Wednesday, December 30, 2015


I hope you all made it through the Christmas holiday happy and healthy. We made it, but barely!

The weather has been beautiful, the food plentiful and the gifts gracious.

I started a brand new project this week and an I am already well into it so I've decided to have an excerpt be this week's #WIPWednesday. The book is still untitled but it has been fun to write so far. Evie and Landon are the perfect match...they just don't know it yet. :-)

Amelia walked toward the door. “Maybe you’ll have better luck with him.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, not quite ready to deal with reality yet.

“Good morning, Mr. Reed.” She didn’t sound all that old. “Do you plan to stay in bed all day?”

“Maybe. What’s it to you?” I sounded like an ass but I couldn’t stop myself.

“Well, it’s all the same to me if you want to rot away in that bed. I get paid either way.” I heard soft footsteps cross the room toward the little sitting area. Good. I have no intention of getting out of bed today or any other day just because someone told me to.

Rolling over on my side, I shifted the pillow enough to peek out. From my vantage point, all I could see was a pair of canvas shoes. The television turned on. I heard her flip through channels, finally settling on some home improvement show.

“Nobody watches those stupid shows anymore.”

Either she didn’t hear me or she was ignoring me.

“Those shows are ridiculous.” I made sure to project my voice from under the pillow.

“No more ridiculous than a grown man hiding under a pillow and acting like a two year old.”

I threw the covers off and shot up to a sitting position, ignoring the burning pain in my leg. “What the fuck is your prob…” Holy shit. The woman sitting on the couch looking at the television and completely ignoring me was neither old nor fat. She wasn’t hideous or horrible. In fact, she was fucking hot.

“Who the hell are you?” Way to be charming, Landon.

She looked over at me, boredom in her expression, before returning her attention to the television. “The nurse your father hired. Who the hell do you think I am?”

“I don’t need a nurse.”

“I agree. You need a nanny.” She flipped the channel to a news program and grimaced.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I turned so I could swing my legs over the side of the bed, the brace making my movements jerky not angry and pronounced like I’d intended.

“It means, you can’t even dress yourself so how can anyone expect you to do anything.”

I dropped my gaze down and with a curse, grabbed the sheet and pulled it across my lap. I’d totally forgotten about falling in bed naked the night before. Unfortunately, other parts of me were not only aware that they were unclothed but they were announcing themselves quite loudly.

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Whatever. I’m a nurse. I’ve seen worse. Of course, I’ve seen better too. Much better.” She clicked to another station. I could have sworn I saw her lip twitch as I growled over her insult.

“Just get out. I don’t need you. Tell my father to go to hell.”

She tossed the remote control on the coffee table and checked her watch. “You have ten minutes to get ready for physical therapy or I’m taking you the way you are.”

I crossed my arms over my bare chest. “I’m not going.”

“You are going so get dressed.” She stood and looked him over. “You’re down to eight minutes.”

“And just how do you expect me to get down all of those stairs?”

“The same way you got up them. Walter showed me the elevator.”

Damn it. I was hoping she hadn’t found that yet. I waved a hand in the air. “Whatever. Are you going to watch?”

“Watch what?” She dropped her gaze to my lap and gave me a little smile that was more taunting than friendly.

This woman was absolutely infuriating. “Fine. Suit yourself.” I whipped the sheet back and reached for my wheelchair. Instead of turning away, she stayed right where she was with that little smile dancing around on her lips. With about as much grace as a bull in a china shop, I managed to get from the bed to the chair while she just stood there and watched.

“I thought you were supposed to be here to help me.”

“You didn’t say you needed my assistance.”

“Really? I had to ask? Isn’t that what you are here for?”

“Let’s get something straight, Mr. Reed.” She put her hands on her hips and glared at me. “I’m a trauma trained RN. I am not your maid or your gopher or any other thing. It is my job to get you back on your feet both literally and figuratively. I’ll handle your medical care and your personal care as needed but I am not at your beck and call.”
I'm also very proud to say that In the Shadow of the Shield has been getting some great reviews!
Thank you to all who have read it. Please feel free to add your review to Amazon as well!

