widespread and hands buried in his trouser pockets. His onyx cufflinks gleamed in the muted glow of the wall sconces.

“What?” My palms were braced against the plaster on either side of my hips, a position of vulnerability, and I straightened to my full height, attempting to appear unruffled.

“You and Benson. I didn’t realize you two were together,” he clarified.

I didn’t bother to correct this presumption, instead seizing the chance to demand, “Is your brother here? Have you seen him tonight?”

Derrick stepped closer and I held my ground. I wasn’t scared of him in most regards but it was beyond foolish to consider dropping my guard. He kept his voice low to ask, “Who told you the truth?”

I ignored his question and continued pressing. “When was the last time you saw Fallon? When was the last time he was here in Chicago, in 2014?”

Consternation rolled from Derrick in waves. “You can’t imagine the level of shit you would be in if my father or Fallon knew any of this.” He all but spit his brother’s name, the word drenched in bitterness. So that particular detail proved no different in this timeline.

“Do you plan to tattle on me?” I jabbed his chest with an index finger; I had everything to lose but I couldn’t stop now. I stabbed the same outstretched finger in the direction of the ballroom. “I will march out there and tell every fucking person here tonight what I know about Fallon unless you tell me when you saw him last! Do you know what he did? Did he tell you?”

“For fuck’s sake, keep your voice down! You would be dead in a matter of hours, do you hear me?”

I gulped back my next threat and searched his eyes; he wasn’t bluffing.

He lifted a hand. It fluttered through the air like a moth, unsure where to alight now that it had taken flight, falling short of cupping my face. I watched an internal battle play out across his face. “Listen to me, Tish, even though I know it goes against the grain for you. I wish I could say that I won’t let them hurt you, but I harbor no illusions.” He clenched his jaw before asking quietly, “Did you tell me the truth the other night? We knew each other in another life? Fallon actually…changed reality as we knew it?”

Hope seized at my throat. “I know I’m asking you to believe something that seems impossible, even crazy.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it?”

“It is, you have to trust me. I need to know everything about Fallon. Where is he? Do you think he’ll show up here tonight?”

Derrick closed his eyes, the picture of a man torn.

I grabbed his arm. “Please, oh God, please tell me. So much depends on it, you could never begin to guess.”

His eyes opened and he wrapped an arm around my waist, bringing me close to his body before I knew it was coming, before I could step aside or away. “You said we were married…”

“Stop it!” I hissed, shoving his chest with both hands.

“Well, well,” a woman murmured, rife with satisfaction, and we turned as one to see Christina Turnbull ambling our direction, one hand in a loose fist around her long necklace, manipulating the chunky, lustrous gem at the bottom in small circles. “Slumming this evening, are we, Derrick?”

Surprise flattened his features before his cheeks hollowed with growing anger but he held himself in check, not responding to her provocation.

Christina wore a fitted gown of palest green, lined with sleek gold threads; I stepped quickly away from Derrick and therefore closer to her. We were no longer surrounded by hundreds of eyes and I felt capable of dismemberment, capable of ripping the shining, highlighted hair straight out of her scalp. I chose my words, however, with great care.

“I’m sure you’re aware that my father is only using you. The same way he would a rental car, or a set of golf clubs.”

Derrick released a barking huff of astonished laughter before gripping the lower half of his face, as though to contain another outburst.

But Christina betrayed no loss of composure, no hint of shame. She skimmed her gaze down the front of my dress, unhurried and disdainful. “You poor, stupid thing.” Her eyes returned to mine with the force of a physical blow. “You can’t stop him. No one can.”

Her confident scorn rattled me and I tried to hide it; I couldn’t let her get the last word this way. “You’re wrong.”

“Am I?” she purred, releasing her necklace to scrape one long pink fingernail down Derrick’s sleeve. She plucked at his cufflink and he drew away from her touch with calm dignity, gripping his lapels and adjusting his jacket.

“Tish doesn’t know half of what she thinks she does,” Derrick said and I realized, belatedly, that he was doing his best to offer me what help he could. I was sinking lower in this shitpile and, worse yet, I had been the one to jump into it in the first place, playing my ace card too soon. It had been a mistake to tell Derrick what I knew.

Christina’s expression more than confirmed her disbelief in his statement and my bravado leaked rapidly away.

It’s not like she’s armed. She can’t prevent you from doing anything.

You can survive this. You can tell everyone the truth about Fallon. It’s not too late.

Oh, dear God…


“She’s leaving Chicago tomorrow, aren’t you, Tish?” Derrick spoke brusquely. “For good. Resigning from the firm to work back home was an apt decision for you. If you’ll excuse us, Christina. We’ll see you at dinner.” He appropriated my arm and towed me away, back toward the ballroom; as soon as we rounded the corner and were out of Christina’s sight, Derrick bent to my ear. “Get out of here right now. Leave the city tonight. I’ll make an excuse to Jackson.”

Fear gouged my heart – for a second I couldn’t swallow, let alone reply.

What about Robbie?

He’s not safe here, either.


Derrick shifted me so we were face to face and I saw the conflict in his eyes, the faltering; a dam crumbling beneath the intense weight of something far beyond his control as he said, “Fallon arrived in Chicago this morning. I don’t know if he’s still in town, or even this century, but you can’t chance it. Christina tells him everything. Now go.”

“Thank you,” I gasped. And then I ran for the exit.

Rain gushed from a wet black sky, splattering over awnings and creating miniature hurricanes along the traffic-choked street. I staggered in my heels, cursing, and kicked them aside, lifting my hem knee-high. No longer impeded by footwear I dashed away from the event center, not slowing until I reached a corner three blocks away. Heart thrusting, drenched and barefoot, I was too scared to look over my shoulder. I perched on the curb and scanned the array of vehicles for a taxi.

No one is chasing you.

But get the hell out of here!


I would call Robbie and Dad as soon as I could.

“Hey!” I shrieked as a speeding car roared past, sending a cascade of dirty rainwater over my thighs. “Asshole!”

The streetlight rotated through its cycle four times before anyone stopped. I could not draw a full breath until the taxi stopped at Dad’s building. Simultaneously I realized I had no money; my purse was back at table eleven. The driver was unamused, then belligerent.

I pleaded, “Give me a second to run upstairs. I’ll get your money, I swear.”

“You’re kidding me, right? You think I was born yesterday?”

“Seriously, I’ll be right back!”

He glared at me over the front seat. “Five minutes, lady, then I’m calling the cops.” As if I didn’t believe him, he held up and wiggled his phone.

“Two minutes,” I promised and stepped directly in a cold, murky puddle as I climbed out. “Shit. Shit!”

My dress was too long without my shoes and I fumbled with the slippery material, unable to clench a handful to lift my trailing hem. Inundated, my hair swung across my wet face, momentarily obscuring my sight as I stumbled barefoot over the slick sidewalk. And so it was that I thought I was hearing things when someone shouted, “Patricia!”

My heart halted all operations.

It can’t be –

Shock would have taken me to my knees if he hadn’t been there to slide his arms around my waist.
“Patricia.” His voice was low, with a deep husk, and I heard his longing and confusion and sincerity, all tangled together. Rain poured over our bodies as he held me secure, water dripping from his hair and running in rivulets down his lean, sunburned cheeks.

