Newly widowed, Alice was disillusioned by marriage and isn’t looking to fall in love anytime soon. Then a tropical storm blazes a path straight for the Georgia coast, and as the town prepares for the worst, Dan opens his heart and his home. The tempest is raging, but Alice and Dan are learning to find shelter…in each other.
The morning sun was still wet behind the ears as Danner Amos walked out of his house to get the Sunday paper. As he bent over to pick it up, he heard the sound of a car engine rev up and noticed his neighbor, Elliot Graham, was backing from his drive. It was obvious from where he was standing that Elliot was on a collision course with one of two small shrubs at the end of his driveway, but he was going too fast for Dan to warn him.
Sure enough, Elliot rolled right over it, then braked, put the car in drive, and rolled over it again as he went back up his driveway to try again.
Dan was trying not to laugh, but when Elliot put the car in reverse and took another try at backing out, he rolled right over the one on the other side instead.
Dan laughed at the expression of disgust on Elliot’s face. Then Elliot saw him, rolled down his window, and yelled, “I meant to do that!” Then he smiled and waved before zipping off down the street.
Dan was still chuckling as he headed back inside. His plan for the day was food and watching football on TV. If the renters he was responsible for didn’t have any issues, it would be great.
Elliot’s plan was completely different. He’d had a dream last night about Gray Goose Lake, which made him remember the overlook where he and his wife, Helena, had always picnicked. Today, he was going back to that overlook to paint the scene from that viewpoint. It would be a wonderful reminder of happier times that he could frame, and he had the perfect place to hang it.
His drive out to the lake was relaxing, and when he parked and got out, he put on his painting hat—an old, paint-stained Panama hat with a wide, floppy brim—then began to gather up what he wanted to take with him.
It had been a few years since he’d been to the lake, and the hiking trail was a bit overgrown. Elliot stumbled once and dropped his paint box, then had to gather up the tubes of oil paint that fell out. Even after all that, he reached his destination only slightly out of breath. Once he set up his folding easel and the little portable folding stool, he opened his box of paints, prepared his brushes, and then sat for a few moments, just enjoying the view and talking to his long-deceased wife.
“Look, Helena! There is an eagle perched at the top of that big pine straight across the lake. Oh, how magnificent. I must remember to put him in the painting…just for you.”
He felt a slight breeze against the back of his neck and smiled. There was no wind today. Only his love.
Without any further delay, he picked up a piece of charcoal pencil and began to rough in the scene, delineating the horizon, then where the tree line would be. He sketched in the shape of the shoreline, and then the boat ramp just to the left, and tossed the charcoal back into the box.
His first choice of paint was to mix what would be the darkest colors in the lake. Dark was depth, and a painting was nothing without depth—like a person was nothing without depth of character—and he applied the paint to the canvas with a palette knife, giving contour and texture. The lighter colors would come in later on top of the darker, and then the lightest color, which would be glints of sunlight on the ripples, would be added last.
The sun rose higher, but Elliot’s hat kept the sun from his face. He was totally into the work, oblivious of everything around him.
While most of the people this morning were just sitting down to breakfast, Junior and Albert Rankin had headed straight to their granny’s old cabin at the back side of their land. Today was sale day, and they were ready to load up their latest marijuana harvest, which they’d let cure at the cabin. They wasted no time loading the boat they were pulling, and as soon as they were finished, they covered it with a tarp, and then drove off their property and headed for the woods around Gray Goose Lake to check their grow patches before heading down to the lake to meet their buyer.
They’d been growing weed under their daddy’s nose for two years now. They might be accused of being too confident, but Big Tom Rankin had a girlfriend, and when he wasn’t at his job at the local feed store in Blessings, his spare time was taken up with her.
Big Tom’s wife, Lillian, had died when her sons were twelve and fourteen, leaving Big Tom in grief and his sons on their own too much. By the time both boys were in high school, they were raising a small patch of tobacco on the farm to help subsidize their dad’s small paycheck.
Many years later, they were still growing tobacco, taking care of the family’s small herd of cattle, and keeping everything in running order. But the dividends they received as small-time farmers weren’t enough to suit them anymore.