Book Tour! Till Death Us Do Part by Cristina Slough

Wedding vows are meant to be honored - no matter the cost...

by Cristina Slough
Standalone novel
Genre: Military Romantic Suspense
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
: : SYNOPSIS : :
The fateful day Mimi Marcus has dreaded begins with a phone call...

The wife of a U.S. Marine, Mimi spent countless nights worried that her husband Joel would fall in the line of duty. He had fought valiantly and served his country with honor. That’s exactly what they tell her when they deliver the news—Joel was taken by the enemy in Afghanistan. Her husband is dead.

In desperate need of closure, Mimi travels to the one place Joel still has ties—The Marcus Ranch in Texas, inherited by his handsome younger brother Austin.

New beginnings are only an illusion...

The closer Mimi grows to the Marcus family, the more she considers it home. But when suspicions of Joel’s past surface, Austin refuses to disclose family secrets—even to his brother’s widow. It’s only by accident she uncovers evidence of Joel’s tainted past. Devastated by his lies and betrayal, she slowly opens up to Austin, and together they unfold layers of pain and grief.

Mimi is sure she’ll never love again, but is Austin the man to prove her wrong? Then the unthinkable happens…

Just as Mimi finds new hope in a future with Austin, Joel returns home from war. Enraged, traumatized, and teetering on the edge of insanity, Joel confesses to a history of deception, revealing yet another secret—this one too terrible to forgive.

In an awful twist of fate, Joel proves marriage vows are made to be honored.
No matter what.

Paperback Amazon:

Novelist, movie addict, and animal lover, Cristina Slough is the author of:

Till Death Us Do Part, her debut novel.

Cristina has always been a bookworm, rarely seen without a pen and paper in her hand, she loves delving into a literacy fictional world of her own. 

At the age of 11, her junior school teacher told her mother that she would be wasting her life if she didn’t become an author. Throughout her teenage years and beyond, her parents spurred her on to keep writing. She later began a career in commercial real estate, working in London’s West End, a corporate bubble where she was unable to fuel her passion to write.

It was on her Californian honeymoon in 2012 that the bug to write was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. After visiting Yosemite National Park she was inspired by the natural beauty of the land that surrounded her. Holding a special place in her heart, Yosemite would later be written into her debut novel.

She finally gave up the ‘big smoke’ when her son, Lucas, was born in October 2013.

When Lucas was a newborn, Cristina was told to sleep when the baby sleeps. She never could. There was a calling inside her to write. After getting to grips with her new role as a mother, she began working a psychological thriller, but she couldn’t fully connect to the characters she created. She ditched the manuscript and started Till Death Us Do Part(Limitless Publishing, 2015). 

Cristina is married to Adam, who runs a successful business; together they share their Bedfordshire home with their son, crazy white German Shepherd and three spoiled cats. They can be found trekking through woodlands, or around the many shops Cristina loves to explore. As a family, they love to travel frequently, the United States being a firm favourite.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Release!! Everything to Lose by JP Ratto

Title: Everything To Lose
Series: A Lucas Holt Novel
Author: JP Ratto
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Release Date: December 29, 2015
Publisher: Limitless Publishing

Lucas Holt specializes in kidnap recovery. Ex-Delta Force and a former NYPD detective, he has spent the last fifteen years burying himself in case files to cope with the unsolved abduction of his daughter, Marnie.
After the death of Janet’s husband and son in a tragic car accident, she hopes Holt’s expertise can locate the daughter she gave up for adoption seventeen years ago. Janet knows her actions will have explosive repercussions for the girl’s father— presidential candidate, Todd Grayson. With no family, hope of finding her only daughter is all she has left. Or is there a more sinister motive?
On a mission to bury the constant reminder of his failure to recover Marnie, Holt agrees to Janet’s proposal. But at what cost? When his inquiries lead to news of the death of another woman, Holt can’t shake the feeling something is off about the whole case. And when new evidence surfaces about Marnie’s disappearance, finding her and finding Janet’s daughter become the same treacherous mission.
Crooked candidates, hired mercenaries, and his own life on the line—will Holt find it inside him to risk everything in the line of duty?

