Friday, November 28, 2014

A Most Inconvenient Marriage by Regina Jennings, © 2014

Cover Art
Summary: "To fulfill a Confederate soldier's dying wish, Civil War nurse Abigail Stuart marries him and agrees to look after his sister in the Missouri Ozarks. But then the real Jeremiah Calhoun appears alive." --Provided by publisher.
   "Sometimes the best gifts aren't convenient at the time."
         --A Most Inconvenient Marriage, 323
Post-Civil War Missouri Ozarks, 1865. 
Longing for a place to call home, Abigail Stuart Calhoun trudges up the uneven rocky slopes toward her destination. Just a ways further, as the stationmaster said, "You can't get lost." He neglected to tell her it wasn't just off the main road. With a little help from a neighbor, she finds it. Home. Home, indeed.

Jeremiah's sister is ornery; not only sick, but ornery. Announcing her nursing skills, Abigail isn't all that welcomed, at first. Until his Ma determines Abigail is to call her such ~ her endearing name, "Ma."

Down the road comes Ma's son, Jeremiah. Sister Rachel is disgruntled to see him ~ especially after he had run off her beloved hopeful intended, Alan. They were separated in the war, Jeremiah one way, Alan the other. They had been friends growing up and were an inseparable threesome, until Alan asks to come calling. With Rachel's illness, Jeremiah, now the man of the house since their Pa's passing, aims to uphold his position and shelter Rachel.

Abigail? She has never seen this Jeremiah before, if indeed that is his name. But... her newfound family seems to claim him. After all, subsequent to her farming and nursing skills, she is needed here.

Regina Jennings brings another comical true-to-life story of figuring out what the day holds interjected with interruptions. With best intentions, two little neighbor children come visiting frequently with disruptions of their own. Toss in some horse wrestlers and the claims aren't all that sure. Bringing neighbors together draws some complaint as the local doctor takes the Yankee nurse with him on house calls.

I really enjoyed this story. With the twists and turns, you can't be certain how it is all going to turn out. A fun story for all ages, I highly recommend A Most Inconvenient Marriage, a Historical Romance by author Regina Jennings.

Regina Jennings is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University with a degree in English and a history minor. She has worked at The Mustang News and First Baptist Church of Mustang, along with time at the Oklahoma National Stockyards and various livestock shows. She now lives outside Oklahoma City with her husband and four children. Visit her website here.

***Thank you to author Regina Jennings and Bethany House Publishers for this copy of A Most Inconvenient Marriage to read and review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Enjoy an excerpt from Regina Jennings' A Most Inconvenient Marriage ~ Chapter 1-3


February 1865
Gratiot Street Prison
St. Louis, Missouri

“First, you’re going to write a good-bye letter to my sweetheart, and then you’re going to marry me.” The prisoner’s smile belied the beads of sweat condensing on his forehead.
   Abigail Stuart wrung tepid water out of the rag and mopped his brow. “I will not write your Lady Juliet to tell her that I’ve replaced her. Your fever must be causing you to hallucinate. Romeo was no fickle lover.”
   A fly landed on his chin. The prisoner lifted what was left of his arm, forgetting he couldn’t reach his mouth with the putrid stump. Abigail shooed the pest away and wished for a blanket to alleviate his chills. Two years of caring for the dying Confederate prisoners had numbed her to the sight of mangled flesh, but she’d never stopped mourning the senseless pain these young men suffered.
   “You won’t be happy, Miss Abby. Not without a stable full of horses,” he said. “And I can give you that. You’ve got to be sick and tired of this prison.”
   “My horses are gone. Nursing is all I have left.”
   The man wet his lips. “Marry me and you won’t have to stay here another day. The farm, the stock, the nicest horseflesh in the hills—they’ll all be yours. If the last thing I can do with this life . . .”
   Dr. Jonson caught Abigail’s eye. She’d already tarried too long with her favorite patient, but she wasn’t sorry. He’d been kind to her, no matter what color his uniform had been before they’d cut him out of it. She sloshed the rag in the basin. The gangrene had poisoned his blood. She didn’t have much time. Neither did he.
   “What about your lady? Why not will the farm to her?”
   “My sweetheart?” His eyes grew soft beneath the pain. He closed them and inhaled as though filling his lungs with the smell of fresh hay instead of the stench of the medical ward. With his good hand he tapped the thin mat beneath him. “My fiancée can take care of herself. This war won’t slow her down. It’s my . . . my sister that I worry about. Rachel isn’t strong—hasn’t been since she took the fever. You’re a nurse, and you could help her ma with the farm. It’s the perfect solution.”
   A faint hope stirred in Abigail’s chest. Could this be the answer she’d been praying for? “But what if I don’t like the Ozarks? What if your family doesn’t welcome a Yankee invading their home?”
   “Then walk away. What have you lost?”
   She took his hand, surprised again by the dry heat in the freezing room. “You don’t even know your real name, Romeo. Or has that memory finally been restored, too?”
   He wiggled his feet against the end of the cot and shuddered as another chill ravaged his body. Quickly he mastered the pain, and the smile returned.
   “My name is Jeremiah Calhoun. Captain Jeremiah Calhoun.”
   She’d suspected that his memory loss was a convenient occurrence, but like her, he had his reasons for hiding his past. “And what will I tell Lady Juliet?”
   “The truth.” An ornery grin stretched across his face. “She might be angry, especially when you turn up, tall and fair— everything she’s not—but Rachel will be taken care of. That’s where my duty lies.”
   Duty. Abigail knew only too well where misguided duty led. The graves outside the prison were filled with adherents.
   “What’s it going to be, Miss Abby? Don’t leave me in suspense. I haven’t got time for a long engagement.”
   She set the bowl on the stone floor and dried her hands on her apron. The South couldn’t hold out much longer. The war would end soon. Abigail had fended off proposals from lonely patients since the siege of Vicksburg, but soon those who survived would be reunited with their families and their loved ones. Soon she would be alone in a world where able-bodied men were scarce and opportunities to work even scarcer. She couldn’t go home. She wasn’t welcome there anymore. With all the upheaval caused by the war, perhaps she should consider this offer, no matter the risks. And like he said—if it didn’t work she hadn’t lost anything.
   “Captain Calhoun, if you’ll allow me to procure a sheet of stationery, I’ll return and we can send your love to your intended. That’ll give me time to reflect—”
   “While you’re gone, you might want to freshen up.” He winked mischievously. “I expect my bride to look her best.”