Case, I tried to say but I was crying, clutching his precious face in both hands to receive his ravenous kisses, both of us trying to climb within one another’s skin, to devour each other and become one being, never again separated.

But I should have known better.

We had less than five minutes left together and somewhere, beyond our perception, the clock had already begun a rapid countdown toward zero.

“Case, oh God, Case,” I gasped, forgetting myself in the absolute elation of being near him, kissing his neck, his chin, running my hands over his back as he sought my mouth with the heat of his own, kissing me past all reason, all agony. I knew his taste, knew the blessed feel of this man; he was mine. I was his. Nothing else mattered.

Without breaking the contact of our mouths he hauled us under a nearby awning, allowing for a full aligning of our bodies. He clasped my jaws, studying my eyes with a mixture of amazement and certainty.

“How did…when did…” I clung, knotting my arms around his torso, terrified he would disappear from my embrace.

“Your eyes,” he whispered as if in a dream. “I know your eyes, I swear on my life. I knew it the night you showed up at the trailer. I’d never seen you before that night, but I knew you. I’ve hardly slept since you left, or eaten. Your face has haunted me. And all those things you said…” He trailed to silence, thumbs caressing my wet face as if it were constructed of porcelain. With reverence, he bent and kissed my right eye, closing it, then the left. Resting his lips to my forehead and inhaling deeply, he whispered, “You know all these things already, don’t you?”

Tears seeped through my lashes. Reality was asserting itself more aggressively now but I fought it, unwilling to move from his embrace. He might not have been the Case who was my husband in our real lives, but he was still Case. And I couldn’t bear to lose him so soon, especially when this version of him had been lonely so long, without the gift of the lifelong presence of the Rawleys and their devotion to him; without our love for each other to keep the outside world at bay. “I do know. I love you, Case, I love you so much. I’ve missed you so much, sweetheart, you can’t begin to know. Oh God, I don’t know how to make you understand what I have to tell you…”

“Then tell me, please tell me everything. I drove straight through from Montana to get here, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I looked you up online and tracked down your address. I know it’s crazy, it’s something a stalker would do, but I’m not a stalker, I promise you. I just had to find you. I’ve been here maybe fifteen minutes. The doorman wouldn’t say where you’d gone, so I was waiting.” He noticed my bare feet and concern swept over his features. “You’re soaked. Where have you been? Are you all right?”

My thoughts flew, streaking across wide, windswept fields of thought. I had no true idea where to begin; the last thing I expected this evening was for Case to appear in Chicago. Furthermore, I had no intention of remaining in this timeline where neither of us rightly belonged, this alternate horror in which I’d been enmeshed for too long already. Agonized anew, I studied the sincerity in his eyes and felt a razor pass across my soul.

“Let’s go upstairs,” I insisted. “This is my dad’s place and we can clean up. But then we have to leave, Case, we have to get out of Chicago. I’ll explain everything once we get going…”

But all decisions were suddenly removed from my hands.

Return To Yesterday, Excerpt

I regained consciousness flat on my back, staring up at a sky so bright I flung a shielding forearm over my eyes. Sense returned more slowly, in fits and starts; it took seconds for my mind to catch up with my body as I struggled to recall my last memory, the one just prior to this brilliant blue sky edged with a tall fringe of grass stalks.

Shore Leave.

Ruthie and Derrick.

They were trying to get back to the nineteenth century –

Oh God –


I sat up too fast, only to be blasted by a rush of dizziness; I hung my head until the blotchy colors receded from my vision, rolling next to all fours on the scratchy, uneven ground. I tried to grasp handfuls of grass to gain my footing but fell instead, as wobbly as a toddler.

This is not the time to freak out, Camille.

Think.


The last I knew I’d been standing in Shore Leave, thinking for all I was worth of Malcolm Carter, concentrating on his existence in June, 1882, picturing his face and his horse, and the prairie…and me at his side.

Oh, my God –

“Ruthie…” I cleared my throat, heart flapping, panic mounting like a storm surge, and tried again. “Ruthann! Derrick!”

“Over here,” came a faint reply and my shoulders sank with relief.

“Can you speak up? I don’t know which direction you’re in!” My voice echoed over what seemed an endless expanse of prairie. Flickertail Lake was not in sight; we were nowhere near Shore Leave, I knew that much. I inhaled for three counts and exhaled for six.

“You’re on my left,” Derrick called. “I think, anyway.”

“Are you all right? Do you see Ruthie?” Successful at my second attempt to stand, I hurried toward the sound of his voice, parting waist-high grass with both hands, keeping an eye out for snakes or other creatures. My back felt bruised, but that was the least of my worries. “Where in the hell are we?!”

“Iowa,” said someone only a few yards behind me. I hadn’t heard anyone approach and spun around so quickly I fell again, this time flat on my ass.

A man riding a horse sat watching me, a beautiful chestnut-brown horse, holding the reins in one hand while the other rested on the saddle horn. He wore a cowboy hat and dirty jeans and at the sight of me, his expression changed swiftly to one of abject disbelief – I felt the same thing happening to my face. My heart delivered a hard, hammering punch to my breastbone before taking abrupt wing, disappearing in the cloudless blue sky. Both hands flew to my lips as I stared, open-mouthed.

He dismounted with such effortless grace he was on the ground before I knew he’d moved. He would have crossed the meager distance between us with two strides except that I was already there to meet him.

“Malcolm,” I gasped, threading my arms about his neck, unable to restrain this elemental instinct. He was damp with sweat, exhaling in a rush against my loose hair and returning my exuberant embrace as I imbibed the physical reality of him, the immediacy of Malcolm Carter at long last close enough to touch. His hat fell off and I laughed with the pure delight of a child, running my fingers through his dark curls, over his eyebrows and cheekbones and lips. He was tall, bending forward in order to receive my touches upon his skin. His muscles curved like lean bands of steel; he might have been carved from warm hardwood. But his hands were gentle, fingers twining deep into my tangled curls, cradling my face.

Amazement radiated between us as we traced paths over one another, but no unease; our touching was the most natural thing in the world. Of course it was – his soul was the other half of mine. He was Mathias in another version of himself, my husband, my lover, the very essence of my true love.

“You’re here!” My smile was wider than the horizon, all agony, all fear, momentarily annihilated. “You’re actually here.”

“I know you.” He spoke the words slowly, bracketing my ribs with both hands. “You aren’t Cora, but I know you…”

By contrast, words flew from my lips. “Of course you do. I’m Camille, Ruthann’s sister! She told you all about me. And I’ve known about you for years. Do you know how long I’ve wanted to do this?” Before he could respond – or I could think twice – I drew his head closer and kissed his mouth, a soft, quick, elated stamp of possession, giddy with the bliss of finding him, of actually setting eyes and hands upon him, when for so long I’d had nothing but a cold, flat, black and white photograph. His lips were so very familiar; he smelled just like Mathias.