Chapter 1
The woman in the sunburst yellow dress settled behind a small boy who stood between his parents in the front row. In her carefully chosen spot, she would have no problem seeing the senator. More important, he would be able to see her.
Following the presidential candidate’s schedule occupied most of her time. She knew him, and his routines. He was a clever politician, a clever man. At one time, she admired that about him. In spite of his womanizing history, she’d held him in high esteem. She hadn’t cared about the rumors of his less-than-ethical political acumen. He was bright and confident. Like her, he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The one thing he lacked was loyalty. That was his one unforgivable flaw.
A momentary stab of rejection cut through her as crushing memories of betrayal clamored to the forefront of her mind. Another staunch memory held them at bay, protecting her as always from thoughts that could leave her filled with rage or shattered from distress. I did what I had to. He gave me no choice.
Rows of supporters without access to the ticket-only event stood shoulder to shoulder, necks stretched and ready for a coveted glimpse of the man who could be the next president of the United States. Young and old mingled together, most dressed in patriotic colors and wearing Grayson for President buttons. Tabloid reporters and photographers took strategic positions at the iron-gated entrance to the prestigious institution.
The mainstream press had already set up their sound and video equipment on Columbia University’s south lawn. Amsterdam Avenue was closed for two blocks north and south of 116th street. With the absence of thru traffic, the cacophony of city activity hummed in the distance. Escalating murmurs obscured the honking horns, worn, grinding transmissions, and truck trailers loaded with goods booming as they slammed into the streets’ deep potholes. Area residents, intent on going elsewhere, glanced at the restless group and at the clouded sky. Briefcases and umbrellas in hand, they hurried to subway stations or Columbus Ave to hail a cab.
She’d been waiting for the event to begin since spectators and press had started to arrive. Turning toward the reporters at the campus entrance, she caught a brief glance from one of them. She almost shook her head in reproof when he gave her a slight nod. Instead, she ignored his acknowledgement and vowed not to look his way again.
She checked her phone for the time. It was still early, but she could be patient. Another half hour was nothing compared to the years she’d waited for what she deserved or rather, what he deserved.
As if on cue, stubborn puffs overhead gave way to a glorious blue sky on the warm August afternoon. Mounting shouts and whistles alerted all to the arrival of a line of black vehicles crawling at the curb north of the entrance. Men and women clothed in dark suits, more apt for a funeral than a summer outdoor event, exited onto the street. With serious faces, they scrambled to organize their positions before the guest of honor emerged. By all the staff and security Senator Grayson utilized, one would think he’d already won the election. Some criticized his self-importance. Those who knew him well commended his prudence.
All who gathered cheered as presidential candidate Senator Todd Grayson exited one of the limousines. Skilled at working a crowd to his full advantage, Grayson took his time. Straightening to his full height, he smoothed the jacket of his lightweight, ivory linen suit. He looked like a white knight among his entourage of black-clad minions. He faced the street audience, threw up his hands, and waved.
A mass of hand-held banners and American flags flapped like a flock of gulls vying for a prized clam. Classically tall, dark, and handsome, he had as many men fawning over him as he had women. Not since JFK had a presidential candidate charmed a constituency as Grayson had.
Grayson’s staff paved the way for him to enter the campus, shielding him from direct contact with those crammed behind the barricades. In a move that was either spontaneous or a well-contrived plan, the senator turned and walked in the opposite direction and began to shake peoples’ hands. The crowd went wild with whoops and shouts for attention. Surrounded by his campaign staff, his personal counsel Douglas Cain, and his bodyguards, he navigated among potential voters like a rock star.
