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Two wine glasses with single rose and wedding bands - Thomi Book Cover

The Resurrection of Joleigh-Anna Kelmann

TKT Dalton's Last Stand book cover



Book Cover for Chili Pepper Recipes

littlebook_2011_200

~Foreword~

I have to confess—I was never big into hot peppers until I met my husband, Andy. His method of introducing me to them was first to eat a bunch of them and then kiss me deeply. Yeah, my lips burned for hours after! That being the case, I wasn’t terribly keen on eating any myself. If a kiss could burn that hot, what would actually eating the things do!

So, it wasn’t until four years into our marriage that I actually ate any sort or form of chili pepper.

We were munching hot dogs one fair summer day, and my husband started teasing me to try a little jalapeno relish on mine. All right, try . . . I was game to try. Ever so cautiously, I spread a little on. I wanted to wade into this a little at a time.

Well, the guy expected me to slather it on and munch the whole thing right down—you know—like a man! I’m sorry, back then I was a WIMP! So, when I wouldn’t, he taunted me. “You ain’t got enough on there to taste it! Heh! Not even enough to see it! C’mon! You gotta put on more than that! God, I married a wimp!”

OOOOH! . . . so it’s really a dare!

Naturally, I protested. “Hey! Just remember, Sweetie Pie Honey Bunch, you’ve been eating stuff like this for years. I need to ease my tongue into this slowly, thank you very much! Not ready to sear it silly! A little bit at a time, okay?”

Got no mercy. “Wimp! Chicken! Ba-awkbawkbawkbawkbawk!”

We-eelll . . . y’know that only made me hot under the collar. Before he bawked his last “bawk”, I upended the jar, slathering my unsuspecting frankfurter with every last bit of that mean green jalapeno relish. “How’s this? This enough, now?”

My sweetheart’s eyes popped in both horror and amazement. “Oh, man! Why’d you do— You didn’t have to— That’s the last jar, y’know!” He slunk off to sulk the rest of the evening over my indifference of that little fact.

Yeah, but I ate that frank. Yes, ma’am, sir, I devoured it all! Hot sauce, mustard, dog, the whole works. Kinda wished I had saved some for another one!

Been hooked on hot peppers ever since.

My poor husband’s never challenged me to “try a little” of anything again. At least, not with the same attitude as then! Heh!

If you are a brave fire eater, you’ll find something here to sizzle your taste buds with. If you’re rather more of a wimp “barely want heat in it” sort, you can tone the fire down to a flicker if you must.

Whatever your heat tolerance is, enjoy! Who knows, some day, you, too, will graduate from a whisper of warmth to stinkin’ tear streamin’ HOT!!

I’m still working my way up to that point myself, just so you know . . .

  Neenah Davis-Wilson — 

 

WAILER CHILI

THE INGREDIENTS:

 ½ pound each:

hamburger

ground pork

ground turkey

hot or sweet Italian sausage

stew meat cube it finer if you think it needs it

venison cubed

chicken cubed

pork loin cubed

2 cans each: black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans

2 large onions

2-3 cloves garlic

2 cans diced tomatoes or 6 large tomatoes diced

2 cans crushed tomatoes

6-12 habaneras chopped fine

6-12 jalapenos chopped fine

6-12 cayenne peppers

4 large sweet peppers diced

1 bottle of low sodium V8 juice

1 carton or 2 cans chicken broth

2 cups of good red wine—don’t use cooking stuff. It’s not the same.

1 teaspoon cilantro

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon thyme

salt to taste

 THE PREPARATION:

 Brown the meats; drain; place into the largest stock pot you own, or use a couple of the biggest ones you have.

 While the meats are browning, chop the peppers, onions, and garlic.

Add all of the rest of the ingredients to the drained meats. If you need more liquid use a little more broth or water or V8 juice. Water will tone down the flavor some. But if it’s all you have—go for it.

This is the simmer forever version—or at least for 4–6 hours on med-low heat. You know your stove best. Be sure to stir the chili often or it’ll stick to the bottom of the pan and char. It’s  done when the meat is tender and the liquid has cooked down and thickened.

 Serve with corn bread, tortillas, nachos, pita bread, crusty rolls, milk, fresh tomatoes, ice cream.

 This stuff is great the next day. Oh, Yeah!!

 **Feeds a small crowd. I usually take this recipe to parties and pot luck suppers. Gotta bring a milder version for the faint hearted. For that, use 1 slice to 1 whole habanera, 2-3 jalapenos, and 2-3 cayenne.

 **Use 3 cans of Bush’s Spicy Bold Baked Beans in place of the other varieties or add a can of them along with the others.

 If you don’t have any red wine use white, or use 1 bottle of good beer. The taste will be different from the red wine version, good still, just different.

 Naturally you can tone the fire down by using less peppers. Use 1 thin slice of habanera with 1 jalapeno and 1 cayenne.

 Leave out the habanera and use just jalapenos and cayenne.

 Add chili powder if you must. I don’t happen to like it.

 From the sheer variety of ingredients in this recipe, the combinations are endless. You may not want to add every sort of meat—although your guests are bound to love it. Ours did.

_______________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________

 I rate my hot and spicy dishes WIMP for mild, WHINE for medium hot, and WAIL for intense, hence the name Wailer Chili.  Most people wimped and whined over the fact I’d only made it Wailing hot. Now I try to make two batches  –one Wimp and one Wail–so everyone’s happy.  Any one Whining for medium can take a bit of both and be happy, too. 


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TKT Dalton's Last Stand book cover

SUMMARY

Ralph Henry Dalton, the new classmate assigned to the fifth grade class of ten year old Jerrianna and Jeoffrey Kingsley is a nonstop loud, proud, arrogant bragger! The whole class would love to send him into deep space by the swiftest means possible! Anything to shut him up!

Then, Jerrianna dreams up a unique solution—have their whole class challenge Ralph to an air hockey tournament, and set him up for Ultimate Humiliation! Defeat at the paws of her new seven-toed wonder pet, Snowshoe Mal! That is, if Ralph Henry actually makes it that far.

Jeoffrey doubts this plan will work if Ralph Henry does happen to beat everyone else. Okay, the wacky feline plays a mean game of air hockey—but only when she wants to, and only with whom she wants to! Even so, Jerri won’t abandon her plan that’s fated to ultimately humiliate the Kingsley family, so Jeoffrey plots a counter solution—

—Malley’s temporary disappearance.

No cat, no humiliation. At least, not one that would force them to have to leave with their tails between their legs, their friends laughing them all the way out of town! Or, too angry to ever speak to them again.

Couple of things neither twin anticipated:

1) Ralph Henry Dalton is actually deadly at the game—look out world!

2) Their moms had been rivals as kids—and it’s evident that it’s not just Ralph Henry who needs an attitude adjustment!

Holy hockey pucks! Could Malley be the answer to this situation, after all?

Oh, wait a sec . . . Where is Malley?

Possibly, permanently!

 

CHAPTER 1

A PEST AND A PET

“Jeoffrey, go pick out two boxes of cereal. Jerrianna, you grab eggs and ice cream, and I’ll get the bread and milk.”

“And soda!” Jerrianna and I chorused.

“That’s near the cereal aisle. Jeoffrey, can you manage that? Might as well get more popcorn, too.”

I shot Mom a thumbs up. “Sure, no prob! I’ll get a cart.”

We split up and I went off to get myself a cart, and then hurried toward the middle of Northfield Super Food Market. They had great food and stuff, but my parents didn’t always feel the prices were so super. They had a great cereal selection, though, and I knew just what Jerrianna and I wanted. Martian Mars Balls were the best tasting multigrain cereal ever! Northfield Super’s own brand. Usually that sort of thing wasn’t as good as any original. But MMB’s were terrific even if the name was dumb.

I whipped along the aisle in a hurry to get what we’d come for. We had a family night planned tonight. Even Dad would be home for it. He worked for a computer company and was gone quite a few nights hooking up people’s computers and networks. Sometimes he’d have to be gone a few days. Mom missed him a lot then, and so did my twin sister and I. We’d probably play some air hockey because that’s Mom’s favorite thing. Well, we all enjoy playing, but she really really loves it. We’ve got a decent table—not a professional sized one or anything like that, but a pretty good one, anyway. We liked to play card games, too. Golf, right now, was everyone’s favorite.

I found the MMB’s right off and turned to toss ‘em into the cart. Bumped right into Ralph Henry Dalton! Man, my night shot down for sure!

“You eat those things?” he asked, poking the boxes in my arms. “Nothing’s better than my Mom’s French toast! She makes French toast better than the President’s chef!”

Well, I didn’t know anything about the President’s chef, but I did know about my mom’s cooking. Probably she was better than his mom, but I didn’t say it. Didn’t want to sound anything like him! The guy was a complete pest! No one wanted anything to do with him. When he first moved to Northfield in September, everyone was excited. It’s a small town and we like it when new people move in.

Not this time.

“Know what else she can make better than anybody in the world? Chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate!” Ralph Henry started turning circles beside me. He had a problem standing still. At school, he drove Mrs. Jonesbury, our teacher, crazy. This was her last year teaching at our school for she was heading south to be with her daughter. She told Ralph Henry that in all her thirty-eight years as a teacher she’d never met anyone like him before. He seemed to think it was a compliment.

I waited for a woman with six kids to pass by and then I tossed the MMB’s into the cart I’d parked across from the cereal. “Yeah, well my mom bakes stuff good, too! Look, I gotta go. We’re having family night tonight. I don’t want to waste all my time here.”

As usual, he didn’t take the hint.

 Walking in circles right beside me, he followed me to the soda aisle. Grabbing up a jar of the best popcorn as I passed by the shelf it was on, I tried to pretend I was alone in the store.

But it was impossible. He had to tell me all about what his family did. “We have family night, too, when my parents are home. Sometimes they’re away a lot, so my brother and I get to do what we want when they’re gone. He’s nineteen. He’s the best!”

Now he started poking at the bottles of soda on the shelves. Rearranging them when they didn’t need to be.

“Well, it can’t be the best while your folks’re gone. Who’s making the French toast then?”

Ralph Henry climbed up the shelves to check out the top one. Hung there by one hand and looked down at me. “Ronny does. He’s almost as good a cook as Mom! We do a lot of stuff together. You should come over sometime. You’d have the best time!”

Then he started telling me all about his games, his toys, and his TV set. All the best there is in the world. His video collection included every video known to mankind. In fact, RalphHenryDalton thought he was The Best Kid who could do Anything the Best of Anyone and who lived in The Best House on The Best Street in The Best Town of The Best State in the Best Country in the world! His Best Family drove The Best Cars, wore The Best Clothes and on and on and on.

By the time I dropped bottles of Dr Pepper, Lime Coke and peach flavored Fresca into the cart, I was ready to stuff a grapefruit into Ralph Henry’s big mouth. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if he shut up and let someone else say something. Never does, though.

“. . . and my Dad got us the best computer ever! It’s got a 4 gig processor, massive memory and a 200 gig hard drive. I got all the best games on it . . .”

I grit my teeth. Even though I figured he was exaggerating Big Time, I wished I could say Dad had set us up with the best computer ever. But our computer needed upgrades and who knew when that would be! Dad never seemed to get around to working on our machine like he did everyone else’s.

Mom came out of the paper plates and napkins aisle and Jerrianna hurried toward us with her stuff and a bag of Granny Smith apples. Our favorites. The BEST! And I thought that thought savagely like someone might take it away from me or try to convince me some other apple beat them out.

“Found a buddy, Jeoffrey?” Mom asked as we met by the macaroni display.

We pulled over to let the mom with all the kids go by. They were bugging her and the baby girl was bawling. I felt sorry for her, but I thought I’d rather be her with all those kids and all that noise than to be me with Ralph Henry’s bragging face following me everywhere. I couldn’t wait to check out and leave him behind. His hyperness was getting to me, too.

Before I could pipe up and say he wasn’t even remotely a friend never mind my buddy, Ralph Henry started right in. “Hi! You Jeoffrey’s mom? Hey! hey, I’ve seen you at the bowling alley! You’re the one that beats everyone playing air hockey, aren’t you?”

Mom never bragged about that much. She always said if she started parading any of her talents before the world like that, it’d be a sure bet someone would show up to put her in her place in no time flat. And that could happen any time.

Guess it could. But still, she was good enough to play in official air hockey tournaments if she wanted to.

We’d gone to watch a couple, and she got to play informally with some of the people in them. They’d been pretty amazed at her abilities and had tried to encourage her to start playing in matches and tournaments. She just said she wanted to keep it fun.

Now she said to Ralph, “They just need practice, Ralph Henry. You play pretty good yourself, I noticed—when you’re not showing off.”

Ralph Henry beamed, did this dumb little dance. I stared and groaned. My mother had noticed him? And he was good at something . . . which she just now recognized, acknowledged and approved?

Oh, great! Probably he’d be tossing up the fact my mom thought he was the best forever now! I let my head drop suddenly forward. My night was ruined.

“Don’t let him get to you,” Jerrianna murmured in my ear. “We’re going to have a great time tonight. He won’t be there. Stop looking like that, Doom Dork!”

I twisted my neck enough to be able to give her a black look. She shook her head at me and went to put her stuff into Mom’s cart.

“Got Jell-O for neck muscles, Jeoffrey?” Mom asked. “Let’s head for the checkout. Nice meeting you, Ralph Henry. Maybe we can play a game together sometime.”

“Ho! That’d be the best! I’ll beat you in five minutes! Less!”

Mom smiled. In her look, I could see she’d formed the same impression of him we had. My head rose back up like a weed stealing a big sip of water from petunias as she said in her most casual manner, “You can try.”

“Ha! I won’t have to try!” He followed us to the checkout, pretended to be stalking man eating lions on the way. “Jeoffrey says you’re having family night, tonight. When my mom and dad get back we’ll have one, too. We do all sorts of neat stuff. We have the best time!” As if no one else ever did.

“That’s the idea of it,” Mom replied in her mild way. “We have family nights every night the kids’ father isn’t working on someone’s computer system. He’s been pretty busy lately.”

Ralph Henry shot at an invisible charging lion just as it was leaping over the candy display. “My parents are gone a lot, too. They decorate people’s houses. Rich people’s houses. They make tons of money. When they get back, we’ll go shopping. That’ll be the best time ever!”

I hung my head again. Saw Jerrianna roll her eyes before I did it. If this line didn’t move faster, I might just disappear out the door.

Mom could handle the bags. That’s what carts were for.

Finally, it was our turn. The checkout lady listened to Ralph Henry’s lips flap with a funny look on her face. She looked from Mom to Ralph Henry and said, “You must have fun with that one!”

“Oh, not so much,” Mom replied. “He isn’t mine!”

“Lucky you then! Pity his parents! That’ll be twenty-one fifty-seven.”

Mom chuckled and dug around in her denim purse. “Who knows? Maybe they deserve him!”

The checkout lady chuckled at that. “You could be right,” she said, taking the money Mom held out to her.

Ralph didn’t seem to care they were talking about him. He just kept bouncing around, checking for lions and rhinos and poachers. Thought we’d get rid of him when we walked out the door, but no, he followed. Out by the spot where you get rid of your bottles waited a tall guy with light brown curly hair. Soon’s he saw Ralph Henry, he nailed him.

“Hey, buddy! I’ve been looking all over for you!”

“Look, Ronny!” Ralph hopped on one foot than the other in front of his brother. “These are my friends, Jeoff and Jerri Kingsley. This is their mom—the one who beats everyone playing air hockey! Can I go over their house for a while?”