He grinned as I drew away, wide and warm. A grin to rival the sun, one I would have known anywhere. Betraying no lack of composure over the fact that I’d just kissed him, he murmured, “Holy God,” speaking the words as though praying, crushing me closer, resting his cheek to my hair while I buried my face against his chest, trembling and overcome; an intermingling of pain and joy unlike anything I’d ever known. We may have continued holding each other until time ran out if the sounds of Derrick’s clumsy approach through the tall grass had not reached our ears.

Malcolm shifted us at once, a fluid, effortless motion, positioning in front of me, gun drawn from a holster on his hip before I could blink.

“No, I know him, it’s all right. Derrick, freeze!” I yelled, darting forward. “I’ve found Malcolm!”

I recognized the need to gather my wits; there wasn’t time to speculate why I’d been pulled through time and Ruthann had not. I crashed through the grass and intercepted Derrick, who was puffing and sweating with exertion; he’d tied the arms of his heavy winter coat around his waist.

“Where’s Ruthann?” he asked. “What in the hell happened?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to figure it out later.”

Malcolm was right behind me; he had holstered his gun, to my relief, but he demanded of Derrick, “Who are you?” His tone bristled with authority and threat; Derrick stepped back a pace, speechless, not removing his eyes from Malcolm.

I babbled, “He’s with me, it’s all right. I’ll explain everything, I promise.” Urgency reasserted itself, swarming like hornets. “Oh God, what day is it? Where are we? You said Iowa…how did we end up here instead of Minnesota?” I clutched Malcolm’s left arm. “Are you with Cole Spicer and Blythe Tilson?”

In short order Malcolm helped me atop his horse, whose full name, I was delighted to learn, was Aces High – nicknamed Aces, as Malcolm explained – but not before I hugged the beautiful animal’s solid neck and kissed the white blaze on his long nose.

“Hi, boy,” I murmured, bestowing another kiss, this time between the horse’s velvety nostrils. Aces issued a soft whooshing sound, watching me with his head cocked to the right, left eye fixed on me with intense curiosity. “You remember me, don’t you?”

Malcolm, explaining that he’d ridden ahead this morning in order to hunt, led Aces back to the slower-moving wagon in which Patricia and her son were contained. Cole Spicer and Blythe Tilson were also accounted for on this journey, according to Malcolm; he, Cole, Patricia, and the baby had parted ways from Ruthann, Marshall, and a man named Axton Douglas earlier this month. My relief over these facts, however, was quickly submerged – today’s date was June twenty-ninth, 1882, and we were most definitely not in Minnesota, but instead a day’s hard ride south of Iowa City. Derrick, walking alongside Aces, looked up at me, his expression communicating more clearly than any words that we were totally and completely fucked.

Dismay became outright fear. “How did this happen?! We were supposed to arrive weeks ago. Fuck. We have to get word to Marshall and Ruthie in Montana…assuming Ruthie’s still out there right now.” My thoughts whirled. “She must be. I bet that’s why she couldn’t return this time, since she’s already here.” Distraught, I cried, “We’ll never make it there in time! We’re too late. Oh, my God…” I sat clutching Aces High’s dark mane in both hands, terrorized. There was no way we could travel hundreds of miles in a single day, let alone hope to get word to them. We were in the middle of a prairie in Iowa, which might as well have been the middle of fucking nowhere.

Malcolm halted Aces and stepped close to the saddle. He reached for my right hand, cradling it between both of his as he said, “Tell me what we need to do.”

***

The wagon rolled along a mile behind; as we gained ground I saw the sun glint off his auburn hair.

Cole, I thought, and a deep thrill spiked through my gut. Though I’d barely had time to process the fact, I was indeed here in the nineteenth century, in the presence of people I had never imagined meeting. The deep-seated ache in my heart throbbed. Mathias, oh God, I wish you were with me. I miss you so fucking much. You would be amazed at what I’m seeing. Tish, you should be here too. I’m looking at Case’s ancestor.

I refused to consider what was occurring at Shore Leave in the wake of my departure rather than Ruthann’s; I had two goals here in this place and if I wanted my real life back, I sure as hell better keep focused. There was no other option. I could break down like nobody’s business some other day. A second man rode a gorgeous pinto mare on the other side of the wagon and while he didn’t much resemble the man I knew as my stepfather many generations from now, I recognized Blythe Tilson.

Cole drew the wagon to a halt. To describe his expression as staggered was something of an understatement.

Malcolm took charge. “Plans have changed, fellas. There’s no time to lose.”

Cole peered at me with amazement curling his reddish-gold eyebrows. His gaze flickered to

Malcolm and then returned to my face. He didn’t have to speak the words aloud for me to understand; I knew how much I resembled Cora.

Blythe heeled his mount and rode closer, addressing Malcolm. “What do you mean?”

“We’re in danger,” Malcolm said succinctly. “The Yancys are on our trail. They’ll catch up with us by tomorrow morning if we don’t take immediate action.”

“Fallon?” Cole asked, shoulders squaring in immediate offense. “He’s back?”

Malcolm shook his head. “No, Dredd and his father are in pursuit. This is Ruthann’s sister, Camille, and she’s traveled a long distance to get to us.” His gaze flickered to Blythe. “This-all is gonna seem a mite strange to you, but I pray you’ll trust me. This man here,” indicating Derrick, “is a descendent of the Yancys. He and Camille have come to warn us. They’re from the twenty-first century.”

Blythe’s lips twitched with either disbelief or amusement, I couldn’t tell which. But he was clearly a man able to take things in stride; he nodded politely at me as he said, “I wondered why them clothes looked so odd.” His voice rumbled like thunder.

I knew Cole was already aware of many truths, including Ruthann’s abilities; he wasted no time on additional questions. “If the Yancys are already on our trail, we can’t lose more time. What’s your plan, Malcolm?”

“We have to get to a town with a telegraph in an all-fired hurry. On horseback we can make it before nightfall. But not with the wagon.”

Cole stowed the reins and jumped from the wagon seat, calling for Patricia. Malcolm reached to help me from Aces; his touch on my waist blazed all across my skin, there was no denying. Flustered, I avoided his gaze, instead hurrying around to the back of the wagon, following Cole.

“Ruthann’s sister is here?” a woman inside asked, her voice low and rough.

“Darlin’, come here.” Cole climbed on the tailgate to assist her and Patricia’s face appeared in the oval opening. I gasped, I couldn’t help it – she looked so much like Tish that my spine prickled. Pale and drawn, shadows deep beneath her electric-blue eyes, exactly the way Tish had looked earlier this very morning, at Shore Leave.

“Oh, dear God. You are Camille, are you not? I would know you anywhere.”

Tears glided over my cheeks; the second she was on the ground, supported by Cole, she flung her arms around me, squeezing as tightly as was able in a weakened state. Her skin burned with fever and there was a faint tremble in her limbs, and I took care to keep my hug gentle. We drew apart but I cupped her elbows, afraid she might tumble over.

“What must we do?” she whispered. “Where is this descendant of the Yancys?”

Derrick approached and Patricia assessed him with the imperious nature of a queen. Of course he noticed how much she looked like Tish; I could see it all over his face. “Ma’am,” he stumbled.

“You do not look like a Yancy.” Her tone was an exact replica of Tish’s, the way my sister sounded when employing her lawyer voice.