Grayson stretched over the wooden barriers grasping as many hands as he could. Men removed their caps in respect, nodded, and returned strong, steady shakes. Women squealed and clapped, some patting their beating hearts as if they might swoon. His broad smile bared perfect white teeth that contrasted with his golden skin. Grayson’s careful choice of attire, including the pale blue shirt and tie, conveyed the tranquility of sand and sea. You could hear sighs of contentment at Grayson’s touch.
As president, Todd Grayson would take care of you.
He moved to the end of the narrow walk and back again toward the campus, scanning the adoring crowd. Grayson slowed when he noticed a woman who appeared oblivious to the lively throng surrounding her. She stood still but for a subtle bob and sway, like a buoy when bumped by gentle ocean swells. Tall, with shoulder-length blonde hair, her bright yellow, sleeveless dress set her apart from all the red, white, and blue. Her white designer handbag hung on her shoulder and she clasped her hands low in front of her. Grayson watched her lift her hand to adjust her dark sunglasses. Sharp and adept at reading people, her stance unnerved him. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he sensed her stare. He would have thought she was blind except her head turned to follow his movement.
Douglas Cain nudged the senator’s arm, breaking the connection with the woman. “We need to move along, Senator, if we want to keep to the schedule.”
“I know, Douglas, but this is as important as a stump speech,” Grayson said, his practiced smile never leaving his face.
Cain had been with Todd Grayson from the start of the senator’s venture into politics. With Grayson’s reputation and past, his lawyer’s presence at all functions was paramount. About to enter the campus, where another group awaited the senator’s appearance, one of the tabloid reporters caught Grayson’s attention.
“Senator, you look well rested from your vacation in the Hamptons. What is your response to some of the negative pushback by your opponent regarding your position on defense spending?”
Grayson glanced at the reporter’s nametag. “Tom, it’s not my policy to waste time on the defensive—at least not until the debates. I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done, and that’s to present my ideas directly to the people. It’s the folks’ opinions that count.”
Those standing nearby nodded and applauded their approval. Before Grayson could turn away, the reporter asked another question. “Senator, is it true that you were involved with call girl Sheila Rand and a prime suspect in her murder?”
Grayson did not move. The rapid blinking of his eyes as he processed the question was the only indication he had not turned to stone. Sheila Rand.
He had not thought of the woman for sixteen years. It was true they’d had a brief affair, but he’d had an alibi for when she was murdered. Cain had taken care of it. He’d taken care of that and another matter.
A moment of recognition flashed through the senator’s mind. He whipped his head toward the woman in the yellow dress. A stream of perspiration dripped down his face as he desperately searched the crowd. Where is she? Was it her?
“Senator?” the reporter prompted Grayson.
Grayson eyed the reporter. Cain moved in to stand between them, but Grayson refused to be intimidated. He grinned.
“Tom, you need to check your facts before you ask questions that make you look foolish. I have nothing to hide. Sorry but, I’m on a tight schedule,” he said and allowed Cain to guide him away.
A grin still pasted to his face, Grayson’s thoughts swam with dredged-up memories of the past. His chest filled with anxiety. He couldn’t breathe. Grayson was drowning in thoughts of all that could go wrong. He looked at Cain, his protector—his life preserver. He exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The lawyer would deal with any fallout. That was his job.
Grayson shook off his concern and strode through the university’s gate to where he would give a rousing speech. Excited college students and faculty packed the stands. They applauded as he stepped to the podium. Another stage. Another performance. Everyone quieted and Grayson began the prepared rhetoric he knew would raise spirits and hopes. That was his job.
As his popularity tide rose, Senator Todd Grayson glided into the hearts and minds of those who would elect him to the most powerful position in the world. It would be smooth sailing, unless the long-ago matter of a murdered call girl surfaced and dragged his political career into a maelstrom of disaster.