Once they were satisfied all was well at their grow sites, they headed for the lake to their usual boat ramp, unloaded the boat into the water, then started the outboard motor and headed out to the middle of the lake to fish while they waited for their buyer, Oscar Langston, to arrive from Savannah.
Oscar used the same cover that the Rankin brothers used to meet his suppliers, by arriving with his boat and fishing gear. Once he reached the lake and got his boat out on the water, he would meet up with the Rankin brothers and go to their boat ramp, where they unloaded the packaged products from one boat to the other, exchanged money, and then went their separate ways.
They were still out on the lake fishing when Oscar arrived, but he didn’t head for the boat ramp as usual. He was red in the face and angry, which made them nervous. Then Oscar circled their boat, making them bob in the wake of his larger boat as he pulled up beside them.
“What’s going on?” Junior asked.
“I’m in a hurry. One of my other suppliers shorted me, and I have pissed-off buyers waiting for product. I don’t have time to follow you to shore. Start passing me the goods. Here’s the money,” he said, and handed over a large envelope.
Albert counted the pay while Junior pulled the tarp aside and started handing over package after package of weed. They were down to the very last packages when Albert noticed someone up on the cliff on the west side of the lake. Someone who had a ringside seat to what they’d been doing.
“Junior! Someone is on the cliff!”
Junior Rankin looked up, saw a man sitting on the cliff looking straight at them. “What the hell?”
Oscar’s voice deepened in anger. “Hurry up. Unload those last two packages ASAP. I’m outta here!”
Junior tossed the last two packages into the boat.
“You don’t leave witnesses. Get rid of him!” Oscar said.
Albert gasped. “We don’t kill people!”
Oscar pointed a finger straight at Albert’s face. “Well, I do.”
Junior paled. He got the message. If they didn’t get rid of the witness, Oscar would get rid of them.
“Don’t worry, Oscar. I’ll make sure we’re in the clear,” he said.
Oscar glared, started the engine, and took off across the lake, then soon disappeared from view.
Junior glanced at the man up on the overlook across the lake. “Well, hell.”
Albert was already shaking his head.
“Just come with me to keep watch. I’ll do it,” Junior said.
Albert was a grown man, but he started to cry. “I won’t have a part in this. Not even to keep watch. You take me back to the shore. I’ll walk home.”
Junior frowned. “Dammit, Albert! You’re just as much a part of this as I am.”
“No! No, I’m not!” Albert shouted. “I help you grow weed…but I don’t help anybody commit murder.”
“Well, you’re coming with me, so shut the hell up and—”
Before Junior knew what was happening, Albert kicked off his shoes and went headfirst out of their boat and started swimming for the opposite shore.
“Shit,” Junior said. He knew his brother. When he said no, he meant it, regardless of the reason, so this was definitely left up to him.
He started up their outboard engine and headed for a spot farther down on the west shore.
He reached shore out of sight of his target, pulled the boat up far enough that it wouldn’t float back out on the lake, then started running up through the trees. The closer he got to the man, the more anxious he became. Could he really do this? Could he kill another human being?
But if he didn’t, what was going to happen to him and Albert? What if Daddy found out? What if the law found out and arrested both of them? He would never get over the shame of going to prison. It would kill Daddy. He and Albert would be the first Rankins ever to be in trouble with the law. All the generations before them had been honorable men, and he and Albert would be the ones to ruin their name. And while he was berating himself for the mess they were in, he walked right up on the man he’d come to kill.
What the hell? He’s an old man, and he’s just painting a picture. I don’t have to do this. I’m not going to do this.
But as he stood there, unobserved, his focus shifted from the man to the picture he was painting, and he stifled a groan. The man was painting the scene before him, and squarely in the middle of the lake, he’d painted the two boats and men loading packages from one boat to the other.
Of course no one would ever know who it was in the boats. He’d painted them very small and hardly more than blobs of color, but people in Blessings would wonder, and if asked, the old man could obviously elaborate on what he’d seen. People in Blessings would question what possible reason men would have to be loading goods from one boat to another out in the middle of Gray Goose Lake.
Junior felt like crying. God, he just wanted to be a kid again. This wasn’t something he could let go after all. He looked all around beneath the trees for a weapon before taking a step because he knew the sound would give him away. There were dead limbs beneath a tree to his left, so he focused on one and picked it up as he came out of the trees, swinging as he went without giving the old man time to react to the sounds behind him.
