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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!

Excerpt, Until Tomorrow

Neither of us heard approaching footsteps – at the last second a cold centipede of fear scurried up my neck, but he was already upon us.

I didn’t do it.”

I startled so violently at the low, hissing words spoken just behind me that I bumped into Tish a second time, pitching us forward into the truck; drunk and frightened, I couldn’t get my bearings and hampered Tish’s efforts to stand upright. She untangled our limbs and sprang to her feet to confront the man looming near the open truck door and blocking all escape routes.

“Then who did?!” she cried.

I rolled to an elbow, peering up at the surreal scene – her back to me, Tish’s hair created a nimbus around her head, curls highlighted in the bluish glow of the nearby streetlamp. Though the man was backlit by the same light source his sharp, wolflike features were visible; he and my sister stood not two feet apart. Tish’s arms were tensed as though her next move included physical assault. My gut twisted. I had to help her and so I stood, steadying my legs with all the effort I possessed. The man, who could only be Derrick Yancy, did not spare me a glance, focusing solely on Tish; he spoke with quiet vehemence. “There are things you don’t know.”

I sensed curiosity well within my sister, diluting her fury. She eased closer to him. We’d unwittingly stumbled upon the perfect opportunity for questions; this time her voice emerged softly. “What don’t I know, Derrick? Tell me.”

Instead of answering, his eyes detoured south on her body, coming to rest near her navel. He blinked in slow motion; he seemed confused, as though ensnared in a dream. I thought I’d heard wrong as he muttered, “I won’t tell him about the child, I promise.”

Tish froze. “What?” she gasped.

At the same instant the distant communication turned my bones to tuning forks – as though I knew what Derrick meant. He was responding to the same far-off message, I was certain, and a sudden connection was forged. I edged closer, driven by instinct. “Won’t tell who about the child?”

Tish swallowed her shock and implored, “Who set fire to our barn? Who ordered it?”

Derrick’s head wagged slowly side to side; I didn’t think he was drunk but he was behaving similarly, unsure which question to answer first. At last his gaze sought and held Tish; he repeated, “I didn’t do it. I couldn’t.” And then, like the cherry atop this whole surreal exchange, he whispered, “I love you, for fuck’s sake.”

“Tish is your wife, isn’t she?” I pressed; my beer buzz had vanished in the intensity of the moment. Tell me the truth, I thought, willing this plea into Derrick’s mind. He was on the verge of revelation. “That’s why you love her, isn’t it?”

“I have always loved Patricia,” he whispered haltingly, eyes fixed somewhere beyond our shoulders; I wasn’t sure exactly what he was seeing, I only knew it was not the dark parking lot of The Spoke. “Even when she…did not return my affections. I purchased this land, just for her. But it wasn’t enough.”

Tish and I exchanged a horrified, two-second glance. Somewhere nearby, from within The Spoke, I heard the sound of Garth’s laughing voice and Case’s response, coming closer. Derrick blinked, seeming confused, and Tish clutched his forearm in a two-handed grip, refocusing his attention to her.

“I need to know the truth.” She appeared as serious as I’d ever witnessed her. “Please, tell me the truth. What do you know?”

Derrick’s mouth remained in a dire line as he studied Tish’s face. When he spoke, hardly more than a breath emerged. “He’s dangerous.”

“Who?! Who do you mean?” I wished I was physically strong enough to shake answers from him.

“Is it Turnbull?” Tish was hoarse with fear.

At the name Turnbull, Derrick’s eyes changed as swiftly as a switch being thrown. He blinked, staring wildly around, like he’d been dropped from the sky into this moment. His forehead wrinkled into deep lines of horrified disbelief; he jerked from Tish’s grasp.

“Who’s dangerous? What the fuck don’t we know?!” Tish advanced on him but the connection was severed; Derrick made an abrupt about-face and stalked away, headed for the black SUV at the edge of the parking lot.

“Come on!” I cried breathlessly, and we chased after him.

Tish grabbed for his elbow but Derrick sidestepped. She reached again, this time succeeding, but Derrick stopped short and yanked roughly away, causing her to stumble; it wasn’t his fault that Case exited the back door in time to see it happen.

Before my next breath, Case had a white-knuckled fist clamped around the front of Derrick’s shirt, propelling him backward as he seethed, “I will break every fucking bone in your body.”

“Get your hands off me!” Derrick threw his elbows outward, shrugging violently free; menace curled his mouth and eyebrows as his posture became more threatening.

Ten feet away and with a sinking heart, I thought, Shit.

Muscles bristling with rage, Case stood with shoulders squared, elbows bent, hands loosely curled. Low, almost singsong, he invited, “You want to hit me, Yancy? Hit me. Go for it.”

Tish, out of breath at my side, cried, “No! Case…he didn’t hurt me…”

I grabbed for her arm, scared she was about to spring between them. Tension surged, matching my heartrate.

Derrick’s upper lip curled – he didn’t want to back down but even an idiot could have predicted who would emerge victorious in the event of a physical confrontation. At last he muttered, “I’ll remember you said that, Spicer.”

My spine ached at the threat – what did I know that I could not explain? What did Derrick know?

Case jabbed a hard index finger into the air before Derrick’s chest. “Get the fuck out of here.”

Derrick resumed his stride toward his vehicle, not looking back. And this time, we let him go.

“You were surprised, weren’t you?” Marshall asked for probably the tenth time.

We lay entwined in our bed, the sheet tangled around my thighs. My breasts rested flush on his sternum as Marshall played with a loose curl falling over my shoulder, winding and unwinding it. I made shallow trenches in his chest hair with widespread fingers, both of us too wound up after the evening’s events to settle into sleep. We’d already exhausted the discussion of what had happened with Derrick in the parking lot.

“I had no idea. You are a master at keeping secrets, love.”

His eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned, lifting my left hand to gently kiss my new ring. “It looks perfect there, angel. This is the ring my grandpa gave my grandma when they were first engaged. I picked out the garnets for the jeweler to add so it would be unique to you. And because I cherish the month you were born.”

“I love it so much,” I whispered. He got me every time – he knew, he saw. I traced my fingertips across the bold lines of his dark eyebrows, following a familiar path over his eyes, which closed briefly as I marveled at the charcoal-black sweep of his lashes; my touch drifted along his sharply-angled cheekbones and long nose and then outlined his mouth, ending by pressing my thumbs to his chin. I leaned just close enough to lick his top lip, slow and deliberate, and his eyes kindled, from tender to scorching in less than a second. He grasped my hips, caressing the hollows there with both thumbs. My nipples were as hard as gems, teased by his chest hair. I took his lower lip between my teeth and fire sizzled between my spread legs.

Outside, fresh rain struck the ground and thunder growled in the distance, indicating an
advancing storm which echoed the one in Marshall’s eyes; I imbibed the sight of him as though I would not be allowed to look upon his face for ten lifetimes.

I whispered, “Happy birthday.” Rain took up a steady clattering against the window glass. “The first of many to come.”

His throat bobbed with emotion. He reached for my left hand, linking our fingers, pressing his thumb to my engagement ring. Quiet and intense, he murmured, “I can’t do without you. I need you, Ruthie, more than I’ve ever needed anything in this life.”

He brushed tears from my cheeks and I was swept away by the ardent joy his touch and his words unleashed. He cupped my shoulder blades and I kissed his forehead, smoothed hair from his temple and kissed him there, inhaling his scent; when I lifted my face to see his eyes, my heart jolted all over again.

I whispered, “I have another present for you.”

“You are all the present I could ever need.”

“It’s right down here.” My fingers trembled as I commandeered his hand.

Marshall exhaled in a passionate rush, caressing deeply. “Can I open it right now?” His voice was so husky my knees would have collapsed had I been standing. He rolled us to the side, drawing my thigh over his hip. “You don’t know how beautiful you are.” He studied me as though there might be a test later, one his life depended upon. “Ruthann. No one has ever looked at me the way you do.”

“Marshall…I need you…”

He rolled me beneath him, fulfilling my breathless request, kissing me in a way that made all of space and time seem to twist inward on itself, as though something beyond us held its breath as our bodies joined. Later in life I was to wonder – had the bitter knowledge, sharper than any blade, already sliced through a part of my consciousness, making itself quietly known on the eve of Marshall’s twenty-eighth birthday, the very night he’d proposed? Had the threat of our separation lurked at the back of my mind, in a way I could only understand looking back?

Had I known, then, what was to come?

Could I have prevented it?

It was a question that, now, I would die to answer.

Excerpt, Return to Yesterday

Chapter Three
Jalesville, MT
March, 2014

“They should be here any minute,” I told Al, setting aside my pen. A small but potent rush of anticipation momentarily overrode my otherwise low mood; an hour ago Camille had texted they were ninety miles east of Jalesville. “The whole family is coming. The kids are on spring break.”

“I’d also allege your sister knows you need her,” Al responded from his desk, pausing in his work to study me over the top of his bifocals, a pair he’d only just acquired. A recent dusting of late-winter snow bleached the outside light filtering through our front windows, a cloudy-bright day easing now toward late afternoon. Quiet music on the local radio station and the faint ticking of the old wall clock were the only other sounds in the small space we shared.

Since arriving home from Robbie Benson’s funeral in Chicago I’d returned to work at Spicer and Howe, Attorneys at Law. The daily familiarity of working with Al Howe, of mundane paperwork and the smell of law books and ink and old carpet, soothed my nerves like a sort of balm. Al had hired a new part-time receptionist, one of the Nelson family’s daughters, and her cheerful chatter allowed me the ability to lay eyes upon the desk where Ruthann had worked, without falling to shattered bits.

Case kept our music shop open, located a few doors down from the law office; he continued to give guitar lessons and even occasionally played at The Spoke, sometimes with Garth’s accompaniment. We ate dinner at Clark’s every Friday, the entire Rawley family reliably in attendance, all of us working hard to contend with the dual storm clouds hovering on our collective horizon – that of Marsh and Ruthie’s continued failure to return, and the Yancys’ lawsuit, currently pending. Our first appearance as defendants before a judge was scheduled for next Wednesday, March nineteenth, a meeting I dreaded. Despite our adherence to as regular a routine as possible, the formidable tension holding all of us in a state of inertia was at times unbearable.

At each work day’s end I hurried home to Case, who usually arrived first and had supper waiting in our cramped doublewide; after eating, we spent most evenings designing our new cabin. Both of us wanted to say ‘fuck it’ and get the foundation dug and the building process rolling, but we realized that if the Yancys prevailed – as I feared increasingly they would – and were awarded the deed to our acreage, we would lose even more to them. Case kept me sane; Charles Shea Spicer, my husband and love of many lifetimes. We’d been together before this life, we knew – but had not been able (allowed? I often wondered) to find each other in every subsequent life, for reasons beyond either of us. This knowledge, as strange and improbable as it might seem to anyone with a grain of skepticism, only served to increase our awareness of the gift of having found each other in this life.

