Ellie Connor is looking for answers when she arrives in Gideon, Texas to stay in the guest house of Internet pal Blue Reynard. She’s researching a book about the mysterious disappearance of a woman blues singer in the 1950’s, but she’s also seeking answers to a great mystery in her own life. When she arrives in Gideon with her dog April, she has no idea she’s about to upturn her life and the lives of many of the residents of the small east Texas town–and none more than Blue himself.
This was my first women’s fiction, a book that haunted me for months, showing up when I opened up the oven, following me around like an annoying child, nagging me to finish it. It had been a “Sunday book,” a book I write as an experiment on the weekends around other projects, but it finally became quite insistent that I should finish it and submit it.
It was a life-changer, this one. I found my current agent with this material, and that was the year I started writing women’s fiction almost exclusively. I had very powerful feedback on the book, from so many segments of society, that it has long been one of my favorites. Please take a look at this sample chapter–maybe you’ll love it, too.
Turning off the computer and the lamp, Ellie slipped on a pair of thongs and headed up the hill. The house glowed with lights, and as she started out, Blue turned on an outside light that made it easier, but it was still very dark, a kind of dark she’d forgotten existed. Crickets whirred in the grass, and cicadas answered from the trees, the only sounds for miles and miles, and the air was thick and soft against her face, smelling of earth and river and sky. She inhaled it deeply, pausing to catch the moment close to herself.
Peaceful. Life was so peaceful in the country. Not the actual lives—emotions ruled people no matter where they lived, so there was always some drama or another waiting to make things chaotic—but the details were easier. She could think better without cars racing and roaring and people shouting in the apartment overhead, and even little things like televisions and radios in an unceasing undertone of constant sound. She liked smelling air, not fuel, and loved the sight of the sky overhead.
A shadow startled her, and she made a sound of surprise before Blue caught her hand. “It’s just me,” he said.
For that brief second, she let herself feel his big, strong hand, rough from his work. Impulsively, she curled her fingers around his, and said, “You have one sexy voice, Dr. Reynard.”
“Are you flirting with me, Miz Connor?”
She laughed softly. “Maybe so.”
“Good. I like that.” He walked up the path, hanging on to her. Ellie let it be. At the porch, he let her go, and gestured for her to take a chair. “I’m having bourbon, myself. What’ll be your pleasure? Other than me, of course.”
“I wouldn’t mind a bourbon, if you’ll walk me back down the hill.”
“Careful now. I might take that as an invitation.”
“You are amazingly arrogant, you know that?”
“Yes, I do. ” She heard ice clinking in a glass and the quiet flow of liquid, and he gave her a glass.
He settled on the step. “Not too many women drink straight bourbon these days.”
“I don’t very often.”
“But you got a little off balance today, didn’t you?”
She gave him a look. “So did you.”
Quietly, he said, “Yes, ma’am, that I did. Guess we both have our closets full of skeletons.”
“Most people do.”
“You think so? I don’t know. It seems like a lot of folks just get it right out of the gate. I see them in town, you know? Guys who’ve been making the right call since the day they were born, live quiet lives without a lot of turmoil, and just . . . keep it together. Never screw up their credit or forget to mow the lawn or leave a project half-done.”
Ellie sipped cold fire from her glass and listened.
“You ever notice,” he said, “that those people don’t ever seem to have big traumas, either? Like their kids never have wrecks and their houses don’t burn down. It’s like they’re protected with some big cloud of serenity”
“That’s seeing it from the outside, Blue. Nobody gets through life without sorrow and loss. It’s just part of the game.”
He turned his face toward her, and in the darkness, Ellie could see no details, but she sensed his attention. “You really believe that?”
“My grandma always says there are green seasons.” She tucked a foot up under her. “Times when everything goes on just right. Got money enough to pay the bills, and nobody dies and things are just the way they’re supposed to be, most all the time.” She paused to take another tiny sip. “But there are also gray times, when nothing seems to go right. You lose pets and people and have trouble with money.”