Jerrianna sucked in a dismayed breath, and I did my flop head thing. Mom didn’t say anything. Without looking, I knew the expression she probably was wearing.

None.

I don’t know how she can do that so good. If she doesn’t want you to know what she’s thinking, you don’t. I bet she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings now, so that’s why she was doing it.

Who cares, for crying out loud?

It was just Ralph Henry!

Ronny faked a punch at Ralph Henry’s belly, and then quick whacked him behind the head. “I don’t think so, buddy. Mom and Dad’re calling us tonight. You don’t want to miss that, do you? Maybe another time, huh? Glad you’re finally making friends!” He looked at Mom. “Saw you play last week, Mrs. Kingsley. Think you could teach me some things sometime?”

“I can try,” Mom replied. She might have said more, but Ralph Henry broke in with one of his conversation stoppers.

“I don’t need anybody teaching me! Play me Saturday, Mrs. K. I’ll show you a few things!”

“You can try,” said Mom with the smile that meant he’d be sobbing his losses in less than three minutes. Dad says that’s her subtle way of bragging. Just seems like the truth to me.

Ronny grabbed Ralph Henry’s shoulder and kept him from bouncing in circles. “Well, it was nice meeting you. We gotta go, bud. Mom and Dad’ll be calling and we won’t be there if we don’t hurry up. Already got our stuff in the car. Let’s go!”

“Hey, see you guys in school tomorrow!” Just as if we’d be thrilled to remember that.

I flopped my head forward. Mom put a hand out and lifted it up. “You’re going to have your head rolling on the floor one day. Instead of wimping about people like him, Jeoffrey, learn to constructively deal with them. Makes your life a lot easier!”

“Yeah? How do you constructively deal with a guy like Ralph Henry Dalton?” Jerrianna demanded. “Why couldn’t he be like his brother? He seems really nice!”

I had a solution. “Let’s stuff the weasel in a box . . .”

“Jeoffrey, don’t start,” advised Mom, motioning for me to take charge of the cart.

“Wrap it all up good and tight,” I continued, heading out the automatic doors with the cart, “and put that box in another box, and wrap it up, and put that box in another box. And put that box in a bigger box! Tape it up and send it to the most outer regions of space! Only the ship gets pulled into a black hole and lands near a star going super nova—” Setting one foot on the lower rack of the cart, I rode it out onto the parking lot like it was a scooter.

“Jeoffrey!”

“Well, it’s not my fault the star’s going super . . .”

Jeoffrey Kurtis!”

“Okay! Okay! But I can’t think of anything that’ll help me like him. Or anyone else who acts like that!”

“I’ll think of something,” Jerrianna declared positively. “I’ll think of something that’ll help us deal with him—and shut him up!”

Mom halted suddenly. She shook her head, threw her arms wide, and wondered in complete bewilderment, “Who came up with the theory that kids learn by example? I mean the “they’ll learn the Good Things as well as the Bad” part!”

“What? At least I don’t want to send him into space where he gets blown to little itty bits in a super nova!” Jerrianna grabbed the cart as she spoke, pulling it around to the back of the car. I stayed on and took the ride.

“Not today, at any rate,” Mom remarked dryly, digging around for her keys and then opening the trunk of our car.

We stowed our groceries in, first grabbing out an apple a piece. We were just about done when somewhere close by, we heard, “Meow!” So close it sounded, it seemed like some cat could just jump right into my arms if it wanted to.

Meow! Meow!

We all looked around us. Jerri and I checked under the car.

Meow! Meow!”

 “Sounds like it’s coming from—” Mom slammed the trunk door. “—inside the car!”

We all stared straight into the dark green eyes of a fluffy yellow and white cat  laying up there in the back window.

“Guess we shouldn’t have left the windows open!” said Mom. “Here, Jeoffrey, run the cart over to the cart corral.”

I did it in double quick time. Almost tripped myself up racing back to the car because I’d forgotten to call Shotgun! No Blitz! for the front seat privilege on the way home.

But I didn’t have to worry about Jerri beating me to it. By the time I ran back, Jerrianna had curled up in the backseat with the cat and made it her lifelong buddy. It snuggled up in her arms and butted her chin with its head. Licked her cheek with a sandpapery tongue.

Mom stood with a crumpled note in one hand and a can of Happy Kat Savory Stew in the other. She read out loud, “This is KittyKat. Our baby is allergic to cats and the doctors say having one will seriously hurt him.

 My parents think we should just ditch KittyKat at a farm, and my wife’s parents say put it to sleep. I don’t want to do either of those things. KittyKat isn’t a farm cat. But we don’t have time to wait for someone to answer newspaper ads.

 Please forgive me for doing this. I saw you going into the store and just feel you’d be right for caring for KittyKat. Here’s some toys and food so you won’t be totally burdened.

 Thanks. A desperate dad.”

Our dad is gonna be desperate when he sees it! He’s not a cat lover, you know!” I said.

“He doesn’t really hate them.” Mom shoved the note into her jeans pocket and moved the bag of cat food and toys onto the floor so she could get in. “Just feels they’re not as much fun as a dog. Get in, Jeoffrey. Don’t either of you get your hopes up. There’s no guarantee we’re keeping her. But we won’t dump her in someone’s car.”

I went around the other side and jumped in the front. “How come you’re calling it a her? How do you know what it is?”

“Just a guess. Buckle up.”

“Hey, Jeoffrey, look!” Jerrianna poked me in the back. “Look at the size of these paws! It’s got built in air hockey mallets!”

Now that I was buckled, I craned my neck around to check it out. Those front paws were humongous! “Whoooaaa! Sweet!”

Mom said, “Be cool if she actually played. I’d have a partner any time I needed one. One that wouldn’t be afraid to play me because they don’t ever win . . .”

“Well, jeekers, Mom. Winning is motivational!”

Jerrianna smothered a snicker.

“Expanding your vocabulary this week, Jeoff?” Mom teased. She ignored Jerri’s snicker same as I did. “If you’d just try a little harder and didn’t come to the table with the “Who cares? What’s the difference? Why bother—I’m only going to lose” attitude, you might come closer to it!”

“I don’t wanna come close. I wanna do it!”

“Then lose the attitude. Jerri plays me without crying. Must be a guy thing!”

Jerrianna laughed. “Dad doesn’t cry as hard as Jeoffrey does, though. You’re a pretty sad wimp, Jeoff!”

I tossed my apple core over the seat hoping to hit her with it. Her giggle told me it missed. “You’re a bad shot all the way around!” Then, changing subjects, she said, “Wonder if it is a girl. Hard to tell by the name KittyKat.”

“Stupid name!” I huffed, folding my arms and staring out the window. “Probably is a girl!”


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Book cover for The Resurrection of Joliegh-Anna Kelmann

SUMMARY

Grieving the loss of his best friend, Matt Kelmann, in a senseless accident, Joleigh’s fiancé, Dr. Irvyn Woodworth, MD, breaks off their engagement. At the grave site, and on the day that should have been their wedding day!

Matty had been one of Joleigh’s favorite cousins, so while she understands Irvy’s sadness, she’s totally clueless as to why he’s choosing to break up with her now. She’s loved Irvy since childhood. It was no secret her first word had been his name—“Irby!”

Irvy’s mother, Valorah Woodworth, is thrilled with the break up. Joleigh-Anna has never been her dream for her only son. She wastes no time in hooking him up with someone she feels is his social equal and a better partner for him. To make matters more difficult for Joleigh, there are a few family members who feels as Valorah Woodworth does . . . meddling members who haven’t a clue, and whom Joleigh would love to silence forever!

It’s apparent to all that Holly Noelle Hallward is everything Joleigh-Anna is not. Tall, blonde, strikingly beautiful, and wealthy. Not to mention insincere and shallow. Heh, the woman even hates Irvy’s first name!

No, no way can Joleigh simply walk away and go on as if he’d never been in her life. Those who love her best cheer her on.

No tactic she employs seems to work. Has she really lost Irvy to this dream of his mother’s?

Then, a horrific car crash puts new focus on Joleigh’s battle . . .

CHAPTER 1

GOOD BYE MATT

Matt’s life ended unexpectedly—in a moment of reckless insanity.

Wednesday evening, we were a close knit, fun-loving fivesome—

Wednesday night . . .

Matt was gone.

It’d been one of the rare occasions we’d gone our separate ways. Generally, we were inseparable—my cousins, Matt and LanetteKelmann, my twin brother, Jace-Anthony, my fiancé —Matt’s closest friend—IrvynWoodworth, and I. Only, Matt had recently found a girl he cared about almost as much as racing and his cars, and that night, they’d parted from us in the parking lot of Overlook Manor, our favorite restaurant for special occasions.

For me, every night out with Irvy is a special occasion. We were supposed to be getting married Sunday . . . tomorrow. I wanted to celebrate that every hour of every day. We had such a good time that evening. Even Krista hadn’t really wanted to break up the group. But Matt said he had things he’d wanted to talk to her about.

So they left.

If only Irvy and I had insisted we stay together, Matt would be alive now.

Dad says we can’t be sure of that—maybe we’d be dead too. But that’s not so. It would’ve all been different if he hadn’t gone off alone that night. I say alone, because Krista hadn’t a clue how to handle Matt. How to keep him from doing what he did. She hadn’t been dating him long enough to have developed that skill. Although, to be honest, few had it.

Yet, I don’t think it was for the thrill of it that’d made him go along with this brainless plan. It’d been a challenge, and Matt could never walk away from a challenge. Not even for the sake of his new love. He had a low opinion of guys that wimped out. But Irvy would’ve known how to make him give up a foolish challenge without hurting his pride. He’d been doing it for years. Like the time the idiot gang challenged Matt to tie a ribbon on the tail of Mr.Henning’s bull, Fritz.

Dashing through the narrow end of the field was one thing. Actually playing in the field where the beast grazed was another. The only humans he tolerated were the Hennings, and he did that grudgingly. That never stopped us from crossing the field to get to where we wanted to go, but we always crossed it at that narrow part so we could be fairly certain of rolling under the fence before we got gored. Then one day we saw Fritz tear apart dogs with his vicious horns and his well-aimed kicks. These two probably deserved their fate—they’d been up to no good in that field, worrying the cattle and attacking a couple of Mr.Henning’s best cows. Fritz wasn’t satisfied until neither dog moved.

So, when Matt showed every determination to display the color of his courage, even the one who emulated his every move was alarmed. That’d be me. And for every reason I had why he shouldn’t do it, Matt had two for why he would do it. Not saying they were great reasons, but to the kids we were at the time, they sounded like good ones!

Except to Irvy. After we other three had made our attempts talking sense into Matt, he took over.

“Matt, this oughta be a two way street here! Challenge one of them back! Make ‘em prove their own courage!” Irvy urged him. “Because, I think that when Fritz impales you on those horns, leaving you bloody in the field, so will they! They’ll deny they ever dared you to do it! Why give them the satisfaction of laughing at you like that?”

Matt could take a joke on himself, be the first to laugh. But to be laughed at in a scornful way, that was different. Then he became something close to Fritz’s brother, and you better be booking it to the next county if you were the one mocking him. He’d looked Irvy in the eye, questioned softly, “Laughing at me?”

“Sure! That’s the only reason they dared you! For a laugh! They probably said, “Hey, we got nothing else to do today! Let’s get the brave idiot, MattKelmann to tease Henning’s bull, and watch him bleed!” So where do they get off challenging you when they’re as yellow as bananas themselves!”

“Irv—I think you got something there! They talk big, don’t they? Let’s see if their bravery is as big as their mouths, or as puny as their brains!”

At the appointed time, we all met at the upper end of the Henning’s field. Matt challenged the leader of the gang. “I’ll tie the ribbon on Fritz’s tail, but you have to go with me and catch the tail so’s I can do it!” When they protested and started in on him, he said, “You said I had to tie the ribbon on the tail, you didn’t say anything about me having to catch it myself. Now—I’m willing! Got the ribbon right here in my hand. Show me your guts!”

Well, they all decided to keep their guts, and we taunted and jeered them so bad they skulked away and left us alone for a long while after. Matt came off looking like Hercules without having to do anything. But if Irvy hadn’t said anything to him, he’d’ve jumped right into that field, and either have wound that ribbon on Fritz’s tail or been killed trying. Since he couldn’t stand to have anyone think his courage was less than True Blue American, his funeral might have taken place long before now. So I know if we’d been with him Wednesday night, only four days ago . . . only four days . . . was like four years  . . . I know Irvy would’ve shown him that the situation he’d gotten himself into was just like that one with the bull.

Very much like it—for it’d been those same guys who’d challenged him this time as well. Two of whom gave themselves up to police the next day. We wanted to run right over and demand their blood right then and there—but Mom and Aunt Lynore wouldn’t let us. Their hearing was set for the beginning of next month. We’d have our say then. So we have to curb our impatience and hard feelings—and wait. But it’s hard.

Truth is, though, Matt had always been a little hyper-crazy. Couldn’t stay in one spot for two seconds. If he didn’t have something constructive to do, he’d find something else to do. Not necessarily always destructive, but then, not within house rules, either. Always interesting, though! Maybe that’s what I’d admired about him as a tot. Man, he could egg me on to anything, and I’d do it to win his approval, his admiring, “Whoa, you got guts, Little Jo! More than anyone else—even Irvy!”

By the time I’d turned nine, he’d settled into his role in a more companionable way, and we would plan things together instead of him simply daring me to follow.

Irvy and Jace always attempted to put a lid on some of our wilder notions. But other times they’d buckled under our taunts of “Chic-ken!” and “Scaredy cat!” to prove they had the same color guts we had. Lanette copied us with never a whimper. She’d eat worms first before she let anyone challenge her courage! Except for when it had to do with anything concerning Fritz.

We got our share of bumps and bruises, plus the occasional broken arm or leg, punctuated by disciplines of every sort. None of which pierced our armor. We’d be back at it soon’s the dust settled, the redness was out of our seat, limbs were healed—more or less—and/or the grounding period lifted.

Amazingly, our parents’ had not only kept full heads of naturally hued hair plus their youthful looks, but also their sense of humor continued intact. Probably was what got them through it all.

Luckily for us, they never demanded we pack our bags and leave! Really, no one could’ve asked for more understanding, loving parents!

Everyone bet against us ever reaching our eighteenth birthdays. Even our parents had worried we wouldn’t reach adulthood alive and breathing . . . except maybe in a wheelchair. Or, more likely, as a complete vegetable on life support.

They all lost their bets for we all made it to our twenty-fourth in great shape, Matt and Irvy achieving their twenty-eighth, in fact. But Matt had missed the big 3-0, (the magic year we were all supposed to grow real brains and settle down for good), by a year and two months. Now the bet was we’d perish before we knew better.

Well, so we didn’t all have the same sort of brains! Who does? Matt and Irvy’d gone to school together from kindergarten on. While Irvy excelled in everything he did, Matt hadn’t taken school too seriously. Since he couldn’t sit still for long, he’d considered studying a waste of time, and was the class cut-up for all of his school years. Pretty much graduated by the skin of his teeth.

Right out of school he began working as a member of a pit crew, going often to the races, and betting on them, too. Then he discovered rally racing. Entered the annual dash to the top of Mt.Washington and was hooked after that. He took a course at one of the rally schools, and then became a co-driver for a few races. However, Matt being Matt, co-driving was far too tame to him. He wanted to be behind the wheel tooling along the mountainous passes, dirt roads, tracks and trails of the grueling courses. But he wanted a navigator he could depend on. Someone who could read the route book and the terrain.