The limb made a solid thunk against the old man’s head, somewhat reminiscent of the sound a watermelon makes as it bursts apart. The sound startled Junior, but not as much as the sight of the old man sliding off his stool and crumpling onto the ground.
For a heartbeat, Junior was frozen in place, and then he thought about what he’d just done and ran over to make sure it was a one-blow deal. He felt for a pulse, but was shaking so hard he couldn’t tell if the man was dead or alive. He thought about tossing him over the cliff and down into the water, but couldn’t do it. He looked down at the painting and without thinking, jammed a hole in the canvas where the old man had painted the two boats. Then he broke a limb off a nearby bush and used it to scrub out his footprints as he backed away, and kept brushing them out until he was a long ways away.
At that point, he dropped the limb and ran the rest of the way back to his boat. He fell twice trying to push the boat back into the water and was soaked by the time he got it far enough offshore to float. He crawled in, tripped and stumbled all the way back to the outboard motor to start the engine, then left a rooster tail of water in his wake.
He couldn’t get the sound of breaking the old man’s skull out of his head and was crying by the time he finally reached the other shore. He loaded the boat back up on their trailer, jumped in the truck, and headed for home.
But the thought of home reminded him of Albert. Was he already there? Did he call Daddy and tell him what they’d done, or would he just keep quiet about everything? Junior wasn’t sure. All he knew was this shit was far from over. If he was still alive when day broke tomorrow, he was going to destroy every grow patch they had and call it quits.
Albert had his own tribulations getting to shore, and there was a time or two he wasn’t sure he’d make it. By the time he felt solid ground beneath his feet, he was neck deep in water and as exhausted as he’d ever been as he walked the rest of the way to the shore.
He was shaking from the chill of the water when he started toward home, which was a good three miles as the crow flies. Even though he was going to do this barefoot, he started running, taking the crow’s route, which was for him a shortcut through the woods.
The ground was covered in fallen leaves and brambles, hidden rocks and broken limbs, but he was so scared he barely felt the pain. By the time he reached the fence around the pasture behind their house, there was a sharp pain in his side and he was gasping for breath. The muscles in his legs were shaking so hard that he was afraid if he stopped, he’d pass out where he stood.
Thank God his daddy had gone to church with his girlfriend that morning. He’d have the house to himself to get cleaned up. But his feet were going to be another matter. They were beginning to burn. He was afraid to look at how many cuts and thorns were likely in his feet, and God knows when he’d be able to put shoes on again.
He didn’t know yet how he was going to explain that away, but he’d think of something. These days, their father-son relationship was down to hellos and goodbyes.
He was still moving as he stumbled through the cow lot, and beginning to hobble as he reached their backyard. The familiar sight of the old two-story home made his vision blur. He and Junior had ruined everything. Almost two hundred and fifty years of the Rankin family living on Georgia soil, and look what they’d done. There wouldn’t be any others born to take over if he and Junior were in prison.
Albert choked on a sob when he couldn’t go any farther and dropped to his hands and knees, crawling the rest of the way to the house, then up the back steps and straight into the kitchen. He crawled all the way through the house and up the stairs to the bathroom, grabbed some tweezers and a bottle of alcohol, and sat down with the bathtub at his back and finally looked at his feet. They looked like raw hamburger.
“Oh man…I’m gonna need stitches,” he muttered, then leaned back against the tub and passed out.
Junior got home, grabbed Albert’s shoes out of the boat, and headed for the house. When he saw a blood trail on the back porch, he panicked and started running as he followed the trail upstairs, trying to imagine what had happened to Albert to have caused it. He found his brother passed out on the bathroom floor, saw the bottoms of his feet, and started crying all over again.
“Albert! Albert! Can you hear me?” he asked as he tried to shake his younger brother awake.
Albert moaned, then slowly opened his eyes.
“It’s you!” he said.
“Did you do it?” Albert asked.
Albert moaned and covered his face.
Junior sighed. “You ’bout ruined your feet. I need to get you to the doctor.”
Albert swallowed back tears. “I can’t walk on them anymore.”
“I’ll carry you,” Junior said.
“How will I explain this?” he asked.
Junior shrugged. “Tell them you fell in the lake and took your shoes off to dump out the water. Tell them you were spooked by a black bear and took off running.”