JP Ratto is a husband and wife collaborative writing team. EVERYTHING TO LOSE is the first of a three-book series featuring private investigator Lucas Holt. Judy began writing full time six years ago. She attended Hofstra University’s Writing Intensive in the summer of 2010, and participated in a Hofstra-sponsored writing and critique group from 2009 to 2012. She has written an upper middle-grade fantasy adventure and a children’s mystery chapter book. Judy also does free-lance editing. Pete Ratto, a former member of the U.S. Navy serving half his enlistment with the U.S. Marine Corp, is a retired corporate accountant and is now writing full time.   Both are avid readers of mysteries, thrillers and suspense. Active in a critique group made up of local authors, they enjoy discussions on all aspects of the craft of writing. Pete enjoys photography, writing and going to the beach. In her spare time, Judy paints watercolors and to her husband’s delight, cooks an occasional dinner. They have a son and a daughter, both grown and living in New York. Pete and Judy live in southern Florida with their cat, Gillian.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Since it's only two days until Christmas, today's WIP excerpt has a little hint of holiday flavor to it.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays!

From When First They Practice to Deceive coming May 2016 from Limitless Publishing:

“It’s mighty frosty out there tonight. Was just taking out the trash. You need something, Dix?”

“How many times have I told you not to call me that? It sounds too much like dicks.” She swatted at him but Trey sidestepped the hit.

“Aw lighten up, Dix, no one is going to think that of you.” Jessy experienced an annoying twinge of jealousy as Trey ran a long, lazy glance over Dixie’s body, making the woman flush a deep crimson that just made her look sexier. Jessy glanced down at her own, curveless frame and frowned. Life was so unfair.

“Just take this stuff into my office so I can sort it.”

“Sure thing. What’s in all these packages anyway?” Try flipped open a box lid. “Christmas decorations?”

Dixie shrugged. “Well, yeah. It’s December.”

Trey rummaged around and pulled out an ornament of a tiny ballerina. “Shattered dreams going on the tree this year, Dixie?”

“Gimme that!” Dixie snatched the figure from Trey’s hand.

“Okay, so which one of us is the angel supposed to represent? Knowing all of you like I do, I have to go with the only logical conclusion. Me.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you’re a real angel all right.” Arnetta gave Trey one of those heat searing looks they write about in romance novels.

“You know nothing about my angel status.” Trey returned the angel to the box as he winked at Jessy. “That is a mystery that remains to be discovered. Oh wait, maybe this will help.”

“What is it?” Jessy, intrigued by the contents of the box as much as she was interested in just how much Arnetta knew about Trey’s status, stepped forward. Trey whipped around to face her, his hand on his head.

Only it wasn’t resting on his head. It held a little sprig of green vegetation in his hand and a grin on his face that rivaled that of the chesire cat. Mistletoe. Aw, crap.

“Oops, I’m stuck under some mistletoe. You know legend says I have to kiss the person nearest to me.” His eyes burned into Jessy’s skin as her cheeks heated to new proportions never before experienced.

“I don’t think that’s quite how it goes,” Arnetta said.

“Shut up! He’s about to have his meal!” Surrey whispered loudly behind Jessy.

“I think the legend says someone is supposed to kiss you.” Jessy looked into Trey’s chocolate eyes without blinking.

“Breaking legend is bad luck. Very, very bad luck.”

“I think you mean, tradition. It’s bad luck to break tradition.”

“Legend. Tradition. Whatever. All I know is you are leaving me hanging and potentially exposing both of us to many years of pain and suffering.”

Jessy could feel three sets of female eyes on her but she only cared about one male set and they were so warm and so welcoming and doing things to her insides that made it so she couldn’t think straight.

“Well, I guess we wouldn’t want that.” She rose up slightly on tip toe, closing some of the height gap between them.

“No. I guess not.” He leaned forward, closing just a little more of the distance.

“It’s never a good idea to tempt the fates.” Jessy heard three breaths sucked in as one.

“Nope. Definitely not.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's Release Day!! In the Shadow of the Shield (Secret Lives #2)

In the Shadow of the Shield by Carolyn La Roche
The Secrets Lives Series #2
Genre: Contemporary Romance | Mystery
Release Date 12/15/15
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
When a police officer falls, justice must be served.
Donnie Massey was an honest, skilled police officer. That’s probably what got him killed. When his wife Diana watches him die in front of her, the worst part is going to be telling their son, Jackson.
After a year of mourning, Diana decides it’s time to move on with their lives. The first step to getting closure is to visit Donnie’s grave. But when she gets there, she’s not alone...
Good cops are rare. Carter Ryan is one of them.
Mentored by Donnie, Carter is at the grave when his widow shows up. It may not be the best timing, but he needs her help. Carter admits the fallen shield may not have died in the line of duty, but was likely murdered while involved in a secret investigation with deep criminal ties. Diana agrees to aid in unveiling the truth. Donnie deserves that much.
The definition of insanity...
As the two work side by side, a new and delicate romance begins to bloom. But would falling for another cop be the worst mistake of Diana’s life, or the best decision she’s ever made? When the investigation leads them to an underground meth ring, their mission goes from risky to down right perilous. 
After a brush with death hits too close to home, will Diana risk loving another cop? Or will their chance at happiness be forever buried in the shadow of the shield?