“You’re right, of course,” I told Al, with a tired smile. I attributed my exhaustion to stress but had found myself unduly drowsy of late; my upper eyelids seemed attached to iron weights by early evening. “I miss Camille so much. I haven’t seen her since last summer.” I didn’t vocalize it, but I recognized my older sister’s need to temporarily escape Landon. Our mother grew more despondent by the day; even Aunt Jilly struggled to rouse her of late. Camille, along with our cousin, Clint, kept me well informed via nightly phone calls.

“You’ll bring the entire family to dinner,” Al said, with gentle insistence. “At least once or twice. Helen Anne and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“They have five kids,” I whispered, trying to keep my smile in place; I didn’t want to relent to the urge to weep, as I did on an escalating basis. I hated being trapped beneath a constant raincloud. And not just rain issued from this particular cloud, but deadly lightning bolts and murderous hail. I sat back and rubbed my temples hard enough to bruise my skin. At least I didn’t have to pretend around Al; he knew the whole story. “Fuck. If we could just have one sign, just one, that they’re all right. What if they’re trapped there, Al?” Desperation rang in my voice. “What if it’s like a fucking one-way ticket to the past?”

“We can’t think like that or we’re as good as defeated,” Al said; beneath everything, I reflected how much I loved him. His kind, paternal presence and even-keel attitude had bolstered me countless times in the past few months.

Unable to rally my spirits, I all but moaned, “We’re defeated anyway! No judge is going to dispute the dates on those homestead claims…”

“Patricia. You must refocus. I know you better than this. You’re not a quitter. Case isn’t a quitter, and neither are any of the Rawleys, from the look of them. Let’s not forecast disaster just yet.”

“But, Al…”

“No buts. Not a one.” His shrewd gaze flickered to something beyond my shoulder; the furrows in his brow relaxed just as the bell above the door tinkled. I turned to see Case entering and a beat of pure, simple gladness stirred my aching heart.

“Hi, baby,” he murmured, skirting the counter and coming straight to my desk; I rose to get my arms around him and burrowed close, inhaling his scent through his soft flannel shirt and thick canvas jacket. Even having just emerged from the chill outdoor air, Case radiated warmth. He was hatless; his hair, as rife with tones of burnished red as an autumn forest, and the tops of his wide shoulders were sifted with melting snowflakes. He’d recently shaved his winter beard and mustache but retained a hint of stubble on jaws and chin. He cupped my elbows and scrutinized my face. “You need more rest than you’re getting, sweetheart.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Al said, rising, crossing the room to shake Case’s hand.

I saw the concern in Case’s eyes, the worry which had not fully dissipated in months, and murmured, “I’m all right, I promise. Just tired.”

“Clark said we should head over as soon as you’re done with work,” Case told me.

“Then Camille just might beat us there,” I said, trying for a little enthusiasm.

The Rawleys’ sprawling two-story house had been crafted with local wood and stone. Despite the numerous times I’d been a guest in their impressive home, its sheer presence never failed to rouse awe, shivers rippling along my spine. The grand, sweeping structure was lit from eaves to foundation as Case parked our truck, the front windows ablaze, bright golden squares to counteract the gloomy, slate-gray evening. Holding hands, Case and I had not walked more than a dozen steps toward the front door before it opened wide, emitting Wy, the youngest Rawley brother, followed by Millie Jo and the twins, Brantley and Henry.

“Auntie Tish!” Millie Jo screeched, running full-bore. She overtook Wy and crashed into my open arms.

I laughed, spinning her in a circle while Case caught the twins, one over each forearm. Wy wrapped me and Millie Jo, by default, in a bear hug, almost taking us to the snowy ground.

“We miss you!” Millie said, her words muffled by my puffy coat. “It took forever to get here!”

“I’ve missed you, too.” I kissed the top of her curly-haired head and Wy released us, stepping back and offering his wide grin. I reached next for my nephews. “You guys are getting so big!”

“Tish!” called another voice, and tears filled my eyes just that fast.

I was at once enfolded in my sister’s embrace. Clad in a wool sweater dress the color of ripe raspberries and furry brown boots, Camille’s scent inundated me; one part floral, one part warm cinnamon, as if Clark had been baking something sweet and her curls retained the fragrance. The softness of her abundant hair brushed my cheek as I clung, imbibing the familiarity of family.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” I murmured, eyes closed.

“Me too,” she whispered, holding fast.

Mathias was right behind Camille, dressed in a heavy wool sweater and jeans; his blue eyes blazed beneath his thick black brows as he grinned, his teeth bright in the midst of his mustache and full beard. “Tish, Case, it’s been too damn long!”

My brother-in-law was just as handsome and full of energy as ever, hugging me and then Case; I thought back to the first time I’d ever met Mathias Carter, years ago at Shore Leave during the busy Christmas season. Since that first winter, when he and my sister had fallen hard in love, they’d made a happy, simple life in Landon; they resided in a centuries-old cabin on part of the Carters’ massive lakeshore acreage along Flickertail, a home restored with tender care and devotion by Mathias and his father and now bursting at the seams with the addition of five children.

Clark appeared in the open door, holding a darling chubby bundle of a baby boy. “There’s someone I think you might like to meet!” he called.

The thick, relentless ropes of worry tangling around my heart loosened their grip as we entered the living room, packed to the gills with family. In the old days, before Marshall and Ruthie went missing, it would have been what Clark called a ‘full house,’ each of his sons and their families in attendance: Garth and Becky and their two boys, the youngest of which was only a few months old; Sean and his girlfriend, Jessie; Quinn, Wy, Case’s brother, Gus, and Gus’s girlfriend, Lacy. In addition to the usual crowd and counting Case and me, Mathias, Camille, and their five rounded us out to an even twenty for dinner. Everyone called greetings; the air was scented with the warm, rich crackle of broasted chicken, garlic biscuits, and creamy au-gratin potatoes.

I will not think about Marsh and Ruthie for at least five minutes.

But it was a hopeless, worthless effort.

Everywhere I turned, I saw their shadows; the essence of them mocked my every sense. I pictured where they would be sitting just now, exactly how they would look and sound – Marsh would be wearing one of his old flannel shirts, untucked over faded jeans, his longish hair a little messy, as if Ruthie had buried her fingers in it prior to their arrival; his socks would be dirty and wouldn’t match. My little sister, whose angelically beautiful face was so deeply imprinted in my memory it was akin to a scar, would be wearing a big, soft sweater over her jeans and fuzzy wool socks, with her dark brown curls loose and swishing past her shoulder blades. She would be wearing gold hoop earrings and her diamond-and-garnet engagement ring.

She and Marshall would be unable to keep their gazes from each other, let alone their hands; they would be on the couch and Marsh would have an arm around her waist, teasing her, tucking her curls aside to whisper something in her ear while she flushed and giggled and pretended to struggle away. Periodically they would steal a quick kiss. They were like two teenagers with their constant, obnoxious flirting and I would have given almost anything to have them here right now; the desire centered behind my breastbone like growing flames, screaming-hot and unimaginably painful.

“Can I hold the baby?” I whispered to Clark.

“Of course.” Clark kissed my cheek as he passed James Boyd Carter into my arms. My newest nephew had been born last Halloween and I smiled even as tears leaked from my eyes; my emotions were in constant danger of wreckage these days. The baby’s hair was two inches long and stuck straight up, as though he’d been badly startled or was experiencing waves of static electricity, eyes round with wonder as he regarded this new stranger holding him; his irises were as blue as stars, just like Mathias’s.

“I’ve tried combing it down, but it doesn’t stay.” Camille smoothed two fingertips over her baby’s head; the love on her face renewed the twinge in my heart. “Diana said Mathias’s hair was just the same when he was little.”

“He’s so loud, Auntie Tish, you should hear him at night,” Millie Jo informed, hovering all-importantly at my elbow; I found myself remembering the night she was born, Valentine’s Day over a decade ago now. Sweet, observant Millie Jo resembled Camille to a marked degree with her lustrous hair and the gold-tinted hazel eyes so common to the women in our family. I wouldn’t hurry to mention it but I could detect hints of her father, Noah Utley, in Millie’s face; the shape of her mouth, the tiny cleft in her chin and her fair complexion, nothing like the olive-toned tan of Camille’s. It seemed as though a century had passed since I’d last seen Noah, let alone my family in Landon.

Camille poked her older daughter’s ribs. “You weren’t exactly a quiet baby yourself, Miss Millie.” She sighed, soft as a bird’s wing. “But it does seem like yesterday you were this small.”

“Yeah, James has got a set of pipes all right,” Mathias said, reaching to curl his fingertip under his son’s plump, silken chin, making the baby gurgle and smile; Mathias grinned in response, his whole face lighting with joy. I’d never met anyone who had longed to be a father more than Mathias; he and Camille proved a perfect match in that regard, and all others as far as I could tell. Their twins were roughhousing with Wy and Sean while four-year-old Lorie sat primly near Becky on the couch, holding baby Ian with complete ease; I reasoned that my little niece probably had ten times more experience handling infants than me.

Dinner was a loud, messy affair; every topic of conversation was purposely kept light and the overall mood was jovial, if slightly forced. There were a hundred things needing discussing but an unspoken and temporary hold was placed on those as we ate; or, I amended, while everyone else ate and I pushed chicken and potatoes around my plate. Clark’s cooking was second to none but my stomach felt strange; hard edges seemed to poke outward deep inside my gut, unfurling like small metal flowers, even though I’d hardly touched food all day. I didn’t fail to notice Case’s concern and was washed in immediate guilt; as though he needed another reason to worry.

I rested my hand on his thigh, beneath the table, and leaned close. “I’m all right, honey, I’m just not hungry.”

“You haven’t eaten enough to keep a bird alive in days,” my husband responded, refusing to be pacified.

A weak smile fluttered across my mouth. “You sound like Gran.”

Case had heard me reference my great-grandmother’s wisdom on numerus occasions and was as well-acquainted as it’s possible to be with a woman who’d passed away many years ago. He murmured, “I can only just imagine what she would have to say about you not eating or sleeping.”

Tenderness for him flooded my body, powerful enough it felt like a small blow to the bridge of the nose. His beautiful auburn hair shone like copper treasure in the lantern-style lighting; his irises were the brown of nutmeg beneath red-gold lashes, resting on me with a mix of exasperation and love. His chin and jawline had taken on a familiar stubborn set but his cheekbones seemed more prominent than usual; the skin beneath his eyes was smudged by restless shadows.

“We’ll get to bed early tonight, for more than one reason,” I whispered, squeezing his thigh, gratified to observe good humor replace some of the concern in his expression.
“Yes, so you can sleep while I hold you close,” he murmured, leaning to place a gentle kiss on my temple.

But I should have known better; it was approaching dawn by the time we found our way to bed.