March 1865
Hart County, Missouri

The stationmaster had said it was eight miles farther, but he hadn’t mentioned the steepness of the mountain trails. Still, Abigail enjoyed the exertion in the chilly air, especially after her inactivity on the train. Muscles were meant to be challenged, so Abigail did her best to stretch her limbs in the privacy of the leafy path.
   Moisture gathered between the fine riverbank gravel on the road. Water pooled beneath the pressure of her feet and then disappeared as she traveled upward, feeling the exertion in parts of her limbs that ladies didn’t mention. The acres of rocky forest contrasted with the smooth pasture and farms—proof of the heroic effort expended to create the few clearings.
   She shouldn’t be surprised. Her Romeo had persevered like a hero, even if he was wearing the wrong color. He’d accepted the loss of his arm with fortitude, marching the two hundred fifty miles from Westport to St. Louis as a recent amputee, insisting he would soon be well enough to return to his hills and his love. But the infection he’d contracted along the way changed his focus.
   By now his fiancée would know of his death. She would have his letter, and his family would have the notice penned by the medical staff. Abigail hadn’t allowed them to share news of the marriage, still unsure if she would make use of the gift Jeremiah Calhoun had given her. How hard would it be to hear that your lover had married someone else? Especially if he died before you could give him what for. But Abigail had to consider his sister— the sister whom he had loved enough to jilt his intended, to drop the pretense that he would recover and see to his responsibility. If nothing else, at least she was honoring Jeremiah by checking on his mother and sister. She wouldn’t remain if they were well, but where she’d go was still a mystery.
   Abigail hadn’t truly had a home since Mama remarried. After the wedding, everything from her new colt to her father’s oak desk became John Dennison’s. And rather than bite her tongue in two, Abigail had expressed her opinion rather forcefully as John sold everything in the stables. But he’d taken his revenge.
   Abigail brushed aside the troubling memory. Forget the past. She had no past. She’d only look ahead. A honey locust tree crowded the path, the thorns on its trunk mean enough to please a Roman centurion. Abigail crushed the sides of her jade skirt as she passed, protecting it from damage. Perhaps she should be wearing mourning, but it didn’t seem practical to dye her clothing before she decided if she was going to be a widow or not. With no new dresses since she’d left home, she couldn’t afford to waste one.
   The road leveled and a roughhewn cabin appeared at the back of the next clearing. Smoke curled from the stovepipe, and a dog scrambled from beneath the porch to announce her presence.
   She heard raised voices, louder than the dog they were at- tempting to quiet. A child started crying. Abigail gripped her satchel tighter and sped her steps, eager to leave the chaos behind her.
   “Where you going to?”
   She skidded to a stop but couldn’t find her questioner.
   “I’m up here.” A grimy face peered down between the naked branches. The boy’s words whistled through the gap between his front teeth. “You’re new ’bout these parts.”
   Was his face scratched or just dirty? Abigail couldn’t tell. The boy dropped down, not noticing when his bare feet hit the stony path.
   “Pa!” he called. “We got company.”
   “No, I’m not stopping,” Abigail said. “My destination is the Calhoun farm.”
    “The Calhouns’?” A wide-eyed girl with uneven pigtails stepped out of the woods. “Should’ve known since you’re dressed all nice and that.”
    “Me? Dressed nice?” Abigail looked at her traveling costume, then at the girl’s shift. “Thank you, but I can’t stop to visit. I have an important—”
   “Going to the Calhouns’?” A man stepped out of the cabin, his beard spread across his chest like a napkin at suppertime. “I reckon we can show you the way.”
   “But it’s right along the road, isn’t it? The stationmaster said I couldn’t get lost.”
   “No bother.” He stuck his head inside the cabin and called, “Irma, I’ll be back. Mind the hominy.” Pulling a threadbare felt hat off a nail, he bounded off the porch steps with elbows and knees flying like the wooden limberjack dolls the prisoners made. He skidded to a stop before her. “Is that your only bag?”
   A mountain man, yes, but with his children climbing up his back and clinging to his hand, Abigail didn’t feel threatened. Even the dog ran circles around him, wagging its tail and barking playfully.
   “The rest will be delivered tomorrow.”
   “Oh, sure. Finley’s going to fetch them when he brings the post, huh? You wouldn’t want to carry your luggage through these hills. Not a fancy lady like you.”
   And she had worried that her dresses were out of date. She surveyed the ragtag bunch. What if Jeremiah had exaggerated? What if his beautiful horse farm was no more than a cabin and some mules? The butterflies in her stomach turned into crazed birds. She slipped her hand into her pocket and held on to her father’s penny. Jeremiah had said his sister needed her. Could Abigail leave her in a battered cabin, just because she was accustomed to a prosperous farm?
   “What’s your business at the Calhouns’?” With twinkling eyes the man pulled a corncob pipe out of his vest pocket and set it into his mouth.
   “I’m coming to visit Mrs. Calhoun. I tended her son when he was a prisoner.”
   Hostile eyes accosted her from every side.
   “Mr. Jeremiah was in prison?”
   “You locked him up?”
   “Are you a jayhawker?”
   At the last word, tension bristled through the youngsters. Even their father eyed her suspiciously.
   “I’m not sure what a jayhawker is,” Abigail said. “I’m a nurse. It was my duty to care for the Rebel prisoners, so that’s what I did.”
   “There aren’t any jayhawkers around now, son,” the bearded man said. “All those outlaws joined the Federal Army.”
   “But she worked for the Yankees, too.” The tree climber spat.
   “Josiah!” His father grew stern. “You mind your manners with the lady. She was a nurse to help our soldiers. Don’t meddle in other folks’ doings.” Then forgetting his own advice he asked, “Were you with Jeremiah when he died?”
   His gentle tone produced feelings of unexpected kinship in Abigail. It pleased her to meet people who admired Jeremiah as much as she did. “Yes, sir, I was. I held his hand as he passed and was there for the burial, as well. I was privileged to know him, even if it was for only a short time.”
   “Jeremiah was a good man. Don’t know what his family will do without him.” The rip in the knee of his trousers flapped with every step.
   And he was worried about the Calhouns making ends meet?
   “How’s his sister?” Abigail asked. “He was concerned over her health, right until the end.”
   He scratched his beard. “Miss Rachel is sickly, so we shouldn’t judge.”
   A sure voice piped up, “She don’t like us to come into the house. We’ve got to leave her bundles at the back porch.”
   “And we can’t whistle when we come up the drive. It ’fects her nerves.”
   The man nodded. “But she’s been dealt a cruel blow. The same rheumatic fever that took her father took her health, and she hasn’t been the same since. Lord have pity on poor Mrs. Calhoun.”
   More pity on the mother than on the afflicted sister? Abigail chewed her lip. What had Jeremiah forgotten to tell her?
   The path crested the hill and continued downward until it reached a clearing that stretched over several acres. Bare winter saplings popped up through the split-rail fence that zigzagged toward a graceful stone house nestled in the valley.
   Abigail rocked to her toes to get a better view of the farm before her, straining to see the barn. While it was a far cry from the elegant stables of her home, the large rock structure looked sturdy. Big enough to hold a decent herd through the winter. Perhaps Jeremiah had done her well, after all.
   The children chirped in excitement, the dog adding to the cacophony until Abigail found sympathy for Miss Rachel’s nerves. She stopped where the rail fence gave way to massive stone posts, pieced together like a crazy quilt. “I can hardly miss it from here. Thank you for . . .” but she was too late. The bottoms of grimy feet flashed as her young escorts raced down the drive.
   “Them young’uns.” In an amazing feat of dexterity the man passed the pipe to the other side of his mouth without touching it. “They sure run fast.”
   They followed the children to the two-story house, its white trim defining the door and windows of the rock walls, lending order to the zigzag pattern. The children banged on the front door, and before Abigail could step on the porch, a silver-haired matron emerged.
   “Please, children, keep your voices down. You don’t want Miss Rachel to hear you.”
   If she’d thought to see any family resemblance between the woman and Romeo, Abigail was disappointed. The woman had generous features, wide cheekbones, and an ample mouth, unlike the narrow face of the soldier. But hadn’t Jeremiah spoken of the woman as Rachel’s mother? His stepmother, no doubt. Clad in mourning, she held a pair of scissors upraised like a broken parasol, perhaps keeping them out of the children’s way. She definitely didn’t demonstrate the carefree attitude that Romeo, er, Jeremiah was known for throughout Gratiot Prison.
   She squinted up at Abigail, probably trying to place her.
   “Mrs. Calhoun.” Abigail dipped a faint curtsy. “I hope my visit isn’t an inconvenience. I’ve traveled far to see you.”
   The woman tilted her head. “Not at all. I rather enjoy unexpected visitors. Are you an acquaintance of the Huckabees?”
   Huckabees? They’d never even introduced themselves.
   “No, ma’am,” Mr. Huckabee said. “We just saw her on the road and thought we’d show her to the right spot. It’s the least we can do for our neighbors. Now, before I get back to Mrs. Huckabee and the babies, I might just check on your stock, if you’d like.”
   “I would. That cow was stingy with her milk today. I don’t know how you manage to get so much out of her.”
   “Confidence, ma’am.” And he made a long pulling gesture to demonstrate his technique.
   Mrs. Calhoun’s chins waggled in mirth as Mr. Huckabee dragged his children off the porch. Abigail thanked him and followed Mrs. Calhoun into a messy parlor. The scent of lemon wax and the roaring fireplace imposed order on an otherwise chaotic setting.
   An overturned basket of wrinkled laundry lay scattered across the settee. Ladies’ journals balanced precariously on a small round table in the center of the room. Mrs. Calhoun deposited the heavy pair of scissors atop a stack of clippings that threatened to flutter away as she bustled past.
   “Have a seat,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting a guest today, but I’ll have some coffee hot in a jiffy.”
   “That would be delightful.” Abigail needed time to collect her thoughts. She removed her hat and coat and hung them over a chair.
   She’d finally arrived. Abigail straightened her green velvet cuffs as Mrs. Calhoun exited. What would she say? How could she broach the subject? Should she move the sharp scissors out of her mother-in-law’s reach before she told her? Her hand slipped into her pocket and found the solitary penny she cherished. She turned to practice her speech on a collection of bells sitting in a dusty curio cabinet.
   “When I met Jeremiah, he was a prisoner,” Abigail whispered. “No, that’s not right. How about: Jeremiah asked me to take care of his sister, Rachel. It was his last wish that I would make this journey.” True, but how to mention his proposal? In all her imagining she hadn’t been able to come up with one satisfactory introduction on the topic of her matrimonial state.
   “Ma,” a voice called from upstairs, “what brought the Huckabee swarm to our door?”
   Abigail froze. There was no answer from the kitchen.
   If this was his sister, she obviously wasn’t used to being ignored.
   Soft footsteps could be heard sliding across the upstairs rug, then descending the stairs. Rachel Calhoun entered, stooped like a much older woman. The joints of her fingers flared an angry red. So Mr. Huckabee was correct about the rheumatic fever.
   The girl straightened. “I’m sorry.” She flipped her chestnut braid over the shoulder of her house gown, clearly not apologizing for anything. “And who might you be?”
   Abigail stepped forward. “Hello, I just arrived—”
   “Obviously.” The lines about her mouth had settled deep, as if perpetually troubled.
   “Yes. I’m a friend of Captain Calhoun. I promised him I would visit.”
   “A friend of my brother?” Rachel crossed her arms. “Your name?”
   “Abigail . . .” she halted. When would she tell them the truth? Was it too early?
   At Abigail’s hesitation, Rachel sniffed. “Whoever your people are, you must not be proud of them. I might not be high and mighty, but I’m not ashamed of my kin.”
   Abigail lifted her clenched jaw at the reproach from the mountain girl. She was proud of the Stuart name, even if her mother no longer shared it and the farm she loved no longer bore it. But that door had closed. Besides, if she worked hard enough, maybe someday she could garner respect with a new name.
   She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She’d found a new name for a new life, and she might as well start using it.
  “My name is Calhoun . . . Abigail Calhoun. I’m Jeremiah’s wife.”


“Jeremiah’s wife?”
    Abigail watched closely as the younger woman’s eyes widened and her pale face turned celery green. Rachel stumbled forward, swinging her hands about, searching for the sofa.
   “Let me help you,” Abigail said.
   Rachel sank into the cushions, heedless of the laundry that slipped to the floor. She reclined full out and covered her face with the crook of her arm.
   A weak heart caused by a fever. That’s what Jeremiah had said. Abigail’s eyes flickered over the woman, assessing her condition. Shallow breaths that were obviously painful, stiff joints, a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps Jeremiah should’ve warned Abigail that her sister-in-law’s most noticeable medical condition was a sharp tongue.
   A crash sounded behind her. Mrs. Calhoun had shoved a tray of mugs onto the already crowded table in the center of the room, upending her sewing box and the stack of clippings.
   “Did you have a spell? What are you doing downstairs?” She knelt beside her daughter. “Don’t wear yourself out, especially after the Huckabees have unsettled your nerves.”
   “She’s a fraud. She’s lying,” Rachel said. Strong words for such a weak voice.
   Mrs. Calhoun cast a nervous glance at Abigail. “Simmer down, Rachel. There’s no excuse for rudeness.”
   “Did you ask her who she is? Did you even get a name from her before you showed her inside? Her with her fine dress and city voice—”
   “Don’t get riled up. You’re endangering your life,” her mother said.
   Obviously Rachel was now getting enough air to fill her lungs. Abigail tried to reassure the worried woman. “She’s going to be fine, Mrs. Calhoun. Since the initial shock has worn off, she’s regained her color. I’m a nurse and I don’t think she’s in imminent danger.”
   “That’s probably a lie, too. You’re too young to be a nurse.” Rachel kept her arm over her face, probably so Abigail wouldn’t be able to mark her return to health.
   “I was certified by a Regional Aid Society,” Abigail said. “When desperate, qualifications aren’t as important, especially for one working with prisoners.”
   “I . . . I don’t understand your quarrel. Why are you arguing?” Mrs. Calhoun turned to Abigail. “Please forgive my daughter. She’s feeling poorly.”
   At least she had some spirit left in her. Abigail would rather work with a difficult patient than one who’d given up.
   “Mrs. Calhoun, if you’ll seat yourself, I’ll share the news that’s responsible for Miss Calhoun’s distress.”
   “Shouldn’t we help Rachel upstairs first?”
   “I have a feeling she’ll prefer to hear for herself. It’s about your son, Jeremiah.” Abigail seated herself. Her stomach rolled as she tried to find the right words.
   “Was the letter from the prison wrong?” Mrs. Calhoun dropped onto the simple wooden chair. “Please tell me it was wrong. Tell me that Jeremiah’s alive.”
   A pang of jealousy assailed Abigail. Did her family even remember that she existed? But this was about Jeremiah, so she focused on the woman who obviously valued her children above all else. “I wish that was my message, but it’s not. You have the facts from your notification, but I shared his last days. I thought you might like to hear more.”
   “All we know is that he was captured at Westport and died in prison. That’s all they told us.”
   She could tell them much more, but would they understand her motives? How badly she wanted to help? How badly she wanted a place to belong and a family to love? She hoped they didn’t blame her for his unorthodox arrangement. Yet she’d faced unfounded accusations before.
   “Jeremiah was wounded before his capture,” Abigail said. “They amputated his arm at the field hospital and then marched him to the prison in St. Louis.”
   “All the way across Missouri?” Mrs. Calhoun fished a crumpled handkerchief from the pile of laundry on the floor. “What he must have suffered.” Mrs. Calhoun’s tears prompted a stinging in Abigail’s own eyes. How she wished she could’ve known Jeremiah here, whole, instead of sick in the prison. “But he kept strong. He’d already contracted infection and was in incredible pain, but everyone who met him loved him. Even when they had to carry him into the infirmary, he asked them to stop so he could cheer some dejected soul.”
   “Oh, Jeremiah,” his mother cooed. “See, Rachel. I knew he’d have a change of heart.”
   From her position, Abigail could see that Rachel wasn’t moving, but she was fully alert, listening closely. Abigail tried to steady her voice for what was to come.
   “Of all the soldiers I met during the war, your son was my favorite. His first thought was for his fiancée, but when the situation changed and he realized that he would not recover, his concern for his sister eclipsed every other bond.” Again the silence of the house pressed heavy as they drank in a last story of one they loved—one from whom they’d get no more news. “When he learned that I was knowledgeable about horses and nursing, Jeremiah asked me to come here to care for Rachel and to keep your farm profitable.”
   “He arranged that for us?” Mrs. Calhoun shook her head. “We can’t pay, you know.”
   Rachel pulled herself up by the back of the sofa. “She doesn’t want pay, Ma. That’s not what she’s shooting for. She wants everything—the whole farm. If we allow her story to go unchallenged, she will own everything and can evict us out into the wilderness. You know as well as I do that Jeremiah wouldn’t marry a stranger.”
  “Marry?” The handkerchief fluttered to the floor. Mrs. Calhoun’s face contorted through an encyclopedia of emotions as she stood. “Are you Jeremiah’s wife?”
    No matter how little she deserved it, the license had been legally binding. Abigail nodded and glanced at the scissors as she waited for the woman’s response, a response that was building, whether of outrage or sorrow Abigail couldn’t judge. Mrs. Calhoun’s chin trembled and her arms opened.
   “My beloved child, welcome home.”
   Abigail’s head spun. All her worries, all her uncertainty, but God was faithful. He’d directed her to a safe place. Jumping to her feet, Abigail fell into the woman’s embrace.
   “You’re not angry?”
   “Oh, honey, you stayed by my son through his suffering. Thank the Lord for sending you to Jeremiah’s side so he wasn’t alone.”
   Mrs. Calhoun stepped back and took her hands. “I can never repay you.”
   Rachel groaned. “Ma, Jeremiah wouldn’t marry without telling us. Not after the way he carried on about me.”
   “He didn’t have time to notify you,” Abigail said. “And he wouldn’t have married me if a chance for recovery existed. In fact he’d almost waited too late. He didn’t even have time to explain to his fiancée in his last letter. He only shared his love.”
   “Well, she never took up mourning,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “And I suppose it’s a blessing that she’s been able to carry on. Any day now I expect to hear that Laurel and Dr. Hopkins are engaged.”
   Laurel? Jeremiah had always called her Juliet. He’d even asked Abigail to address his last letter to her by that name. What would her reaction be? At least Laurel had recovered enough to consider an alternative beau. Hopefully she’d accept Abigail’s appearance with as much grace as Mrs. Calhoun had.
   Finally looking her in the eyes, Rachel spoke. “You didn’t happen to meet any other men of Jeremiah’s division, did you? Were many of them captured?”
   “I suppose so, but most of the prisoners at Gratiot Street were transferred back east. Jeremiah stayed only because he could go no farther.”
   Rachel grasped the doily-covered arm of the sofa to steady herself. “But who did he speak of? Did he mention Alan White? Was Alan a patient of yours?”
   “Alan White? No, I don’t recall anyone by that name.”
   “Don’t fret,” Mrs. Calhoun admonished her daughter. “Alan didn’t say where he was in that last letter, but he’s hardly had time to write again. Especially with the war winding down. You’ll hear from him soon.”
   What unshed tears were stored in the dark circles below Rachel’s eyes? She glared, obviously not satisfied with Abigail’s tale. “If what you say is true, Jeremiah had nothing to lose, but what about you? Don’t you have any family, or suitors, or any-body to care if you never come home? Why would you depend on strangers to take you in rather than friends?”
   Abigail walked to the curio cabinet. Ceramic bells, crystal bells, brass . . . her head rang with accusations and defenses. She’d start anew if they’d let her, but there’d be questions about who she was, where she’d come from, why she wasn’t welcomed by her family. Well, the truth was messy. Better to clean up the story before they pried any further.
   “My father died in a riding accident, and after that my mother . . .” She added her fingerprints to those already smearing the glass curio cabinet. “I miss her. I have no one, so I came west.”
   There. That was enough. She’d told herself that if they didn’t accept her, she could leave at first light. Nothing lost. But now that a glimpse of a home, a family, a farm had been offered, she didn’t want to lose it.
   “See, Rachel. Abigail has every reason to stay with us.” Mrs. Calhoun sat next to her daughter and wrapped an arm around her. To Abigail’s surprise, Rachel had the grace to look ashamed.
   “I don’t want her to cause you any trouble, Ma. You have enough of a burden caring for me. If she doesn’t pull her weight—”
   She might as well get started. Abigail turned to the ladies. “Before I became a nurse, I lived on a horse farm. I helped my father in every aspect of the business, and I promise I’ll work harder for you than anyone ever has. In fact, I’m anxious to take a look around and visit the stock.”
   Mrs. Calhoun nodded, already deep in her memories. “That’d be fine.”
   Abigail gazed at the mug of coffee that’d never made it to her hand, but she couldn’t wait to reach the barn. She took up her coat.
   Mrs. Calhoun stood. “Oh, and Abigail, I know you had a mother you loved, and I don’t want to take her place, but I’d be honored if you’d call me Ma. That is, if it ain’t presuming too much.”
   Although the family resemblance wasn’t visible in her features, her warmth and kindness had clearly shaped her son’s character.
   “I’d love to have you as my ma,” Abigail said. “You’re all the family I have left.”