I almost expected Derrick to drop to one knee but he straightened his spine instead.

“Your eyes,” she whispered, before he could reply. “There is no ruthlessness in them.”

Reclaiming Patricia’s attention, I said, “I apologize for all of this, I know it’s a shock.
But we have no time to waste.” Names and facts spun through my head. “By this time tomorrow, Dredd will shoot Thomas Yancy and then blame Cole for the murder. Cole will go to jail. Someone in Dredd’s group will shoot and kill Blythe.” I paused for a quick, gulping breath, ignoring everything but the need to impart facts, including Blythe’s obvious shock at this news. “Fallon is here in 1882, but he’s in Montana. Tomorrow night he will burn the Rawleys’ home to the ground, killing Miles’s son, Jacob, and destroying that branch of the Rawley family. We have to get word to them.”

Patricia’s skin drained of all color, leaving her so ashen she appeared lifeless. “Ruthie…where is Ruthie? How do you come to be here with this information?”

“She was returned to the future about a week after the fire, but it isn’t the future she remembers. Fallon’s actions created an offshoot in our timeline, an alternate reality. A nightmare I can’t even describe. Ruthie knew we had to warn you and she tried to return here this morning, but she couldn’t. It’s like she was blocked.” I struggled to recall those moments – Derrick had vanished almost at once while Ruthann’s body jerked and flopped, as though caught in a violent current. I had rushed forward, mere steps ahead of Tish – and woke here.

It was your connection to Malcolm. The strength of what binds your two souls drew you here to this place in time. There is no other explanation.

“She is safe? What of Marshall? What of…Axton?” Pain cut a trench across Patricia’s face.

“I left Ruthie behind in 2014. But I think she’s still here too, in this time.” I looked to Derrick for help.

“As far as we know they are all still in Howardsville, Montana,” he supplied. “Ruthann and I intended to arrive here two weeks ago in order to reach them with time to spare. We know that Marshall and Axton will be in Howardsville by tomorrow evening, but obviously they would be unable to return in time to prevent the fire at the Rawley homestead.”

I witnessed the play of thoughts across Malcolm’s mind as he considered our options at lightning speeds; I marveled again, struck to my very core, how much he reminded me of Mathias. Despite physical differences, most notably the shade of his eyes, Malcolm’s every movement, his mannerisms, his mouth and eyebrows and posture were achingly familiar. He even smelled like Mathias.

Be very, very careful, Camille.

To claim I was not in love with Malcolm Carter would be a lie of immense proportions; I had loved Malcolm since the first winter I held his picture in my hands. I loved him to his very soul, my own crying out with recognition of our connection. But the fact remained that he was a different man; Malcolm was not my husband. I could not find room for guilt over imagining making love with the man standing before me, making love until our souls were fully sated and all sadness, all pain, vanquished forever.

Stop. There is no way you can let that happen.

“Cole, listen up good,” Malcolm ordered. “Get Patricia and the baby out of here. The Yancys are coming from Chicago, that we know, and expect us to be on a northern route. They are still a day from our current position, so that gives us time to flee.”

“West,” Cole said at once. “We’ll head due west, aim for the nearest settlement. Windham can’t be more than twenty miles.” He gathered Patricia to his side and kissed her tangled hair. “I am so sorry, love, to ask this of you. I know you’re ill.”

“I am well,” she assured. “Hard travel could never be worse than what Camille has just described.”

“Go as fast as you’re able,” Malcolm said. “Waste no time.” He paused, briefly considering.

“Blythe, if you would accompany them and help keep watch. Meanwhile we’ll backtrack to
Muscatine and telegraph Howardsville. We can make it by nightfall, it ain’t more than thirty miles, give or take.” His eyes met mine.

“I’m up for it,” I announced at once, understanding what he was about to ask. “I’ll be fine.”

“Good, since I wasn’t planning to let you from my sight,” Malcolm said, just serious enough I couldn’t discern if there was a hint of humor in his words, or not. My heart throbbed fiercely. He looked next to Derrick. “Yancy, what of you? Can you handle a firearm?”

Derrick shifted uncomfortably, tugging his gaze from Patricia. “I’ve never shot a gun in my life.”

“Well, there ain’t time for lessons anyway.” Malcolm’s observant eyes flickered over the wagon, then back to Derrick. “You’ll stay and help keep watch.”

Derrick struggled to submerge his unease. “I’d rather we stuck together if it’s all the same to you, Camille.”

I knew he feared losing what he considered his only connection to the future and I couldn’t blame him, but the decision was out of my hands.

“There ain’t enough horses.” There was zero room for argument in Malcolm’s tone. “We’ll catch up once we’ve sent a message. Give us until tomorrow night, Cole. We’ll look for you in Windham.”

And so, less than ten minutes after our first meeting, I was hugging Patricia good-bye. “Be safe,” I begged in a whisper, closing my eyes against the softness of her hair. “Please, be safe.”

“You have already saved us, dear Camille.” She drew back and studied my eyes. “I could never thank you enough. I pray you are able to warn Ruthann. I shall pray every moment until we meet again.”

Derrick masked his fear with admirable effort, cupping my upper arm as he ordered, “Watch out for yourself. Jesus Christ, Tish will kill me if you get hurt.”

“You’ll be safe with me, I swear on my life.” Malcolm held Aces by the horse’s lead line, eyes steady on mine as he spoke. Fate enclosed my heart in a merciless grip – how many times had I stood facing this man, this horse, with the sun beating down on my head and the prairie grasses rippling to the horizon on all sides? The exact number was lost to me – only Malcolm and Cora would ever know for certain – but it didn’t matter.

One last time, I thought, aching from the inside out. Give me this one last time.


Excerpt, Return to Yesterday

We took stock to the best of our ability. A quick walk to the sign welcoming visitors to town assured us that this was still indeed Jalesville. The population had fallen slightly, from 832 to 809, and this Jalesville boasted no all-night gas station, no drugstore beaming with the cheerful fluorescent lights to usher us within a space where someone worked and might be able to provide additional information. No matter how unbelievable it seemed, we were walking and breathing and existing in an altered timeframe. The most probable theory was based on the only real clue we possessed, which was that Fallon Yancy had done something in the past to transform what we’d known as reality to the current reality.

But how?

That was the question we would both have died to answer.

Back in the parking lot of The Spoke and exhaling with exertion from the walk to the road sign in chilly night air, we stripped from our coats and searched every last pocket. Camille turned up a key ring strung with three keys, one of which worked on the Toyota beneath the streetlight. Once inside the car we dug through everything, tearing apart the contents of the glove compartment, then a single suitcase and two purses we found in the backseat, assuming correctly that these items were ours. Our driver’s licenses were current; mine identified me as Patricia Gordon and my address was listed as a Chicago residence, not one that I recognized. Camille too possessed our former surname, Gordon, and her address was the same as that of Shore Leave, back home in Landon.

Ripping through a black leather handbag large enough to stuff with a couple of volleyballs, I felt a hard familiar shape and cried triumphantly, “A phone!”

I snatched it up and tapped out a pin code – the year I was born – rewarded when the screen blinked to life.