Didn’t need too much encouragement from him for me to go and get my license. Nine times a year, we were a team on those rally courses that only a mad man would consider navigating. We acquired a Super Beetle and a Subaru for our meets and were climbing steadily up in our levels. Actually, if I have to say it myself, we were a great team!

To do him credit, anything to do with cars and racing, Matt was great at. His father and mine owned a full service auto repair shop, so he’d had their influence from the start. Once I became his co-driver, they initiated me under the hood and body of the cars, too. When we ran into problems, was a great feeling to know I’d been able to help get it going again.

Lately, we’d begun to take my little brother, Jarrett-Andrew, with us. He loved chatting with the drivers and their co-drivers, enjoyed mingling with the racing crowd. Watching the action from the safety of Dad’s arms or Irvy’s shoulder. Just a couple weeks ago, Jarrett announced his intention of becoming Matt’s co-driver and assistant mechanic when he grew up.

“Hey, buddy, that’s great! I’m waiting for you, okay? You grow up quick, all right! Be four today, but tomorrow, I need you to be twenty-eight!”

Okay!” Jarrett had answered all excited and determined to make it so. “Cuz when Irby marries Joleigh, you need a new nav’gater, huh, Matt? Okay! I eat some more Cheerios, and I be bigger tomorrow! You gonna let me drive too, huh!”

“You bet! When you’re big enough, you’ll be driving these babies with me, buddy!” And Matt’d shaken hands with Jarrett just as if he’d been an adult. He hadn’t just been pacifying a toddler, either. Matt passed his enthusiasm onto anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen. Whatever their age.

Some said rally racing was pretty much like camping with a race car—but I don’t know . . . it was more than that to us. No other camping trip I ever went on featured the thrills of racing against time and terrain at high speed!

I’ll always be glad that I stood still long enough. Road, rally, drag . . . I loved it all. Matt even backed me to win the powderpuff demolition derby at the fairgrounds a few times. Wearing my own colors, I recently astonished everyone by winning a couple drag racing competitions in his dragster.

Mom took pictures of my big event, and had them enlarged and framed for the living room to spite The Club—the exclusive clutch of aunts and older cousins who predicted the worst doom for us. I swear they met weekly to discuss the issue. No, probably, daily!

Their meddling and their strictures never dulled the twinkle in Matt’s eyes, and his good-humored grin had rarely faded. Moreover, anyone could count on him to listen to a sackful of troubles. No matter how busy he was, he’d take time to let you spill your guts or cry your heart out.

He might tell you what he thought about the situation, but more often, he’d get you to figure out the solution yourself. He’d drape an arm about your shoulders, give you a quick hug, and he’d say, “Look, you gotta do what you gotta do! But, what is it you want to do? Maybe that’s what you gotta do! Y’ see? You figure that out and you’ll be as happy as me!”

Strangely, we did see. Guess it made sense to Uncle Mitch too. He didn’t ever once try to talk Matt out of his racing dreams. Talked to him about it with all the animation Matt himself displayed. Always came with us to meets and never held back from backing Matt when he needed it. Matt paid back the debt. Matt always paid back his debts.

Except for the last one.

Just ten days ago, Irvy’d gone in with him on a Porsche for some road races Matt intended to enter. Wouldn’t ever be tried on the track now. I wanted to, but Mom cried when I said it, so I let it go. Was the first time she ever wished I’d just be a girl. So now, Irvy and Uncle Mitch would probably find a buyer for the car. Maybe all of the cars.

Not that Irvy seemed to care about the money. Could be he’d opt to just keep the Porsche himself. I sort of hoped he would. Matt’d taken me with him the day he bought that car . . . the one I’d liked the best of the three we’d test driven that afternoon. Somehow, I had to find a way around Mom’s objections. She’d never had any before Matt’s accident. As treacherous as the rally courses were, she’d never held me back.

Okay, sure, I’m impulsive, too. But just because I’m the tomboy type, and can’t always sit still for longer’n two minutes, doesn’t mean I’m totally brainless. Never had to kill myself to get awesome grades. Just read the material over, did a few exercises in whatever lesson it was to prove to my teachers and my parents I really knew what it was all about—that’s it. Graduated at the top of my class.

Didn’t follow Irvy into med school, or go into law or anything like what was expected of me— by The Club’s Standards, anyway. Instead, I’d chosen to ‘squander’ my talents working at a recreation center with disadvantaged kids and spending time with the lonely elderly at Seaton Hall. And, of course, following Matt’s dream of racing down pea gravel roads, flying up and down hills and around hairpin turns, maybe ending up in a swamp because I hadn’t read the route book quite accurately.

What really torqued me was that, while it was reckoned that I was wasting my time at the Center—probably influencing these tender young lives to a spirit of rebelliousness— these same discerning officials of The Club judged Jace-Anthony to be a wholesome role model for the kids there! Except that: “He ought to get himself a teaching degree! If he likes to teach swimming and athletics to disadvantaged kids, he ought to become a coach or something of the sort! Someone should suggest it to him, he’s a sensible lad, he’d listen . . .”

Well, the sensible lad still could be persuaded by a cry of, “Chic-ken!”

Just as Matt had.

So, now here we were, assembled with all the members of The Club, and other family members and friends, to weep his tragic passing. Except for my Uncle David and his family. But they had a good reason not to be here. One of their four girls had a serious heart condition, and just recently, she’d collapsed, because she found out that our friend, ThomiTollefson, who is an actress, and a pretty famous one, too, couldn’t be in her benefit play.

Can’t say that Uncle David had been terribly happy that I’d told her about their problems. But, Jaimee’s had it rough since she was a baby, and the expense in caring for her is—well, draining, to say the least. Really, though, I hadn’t meant for Thomi to hop in there and do all that she’s done for them—although I should have known she’d do exactly that. She’s pretty well known for being a sucker for a sob story. It’s just that I care a lot about Jaimee, and them all, and one day couldn’t help but blab it all out to Thomi.

She made me take her to meet Uncle David and Aunt Marsha and the girls, and on the spot, told them she’d be willing to help them. Since she also knows how to play the coaxing little girl part to perfection, in the end, Uncle David couldn’t say no.

Just a few weeks ago, though, Thomi had a serious riding accident. Serious enough that Dr. Wray—Irvy’s Uncle Lloyd—told her she had to give up the play. Before Thomi had a chance to tell Jaimee herself about that, Aunt Marsha’s mom accidentally let it slip, last Sunday, that Thomi wouldn’t be doing the play. Jaimee went crazy! Nothing anyone had said made any difference to her. Not even I could quiet her. I doubt Matty could’ve, either, had he been there. Maybe, though. Jaimee and Matty were great buddies, too. I am sure that Thomi probably could have gotten Jaimee calmed. But she didn’t get to the house until after it was all over, and Jaimee’d been taken away in the ambulance.

So now, the poor little kid was languishing in a hospital bed in Providence, recovering from emergency surgery; her condition pretty much touch and go. Thomi risked her own health to keep her promise to Jaimee, and showed up to do her part, yesterday, in the play. We were all waiting to hear if it’d helped Jaimee’s moral, which had dipped to, what the doctors felt, a dangerously low level.

Because it would suck if we had to bury both Jaimee and Matt.

Was bad enough that one of my Merriwether cousins had been killed only a month earlier in a car wreck. Although, in Lawron’s case, his car had veered off the road and gone over one of those impossibly steep embankments they lay claim to in West Virginia. Probably fell asleep most opinions concluded. Totally different thing from just being a fool as Matt had been!

Unlike The Club, though, David and Marsha had envied Matt’s energy. Appreciated his genuine concern for little Jaimee. He used to take time to go with me and entertain her and her sisters. So them, we could forgive for not being here with us. For the four of us—now three, they were our second favorite aunt and uncle.

In general, though, everyone’s hectic life allowed for attendance at funerals. Once in a while, a wedding—rarely, a birth. But always, always a funeral. Nothing makes people regret hurtful words and actions—things left undone or unsaid—than does a funeral. Or recall all the words of wisdom they’d imparted to the deceased—which, of course, went unheeded for the most part, and look what happened because of it!

What a field day they were having tonight! Lanette and I wished they’d all leave, but there was yet another hour before we could kiss them all good bye. Some of them, we wanted to just plain kiss off!

Like Uncle ToddMerriwether—who didn’t seem to me to be all that loaded with common sense himself. He’d dropped out of school at thirteen, and at fifty-two, was still trying to discover what he wanted to be when he grew up. But there he was, crying about Matt’s shortcomings.

“Why hadn’t that kid done something better with his life! Such a waste! Which is what he did with his time in school! Everyone knew this was bound to happen sometime! He was just too wild!”

“At his age—playing Chicken, for God’s sakes! And taking his girlfriend along, besides!” Uncle BuckKelmann threw up a hand in bewildered disgust. “Way out there on Mill Road . . . no ambulance could’ve gotten to him in time, even if Krista had been able to call for one sooner!”

“Heard he staked that restored ‘76 Nova of his in the deal!” Teddy, a.k.a. Turdy, informed. “Didn’t he realize he couldn’t drive the thing dead? Noble of him to show ‘em all the true color of bravery!” He gave a derisive snicker. “Gushing Red!”

Lanette groaned and looked ready to puke. She sent him a black look, which he caught, since he was looking right over at us. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging I’d heard it. Turdy’s a jerk.

How glad I was that Krista wasn’t there to hear all this. She’d watched it all go down, unable to do a thing about it. Maybe I’d need a counselor too, if I’d had to witness anything so horrifying. Be left alone with a dying person . . . having to decide between staying with him and finding help.

No one ever considered how Matty must have been feeling about then. Had he known he was dying? Had he thought of us? Or had he been in too much pain to think at all? Or, just plain out of it, which seemed likely. Even that, Krista had been unable to tell us. I’m not sure if I hoped, one day, she’d be able to or not. I’d like to think he didn’t suffer too badly. Didn’t have any trouble hoping the guys who’d egged him on were suffering in jail, though . . .

“How could anybody let someone bleed to death practically all by himself in the dead of night?” Aunt Becky demanded, wrathfully. “That poor girl! Frightened to death, I’ll bet!”

Actually, it’d been about ten o’clock. But out there on Mill Road—a little used road favored by the daring for illegal drag races—it might as well have been the dead of night.

Answered Aunt Nedra, the Sweet and Gentle. “Well, you know that bunch! Matt had trouble with them before. They were always trying to get him to do daring things of one sort or another. The police say they apparently began mocking his racing accomplishments and when they challenged him, he lost his head and accepted.”

“Well, that was Matt!” observed my cousin Wendy. “Maybe if it’d happened in winter he wouldn’t’ve bled to death.”

“Maybe so, but he’d’ve been alive now if he could’ve curbed his impulsiveness!” put in Great Grandfather Louis Kelmann, who carried a cane for appearances only—being in better shape than most of his great grandsons. “Cars aren’t for playing such witless games! But you can’t tell kids anything! They know it all! Ha! I did at his age! Yessir! I gave my old pop, and my mother, too, a scare every once a week! Still, I never thought he’d do anything like this! Especially not in front of a woman—except maybe, Joleigh!”

“Well, then, no wonder Matty was a hellion, Pop Louis! In any case, no one should hold anything against Mitch and Lynore!” Aunt Nedra pointed out. “Matty was of age after all!”

“One of us should’ve stepped in and took a hand with that kid! Slapped up Mitch and Lynore and made them see the storm coming!” Aunt Dorene uttered with deep-seated conviction. “Probably isn’t going to end with him!”

“Oh, like she cares so deeply!” Lanette uttered disparagingly—but not so’s anyone but I could hear her, of course.

Aunt Dorene, Mom’s youngest sister and Crown Princess of The Club, had the annoying habit of proclaiming, “Don’t any of you call on me to baby-sit! I’m not single to be anybody’s MaryPoppins!”

As if anyone would really want to leave their defenseless children in her care. I think her self-centered stupidity is the only thing all of us cousins agreed on. Except for Turdy, who’s just like her.

Still, I was fair. “Well, she did take us to The Newport Creamery!”

Lanette gave me a sour look. “Yeah, right. Once when we were about ten! What about all those times she planned family outings, but left our families out! Even now, she does it!”

“That’s why they’re called family ‘outings’,” I informed her.

She cracked an involuntary laugh despite her grief. “Don’t, Joleigh! Don’t get me started. I won’t be able to stop!”

“Oh, heinous! Think what they’d say then! How dare you laugh like an idiot at your brother’s wake?” I altered my voice. “But—it’s just likeMitch and Lynore to let her stick with Joleigh-Anna at a time like—”

Jo-leigh!” Lanette cut off my imitation of Aunt Willa and bit her lips hard to keep from losing it altogether.

Was nerves, you know. She’d break into giggles if a tiger was about to rip her to shreds. Which pretty much described the members of The Club. This affliction had gotten her into trouble at school, oh, tons of times. The worst was the time she got blamed for a fire in the girls’ room trash basket. Someone else had tossed a butt in there, and it burst into flames just after Lanette had left. So since it was she who’d been last seen coming out of there . . .

So mortified she’d been about being accused, she just doubled over in guffaws, the tears streaming down her face. No one would believe her when she tried to explain she didn’t smoke. First time for everything had been their response to that. They’d called me down to the office, I’m really not sure why. They didn’t believe me either.

When her mom and dad walked into the principal’s office half an hour later, she was still carrying on. She’d had fits of the giggles for three days after they’d suspended her. It all got sorted out—eventually. I couldn’t imagine that it’d be any prettier if she broke up like that tonight!

But I couldn’t help myself. The snide remarks just burst out without asking my permission.

“If that boy’d been my kid,” boomed Aunt Willa, Dad’s oldest sister and Empress of The Club, “I’d’ve curbed his wild ways! He’d be alive now!”

“Yes, chaining him to the cellar walls until he was sixty-five would keep him safe!”

“I’m gonna kill you!”

“No, no! If you kill me, you’ll only start them on the theory that you did it so Irvy could be yours at last! Shame on you, but—perfectly understandable!”

She sucked in a gasp, not quite choking back the giggle, clasped her hand to her mouth, and turned to inspect the huge bouquet of peach roses right beside her. Noticing some of my uncles and one pair of our grandparents watching us, I swung around too, threw my arm around her, pretending to console her.

Behind us, Aunt Wanda, the Grand Duchess of The Club, declared self righteously, “I hope JuliAnna and Jorden learn something from this experience . . .!”

“Oh, I’m sure they have! I know I have— haven’t you?”

“. . . because if they’re not careful, that little Jarrett’s going to be another MatthewGordenKelmann . . .!”

“. . . what an honor that would be!” I chirped at the same instant my aunt charged, “. . . what a shame that would be!”

Joleigh! Quit!”

Recognizing she was in serious distress, I relented. “I’m sorry! Look, you want to move someplace else?”

“Where?” Lanette demanded with an emphatic gesture that took in the whole of the small room. “We’re sardines in here already!” Then her eyes filled up again, and she ended, “I’m not moving! We cared about Matt; they didn’t!”

We’d been standing close by Matt’s casket since we’d first arrived. A little to the side, though, so we could be as out of the way as possible so others could come up and pay their respects. Every spare spot in the room was occupied. We could go outside, but that’s where the smokers of the family were congregated. Didn’t want to be out there. The air was bad enough right where we were.