Albert was still choking back tears as he nodded. “Yeah, that would work. Okay. That’s my story. And you were way out on the lake fishing and didn’t see any of it. You found my shoes, saw my footprints heading for home, and found me here.”
Junior patted his brother’s head. “Yeah, that’s how it went down,” he said. “Now let’s get you up. I need you to get on my back. I can carry you piggyback easier than I can tote you any other way.”
“You’ll have to help me get up,” Albert warned.
So Junior lifted him to an upright position. As he did, they caught sight of their faces in the mirror.
They were still big, redheaded men with green eyes and broad shoulders. But they didn’t look so much alike anymore. Albert’s face was twisted in pain, and Junior looked like he’d aged ten years. When you made deals with the devil, it showed on your face.
“Okay now,” Junior said as he turned around. “Put your arms around my neck, and wrap your legs around my waist.”
“I’m gonna be too heavy,” Albert said.
“Naw, you’ll never be too heavy, Albert. You’ll always be my little brother. Now hang on tight. We’ve got to get downstairs before we can go anywhere.”
Just like they’d done since they were children, Junior shouldered the load of his brother’s body and made it down the stairs, then outside to the truck. He got Albert into the seat and took off out of the driveway faster than he’d run from the old man’s ghost, heading straight to the hospital in Blessings. Albert saw his cell phone in the console of the truck and put it in his pocket. He was wishing for a bottle of water when he fell asleep.
Their arrival caused quite a ruckus in the ER, but Albert was so relieved by the doctor’s decision to put him to sleep to repair the damage that he happily passed out on cue, leaving Junior to call their daddy.
It was the acknowledgment of pain that brought part of Elliot back to consciousness. He wasn’t awake enough to open his eyes, but he did roll over onto his back, which sent a shock wave of pain rocketing through his body. He passed out again, oblivious to the sun beaming down on his face.
After the sun had done all the damage it could do, it sank below the horizon and the night animals came out. An owl swooped across Elliot’s body, snatching up a snake in the nearby grass, and flew away with it still dangling from its talons.
Around midnight, a lone coyote out on the hunt caught the scent of blood and went to investigate. But when it got there, the scent of man was stronger. Hesitant, it slipped closer, and then something crashed nearby, and the coyote took off running through the woods.
A possum sauntered past Elliot’s body, sniffing around him without interest before moving away. Later on, a raccoon did the same, staying far enough away from the human scent to feel safe.
Later, a young buck that had been spooked by hunting dogs ran through the trees just beyond where Elliot was lying.
Twice in the night Elliot surfaced, but each time the pain of his wound and his deteriorating condition quickly pulled him back under.
Then night passed, and the sun rose on the new day.
Alice Conroy woke up in a cold sweat with the echo of Marty’s screams still in her head.
Nightmares! Would they be with her for the rest of her life? God, she hoped not. But she still had secrets from the day her husband died and never intended to share them.
To this day, no one knew her side of what happened—that Marty was in their house, high on the same meth he was making in the old shed down by the barn. She’d known it since daylight. He kept muttering about starting over and needing to wipe the slate clean. He kept saying he was going to set everything on fire and walk away from that life. He kept promising and promising he would fix things. But she’d ignored him because he always talked crazy when he was high and had gone outside to the garden she was working, getting it ready to plant in a couple of months when it warmed up. And that’s why she was in the garden when her house exploded behind her, knocking her facedown into the freshly tilled earth.
She sat up in bed and covered her face. When she did, the whole nightmare came back in detail.
Burning debris was still drifting down around where Alice was lying. Thrown several feet forward, she was facedown in the garden, unaware it was their house that had exploded until she heard Marty screaming. She rolled over, saw the blaze and the smoke, and in seconds was up and running toward the house, shrieking for help.
But it was too late for Marty. She watched him stumble out the back door, on fire from head to toe. He swayed forward, then fell backward just as the roof of the porch collapsed on top of him.
She needed her cell phone, but it was in the car parked under the blazing carport. And the car was on fire.
They still had a landline.
But it was inside a burning house.
The only saving grace about the whole day was that her children were at school.
She turned around and ran the three miles to her mother-in-law’s house, screaming all the way.