“Thank God I have no imagination,” I muttered, scrolling through numbers as quickly as my fingers could move, ignoring the many I did not recognize. “Here’s you, Milla, and Clint, and Dad, Mom and Aunt Jilly…here’s Shore Leave…”

Camille found a phone tucked in the other purse but was having no luck breaching its security code. She peered over my shoulder; both of us already suspected but it still hurt like hell to confirm that my phone contained no contact information for Case, or Mathias, any of the Rawleys, or…Ruthann.

“It’s got to be a mistake,” I said breathlessly, trying with little success to keep abject panic at bay. “Where are they?”

“Call Mom,” Camille ordered at once. Her voice was raw and harsh, the way Case’s had sounded after the fire in our barn, the fire that had burned his lungs.

“I’m scared to,” I admitted. My heart seemed to be hacking shallow trenches between my rib bones.

“Who else is missing?”

I examined my contact list a second time, forcing a slower pace, with escalating dread. “Blythe isn’t here, or Uncle Justin, or Al and Helen Anne…” And then I froze. My heart skittered and missed several beats. “Oh God, here’s Robbie. He’s…he’s still alive.”

“Call him later, we have to talk to Mom,” Camille insisted.

Mom didn’t answer, nor did Aunt Jilly. It was after eleven, which meant it was after midnight in Minnesota, but I tried Clint anyway, hanging up before leaving a voicemail, just like I’d done with both my mother and aunt. I had no idea where to begin with what I had to say.

“I’ll try again first thing in the morning,” I whispered.

We scanned the mess we had created in the unfamiliar vehicle that was somehow ours, clothes and shoes and make-up falling all across the floormats and spilling out into the gravel parking lot. I was so terrified I felt without actual substance, as though constructed of soap bubbles or vacant air. I was near breaking point and my need for Case rose swift and strong, obliterating all logic; I grabbed the key ring from the dashboard and said with authority, “Come on.”

Minutes later the road west out of town hummed beneath the tires as I drove with a single-minded purpose – that of reaching my home. I refused to conceive of the idea that it would not be there when we arrived. Camille kept silent and I saw nothing but her somber profile from the corner of my right eye as I roared along the narrow gravel strip called Ridge Road, where I had lived since last summer with Case and our animals. Where our old doublewide sat neatly at the base of a soaring, tree-lined ridge, where I fed my horses and chickens and cats and rabbit, where I’d been happier than ever before in life. It would all be there. The cramped, messy, heavenly space I shared with Case; our beautiful brand-new barn, the blueprints for our new cabin sprawled across the kitchen table.

It took no more than five minutes of driving before I spied the familiar silver mailbox that Case’s mother, Melinda, had stenciled with their last name when she was still alive. Relief fell like warm rain over my shoulders. I ignored the sharp stabs of gut instinct warning me to hit the brake and turn the car around.

Camille spoke for the first time since I’d started the engine. “Tish, what if…”

But I couldn’t listen.

Our green and white trailer appeared exactly as we’d left it earlier today but was encased now in darkness, the kitchen light creating a bright square to counteract the night. I saw Case’s maroon truck and additional relief all but punctured my lungs – but my Honda was not parked in its usual spot, instead replaced by a vehicle I didn’t recognize. I cranked open the door almost before I’d thrown the car in park. Case was only steps away.

“Tish, wait…” Camille jumped out of the car in my wake, but nothing was going to stop me now.

I jogged up the steps and threw open the screen, then tugged at the inner door, heart thrusting through my breastbone. It was locked. Dogs immediately began barking.

“Case!” I shouted, with increasing alarm. “Are you there? Case, it’s me, I’m home!”

Two or more people had been talking inside. I heard my husband’s deep, authoritative voice only a few feet from me as he demanded, “What in the hell? Who’s there?”

I began crying in earnest, pounding on the scarred wooden surface. “Case!”

I fell inward, straight onto our kitchen floor, as he yanked open the door. Literally at his feet I stared up at the astonished expression on his face. I didn’t hear Camille’s breathless explanation as she appeared in the doorway on my heels, I didn’t hear the startled exclamations of the woman seated at the table or Case ordering the dogs to get back. I heard only the panic coursing through my veins.

Case did not recognize me.

I hardly recognized him.

Leaner than I’d ever seen him, cheekbones knife-edged and prominent, thick scruff on his jaws and brows curled in confusion. His eyes were bordered by deep shadows. He smelled boozy and I realized he was drunk. Or, was two-thirds of the way there. He wore a threadbare long-sleeved t-shirt and dirty jeans, his work boots tossed in the corner. His hair was cropped close to his head, severely short. He appeared wiry and menacing and stunned.

But none of this mattered. He was my Case, my Charles Shea Spicer, and he did not recognize me.

Reality began reasserting itself, pulling no punches.

The woman at the table knocked over her chair as she stormed to her feet and stood with fists planted on her hips, firing her words like missiles. “Who is this? What is this about? Case, I swear if you’ve been fucking this bitch I will kill you once and for all!”

I realized dumbly that I knew her; her name was Lynnette and she’d once been married to Case.

He ignored her angry tirade and instead crouched beside me. His eyes were achingly familiar, his beautiful cinnamon-brown eyes with their red-gold lashes, and I lifted to an elbow, desperate to force recognition. He was confused as hell, I could plainly see, but somehow, some way, he had to know me. The awareness between us was too strong to deny and I clung to this truth. He was studying me intensely, the way a person would a painting that required deciphering to comprehend. His brows drew together, creating a deep furrow between them.

“Case,” I begged in a whisper, unable to resist reaching for him. My hand fluttered through empty air and alighted on his right knee, closest to me. He was warm and hard, so very familiar, and I wanted to die in that moment, knowing that to Case, in this particular timeline, I was nothing but a stranger – and a crazy one, at that.

“I knew it!” Lynnette cried, but neither of us looked her way.

“Please,” I begged, almost soundless, my throat obstructed by pain. I clung to his knee with one hand. “Please, it’s me. It’s Tish. I’m your wife…”

“What…”

“It’s me. I love you so much, you just have to remember…”

Case stood abruptly and stalked outside, severing our tenuous connection. Camille darted to the side to avoid being trampled by his angry movements while I scrambled after him, dogging his footsteps to the corral, where Cider was nosing the top beam. Behind us, in the trailer, Lynnette was hollering like a tornado siren but I didn’t care. She was lucky I hadn’t attempted to kill her once and for all. Case increased his pace and I ran to catch up, stumbling in my heeled boots.

“Stop!” I pleaded, grabbing for his arm. We had reached the corral and Cider issued a friendly whooshing sound, stepping in our direction. Having reached the extent of his escape route Case turned to face me, plunging both hands through what remained of his hair, elbows pointed at the sky, pinning me with a look that combined both incredulity and anger. The glow from the kitchen window highlighted his features and before I knew I’d moved I took his face between my palms, desperate to touch him, to feel his skin against mine. Surely I could override this horror. I knew I could make him remember me, remember us.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, low-voiced and astonished, catching my wrists in both hands. “Who are you? How do you know me?”