   Besides visits from his caregivers, the single shaft of light from above was the only connection he had to the world outside. Soon he’d be set free from this prison, this cave, and he could finally crawl out of hiding. He could finally go home.
   He’d made a mistake and because of it home could change forever. He prayed it wasn’t too late to undo what he’d done. When he was free, he’d get it straight and no one would be hurt. He’d take care of everything if, for once, they’d let him.
   He sucked the last of the marrow out of the chicken bone, thankful for each morsel that they’d spared him. Oh, that God would give him the strength to see to his duty. He wouldn’t quit until his family was safe and their lives were restored, but if he went home alone, nothing would be solved. He’d never be forgiven.

   The barn hugged a rise on the south of the house. As no sip of coffee had made it to her lips, Abigail strode to the trough. She dumped out the water bucket, pumped fresh water in, and drained a full dipper in one thirsty pull. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and smacked her lips. Poor breeding? Her mother had taught her how to behave in a drawing room just as her father had taught her how to behave in a barn. Manners consisted of nothing more than the ability to put someone at ease, and she dearly hoped she could ease the troubles here.
   After helping herself to another dipper, Abigail was in a better frame of mind to meet the horses. At least they wouldn’t behave as poorly as Jeremiah’s sister.
   The pasture appeared somewhat maintained. Despite the errant saplings, the fence was intact and the barn solid. She found the gate between two stone posts, hinges a bit rusty but still swinging with only a slight protest.
   A bay raised his head at the noise. The gray horse perked his ears, too. Abigail shielded her eyes to get a better look and was pleased by what she saw. Deep chests, strong haunches, with delicate feet and heads—promising even from this distance. Then their alert ears picked up the sound of something more interesting than the gate. Rattling a bucket of corn, Mr. Huckabee stepped out of the barn.
   “Oh,” Abigail breathed as the two horses sped to a graceful canter. If it weren’t for the tufts of wet soil flipping up behind them, she could almost believe they were floating above the ground. Jeremiah hadn’t exaggerated. She would be proud of these horses.
   She latched the gate behind her and approached them cautiously.
   “I thought you might want to inspect them closer.” The stallion pushed ahead to get first dibs on the bucket, his tail swishing high. “By the way, I’m Calbert Huckabee. Did you get to meet Miss Rachel?”
   Remembering that barn manners were different than parlor, Abigail extended her hand, pleased when he took it without pausing. “Yes, I did. And please call me Miss Abigail. Do you mind?” She nodded to the bucket.
   “Help yourself.”
   She plunged her hands into the dusty corn, surprised by the memories the familiar action revived. The rolling kernels, their simple weight and sweet smell reminded her of a happiness that had eluded her since her mother had remarried.
   Bringing up brimming handfuls, she stepped away, drawing the stallion after her for a better inspection. The bay seemed to read her intent. His eyes flashed. He tossed his head and pranced to her.
   “He’s a proud one,” she said.
   “He should be. He’s from Texas, sired by Steel Dust.”
   “Is that so?” She held her hand flat. The horse’s velvety muzzle razed her palm, snorting the familiar scent in her face. “How did I manage without my horses?”
   Calbert smiled. “How long are you staying with Mrs. Calhoun?”
   “This is my home now.” She’d found somewhere new and she’d fight to keep it. Abigail scratched the stallion on the fore- head as he nudged the last kernel from between her fingers. “You know these horses well. Are you their groom?”
   “Don’t know that I’d have any such fancy title as that. I’m busy with my own place most the time, but I try to keep an eye on Mrs. Calhoun. Just being neighborly. I figure I owe Jeremiah that much, God rest his soul. After his Pa died he wore himself out keeping this place going.”
   But Abigail was already planning the future. One stallion and a gelding—not a fortune, but they were first quality. When she returned to the house, she’d ask to see their pedigrees, not that it mattered. Their breeding was obvious by sight, but she was curious. What familiar names would she see? Could either of these have Stuart bloodlines?
   Mr. Huckabee was inspecting her as closely as she’d been watching the horses. “You say you knew Jeremiah?”
   Abigail had better become accustomed to telling her unusual story and making it sound as convincing as possible. “I married Captain Calhoun.”
   Mr. Huckabee snatched his hat off his head and slapped it against his knee. “I knew it! The minute I laid eyes on you I thought, ‘There’s a lady for Jeremiah. They would’ve been a fine matched team, for certain.’” He sobered. “If only he’d made it home.”
   “If he thought he was coming home, he wouldn’t have married me.”
   “What’s that?”
   Abigail dusted off her hands, then hid them in her coat pockets. “It was a practical arrangement on his end. I didn’t know what to expect from his farm, but I’m fully eager to fall in love with this place.”
   “And you haven’t seen the prize pumpkin yet. She’s entitled to some time by herself, if you know what I mean.” Mr. Huckabee tossed the remaining corn in a trough and turned toward the barn.
   Abigail nearly skipped along behind him. The rock walls hugged the warmth from the animals and kept it from stealing outside. A pen of pigs huddled together, and a goat bounded off a table as she walked by. With the shutters closed it felt a bit muggy, yet to Abigail there was nothing unbecoming about stable smells. A whinny drew her eyes before they adjusted to the shade. A gentle face watched her approach, black forelock falling across a yellow-dun hide. Love at first sight.
   “Her name is Josephine Bonaparte. Lancaster out there is her sire.” Mr. Huckabee continued to describe her gait, her intelligence, but Abigail didn’t need to hear an appraisal. She was convinced.
   “She’s in season, I gather.” Abigail scratched her cheek. “Has she been bred before?”
   “No, ma’am. Laurel’s pa bought a stallion for her, though. He was going to be a wedding present for Jeremiah and Laurel when he came back from the war.”
   Laurel, her husband’s fiancée. Abigail saw her face reflected in Josephine’s gentle eye. The horse blinked knowingly and nudged her hand. Abigail smiled. She’d lost her horses back home, but maybe God had blessed her with this opportunity. Talking to Laurel would be awkward, but she had to be told. Procrastinating only impeded progress, and right now the progress Abigail was most concerned with was filling the pasture with horses. That was the best way she could help her new ma and Rachel.
   Romeo was counting on her.
   “How far away is this stallion?” Josephine nibbled at a blond lock that had escaped Abigail’s coif.
   “Just across the river, about a mile from the ford.”
   “Would it be possible to take Josephine to visit tomorrow?”
   Mr. Huckabee pulled at his beard. “I’ve just been waiting for permission.”