“Mom is in terrible shape, Tish.” Much later that evening, seated near me on the tattered old couch in my living room with both feet tucked under her and an afghan drawn over her lap, Camille’s face was set in somber lines. The only light came from a small table lamp and the fixture above the stove, lending the trailer a quiet intimacy. “Blythe is so worried. Not even Aunt Jilly can get through to her. She can hardly manage to get to the cafe on any given day, not even for breakfast coffee. Grandma and Aunt Ellen have been keeping watch but nothing helps.”

“How are the boys?” I asked, referring to my younger half-brothers, Matthew and Nathaniel. It hurt like hell to hear about Mom and I was more grateful than ever for the presence of my stepdad, Blythe Tilson, whose love for my mother was a force to be reckoned with.

“They help as best they can. I’m so glad they have Bly. He’s such a patient dad. He and Uncle Justin take them fishing, along with Rae and Riley and Zoe, so Aunt Jilly can be with Mom. But I don’t know how much good it does.”

My sister and Mathias had returned home with Case and me after dinner; by necessity, the baby accompanied them while Millie Jo, Brantley, Henry, and Lorie stayed behind at Clark’s, excited at the prospect of playing video games and eating junk food with Wy, Sean, and Quinn; meanwhile little James was snuggled on his belly in the center of our bed, sleeping while the four of us gathered in the living room.

Mathias sat on a chair adjacent to Camille, forearms on thighs, his powerful shoulders curved forward. It was strange to observe him in a moment of motionlessness; this alone conveyed concern as much as his grim expression, mouth solemn and brows drawn inward. He cupped Camille’s bent knee, making a slow circle with one long thumb as he said, “Joelle is struggling to believe Ruthie and Marshall are actually where we claim they are. She trusts us, it’s not that. She’s just having trouble accepting the truth.”

“Just like Dad,” I murmured. “We told him last month when we were in Chicago but he doesn’t believe it.” I looked upward, seeing the expression on my father’s face as I’d last witnessed it, leaving him behind at the airport. “At least he recognizes that something is seriously wrong with Franklin Yancy.”

“Tell us again what happened,” Camille requested. “It’s always better to hear in person.”

I looked at Case, the two of us exchanging several dozen silent sentences in a matter of seconds. He took my right hand, closest to him, and enfolded it within his left, lacing our fingers, offering wordless support and allowing me the floor. I released a tense breath before replying; the thought of the Yancys left my chest cavity hollow with fear. “We were at Robbie’s funeral. Oh God, Milla, it was so horrible. You guys know we think Robbie was killed. He allegedly overdosed, but I know that’s a goddamn lie. What we haven’t figured out is why he was killed. What did Robbie know? More specifically, what did he know about Franklin?”

“But you saw Franklin Yancy,” Camille interjected. “He actually does exist.”

Last summer, the night before he’d returned to Chicago, my former college classmate Robbie Benson had received an anonymous text reading Franklin doesn’t exist. He’d shared the information with Case, Marshall, Ruthann and me late in the evening on his final night here in Jalesville. It was, I suddenly realized, the last time I’d seen ever Robbie, and I shrugged off an uneasy twinge. My gaze loitered on the screen door as if expecting his ghost to appear on the far side of the meshing, his formerly bronzed skin leached of all color, mutely observing with eyes gone cold and empty; Robbie had been so very alive, storming through his days with all the confidence afforded by attractiveness and status and his parents’ wealth. I still had trouble reconciling my vivid memories of him with the truth that he was never coming back. I would never see him again. A miserable whimper hung itself at the back of my throat and I swallowed it whole, with effort, refocusing on Camille.

“It was the strangest thing.” I paused. Case squeezed my hand and I found the courage to speak above a whisper. “Case and I left the chapel because I felt so ill and Derrick followed us. No matter what I’ve thought about Derrick in the past, I truly believe he was attempting to warn us. He told us we should go and not a minute later his brother came striding down the sidewalk through the snow. And he knew us, Milla. Franklin, I mean. He spoke to us like he’d met us before that moment. He kept calling me Patricia.” It was my real name, but no one had addressed me by using it since my dad’s mother, the grandma I’d been named for, passed away.

“We’d thought that maybe Derrick could move through time, like Marsh and Ruthie, but now we’re not so sure,” Case said quietly. I held his hand like a towrope keeping my head centimeters above floodwater, icy depths that wished me dead; forever gone, no longer able to speculate about time travel or investigate powerful Chicago families with more money and influence than I could ever conceive.

Camille’s intense gaze moved between Case and me. “You think Franklin is the time traveler. That he’s the danger Derrick mentioned at Marshall’s birthday party, not Ron Turnbull.” I kept my sister well informed. She had not been at that particular celebration, which we’d held for Marsh last fall at The Spoke, but she knew about the events of the evening. I could almost see the glowing sparks created by her spinning thoughts. “You know what this means. It means return is possible! It means Ruthann and Marshall can come home, here, where they belong.” Tears created a glossy sheen in her eyes, immediately mirrored in mine.

“Where is Franklin now? Have you seen him since? What about Derrick?” Mathias asked, bracketing the nape of Camille’s neck, caressing her with gentle motions.

“Derrick hasn’t returned to Jalesville and Jackson hasn’t seen Franklin in Chicago,” Case answered. “He’s keeping tabs on the Yancys and Turnbulls, both.” As were we, in a slightly different fashion; in addition to Mutt and Tiny and our newest dog, a lean, alert-eyed shepherd mix named Ringer, Case kept his father’s double-barrel shotgun positioned near our bed. We assumed the worst when it came to Ron Turnbull and the Yancys, and were taking no chances.

“Dad’s made discreet efforts to contact Franklin,” I added. “But he’s out of the country, apparently.”

“So when he travels ‘out of the country,’ he’s really traveling to another century altogether?” Mathias asked.

I nodded. “It’s the most plausible theory we have to work with. We know time travel is possible, we know Ruthie and Marsh are capable. For whatever reason, they’re both able to move through the…” I faltered, struggling to remember the way Ruthie described the terrible sensation. She had hated to talk about it; I could hardly bear to recall the sight of her fading before my eyes like a scene from a science fiction movie, her long hair and familiar face and limbs growing as transparent as sunbeams. Somehow the barriers, the locks and dams holding most people fixed in a certain time, did not have power over or simply did not apply to Ruthann and Marshall. Or, perhaps, Franklin Yancy.

“The boundaries of time,” Case finished for me. His voice was husky with both concern and the late hour. I was so tired my body felt sunk in tar but I refused to relent to sleep.

“But whereas Ruthie and Marsh seemed to have no control over it, Franklin does. If what we believe is true and he can return here from the past, it suggests he has some ability to manage the travel. With Ruthie, it was always because a physical object from the past…pulled at her.” A bulging lump in my throat obliterated further words.

Camille grasped my free hand between both of hers, and the warmth of her touch combined with my husband’s staved off the devastating need to weep. She appeared to be attempting to peer into my brain, even though we were fairly adept at reading each other’s thoughts. Pain and desperation tangled together in her voice as she whispered, “Do you think Marsh found her? What if he went too far back, or not far enough?”

“I believe he found her.” It took effort but I mustered my conviction. “I truly believe that. I’ve dreamed about them. They were sitting together in the sunshine. I don’t know when exactly, but long before we were born. I consider it a sign.”

“Do you think she’s seen Malcolm?” The hope in Camille’s voice was apparent even in a whisper.

“Oh God, I hope so. I hope she’s found all of them, the Spicers and the Rawleys.”

“She seems so close, Tish, almost like we could hear her if we really concentrated. I feel it more strongly than ever now that we’re here in Montana.”

My spine twitched at her words; I felt the same.

“We think we have to pull them back, somehow,” Case said, returning to an earlier discussion. “Marshall’s presence was able to bring Ruthie back that night in January, right here in our trailer. He was able to stop her from completely disappearing. It’s not much to go on, but Tish and I believe there’s some way to pull them back here, to us. To the place they belong. And it’s up to us to do it.”

“Marshall saved her that night,” I whispered, recalling Ruthie’s twenty-third birthday, two months and about a hundred lifetimes ago. “Marsh was almost feral, shouting for her, hollering her name, and somehow his will was enough to stall the effects of the force field dragging at her. I believe if he’d been there that day in the snowstorm, when she disappeared from her car, that his presence would have kept her stable in time.”

“Then what’s to prevent them from being stuck in the past?” Camille asked. This was a no-holds-barred conversation and we all knew it. Nothing was to be gained by avoidance. “If Marshall is with Ruthie now, I mean. What if…they’re meant to stay there?”

I could not accept this as truth. “No. No, we can’t think like that. Al and I have already combed through every archive and record book available in the specials collections section at the library. There’s nothing to go on, no mention of them through all the decades until now. They didn’t stay in the nineteenth century, I know it.” My conviction blazed like acid in my veins, every bit as physically painful. It was blind faith and I hated being reduced to it, but what was the alternative? Allow the past to swallow my little sister and Marshall? Give up without even trying?

“That brings us to another subject.” Case gently released my hand and made a steeple of his fingertips, wishing he did not have to relay this further devastating news.

“The homestead claims,” Mathias understood, sitting straighter. “Clark told us some.”

Case nodded agreement and explained, “Thomas Yancy was killed on August thirteenth, 1882, as Derrick revealed in court back in February. He produced an obituary posted in a Chicago newspaper from that particular week. Cause of death is noted as a gunshot wound. Derrick has no way to prove who pulled the trigger that day but he alleged it was Cole Spicer, a longtime enemy of his ancestor’s. To make matters even more complicated, the homestead documents my father and Clark possessed show dates of purchase near the end of August, 1882. After Thomas Yancy’s death, but somehow signed and dated by him. The deed Derrick holds, one he’d been searching for since he arrived in Jalesville, shows Thomas Yancy as the primary landowner, with no record of having sold the acreages in his lifetime. It’s a goddamn mess and a half.”

Case squared his shoulders in an unconscious gesture of defensiveness before continuing. “I will be the first to admit that my ancestors don’t have a solid track record in the character department. The ones I knew were slackers at their best and mean drunks who beat their kids at their worst, so who’s to say my great-something grandfather didn’t kill Thomas Yancy? I may never know the truth. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over and let the Yancys take our land in this century. No way in hell.”

“If Cole Spicer killed him, he had a damn good reason,” Mathias said, and I loved him for his confidence in my husband’s family; in that moment, a good word from Mathias meant more than anything I could have spoken, which Case would surely interpret as obligatory on my part, as his wife.

I hated how Case’s troubled upbringing loomed now and again to broadside his sense of self, to make him question his heritage. Case’s father, Owen Spicer, was lucky he’d never met me; I would have given the son of a bitch of piece of my mind. Would have smashed him upside the head for hurting Case in any way, shape, or form; Case hadn’t always been the tough, physically-imposing man he was today. Long ago he’d been a despairing little boy who’d lost his beloved mother and was forced into the role of surrogate father to his younger brother, Gus. Just the thought of Case as a small, vulnerable child at the mercy of a cruel father made both my heart and gut clench as if stabbed. The metal flowers expanded yet again, rigid petals digging into my internal flesh.