“It’s me, it’s Tish. Patricia Gordon. I know everything about you, sweetheart, I even know your horse. That’s Cider, right there, and we’ve ridden double on her dozens of times, out there into the foothills.” I indicated eastward with a tilt of my head, observing the way his eyes registered both undiluted shock and increasing fluster. I pratted on, believing I was gaining momentum. “I know this is crazy, it seems crazy to you because something is so wrong, Case. I don’t know what’s happened, but somehow everything has been changed. I’m so scared, I don’t know how this happened, but I intend to find out. I promise you I will find out. Just earlier tonight we were at The Spoke with Garth and Becky, and Mathias and Camille, and then…and then…”

Despite everything he had not released my wrists. He’d gently removed my hands from his face but held them now between us, our arms bent in tight, acute triangles. His thumbs enclosed my bones, which felt so fragile in the strength of his long fingers. I caught the scent of whiskey on his breath and my heart constricted further; in our normal life he had long since given up drinking hard liquor. I truly did not believe I was imagining that he was currently a man radiating with lonely despair. I longed so deeply to wrap him in my full embrace that it hurt my limbs to remain immobile. His eyes drove into mine and I knew there was a part of him that wanted to believe me.

And so I continued babbling. “Then I talked to Derrick on the phone and he told me that Franklin Yancy is really Fallon Yancy, they’re the same person, Case, that was the detail we were missing before. Derrick said that Fallon has done something terrible, sweetheart, to hurt us. To hurt Marshall and Ruthie, and everyone we love. You have to trust me.”

Lynnette had closed the distance between us and overhead my last few words. “Are you fucking kidding me, Case, you’re actually listening to this crazy bitch?” She grabbed my upper arm and yanked me around to face her; under normal circumstances such behavior would have activated a sort of Gran-style offense mode and my full-on bitchy self would have shrieked to existence, but I had been hollowed out by desperation. Lynnette wasn’t quite tall enough to meet my gaze head on, but rage lent her height; I didn’t fight her grip.

“Let go!” Case ordered her harshly, coming between us. But instead of sheltering me he hooked an arm around Lynnette’s waist and hauled her a few paces away, next grasping her shoulders and speaking with a sincerity that lacerated my breaking heart. “Lynn, come on, please calm down. I do not know this woman, all right? Would you listen to me? I don’t know what’s going on here. I swear I’m just as surprised as you are.”

“Well, she sure knows you!” Lynnette twisted free to confront me yet again. “How do you know my husband? Are you from around here?”

“No,” I whispered, staring at Case, who stared right back. The tilt of his wide shoulders told me with no words that he was strung with indecision, but he remained quiet. I didn’t advance toward him this time as I implored, “Can we drive over to the Rawleys? They’ll still be up. Maybe they’ll remember, maybe they can help you remember.” My tortured mind had missed a detail and I demanded, “Is Marshall home? When was the last time you saw him?”

Maybe I’d already known it was coming as Case asked, “Who’s Marshall? Who are the Rawleys?”

Despite the intensifying doom, I could not stop badgering. “What do you mean? Clark and Faye helped raise you! Garth and Marshall are your best friends. They’ve been your neighbors all your life. Their ranch is only minutes from here.”

Case gripped the nape of his neck with both hands, conveying increasing concern. He slowly shook his head. “No, you’re mistaken. There’s never been a family by that name in Jalesville.” Having brought Lynnette under partial control of her emotions, he addressed me now with quiet courtesy. “Ma’am, I apologize, I truly do, but I don’t know these people. And…” He paused for an eternal second, his gaze holding mine. “And I don’t know you.”

Had I been summarily gutted with a dull fishing knife it would not have hurt worse.

I could not accept these statements as truth. Maybe it was selfishness, or pure desperation, but in that moment I exercised zero control; I didn’t consider how what I was saying could hurt him, or Lynnette, as I cried, “Case, oh God, please listen to me! You do know me. Somewhere inside, you have to know me. I’m in love with you. I’ve never loved anyone more than you and where I just came from, we were married. I was pregnant…with our little girl.” Sobs broke through and I covered my mouth with both hands.

“I knew it, Case! You son of a bitch!” Lynnette was at it in full force again.

“Shut the hell up!” I directed my monstrous agony at her, fair or not. “You have absolutely nothing to do with this!”

She rocketed toward me, fury twisting her face, hands fisted. “Case is my husband, you bitch. I will not shut up. Get the fuck off our property!”

Camille was at my side in an instant, curling me close, the protector now, just as I had been earlier this nightmarish evening. Weeping, devastated, I allowed her to lead me toward the car. Case did not attempt to stop us, though I sensed his shock as he watched us walk away. Both the driver’s and passenger’s side doors remained wide open and looked like broken wings. Camille was murmuring to me but I derived no sense from her words. I hid my face in my palms and she helped me within the car; she claimed the driver’s seat this time. I could not manage the strength to lift my head long enough to look back as she drove away.


The Rawleys were nowhere to be found.

No house, no barns, no corrals or beautiful, stone-ringed fire pit. No horses, no tack room, no Clark or Marshall, Sean, Quinn, or sweet Wyatt. Each and every one gone. The land formerly occupied by their home, which had belonged to the Rawleys for many generations, was in the process of residential development. A work trailer was parked on the street, adorned by the name of an unfamiliar construction company. There was a small billboard proclaiming that this would be the future site of a condominium complex called Mountain Heights. Earth-moving equipment hunched in the darkness like sleeping beasts. The foundations already excavated loomed like gaping wounds.

This time I was the one shrieking my pain to the star-studded black sky, bending to tear clumps from the ground, the dirt cold and thick against my palms. Inane with grief I repeated the motion again and again, grabbing handfuls of earth and hurtling them like tiny, rage-filled bombs at the work trailer and the small billboard until the offending words were all but obscured by exploded muck. Camille sank bonelessly to the ground, out of range, and did not attempt to stop me.

“Motherfucker!” I bellowed, addressing Fallon Yancy, wherever the hell he existed at this moment. “I will kill you a thousand times, you fucking bastard, you goddamn piece of shit! You think you’re the puppet master out there, that you can fuck with us like this, but I will find you! I will motherfucking find you!”

I howled and screamed until no additional sound would emerge, my clothing smeared in dirt. I had slipped and fallen too many times to count; my ankles ached, along with my tailbone. Several of my fingernails had torn past the quick and bled with silent reproach. And still no pain rivaled that of Case not knowing me. Case married to Lynnette, Case drunk and miserable, trapped in a life he believed he deserved. A life in which we had never met – whether because the Rawleys were not here, or because Mathias and Camille had not traveled to Montana in 2006, or a hundred other possibilities I could not begin to conjure; I had no idea. Not a notion of where to start. Helpless as an insect beneath a pin.

Death seemed a friendly option as I stood on shifting earth at the edge of a huge, square foundation hole, heaving with uneven breaths, staring at the faintly darker line against the western horizon indicating the peaks of the mountains in the distance. I did not hear Camille until she appeared at my side and wrapped her arms around my upper body.

“What should we do?” I whispered, ragged with exhaustion.

“I don’t know, God help me, Tish. I don’t know.”