Aunt Willa proceeded to sully it some more. “It’s a wonder their hair isn’t pure white! Mother’s was at thirty-five because of Jorden and Mitchell! But then, nothing those kids have ever done has ever fazed them! Such monsters they were back then! Why, they were always hiding on Tina, picking on her and making her feel so bad!”

“Well, that was the fun of it!” Lanette uttered darkly. “Besides—she was bad. Still is!”

“Personally,” I continued, not able to let it alone, “I think our dads did Gram a favor! She looks much prettier with snow-white hair, don’t you think? I think—”

A pair of hands settled, one upon Lanette’s shoulder and one upon mine, at once startling us, yet making us stand very still. “You’re going to give everyone the wrong impression, girls!” Gramma KateKelmann whispered in our ears.

Oh . . . busted! She’s always been good about sneaking up on people —hearing what you didn’t want her to! “Ah, Gram, they already have that!”

“Then change it. You’ve the power to do that!”

“What good would it do? They don’t have the power to see you’re not bald!”

Lanette snickered, and Gramma Kate gave her a playful shove. Then she patted my shoulder, saying, “Well, someday, I’ll point that out to them! Although they are aware, there were moments when I had wanted to rip my hair out! Some of this is true, you know! Behave, both of you! Remember where you are!”

She moved away, and I said to Lanette, “Like we can forget?”

“Jorden and Mitchell were just like them, though—always teasing us to tears!” Aunt Willa bored on. She slapped a hand to her cheek, and then made a gesture. “They weren’t teasing when they ran off with Lynore and JuliAnnaMerriwether—remember Wanda? I bet you my best sweater they’d have children from Hell! Allying themselves with that family, how could it be otherwise! Although, as I say, Jace has managed to turn out fairly well.” She gazed off to her left where our parents stood in a receiving line. “Lynore looks positively near collapse! Poor dear, I’ll be so glad when this is over for her!” As if it’d be all better tomorrow, like it all could be healed with just a kiss and a hug.

“So—” Aunt Dorene looked ready to do some battle over the issue. “You’re saying if I were to get married, my kids would be Children from Hell?”

“Don’t you open those lips!” Lanette hurriedly warned me, just as I began to. She was already in a fair way to busting a gut, having an excellent idea of what I’d meant to say. Killed me to spare her, but I did.

Aunt Willa reached out to lay a hand on Dorene’s arm. “Oh, my dear, you’re so unlike them both that I forget you’re related!” in a tone that left one wondering how she really meant that. Then in altogether a different one, she said, “I can’t imagine why you’re taking offense. You agree with us!”

“Well, she oughta recognize two faces when she sees ‘em— she wears more than one herself!”

Lanette dug her fingers into my ribs, making me jump and give a little startled cry. Out of the corner of my eye I witnessed the look our aunts cast us. At once, we both about-faced to Matt’s coffin. Pretended to be overcome with grief.

That quick it wasn’t a pretense. Cold despair like fingers of icy mountain air touched my brain and numbed it. My heart, squeezed with pain, cried for mercy—and none was granted it. Seeing him lying there . . . knowing he’d never be with us again . . .

For a minute, I wanted to faint, but I fought it, breathing in deeply, struggling to stay with it. That’d be the last thing Lanette needed. She’d go to pieces and collapse herself. Wasn’t what our parents needed to deal with right now, either. And then, of course, there’d be The Club.

So I clung to the corner edge of the coffin to keep myself upright. Fingering the frame of the photo of our win at Mt.Washington, I tried to focus my mind on it and the events of that day.

From it, my gaze wandered to other mementos. Photos of his favorite cars were arranged on tables among the bouquets nearby, pictures of the two of us in the Super Beetle after the Cherokee Trail race propped at his waist and a model of a 911 Porsche in his hands. The car he’d just bought with Irvy’s help.

Krista’s parents had come earlier and they’d tucked a picture of her and Matt down beside him. Such a waste! He and Krista had seemed so right for each other.

When Lanette began dating DanteLeighton, another friend of Matt and Irvy’s, we joked about having a triple wedding. Only Jace remained unattached. I think that’s another reason why The Club held him in such esteem. Such a chaste young man! Lanette and I, however, hadn’t lost much sleep over knowing they believed we never had been. Although from time to time, we wondered if it was fair of us to be making liars of them all.

Lanette moved closer. Reaching out, she touched Matt. Her fingers suddenly grasped the fabric of his suit, and she gave him a rough little shake. Rough, as if it would bring him back, little, because she knew it wouldn’t. Too, there was a good deal of resentment in her eyes—resentment that he’d done something so idiotically stupid. Something that’d left her brotherless.

I couldn’t touch him. If I touched him, I’d lose it for sure, and quicker than hipless Aunt Wanda lost her flowered bikini in the thundering waves at the beach every year! Which would start that chain reaction mentioned earlier . . .

As guests arrived, they trekked up to say goodbye in their individual manner, hugged us quick, uttering a few words of condolence. They’d then made their way down the mourning line, commiserating with the family. Some stayed with them; others went off to join another group elsewhere.

Still others simply weren’t very good at this sort of thing. After the obligatory hug and a mumbled “Sorry!” they fled the funeral home. I wished I could. My whole being felt as tense as a giant coiled spring. One that wanted to let loose and bounce all over the place. I just wanted this to be over. Wanted to be alone to sort it all out.

Or, no—no, I wanted Matt to get up out of there and laugh his face off, like it was all a big joke. Wanted him to tell everyone just what he thought of them. Shock ‘em all worse than he’d ever shocked ‘em before! We’d yak at him for having scared us so bad, but then we’d praise his awesome audacity, and go celebrate it with a pizza.

It’d be the prank of the century! Totally worthy of him!

Ah, but his roguish laugh we’d only hear on family movies from now on . . . An echo in memory.

I had just made this miserably sad observation to Lanette when jumbo arms separated us, clamping us in a smothering, perfumed embrace. “Well, Joleigh-Anna, Lanette,” Aunt Willa said in her habitual disapproving, yet, patronizing tone, “if you’ve learned something by this unfortunate accident, his death won’t be completely for nothing! He had his whole life ahead of him! So very sad! Such a pretty young lady he’d found for himself, too!” Heaving one of her gusty sighs, she tightened her hold on us for an instant. About broke our ribs. “But he’s in a better place now, so I suppose we shouldn’t speak harshly of him.”

As if she’d ever actually stop!

I must’ve worn a look that revealed my feelings in a more comical way then I knew, for Lanette met my gaze across Aunt Willa’s ample bosom and immediately hid her face in it—succumbed to the giggles again. Aunt Willa clucked in her mock sympathetic way, begging her not to cry so hard.

Her clumsy consolations to Lanette finally got to be more than I could listen to without squirming. I was ready to scream, “Shut up! Will you just shut up! Yes, he’s dead, but nothing’s ever going to make us miss him less!”

I’d’ve liked to have said it and more, but I bit it all back—out of respect for my parents, and Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch—and Matt’s memory. Yapping off would only make them sigh all the more at how thoroughly Matt had corrupted me.

So, I extricated myself from her viselike hold . . . only to be instantly embraced by Aunt Wanda’s bony arms. No bosom at all to cushion sorrows. And her prosaic utterances didn’t make up for it, either. Logic doesn’t help at such an emotional time. Plenty of people don’t realize that . . . nor ever know how much salt they’ve rubbed into a wound because they don’t.

But . . . for all those reasons I hadn’t told Aunt Willa to shut up, I tolerated Aunt Wanda’s show of affection as well. Or whatever it was. They were family after all . . .

Although . . . this blood is thicker than water stuff seemed like double talk to me. When I’m thirsty, give me a drink of water! I had friends who’d be there for me quicker than most of my relatives. No questions. No finger pointing.

At length, they released us, and linking arms, they refocused on those in the mourning line. I glanced over at Aunt Lynore and my mom, feeling exquisite pity for them to have to endure a second round with those two. But, then, an acquaintance of theirs snagged my aunts’ notice, and engaged them in some chatter that presently had nothing to do with Matt, or any of us, so Mom and Aunt Lynore gained a decent respite.

“Good grief,” I heard Turdy utter to Wendy, “Behold— The Whale and The Eel! Those two look more like twins!” Meaning Lanette and me.

“A whole lot prettier, too!” murmured Uncle Todd, not censoring him for saying anything so disrespectful, nor Wendy for laughing.

“Ooo, a compliment!” I uttered to Lanette. “I’m gonna faint!”

But Uncle Todd was wrong. The Whale and the Eel were as identical as they could be—inside! They saw things out of the same eyes—even though one pair’s hazel and the other’s mud brown! Had tongues as sharp as butcher knives, too, and hearts about as indifferent as a dreary November day!

I said so to Lanette and concluded, “Looks don’t mean a thing! They’re twins no question!”

“Joleigh—Gramma Kate’s looking at you!”

“Ah, so what? Everyone tolerates them and each other just for appearances! Makes me nuts!”

My uncles, Ralph and Aldo, stood away from us all, not putting any limits on their busybody spouses. They weren’t the ones wearing the pants in their families, that’s for sure! Ralph, a beanpole type, claimed Aunt Willa as his, while Aldo, somewhat stouter, had married Wanda. We always figured they’d’ve made great cartoon characters, the four of ‘em!

Uncle Aldo caught my eye, and he gave me a smile and a little wink. Uncle Ralph smiled too, and might have come over to chat a second had not Frankie, Tina’s husband, joined them.

How nice Frankie got along with his in-laws—more or less. He even called Aunt Willa, Ma.

I’m sure I couldn’t hear myself calling Mrs.Woodworth anything but Mrs.Woodworth. No warm feelings were ever likely to flow between us. Just a wary apprehension on my part and a cool tolerance on hers!

One of the smaller groups disbanded, giving me a better view of those who made up the mourning line. Aunt Lynore’s dark blue pantsuit emphasized her pallor. She seemed so very frail just then. Her gaze seemed to be intent on Jace and Irvy, who remained apart from the rest of us. Jace, in stunned angry silence, acting like the whole world was to blame for Matt’s death and not Matt himself. Irvy stood by Jace’s seat, not trying to engage him in any conversation—just being there for him. While Irvy didn’t display quite the same attitude, he did give the impression of wanting to be left alone.

Couldn’t blame either one. Weren’t many here who knew how to be tactful and truly comforting to us.

Aunt Lynore abruptly swung around to grab my mother and weep upon the shoulder of Mom’s hunter green blazer. Mom spoke soothingly to her, letting her freely soak it. Catching my glance, she sent me an encouraging smile which I answered with a rueful one. Her gaze then searched out Jace and Irvy’s corner. It appeared to me that Mom’s sadness seemed to deepen, get sort of wistful when she watched Irvy. Kind of the same way Aunt Lynore’s had just now.

I supposed they probably were recalling the very first time Irvy showed up at Aunt Lynore’s front door. Uncle Mitch told that story a lot.

Irvy’d only been two years old when he snuck out of his house and trotted cross lots to ask if Matt could come out and play. When they asked him how he’d known Matt lived there, he’d answered matter of factly, “I see a boy playing when we go by his house. I say, he’s my friend! I go find him, that’s all.” As for how he knew how to find him, well, that’s still a mystery. Even if you asked him now, he’d just shrug and say, “Just did, that’s all.”

Dr.Woodworth, Sr. phoned my aunt and invited the whole family to dinner—not necessarily with Mrs.Woodworth’s blessing. Irvy’s dad ended up admiring Matt’s spunk—was actually proud his own son had shown some. Thought Irvy should get dirty like a real boy ought to, and that Matt was just the one he ought to do it with. Moreover, he had been favorably impressed with Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch. Figured if they could handle their hyper son at a stranger’s house without losing their cool, they were quite worthy of watching over his son, too. Arranged for the boys to get together so Irvy wouldn’t be walking the streets alone, anymore.

Mrs.Woodworth didn’t want the hassle of looking out for Matt, so Irvy always went to Aunt Lynore’s. Or sometimes the two mothers would meet at the rec center playground so Mrs.Woodworth had some assurance her precious son wasn’t being bullied or led into criminal mischief by Matty. Guess her attitude toward my aunt was pretty much the way it was toward me—cool but civil. Her wall of reserve never came down.

Mom and Aunt Lynore would have the same memories, for they’ve always been really close. They genuinely loved kids, and they’d often sat for each other—even for all the trouble we’d all cause sometimes. Both had stood up to Mrs.Woodworth in our defense—Matt’s and mine—oh, countless times. Which was never an enviable task. The Club’s charges, allegations, accusations, and biased opinions you could ignore—more or less. Mrs.Woodworth’s unnerving stare and cool hauteur was something else altogether.

Mom’s glance came back to Matt lying as if he were napping in the casket. She bit trembling lips, but her tears flowed anyway, and she hugged Aunt Lynore tighter.

Uncle Mitch and Dad maintained stoic fronts beside them, giving out tight smiles and firm handshakes. But I’d seen Uncle Mitch sob earlier at home. There was a lost kind of look in his eyes. And he couldn’t gaze at the body in the coffin for longer than an instant or two. I guess that’s how Dad would look if it were Jace or Jarrett.

My aunts’ friend, finally through bending their ears, waved a general goodbye to all gathered there and left. Aunt Willa and Aunt Wanda converged upon the mourning line. My grandparents Merriwether left it. Guess once was enough for them!

“Ah, Lynore, honey—JuliAnna, dear! How are you two holding up? Must be comforting for you, Lynore, that so many have shown up tonight! He was well liked, wasn’t he, dear?” As if it were some kind of miracle.

However, as if their true feelings about Matt didn’t matter, Aunt Lynore surrendered to their insincere embraces, accepting their further condolences at face value. Not only theirs, but anyone else’s besides, whatever their opinion of Matt was. Pretty forgiving of her!

This hypocritical routine was pretty much the same at every funeral. Soon’s the last respects duty was performed and the line traversed, these meddling judges of the family assembled to begin diatribes or reassembled to continue where they’d left off.

Wasn’t anything different about tonight.

Aunt Becky was sighing now, “Oh, but I feel so sorry for Lynore and Mitch! Their only boy!”

As if Matty had had a dozen sisters instead of just Lanette.

“Next it’s going to be Jorden and JuliAnna’s only girl ending up dead in some unfortunate manner! Well—unless something happens to poor little Jaimee first!” proclaimed Aunt Willa, edging back in between her and Wendy. “Lord A’mighty, that Joleigh-Anna and Matt should’ve been brother and sister—and Lanette and Jace! Hard to think of Jace and Joleigh as twins!”

“Oh, please . . .!” Lanette moaned. “Listen to who’s making the comparison!”

Guess Gramma Grace Merriwether felt the same way. I heard her mutter to someone in her group, “I’ve been often thankful for the miracle that made sure the children would be Merriwether blue eyed redheads! None of ‘em too fat nor bony—nor ill-tempered!” I glanced back in time to see her sweep a telling glance the length of my imperfectly shaped, disagreeable Kelmann aunts. Somehow, she forgot that Uncle Todd and Aunt Dorene were the dark haired, chubby, disagreeable flaws in the Merriwether perfection.

“Well, if IrvynWoodworth knows what’s good for himself,” declared Aunt Wanda, who either hadn’t heard my grandmother at all, although she stood right behind her, or else she pretended she hadn’t, “he ought to listen to his mother—marry someone else! If he allies himself with Joleigh-Anna, his patients’ll suffer horribly! Does she intend to keep racing without Matt now? Well, Irvyn’ll have to go with her to make sure she doesn’t injure herself! Although— I think I could have accepted Matt’s death better had he died in one of his precious rally cars! Or any of the others! Chicken, for God’s sakes! Did you ever—?”