Available on Kindle Unlimited!


Carolyn LaRoche grew up in snow country but fled the cold and ice several years ago. She now lives near the beach with her husband, their two boys, two finicky cats and one old dog. When she is not at the baseball field cheering on big hits and home runs, she is busy teaching science to unwilling teenagers. 

Monday, December 14, 2015


***Make sure to stop by tomorrow for release day!!! Book 2 in the Secret Lives series is finally here!***

     Momma’s bedroom door was shut tight when Jennie finally returned to the house.  She sat in the pasture with Bessie until the flies had begun to gather.  No matter the circumstance, no matter the depth of the emotions she felt, nature had a pattern and a path to follow.  Dead cattle had to be dealt with, no matter how much a part of the family Bessie was, before the real scavengers started moving in. All she needed was a pasture full of coyotes and wildcats. She would have to call for help; she didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with a two thousand pound dead cow.
    It was obvious Momma wasn’t going to be of any help in the matter either.
    It was probably for the best, though.  Jennie wasn’t entirely sure she could talk to Momma just then without telling what she had seen.  Chances were Momma wouldn’t believe her anyhow.  She, herself, wasn’t even one hundred percent certain it had actually happened.  It could have been a dream. 
   Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling of warmth and the comfort of the peace her father had brought with him.  It settled around her like a warm blanket in winter, calming her, assuring her that everything would, indeed, be all right.
   Of course, things would never really be all right without her father there but for the first time since his death, she felt like she might just survive.
   Catching sight of her reflection in the bathroom mirror she gasped.  Blood and streaks of mud painted her face and arms.  A few twigs stuck in her crazy mop of curls, adorning the wild mass like the snakes on Medusa’s head. Clumps of Bessie’s hair clung to her wet tee shirt.  She was a mess.  The last time Daddy would ever see her and she looked like she had been mud wrestling with a coyote.
   “Yuck,” she mumbled as she adjusted the taps on the old iron, claw foot tub.  One of Daddy’s proudest projects had been the restoration of that bathtub.  He spent hours in the barn sanding it down, sealing it, applying the porcelain overlay.  It was deep enough to soak in and Jennie was desperately in need of a hot soak in a bubble bath.
   As the room filled with steam and the essence of lavender, Jennie heard the phone ring.  Knowing Momma would never answer it, she turned the taps to the off position and ran for the kitchen.
    Grabbing up the receiver, she practically yelled “hello” into the receiver.  A voice, eerily similar to her beloved father greeted her.
     “Jennie?  That you?”       
     “Hi Uncle Tommy.  Yeah, it’s me.  Momma…. Momma doesn’t answer the phone much these days.”
    “No, I don’t reckon she does, baby girl.  You and your Momma do OK with that crazy storm this afternoon?  You need anything?”
    Uncle Tommy hadn’t called since Daddy passed.  Why today of all days?  How did he know she needed help?
    He had always promised he would take care of them.
    “Actually, Uncle Tommy, there is something.  I just don’t know what to do.  Old Bessie is dead.  Lightening got her before I could get her into the barn.  I don’t….”
    “Oh good Lord, child!  Are you OK?!”
    “Yes, yes.  I am fine.  It’s Bessie.  She’s dead and the flies started coming and I don’t know what to do with her.  If I leave her the coyotes will be here…”
    “It’s all good, Jennie girl.  I’ll get Tom junior and some o’ the boys to help me move her.  Be there in an hour or two.  We’ll get her moved before nightfall.”
    “Uncle Tommy?”
     “Yes, Jennie?”
      “What are you going to do with her?”
      There was unmistakable sadness in her voice at the thought of the many terrible fates a dead cow could come to.  Bessie had been a part of her family for as long as she could remember.  Of course, nothing could be worse than putting her in a box and burying her in the ground for all of eternity.
  “Well…”  He hesitated, as if afraid to tell her.  “If you really want to know…”
  “I need to know.  I run this place now, Uncle Tommy.  Best if I know everything.  What if it happens again and you aren’t here to help me?”
  “Gonna take her down to Greg Jeffries…for… for processin’.”
   “The butcher?  You’re gonna eat Bessie?”