   The next morning, Abigail sat at the table inhaling the rich scent of the coffee warming the ceramic mug. She hadn’t worn her riding habit since leaving Ohio. The wool skirt and jacket felt perfect for the crisp March air. She only waited to see if Ma Calhoun needed her before setting out on her quest. The previous day her prayers had been vague, aimed at finding direction in a swirling mist of possibilities. Now she had concrete requests and hoped God didn’t mind her being specific.
   She prayed that Napoleon, Laurel’s horse, would be no taller than sixteen hands high, that he would be agile and good-natured. She prayed that the Wallaces would waive the stud fee, although she would take her nurse’s earnings with her as a precaution. She prayed that Laurel wouldn’t have a strong reaction to her presence—to her existence—and that Rachel’s health and temperament would both improve. She prayed that her own mother would see through John’s false accusations and come running to find her, although how she was to track her to Hart County, Missouri, Abigail had no clue. Since her mother hadn’t answered her first letter, Abigail didn’t feel up to writing again. Still, she prayed that someday they’d be reconciled. Then, with quick thanks for Ma Calhoun, Abigail finished her morning petitions.
   “Do you always rise this early?” Ma shuffled into the kitchen, still in her night robe. Pins trained her white hair into curls around her face.
   “I’m sorry if I woke you. I thought taking the downstairs bedroom would keep you from hearing me.”
   “Keep it. Jeremiah would want you to have his room.” She took a chair at the table and arranged the salt shaker and the sugar bowl until they were an equal distance from the butter dish. “You know, I hope you don’t judge Rachel too harshly. I’m not blind to her faults, but if opposing her could shorten her life . . . well, I’d rather have an ill-tempered daughter than no children at all.”
   Abigail tried to understand Ma’s position, but the closest she could come was I’d rather have an ill-tempered husband than no husband at all. And with that statement, she could not agree.
   “She hasn’t always been like this,” Ma continued. “The fever changed her. It changed us all. And the longer she goes without hearing from Alan, the quicker her decline.”
   Abigail reached for the coffeepot and filled a second mug for Ma Calhoun. “Who is Alan?”
   “Alan is Rachel’s beau, at least I think I can say that now. Jeremiah wouldn’t let us call him that, even if everyone knew it.” She took the mug from Abigail. “When Mr. Calhoun died, Jeremiah took on all his father’s responsibilities. He was too young, really, but he did the best he could. Not only did he have to work the farm, but he had Rachel to fret over, too, and he didn’t want something to happen to her while she was in his care. Alan came around about the time the other girls Rachel’s age started courting. If I had to wager, I’d say Alan was enchanted by Rachel’s frailty. He’d do anything for her, and she blossomed under his attention, but it wasn’t enough. Jeremiah didn’t want them courting until Rachel was well, so Alan wasn’t allowed to visit Rachel once Jeremiah realized his intentions.”
   “That doesn’t sound like Jeremiah. I admit I didn’t know him well, but I can’t imagine him wanting to keep them apart.”
   Mrs. Calhoun patted her arm. “I’m blessed to hear that. When he and Alan joined the cavalry, Rachel and I prayed Alan would convince him to reconsider. Rachel’s life has held such little happiness, the prospect of being denied Alan’s love was more than she could bear. Her last letter from Alan was grim, and she’s finding it harder to hold on to hope.”
  “Jeremiah didn’t allow her to accept Alan, but he married a complete stranger? No wonder she doesn’t like me.”
   Ma raised white eyebrows. “If only she and Jeremiah would’ve reconciled before he left for the Missouri State Guard. It’s guilt that plagues her, and she doesn’t know what to do with it.”
   “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Rachel stood in the doorway holding a slender pipe between her fingers. “Jeremiah was the one who was wrong, strutting around, demanding his own way. He’s the one who should have been ashamed.” With defiance she pulled a long draw from the pipe.
   Mrs. Calhoun bowed her head. “If Alan would’ve stayed here, he would’ve been forced to fight for the Federals, and you know he wouldn’t have done that. You’d be waiting for him either way, so you might as well wait with a cheerful heart. Alan won’t be pleased to find you dishonoring your brother’s memory.”
   And what would Alan think of the tobacco pipe she was puffing on? Abigail had only heard of pipe-smoking women in caricatures ridiculing poor Southerners. Never did she imagine she would have a sister-in-law with the habit.
   Rachel slowly released a stream of smoke directly into Abigail’s face. “What’s wrong? You didn’t bring your own tobaccy?”
   Abigail swallowed down a cough. “What does your doctor say about your pipe?”
   “Dr. Hopkins?” She laughed. “As long as Dr. Hopkins is shining up to Laurel, he tiptoes around here. He doesn’t want any trouble with the family.”
   Ah yes. They’d mentioned that Jeremiah’s fiancée had been seeing a doctor, but he was Rachel’s doctor? That was uncomfortable. Rachel blew another ribbon of smoke. Then again, maybe Rachel preferred uncomfortable.
   “Well, the sun is up.” Abigail set her mug down. “I’m taking Josephine to the Wallace farm this morning. No sense in wasting time. We need to start adding to our herd.”
   “Our herd? You’re already taking the credit for them?” Rachel asked.
   “And the responsibility. Those animals are good stock, but they’re an investment that will lose value if they aren’t producing. You can’t keep selling them off without replenishing the herd. Now, let me get you a cup of coffee.”
   Abigail rose, pulled out a chair, and turned to get another mug. She was proud that her hands were steady even though her heart pounded. She wanted to earn Rachel’s trust and friend- ship, but she could tell that Rachel wouldn’t like anyone she didn’t respect.
   “I suppose you’ll tell Laurel who you are.” Ma’s cup clattered on the table. “There’s really no way around it. Poor girl. I never thought she and Jeremiah suited each other, but they were so in love I didn’t have the courage to oppose them. It’ll be a blow.”
   “Ma, if Jeremiah really married this woman, how can you say he loved Laurel? You need to hoe your rows straight.”
   “Jeremiah did what he thought was best for us. Marrying Abigail had nothing to do with his feelings for Laurel.”
   Jeremiah loved Laurel. Alan loved Rachel. Abigail was the only one unspoken for. She looped her finger into the crook of the mug handle and thought about the hundreds of men who’d passed through the prison hospital, some entering eternity before they could be identified. If God had made a partner for her, what were the chances that he was still alive? Could her perfect match have suffered on a bed in her ward and she missed the chance to say good-bye—or even hello?
   She’d always championed lost causes. Now she might be one herself.


With no sidesaddle available, Abigail kept tugging at her riding habit to keep it from bunching up above her ankles. Might as well smoke a pipe while she was at it, and be a true hill woman. She ducked as they passed beneath a low cedar. The horse’s tail swished. Josephine trotted up the steep trail as surefooted as a mountain goat.
   “Has she ever raced?” Abigail asked over her shoulder.
   “No,” Calbert Huckabee said. “She was barely broke before Jeremiah left. I’ve ridden her now and then but haven’t worked her like she needed. She flies across the pasture, though.” The mule Calbert rode nipped at Josephine and earned a sideways kick. “That’s Hiram Wallace’s field ahead. You might as well see what she can do.”
   Abigail wouldn’t wait for a second offer. As soon as they reached the clearing, she secured her feet in the stirrups, get-ting a feel for the unusual posture, and gave an encouraging, “Yaw!”
   That was all it took.
   With a twitch of the ears, Josephine was off. So sudden was her start, so quickly did she reach a full gallop that Abigail had to remind herself to loosen the reins, and once she did, Josephine found another exhilarating burst. Abigail’s body swayed with the hooves thundering across the uneven field. To smile was to risk catching bugs in her teeth, but she couldn’t keep from grinning.
   Abigail flexed her fingers over the reins. Had it really been since Chillicothe that she’d ridden? How had she borne it? So perceptive was Josephine that by the time Abigail thought about slowing, she’d already fallen into a canter. Abigail was pleased with the horse, and it increased her determination to have more just like her. Josephine should be the matriarch of many fine steeds, and it was up to Abigail to see it happen.
   And only that goal could’ve brought her to the Wallaces’. Now that Abigail had found a course worth mastering, it’d be best to take her hurdles head-on when she was expecting them. Like Jeremiah’s fiancée. If Abigail didn’t meet Laurel soon, Rachel would send word to her, and Laurel deserved a more delicate disclosure.
   Calbert took the reins while Abigail went to the door, but before she could knock, a gentleman appeared from around the clapboard house.
   “No use beating on the door. We’re outside.” The man’s bald spot had pinked in the cold wind. He stepped into the shelter of the porch. His pleated dress shirt looked out of place with canvas pants and suspenders, but times were tough.
   “Hiram, this is Mrs. Abigail Calhoun.” Calbert scratched his beard. “She’s got business to discuss with you.”
   “A pleasure to meet you.” He produced a handkerchief from a back pocket to clean his hands. “I figured you came from the Calhouns’ place when I saw you riding Josephine. Mrs. Calhoun and Rachel are well, I hope?”
   “Yes, sir. They send their greetings.”
   “Greetings shared and troubles bared. That’s what neighbors are for. Now what can I do for you?”

   Abigail looked to Calbert. She hadn’t planned on getting to business so quickly, but from the look of Mr. Wallace, he was eager to return to his tasks.
   Calbert spoke up. “It’s high time we make use of this good breeding pair we got ourselves. Miss Abigail is looking after Mrs. Calhoun’s interest, and we believe that every season Josephine doesn’t produce a foal is a crying shame.”
   He smiled. “I agree. What sort of partnership are you offering?”
   Abigail exhaled. Finally she was on familiar ground. “I’d like to inspect Napoleon first.”
   “Of course. But you’ll find nothing wanting. He’s a fine specimen and has sired some beautiful colts.”
   Admittedly, the people in Hart County spent more on their horses than their clothing. She hadn’t expected to find such good stock here, and while Abigail knew how to haggle, she’d never denigrate an animal to get the price down. If Napoleon was as stunning as they promised, she wouldn’t pretend to be disappointed.
   “After an inspection, I’d be willing to offer half ownership in the foal. Josephine is untested and we’d hate to waste our money—”
   “I have no interest in half a horse. It’d be a year before it’s born, and it’d be a wonder if you keep her that long, seeing how the law in these parts has no interest in watching out for livestock. I’m afraid I need the payment up front.”
   It’d been worth the try, but she expected as much. They were strangers, after all, and that’s why she’d brought her savings.
   A rustling drew Abigail’s attention to a well-worn path that wound behind the house. A young woman emerged with a basket of pinecones in her hand. From beneath her straw bonnet, hair as dark as poppy seeds peeked out. Her brows painted stark lines above cornflower blue eyes that noticed the horse immediately. “Father, isn’t that Josephine?”
   Her skin glowed from her expressive face all the way to dainty fingers that emerged from an unraveling sweater, making Abigail feel pale and ungainly in contrast. No wonder Jeremiah had been smitten.
   “Yes, dear. This is Mrs. Calhoun, who has come to stay with her family.”
   “I’m afraid we haven’t met. I’m Laurel.” She secured the basket in the crook of her arm and tilted her head to smile up at Abigail. “Pretty dress. You must be from Springfield.”
   “Further east, I’m afraid.” Abigail’s eyes darted to Calbert. His beard slid up and down his chest with his nod. Waiting wouldn’t make it easier. “I confess I’ve dreaded our meeting because of the tidings I bear.”
   Creases appeared on Laurel’s forehead. “Bad news for me?” She stepped closer to her father. “What about?”
   Laurel’s troubled eyes did nothing to ease Abigail’s disquiet. She could only pray that Laurel was more understanding than Rachel. “I met Captain Calhoun, your fiancée, after he was injured at Westport. He spoke of you constantly—no praise was too high, no comparison worthy.”
   Laurel ducked her head and pulled her sweater tighter. “Well, he never did do things by half. He didn’t . . . well, I hope he didn’t suffer, did he?”
   “He bore it well. He was brave, cheerful, always thinking of others even when it became clear he was dying. He was a great favorite among the men for his antics to keep their spirits up.”
   “Jeremiah?” Hiram frowned. “Jeremiah’s never been one to cut capers.”
   “War changes people, sir. It causes people to act in ways you can’t predict.” Abigail owed Laurel a personal explanation. After this revelation the news would travel on its own legs. She took a deep breath. “What I’m about to tell you is difficult. He loved you, Miss Wallace. If you’ll consider the sentiments he expressed in his last letter—”
   “Please, don’t.” Laurel’s eyes darted to her father, then back to Abigail. “I know it’ll be painful getting over his death, but Jeremiah wouldn’t want me to mourn indefinitely.”
   Indefinitely? It’d only been a month. Then Abigail remembered the sparking doctor.
   “Jeremiah would approve of you moving on and would hope you’d understand his own practicality. When Jeremiah realized his death was imminent, he wanted to guarantee his sister and Mrs. Calhoun would be cared for. Knowing that I’m a nurse and that I was raised on a horse farm, he asked me to come here. And to ensure that legally I could make decisions for the Calhoun farm”—she looked from father to daughter—“he made me his wife.”
   Laurel’s mouth dropped open. “His wife? All this time I worried that—” She clutched at her midsection. “Are you sure? Jeremiah isn’t . . . wasn’t the type of man to change his mind easily.”
   “He didn’t change, not at all. This was purely a matter of convenience. If it’s any comfort, we were never even alone together. He was faithful to you until the end.”
   Her basket slid off her arm and toppled to the ground. “I . . . I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I’d assumed his last moments were spent thinking of me.”
   No longer able to bear the hurt on Laurel’s face, Abigail studied the pine cones spilled at her feet. “They were. You and Rachel were all he cared about. I’m only here to honor his wishes.”
   “I thought you must be a cousin of some sort.” Hiram slid his hands into his pockets. “But a dead man’s wife only brings strife. Can you imagine how humiliated Laurel will be when everyone finds out that Jeremiah married you?”
   “I’ll explain the situation as often as you’d like,” Abigail said. “I have no desire to present myself as something I’m not.”
   “But far as I’m concerned, the horse deal is void. Those horses were to be wedding gifts—”
   “Father.” Laurel secured an ebony lock behind her ear. “Don’t be hasty. We might not like the situation, but harassing Mrs.”— she swallowed—“Mrs. Calhoun accomplishes nothing. If Jeremiah would have married me, you’d have the upkeep of both farms on your hands, so perhaps it’s for the best. Besides, we could use the money.”
   She should’ve known that Jeremiah’s Juliet was a woman of valor. Hadn’t he told her so?
   “I’d appreciate the assistance,” Abigail said. “I’m prepared to pay and leave Josephine today.”
   Hiram grumbled through the negotiations. Laurel remained subdued, but given the circumstances, Abigail thought she’d conducted herself heroically. She owed the young woman for not making her task any more difficult and would look for every opportunity to thank her.
   After Abigail inspected Napoleon, they haggled a price and soon reached an agreement. Josephine would stay at the Wallace ranch for a few weeks. The fee was the same, whether she foaled or not, and Abigail handed over the velvet drawstring bag of her earnings, knowing how little remained in the bureau drawer back at the farm.
   “Thank you, Mrs. Calhoun.” Hiram passed the bag into his daughter’s hands. “I hope a year from now you have a healthy, pristine foal, but even more than that I hope your tale does nothing to tarnish Laurel’s memories of Jeremiah.”
   Abigail nodded. As long as she had his farm, she’d leave the memories for Laurel.