“Look at it this way, thanks to Matt’s foolishness, Irvyn’s gotten a respite!” Tina left a group of my older cousins to come join the one her mother reigned in. “Maybe he will reconsider marriage with her!”

“Oh, here we go,” uttered Lanette, her eyes glinting angrily through her tears. “Like broken records they are!”

“Not as if we weren’t expecting it,” I reminded her. She sniffed in disgust.

Aunt Willa replied with conviction to Tina, “He should! He’s always given in to Joleigh! What she wants, he gives her! He was as much a party to her crimes as Matt was! Did he ever tell her not to go off on these dangerous races with Matt? No! He gave her his blessing, and that was that! Who’d trust a man like that with their health and welfare? I doubt I could! Although his father was a saint when he was alive, and his uncle is! But,” on a sorrowful sigh, “that’s a different generation! In any case, all this has put off their plans for tomorrow, hasn’t it? Might be the best thing that’s happened, in that case!”

Cousin Tina poked her huge pregnant body even further into the center of things, and stated confidently, “Well, in any case, my child will never grow up to be like any of them! We won’t allow it! We’re going right by the book! Aren’t we, Frankie?”

Frankie glanced over from beside Uncle Ralph and shrugged. “If that’s what you want to do.”

“There’s a baby to pity!” I muttered.

“Oh, she’s just saying that because she’s still holding grudges against us for all the pranks we pulled on her—and for Irvy telling her he’d never trade you for a pumpkin like her back then! Such a crybaby! She hasn’t lost that whining pouty voice, after all this time, either, has she?”

“Nope, and now that she’s pregnant, her pumpkin body is even more round, and—well . . . pumpkiny!” I eyed Tina cynically, and recited in a sing song tone, “Jelly Jelly Pumpkin Belly, fell in cow flop, now she’s really smelly!”

The old rhyme conjured up the hilarious events of that day.

Oh, God . . . so funny watching Tina try to impress Irvy . . . picking him wildflowers in the meadow. Some of the cows were out in that field, and one of them looked just like Fritz, being one of his daughters. She took an interest in Tina’s flower gathering and ambled over to check it out. Well, we couldn’t resist . . . “Run! Run! Fritz is after you! Run! Quick!”

Tina turned as white as the daisy petals, and she took off without looking back. Didn’t look where she was going, either. She slipped and slid for five minutes in the biggest cow pie out there, trying to keep her balance and get out of it. When she looked over her shoulder and saw the cow trotting up to her, Tina’d screamed, lost her footing altogether, and plop! Right into the putrid pile! Covered in ripely fresh poo, she lay there petrified while the cow munched the wildflowers right out of her hand. We’d rolled on the ground, breathless, sides splitting, tears streaming from laughter. Don’t think she talked to us for six months after that!

Lanette, gasping on a guffaw, slapped her hand over her mouth again. Which attracted all kinds of embarrassing attention. Had to bite my own lips to keep from losing it myself.

“You idiot!” she flung at me, and sucked in her cheeks, trying not to look as if she were in hysterics. Didn’t appear to help much. “Oh, man, that was sooo funny! She was sooo mad—! Such a killjoy, she was, though . . .!”

“Gonna carry it into motherhood, too!” Then, striking a pose, I mimicked Tina’s signature statement. “My mother says you guys’re going to end up in jail someday!” Lanette doubled over in a fresh peal of laughter. I held her steady. “I’ll go by the heart when I have kids. Forget the book!”

“M-me too!” between giggles. “But y-you’re gonna p-pay for this, Joleigh-Anna!”

Aunt Nedra sent us a look of mild reproof mingled with deep sympathy. In her soft-spoken way, she took it upon herself to explain our behavior to anyone interested—or not. “It’s nerves, you know! They don’t mean anything disrespectful! This is just too hard for everyone, and it’s not the time to be talking like this, Willa! Matty’s gone, and it’s a loss to all of us! Maybe if we’d just been a little more understanding! You know, we never asked him to stay with us, Jed. Ted and Freddy got along with him rather well. If we’d just put ourselves out more . . .”

Uncle Jed, one of Dad’s elder brothers, agreed. “We ought to get together more with everyone, anyway. Have a picnic or something once a year. Do something to keep in touch!”

“Dad—we have been getting together once a year. Someone’s accommodated us for the past eight! Actually, Matt makes the second—no, the third—for this year! Good enough for me!” proclaimed Turdy, half in jest, half not.

“Theodore!” Aunt Nedra reproved as if he were ten. “Now that’s just plain rude! A family get together would be a wonderful idea!”

Turdy, who never liked Matt, or any of the rest of us, despite what his mother thought, demanded, “What would we do at it? Sit around gabbing about the good old days? I’ve got a life, Ma! Why should I spend it at a dull boring family reunion or whatever? Got other things I’d rather be doing!” He pulled his latest love closer to his side and waggled his brows at her suggestively. She giggled and snuggled even closer to him.

Can’t imagine what she saw in him. Such a self-centered sleazeball! The type who’d offer to trade five pennies for a dime with a toddler—like Jarrett—convincing the kid he had the better deal since he had more coins. Plus, this girl was much younger than he was. Younger than me, even! Must’ve gotten hooked on his looks. Was the only thing he had going for him!

“We all have a life, Ted,” retorted Freddy curtly. “Unlike you and dear Aunt Dorene, some of us want more in it than just ourselves! Matt had a life! I should have put myself more into it when I had the chance! Too late, now, huh? Too late for Lawron, too! You know, we really never knew much of anything that was going on in his life. For all we know, he was seeing some drop dead gorgeous girl and was going to get married soon!” Thinking of someone else whose life he hadn’t paid much attention to, he added, “Probably too late tonight to drive to Providence . . . see Jaimee.”

Freddy walked away from them before anyone could reply. He flung a glance Jace’s way, went over to grasp his hand, then Irvy’s, said a few words of sympathy and regret, and then came to hug us girls quick-like and gruffly say, “I’m really sorry, guys! I wish—” He couldn’t finish. He let us go, and without another glance at Matt or anyone else, he strode out of the building.

I’ve always liked Freddy okay. He’d never been anything like Tina or Turdy—always wanted to join in when he and his family came to visit. But his mother’s overprotective ways nearly always put a damper on things. She rarely said no outright, but she’d take hours to bang it into his head of how to look out for dangers and not to do this, that or the other thing, or to do this, that, or the other—until we got sick of waiting for him and went off without him.

If her lectures hadn’t ripped the heart from him, he’d try to find us. More often, though, we’d come back and find him bored to tears, kicking rocks around the driveway or sitting on the porch steps, his chin in his hands, looking sadly glum.

Guess we should’ve just snuck him off with us without asking anyone’s permission for it. So what if Turdy or Tina told on us. They’d done that all the time, anyway. And, come to think of it, for all her stupid lectures, Aunt Nedra’d never been as disapproving as all our other aunts had been. Just too darned careful!

In fact, she hadn’t been as critical as much as Mrs.Woodworth had been—on the occasions she’d happened to find out what we’d been up to. But Dr.Woodworth hadn’t ever lost sleep over our antics, nor had he believed we kids would turn to a life of crime because of a few pranks or risky outings. Said it was just plain youthful silliness that growing up would cure. He’d bound up our cuts and set our broken bones, and then sent us out into the world for more!

He’d been a totally cool guy! Course, I would think that . . . he’d been looking forward to the day Irvy’d propose to me. To his wife’s despair, I was his dream for his only son. Made me promise him the second dance at our wedding. But he’d died, unexpectedly, just after Irvy graduated. That’d been hard, and thinking of him made me miss him, too, as much as Matt, and the lump in my throat grew bigger. A few more tears of regret trickled down.

Mrs.Woodworth had come earlier to pay her respects, but hadn’t stayed beyond the time it took to do it. Seeing me in the same room with Irvy simply stabbed her with many regrets. Maybe she didn’t exactly show it, but I imagine she was relieved Matt would no longer be an influence in Irvy’s life. One of her dreams had come true.

The last forty-five minutes of the wake dragged. People continued to disparage most of the things Matt had done, or that we’d done together with him; others dug into otherwise indifferent hearts to find something good to say about him. Regretting, like Freddy, they’d not taken enough time, or risked the censure, to do things with him.

Matt’s particular buddies didn’t linger. They felt uncomfortable in the presence of so much disapproval. Except Tippy Waldron and his new wife, Colleen. Tippy didn’t listen to anyone’s drivel. As a matter of fact, he treated them as if they weren’t even there.

Which is the way some of ThomiTollefson’s family acted toward them, too, when they all came in. We’d been friends with them since they moved to Kingsdale and opened up the riding center there. Mom liked to ride, so she brought us over to check the new place out. We learned to ride at DreamWind and never went anyplace else. So, the lot of us, the triplets, Thomi, Rikki, and Halleigh, and their younger sister, Lyndsay, and Lanette and me, had hung around together. Three of their older brothers—Nicky, Adrien, and Tristen—had joined Matt, Jace, and Irvy in plenty of excursions. Their temperaments pretty much matching Matt’s.

More cause for Mrs.Woodworth to shudder . . . The Tollefsons had been once a part of a small traveling circus. Only God knew what dangerous practices her precious son would learn from them! Like riding a galloping horse bareback—standing up . . .

Actually, Irvy got pretty good at it.

“Such a stinkin’ shock!” uttered Tippy in his dramatic manner. “Man, he was on his way to making it big! We had a shot at the Nationals this year! Can’t think of anyone else I wanted to team with!”

He put a long muscular arm about each of us, while maintaining a hold of Colleen’s hand. Tippy helped us keep the cars in the best racing form. He was a dependable, friendly guy. Sometimes he’d navigated for Matt when I wasn’t able to.

”Here, don’t cry, Lanette! He’d hate to see you like this! I hate to see you like this! Dante should be here with you! Seems like he could’ve found someone else to take over that goat call! I mean, if he says he loves you, Lanette, he should be here with you! Where’s Krista?”

“Tippy, Krista’s a wreck and couldn’t face it, and as for Dante, how could he turn his back on his neighbor’s goat?” Lanette asked him. “The poor thing was badly mauled. He said he’d be here if he could be. I’ve got Joleigh—and now Thomi, Halleigh and Lyndsay are here! I’m fine!”

“Stephan could have gone in his place!” Tippy shot a sharp, accusing glance at Thomi—as if she ought to have made sure he had. “And how’d his family take the news he’d hired Dante to partner with him? They faint?” Tippy gave a derisive snort. “There’s another snooty bunch—the Deverills! How’d you ever get mixed up with them, Thomasyna? Heard he wanted to dump you last night! Right in front of your adoring audience, too! Why was this—another of your mind boggling switches with—” He waved his hands at her and her sisters, wiggling his fingers as he did. “—your carbon copies, your clones? You’d all drive me to drink— No, drive me over a cliff, more like! I imagine, though, Jaimee’ll be happy to hear you did her play, after all!”

“I hope so. I risked everything to do it for her! As for you, you’ve nothing to fear,” Thomi responded soothingly. “None of us want to date, marry or otherwise get hooked up with you, Tiptoes. You’re safe—more or less!” She grinned at his scowl of her audacious use of a nickname few got away with calling him.

Thomi put an arm around Lanette then. “He and Stephan went together on this call. I would have gone in Dante’s place, you know. Or, maybe, Kourtnay would’ve gone. Only neither of the guys would let us. Stephan told me my place was here with you and Joleigh. So here I am. Look, whatever you think, Lanette, Dante cares about you. Believe him when he says so.”

“Yeah, don’t be like Thomasyna!” Halleigh advised. “Take too long coming to your senses, and he’ll find someone else. Do you really want that?”

Lanette bit her lip. She didn’t want it, but didn’t want to admit it. Halleigh smiled, shook her head slightly, and reached out to tap Lanette’s arm. “I hope you’ve enjoyed all those custom made cards he’s given you! He’s been my best customer lately! I can draw you in my sleep!”

“He’s asked Rikki to come up with a love song for your wedding!” Lyndsay added. “Does this mean he’s getting ready to ask you?”

“Oh, God! A love song? She didn’t say she would, did she?” Lanette clasped Lyndsay’s arm, her gaze begging her to say she hadn’t. The amused gleam in Lyndsay’s emerald eyes said she had.

While Lanette cared about Dante, she wasn’t quite sure she felt the same way he did. He’d once promised to team up with Matt and me as one of our mechanics as Tippy had. But then he’d decided he’d rather doctor animals than cars and had gone to school for that instead. Don’t think Lanette ever forgave him for that—don’t think she was forgiving him now—whatever she said to Tippy.

Me, I’d be thrilled if Irvy asked Rikki to compose a love song for me. That’d be so cool, and soooooo romantic. He had commissioned Halleigh to create one of her exclusive cards for me from time to time, and we’d been to the Little Theater often enough to see Thomi perform in plays—when she wasn’t off making a film someplace. Of course, then we’d go see her latest movie. But a song would be the ultimate prize—next to him actually saying “I love you,” that is! I mean, I knew he did—but it’d be the topper if he could say the words, too!

I’m afraid that my jealousy of Dante’s earnest romanticisms made me want to blubber some more. That I could ask Rikki to write a song for Irvy only came to my mind later. She didn’t happen to be with her family today. Having had enough of trying to guess which triplet he was with lately, Stephan had shipped her off, Monday morning, to New York to make it easier for himself this week. Of course, he’d thought, at the time, he’d been getting rid of Halleigh . . .

So Rikki hadn’t been home, then, when I had called CliffTop right after I heard about Matty’s accident. No doubt her sisters had phoned her later on to let her know.

Tippy let go Colleen’s hand to rap my cheek smartly. “Come on, Little Jo! Puffy eyes don’t become you! All of you, c’mon, let’s remember the good times!”

Colleen slipped her hand back into Tippy’s. “How can they, Tippy? Joleigh and Irvy were supposed to get married tomorrow, remember? Matt was supposed to be Irvy’s best man!”

He smacked his forehead with the flat of his hand. “Ah! That’s right! Bummer!” And he hugged me, kissing the top of my red hair. “I’m gonna get Irvy over here,” he told me. “You need him. I’d never let Colleen go through something like this alone! Not that I feel Jace should be deserted —but you know . . . you’re a woman! They should both be with you!”

And with that, Tippy, with Colleen clasped to his side, went off to tell my brother and my fiancé what he thought of their thoughtlessness in leaving us “all alone”. Guess he felt our friends weren’t strong enough to help bear our sorrows.

I knew that Colleen hadn’t meant to stir up any hurt as Aunt Willa had earlier. Not sure how I let Aunt Willa’s dig get by me. Hadn’t wanted to think about it, I guess. I’d spent the last three days trying not to think about tomorrow. So close to being with Irvy forever. This was something else that no doubt his mother was thanking her lucky stars for—the postponement of our wedding!

Whoa! Wouldn’t she hate it if he ever asked Rikki for a love song for me!

In any case, instead of Matt standing at Irvy’s side as his best man, Irvy would make up one of the pallbearers at Matt’s funeral tomorrow afternoon. Discussing new plans just hadn’t fit into any conversation. Everything was pretty much left up in the air. Not many had mentioned it openly, either. Those who had were genuinely interested in our future together, that is. The others, like Aunt Willa, (and Mrs.Woodworth), were, without doubt, hoping we’d forget about it or drift apart now Matt wasn’t there.