   “Um, no… she’s gonna be processed for use of…of… her parts…”
   “Ohhh…..”  A mass of visuals flooded her brain before she quickly forced the images away.  “All right then, Uncle Tommy, see you in a little bit.”
     “See you soon, baby girl.  Tell your Momma I called.  Maybe she will come out for a bit of a hello later on.”
      “OK, I’ll tell her but I wouldn’t get your hopes up Uncle Tommy.  She hasn’t seen too many people since Daddy…since the funeral.”
     Jennie had always believed that Uncle Tommy was secretly in love with Momma.  Uncle Tommy’s wife died in childbirth when Tom junior was born, five years before Jennie ever came to be.  Even as a child Jennie could see that there was always a bit of longing in Uncle Tommy’s eyes whenever he watched Momma and Daddy together.  It might just have been the idea of having a wife, someone to share your days with that Uncle Tommy longed for but Jenny didn’t think so.  Uncle Tommy was Daddy’s older brother, they were as close as brothers could ever be and Jennie knew he would never have done anything to hurt Daddy but now, now that Daddy was gone…  Well, she would just have to keep an eye on things.
    Suddenly remembering the bubble bath waiting for her, Jenny bid her uncle goodbye and replaced the receiver on the wall mount.  The water was lukewarm when she returned but a few seconds of hot water running into the tub took care of that.
    The lavender fragrance filled her head and instantly washed away the smell of dirt, sweat and blood.  The cut on her forehead stung some when she washed her hair but the bleeding had stopped long ago.  It was hard to believe, in retrospect, that a piece of ice fell from the sky and cut her like it had.  The storm had been so sudden, so nasty.
    Poor Bessie. Hopefully she hadn’t felt much pain.
   The water cooled much too quickly.  She longed to reheat the water but Uncle Tommy would be there soon with the men and there was little to no chance Momma would go out to meet them.
    Ten minutes later, dressed in cut off shorts and a black v-neck tee shirt, Jennie stood in front of the bathroom mirror.  The chunk of hail had left a pretty nasty lump on her forehead, bruising was already settling in around the small gash.  Her brown hair, lightened by all the hours she had been spending in the sun actually had streaks of blonde running the length of the curls that now hung wet and loose around her shoulders.  It had been a while since Jennie actually looked at herself in a mirror.  It was a good thing they weren’t getting many visitors these days.
    Tires crunched on the gravel drive outside the bathroom window.
   It had to be Uncle Tommy.  He had said an hour and it had been at least that long.  She could handle this.   There was really no reason to wake her mother.  That was why she surprised herself when she rapped on her mother’s door as she passed it on her way out of the house.  Would Momma make a showing for her husband’s brother?
    “Momma?  Uncle Tommy’s come to help us with Bessie.”  She chose the word us in an effort to coerce her mother into thinking she needed to take part in what was about to happen.  Secretly Jennie just hoped to watch her uncle’s reaction to her mother.
     There was no response from the other side of the door but Jennie was pretty certain she heard movement and the rustle of fabric.  Was Momma actually going to come out of her room?  So as not to be caught eavesdropping, Jennie hurried away and out of the house to greet her uncle and her cousin.  Instead she ran full force into a solid mass of muscle on the back porch.  The impact nearly knocked her to the ground but a pair of strong, tanned arms grabbed her shoulders and steadied her.
    “Well, hello there, miss.  You must be Jennie.  Your uncle…”
     Jennie looked up into the darkest brown eyes she had ever seen, dark like molten milk chocolate and deep like the river that ran along the edge of town.  The eyes sparkled with humor.  Lines along either side of each eye crinkled slightly with the wide, slightly crooked smile that greeted her.
    “Who are you?”  She didn’t mean to sound so short, so demanding but those eyes unnerved her more than she wanted to admit.
    “Name’s Grayson Jennings.  Your uncle sent me up here to let you know he and Tommy are out back in the pasture surveying the crime scene.”
  “There’s no crime scene- just my dead cow. ”
  Grayson Jennings chuckled at her indignation.  “Well, I think I know that miss.  I was just… well I was just being funny.”