I issued a sharp intake of breath, bile ricocheting up my esophagus with the suddenness of a geyser. Covering my mouth with one hand I fled for the bathroom, hearing everyone exclaim at my abrupt departure. Case was there in an instant, kneeling to hold my hair as I vomited, gripping the toilet seat with both hands; at the corner of my vision I could see Camille framed in the open doorway. It took me a second to realize the baby I heard wailing in the background was hers and not the one she was talking about…

“Tish, why didn’t you tell me?” she implored, advancing into the bathroom. “I suppose I could have guessed, you’ve been so pale and tired, but I thought it was due to all this stress…”

Case’s head jerked toward my sister.

Hanging limp over a porcelain bowl, I struggled to put two and two together.

Mathias appeared next, cuddling little James, all five of us crowded into a space barely large enough for one. I supposed it was only to be expected; in my family, there was never much for privacy. We kept nothing from each other.

Mathias pressed a soft kiss to his son’s forehead and murmured, “Sounds like you’re getting another cousin pretty soon here, buddy.”

Excerpt, Winter at the White Oaks Lodge

He was a few years older than me, with the kind of build you’d expect on maybe a construction worker or a firefighter, one who handled large, heavy things on a regular basis. His flannel shirt was a blue-on-black check, rolled back at the sleeves so that the cords of muscle along his forearms were clearly displayed, along with a lot of dark hair. The deep navy blue of his shirt almost exactly matched his irises. He had thick black hair and what was probably a good day’s worth of scruff on his jaws and he was, as Grandma would say, as handsome as the devil. There was a dimple in his right cheek.

I felt shivery-hot, full-body flushed, all the damn way to my toes.

“Thanks,” he murmured. Our gazes held and my stupid, stupid heart splattered against my ribs. I shrugged in a heroic attempt to convey disdain and his grin only deepened, along with his dimple.

Oh, holy Jesus. Don’t even think about it, Camille.

Unable to draw a full breath I muttered, “Excuse me,” and escaped to the bar, ashamed for such a ridiculous reaction to a complete stranger. Because Aunt Ellen already had her hands full with drink orders I ducked behind the bar counter and collected two pitchers, tilting one after the other beneath the beer tap. When I turned around, Tish was elbowed up to the bar wearing the green elf hat.

“You foamed those perfect,” she said, nodding at the pitchers, each with a perfect inch and a half of froth at the top.

“Where did you guys get that dumb hat?” I asked, and then rolled my eyes as the jukebox kicked in with Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas.”

“How many times do we have to hear this song this week?” I groaned.

“Like we’re dreaming of a white Christmas around here,” Tish joked.

“Are those for us?” And there he was again, obviously back from the bathroom, leaning against the bar beside my sister and pinning me with that same grin. He indicated my full hands with a tilt of his head.

“Hey,” Tish said cheerily, as though they were longtime buddies, so totally Tish. She asked him, “Are you dreaming of a white Christmas?”

“Experiencing one,” he corrected, dark eyebrows lifting as he regarded her cockeyed hat, with amusement. Instead of commenting on it, he said, “I just played the song, though. I love this one. Isn’t it great? God, I love Christmas.”

“This is our favorite, isn’t it?” Tish asked me, giggling.

I almost smiled at that. I bit the insides of my cheeks.

“So, I’ll help you carry those if you tell me your name,” he offered, dimple appearing.

My heart panged, the sound of a hammer striking an anvil. Breathing became an effort. Oh dear God, you are gorgeous, I told him without speaking; our gazes intertwined again, perhaps for no more than a few seconds, but it was enough for my blood to sizzle beneath the surface of my skin; I swore I could observe the same thing happening within him. I reminded myself, taking no prisoners, what had happened the last time I’d been so stupid about a guy, and it was with true determination that I vowed, And I will not notice that from this moment forth. In fact, I plan to steer clear of your path altogether.

“I got it,” I said, not quite brusquely but not far from it, and carried both pitchers to the table, where they were received with extreme gratitude. I collected a tray of empty glasses and on the return trip didn’t even make eye contact with him, attempting to appear steely and unapproachable.

It’s for the best, I insisted. But then…

“So, who is that?” Here I was casing Tish not fifteen seconds later, back at the bar. I was such a hypocrite.

“Who, Mathias?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at Eddie’s table.

“Shh!” I hissed, refusing to look that direction.

Tish whipped around to roll her eyes at me.

I persisted, “Who is he? I’ve never seen him before.”

Tish followed me and claimed a stool at the counter. It was just as busy in here as it was in the bar, the tables all crammed full. Aunt Jilly was leaning one hip against the corner booth, where Justin, Clint, and Rae were all seated, along with Dodge; Rae was perched on her grandpa’s lap, brown eyes wide and full of wonder as she observed the noisy crowd.

Tish said, “He just moved back from the Cities. His name is Mathias.” I nodded at this news, repeating his name in my mind. Mathias. It sounded old-fashioned. My sister added, “Mathias Carter. Like, from White Oaks.”

“Wait, Bull’s son? No kidding?” My heart hammered anew, this time with outright surprise. “I’ve heard all about him from his sisters. I thought his name was Matty.” I was babbling and felt Tish angling me a speculative look. I snapped my mouth closed.

“Camille, order’s up!” Rich called, and I looked over to see the entire window full of onion ring baskets.

“I’ll help,” Tish offered, even though she wasn’t technically on shift this evening. She took a second to band her curly hair into a ponytail and then together we carted the food out to the ice fishermen.

And as much as I tried to pretend I didn’t notice Mathias Carter, it was a flat-out lie.

So here was Tina, Glenna, and Elaine’s baby brother, the workaholic and dater of poodle-like women, visiting from Minneapolis. I’d heard so much in the last two years that I felt like I already knew him. He sat with one elbow curled over the back of his chair, tipping it onto two legs as he listened to one of the other guys, but as I deposited the food and the ketchup and double-checked their beer pitchers, purposely keeping away from his side of the table, he looked right over at me. I refused to return his gaze.

“Another pitcher?” I asked Eddie, who was always the unofficial leader.

“Yes, ma’am!”

Thirty minutes later Shore Leave had mellowed to its usual crowd. I hid out like a coward, avoiding the bar, soliciting Tish to cash out their tickets for me. Tish was willing to help and thankfully didn’t question my motives; she was currently holed up in a booth with Clint and Liam, playing poker with a pile of individually-wrapped dinner mints. Dodge and Jake had joined the ice fishermen, most of them now sipping coffee and chatting. Mathias Carter was still in the exact same spot at Eddie’s table – he hadn’t ventured out of the bar to use the bathroom, I’d noticed. I pretended that I was not completely aware of his exact location.

Grandma was wiping down the counter in the dining room while Aunt Jilly rolled silverware at table three; Justin had taken Rae home to bed. I was just moving to help with the never-ending task when Mom came from outside, the bell above the door tinkling in her wake. Her golden hair hung loose over her shoulders. She was wearing her warmest sweater, a deep green one that matched her eyes, a gray wool scarf that I knew was Blythe’s, gray leggings and big furry boots, carrying Millie Jo, who was bundled in her snowsuit.

“Millie missed you,” Mom explained.

“Hi, baby,” I said to my daughter, her little round face peering out from behind the furry rim of her hood. I collected her into my arms, lowering her hood, peppering her cheeks with kisses.

Blythe came from the kitchen at the sound of Mom’s voice. He said, “C’mere, sweetheart, you look cold,” and wrapped Mom into his embrace, where she snuggled close.

“Aw, I was hoping I’d see Millie before I left,” Jake said, from behind me. But when I turned around I had eyes only for Mathias, who was draping a scarf around his neck as he walked in a group with Dodge, Eddie, and Jim Olson. All of the men were clad in their winter outer gear, clearly preparing to leave; Mathias tugged a gray wool hat over his coal-black hair and our eyes met.

Before I could stop it, I thought, Please don’t go. I haven’t even talked to you yet.

Jake reached me and patted Millie’s back. “Hey there, Millie Jo.”

“Say hi to Jake,” I prompted my daughter, dragging my gaze from Mathias. I figured he would walk right past but to my stun he came right over, abruptly re-centering all of my focus, like a magnifying glass would the light.

“What a sweetheart you are,” Mathias said to Millie Jo, his dimple appearing as he grinned; the joyful expression seemed to come naturally to him. With the ease of someone accustomed to little kids he took her hand into the tips of his fingers and gently bounced it, seeking my gaze, which was already fastened upon him. He guessed, “Your little sister?”

“Her daughter,” Jake corrected, before I could reply. Irritation prickled through me that he would answer for me that way.

Oh, Mathias said, without sound, dark eyebrows lifting. He carefully removed all traces of surprise from his face; I watched it happen. Then he added, “Well, she’s adorable.” He addressed Millie, asking, “What’s your name, little one?”

“Millie Jo!” she answered, giving him her biggest crinkly-eyed smile, practically flirting. In the next instant she spied Tish and squirreled down from my arms, running to tug on Tish’s sweater, begging to be lifted up.

“And what’s yours? You still haven’t told me,” Mathias said next, his eyes holding mine.

I damned my heart for thrusting so fiercely, beset by a sudden, powerful urge to touch his face. He was probably about five inches taller than me, medium-height, and I could see his resemblance to Bull, the black hair and incredibly powerful shoulders. But his eyes were purely Diana’s, the sort of intense dark blue you see in primary-color blocks. For an odd and overwhelming moment, I forgot my name. At last I all but stuttered, “Camille.”

“I should have introduced you guys, I’m sorry,” Jake was apologizing. “Milla, this is Mathias Carter. He graduated three years before us.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, and my voice was thin and reedy. Determined not to continue sounding like a moron, I asked, “You’ve been living in the Cities?”

“Wait, you’re Camille?” Mathias asked, not answering my question. “Camille who’s been working at White Oaks?”

“Yes, I’ve been helping out in the bar—” I started to say, but Mom interrupted, however inadvertently, coming over and giving Mathias a fond hug.

“Welcome home,” she told him. “Your mother is so relieved that you’re back in Landon, I can’t even tell you.”

Mathias grinned gamely at her words. His cheeks were flushed and his scarf just slightly askew; a few dark curls had escaped the back edge of his wool hat. I swallowed and tried to pretend I didn’t feel too warm with him so near. I could not pull my foolish gaze from his face.

“I’m home for good now,” he explained to Mom, but his eyes were back on mine. “Spent enough time in the city.”

Mom commandeered Jake’s elbow, tugging him away as she explained, “Blythe had a question for you…”

The noisy bustle of everyone leaving jostled me closer to Mathias.

“Your family was really worried you’d never come home,” I said, almost inanely. He had to be experiencing the strange, wordless communication happening between us; I was not just imagining it. We seemed safely lodged in a small bubble of intimacy, even here in the noisy café.