Thank God for alarm clocks, Alice thought as she threw back the covers and headed to the bathroom. She made a face at herself in the mirror as she washed away the last of the bad dream. She needed no reminder of how much she had to be grateful for now. Waking up in Hope House every day, and knowing she and her family were living here rent-free for as long as they needed, was nothing short of a miracle.
The last five months since Marty’s death were behind them, and there were no tears left to cry for his absence in their lives. She had grieved his loss three years ago when he started making and selling meth, and kept the relief of his death to herself.
Today was Monday, and the beginning of the second week of September. She had a job to go to, for which she was grateful, and school for the kids. It was time to wake them up. She turned the heat up a bit after she came out of her bathroom and crossed the hall to her son’s door.
Charlie had just turned thirteen and was now in seventh grade. Not only was he a head taller than she was, but the last year of their life had turned him into a man far too young.
Her seven-year-old daughter, Patricia, who went by Pitty-Pat, was still young enough that she would forget the hell her daddy had put them through before he died—but Charlie never would.
Alice knocked on Charlie’s door.
“I’m up, Mama,” Charlie said, and came out into the hall smiling. “It’s gonna be a good day,” he said, and hurried to the bathroom.
“Thank you for him, Lord,” Alice murmured, then went next door to wake her baby. Pitty-Pat always slept with her head under the covers, so Alice had to unwrap her first. “Good morning, Pitty-Pat. Time to get up.”
“Not now,” she whined.
Alice pulled the covers back. “Yes, now. Charlie is in the bathroom, so you can come to my room and use mine.”
Pitty-Pat rolled over, yawning. Magic words. Mama’s bathroom was so shiny and beautiful.
“Brush my teeth in there, too?” she asked.
“Yes, but bring your toothbrush this time. You may not use mine.”
Pitty-Pat swung her legs off the side of the bed and got up. “Mama, I’m too big to be Pitty-Pat now. I am just Patty, okay?”
Alice blinked. It actually hurt to hear her daughter say this, although raising children to be independent and think for themselves was what Alice’s parenting style was all about.
“Of course it’s okay…Patty.”
The little girl nodded. “Gettin’ my toothbrush now.”
“I’m going to start breakfast. Don’t dawdle getting dressed, or Charlie will eat all of your eggs and toast.”
“No! Don’t let him!” Patty cried, and ran to get her toothbrush.
Alice grinned. It worked every time.
Lovey Cooper was already at Granny’s Country Kitchen feeding the early risers in town. Mercy Pittman, the police chief’s wife, was in the kitchen at Granny’s, baking biscuits by the dozens.
Mercy’s sister, Hope, who was a nurse at Blessings Hospital, was going off duty after a long night spent in the ER. Hope thought of her husband and brother-in-law out on the farm, already up and feeding cattle by daybreak. She was so tired, the thought of getting home and then making a big farmhouse breakfast before she got to go to bed was overwhelming.
But there were always Mercy’s awesome biscuits, so she stopped by Granny’s long enough to say hello and take a dozen sausage biscuits home. She thought to herself, as she headed for the farm, that she might have just enough energy left to scramble some eggs for the guys to go with them before she crawled into bed.
Fred Bloomer, who owned the hardware store where Alice Conroy worked, was shaving before going downstairs to breakfast. His wife wasn’t much of a cook, but she did do breakfasts, adhering to the belief that one needed a solid meal to begin each day.
Larry Bemis, the night dispatcher at the police department, was clocking out to go home, while Avery Ames, the day dispatcher, was already on the job.
Sharon Sala is a long-time member of RWA, as well as a member of OKRWA. She has 115 books and novellas in print, published in six different genres – Romance, Young Adult, Western, Fiction, and Women’s Fiction and Non-Fiction. First published in 1991, she’s an eight-time RITA finalist, winner of the Janet Dailey Award, five-time Career Achievement winner from RT Magazine, five time winner of the National Reader’s Choice Award, and five time winner of the Colorado Romance Writer’s Award of Excellence, winner of the Heart of Excellence Award, as well as winner of the Booksellers Best Award. In 2011 she was named RWA’s recipient of the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2017 Romance Writers of America presented her with the Centennial Award for recognition of her 100th published novel. Her books are New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-sellers. Writing changed her life, her world, and her fate.