April 1865
St. Louis, Missouri

The stench seeped from the wooden floors and brick walls of the third-floor prison hospital even though most of the patients had gone. Where they ultimately rested, the man didn’t want to imagine. He had enough trouble keeping up with those he was responsible for. Miles traveled, records searched, soldiers questioned, and he was no closer to an answer than at Westport when he last saw him.
   The nurse offered a chair. He refused, though the effort cost him. Putting the war behind him would be difficult when he bore the painful reminders of his involvement, but unless he wanted his mind to be as unsound as his body, he couldn’t dwell on all that had happened.
   “Here’s the register, sir. I looked for the dates you requested, but I didn’t find the name.” The nurse didn’t wear a uniform, but then again, neither did he. She held the book out to him, and noticing his situation she flattened it open on the desk. “Truthfully, our records got behind after ’64. Still, if you’d like to have a look yourself ”—her ragged fingernail pointed to the correct line—“start here and work your way down.”
   Whether the nurse stayed or left, the man didn’t notice. The names, stacked one on top of the other like corpses bound for a communal grave, burned into his memory.
   “Sherman, Matthew. Smythe, Thaddeus. Pettey, Oliver.”
   There was no order, no reason. He was not allowed the mercy of being able to bypass any of the names—several fa-miliar, a few dear. No, he had to look at each one and endure the memories.
   “Stevens, Edwin. Grisham, Clement. Calhoun, Jeremiah.”
   The pit of his stomach grew cold. He blinked and bent closer to touch the register where the blotched ink spelled out the hor- rendous mistake. “Calhoun, Jeremiah. Died February 23, 1865.”
   His hand trembled. He fell against the desk, causing it to screech across the floor. The nurse appeared instantly.
   “Are you ill? Let me help you to a chair.”
   He waved her away, his eyes fastened to the register.
   Jeremiah Calhoun wasn’t the name he sought. It was a shock, but more important than a faulty record was finding the man he’d wronged.
   He prayed that he wasn’t too late.

Hart County, Missouri
Two Weeks Later

Abigail read the rejection in Varina Helspeth’s sneer before she spoke.
   “I don’t care if she did marry Jeremiah, I don’t want no Yankee woman looking after my son.”
   The woman’s face was as plain as an empty paper sack and just as flat. A fine line of whiskers dusted her top lip. Abigail thought her mouth would sooner splinter than curve into a smile.
   Dr. Hopkins picked up his medical bag from her front step. “Come on, Mrs. Calhoun. They don’t need our services here.” He dropped his hat atop his thick shock of hair and spun his lanky frame.
   Another rejection. Abigail didn’t blame the woman. If her own mother didn’t trust her, why should a complete stranger?
   She had one foot on the bare dirt path when Varina grunted. “But you have to help him, Doctor. We have to get the shot out of his back.”
   “I don’t work without my nurse. If you don’t need her help, you don’t need mine.”
   Let her son die or allow Abigail in the house? The length of time it took the woman to decide proved once again how hated outsiders were in these woods.
   Without a word, Varina disappeared into the house, leaving Abigail and Dr. Hopkins outside. Was that a no? As if reading her thoughts, Dr. Hopkins leaned down and whispered, “She left the door open. You won’t get more of an invitation than that.”
   With a smile she followed the sharp-chinned doctor inside.
   The young man’s wounds weren’t serious. He’d been peppered with bird shot in an innocent hunting accident. The injury would heal quickly if it was kept clean. Seeing that the Helspeths’ cabin was on the same mountain as the Calhouns’, it only made sense for Abigail to check his progress and leave Hopkins free for his more important daily duties—holding down the porch swing at the Wallace place, for example.
   “Have Calbert ride with you,” Dr. Hopkins suggested as they departed. “There are dangerous men lurking about. Our troubles started before the war began, and they aren’t ended just because it’s over.”
   It wasn’t difficult to believe the foreboding woods held hid-den dangers. Even graced with the breathtaking dogwoods and cheery redbuds, their dark crevices covered secrets. If honest, hard-working people would snub her to her face, what were the outlaws capable of?
   Abigail shuddered. She didn’t need an imagination to know what evils men would commit—she’d seen them, both in battle wounds and in the care of the prisoners she’d worked with.
   “Did you serve with Jeremiah?” Abigail asked as the horses picked their way back to the Calhoun side of the mountain.
   “Yes, ma’am.” Hopkins had the creaky voice of a much older man. “We joined the Missouri State Guard to protect our state from foreign invaders, but General Fremont declared us traitors. No surrenders, no prisoners. Men merely hung as common out- laws if captured in battle. Little by little as we found opportunity, our divisions enrolled with the Confederate Army, so we’d be treated as proper soldiers. In ’62 Jeremiah signed under Major General Price in the Army of the West. I stayed with Colonel McBride as he went to Arkansas.”
   “But you’ve been home—” Too late Abigail realized how her words could be heard as an accusation. “I don’t mean to pry.”
   His chin rose. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. I provided medical care with the army until ’64, when General McBride requested my services for himself. He’d been unwell and was headed further south, hoping warmer weather would rid him of the pneumonia that had afflicted him. By the time he died, I knew my chances of finding a unit to join were slim with Arkansas under Union control, so I decided to go home and help the families left behind.”
   Abigail couldn’t help but like the earnest young man who obviously cared more for healing than conquering.
   He continued. “Naturally I had no intention of falling in love with Laurel. It’s bothered me that I was enjoying her company while Jeremiah fought . . . and died. But you’re here now, and I thank you. Evidently even Jeremiah believed that four years was too long to wait.”
   He tugged his hat a bit lower on his head. At least some one was grateful for her—two people, counting Ma Calhoun. She didn’t have the heart to tell the doctor that Jeremiah never stopped loving Laurel. If she’d learned anything recently, it was that people often preferred not to know the whole truth, and that suited her just fine.
Regina Jennings, Most Inconvenient Marriage Bethany House Publishers, © 2014.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

This Quiet Sky: A Novella by Joanne Bischof, © 2014

  A treasure. I do not want to read the back cover, the snippets, the comments about This Quiet Sky ~ I want to experience it all by myself, word for word. Joanne Bischof's words float off the page to my heart as I read with Sarah viewing Tucker for the first time. Two weeks. A new school. Home now in the mountains away from the sea view left far behind. Our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord....

Rocky Knob, Virginia ~ 1885
If you have read the Cadence of Grace series, you will remember the choice to go to Aunt Sarah's house down the lane or up the mountainside to home. Wanting to know more about Aunt Sarah, I now have my chance ~ for This Quiet Sky is her story.

author Joanne Bischof
So many times we may have pondered our beginnings, choices we have made, choice made for us. We begin again, each day anew ~ either living now or letting the past dictate our present and future.

   "Promise me you'll always remember:
You're braver than you believe, and stronger
than you seem, and smarter than you think."
             -- A. A. Milne
Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh

The sky has opened up clear; fresh beginnings. New views. West Virginia Mountains, United States

"You're so focused on being normal that you haven't realized that you're actually not."
   --This Quiet Sky, 49

All his words hit my heart at odd angles, burrowing in, staying.
   --Ibid., 50

   The small creek gurgles beside us and is so clogged with old leaves, that the water is several different shades of glittering gold and orange. Minnows dart about and water bugs skate on top. Tucker watches it with me.
   --Ibid., 51

I like the visual elements of Joanne Bischof's writings. I am there with them. As I continue to read I envelop them. Dreams, aspirations, patience, concern, life... So beautifully written and six tissues later I come out the other side. Thank you to author Joanne Bischof for a story that needed to be told ~ for hearts open to receive. A love beyond mention and a healing of a heart. I look forward to the next story!

This Quiet Sky - a Novella***Thank you to author Joanne Bischof for this story of life and love beyond anything we could ever hope or imagine ~ given to us by God, Himself. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation ~ besides Grace! ~ was received.***

Excerpt and... your own copy! available for you now ~ and here.

The Cadence of Grace Series ~* 
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2013 Christy Award Finalist
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2014 INSPY Award Finalist
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SDCWG Novel of the Year


Friday, November 21, 2014

Secrets of Sloane House by Shelley Gray, © 2014

Photo by The New Studio

A Chicago World's Fair Mystery

Cover art

Chicago, Illinois, 1893. The best schools, spacious houses along Michigan Avenue are not always sought by the parents of the debutantes ~ the young men are destined to make a good match to continue the style in which their family is accustomed.

Rosalind Perry has changed her name to Rosalind Pettit as she seeks Sloane House as a favorable employer to search for clues to the disappearance of her sister, Miranda Perry. Miranda had been in their employ and has not been heard from by her family in Wisconsin. Many have ventured to Chicago for employment during the World's Fair Expo. Whom can she trust? The staff are reluctant to speculate or divulge any tales of the former maid and Rosalind is warned not to bring past events up so as to keep their positions.

Secrets of Sloane House delves into the mixing of the staff and the young men of the families ~ friend or foe? Sadness in separation of the "classes." Rooting for hearts that will need mending, or stupidity in selection, you want to protect these girls from wrong choices of servitude.