Tippy had a slight problem dislodging Irvy from Jace’s side, but he hit an even bigger wall with my brother who scowled and hunched away from him. Irvy glanced across, gave in to my imploring gaze and came over. Thomi, Halleigh, and Lyndsay moved to make room for him.

Taking me into a light embrace, he explained, “It’s not that he doesn’t want to be with you, it’s just he doesn’t know how to handle his grief. He really needs to let it out, but he can’t. Not yet. He just needs someone to stay with him without expecting anything from him . . . . I don’t know—maybe I do, too.” Irvy took one arm away, and included Lanette in our comfort hug.

Which really didn’t feel all that much of a comfort, really. I saw my friends exchange a glance among themselves, but whatever they were thinking, they kept it to themselves. Tippy and Colleen stayed with Jace. Not speaking, just providing a silent solace for him as Irvy had.

Okay, I understood Jace’s trouble. I did, really. But I needed the warmth of a hug to console me and someone’s ear to listen to the memories I wanted to live on forever. Thought that’s what brothers, especially twin brothers—and fiancés—were for. Thought that’s what they’d need from me, too. I needed to feel Irvy’s solid protection enveloping me. Wanted to feel his love for me. I felt lost without Matt, but without Jace, and definitely without Irvy, I’d be missing without a trace! I’d loved Irvyn since before I formed my first word. “Irby!”

We’d shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with him, and he’d shared the cookies his mother would bake—so she wouldn’t appear to be slighting. Irvy’d known best—thanks to his Dad—how to care for cuts and broken limbs until help arrived. How and when to treat us both like the girls we were—which Matt and Jace never seemed to learn. Seemed totally natural to me now, that he’d drape an arm about my cousin, and talk as gently to her as he did to me.

“I can’t take any more of this!” uttered Lanette suddenly, ignoring everything Irvy had just said to her. “I can’t listen to them yak about Matt and us, anymore! Although it’d make me sicker if they were crying over him the way they did over Uncle Claude back in April, and then over Lawron in June. Like they were their best buddies! No one ever liked Uncle Claude, anyway! I mean, Turdy should’ve been his son!”

She swept a disgusted gesture at The Club and those who’d since joined their group. “No one’s going to want to follow through on any plan to keep in touch! It’s all talk! They said all this at Uncle Claude’s funeral, too, and at Lawron’s! Nobody ever wanted Matt around—he was too wild— too crazy! Not serious enough for any of the Snoot Club! Irvy, tell my parents I want to go home!”

He didn’t, but instead led our select little group away to a small alcove closed off from the left side of the room by a lattice partition by which potted trees and great vases of flowers had been placed.

Lanette dropped onto the sofa, and propped her head in her hands, and let her grief spill yet again. I’m not sure what Tippy said, but Jace came over and sat with her. But, unlike the rest of us, including our friends, his own tears he kept inside.

Aunt Nedra slipped into our group to offer some of her gentle, coaxing words of comfort, which only grated Lanette’s nerves and mine, and set Jace’s jaw in a grimmer line. Frankly, we were tired of hearing that Matt was now in a better place in any tone of voice.

Why would God need to call people of any age to become angels? How many did he need, after all, if he already had myriads? Besides—how could she be so sure that’s where he was, when the rest of The Club felt positive he was rotting and burning in Hell! Or was he the first person to be residing in two places at once?

I didn’t think he was in either place, frankly. Dead is dead. No roses in winter.

Not many had planned to show up for our wedding tomorrow. At the time, I hadn’t cared. Simply and only cared about being Irvy’s forever. Now, however, a burning desire to celebrate the double anniversaries of my parents’ and Lanette’s in a huge way swelled within me—okay, yeah, and, now, my wedding . . . whenever it finally took place.

How any of it would come about, actually, I had no more a clue than I had three months ago. I only knew a profound determination to get everyone together to celebrate something positive and happy!

You know—like LIFE.

This keen notion suddenly got cut off when a small body hurled itself at my knees. Irvy kept me standing; I’d’ve fallen for sure, otherwise! “Jarrett! Where’d you come from? You’re supposed to be with the Marshals! How’d you get here?”

“I sneaked out,” he declared stoutly. “And I d’wanna go back. Why’s Matty sleepin’ in that funny lookin’ bed, Joleigh? How come he’s sleepin’ when all the buddies are here?” All the buddies was his four-year-old way of saying everybody. “How come he d’wanna play with me? Make him get up, Joleigh! Make him!”

Oh, geez . . .! We’d already tried to explain to him that Matt wouldn’t be playing with any of us anymore. But he hadn’t gotten the message very well . . . or at all. I picked him up, hugging him tightly, and tried again to make him understand.

“Jarrett, look—everybody’s here because Matty’s not ever getting out of that funny looking bed. They’re here to say good-bye to him, even though he can’t hear any of us. Remember when Nikki died—you remember? The car hit her, and we all said good-bye to her when we buried her under the tree behind our house?”

Halleigh ruffled his red curls. “We all came for that, remember, Squirt? You had us sing doggy songs for her.”

He pouted; he remembered. And it set off his mourning in great shape. He yanked the collar of my blouse, his tears breaking like a sudden cloudburst. “I didn’t want her to die! She was my dog! I got no dog now! I got no Matty now! Make him get up! Make him!”

“Ah, Jarrett . . .” I hugged him closer, tried to calm him with soft words and kisses. It didn’t work, and in the end, I just cried with him.

“This is how Jaimee would be if she were here,” Lanette uttered, her own tears gathering again. “If she knew . . .”

No one had told her yet. She’d thrown way too horrible a fit when she’d thought Thomi’d deserted her. How would she take hearing about Matty’s death? Thomi had defied Stephan’s wishes and her doctor’s orders in order to appear in that play last night for Jaimee. But Matty wouldn’t be defying anyone. He’d be in that casket forever now.

Uncle Ralph, on his way to his first attempt at dragging Aunt Willa away, saw Jarrett sobbing in my arms and came over. “What’s the trouble, little man?”

“I want my Matty,” declared Jarrett-Andrew, defiant through his tears. He raised his head with new hope. “Get him up, Uncle Ralph! Make him laugh! I wanna ride in the Soup Beetle!”

“Little man, if I could, I would. But listen, how would it be if I took you out on my boat sometime, eh? We could do a little fishing.”

Jarrett brightened a little. Until he remembered that Matt couldn’t go with him. It set off his howls afresh. Looked like one of us would have to take him out of here. He’d probably only get worse.

Was a nice gesture on Uncle Ralph’s part to offer to take him fishing, though? Trouble was, sometime could be any time. Generally, like tomorrow, it never came.

Be wonderful if I could change that for once . . . somehow . . .

 


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thomicover_2009_23130

 SUMMARY

The angry storm clouds gathering presently overhead suit Thomi’s mood. The young actress has been forced to acknowledge that Charles W. Ascott, the man she’s been dating most recently, and also a fellow actor, is likely the worst in a long line of unworthy suitors. As she wallows in her self pity out on the cliffs behind her home, doesn’t Charley’s handsome cousin, Stephan Deverill, DVM, show up in search of her!

Believing he’s come to probe into her relationship with Charley, Thomi is stunned to discover Stephan’s mission is far more personal. For Charley has left town with Stephan’s prospective bride. Since this isn’t the first time Charley has done such a thing, Stephan is determined to make very sure Charley doesn’t strike ever again. Who better to do that with than with the one he’s sorely mistreated.

And when he rescues Thomi from a fall over the cliffs, he feels she owes him that favor of marriage. He’s nothing short of persistent about it. Persistent, persuasive, and downright charming. His sweet sunny smile, deep blue eyes, and oh, sooo, hypnotic voice, almost crack her resolve. Well, okay . . . does crack her resolve!

Then, a certain celebrity magazine runs an article about her relationship with him. The writers of that article seem to know more about the circumstances of Stephan’s reasons for a rushed wedding than Stephan has divulged to her.

The situation is rather more complicated than she realizes. She’s torn between resentment at being used and her growing love for him.

It’s pretty much a situation of damned if she does . . . and damned if she doesn’t . . .

 

CHAPTER 1

Waves, crashing against jagged boulders below, sent spray upwards as far as the sparse bushes that poked determinedly out from the cliff side. The Atlantic, an ominous deep slate gray and rolling with huge white-capped waves, reflected the sky in one of its blackest moods. Dark clouds towered into thunderheads, and the awesomely booming clashes and dazzling flashes that had teased in the distance, now threatened the immediate vicinity. The storm wouldn’t hold off much longer, but at let it would alleviate the heat of a late June day.

Thomasyna Tollefson stood near the cliff’s edge, absently pulling the ears of her magnificent black Chow, and contemplating the events of the past several weeks. One in particular haunted her—made her jump at any sudden sound, her heart freezing, then racing like a Porsche on a straightway—rendering her bones and her will nothing but a pitiful Jell-O blob.

The Villain had peeled off his Princely disguise entirely Saturday night. Now he was on his way back to Los Angeles with someone else. But who knew with him? He might change his mind and return.

She would really rather jump into the sea than face him.

Musing through the ‘if onlys’, Thomi came to the conclusion finally that, if only she’d had a working brain in her head, she could have avoided the whole mess in the first place! Both it and her heart had betrayed her.  Not even to Simon Lindell had she given trust so completely! So readily . . . so blindly . . . oooh, so gullibly!

Simon had some faults too, but none like Charley Ascott’s! In addition, his love for her had been real. Never had she appreciated that—until this moment! He’d been a friend of the family for so long, she’d had trouble thinking of him as a lover. They’d done some films together and two television mini series. He and his actor/director brother ran tame at her family’s stable, DreamWindEquestrianCenter, for they both boarded horses there. For all the time they’d spent together these past few months, somehow Simon’s devotion hadn’t impressed her enough to see him the way he’d wanted to be seen by her. A little late to beg him to take her back, too. He’d found someone else. Ah, why—why had she kissed him off so heartlessly?

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Why did you think Charley was worth it? Demanded her mind for the one billionth time.

What had it been that’d lassoed her like a wild filly on the prairie? That soft caressing tone that none other had used with her before? His insistence—at first— of doing everything for her? Was it that he’d been the first to shower her with more than a few roses and the rare card? Or was it his SMILE! No, no . . . probably was those oh, so sincere, happy brown eyes when he begged her to let him see her—that the wrap of the filming of Kate of the Oglala shouldn’t be the last time they saw each other.

And people say you can act! Never again, honey!! Never, NEVER, again!!!

Probably she’d have a bonfire later on and burn all the things he’d given her. They’d only been tools to him. Tools to impress the heart and lull the mind’s defenses.

Charles Wolfram Ascott IV not only dazzled, then drained, her heart, he’d pretty much vacuumed her bank account. Which must have been his principal reason for wanting to be with her in the first place—hence all the sweet smiles and gifts . . . Had been a sizable account too. Her altruistic spirit was no secret. A virtue that served to offset some faults, chiefly an almost intolerable insolent arrogance, she seemed to reserve mostly for family and other persons apt to mind her business for her. She ought to have employed more of it with dear Charley, for this attitude had always seemed to serve her well where men were concerned. She’d certainly curbed Simon’s ardor with it, when he’d taken liberties she’d given him no permission to take. Was a great defense in difficult situations . . . any difficult situation . . .

Well . . . most situations . . . nothing had helped Saturday night.

Oh, sigh . . .  Talk about blind infatuation!

The door of her mind opened a crack, and the events of the weekend peeked out. As had been his habit of late, Charley’d spent the whole of Friday with his friends, missing the date he’d earlier made with her. She and her sisters had gone to Christie’s for the evening without him. Actually, she’d had an excellent time without him.

A vague notion she ought to bail out of this affair became, that night, a conviction—a purpose that firmed unshakably when the girls returned home, and found he’d missed the last curve in the road, and had run his car into a ditch. The Camaro sustained no damage, but Charley had left the scene. They came upon him staggering in the middle of the road, as drunk as he normally was—but this time he had no remorse for it.

His expression ugly, his mood belligerent, he wasted no words in apology to her, no plea for forgiveness. So, while she was concerned for him, she didn’t try to console him this time. She didn’t care about his problems and gripes. Particularly this one. Which he probably wanted to cry about all the rest of his life.

She’d heard this before—his Grandfather Ascott’s illogical decree of disowning Charles III when his second wife left him so long ago, never telling him she was pregnant.

“My grandmother is better people than he ever was, but did he care? Not on your life—and he punished my father for her leaving him! What was he supposed to do? He wasn’t even born yet, for God’s sakes!”

They’d gotten Charley into Rikki’s purple Mustang, but then they couldn’t get him out once they passed through the gates and parked as close to the house as they could, without driving on the lawn. He just kept up his harangue.

“All their lives, he’s given them whatever they wanted! Sent ‘em to the schools they wanted to go to—Stephan, Storm, and Kourtnay, even Dyana—who’s the snobbiest bitch! Must ‘o felt sorry for her—or no! Must o’ been he’d seen how like himself she was, and that’s why he loved her! The others ain’t so bad . . .” This had been admitted grudgingly, however.

“But only they got mentioned in his will! Only they get to split his wealth! Papa Ascott’s a fool! Rejecting his firstborn like that—my father! Never even asked to see him once Gramma Freddy left him. So, I can’t think why he favored Storm so much! She’s a damned clone of my grandmother! I tell you that no one’s allowed to even mention my grandmother’s name? Probably burned her portraits. I would’ve liked to’ve had ‘em! But no-oo, I’m her grandson, so I’m nothing too! Then the old man turns around and marries my grandmother’s sister, Theadora! Now there’s an intelligent move! But I’ll bet my life, he did it to spite my grandmother . . .!”

Between his anger and his intoxication, it’d been difficult to get him to understand it was time to let it go and find a place to crash for the night. Naturally, they’d help him find someone to come for him and his car. He’d finally come out of the Camaro, but he could hardly stand, much less walk. It looked, at first, like they’d have to leave him on the lawn. But after a couple false starts, Charley’d picked himself up, and staggered up the steps to the porch. Once inside, he’d fallen in the space between the overstuffed white sofa and the light oak and glass coffee table. Made one attempt to get himself up again, but he hadn’t the strength. He’d looked up at the three sisters, all in a row, identical as team uniforms, and had informed them, “I’ll take her away from him like I took the others! If my father’sh not good enough—they ain’t either! I’ll fix ‘em all!”

“Charley—”

“You wanna bet on that?” His tone mean, daring her to challenge him.

“No. Now let me call someone to come get you!”

“Go ahead, call. I got time t’ plan!” His gaze narrowed, and he’d peered at each girl in turn. “Which one o’ you is . . . Tami? Dammit, you all do this to me on purpose! I’m seein’ . . . triple as it is . . .! Care about you, Tami! Gonna prove it to you, too! Gonna get you things you never dreamed of! Gonna . . . I’m gonna . . . love you like . . . shweet—”

She’d cut him off then, not having any stomach for his claims of affection. Moreover, right at that moment, she loathed hearing that particular nickname on his lips. He’d succeeded in making it one that she wasn’t any longer fond of, and she was past the mood to listen to his promises. “Sure, fine, whatever. I’m calling Tony now! Don’t get too comfy there!”

For Charley’d collapsed entirely before she’d spoken three words—which effectively ended his ranting. Ming had stood guard over the inert form, just in case. Ming’d never liked Charley from the beginning, and the feeling had been certainly mutual!

Unfortunately, all of Charley’s friends were in the same shape he was. “Call his uncle’s place. Make one of them come get him!” Rikki’d recommended. “He’s supposed to be staying with them, isn’t he? I know, I know—his uncle despises you! But he can send someone, can’t he? Doesn’t have to come himself!”