“I know they were,” he acknowledged, with such tender affection that my belly went light and airy as dandelion seed. “It was time to come back. I lived in Minneapolis for over four years. Three and a half years too many, if you want to know the truth.”

“Are you living in the homesteader’s cabin again?”

Wry amusement lifted one corner of his lips at this question and my eyes detoured to his mouth; he had what Grandma called a cupid’s bow on his top lip, close enough that I caught the faint scent of beer on his breath. Rather than making me want to draw away, it only served to increase my instinct to lean closer to him.

“Nah, in the summer is when I used to do that.” His eyes crinkled just a little at the corners as he studied my face as though searching for answers to questions only he knew. “But I love that old cabin, always have. The thing is, Dad has been telling me all about this girl who was interested in the Carter family history. You, I mean. See, I used to—”

Dodge wrapped a big hand around Mathias’s shoulder in that instant and said with a good-natured roar, “Boy, you tell that goddamn Bull he owes me money from last August!”

“I will, Dodge, and you know what he’ll say,” Mathias replied, leaning a shoulder into Dodge for emphasis. “He’ll say that you owe him from that one poker game in ’76 or whatever. Shit, I can’t keep track.”

“Well, we’re glad you’re home, ain’t we?” Dodge said, winking as if including me in this pronouncement. And all I could think was, Yes. Yes, I am glad.

“I’m so happy to be back, you don’t even know,” Mathias said in response, his dimple appearing again, making my heart hitch even worse. “City life is not for this boy. Took me a while to figure that out, but give me the northwoods every time.”

“Mathias, you coming?” Jake asked. Even without looking his way, I could tell Jake was bristling with irritation.

“That’s right, I need a ride. Thanks, McCall,” Mathias said. “Drank more than I intended, but it’s a night of celebration, right guys? We’re out at eight tomorrow, Dodge. Dad and Sam are coming, too.”

“Yessir,” Dodge agreed. “Bright and early! We’ll stop in for coffee first, Camille.”

I said, “It wouldn’t be a normal Friday morning if you didn’t.”

Jake said, “See you soon, Milla,” but I could hardly even look at him.

Mathias put one hand on my left elbow for just a fraction of a second before he tugged on a woolen glove and though it seemed like a polite gesture more than anything, heat flared along my skin from even the brief point of contact. “It was good to meet you, Camille. I’ll see you at White Oaks. And it sounds like tomorrow morning.”

I sank to a chair as they left, watching until Mathias was out the door. He looked back just before leaving, catching me staring after him. Wrapping his scarf more securely, he beamed – already I sensed this was a natural expression for him – and lifted one gloved hand to wave good-bye. And I cursed December for its long nights, already wishing it was morning.

Excerpt, A Notion of Love

I missed him so much it had grown to a physical ache behind my breastbone. This may have been why I’d also consumed three margaritas during our Davis women summer-Saturday ritual just a few hours earlier, all of us joyously celebrating the fact that by next Saturday, Joelle would be here to join the festivities. But now hours had passed since everyone went to bed and I was alone in the dark, out on the dock, with no more convenient distractions available. The night air felt soft as a lover’s hands on my bare shoulders. I raked my fingers through my hair and then crunched up the handful of TicTacs in my mouth. I usually loved sitting down here in the wee hours, letting my thoughts drift a little as I studied the stars. Sometimes I thought about Chris; how could I not, with so many memories of us built into these plank boards, this very air? But tonight I thought only of Justin.


He lingered in my thoughts all the time, though especially after I lay down at night, longing for sleep, hearing my son snoring in the next room. Justin and his way of coming into the café and making me feel whole. A way that I hadn’t felt in over a decade. Just the sight of his eyes – there was something about the darkness of his irises that made him all the more appealing, so full of heat, like embers of a campfire, smoldering for hours. I rubbed my shoulders roughly, arms crossed over my chest. I’d slid off my bra hours earlier, but it didn’t matter since no one was here at this time of night, nothing stirring except the mosquitoes. I was irritated that my nipples were as stiff as peaks of meringue under my t-shirt at just the thought of Justin. And he came to me in my dreams almost every night. I hadn’t wanted a man this way since Chris. Justin was the opposite of my husband in so many ways, but that was fine with me; where Chris had been tender and sweet, Justin was blunt and temperamental, with an enormous chip on his shoulder. But such wide shoulders, such powerful arms. Oh how I wanted those arms around me.

“Damn you,” I whispered to the darkness, uncertain whether I addressed Justin or myself.

I wished desperately that Joelle was already here. Fuck, I missed her and she would be such a distraction when these kinds of thoughts came creeping at my door. I knew Mom had left a pack of smokes on the windowsill and headed over the dock boards to find them, chin tipped down. With real effort I dragged my mind from Justin, and was instead thinking that maybe I should repaint my toenails pretty soon, and when Justin suddenly said, “I knew you’d be out here,” I startled so hard that I almost fell into the lake. My head jerked upward to see him walking down the incline from the café; I watched with my jaw all but hanging open, my heart slamming wildly.

He’s here, he’s here! Oh my God, he’s here!

I knew if I tried to speak I would sound embarrassingly nervous. I crossed my arms over my breasts and, despite the joy that tidal-waved through me at the sight of him, mustered up a glare. He wore a pale t-shirt and his faded jeans, and was barefoot, of all things. He offered no explanation for why he was here at Shore Leave at this time of night, scaring the shit out of people. For a second I wondered if I’d consumed more alcohol than I thought and my intense longing conjured up his image. But he was absolutely really here. And some part of me knew he would be, sooner than later. He reached the dock but said not a word and continued right past me, moving to sit on the glider. I turned slowly, my face burning and my pulse refusing to calm. He leaned back as though to study the silvery, starry view in leisure.

Finally he asked, without looking at me, “You care to join me?”

“What are you doing here? You’re barefoot! Are you drunk?” I demanded, abruptly finding my voice. I moved to stand near him, keeping my arms tightly crossed. I probably appeared angry with my current stance. But I was a little angry, and though I hated to admit it with him so close, completely aroused.

He said quietly, “I’m not drunk, Jilly. I just knew you’d be out here.”

“So?” I asked, and the word emerged sounding more irate than I intended. After he brought me home so rapidly the other night, I was still a little stung. He bent forward and rested his forearms on his thighs, keeping his eyes on mine.

“Because,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically soft, offering no other explanation. Maintaining total politeness, he invited, “You want to sit?”
I sat, keeping inches between us. I heard myself say, “Remember how we all used to skinny dip out here?”

He laughed a little and said, “Of course. Is that an invitation?”

My heart tried to leap out of my chest. Without thinking, I flew to my feet and Justin caught my arm.

“Wait,” he said. “Please, Jilly, don’t go…”

We studied each other through a crackling net of tension. And then Justin stood and with no hesitation took my upper arms in his strong hands. I made a small sound, deep in my throat, and my arms went way up around his neck. In the next moment I was crushed against his powerful chest, being kissed like this was Justin’s last night before shipping out to war in the morning. I moaned again, tilting my head the other way to deepen our hungry kiss, as I’d been dreaming about for weeks now.

No…for much, much longer than that.

Jillian,” he murmured against my mouth, his hands all over me.

I went way up on tiptoe and dug my fingers into his thick black hair, greedy to touch him. He glided his palms beneath my ragged old t-shirt, cupping my breasts, our lips parting with a soft suckling sound as he broke the kiss only to free me from its confines. I yanked off his shirt, curling my fingers through the dark hair on his powerful chest, impatient, dying for more. I went to my knees, following the narrow line of hair on his hard, lean belly, unzipping his fly and tearing down his jeans, taking him into my mouth before I even knew what I was doing. A red-hot haze descended over my vision.

“Jillian,” he gasped, cupping my head with one hand as I took him deep, and then deeper, stroking my tongue over his rigid cock, teasing the firm ridge around the tip, taking him straight down my throat and loving every moan and muted cry that I elicited from him. I would have swallowed every drop, I was that into it, but he shifted suddenly and knelt beside me, gathering me into his arms and tipping his forehead against mine.

“Oh my God, woman, you’re incredible,” he said, sounding like he’d just swum across the lake at sixty miles an hour. He worked quickly, spreading his t-shirt on the dock boards while I watched, moved at this gesture and loving the sight of his broad, muscular back shifting as he made a space there for us. He kicked out of his jeans, then caught me close to his naked body. I was shaking, incredibly wet, as his mouth plundered mine, so urgently and with such skill. I didn’t break the kiss as I shimmied out of my shorts and pulled him over me, lying back on the dock on the t-shirt he’d spread with such care. I curved my thighs around his hips.

He held himself poised over me, looking down into my eyes with an expression I couldn’t quite read. His breath came fast and I was sure that if I pressed my palm to his chest his heart would be generating enough energy to illuminate the whole state, same as mine.

“Justin,” I breathed, reverently, my voice hoarse, and his eyes lit with joy as kissed me again, taking my lower lip between his teeth. I bucked in adamant invitation, feeling his hard length against my thigh, needing him inside. I needed it so much I was a little afraid of myself. I grasped firm hold and he groaned like I’d plunged a knife into him, gliding his hands over my hips and then driving deep. I cried out, trying to muffle the sounds against his neck. He beat into me like nobody’s business, but I needed that, meeting his thrusts and then some. No condom, nothing. But I knew neither of us had made love in so long we were practically insane from the deprivation. It wasn’t like I was getting pregnant, not since I took the pill to keep my periods regular.

“Oh my God, Jilly…” he groaned harsh and hoarse, and would have pulled out if I hadn’t clung with both arms and legs.

“It’s all right,” I murmured minutes later, cradling him against me. He was still deep in my body and still hard, though he’d just come about a milk truck’s worth. “I’m on the pill.”

“Jillian,” he murmured against my cheek, kissing me there before lifting his head, bracing above me on one forearm. He traced the side of my face with the backs of his fingertips, studying me, rapt and wordless. When I reached he understood my intent and whispered faintly, “No…” but I refused to let him shy away.

“Let me,” I implored, and touched his damaged face at long last, caressing every last ridge and deformation.

He shuddered a little and closed his eyes, whispering, “That feels so good.”

“I’ve wanted to touch you for such a long time,” I whispered, almost shy. His eyes opened at these words, as though he thought I might not be serious, and I curved my fingers around his ear, brushing a thumb along the scar that tugged his right eye slightly downward, his beautiful brown eyes that I had known all my life; the damage to his face was heartbreaking, but it did not put me off, had never. It was part of him now. Tears welling, I whispered, “I have, you know.”

He kissed me with so much feeling that a small but intense orgasm ricocheted through me. Justin groaned, low and husky, in response, feeling the way my body tightened around his, grasping my ass firmly in his hands, rolling me to my back as I lifted in urgent welcome. He bit my earlobes, my throat, my lower lip, took my nipples between his teeth. I shivered and melted by turns as he played with me, running his tongue between my breasts, placing suckling kisses all over my skin. Sweat beaded, fine as mist, as I came again, gasping against his neck. And still he didn’t stop.