“Not gray,” he said. “Blue times . . . like when all the plumbing goes bad.”
She chuckled. “Yeah. The gas pump goes out on the car.”
“Stub your toe and get hangnails.”
“Split ends and toothaches.”
His laughter, low and rich, rolled into the night. “Lightning hits the modem. You ever have that happen?”
“No. I turn everything off in a thunderstorm.”
“I do now. I had a whole computer fried one time.”
“That’s not gray times, that’s foolishness.”
“Well, I left it on when I went to bed. Maybe I’d been drinking a little.”
“I get the feeling you drink a little quite a bit. Is that true?”
He didn’t reply immediately, just shook the ice in his glass lazily. “Yeah, I reckon it is.”
“Does there have to be a reason?”
Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe not. You just—well. . . never mind.”
“Go on. I’m what?”
The darkness and the quiet made her bolder. “You’re a puzzle, Dr. Reynard. Take those degrees of yours, for example.”
She smiled. “Yeah, a big sexy Southern bad boy with advanced degrees in botany?”
“I’m good with things that grow. They never talk back, and if you lose them, you can always grow some more.” He paused, gave her that faintly rueful smile. “If you take care of an orchid, it’ll outlive you, and your grandchildren.”
“You don’t like losing things.”
“No—though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’ve had my share.”
“And green times? Have you had your share of those?”
He stood up and refilled his glass before he answered. “Yeah.” The word was rough. “I kinda think I’d rather not have had them, though.”
“If you meant that, you wouldn’t have to drink so much.”
He halted in the act of lifting the glass to his lips. Genuinely puzzled, he said, “Come again?”
“Never mind. It’s none of my business.”
“That’s true, but you can’t leave it like that. What do you mean?”
She looked out at the dark, listening to the crickets sing for one long moment. “You want the green times, but you’re afraid of them, so you keep yourself safe behind the bourbon.”
He gave a snort of laughter and tossed the drink back almost defiantly. “Bullshit. Not everybody needs to be carted off to AA. I drink because I like it.”
Ellie shrugged. “You asked.”
“So I did. And there may be a little truth in there, somewhere, much as I hate to admit it.” He looked at the glass. “Or maybe it’s just that drinking gets to be a habit. It does put up a nice little wall against things.”
Ellie inclined her head. “What’s the wall keeping out?”
He looked at her. “I guess I don’t know anymore.”
The bourbon was infecting Ellie’s blood now, and she found she didn’t want to go anywhere. She wanted to sit on this porch, with this man, drinking and talking in the dark, for as long as she could. “Tell me about a green time,” she said quietly.
He turned his head and a wash of moonlight spread over his high cheekbone, over his jaw and mouth. “Those pictures today, that was a green time. My whole life was green then, had been from the day I was born. My mama always sang and danced and told silly jokes. My daddy was gone a lot on business, but he always brought us presents. We had three cats and two dogs, and a bowl of goldfish. My uncles came in and took me fishing. My brother was a pain in the neck, always calling me names, but Lord—I pretty much worshipped the ground he walked on.”
Ellie smiled. “Pretty normal, I’d say.”
“And there was Annie. My wife.” There was the faintest ragged edge to his voice. “She used to hang around and drive me crazy back then—her folks had a place just on the other side of the river, there.” He gestured. “But I even liked that, being the subject of hero worship, because it gave me somebody to be mean to.”
“Poor Annie.” Ellie laughed. “But I guess she won in the end, didn’t she? She got you to the altar.”
There was surprise on his mouth when he turned his face to look at her, then a perplexed little nod. “That she did. But by then, it was me doing the dragging.” He swirled the bourbon in his glass, drank a little. The grin was broad when he spoke again. “She wouldn’t sleep with me till I put a ring on her finger. Can you imagine? In this day and age?”
“She probably heard about your reputation, sir. Sounds like a smart woman.”
“Who’s been talking about my reputation?”