“Not calling there! You want to, you do it! Let him stay where he is! Ming’ll watch him for us! Anyway, he probably won’t be waking up until past noon! And I’d wanted to ride tomorrow! Figures! Why couldn’t he have just crashed at Tony’s?”

Because he liked giving the illusion that he was welcome to stay at Cliff Top at any time! Between your sheets, dear, to be specific . . . 

All right, all right, yes! She ought to have corrected that early on . . . ought to have investigated more closely all the instances he’d asked for money, too. But she hadn’t wanted to believe he’d do anything other than what he’d vowed he was doing. Hadn’t wanted to admit he wasn’t much different than most of the other men she’d dated—except Simon. For Charley’s claims of seeing to “investments for their future” hadn’t had anything to do with their future at all. He’d been clever about hiding his real purpose for asking her for so much money. Kept buying her things, taking her to exclusive nightclubs and restaurants . . . All, apparently, with her money—and that was the only bet she’d place right now!

He’d gambled every coin in his pockets and under his car seats to oblivion—an obsession of his she hadn’t realized the depth until a half hour ago, when someone had shown up at her gates looking for him and the vast sum of money he owed.

On Saturday, however, he’d seemed like himself again. Apologized for his behavior of the night before, begging just one more chance, and wouldn’t you know it, right after that, he’d pleaded for one last loan. The last one, really!

“What for this time?”

He’d been a little taken aback by her cold tone, but not daunted. “Tami, please! I’ll pay you back, I promise. I’ve lent some cash to Tony—which I was expecting to get back last night—so I could lend it to my brother, Rion. I don’t want to go into what sort of trouble he’s in, but I can’t abandon him like that! We’re brothers! Please, Tami! He’s a great guy—just  . . . impetuous!”

Well, she had impetuous brothers too, and she’d come to their rescue more than once, so she’d allowed herself to be persuaded one more time. He’d kissed her so sweetly, and promised he’d spend the afternoon with her, doing anything she wanted to do. Even go to DreamWind. Put up with her family—none of whom admired him.

Though, why would they? Charley’d largely ignored their existence, and never troubled to make himself agreeable to any one of them. Her family was large; it had tired his mind to keep track of them all. Especially her sisters; so very alike were she and they . . . although Lyndsay was fourteen months younger and five feet six inches to their five two.

But he’d been as good as his word. He’d been civil, at least, to her brothers and sisters, and hadn’t minded Lyndsay and Jacqi coming along on their trail ride. Even agreed to stay to supper afterwards.

“What happened to him?” had demanded Lyndsay, “He’s actually human today!”

He’d found enough favor with most of her family, that her younger brother, Brett invited him and Thomi to go sailing with him as they’d gotten up from the supper table.

With a possessive arm about Thomi’s waist, Charley’d replied with smiling politeness, “Thank you, but we have plans!” At Thomi’s protest, he’d laid a finger across her lips, chiding, “It’s a surprise for you! I’ve gone to a lot of trouble for it—you can’t refuse!”

But you should have! Only once again, you were lulled by his sweet attentions! That smile.

To be fair, she had insisted they go for Brett hadn’t hidden his disappointment. If she could bail out his brother from his trouble, well, he could give a couple hours more to her and her brother!

Only then, little Stacia had run up to inform her that Ming was sick in the pony ring.

You could have gotten Geoffrey to take you and Ming to Dr. Ayer! You should have! What are older brothers for? Especially favorite ones?

Mechanically, Thomi’s hands moved to rub her maltreated arms. Gingerly, for the bruises were tender, and quite vivid. In spite of the day’s warmth, she wore jeans, and a long full sleeved tunic to hide her injuries. The thoughts her mind threw at her wouldn’t be stilled, and it served to exacerbate her feelings of guilt. She should never have been so trusting.

Ming, attuned to her moods, whined. His short broad nose nudged her leg, and he glanced up worriedly. Dropping down on the ground beside him, she hugged him to her, and some of the tension left her body.

Fortunately for her, whatever drug had been administered to him hadn’t lasted as long as Charley’d intended. But for her loyal pet’s intervention . . .

And here, all thought of Saturday night, she cut off abruptly. Now if she could only shake this incredible guilt—this sad humility.

O, Humility . . .! Rather a new experience for her! She’d treated them all with unpardonable callousness while she’d dated Charley, but in an instant, her sisters, at least, had forgiven her all, rallying about her as though none of it had been her fault.

Ah, man, if only she could take back all the unkind things she had flung at them. At them all! She’d been particularly obnoxious to her father and her brothers. How difficult it was to swallow crow! Almost every syllable of what they’d warned about Charley was true!

I’m sorry! I’m sorry!! I truly am sorry!!!

Before leaving Sunday morning with their brother, Tristen, to attend an art show in Saratoga, at which they would both display their respective works for pleasure or profit, Halleigh’d impulsively pulled Thomi into a close embrace. “How can I go? You had such horrible nightmares last night, and you can’t bear to be alone in a room much less alone in the house! I wish you’d let us call the police—or at least tell the boys! Something’s going to happen while I’m gone, I feel it!”

“Go Halleigh,” Rikki’d said, dragging her away and marching her to the door. “You can’t pass this up—Tristen has all your stuff packed in the van! He’s impatient to leave! Don’t worry! We’ll take care of her. If Charley tries to see her, I’ll call for help. Call both the cops and the boys!”

Thomi’d mustered a slight smile at that, then wanting to change the subject, recommended that Halleigh sell that dreadful portrait of her which she’d only recently finished.

“I’m not selling it, Thomasyna! If something ever happened to you, I’d have it to remember you by! It’s the best thing I’ve done so far! I’m going to miss you both! Please, please, be careful while I’m gone!”

She’d promised, but Rikki and Halleigh’s worry only triggered those worthless feelings again. She wasn’t deserving of such concern—from anyone.

If only the earth would open and swallow me up!

Hugging Ming close again, she let out a depressed breath. “You knew what a rat he was. But I thought you were just jealous of him. Not very bright of me, was it?”

From the moment Simon Lindell had placed the puppy, more teddy bear-like than leonine, into her arms, Ming had been her willing slave. He’d forgive her any number of transgressions—as long as he was fed, made a fuss over, and allowed to go Everywhere with her. Now he nosed her cheek, flicking it with a blue-black tongue. Pulling his tiny rounded ears, Thomi told him firmly, “I promise you Mingi, I will never do this again! It’s just you and me. And Rikki and Halleigh—and Lyndsay! Okay? Don’t let me forget that!”

He looked her over seriously and licked her face again. He wouldn’t forget!

Thomi’s left hand slipped to the ground. Feeling a smooth stone under it, she picked it up, and hurled it over the cliff.

That felt good.

But not good enough.

She rose to her feet in order to put real power into her pitch. Which was considerable when she began to imagine Charley on the receiving end of it.

Not very long after Tristen and Halleigh had departed, hadn’t Charley the nerve to show up at Cliff Top Manor. Announced he was leaving Rhode Island, and just wanted her to know it. Had something else he wanted to see her about, but expected her to either let him in or come to the gates. From the windows of the upstairs hallway, she’d watched, not answering any of the entreaties he’d delivered through the intercom. He no longer had a right to let himself in through her gates. Rikki’d changed the security code immediately after Thomi had come home Saturday night.

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Charles!” had intervened a querulous female voice.  “She doesn’t want you any more than I want Stephan! Quit wasting time and get us out of here! A month ago!”

Thus, they’d departed on the long road west. From the sounds she’d heard through the intercom, apparently the pair had also the companionship of a snuffly little dog. Just the perfect pal for the both of them!

The crunch of stone behind her startled her. She turned, expecting to see Rikki back from taking Lyndsay home to DreamWind, or perhaps a fan come to walk on her cliffs so it could be said s/he had. No gate guarded this section of the property—yet. Ming growled a menacing warning, which became more sinister the closer the intruder came.

Thomi, although glad of her dog’s protection, curbed his belief that she desired an attack in her behalf—at least, just yet—commanding him to be quiet and get back here! He complied, but kept up his strict vigil on her behalf. He had no more trust for this guy than she did.

She knew at once who the man must be. For while his resemblance to Charley was not striking, his likeness to his father was most certainly. Her encounter, the early part of last week, with Greggory Deverill wasn’t one she’d likely forget in a hurry! This man had the same red-gold hair and eyes of a deep sapphire blue as had his father, though she couldn’t remember the elder having such glorious curls. Nor had he this look of sunny warmth and delighted anticipation.

Of course, the meeting had lasted a mere five minutes, but it had left her with no doubt of the elder man’s opinion of his nephew’s new love interest.

Thomi kept her gaze coldly aloof. Charley’s happy expression had belied his true temperament. Why should it be any different with his cousin? Whatever could he want? Come with an offer from his father to bribe her into leaving Charley alone? Maybe she’d take it so she could face her own father with less trepidation! Wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to figure out what he’d say if he knew she’d greased Charley’s wheels so generously!

Not put off by her unwelcoming attitude, the man proceeded leisurely forward, keeping a watchful eye on Ming. Thomi turned away, hurled a few more rocks into the sea, ignoring him rather than challenging his trespass of her property. Hopefully he’d take the hint and go away!

He didn’t. He stopped at what Ming considered to be a safe distance away and watched her, waiting with infinite patience for her recognize his presence.

Irked, then, that she was herself under scrutiny, Thomi mentally set the newcomer beside his cousin Charley, and flung a smooth, nicely balanced stone at this vision with force and precision.

But, alas—no regard to safety.

The step taken in order to execute her throw found no ground beneath it. In a winking of an eye, she tumbled over. Twisting desperately, she latched a lucky grip onto a scrubby little bush. There she clung; heart pounding so loud it drowned the thunder of the waves below—and that from the clouds above.

Oh please . . . please! I didn’t mean it when I said the earth could open up and swallow me!

Even her father’s wrath and her brothers’ scorn would be infinitely preferable to being dashed to pieces on those merciless rocks below, swept away as fish bait thereafter. The first root of the bush ripped from the soil. Through the thin stuff of her blouse, Thomi felt the rough unyielding rock against her body. With her left hand, she grabbed for a hold in a deep groove above her, but it wasn’t quite deep enough. Her fingers slipped off, and another root let go of the cliff side.

Above her, Ming whined and barked encouragingly, then suddenly gave an ominous growl. An exasperated, deep, liquid voice responded to it. “Here, we’ve no time to argue! Let me help!”

Ming backed him off; meanwhile the bush loosened its grip some more. Urgently Thomi cried out, “Quit it, Ming! Let him help!” Ming acquiesced, but refused to let down his guard, keeping an eye on the man’s every move, right down to the blink of his eyes.

The bush heartlessly dropped her another inch or two, and she caught her breath on a frightened gasp, involuntarily glancing down. Foaming, swirling waters beneath her held her mesmerized. They beckoned her, persuaded her, to let go, and be received into their midst. Time and again, they surged up, reaching to drag her back with them. Each wave more powerful, more insistent, than the last one. Closer. So very close, she could feel the mighty force in their thrust. Their crashing descent back into the sea reverberated through the rock and into her body, dragging her heart with them. She froze, unable to do anything but wait for the inevitable.

“Tami! Look up here! Grab my hand!”

Although he lay as close to the edge as he dared, his hand was just beyond her reach, and she was reluctant to try for it. “I don’t . . . think I can!”

He was pardonably annoyed by her reluctance. “You’d better! That bush is definitely history!”

One . . . two . . . roots popped out from the cliff side as he spoke. She would have to move at once, or forever lose the opportunity. Another gave way. A powerful wave slammed into the cliff a mere foot below her, showering her with its spray. Taunting her, bragging the next time would be her last one . . .

“Come on, Tami! NOW!”

The urgency of her situation, and that in the man’s voice motivated Thomi to thrust herself upwards, assisted by a small toehold her scrambling foot discovered. His hand caught hers in a strong clasp as the bush parted from the cliff wall, and tumbled into the surging sea below in a shower of dirt and rocks. Hauling her unceremoniously over the edge, he guided her to a spot some distance away from the edge. Thomi twisted out of his hold; her legs gave way, and she sank to the ground. Propping her head in her hands, she sought to recover her composure.

“Are you all right?” He bent slightly over her, one hand on his hip, the other at his knee.

“I’m fine!” Without looking up. “No big deal!” Never giving it a thought that her trembling fingers would belie that piece of nonchalance.

Ming didn’t believe her. Anxiously, he probed her head, and then her arm, finally forcing his way under it. He whined, snuffling her face, begging for reassurance.

She pushed him impatiently away. “Ah, Ming, stop it! I’m all right!”

“Fortunately,” observed the man dryly. “Careless move, wasn’t it—or was it meant to be?”

She shot him up the briefest of impatient glances. “Well, of all the stupid things to say! I’m not about to kill myself over anything—or anyone . . . yet!”

“That’s telling me!” He knelt beside her, keeping an ever-watchful eye on Ming. “I am right—you are Tami, aren’t you?”

Thomi gave him no answer, nor any other indication she’d heard him. Intrigued though he might be with the radiance and thickness of her true black locks—for even in the shadow of the impending storm, he could detect the blue highlights in them—he desired her complete attention, and he meant to have it. With imperative fingers, he made her look up.

In her eyes, of an emerald green, glinted a measure of resentment and a certain hauteur. “I am Thomasyna! Or Thomi!” she informed him coldly. “Sometimes Syna! Don’t call me Tami—or Tami Lynn!”

Taken aback, he uttered, “There’s a name you don’t hear everyday!”

“Yes, I do!”

He laughed. “I meant in the general way, it’s not a common name!”

“Take it up with my father,” she told him. “He named me—and all my sisters!”

“I’ll look forward to doing that,” he said smilingly. “I’m Stephan Deverill!”

Replied Thomi, unimpressed, “Yes, I know. Chucklehead’s cousin!”

It surprised a laugh from him. “You’re better off without him, you know!”

Thomi hadn’t the least desire to discuss her affairs with him. “Yes, I know that, too!” She stared at him broodingly a moment, then bluntly stated, “She said she was better off without you, too! That why you’re making a gift of her to him?”

“Oh, I’m infinitely better off without her! No one special, believe me!”

Must’ve been true. He displayed no hurt, no anger or resentment, nor even any disappointment. Well, hadn’t Charley mentioned his cousin’s wedding was just around the corner? Despite his claim right now, he must have loved her in the beginning to have considered a marriage with her. Thomi marveled at his supreme indifference. Must be handy to be able to do that!

Oho, but what was this look coming into his eyes? A look like this could only start trouble. Her regard turned both suspicious and apprehensive. He’d come expressly to see her, and not, apparently, to bribe her, nor even to discover what she might have known about this affair between Charley and his fiancée—whatever her name was. Aveleen, was it? Charley’d generally referred to her as Stephan’s Latest.

For what then?

“Thomasyna, have dinner with me.”

The unexpected request, sincerely delivered, startled even Heart—who betrayed her earlier resolve, wanting to give in to the sweetness of his smile, the lazy warmth of those oh, so blue eyes, and the glory of his chestnut curls. Although, by far, Stephan Deverill’s most dangerous quality was his deep liquid voice, its hypnotic effect lulling the best of defenses. Nothing like it had she ever heard before. Beside it, Charley’s voice seemed now heinously ordinary! It wanted to suck her under just as those waves had.