“Justin, oh God, Justin,” I moaned, panting in between intense rushes of pleasure. He slowed his pace but deepened his thrusts, as though reading my mind.

He grinned, sweat trickling over his temples and down his chest, taking my chin between his teeth. My nails raked against the dock boards, as though seeking sheets to clench in my fists. I clutched his shoulders instead, pressing my face against his collarbones and inhaling his scent, and though I’d never been so close to him, it was utterly familiar to me. I marveled at finding this passion with Justin, whose easy laughter and bright, teasing spirit had diminished so much in the past difficult years that Dodge worried his boy would never regain those things; just as my family feared for me. And in that moment I was struck forcefully by the knowledge that I loved him, was so in love with him that it had surely been building for years, just waiting for the moment of recognition. It burst like firebombs through my mind, sending trailers across my soul.

But I couldn’t tell him, I couldn’t risk that. Not yet.

“I knew…you’d be like this,” I managed to say instead, though my breath was shallow. I twined my fingers into his wild thick hair, caressed his face, his chin scratchy with stubble. The edge of my thumb brushed his mouth and he bit it, before my hands continued their course over his neck, his shoulders. He was as sensual as I’d imagined in my most secretly-guarded thoughts. He claimed my mouth for one last kiss before he came again, flooding me, and I moaned against his lips, stroking his tongue with mine, quivering along my entire length. I noticed that the stars had rotated across the sky, studying them with a sense of stunned wonder; I curved my arms more even snugly around Justin’s satisfied weight, nearly crushed beneath him.

“You’re still so hard,” I observed, my body so hungry for his that I wanted to beg him to stay inside me until morning.

I felt him grin against my neck, like a naughty boy. Experimentally, I shifted, spreading my thighs a little farther, and he muttered, “Jilly, you’re gonna kill me,” but he slanted his head over mine while I dug my fingernails into his tough shoulders, returning kiss for kiss.

“Let me…” I said, nudging with my hips, and he allowed me to roll him to his back. I braced myself on his chest, remembering how my long hair used to swing wildly in this position, like a golden curtain. I felt free, uninhibited now, with no such restraint. His head bowed back as I worked over him, sweat beading be¬tween my breasts and on my temples. The muscles in my thighs quivered, my breath coming in hot bursts, again pretty damn proud of myself for the sounds I caused him to make. I ordered, “Not…yet…” liking him beneath me this way, as though subject to my every desirous demand.

“Holy…shit…” he gasped, clutching my hips, and I fell over him as he came hard, shuddering and muffling a groaning cry against my neck. When I caught my breath, he took my face between his hands and said, “Holy Jesus, woman. I knew you’d be like this, too.”
We were naked and sweating and probably quite mosquito-bitten, down here on the dock, Flickertail lapping the moorings, murmuring like an old friend. A beaming smile overtook my face and I kissed him flush on the lips, whispering, “I won’t be able to walk back to the house unless I find a towel somewhere.”

He laughed out loud, startling a couple of birds from a nearby tree, both of us laughing then and trying to muffle it, as terrified of getting caught as if we were still in high school.

His dark eyes glinted with naughty teasing as he said, “I think I’m keeping things in check right now,” and this provoked more laughter, to the point that our bodies almost uncoupled anyway; I pressed closer, to prevent this. Even in stillness he filled me up, and I loved it; tingling, jolting aftershocks of the force of our lovemaking kept rippling through me.
He ran a hand down my side, coming to rest on my hip. He kissed my cheek, then traced the same spot with the tip of his tongue.

He whispered, “You’re so beautiful and soft, Jilly, oh God, like hot silk.”

I shivered and giggled delightedly, murmuring, “Hot silk, hmm? And do you always stay so hard?”

He laughed, tickling my skin, finally saying, “Fuck, it’s been so long since I’ve made love that I think I’ll be hard until sunrise.”

“Yes,” I whispered, tugging his lips back to mine, kissing him open-mouthed. He made a sound like a low growl, hauling me firmly against his body. I gasped a little and knew I would be sore later today, but I didn’t give a fuck. I craved it. I wanted to feel him inside of me even after he’d gone home and this moment was just a memory.

Much later, probably just minutes from the sun cresting the far shore, Justin cuddled me on his chest and inhaled against my hair. He murmured, “You smell so damn good.”

“Like fresh fried fish?” I murmured, and he laughed, a rumble that vibrated through his chest.

“You know how long I’ve wanted to make love to you?” he asked, and then kissed my hair. “You drive me crazy, Jillian Davis, and you smell fucking amazing.”

“Such a sweet talker,” I added, thrilled at his words, my cheek pressed to his heartbeat as he stroked rhythmically along my spine, like he was playing a harpsichord.

My eyes could barely stay open and the parts of me not glued to him were freezing, but I hated to move before forced. But the womenfolk would head to the café very shortly to get the first pot of coffee perking. What a sight we’d make down here in our nakedness. Gran would probably call out some heartfelt congratulations. Dodge would surely give his son the whipping we’d talked about once, long ago in another life, in Justin’s old truck.

“We better get moving,” I said at long last, a gaping hole of reluctance already beginning to open in my chest.

He kissed my forehead, then lifted my chin and studied me with the same intensity with which he’d made love to me, all night long.

“You’ve got the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen,” he said.

“Thank you, Justin,” I whispered – and why did my voice grow shaky now, as dawn began to tint the day – as if I already knew that he was saying good-bye just as we’d said hello.

Excerpt, The First Law of Love

There he was. I couldn’t suppress the giddy swell of happiness any more than I could jump and snag a couple of stars from the night sky. In a frantic rush, I scraped my things together, stuffing notebooks and manila folders in my briefcase; pencils fell to the floor but I left them. Case was chatting with the Nelson family but appeared ready to leave; he stood near the door, his gray sport coat folded over his forearms.

“Al, I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Great job tonight, Tish!” Al called after me.

There was a jam in the flow of people and I tried not to appear as concerned as I felt, that Case would leave before I reached him. I couldn’t see him through the crowd. A folder slid from my partially-unzipped briefcase and loose paper spread across the beige carpet like an old-fashioned lace fan.

“Dammit,” I muttered, shuffling things in order to attempt to stoop delicately in my heels and skirt to gather up the strewn notes. The briefcase strap slipped from my shoulder and thudded to the floor, spilling additional contents; I felt like crying and hated myself.

“That was some courageous work.” And Case was suddenly beside me, crouching down to help collect the mess.

“You’re here.” I stared foolishly at him, suddenly motionless.

“Can I walk you to your car?” he asked. He grinned at my obvious fluster, his arms full of my notes. Meanwhile my skirt was riding up my thighs. With as much grace as I could manage, I stood, unable to peel my eyes from him as he rose to his full height.

“Of course,” I whispered.

“Here,” he said, amusement coloring his tone. A smile lingered in his eyes, crinkling them at the outer corners. He indicated my briefcase with a tilt of his head and stashed the papers inside. We reached for the zipper at the same moment, hands colliding; the bag bumped my hip and I laughed, taut with heady tension.

“Thank you,” I muttered, face scorching.

Case rolled back the cuffs of his dress shirt as we walked along the hall leading to the foyer, looking more like the cowboy musician I knew with each step, but I liked this. I liked it far more than I could even begin to admit. I loved the way he’d spoken so calmly and yet with such controlled fire, going after Yancy along with me; I wished I was brave enough to tell him so but my tongue was currently tied in a tight knot. I thought about what I had learned tonight, not the least of which that Case was a man of conviction. He was forthright. He stated his opinions with dignity, though I suspected he would be more than willing to take the gloves off, if push came to shove.

I respected that immensely.

And, if I was totally honest, it made me hotter than fucking hell.

At the heavy double doors leading outside, he moved ahead and opened them for me, and I used this as an excuse to look up at him. I found my voice. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” he said easily, as we were immersed in the balm of the summer evening. The sky was crystalline with starshine and I took a moment to inhale the sweetness in the air; I was close enough to Case as we descended the stone steps that I could smell his aftershave, something rich and pleasantly spicy. I fantasized about putting my face against his neck and my breasts against his chest.

The parking lot was emptying of vehicles, taillights flashing as the residents of Jalesville headed for home. I thought of all the people who were worried, worried deep in their bones, that the homesteads where their families had put down roots and carved a life for them generations earlier, were now threatened. How many of these people were driving home tonight thinking about the fact that they may be displaced by this time next year? That they would have no choice but to sell to Capital Overland, in the end.

Case and I reached the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and I paused, watching people climb into their vehicles, hearing the muted murmurs of conversations through open car windows. Had I done anything to help them this evening? Case remained at my side and I had the sense he was watching me from the corner of his eye, even though he was gazing at the parking lot.

“I wish I felt like I’d done some good tonight,” I said, unhooking my jacket at the waist. I was sweaty and my jacket felt too tight so I shrugged out of its confines; beneath it, my sleeveless blouse was limp with sweat.

Case turned to me. “Hey. You were incredible in there, if you don’t mind my saying. Yancy was doing his best to take you out at the knees but you didn’t let him push you around. That’s impressive.”

His words buoyed my stomach and charged through my heart; had I been fishing for a compliment? I curled my jacket around my right forearm. “Well, you were pretty damn impressive yourself. You care, and people sense that.”

He shrugged, looking into the distance, at the outline of the mountains on the western horizon; it was so difficult to tell if my words had any impact upon him at all. At last he said quietly, “I do care. Jalesville is my home. I know it doesn’t mean shit to someone like Yancy, but it’s all I’ve got. It’s all most people around here have. We have to stick this through, together.”

He means himself and the other residents, not you!

Tish, you idiot.

“You’re right,” I whispered. The air grew quiet as cars and trucks vanished down the road, raising a fine, silty dust in their wakes. My heartbeat seemed amplified, as though I had my ears plugged. Case turned his chin back in my direction and tipped it down to look in my eyes. His shoulders, clad in the pale shirt, were wide and strong against the dark sky. He stood with his jacket caught over his wrists, held to his stomach. He was wearing his stone face again. I couldn’t draw a full breath.

He said, “This was a worthwhile evening and you should be proud of yourself.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, the third time I’d thanked him in the past fifteen minutes.

More time crept past as we couldn’t seem to look apart or find an excuse to say good-night. He lifted his right hand from beneath his sport coat and my heart leaped, but he was just fishing the truck keys from his pocket. “I play this evening, so I better get going.”

“Out at the fairgrounds?” I asked, even though I knew damn well that’s where he was headed; I was concocting shallow excuses to keep him a little longer. I wanted him to ask me to come listen to the music, too shy to do so otherwise, even though the fairground was very near Stone Creek.

He nodded.