***Thank you to BookLook Bloggers for sending me a copy of Shelley Gray's Secrets of Sloane House to review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Enjoy this excerpt from Secrets of Sloane House ~


Chicago, August 1893

As circumspectly as she could, Rosalind Perry smoothed her dark gray skirts before meeting the wide, assessing gaze of Douglass Sloane, the twenty-four-year-old son and heir of the Sloane estate.
   "And who might you be?" he asked.
   "Rosalind, sir."
   "I haven't seen you here before, have I?" His dark eyes scanned her form, her face.
   "No, sir. I'm new." A prickling ran up the length of her spine. Why was he watching her so closely? Had she done something wrong that she wasn't aware of?
   Below them, down the stairs, the steady ticking of a mahogany grandfather clock floated upward, echoing the quick beating of her heart. The surrounding walls, with the rose trellis wallpaper and great array of samplers and portraits, seemed to close around her.
   As if he had nowhere else to go, Douglass leaned a shoulder against the wall. The movement nudged the corner of a frame displaying the likeness of one of his dead relatives, showing a patch of dark wallpaper underneath. Rosalind did her best to stand still, though her hands longed to fidget. These questions were out of the ordinary. Never had the other members of his family conversed with her. Never had she expected it.
   Cook had warned her that all four Sloanes were particular about the servants remembering their station in the formidable home. Hired help who spoke too much, didn't follow directives, or proved slovenly were soon replaced. Rosalind didn't doubt that to be true.
   As she stood as still as a statue, Douglass Sloane continued to examine her as if she were one of the World Fair's new inventions.
   "So ... Rosalind." A dimple appeared. "Shakespeare, yes?"
   She nodded. The name was from the play As You Like It. Her mother was a great fan of all things literary. Her children's names had been a reflection of that. And perhaps to show the world that she was more than merely a farmer's wife.
   Clarifying her mother's reasons for naming her Rosalind, however, seemed unnecessary. Too personal.
   Not asked.
   His arms crossed. The white linen of his shirt shone against the dark woodwork behind him. "And where might you be from?"
   "Wisconsin, sir." A small dairy farm near Milwaukee, to be specific.
   "Ah, Wisconsin. That veritable utopia to our west." Skimming her features again, he almost smiled. "And now here you are. In Chicago. Dusting."
   "Yes." Her shoulders began to relax. Obviously, this member of the household meant her no harm. He was just curious about the newest housemaid on staff.
   Perhaps that made sense. During the three weeks she'd worked in the home, the master's son had been on a buying trip with his father to New York City. She heard they'd returned just two days ago—and the downstairs talk was filled with gossip about his escapades.
   Rumor had it that Douglass had spent every waking hour in city pubs and gaming halls. Anywhere he liked, actually. With a name like Sloane, a man could do what he liked whenever he chose.
   "Really, Douglass," Veronica Sloane called out as she entered the hall on the arm of an extremely handsome man. "Leave the girl alone. If you cause her to tarry, she won't get all her work done." Somewhat mockingly, she raised a finely curved eyebrow. "And then what will we do?"
   "I'm doing nothing out of the ordinary." He dared to wink, and his gaze gripped Rosalind again. "Merely getting acquainted. As I've done many times before," he added, almost as an afterthought.
   With those words, alarms sounded in Rosalind's head again. Perhaps it was only her imagination, but she was certain his statement was laced with another meaning.
   "There's little to get acquainted with," his sister said as she and her companion joined Douglass, their bodies effectively circling Rosalind. Her voice was sharp. "She's a servant, Douglass. Not a debutante."
   Rosalind clutched her dust rag more tightly. Yes, in their world she was only a servant. But in her heart, she knew she was more than that. She was a child of God. In his eyes, she counted as much as anyone.
   As much as her sister, Miranda, had ... before she'd gone missing.
   Douglass stepped forward, bringing with him the faint scent of scotch. "Tell me, Rosalind, are you liking our home?"
   His voice had turned silky. Rosalind's mouth turned dry. The question felt loaded, but she wasn't sure what the expected answer was. Her heartbeat quickened.
   Oh, why had she been dusting in this spot at this moment?
   Staring at her intently, Veronica once again raised a brow. "Do you? Are you happy?" Her voice lowered. "Content?"
   Content? "I ... I—"
   "Rosalind, Miss Sloane is right, you'd best get your chores done," the handsome stranger interrupted. "Why don't you run along now?"
   His voice was so commanding, so direct, that she took a step back. Then stopped just as abruptly. She wasn't supposed to leave until she'd been dismissed.
   Douglass turned to the man and frowned. "Armstrong, are you now giving orders to the servants in my home?"
   "Not at all. I'm merely repeating what Veronica said. She is right. This maid surely has a great many things to do other than stand here with us."
   Rosalind noticed a slight softening around the corners of Veronica's lips. "Reid, you actually listened to me."
   Mr. Armstrong smiled at Veronica, and his voice became warmer. "Of course I listened. I always listen." There was no such warmth in his eyes when he turned back to Rosalind, however. His gaze was cool and almost piercing. "Miss, you had best go about your business. Now."
   Staring at him, Rosalind stepped back. Her body was trembling so much that she feared it would be commented upon, giving them yet another opportunity to taunt her.
   But when neither Douglass nor Veronica protested, only chuckled softly, she pivoted on her heel and scurried down the hall.
   Brittle feminine laughter followed her steps. "Oh, Reid, I do think I'll keep you close to me all day. You're beyond amusing. Besides, it's nice having someone nearby who heeds what I say."
   "Some might have a problem with your heavy-handed ways, though," Douglass added, his voice carrying a thread of malice. "The way you shooed away our new girl was a bit of a surprise. It almost seemed as if you were worried about her welfare."
   "Perhaps I am concerned about her. You do have quite the reputation, you know, Sloane," their guest retorted. "If we're not careful, you'll charm the girl, break her heart, and next thing you know? Why, she'll be leaving. Then who would dust your furniture?"
   The laughter continued as Rosalind turned a corner. But just as she was hurrying down a half flight of stairs, she faintly heard Veronica's reply. "Don't be silly, Reid. Servants can be replaced. Always."
   A jolt of fear shot up Rosalind's spine. Was that what had happened to her sister? Had she been dismissed for neglecting her chores and then promptly forgotten?
   Or had she been snatched up from the city's busy streets and simply vanished?
   Quickly, Rosalind turned right, then left. She struggled to recall where she was. The house was so vast, such a jumbled maze of curious rooms and narrow, winding halls, that she was continually getting lost. One wrong turn could lead to her flying down a corridor where she had no business being.
   Which, of course, could lead to her coming into contact with members of the family.
   As she stopped and rested a palm on a wall covered in rich scarlet and burnished gold paisley wallpaper, she let her mind drift, remembering how Miranda had written that she, too, had gotten lost in the mansion more than a time or two. Of course, she'd also confided that some of the people in the house frightened her.
   Remembering that the letters had stopped coming before she'd revealed who had frightened her—and how—Rosalind closed her eyes and tried to fend off a new wash of pain.
   Oh, Miranda! Where are you?
   Her sister, older by only eleven months, was the twenty-one-year-old beauty of the family. Blessed with thick, curly auburn hair, set off by bright blue eyes, she was striking. Rosalind's mahogany hair and faded blue eyes had always paled in comparison.
   As did her personality. Miranda was the more headstrong, the one who was the most self-reliant. Rosalind? Ever the follower.
   Over the years, Miranda's strong personality had always gotten her what she wanted. So much so that Rosalind had often wished she had even a small portion of her sister's determination.
   When things had gone from bad to worse at their farm, Miranda had up and left, leaving behind a note saying that she'd gone to Chicago to find work and she'd send money home as soon as she could.
   But Rosalind knew financial concerns weren't the only reason Miranda had ventured east. No, she'd always been plagued by the need to push limits and boundaries. Even the wide open fields of their farm had seemed far too confining for a woman of her light and exuberance.
   Soon after she left, Miranda wrote that she'd gotten a position as a maid in a grand house. More letters arrived over the next two months, each one with a bit of money.
   But then they heard nothing.
   With a heavy heart, Rosalind was beginning to fear that her earnest prayers for her sister had not only been unanswered, but had also been in vain.
   Either Miranda had decided to move on and forget about them all ... or something dire had happened to her.
   Sometimes, in the dark of night, Rosalind admitted that she wasn't sure which scenario would be easier to bear.


"Mrs. Sloane just changed the numbers for dinner. Now we're going to have twenty people instead of ten," Cook announced grumpily when Rosalind arrived in the perpetually steamy kitchens for a bite of lunch. "That means not a one of you is going to be taking a break anytime soon. I need you, Rosalind, to run to the market and pick up another batch of squash for the soup."
   Still feeling off-kilter after her run-in with Douglass and Veronica, Rosalind blinked. "Do you mean the farmer's market?"
   Mrs. Martha Russell—"Cook" to everyone in the house—folded her arms over an ample bosom and glared. "None other."
   Rosalind's heart dipped. She barely knew her way around the two blocks surrounding the mansion. Chicago streets were crowded and winding, difficult to traverse in the best of circumstances.
   Now, with the World's Fair in full swing and thousands of visitors swarming along the sidewalks, it was near impossible to navigate the streets with any expediency. She feared that there was a very good chance she'd become lost and ruin Cook's schedule.
   But that was the least of her worries. Never a moment passed when she wasn't completely aware of the dangers that lurked in the city and that, somehow, her sister had vanished in them.
   "I'm sorry, ma'am. But I'm not sure if I'm the right—"
   Cook cut her off with a stern expression brewing in her toffee-colored eyes. "I can't be sparin' no one else. I need that squash." Pulling away the bowl Rosalind had just picked up, she snapped, "You've got no time to eat! Go now."
   Only Cook's reputation of being all bark and no bite prevented Rosalind from shaking in her shoes. "Yes, ma'am. Um, where is the market?"
   With exaggerated patience, Cook said, "Take a grip car and be quick about it. When you get there, look for Tom. He's the head grocer, and Sloane House has an account with him."
   "Tom," she repeated.
   "He's youngish. Has a red beard, and he knows all about Mrs. Sloane's wants and particulars. He'll help you find what you need."
   It sounded as if finding Tom might not be too much of a problem, but she dreaded taking the grip car. The only time she'd been on it alone she'd worried she'd miss her stop, get off too early—or worse, too late—far from the neighborhood she was just starting to become accustomed to.
   Traveling in the large city was excruciatingly nerve-racking and scary. Especially after Miranda had mentioned time and time again in her letters how dangerous the streets were. Just the descriptions alone made Rosalind wish for eyes in the back of her head. Yes, there were multiple dangers on the streets of Chicago, and a woman alone was always at risk.
   But perhaps there were dangers most anywhere? Once again, she found her mind drifting back to Douglass and his piercing gaze ...
   A pair of saucepans clanged together. "Rosalind, what more do you need for me to say? Go on with ya, now."
   "Yes, ma'am. I mean, yes, I'm off to the market right now."
   Now that she was getting her way, Cook's voice gentled. "Take some coins from housekeeping just in case you don't be seein' Tom. Go on, now. There's a good girl."
   Nanci, her one good friend in the house, smiled sweetly at Rosalind as their paths crossed in the doorway. "You can do it. It'll be just like the time we took the trolley to the park. Just take it again, but head south, toward the market. If you get lost, ask for help. Most people in Chicago are honest folk. Most will help you."
   Most. That one word made all the difference between comfort and wariness. Not everyone was honest. Or helpful. Some, it seemed, were much worse.
   Once again, Rosalind recalled Miranda's letters. She'd written stories of women coming to the fair and getting pulled into brothels, never to be heard from again.
   Like a newsboy calling out the day's headlines, Cook's voice rang down the hall. "Don't you be comin' back without my squash, Rosalind. You do, and I'll have you be the one to tell the missus herself why her dinner party will be ruined, and you know what will be happenin' then!"
   She'd be let go, that was what would be happening.
   Rosalind didn't doubt Cook's threat in the slightest. From her first day, she realized the whole staff lived in fear of the mercurial moods of the family. Mrs. Sloane could be at once exceptionally benevolent and malicious. Stories abounded of servants being fired for the slightest offense while others were paid while recuperating from the influenza.
   Removing her apron and hanging it in the servants' closet, Rosalind grabbed four coins from the cook's top desk drawer, then, at last, darted out the back door.
   "Lord, please help me find my courage," she whispered. "Please help me become strong and not such a ninny. I need to keep my wits about me to find my sister. Please help me become more confident and more hopeful too. Help me be more like the girl I was back home."
   Back home, she'd hardly ever worried about her safety. Back home, she'd known everyone and had felt secure, not only in her surroundings, but in the knowledge that she mattered. To the townspeople nearest to their farm. To her family. To the Lord.
   Stepping out onto the broad cavalcade of Michigan Avenue, Rosalind was immediately swept into the crowd of people hurrying among the drays, carriages, and curricles. She was sure her starched gray blouse and skirts were about to be hopelessly stained.
   Then she knocked into the side of a lad no more than twelve.
   "Watch it," he muttered with a fierce scowl. He was a messenger boy, distinguishable as such by his hat, sturdy satchel, and single-minded expression.
   "Sorry." Suddenly, with a burst of steam, the trolley squealed to a halt in front of her. Though she'd only traveled on the crowded conveyance twice before, she knew she had to push her way on and hold on tightly. Within seconds, the trolley car moved forward, pushing its way through the cacophony of carriages and people filling the street.
   Noise filtered by the congestion rang in her ears. Rosalind gripped the leather strap more tightly. Looking around, she sought a friendly face. Directly across from her stood a woman, most likely a typist, given her black skirt and crisp white shirtwaist. "Pardon me, have you ever gone to the market? I mean, to the farmer's market," she clarified. "You know, for vegetables?"
   "I have," the woman said with a regal nod. Long black feathers circling the brim of her hat fluttered with the motion.
   "Am I going in the right direction?"
   If the lady heard, she didn't deign to give a reply. Flummoxed, Rosalind resigned herself that she'd have to wait and see.
   "Exit the next stop, miss," an older man in multiple layers of brown tweed and tan muttered from her other side. "Exit and walk toward the west. Can't miss it."
   A young woman dressed in a plain dress flashed a reassuring smile.  "He's right, lamb. You'll see the stalls before you've walked too far. You'll smell them too. Nothing smells better than the market in the afternoon."
   Rosalind took their advice with a grateful smile. "Thank you."
   "Have a care, now," the working girl warned. "The streets can be a challenge for one who's not familiar with them."
   Rosalind nodded but said nothing more. The girl's warning told her nothing she didn't already know. And nothing her sister hadn't already found out.
Shelley Gray, Secrets of Sloane House Zondervan, © 2014.