“Really?” He sounded offended.
Ellie laughed. “Blue, everybody I meet tells me more or less the same thing—everybody. Stay away from him. He’s a dog. He’s crazy.” She paused. “You have a terrible reputation.”
He put a hand over his heart, wounded. “Well, don’t that beat all. I’m not that bad.” He scowled. “And anyway, it didn’t get bad till after Annie died, so she wasn’t worried about that. She liked me.”
“You can’t honestly tell me your feelings are hurt?”
A single lift of a shoulder.
With surprise, Ellie saw that it was true. He was wounded by the talk, and for some reason she could not, or would not, name, it endeared him to her a little. “They all love you anyway,” she said, and brushed her foot over his. “And I never listen to gossip.”
The mouth lifted on one side. “Liar.”
Ellie rocked a little, breathing in the night, thinking about what it might have been like to be a kid in this house. “You had a great childhood.”
“I did,” he said softly. “Now you. Tell me about your green time, Ellie.”
His voice on her name made her imagine how it would be to have him over her, in her, and saying her name like that in her ear as they made love. She sipped her drink, surprised to find it gone. “Can I make another?”
“Let me get it.”
“I can do it.” She stood up. “I remember this one summer. I was thirteen. My grandma had been working in a bakery, but she just up and took the summer off so I wouldn’t have to go to my friend Jodie’s house every day. I know now that Jodie’s dad was having an affair and the family was none too stable, but my grandma just said she wanted to spend some time with me before I got too big to enjoy her company.”
Drink poured, she settled back on to the glider. “We grew a gigantic garden that year. We always had rhubarb and peas and some corn, but this year, we planted everything you can think of. Watermelons and cantaloupe and dinner plate dahlias that were the talk of the town, I’m not kidding. It was hard work, and she made me weed even when I didn’t want to, but boy—it was really something. The local newspaper, just a weekly, even came and took a picture of it.” She sighed. “I never smell rhubarb without thinking about that summer.
Silence, easy as the humid air, settled between them. Ellie’s thoughts rolled on in her mind. “The next summer was when my grandpa died. That’s when the blue times came. For a while.”
“How’d you come to be living with your grandma? Where was your mama?”
A prickle of alertness walked on her nerves. “She was just kind of unstable. I don’t remember her at all. She was killed when I was two.”
“What about your daddy?”
“Never knew him,” she said carefully, and to be sure he didn’t get suspicious, added, “I don’t think she knew him. That was the free love generation, remember.” She smiled to lighten the comment.
He stretched out his leg and put his bare foot against the top of hers. “Poor little Ellie. Now you’re making me feel bad.”
“I think maybe you’re right. At the heart of it all, I’m a coward. That’s why I’d rather live in the plain times. Not green or gray. Just. . . plain.”
His foot moved the slightest bit, and Ellie found herself wanting to kick off her thong and put her foot on his shin, just so she could touch him. She knew if she did it, he’d make the next move. Instead she said, “But without those bad times, we wouldn’t have the blues.”
“Wouldn’t need them.”
Ellie couldn’t tell whether that meant he agreed or not. “And wouldn’t that be a tragedy.” It wasn’t a question.
“You know, it really would be.”
She pulled her foot from under his and stood up. “It’s been a long day. I need to get some sleep.”
“All right. Let me get my shoes and I’ll walk you down.”
“No, thank you, don’t bother. It’s not that far.”
He moved closer, and Ellie smelled his skin, that faintly exotic odor that clung to him. “I’m not going to make a pass at you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
She bowed her head against that voice, feeling it run like a tongue down her spine. Ridiculous how she responded to him. She shook her head. “No, I’m not worried about that. I just don’t want to put you out.”
“No trouble.” He ducked into the house, then stuck his head out again. “Seriously, wait for me, all right? It’s too dark.”