I was pulling at strings to keep him here. “I’ll have to text Camille and Mathias about this evening. They’ll want to hear about it.”

He smiled then, his gaze moving up and to the left, backward through time. “I wish they lived out here. It seems like yesterday that we all met. That was such an incredible night.”

His eyes flashed again to mine as he said, “For a number of reasons.”

“They miss it out here.”

“Yeah, I miss them, too. I felt so at home with them, the both of them.” He seemed in a hurry then, shifting his jacket over his left shoulder and holding out a polite hand to let me lead the way. I did, feeling as deflated a leftover party balloon. It was only a handful of steps to my car; there, I fought the terrible urge to catch his shirtsleeve.

I filched my keys from my purse and forced a cheerful tone. “Have a good evening, then.”

“Good-night.” I was probably imagining I heard a note of regret in his voice. Yes, clearly I was imagining this, as Case barely paused before continuing toward his truck, several rows over. I stood there in the parking lot watching him go, disappointment crushing my breastbone. But then he paused and turned back – my heart flared with hope.

“See you at the Rawleys’ on Friday?”

“I’ll be there,” I responded.

Three days away, I thought as I drove home to Stone Creek.

Friday is three whole days away.

You’re crazy as a jaybird, girl, I heard Gran say, my dear great-grandmother, who’d died almost ten years ago now.

Crazy as a fucking jaybird, I agreed.

I showered in scalding water, then donned a long pajama t-shirt and curled up on the couch to look over my notes on Capital Overland; I added the bit about the alleged Yancy ancestor who’d been cheated out of land, deciding I would research this particular vein of information instead of taking Derrick’s word. Finally, I closed the notebook and pressed both hands to my face.

I wish I was watching him play right now.

I could hear the tinkling sound of a guitar across the creek, from the fairgrounds.

I want to be near him.

I have no right to want these things.

When would he get home tonight? Would he go straight there after singing? His home, his family’s land; it was all he and Gus had left in the world, Case had said. Were the chili-pepper lights strung over the door glowing? Did Buck and Cider come from the barn and poke their noses over the top of the corral to greet him when he pulled into the yard? What if a black 4x4 was even now prowling his property? I sat straight at that thought, knowing I had to tell him.

Why were you driving past his place on Friday evening, anyway? How would you explain that to him?

Miserable, I tossed aside the notebook and wrapped into my own arms.

Hours later, deep in the night, a storm rolled over Jalesville, the thunder grumbling a low-pitched threat, rain spattering the windowpanes. It wasn’t quite enough to wake me, instead incorporating into my dream. And in my dream, I held Case’s head to my breasts, my fingers in his hair as he plied his tongue over my nipples. My breath came in panting gasps. I couldn’t get enough of his hot, caressing kisses. The growl of the thunder was my desire; my head fell back and I begged him for more as he held me close with both strong hands widespread across my naked back.

I woke to an especially frightful crash and fell off the couch. Heart hammering, I lay flat on my spine and tried to make sense of what was happening. My body was rigid with tension; I’d come awake in the middle of a powerful orgasm. I could hardly move for the sensations rioting through me. Lightning sizzled, backlighting the curtains, followed by another tremendous, building-rattling burst, and I jerked to a sitting position, a wave of dizziness blurring my vision.

“Holy shit,” I gasped as my apartment was inundated by unearthly blue-white light. “Oh, holy Jesus.”

My dream was still happening in my head and I closed my eyes, desperate to return to it, shaking as I cupped my breasts; my nipples felt like gemstones. I shuddered, bending forward, and somehow understood that I would see Case before Friday. I knew it, and this knowledge filled me with enough strength to climb back onto the couch and sleep until morning.

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 gone.

Excerpt, Blue Honey

Unfortunately my old attitude kicked in at the sight of law enforcement, and I muttered, “Party’s over.”

“What’s that?” he snapped, affronted, as though I’d cursed, or maybe threatened him.

“Nothing!” I threw back, irritated and not bothering to throttle down this emotion. “I’m here, aren’t I? Dealing with the situation!” My cell phone buzzed and I saw Lisa’s name flash onscreen. I held up an index finger to the cop, interrupting whatever he was about to say, and answered the call by demanding, “Where are you?”

Jesus, Mom,” my daughter all but growled. She did not sound like someone who’d been in an accident, or who was in any trouble. I was not receiving this call from the local jail or county hospital.

“Are you hurt?” I carried on, hot with increasing anger, over-enunciating my words. “Because if not, why didn’t you come home to let the dogs inside? There is a police officer at Grandpa’s house because you can’t follow through.”

“I’m sorry!” Lisa cried. “A cop is there? What the hell?”

“Who is that on the phone?” the cop in question asked. When I held a finger to my lips in a nonverbal order for him to be quiet, he immediately seemed to grow larger with annoyance, hands to hips, eyebrows crinkling.

“My daughter,” I told him in an undertone, before ordering Lisa, “Get your ass home. Now.”

“Real nice, Mom,” she said, outright drawling with sarcasm.

“Now!” I yelled, and hung up.

“I am a sheriff,” the cop said next, and I stared in consternation at him, wondering why he wasn’t going away now that the issue seemed resolved. I tried not to let my eyes narrow into a glare. He explained, “You said ‘police officer,’ and I’m a sheriff. I’m voted into office by local citizens.”

Was he joking? He thought I cared? I said, “That’s great,” in a tone that unmistakably suggested good-bye. And yet he remained stationary on my father’s porch, studying me in the amber glow of the yard light. I tried a new tactic and spoke with what I hoped was a tone of polite dismissal. “Thank you, sheriff.”

“Thompson.” He offered his right hand.

The words Big Jake Thompson flickered through my mind. Was this him? He was certainly big, at least six-three, and his hat and self-perceived sureness lent him another few inches. I decided now was not the time to inquire about this nickname and instead took his hand, shaking briefly.

“And yours?” he asked as our hands fell back to our respective sides.

He meant my name. I’d been so busy speculating about his that I hadn’t offered my own, and felt doltish. I said, “Aura Clausen,” but did not add an additional pleasantry, as I would have with just about anyone else.

Sheriff Thompson surprised me again, inquiring, “Paul was your father?”

“You knew him?” But of course he would; it was a small town. The pair of owls I’d heard earlier was at it in full force, hidden in the pines beyond the porch. Their hooting cries made my neck prickle.

“I knew him well enough. He and Lillian played bingo at the senior center along with my father,” the sheriff confirmed, hooking his thumbs in both front belt loops, in a gesture I found mildly annoying; it seemed like something straight out of a guidebook on how to stand to maximize one’s authority. “Paul was a good guy. I am sorry for your loss.”

“Well, thanks,” I muttered.

“I’ll say good-night then,” the sheriff said at long last, tipping his hat brim. “And be sure to take better care of those dogs.” He delivered this statement as he clunked down the steps and it struck me as a parting shot, and unduly presumptuous. As though he had any idea how I normally treated animals.

I bitched, “They aren’t even my dogs!”

Unruffled, he said without turning around, “They are now.”

Excerpt, Grace of a Hawk

The rain had stopped.

I was not dead, though I would have instigated my own death to prevent what was happening, if it could have helped.

“Her eyes are bad. I won’t kill her,” said the Choctaw. His horse was shod; I could plainly see this, as I lay on the ground nearly under its hooves, the camp churned to mud around us. He was troubled by Cora’s mismatched eyes, holding the lantern closer to her face to steal another fascinated look but refusing to touch her.

“Don’t matter. She won’t last long out here,” mumbled the Yankee, words distorted by his split lower lip and the pocket handkerchief stuffed up his bleeding nose.

From my position on the ground, I watched Fallon Yancy approach. My wrists and ankles were bound with lengths of thick rope intended to keep horses hobbled. Blood smeared my face and my right leg was numb, a broken crossbow shaft still embedded there, my skin lacerated in a hundred places; the Choctaw had dragged me along the prairie with his gelding at a canter, until I couldn’t tell up from down, day from night, keeping the pace until he tired of the sport. But just now rage closed me in an inescapable fist, so potent I felt feverish; Grady was dead, facedown near the wagon with two bullet holes creating dark, bloody patches on his back, and Virgil was not in sight. I did not know if Virgil had been the one to kill Grady. Of my multiple wounds I felt little – no damage they inflicted upon my body could hurt as bad as harm to Malcolm.

“There ain’t a place you can hide from me,” I vowed to Fallon, tasting the rust of fresh blood in my mouth. “I will find you an’ kill you like the fucking vermin you are.”

Fallon only shrugged, unconcerned. “You’ll be dead,” he replied. No heat in his words as there had been that morning at Charley Rawley’s homestead when he and Malcolm fought over an insult; Fallon was unmoved by my wrath, considering our deaths a foregone conclusion.

The Choctaw eyed me, shaking his head side to side. He said, “Big talk for a dead man. ‘Vengeance is mine, and retribution. In due time, their foot will slip.’” And then he laughed.

The Yankee muttered, “Long as it ain’t my goddamn foot.”

Malcolm remained silent. Aces High gave a quiet whicker. I turned from Fallon to speak to my brother’s horse. My voice shook as I begged, “Hold up, fella.”

“I’ll kill her,” Fallon said, and I had no doubt he would; he was not someone to dither over a decision. With unmistakable derision, he added, “If you can’t.”

“You won’t, you young pup,” barked the Choctaw, all traces of good humor gone.

“Kill me,” I said, changing tactic, staring up at the Yankee. I’d beaten him severely and he appeared unsteady on his saddle, listing to the right. He wanted me dead as it was; I begged, “Kill me an’ leave the boy. He’s just a boy.”

Fallon dared to step between the Yankee and me and drove a boot into my ribs. I could not stifle a gasping groan. He said, “I would accept that offer, Reb, except there’s no more chance for suffering once you’re dead. And I don’t believe you have suffered enough just yet.”

“Hold your tongues, all of you,” the Yankee ordered through his broken mouth, and gathered the reins tighter into his right hand, with pure exasperation. At last he decided, “Leave the girl-child be, I ain’t killing a girl-child, and anyhow, she won’t survive a day out here with no protection.”

Fallon held his ground, face hard as February ice as he grappled with the order, and I tensed further, rigid with agony. I was helpless. Malcolm was helpless. My lips curled in a snarl; it seemed the magnitude of my rage should have the power to slay Fallon where he stood, even with the distance between us.

The Yankee, not about to be trifled with by a boy, let his right hand skim closer to his holstered pistol and offered a flat-eyed challenge, stern despite the swelling that made one of his eyes a slit. His impatient posture asked, How far do you want this to go?

Fallon clenched his jaws but was intelligent enough to relent. He muttered, “Tie him to the tree, or he could stop the horse.”

“Turnbull, get up here!” hollered the Yankee, and then directed his next order at the Choctaw. “Tie what’s left of this Reb to that there tree.”