Book 2 in The Chicago World's Fair Mysteries Series, Deception at Sable Hill, releases in the Spring of 2015.

Cover art

Monday, November 17, 2014

When Mercy Rains by Kim Vogel Sawyer, © 2014

The Zimmerman Restoration Trilogy, Book 1

Remember not the
sins of my youth,
nor my transgressions:
according to thy mercy
remember thou me for
thy goodness’ sake,
O Lord.

Psalm 25:7, KJV

Suzanne Zimmerman is called back home to care for her mother who was injured in a haying accident. Are they calling for her because she is convenient, or because they want to be restored as a family? Deep hurts have kept them apart. With young children, the other siblings are needing a break. With Suzanne's nursing experience she is qualified.

A surprise to the family is Suzanne's daughter, Alexa, they are unaware is coming with her to their Kansas farm. Far from their home in Indiana, Suzanne is taking a leave of absence from her job. Alexa is eager to know her extended family.

Dysfunctional at best, one sister harbors regrets and ill will. I am looking forward to a yielding on her heart, receiving freedom to live exposing her pain. The one left behind.... Under the facade of perfection and judging, cracks appear finally able to receive the balm necessary for healing.
Restoration and forgiveness indeed are needed as hidden truth comes to the surface. This is a wonderful story of mending and love coming alive in long bruised and hampered lives. Alexa is the bright spot as she gives all, bringing this family to the light of His grace. God's mercy and truth free them to live anew.
Summer Kitchen Inside
The transformation that comes into their lives gives them a second chance. An excellent story of a way out of destruction leaving disintegration behind. Deterioration of heart and soul is nipped as they begin to rejoice in the change honest sharing and love bring. Restoring not just themselves, but the community around them brought in to reclaim harmony leaving severed relationships an open door for a future.

sneak-peak_1852Enjoy this excerpt from When Mercy Rains by Kim Vogel Sawyer ~


Spring 1994

The hiss of approaching tires on wet pavement broke the tense silence between the mother and daughter seated on the bus-stop bench. Suzy flicked a look at Mother and dared a timorous comment. “Here it comes.” Now that her leave-taking was upon her, would her mother’s disapproving demeanor soften?
   The lines of Mother’s mouth remained etched in a stern line, the furrows between her brows forming a V so deep it might never depart. Suzy hunched into her wool coat—a coat far too cloying for the damp May dawn but also too bulky to fit in her small cardboard suitcase. She’d be gone well into the winter months, and Mother insisted she’d need it so she should wear it. And she always did what her mother said.
   Well, almost always. Who knew one foolish mistake could hold such far-reaching consequences? I’m so sorry, God.
   The bus groaned to a stop at the curb, and Mother curled her hand around Suzy’s elbow, forcing her to rise. Although Mother’s grip was hard, impersonal, Suzy welcomed it. Her ordinarily demonstrative mother hadn’t touched her even once in the past two weeks, as if fearful Suzy’s stains would rub off. So she pressed her elbow against her rib cage, needing to feel the pressure of Mother’s work-roughened fingers against her flesh. But the coat proved too thick a barrier. Suzy blinked rapidly.
   “Get your case.”
   The moment Suzy caught the handle of the old suitcase, Mother propelled her through the gray drizzle toward the bus. The slap of the soles of their matching black oxfords sent up dirty droplets from the rain-soaked sidewalk, peppering their tan hosiery. The dark spots reminded Suzy of the dark blotch now and forever on her soul. She pushed the thought aside and looked into the opening created by the unfolding of the bus door.
   The driver glanced from Mother to Suzy, seeming to focus on their white mesh caps and dangling ribbons—Mother’s black, Suzy’s white. Accustomed to curious looks from those outside her Mennonite faith, Suzy didn’t wince beneath the man’s puzzled scowl, but she battled the desire to melt into the damp concrete when Mother spoke in a strident tone.
   “I am Abigail Zimmerman, and this is my daughter. She is traveling one-way to Indianapolis.”
   One-way… Suzy swallowed hard.
   Mother gave her elbow a little shake. “Show him the ticket, Suzanne.”
   Suzanne. Not Suzy as she’d been tenderly called her entire life. She gulped again and drew the rumpled ticket from her pocket.
   The driver eased himself from the seat and plucked the rectangle of paper from Suzy’s icy fingers. He stared at it for a moment and then bobbed his head and waved a hand in invitation. “Come on aboard. Long drive ahead of you.”
   Suzy gritted her teeth to hold back a cry of agony. He didn’t realize how long. She turned to Mother, silently praying the mother who had dried her tears and bandaged her childhood scuffs would reappear, would read the fear in her eyes and offer a hug. A kind word. A hint of forgiveness.
   Mother leaned close, and Suzy’s heart leaped with hope. “The people at the…in Indianapolis know what to do. You do what they say.” Mother’s harsh whisper raised a slight cloud of condensation around her face, softening the fierce furrows of anger etched at her eyes and mouth.
   “I will.” Questions Suzy had fearfully held inside pressed for release. What had Mother and Dad told Clete, Shelley, and little Sandra? Did the fellowship know she was leaving? Would she be allowed to call home?
   “Afterward you can come to Arborville again. It will be as though this never happened.” Mother took a step back, shoving her balled fists into the pockets of her lightweight trench coat.
   Tears flooded Suzy’s eyes, distorting her vision. The suitcase encumbered one arm, but she lifted the other, her fingers reaching fleetingly toward her mother. “Mother, I—”
   “At least you will be able to bless your cousin Andrew and his wife. God will redeem your sin. Now go, Suzanne.” Mother jerked her chin toward the rumbling bus. “Go and put this unpleasantness behind us.”
   Behind us… Suzy’s shame had spilled over and tainted her entire family. She bowed her head, the weight of her burden too much to bear.
   “I will see you afterward.”
   Mother’s words sealed Suzy’s fate. With a heavy heart, she climbed the stairs, the unwieldy suitcase and her trembling limbs making her clumsy. She trudged down the narrow, dim aisle past snoozing passengers to the very last bench and slid in. Hugging the suitcase to her aching chest—to her womb, which bore the evidence of her shame—she hung her head and toyed with the plastic handle of the suitcase rather than clearing a spot on the steam-clouded window to see if Mother might wave good-bye.
   The bus lurched forward, jolting Suzy in the seat. She closed her eyes tight as a wave of nausea rolled over her. Her thoughts screamed, Wait! Let me off ! She didn’t want to go so far away. She needed her mother. She would miss her father and sisters and brother.
   And Paul.
   Her mother’s final comment echoed in her mind. “I will see you afterward.” After Suzy delivered this child and handed it to others to raise. The ache in her chest heightened until she could barely draw a breath. She leaned her forehead against the cool glass and allowed the long-held tears to slip quietly down her cheeks. She would leave her home in Kansas, and she would count the days until she could put this nightmare behind her and go back to being Mother and Dad’s Suzy again.

Chapter 1

Twenty Years Later

Suzanne Zimmerman balanced a clipboard against her hip and recorded the milliliters of antibiotic-infused solution administered via Mr. Birney’s IV, then she checked the box next to “pain medicine dispensed” and confirmed the time on her wristwatch before writing it down. Her clerical duties complete, she slid the clipboard into its plastic pocket on the wall and moved to the side of the tall, railed bed.
   The blinds were drawn against the night, and only one small fluorescent bulb glowed from a panel above the bed, but the dim beam of light was sufficient. To her relief, Mr. Birney’s face had lost its ashen appearance and his breathing was much less labored than when he’d been admitted three days ago.
   As she looked down at him, his eyes fluttered open. His gaze drifted around the room, confusion marring his brow, but then he fixed his faded gray eyes on her face, and his expression cleared.
   She touched the man’s wrinkled hand. “I’m sorry. Did I disturb you, Mr. Birney?”
   “Call me Ed. ‘Mr. Birney’ makes me feel like some old man.”
   Suzanne swallowed a smile. According to his file, Mr. Birney had turned eighty-two a month ago. He spoke in a crusty tone, but she admired his spunk. And she was thankful for it. He’d need spunk to recover from his bout of pneumonia. “Ed then. Are you comfortable?”
   “As comfortable as I can be in this crazy contraption. Hard as a rock and folding me in half like a pretzel. A bed like this belongs in a medieval torture chamber.”
   Reflecting upon the proverb about laughter being good medicine, Suzanne teased, “Well now, you guessed our secret. We purchase our beds from Torture Chamber Supply Company. After all, if you’re too comfortable, you won’t want to get well and go home.”
   Mr. Birney gave a brief snort of laughter that ended in a cough. He shook his head, the lines of his jowls shifting with the motion. “Torture Chamber Supply Company. That’s a good one.” His eyebrows beetled, real concern chasing away the glint of humor. “About goin’ home…I’ll be doing that, won’t I?”
   Compassion filled Suzanne. She looked directly into Mr. Birney’s watery eyes and spoke with great confidence. “You’ll be going home. No need to worry.”
   He heaved a rattling sigh, then set his jaw in a stubborn jut. “Wasn’t worried. Just wondering. Somebody’s gotta keep the bird feeders filled, you know.”
   “That’s true.” Suzanne was glad he had a reason to keep living. So many of the elderly patients who came to Mennonite Manor Hospital and Recovery Home had no motivation to get better. Attitude played a significant role in recuperation, and she suspected Ed Birney would be back in his little home feeding the birds very soon given his plucky attitude.
   Apparently reassured, Mr. Birney closed his eyes. Suzanne remained beside his bed for a few more minutes, watching the rise and fall of his chest, then sent up a quick prayer for his full recovery before stepping into the quiet hallway.
   In less than half an hour, the day-shift workers would begin to arrive and the hospital corridors would buzz with activity, but night shift was quieter, peaceful. She’d worked the graveyard shift for so many years now, she had no trouble catching her sleep during the daytime hours and couldn’t imagine any other schedule.
   She rounded the corner to the nurses’ station, the rubber soles of her white lace-up shoes squeaking on the freshly waxed tile. A familiar head of short black waves showed over the edge of the tall counter, and Suzanne gave a little skip to speed her steps. “Linda! You’re back!” As she stepped behind the counter, the hospital’s longtime bookkeeper rose and held her arms open. Suzanne wrapped her friend’s bulky form in a hug.
   “’Course I am.” Linda banged her thick palm against Suzanne’s shoulder several times before pulling loose. “Counted down the days ’til my vacation was finally over and I could head on back here. Whole time I was gone I worried the place would fall apart without me, but look at this—the walls’re still standing and nobody seems the worse for wear.” She balled her fists on her hips and pasted a fierce scowl on her face. “But these files are a mess and nobody bothered to refill the candy dish. How’m I s’posed to get anything done if I haven’t got any black cats to chew on?”
   Suzanne laughed. “You and your licorice cats. I’ll stop by Sarah’s Sweet Treats on my way home this morning and pick up a bag for you.” Surely Linda’s purchases of licorice cats had kept the little candy shop open over the years.
   “And that’s why you’re my favorite.” Linda released a deep, throaty chuckle. She dropped back into the wheeled chair and began organizing the manila files scattered across the long desk.
   Suzanne leaned against the edge of the counter and watched Linda work. “Did you enjoy your vacation? I bet the Caribbean islands were beautiful.” Every year, Linda and her husband visited an exotic location for her retreat from work. On more than one occasion they’d invited Suzanne to join them, but the cost was always beyond her means. Even so, she wouldn’t trade the years of raising her daughter for a hundred Caribbean cruises.
   “Beautiful and hot.” Linda fanned herself with both palms, pretending to pant. “I told Tom next year we’re going to Alaska. Polar bears instead of palm trees. Wanna come?”
   A vacation with Linda and her teddy bear of a husband would be pure delight. She loved both of them—they’d become her surrogate parents over the years. But she shook her head in gentle refusal.
   Linda snorted and returned to her file sorting. “Girl, you’ve got enough vacation time saved up to take off for six months.”
   “Seven,” Suzanne corrected with a smile.
   Linda rolled her eyes. “But do you go anywhere? Huh-uh. Work, mothering, church, work, mothering, church… That’s your whole life.” She gave Suzanne’s elbow a light smack. “You need to do something fun. Live a little. The Bible says, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’”
   Suzanne burst out laughing. “The Bible says that?”
   “So maybe the good Lord Almighty didn’t say it, but it’s good advice all the same.” Linda’s round black face pursed into a worried frown. “You know I’m proud of you, Suzanne. Heavenly days, you beat all the odds, having that baby when you were hardly more than a baby yourself and then getting your nurse training without a family to support you. You raised Alexa right, and you made something of yourself. When I volunteer down at the crisis pregnancy center, I hold you up as an example of what those scared girls can be if they put their minds to it.”
   Suzanne lowered her head, both pleased and embarrassed. With God’s help and the loving support of friends like Linda, she’d managed to carve a decent life for Alexa and herself. Even so, the stigma of once having been an unwed teenage mother still lingered. A part of her resisted accepting Linda’s praise.
   Linda went on in her husky voice. “But that girl of yours is old enough to fend for herself now. Why not take some time off ? Do something for yourself for a change?” She leaned close, her dark eyes fervent. “You’ve earned it, Suzanne.”
   The mutter of voices and patter of footsteps signaled the arrival of day-shift workers. Suzanne bent forward and deposited a kiss on Linda’s plump cheek. “I’ll think about it,” she said, then turned to greet the incoming nurse.
   She updated the day nurse on medications prescribed to patients during the night, listened to one worker’s complaint about the hospital’s failure to change to computers in lieu of the old record-and-file system, and reminded her—as she’d done dozens of times before—of the small, mission-minded organization’s limited budget, completed and initialed her reports, and then finally headed to the bank of lockers for her coat and purse.
   As she pushed her arms into her trench coat, Linda’s suggestion to take some time off whispered through her mind. She’d promised to think about it, but thinking was all she’d do. She wouldn’t take time away from the hospital. Here she was needed. Respected. And busy, leaving her no time to reflect on the past or how things might have been.
   She slipped her purse strap over her shoulder and stepped out into the cool dawn. Beneath a rose-colored sky, she crossed the street to the small, graveled parking lot used by hospital employees and planned her morning. Breakfast with Alexa, a quick jaunt to Sarah’s Sweet Treats for a half pound—well, maybe a pound—of licorice cats, then pajamas and bed.
   She slammed the door on her late-model sedan, sealing away Linda’s suggestion. Her friend meant well, bless her loving heart, but Suzanne was satisfied with her life of work, mothering, and church. God had gifted her beyond all deserving. She had no desire for anything more.