Hastily, she rose up, backing away from him, stumbling over Ming close beside her. “Not on your life!” Her voice choked with suppressed emotion.

“No,” he agreed, rising up with her. “On yours! Because I’ve saved it!”

Thunder cracked, and twin forks of lightening lit the sky. But that didn’t cause her to catch her breath as did those words. Oh, she couldn’t allow him to hold this circumstance over her. One dinner could lead to the very situation she vowed to avoid—for life if possible. At least for the next ten years!

“So, I’m supposed to fall at your feet, and swear myself your most loyal slave forever!”

“I’d be honored!” he answered simply.

“Oh, please!” with great skepticism, and she turned abruptly to leave.

Stephan prevented her. His fingers closed upon one of the most tender of the bruises Charley had inflicted, and she involuntarily cried out. Ming swiftly revealed his opinion of that move. Stephan swiftly released Thomi. Her sharp command prevented disaster. Just barely.

Assured that Ming wouldn’t finish the attack unbidden, Stephan watched her gently massage the arm he’d just released. He said contritely, “I’m sorry! I hadn’t the intention of hurting you!”

Unthinkingly Thomi uttered, “Ah, it wasn’t you who did!” Her bitter tone piqued his interest, but she put up a defiant chin. “You’ve no right to be here! Leave—please!” Her please decidedly more a command than a plea.

“Such a small favor I’m asking,” he said mournfully, showing no inclination of obeying her.

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t do that!” she warned him. Lightning illuminated the gloom. In the same instant, so did a certain revelation. “But that’s what you came for– isn’t it? To get me to go out with you! Why? Because he took Whatsherface so you think you’re entitled to me? I don’t think so!”

“Tami—” It flamed her anger, and he corrected hastily, “Thomi! Thomi . . . ! I’m sorry—Thomi! But Charley always referred to y—”

“So? I don’t want to hear those names again! Thank him for that!”

“I promise; I’ll never make that mistake again!”

“You won’t have the chance!”

In his eyes, she read otherwise. With annoyed indignation, she demanded, “Oh, look, why would you want to? Your father would disown you as fast as Charley says your grandfather disowned his father—faster!” There was that in his manner, in his gaze, and the way his mouth tightened for just that instant. “Ah, no! Come on! You actually want some kind of revenge!” Her emotions raced through stages of anger, incredulity, and frank bewilderment. “What makes you think he’ll care?”

“Long before they reach L.A., he’s going to realize what he’s left behind and want you back. Charley has an aversion to winter, and he’s making the trip with the Snow Queen!”

It gave her pause. Could that have been Charley’s purpose yesterday? To beg forgiveness of his brutal treatment of her? Of having used her for whatever the relationship might gain him. Was it possible he would at some point return to beg for it again? Even claim his love for her still burned? Actually expect her to run right into his open arms?

Oh, no! No, I couldn’t handle that!

To Stephan, she replied obnoxiously, “So, let him suffer! Why should I care what happens between them? And don’t look at me like that! You’re all the same! Always wanting something! Somebody’s body or else their money—or both! Never a real relationship!”

His hand shot out as she backed another step away, but dropped back to his side at Ming’s response to the action. Thomi’s cynical gaze conveyed plainly that she wanted this time to be the last time she ever saw him. With a curt word to Ming, she set her back to him, and went off down the path opposite the one he had come by, disappearing directly through a slight gap in the thick hedges that hid from sight much of the high white stone wall that surrounded the house.

Pushing open the thick wooden door in the wall that gave entrance to the property, Thomi waved her dog through. “Ming,” she said, locking the door behind her, “if he’s stupid enough to come back—I won’t mind if you charge him an arm and a leg!”

No worries, though. Who’d come back after a reception like that?


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Chatting With Neenah Davis-Wilson

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A: I knew it for sure when I was in high school. But it probably began when I was just about four, and telling stories to my sisters and brother when we were supposed to be sleeping. We already had a deep love for horses, so they figured in most every tale.

Q:  You must have read a lot of horse stories then?

A: Oh, sure, but not back that early. We lived in a duplex farmhouse, and the owners’ fourteen year old daughter owned a mahogany bay called Chico. We looked up to Denise, figuratively and literally . . . and we were pretty envious of the fact she owned a horse. It wouldn’t be for another three or four years before my mom would introduce us to the wonders of the Litchfield Library. That was a major event in my life, I think. I couldn’t get enough! The checkout limit was four books, but after I proved to the librarian I could read more than four in a week, she let me take out more. My mother used to come up to my room and throw me outside to play! Never could understand that . . .

Later on, I came to own several horses, and that kept me outside quite a lot. That’s where I get most of my material for the horse scenes in my romances. My father taught us girls to ride, and I’m sure that it was the best part of our lives. Miss that now.

Q:  When did you decide to write romances?

A:  When I read a few badly written ones, actually. I just knew I could write a better one! Really, I had no first hand experience with romance. Nothing major, that is. There’d been guys I liked, sure, but, back then, my appearing so much younger than I really was worked against me. Went out with younger guys occasionally, but that was about it. So, my knowledge of how a relationship was supposed to work was gotten mostly by reading and by watching others in their relationships. Oh, man, I could write many tales just on my observations of others! And yes, sometimes some of that finds its way into a scene or two.

Q: Were you a good student in school?

A: For the most part. I daydreamed a lot when I should’ve been doing my work, though. It’s how many of my story ideas were born.

Q: What books did you read as a kid?

A: Naturally, anything and everything about horses. And American Indians. When I discovered both of my parents had Native American blood in them, I was thrilled. Broken Arrow was a favorite TV show of mine at the time, so I couldn’t get enough material about Cochise and the Chiricahua Apache. Later it was Crazy Horse and the Sioux. But I read whatever I could find on every tribe the library had a book about.

Q: Any of this find its way into your stories?

A: All the time! Thomi’s family, for instance.

Q: How much of yourself do you put in your stories?

A: Quite a bit, actually. Every female character has some part of me in her. For some, it might just be the coloring and build. But the main female characters have a lot of me in them.  They may have qualities that I wish I had. I’m not too much of an outgoing person. Although, once I get to know you, I can be. Still, it’s not my nature. So, sometimes, I create characters that are the opposite of me. Thomi and her sisters are a mix of me, and what I’d like to be. Their mother, more than anyone, is me. Thomi, Anetra, and Halleigh are left handed. So are Lyndsay and Jacqi.

Q:  Is that possible?

A: Very! My right handed parents had four kids—three left handed girls and one right handed boy! Besides, it’s my story  . . . ! Anything is possible!

Q: What are your heroes like?

A: Well, for the most part, not like the ones you might be used to reading about. Just now, they are tall, handsome, and well built. But they may not be a decade older than the heroine. In the case of Halleigh and Kourtnay, possibly Rikki, getting along with their hero, at least at first, isn’t the conflict. Family issues, are, But that could change. Nothing’s written in stone. I think you can have a good story with a sunny tempered hero as much as one domineering.

Q: Do you use an outline, then, or not? If so, how closely do you follow it?

A: Sometimes I use one. If I’m not sure of things, I’ll even write an extensive background history. Which I did for Stormi so I could clarify in my mind how things were for her growing up with wealthy parents whose lives didn’t really include her or her sister, Kourtnay. Then, later, what her life was like married to her first husband. Helped me define her role in Thomi’s story, and let me figure out just what I wanted to include, and what will probably never be told. It’s good to do this for all your main characters, but I’ve done it only for her, so far.

How closely do I follow the outline? Not very! Characters don’t like to be stuffed in a mold. They want to be free to tell their stories their way. And sometimes, they have surprises waiting to to be tossed at me. Stormi’s grandfather has several. Should be fun revealing them to his various relatives!

Q:  Why have one then?

A: It’s like having a road map. You might like to wander the back roads from time to time, but it’s good to have something to refer to in case you get way off track. Of course, it could mean that you need a new map! But generally, I have much of it mapped out in my head. I’m one who likes to just jump in the car and go. And that’s how I write most of the time. I like to just see where the story takes me. Sure, sometimes, I have to back track, but often, that’s where a new and much better idea crops up.

Q: You said you put a lot of yourself in your characters, What about your experiences? I mean more than just the horses . . .  For instance, Thomi has a bad time with Stephan’s cousin, Charley. Was that made up for the story, or had you a similar experience? If so, was it easy to do?

A: Ah . . . Yeah . . . I’ve had an experience or two . . . Don’t ask me why I felt I had to hang such a terrible thing on her or her mother . . . or Stormi even. I think it was because the memories had surfaced to torment me, and it was one way to deal with them. Was easier to write, though, than read it aloud afterwards to a bedridden friend who wanted to hear the story—Thomi’s, that is. She knew, though, when we got to those parts, that it wasn’t just imagination that had come up with it.

Q:  Had to be rough. Did it help to write it out, then?
A: Yes, I think it did, eventually. Not that it makes it all easier to talk about. Just easier to deal with mentally. If that makes any sense. But, that’s where the humor comes into play. Even though some serious stuff is discussed in All For The Love Of Thomi, there’s a lot of humor in the story to balance it out. The same for Joleigh’s story which deals with the death of loved ones. Tragic topics, but a little humor gets you through the bad times.

Q: So, how’ll it all end in the series?
A: Well, that outline hasn’t been written yet, and even if it was, I wouldn’t tell you! I have a few ideas, but it’ll be a few more stories before it’s all fully resolved.

Q: Well, then, I guess you have your work cut out for you then! Get to it, I can’t wait to find out all the secrets and mysteries you have in store for us!

A: Another part of the puzzle will be resolved in Stormi’s story. Actually, more than one part will be. But, I may have so much fun with these characters—which, by the way, have been with me for over forty years—I may never get to the end of it all! Writing’s an adventure every day!

Q: Thanks for sharing a small part of the adventure with us, Neenah!

A: It’s been fun! Thanks for letting me share!


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An Interview with Anita M. Shaw

Q: Anita, when did you start writing?

A: I started writing in fifth grade after my teacher, Mrs. Miller (of the Southwest School in Torrington, CT. and back a few years . . .) finished reading us The Arabian Nights. I was full of inspiration! Every day that I had a new story to share, she’d let me read it in front of the class. Funny, I wasn’t popular, really, and pretty shy. Yet, I was happy to bring my classmates on new adventures. . . and they were just as happy to come along. Especially if I’d written them into it. I write now because I can’t do anything else. All my characters want their stories to be told, and right now! I enjoy it. There’s nothing else like it.

Q: So, it was a teacher who started the flame of writing for you?

A: Yes, there were three who contributed in some way to my madness. Mrs. Miller definitely was the one who got the pen to scribbling. Or the pencil, at the time!

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: Where do I start . . .? Mark Twain, Walter Farley, Daniel Hayes, Clara Gifford Clark, Dr. Suess, are some of the children’s authors I enjoy. Actually, anyone who can write that type of book well. I read mainly for the story, so it doesn’t matter to me that the author isn’t well known or a best seller. Some authors write better stories, in my opinion than the popular authors.

Q: That’s true. So, tell us, were you a good student in school?

A: Well . . . I could’ve been . . . had I put my mind to it more. I hated math, liked art, although I drew, and still draw, like a five-year-old. English was my strong subject. I could write stories using my vocab words each week. Which got a lot of attention from some of my teachers . . . Don’t ask me what the other kids thought. They kept it to themselves. In hind sight, I wish I had pushed myself to do better in other subjects.

Q: What books did you read as a child?

A: All of Walter Farley’s horse stories, and any other horse stories I could find, Edgar Rice Bouroughs’ Tarzan, The Bobbsey Twins, and all of the twin type series books . . . forgot the author . . . shame on me. But The Dutch Twins, The Indian Twins, The American Twins of 1812, the Chinese Twins . . . etc. HoneyBunch Morton series, Trixie Belden series, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, anything about Native Americans. Hmmmm  . . . and a host of others I’ve forgotten.</p>

Q: What do you read now?

A: I read any book that interests me. Doesn’t have to be a best selling author. Actually, I rarely read those. I reread my favorites, and I probably have a bigger library of kids’ books than almost anything else. Except, maybe, my writing library. Right now, I’m reading some eBooks for reviewing purposes. Fiction, of course!

Q: Have you had formal writing training?

A: I didn’t go to college or anything like that, but I took some Home Study courses. One was a journalist course, one a general fiction course, and the third was a short story course from NRI, which I finished with highest honors. This is where I learned how to use a computer. Made my writing life so much easier! Really, though, writing has always come easily for me. All of it. The ideas, the characters and what they’re like, the settings, the grammar, the spelling, just about everything. Description takes a little more work for me, though. I generally have to go back to expand on what someone looks like, or what a house or room or whatever looks like, smells like . . . I can see it in my head. I know exactly what these things look like and all of it . . . I just most often want to get to the action. Tell the story. Everything else gets filled in when my brain is ready to handle it. Which is generally on the subsequent drafts.

Q: What would your teachers think of you now?

A: Hmmm. Guess they’d be happy I was able to finally publish some stories and books, and make use of my talents. As for the instructors of my various courses, most would be pretty happy with what I’ve done. Mr. Zucker, however, is never satisfied! No matter how well you thought you’d done, he’d always push for better. Instructors like him both annoy you and inspire you to reach higher. I appreciated his personal attention and his insistence on doing better than you believe you can. Always room for improvement.

Q: So, you have been published before?

A: Modestly! First piece was back in 1972 and others followed, including pieces for Horse, Of Course! and Vermont Ink.

Q: What made you decide to write for children?

A: I like reading stories for children and young adults as much as anything really. I still love the old stories. . . but having had three boys who loved to be read to started me thinking about writing for younger readers. The older they got, the more ideas I got! All I need is the time!

The time travel I’m currently working on, among others, was originally written for my youngest son’s fifth grade class, some years back. They loved the first draft, and I’m in the process of rewriting it. It’ll be  a different story once I’m through. The storyline is the same, but quite a bit of the action will be new.

It was a fun endeavor at the time, though. A bit of a challenge to make sure all twenty-six kids in the class got a piece of the action in the story. I did manage to do it. They’re all grown now, but generally if I happen to run into one of them, they remember me, and tell me they still have their copy of the story.

Actually, one of the mothers back then called me to tell me how happy she was that her son was now interested in reading more since my visit to his classroom. Things like that just make it all worthwhile!

Q: Sounds as though you’ve touched at least a few young lives with your work. What writing advice would you give to them and anyone else wanting to write?

A: Well, pretty much, if you want to write, then just carve out the time to do it. You don’t need huge blocks of time. I’ve written whole pages in fifteen minutes, but on other days, little or nothing worth keeping.

If you’re writing for your own pleasure and benefit, it doesn’t matter what sort of schedule you keep. If your goal is to write for living, well, then, that’s a whole new chapter. Some organization and scheduling is in order, but the principle is still the same. You don’t need to write day and night. Be open to advice and learning new methods.

Read everything you can on the writing life and business. As much as you need to know how to write whatever it is you want to write about, you also should know how the business works. And make sure you find some support so you’re not feeling as if no one understands your need to dive into these fanciful worlds. If your family members can be that for you, great! But if not, a writing group on or offline, a friend, or even one of your kids. My oldest has the patience to listen when I can’t get a hold of anyone else. My husband pretty much just wants to know when the money’ll start flowing in.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A:. As much as we all want it to, nothing happens just by wishing. It all takes work. If you’re willing to do what it takes, then anything and everything is possible. Believe in yourself. Can’t stress that enough.

 Q: Anita, thank you for taking the time for this interview!

A: My pleasure!



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