The clouds had since shredded away, allowing a grim and murky moon to beam. At this summoning, Virgil appeared on his raindrop gelding from the direction of the wallow; he’d been working with a fourth man to regroup the herd. Upon seeing Malcolm sitting atop Aces, a noose about his neck, Virgil’s lower jaw went slack with surprise, immediately contained. The men had resituated us beneath the lone oak tree with its limbs reaching outward like arms; the other end of the hanging rope was secured on one of its long, low branches. I could hear the Missouri as it coursed along.

“Get this Reb up and tied to that oak,” ordered the Yankee. As though just deciding, he added, “And that there girl.”

Virgil and the Indian yanked me up; I took care not to react, or to fight them, as sudden movements might startle Aces High. I could not think ahead more than a second at a time – at this second, my only concern was keeping Aces calm until I could think what to do. Blood collected in my mouth, the taste of iron creeping over my tongue. I wanted to tell Virgil that I would come for him, that I would find his traitor hide, ram a pistol down his gullet and empty the entire chamber there, but I didn’t waste words, not now.

Malcolm sat stiff as a pike, wrists bound behind his back, chin lifted to accommodate the heavy rope about his slim neck. His hair was damp with rainwater and falling over his forehead; he watched as they led me to the tree’s massive trunk, following with just his eyes, until we were behind him and out of his range of sight. I would rather be drawn and quartered, flayed alive, than see him hung. Anguish tore at me but I kept my voice steady as I said to my brother, “Keep still.”

They’d had Malcolm trussed up and seated on Aces before I'd been dragged back to the camp, his right temple already discolored by a bulging bruise.

I said again, “Keep still.”

Fallon took care not to come too near me, even bound like a hog as I was, as he’d rightly seen the promise of his death in my eyes. I would gut him like a carcass if allowed even the slightest opportunity, and he knew this. Cora made not a sound as Virgil led her to the tree, docile as a lamb being brought to slaughter. It took both Virgil and the Choctaw to hold me in position and wind a new length of rope about the oak, tying me upright against its trunk. I struggled to stay afoot, my wrists and ankles bound; my hands and feet might as well have been severed from my body. They made certain that I faced Malcolm and Aces High, whose chestnut rump twitched as I watched.

“Hold steady,” I begged the animal.

“Her eyes are bad.” The Choctaw gestured again at Cora.

Fallon said, “Tie her like a dog,” and smiled at his own order.

Finished with me, they wasted little time on Cora; the Indian refused to touch her and so it was Virgil who latched a rope about her neck and tied her low to the ground, on the opposite side of the tree, allowing her perhaps two feet of leeway; she could not have crawled around to get Malcolm in her sights even had she wished, tied so low she could not stand up, hunkering instead on her heels. She’d retreated into herself to a degree that she seemed unaware of what was actually happening. From the corner of my gaze I saw Virgil crouch to her level; she turned her chin away from him but he murmured, “You knew, didn’t you?”

Before I could consider what he meant my attention was diverted elsewhere as Fallon approached my brother. My vision closed inward on all sides, my lungs collapsed, gurgling in my ears. I knew Fallon’s intent was to quirt Aces into forward motion, thereby allowing Malcolm to drop into empty air.

“No,” I begged. Something was trying to claw itself out of my innards. “Jesus, no.”

“You shot my father,” Fallon whispered, staring up at Malcolm’s face; I could only see the back of Malcolm’s curly head and could not begin to guess his expression. Fallon’s face appeared as a death mask to my terrorized gaze, skeletal and inhuman as he continued speaking. “He lost his arm. He nearly died. He is in exile. This is because of you.”

Malcolm lifted his chin and I imagined his dark eyes flashing with righteous fire. He leaned forward as much as the noose would allow and spoke low and clear. “Your daddy is a criminal, through an’ through. An’ I’ll live to see him die, I swear to you this night.”

The throbbing in my brain redoubled. Malcolm sounded exactly like our father. For the span of several heartbeats, I was sure that he was our father.

Fallon stepped closer to Malcolm’s left boot. He put his hand on my brother’s knee and said with certainty, “Your brother is going to watch you die this night. I hope your horse stands here for a good long time while you wait for your neck to crack, I really do.”

And then they rode out.

Excerpt, Soul of a Crow

“Lorie, wake up,” and Sawyer’s voice, low and rife with distress, jolted me to consciousness.

I lay sweating in the darkness of our tent, flat on my back; Sawyer’s outline was etched against the pale glow of canvas as he leaned over me, his warm hands bracketing my face. I reached at once and clasped his wrists, at first unable to draw a breath past the sensation of smothering. Nor could I speak, and Sawyer said again, urgently, “Lorie!”

“It’s…” I rasped over the word, parched by lingering terror, and wet my lips with my tongue before able to finish speaking. I whispered, “I dreamed of…I dreamed of…”

I could not recall exactly and bared my teeth in a frustrated rush of breath. My heart would not cease its agitated clanking. Sawyer gently thumbed aside the strands of hair that clung to my damp temples. I held fast to his wrists.

“I’m here,” he whispered. “It is all right. It was only a dream.”

“No,” I whispered, insistent. My eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness enough to see his, mere inches away. “No…it was more than that…” I was certain of this, despite being unable to bring forth exact details.

“What do you mean?” he asked seriously, easing me up and into a sitting position, resting his hands against the outer curve of my thighs, one on either side. His hair hung loose and he was bare-chested. I sensed his desire to listen to whatever it was I felt I must say, and was grateful for the countless time that such a man was my husband, that he would not discredit any words I spoke to him, even those based entirely upon speculation.

“Something is wrong,” I said with quiet certainty.

“Are you hurting?” he asked at once, his grip on my legs tightening, and I could sense his thoughts racing backwards to the days when I was ill, unresponsive with fever back in Missouri, and he had cared for me day and night.

“No,” I assured immediately. “I am well.”

His shoulders had tensed and now relaxed, as he tenderly caressed my legs with his thumbs. I reached and touched my fingertips to his lips, tracing the sensual outline of his mouth.

“I am well,” I whispered again, moving my hand to his cheek, overcome with tenderness.

He explained, “You were crying out in your sleep. I was in the midst of a strange dream of my own, I won’t deny. I could swear that Ethan was here, with us, just before I woke.”

No sooner did he speak the words when a flash of what Sawyer had dreamed blazed suddenly into my mind – I saw Ethan Davis as plainly as a thunderhead rolling in at a clip, crouched near Sawyer’s sleeping body, determinedly shaking his brother’s arm. I shivered at this description, a jitter that rapidly struck each individual bone of my spine.

“He was worried for us,” Sawyer said, taking my elbows into his grasp, and I shivered, more violently this time. “I understand it was a dream, but it seems to me if I had woken only seconds earlier, Lorie, I would have truly seen him, here with us.”

There was a quiet aching present in his tone, barely discernible, but I heard it nonetheless. Our bedding was jumbled, more so as I scooted forward and threaded my legs about his waist; Sawyer brought me closer at once, and I rested my face against him, taking soft pleasure in his scent, so familiar and beloved to me, the rasp of his unshaven jaw, the hard muscle of his thighs under my own.

“Did he tell you anything else?” I whispered, next bringing my nose to the juncture of his collarbones.

“I do not remember more,” Sawyer whispered. “I dream of my brothers from time to time, but the feel of this was different, Lorie, I tell you. Crazy I may be, but Ethan was here, his spirit was with us, somehow.”

I resisted the urge to cast my eyes about the interior of our tent, feeling a ripple of discomfort at the notion of a spirit, even a benevolent one related to my husband, occupying the same space. I whispered, “What do you think he meant?”

“I wish I knew,” Sawyer said, cupping the back of my head.

“I am fearful,” I whispered, clutching him more tightly, not wanting to pretend otherwise.

“I felt a stir of fear, myself,” Sawyer admitted. He sat facing the direction of the entrance and though I could not see his eyes directly, I imagined the look in them, hawk-like, keeping continual and unflagging watch over us. I knew he would never fail to protect us – but even Sawyer must sleep, must occasionally let down his guard. He placed his hands over my shoulder blades, gently rubbing me, and we held one another in silence for a long spell.

When, from Boyd and Malcolm’s tent, an especially loud, grunting snore caused me to twitch, I couldn’t help but laugh, quietly, at my own reaction. Sawyer made a sound of amusement and shifted position, curving both arms around my waist. My thighs spread further around his hips at this motion and I could feel the hardness of him through his trousers as our bodies pressed flush; we had not made love for several days, as a result of my monthly bleeding. He inhaled a slow breath, his lips at my temple. On the exhale, he whispered, “I apologize,” so politely that I smiled.

“Such a gentleman,” I teased in a whisper, grasping his face as I softly kissed his upper lip, pleased to feel the resultant tremble that skimmed over him. His eyes, now directed upon me, blazed with heat, discernible even in the darkness.

“My beautiful woman,” he whispered, gliding both hands around my backside, as though in preparation to take me to the bedding beneath him, as he had done so many times now.

“Sawyer,” I said, low and unrelenting, caressing downward, opening his trousers even as he protested – however weakly – that I should not.

“Darlin’, it’s your time…I will not take advantage of you that way…”

“It’s nearly done,” I whispered.

“We should not…” But he skimmed the shift from my body, making the deep sound of pleasure that I knew so very well.

“We should,” I insisted, breathing ever faster. I demanded, “Help me with these…”

Sawyer worked swiftly, freeing me from the binding about my lower body, hardly breaking the contact of our mouths as we kissed. I was still astride his lap and he lifted me without effort, settling my now-naked body atop his, groaning softly as I took him deep, both of us remaining still, reveling in the moment of joining.

His hands spread wide upon my back as he whispered, “The feel of you…”

I stroked his hair, suckling his lower lip with soft insistence, shaken by the force of my love for him, the desire to be this near to him, always and always, sharply contrasted by the fear that coiled inside of me, the essence of my dream crawling forth. I rebelled against any such thoughts, determinedly rocking my hips, flesh overpowering mind. I said, “I want to give you pleasure…Sawyer…”

His bent me gently backwards, bringing his mouth to my breasts as if worshiping at an altar, opening his lips over my flesh and tasting of me, as I sank my fingers into his hair. In time I moved swiftly over him, taking up a steady rhythm, his heart thundering against mine as we moved of one accord. The bedding was churned to a pinwheel of material beneath us.
“I have never known such pleasure,” he whispered. “The moment I leave your body, I only want to be within you again…and again…”

“Yes,” I begged him. “Oh Sawyer, yes…”

He took me to my back upon the rumpled blankets, there able to thrust as deeply as possible, and together we tumbled off the edge of the earth and then further, clinging to each other.

Much later, in the quiet, predawn darkness, we drifted slowly back to the unyielding ground, both of us slick with sweat. I hadn’t the strength to do more than smile sleepily at him, my eyes closed and my limbs limp with exhaustion.

“Lorie,” he murmured, his deep voice tender. “Sleep, sweetheart, I’ll hold you. In my arms and in my heart.”