Excerpt, Until Tomorrow

Deep in the night I woke – or was I still sleeping – to hear Una Spicer. I lay with eyes closed, Tish breathing evenly alongside my body in the waking world while Una’s voice, urgent with tension, reached me from the dream world.

Wake up, Ruthie, Una insisted, and my spine jerked. He’s coming. He’s more dangerous than you could know.

Who? I whispered, drifting somewhere between the two worlds.

A forest path bathed in the hues of sunset appeared before my closed eyes, beckoning me forward. Broken twigs and dead leaves dug into my bare feet as I stood rooted, unwilling to advance, muted auburn light flickering over my head and dappling my shoulders; beneath the sheets, my knees jerked. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something terrible, worse than any nightmare conjured by a tired brain, lurked at the end of this path.

Ruthann, he’s coming!

Wake up!

Wake up!


Out in the dark living room Bender issued a deep, hair-raising growl.

I jolted as though electrified, throwing off the covers and bounding from the bed. The trailer suddenly exploded with violent barking.

What’s wrong, what’s wrong?!

The presence of danger loomed, blindsiding me.
“Ruthie!” Tish cried, yanked from sleep as I raced for the kitchen.

Growling, jaws snapping, all four dogs crowded the screen door and I fumbled with the lock to let them free. Sacrificing all sense, I followed as they bounded toward the barn like wolves on the hunt.

“Stop!” I screamed, but I didn’t mean the dogs. “Stop, you fucking son of a bitch!”

I ran, heedless of my vulnerability. Gravel sliced my bare feet. Clouds had blotted out the stars, leaving little illumination to aid my vision. Paces ahead, the dogs were snarling so furiously they sounded rabid. Behind me, the screen door banged open.

Tish screamed, “Ruthann!”

I reached the barn, assaulted by certainty as plainly as the scents of cut wood and sawdust; a new set of double doors had been constructed but not yet hung and I entered the echoing space with nothing impeding my flight.

“Get him!” I shrieked to the dogs, maniacal with fury. “Get that fucking bastard, hurry! He’ll get away!”

The dogs had cornered a man at the back of the barn; I was no more than thirty feet away and I saw the tall outline of him against the wall boards, heard his low, vicious voice. I could not discern his features in the dark but felt the returned weight of his gaze, dense with mutual hatred.

My fingers curled, becoming claws that I would use to tear out his throat –

I was almost upon them –

The dogs lunged.

I stumbled over a low stack of boards and fell hard on the cement, scraping palms and shins and knees; painful seconds passed before I realized the dogs were scrabbling and clawing at the wall boards and that their muscular, tensile bodies were the only others in the barn.

Tish reached my side, barefoot, gasping and short of breath.

I screamed, “Get him! He’s getting away…”

I scrambled to my feet, disregarding her cries to stay put, and sprinted out the back entrance, which gaped wide, exposing the dark night. My eyes had adjusted and I looked wildly in all directions, seeing nothing. No telltale outline of a running body, no one crouched to spring; the dogs had not given chase.

Maybe he’s hiding nearby.

The hair on my nape stood perfectly straight.
Tish clamped hold of my pajama shirt and gasped, “What…in the hell…is going on?”

“There was a man here! Didn’t you see him?”

The land beyond the back of the barn faced east and stretched for miles with little to mar the view – the mountains lay to the west. Someone at a running pace could have easily disappeared into the foothills and therefore from sight under cover of darkness. I bent forward, hands to thighs, trying to catch my errant breath, to reassert reality into the situation. My palms were raw, my knees bleeding.

“I’m calling the police!” Tish was livid. “Come inside, right now!”

“I’m calling Marshall,” I whispered as the dogs swarmed our legs, panting with exertion but otherwise silent.

Whoever he was, he was long gone.

Excerpt, Return to Yesterday

Unwilling to part from each other’s company, Case and I met Mathias and Camille at The Spoke that night; Garth and Becky intended to join us later in the evening. The Saturday night mood was raucous, the bar noisy and crowded, bathed in neon and good cheer. The Spoke was owned by Clark’s younger sister, Julie Heller, and her husband; their daughters, Pam, Lee, and Netta, ran the entire show. After hugs and congratulations to Case and me (along with a glass of 7UP for me, instead) Pam made sure we had a constant supply of beer. The band tonight was a local father and son duet, and within two songs they’d persuaded Case and Mathias to join them on stage. It didn’t exactly take much arm-twisting; both of our men were at home singing and making music.

“They look so right up there,” Camille said, grinning and clapping as Mathias sent her a wink as he accepted both a cowboy hat and the microphone. Clad in a fitted turquoise-blue sweater and faded jeans tucked into snow boots, the dark cloud of her hair spilling over her shoulders and down her back, Camille looked all of about seventeen years old, and determined to enjoy the evening. “I swear it was just yesterday that Mathias was up there for the first time, singing with Case and Marsh and Garth.” She looked my way, her grin turning to a soft smile. “Even that night I realized you and Ruthie should be here with me. That our men were up there, singing, and you guys weren’t even here to see it.”

“A lot had to happen in the meantime,” I whispered, watching Case as he positioned a borrowed fiddle beneath his jaw. My throat ached at the memory of what I’d put Case through before I understood that he was mine, that we belonged together.

When you know, you just know, he’d said.

And I know you are for me, Patricia.

“Ax,” I heard myself whisper.

My hands were in fists.

Camille, seated to my immediate right, leaned closer. “I can’t hear over the music. Did you just say ‘ax?’” She angled her beer bottle so I could better see the label, which featured a well-built man wielding what appeared to be a battleax. The beer, Warrior’s Ale, was from a local brewery.

“I…” Words stuck to my tongue; I slowly shook my head, indicating never mind.

The past year I’d spent so much time sitting at this very table along with Ruthie while Marshall and Case performed. We’d commented numerous times how wonderful it would be if Mathias and Camille were also in attendance, and now here I was with my older sister but no Ruthann. No Marshall.

Oh God…

What if we were never all together again…

No. Tish, no. Don’t think like that. Stop it.

You have to believe that together we can bring them home.


I didn’t want to Camille to worry about me and so I forced myself to relax and appreciate the music. Case bowed the fiddle with his eyes closed, as usual, while the father and son gave their guitars a workout and Mathias sang; his voice was as rich and true as always. Old-school country, one song flowing into the next. I rested both palms on my belly, imagining that the baby could hear the notes.

Listen to your daddy making music, I thought. Music is in your blood, my sweet girl.

Garth and Becky arrived and Garth was pulled onstage to much applause and encouragement from the growing crowd. Perhaps an hour passed; though I had not consumed a drop of alcohol I felt slightly inebriated, my thoughts undulating from one to the next. I kept thinking I saw Ruthann in the crowd of swirling dancers. My vision seemed to blur at increasing intervals. I despised the way something seemed to be holding its breath at the back of my mind, creating a pressure-cooker of increasing tension.

Something’s wrong. Something is so wrong.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I finally told Camille and Becky.

“Are you all right? Do you want me to come with?” Camille asked, but I shook my head.

No one else was in the stalls, to my relief. Alone, I bent forward and cupped my face, which was unpleasantly sweaty. I inhaled against my palms, trying to regroup.