She nodded, crossing her arms as the screen door slammed behind him as if to literally get a grip on herself and the entirely normal but exceedingly dangerous rush of hormones he roused. She needed to keep her head with Blue Reynard or she was going to end up falling under his spell and into his bed—and she knew from experience she wasn’t the kind of woman who could sleep with a man and just walk away.
What had he said this morning? That sex was easy and friends were hard. Which told her he was the kind of man who could have sex and walk away. He probably did it all the time.
Most men did.
And it occurred to her as she stood there in the soft night that he’d been warning her when he said that, and when he’d told her a leopard couldn’t change his spots. It was his way to sleep with women he liked, natural as breathing, and he’d likely try to sleep with Ellie before they were through.
It was going to have to be up to her to make sure that didn’t happen.
* * *
At two in the morning Blue finally gave up on sleep and got up, throwing on a pair of jeans. His dog Sasha eagerly joined him as he ambled into the kitchen for a glass of water, then went upstairs to the widow’s walk on top of the house. It was an anomaly in this area, the legacy—like the lilacs near the back porch—of a bride from the northeast. It was also, aside from the greenhouses, one of his favorite places. He’d furnished it with a couple of chairs and a telescope and a CD player, hooked up by long, trailing lengths of extension cords, to a plug in the attic. Lanie swore he’d burn the house down one of these days.
Piwacket appeared, a tiny white ghost, and perched happily on the back of a chair. Sasha settled down with a sigh beneath Blue’s right hand, and he kicked his feet up comfortably. It was a familiar scene. The night and the animals and the view of the stars.
He did not often sleep well. It wasn’t, as the psychologists and school counselors had believed in his childhood, a result of the losses in his eighth and ninth years. And it wasn’t the loss of his wife in adulthood. He wouldn’t deny his psyche had probably been twisted by all that, but his insomnia stemmed from something else entirely.
As far back as he could remember, he had often awakened in the middle of the night with his brain on fire. The first time it happened, he was eight. That afternoon, he’d gone to the library with his mother. Because there was a hurricane forming in the gulf, he’d wanted to read more about them. He checked out a book on tornadoes, hurricanes, and hailstorms and read it in a single gulp. The idea of the circular motion of wind, and the patterns of high and low fronts, inflamed him and he spent the rest of the day trying to find someone to engage in a conversation about it. His mother listened, but she didn’t seem to grasp the wonder he needed to get across. His dad was gruff. Lanie gave him the longest stretch of attention, but then she had to start fixing dinner.
Frustrated, Blue went outside and stared at the clouds, then wandered down to the river to look at the current, where the spiral pattern of life was repeated where the river dipped into a minuscule cove and circled around before it got out. In the woods, he spied the same pattern in the whorls of time on a tree stump. And in the evening, when the clouds rolled in, he watched them with rapt attention as wind stuttered them across the sky.
That night had been the first time. He’d awakened abruptly from a sound sleep, and it was as if he could see the entire structure of the universe—the galaxy and the stars reflected the water in the river and the circling structure of hurricanes and tornadoes. Wild with the excitement of his thoughts, he began the pattern that would weave throughout his life: he ambled outside to sit on the porch in his cowboy print pajamas and settled there to watch the rain pouring down from the sky. There in the midnight rain, he was free to let the thoughts go where they would.
Back then, he learned quickly not to talk about his dark-of-the-night thinking sessions. For one thing, he had a hell of a time getting anyone to grasp the big picture, no matter how many times he came at a concept. He could see a whole structure—whether it was weather or ecology or math—that simply made no sense to others. For another, he started to get a reputation for being downright strange.
In the ninth grade, two years after his parents had died, Blue was in trouble most of the time, headed for juvenile hall. But as if to make up for all the bad luck, he had one big stroke of good luck: he drew Florence Grace, Rosemary’s sister, as his homeroom teacher.