The alarm clock’s buzz roused Suzanne from a sound sleep. She slapped it silent, then rolled over and stretched like a lazy cat. After tossing back the covers and slipping her feet to the floor in one smooth movement, she sat on the edge of the mattress for a few seconds and allowed herself to awaken by increments. Yawned. Rubbed her eyes. Yawned again.
   Finally awake, she padded to the window and rolled up the blinds. Late afternoon sunlight poured into the room, making her blink, but she welcomed the splash of brightness. During the winter months she often awakened to a black sky, making her feel as though the sun never shone. But now spring had arrived with its longer days and warmer evenings. Before long she and Alexa would be able to sit on their tiny balcony in the evenings, sip tea, and chat while watching the sun set over Franklin. One of their favorite activities. They’d always been content with little pleasures.
   The clatter of silverware found its way past her closed door. Alexa was setting the table, so apparently supper would be ready soon. Knowing how her daughter disliked letting a meal grow cold, Suzanne quickly showered then dressed in a work uniform—flowered scrub top over a long straight skirt, anklets, and her comfortable oxfords. She brushed out her damp hair, braided it into a single plait, and then twisted it into a bun on the back of her head. After running a soapy cloth over her face and brushing her teeth, she made her bed and then headed to the kitchen.
   Alexa looked up from chopping a red pepper into thin slices and smiled. “You’re just in time to turn the chicken breasts on the grill.”
   Suzanne raised her eyebrows. “You started the grill? Kind of early, isn’t it?” They’d only turned the calendar to April three days ago.
   Alexa shrugged, sending her long ponytail over her shoulder. The silky tresses, as richly brown as a mink’s fur, fell straight and sheeny down her slender back. “The sun warmed up the balcony, and I couldn’t resist having our first cookout.” She bobbed her chin toward the sliding doors at the far end of their small combination sitting and dining room. “Better go turn ’em before they scorch.”
   Suzanne grabbed the two-pronged fork from the end of the counter and stepped onto the balcony. The aroma that rose when she lifted the grill’s cover made her stomach roll over in eagerness. She poked the thickest chicken breast with the fork, and clear juices ran out to sizzle on the hot grid. She stuck her head inside and announced, “They’re done.”
   Alexa bustled over with a plate, and Suzanne transferred the chicken from the grill, then turned off the burner and closed the gauge on the propane tank. She entered the apartment just as Alexa carried the bowl of salad to the round table tucked in their tiny dining alcove.
   “I hope you don’t mind just having chicken and a salad.” Alexa lifted a pitcher of tea from the middle of the table and poured it over ice cubes in two jelly jar glasses. “A light supper will leave room for what comes later.” She waggled her eyebrows teasingly.
   Suzanne slipped into her chair, smiling. She’d gotten spoiled over the past years since Alexa had taken on the responsibility of cooking. Her daughter was especially adept at creating delectable desserts. Fortunately all of her hallway walking at the hospital worked off the extra calories. “What did you concoct this time?”
   “A triple-layer torte with both chocolate and strawberry fillings.”
   Suzanne nearly groaned. “Oh, that sounds rich. Where did you find the recipe?”
   Alexa offered another glib shrug and plopped into her chair. Suzanne would never cease to be amazed at how Alexa could move so quickly and still appear graceful. “I sort of made it up. If it turns out, you can take the leftovers to work and share.”
   Suzanne had no doubt she’d be sharing with her coworkers. She held her hand toward Alexa, and her daughter took hold. They bowed their heads in unison, and Suzanne offered a short prayer of thanks for the meal. Alexa used a pair of plastic tongs to serve the salad—a combination of colorful chopped vegetables, walnuts, and dried cranberries that was almost too pretty to eat.
   Suzanne lifted her knife and fork and cut into the tender chicken breast. At the first bite, she murmured, “Mm…how did you season this?”
   Alexa swallowed a bite and took a sip of tea before answering. “I brushed them with olive oil, then sprinkled on dried parsley, basil, a little seasoned salt, and some garlic pepper. I was afraid the garlic pepper might be overboard, but it doesn’t taste bad at all.”
   “It tastes great.” Suzanne stabbed up another bite.
   “I used the same seasonings and olive oil for the salad dressing but added some fresh-squeezed orange juice and a little bit of sugar.”
   “Sweetheart, everything is wonderful, as always.” Suzanne gave Alexa’s wrist a squeeze, pride filling her. “You’re going to make a wonderful homemaker for a lucky man one day.”
  A wistful expression crossed Alexa’s youthful face. “Well, you keep praying for my husband-to-be, Mom, and I’ll keep my eyes open. So far he’s stayed pretty well hidden.”
   Suzanne forced a light chuckle, but inwardly she cringed. If she’d raised Alexa in the Old Order sect, she’d probably already be published to marry. At nineteen, she was considered old enough to be a wife and mother. Although Suzanne prayed daily for a loving, God-honoring husband and faith-filled home for her daughter, she didn’t mind waiting another year or two for Alexa to find the man God had planned for her. She liked having her close. As Alexa had grown older, she’d become more than a daughter—she’d become Suzanne’s best friend. Would they be as close if—
   She chased away her inner reflections by asking about Alexa’s work. Alexa shared a few cute anecdotes about the children who came through the line at the elementary school where she helped prepare and serve lunch each day, then Suzanne told her about Mr. Birney and asked her to pray for his full recovery— as he’d said, someone needed to fill the bird feeders. Their supper hour passed quickly, and when they’d finished, Alexa carried their empty plates to the sink, then removed the torte from the refrigerator.
   As Alexa sliced into the towering dessert, she said, “Oh, Mom, I almost forgot. You got a letter today. From Arborville.”
   “Really?” Letters were rare, usually arriving around Christmastime, the time of year when families were expected to contact one another.
   “I put it on top of the daily newspaper.” She shook her head, pursing her lips in a what-is-this-world-coming-to expression. “Read the article on page three about the abandoned baby a kitchen worker found in the Dumpster behind a restaurant. I can’t believe someone would just leave a newborn in the trash that way…”
   Suzanne experienced an inner jolt of reaction to Alexa’s dismayed comment, but she didn’t respond. She knew all too well how children were tossed aside by unfeeling or desperate parents. As she crossed to the far side of the room and picked up the long envelope, she offered a prayer for God to provide a loving home for the little foundling. Every child deserved to be loved and nurtured by caring parents.
   Then she turned her attention to the envelope, and her hands trembled. The return address said Cletus Zimmerman in scrawling penmanship. Clete had never written before. Letters always came from Mother.
   “Cletus is your brother, right?” Alexa slid a sliver of cake onto a dessert plate and licked a smudge of icing from her thumb.
   Suzanne nodded woodenly.
   Alexa snickered. “He should be a doctor with handwriting like that. What does he say?”
   “I don’t know. I haven’t opened it yet.”
   “Well, don’t just hold it. Open it, goofy.” Alexa’s teasing grin did little to calm Suzanne’s rattled nerves.
   Suzanne managed a weak smile. She peeled back the flap and removed two sheets of yellow notepad paper. Clete’s messy scrawl covered the front and back sides of both pages. Mother’s letters, which were meant to encompass a year’s worth of news, never filled more than one sheet of paper. Comparatively speaking, Clete had written a book.
   Alexa touched Suzanne’s arm. She jumped in surprise, unaware Alexa had left the kitchen. A soft smile curved her daughter’s lips. “Mom, sit down and read your letter. I’ll put the cake back in the fridge, and we’ll have it when you’re done, okay?”
   Suzanne cupped Alexa’s smooth cheek in a silent thank-you. Then she sank onto the couch cushion, flicked on the table lamp, and angled Clete’s letter toward the light. She read slowly, frowning at times as she struggled to make sense of her brother’s sloppy handwriting, but eventually she reached the end. By the time she’d finished, her desire to sample Alexa’s triple-layer torte had fled. She wouldn’t be able to swallow a bite.
Kim Vogel Sawyer, When Mercy Rains WaterBrook Press, © 2014.

***Thank you to WaterBrook Multnomah's Blogging for Books for sending me a complimentary copy of Kim Vogel Sawyer's novel When Mercy Rains for review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

When Grace Sings by VOGEL SAWYER, KIM When Grace Sings, The Zimmerman Trilogy, Book 2
releases March 17, 2015