It’s all right. Nothing is wrong – at least, not anything new.

You’re just tired. You’re pregnant, for heaven’s sake, and you didn’t sleep last night.


I tried to recapture the hopeful feeling I’d experienced earlier, at Clark’s.

It’s all right. Stop this. You have to start taking better care of yourself.

I splashed my face with cold water then patted it dry with a scratchy brown paper towel.

Thank goodness I hadn’t worn any mascara this evening. I studied my eyes in the mirror; they appeared stark and bloodshot, rimmed with dark shadows.

Think, Tish.

I prided myself on being a problem solver, someone dedicated to her work, to logic and careful research. I’d completed law school in the top ten percent of my class and hated the current haze shrouding my mind. Though I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, the word I’d spoken earlier had taken root. I knew I hadn’t been referring to a weapon; all my instincts screamed that Ax was a person.

But who?

Why does that name seem familiar?


My phone, which I’d tucked in the back pocket of my jeans, suddenly vibrated. I fished it out and fumbled through my pin code; someone had just sent a text.

I need to talk to you. It’s important.

My heart seized with a violent thrust. I almost dropped the phone. For a horrible second I thought the text was from Robbie; dead Robbie entombed in his expensive coffin for the past two months. Sweat glided down my temples as I examined the words again, seeking the sender’s phone number and a rational explanation. I didn’t know the owner of the ten-digit sequence but did recognize the area code, 773. Chicago.

Despite my shaking fingers, I composed a response – who is this?

Derrick, came the immediate answer, blunt and without further explanation. Call me right now if you can.

My heart convulsed, this time in unadulterated alarm. After months of hearing nothing from him, Derrick was suddenly ready to talk? I vacillated between the need to immediately dial his number or scurry back to the bar to tell Camille and Case. Before I made a choice either way my phone vibrated again, flashing a new message and communicating a repetitive sense of urgency – it’s important.

The next thing I knew I was pushing open the front door and striding outside, tense with restless energy. Assaulted by cold darkness I inhaled the thin late-winter air, searching the assemblage of parked cars and trucks as if for a sign of Derrick; I had no idea if he was in Chicago, Montana, or someplace else entirely. Since our confrontation with Franklin in Chicago in February, I no longer feared or hated Derrick; he had tried to warn Case and me, had told us we should leave when he knew Franklin’s appearance was imminent. And while I would hardly consider Derrick a friend, I felt an undeniable connection with him. If what we believed was true, he and I had once been married. Unhappily married, but still; something existed between us whether I wished it or not and that something could perhaps save the lives of my family.

The lot was at once familiar and alien, a stretch of blacktop I’d parked my car upon hundreds of times – but never before had it felt so menacing. Twenty feet from the safety of the front entrance I stood alone between diagonal rows of mute vehicles, heart clubbing, my breath creating an increasing vapor cloud.

Stop it, Tish, you’re imagining things. You’re not in any danger.

I pressed the icon to make a call and brought the phone to my ear.

Derrick answered on the first ring.

“Tish?” His voice was a hushed demand.

“It’s me, what is it?” I scraped hair from my forehead, shivering, my sweat evaporating in the breeze.

“It’s Franklin, he’s done something,” were Derrick’s next words.

Anger and frustration tangled together in my throat, propelling a volley of fury. “What in the fuck, Derrick?! I’m so tired of this bullshit! Who the fuck is Franklin? Why is he dangerous?!” I drew a shuddering breath and heard myself wail, “What has he done with Ruthann? Where is my sister?!”

“Listen to me!” Derrick yelled in an attempt to elevate his voice over mine. “I am so sorry I can’t even begin to tell you. I should have told you these things a long time ago, but I was fucked up. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to betray my family…”

“What things!?”

Derrick spoke in a quaking rush; in my mind bobbed an image of his face, pale and glossy with sweat, one hand gripping his own forehead. “Franklin is Fallon, they’re the same person. His real name is Fallon Corbin Yancy and he was born in 1853, in Pennsylvania, to Thomas Yancy. He can travel through time, Tish, and does often. He’s made millions for Father and me, and Ron-fucking-Turnbull, since the nineties. I met him for the first time when I was about ten or so, and he’s been in and out of my life since then. My father reveres him, it’s like Franklin’s a god, he can do no wrong in Dad’s eyes. I have never dared to speak out against him.”

I absorbed this tirade in semi-shocked silence, finding room to be ashamed that I had not guessed earlier. The truth had been right in front of us months ago. A picture formed in my memory, blotting out the parking lot of The Spoke – I saw Ruthann sitting at my kitchen table, winding spaghetti noodles around her fork while laughing at something Marshall was saying, her beautiful eyes flashing with love and adoration as they rested on him, seated to her immediate right. Their first date, last August, during which I’d convinced them to come to dinner at our trailer because Case and I were so excited they were finally dating and because we missed them. I ached from the inside out with the desire to return to that particular yesterday, to that very evening, and scream out the knowledge I now possessed.

I collected my voice, begging Derrick, “How can Ruthann get back here?”

“You have to believe me when I tell you that I do not know. Franklin has seen her in the past, I can tell you that much, and he hates her, Tish, with a ferocity I can’t explain. It’s on par with his hatred of the Rawleys and the Spicers, families whose interests have always opposed his. But it’s gone too far, it’s gone so fucking beyond far that I’m scared it’s already too late…”

My kneecaps began jittering. “What are you talking about?”

“He’s done something terrible. I don’t know what exactly, I haven’t seen him in the flesh since your friend’s funeral outside St. Helen’s. He was ready to kill me for knocking him over so you and Case could get away, I haven’t heard from him since then. But he called me tonight, only about fifteen minutes ago, and left a message.”

“Can you play it for me?” I hardly recognized the high, reedy bleat of my voice.

“Hang on, I’ll try.” I heard fumbling and Derrick cursed. Slightly away from the phone he said, “Here, listen.”

I pressed mine closer to my ear. Franklin’s recorded voice sounded poised, a man with no cares in the world – “I’m in town. Just arrived, and I’m curious to see what’s changed. I hope to hell they remember. She does, but it’s only a possibility, not a probability. I had such a good idea while I was away, far better than my original one.” Franklin chuckled and my blood all but congealed. “Hope to see you soon, brother.”

Though I knew it was an illusion sparked by my terrorized mind, all light seemed to blink from existence, plunging my body down a deep well. I swore I could smell damp earth and wet rocks. I should have cried out, I should have turned and fled, but instead I was rendered immobile.

I had such a good idea – far better than my original one –

Case’s name hung suspended in my throat.

More than I’d ever known anything, I knew I had to get to him in that moment, that everything depended on it –

But a force beyond my power to control liquefied my legs and I sank to the blacktop. The cold ground seeped through my jeans. Instinctively I covered my stomach with both forearms as danger asserted itself with onrushing aggression; bile surged and I gagged.

Somewhere distant, a door was flung open.

Across a great chasm I heard Camille screaming, so frantic that each word seemed to hack its way free of her mouth with sharp objects.

Tish! Something’s wrong!

Something’s wrong!