From the first week, she seemed to get it. Not everything, but way more than he’d ever been able to get across to anyone else. She moved into action. Instead of tsking and shaking her head, she tried to find out what he could do. She fed him geometry, then trig, and had him in calculus in a single year. She hunted up experiments in weather and biology and botany for him to do on his own. She brought him biographies of brilliant scientists and thinkers who’d been tortured by their minds, as he was, and literature from every century, every kind of writer. Poets and dreamers, philosophers and novelists. She said she had no idea where that brain of his would lead, but the only way to find out was to learn as much about everything as he could until something clicked.
And Blue, starved for both attention and knowledge, consumed everything she gave him and more. That year, he spent as little as three hours a night sleeping. He read and pondered and experimented. Florence taught him to keep a journal and he often poured out page after page of speculation and observation.
She saved him. All he’d needed was tools, and Florence had given them to him.
These past four years, it hadn’t been wonder that kept him awake. More often, he came here to escape the demons in his head, the ghosts that had chased him out of the house the night before. The ones that chased him up here now.
The ones that made him want to go down to the cottage and lie down next to that skinny woman with her wild hair and let that laugh roll all over him. What a great laugh she had.
Instead, he stayed where he was, head cocked back to the sky, a cat in his lap and a dog under his hand. He was an intelligent man; he knew the world was just sometimes harsh, but his luck with people had been pretty wretched by any measure. Marcus called him Job sometimes, as a joke that didn’t really make either of them laugh. Blue sometimes thought he must have pissed God off in another life or been born under a bad star or something.
These days, he judged it safer to keep things loose and easy. As long as he didn’t get too tangled up again with anybody, his life was pretty good. He had friends and a home and work and money enough to do pretty much anything he had a mind to do. When he got hungry enough, there were always willing women to warm his bed for a night or a week.
But now Ellie’s words came back to him: What’s the wall keeping out?
He frowned. Lots of people had taken him to task for his drinking the past few years—a comment here and there that made him understand folks thought of him as a hard drinker. Lanie hid his bottle when she thought he’d been hitting it too hard. Even Marcus, who was no stranger to a Saturday afternoon six-pack and always liked a nice bourbon at the end of the day, had commented once or twice that maybe Blue drank a bit too much.
But he’d never paid any of them any mind at all. Why did it matter what Ellie thought? She was a stranger, just passing through.
Still. He rubbed his ribs idly, unable to deny that her comments bothered him. It had bothered him that she’d known by his posts on-line when he’d been drinking. It bothered him that she thought he was hiding behind it.
Even if he was. Losing Annie so suddenly had ripped him to pieces, shredded his faith, his hope, his ability to believe in anything. There was a craziness in that kind of pain he didn’t wish on anyone, and he’d been desperate to escape it.
He’d turned to his experiments, to the eternal flowers, and poured himself into building the big greenhouse, where he could mimic the Central American rain forest conditions as exactly as possible. He’d worked ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day, hiring Marcus to help him and bringing in crews to do the work they couldn’t handle. At night, he opened a bottle of bourbon and anesthetized himself well enough to sleep.
A wall of work and bourbon. He’d erected it to let himself heal.
The answer surprised him, but it had the authentic ring of truth. He’d been flat-out unable to deal with his true reality, so he retreated into a world of flowers and bourbon until he could face it.
Was that such a bad thing? Wasn’t there even something like that in the Bible? That wine should be given to the grieving, or saved for the poor to make them feel better about their lot in life? Maybe. He couldn’t remember exactly.
Sitting in the dark night, he thought maybe it was only bad if he didn’t let go of habits he no longer needed. Maybe it was safe now to let go of the wall and face real life.
Maybe he’d give it a try, just to see. It was time. Maybe he’d even open his heart, just a crack, and see how it felt to really be attracted to a woman, not just sexually, but all the way. Maybe he’d kiss her and see what happened.
As if she heard his thoughts, Piwacket bumped her head against his chin, purring softly. He smiled and rubbed a hand down her bony back. “You like her, don’t you?” He looked at the cabin. “So do I.”
Something very like hope moved in him, refreshing and soft as a long cold drink of water. “So do I,” he repeated.