   Jennie threw her hands on her hips in aggravation.  “Well, it’s not funny.  Not funny at all.  That animal was like a part of our family.”  Her cheeks flamed with anger and maybe just the slightest hint of embarrassment.  Grayson Jennings had the most beautiful eyelashes she had ever seen on a boy- or a girl for that matter- and the way he kept smiling at her with that sexy, cockeyed smile made her insides melt.
   “I’m very sorry, miss.  I wasn’t meaning to offend.  I go to school nights at the community college, working on my criminal justice degree.  I want to be a cop but I ain’t old enough to carry a gun legally yet. Another six months till I get into the academy.  My sense of humor tends to be…off… and always shows itself at the most inappropriate times.  Please forgive me.”
    Jennie tried very hard to retain her indignation but it was hard to when he was smiling at her the way that he was.
   “Well, I suppose you couldn’t know any better.  You are a man after all.”  She brushed past him leaving her words dangling in the air where she had previously stood, almost as a dare to see what he would say in response.
   “I guess there’s no excuse for my sex but still, I hope you’ll forgive me.  I wasn’t meaning to offend.”  He followed her across the open space between the house and the barn.  “I get nervous ‘round pretty women.”
    He thought she was pretty?  He had to be joking.  With her hair all wild—there had been no time to brush it out and knot it—and that knot on her head had to be sexy.  He was one smooth talker that one.  Momma always warned her about the smooth talkers.  Michael was a smooth talker and look where that got her.
   “Yeah… well…”  She couldn’t come up with anything smart to say so she just picked up the pace and left the handsome Grayson Jennings in her wake.
    “Uncle Tommy!”  She called out through the open door to the pasture where her uncle and her cousin stood looking down on Bessie’s still form.
    “Jennie!  How are you holdin’ up, baby girl?”  It was eerie how much her uncle resembled her father.  It bothered her that she had never noticed before. 
    “How ya’ doin’ cousin?”  Tom junior tipped his hat to her, his eyes studying the ground at his feet.  Her cousin had always been painfully shy and it was obvious not much had changed now that he was in his twenties.
    “I guess I’m doing as well as can be expected.  ‘Cept for what happened to poor old Bessie here.”
   “It is a damned shame, for sure.  Does that gate over there open wide, Jennie?  Tom junior, here is gonna back the flatbed right in here and I don’t wanna have to take down any fence panels.”
  “It’ll open, Uncle Tommy.  I’ll get the latch for ya’.”
  “Thanks baby girl.  You tell your momma I was comin’ over?”
 There was hope shining bright in the man’s eyes, Jennie hated to see him disappointed even though she didn’t like the reason it was there.  Still the man had seen so much heartbreak in his own life, losing his wife so long ago.  In the old days, if a man died and left a wife and family, his unattached brother would step up and marry the widow so she wouldn’t have to raise a family alone.  Her great grandmother had been widowed and remarried in that manner.  They had died many decades later, deeply in love.  Maybe there was something to be said for the old ways.
    “I told her, Uncle Tommy, but I don’t know that it will make a difference.  Let me go and open that gate for ya’.”
   She spun on her heel and ran directly into the solid form of Grayson Jennings.  Again.
    “Funny how we keep meetin’ this way!”  He smiled down at her again with that adorable, crooked smile of his.  Her heart fluttered slightly in her chest at the sound of his voice.  Her cheeks flushed a deep shade of crimson making her push past him to hide her embarrassment.
    “I have to open the gate for Uncle Tommy.”  Before Grayson Jennings could say anything else, she was gone, jogging to the gate.  She felt his eyes on her as she put distance between them.  Her reaction to his presence was angering her.  Hadn’t she vowed to swear off men for a very, very long time?  Barely a week since her heart had been trampled on and tossed aside she was attracted to a complete stranger. A complete older stranger as it was.  There was no way she was going to ever fall for a smooth talking, sexy smile again.  She was young, there was plenty of time to worry about that later.  For now she had to focus her attentions on the matter at hand.  Getting Bessie out of the pasture and keeping an eye on Uncle Tommy around Momma.
    She swung the gate open wide and directed Tom junior as he backed his flatbed tow truck into the pasture.  Watching as the men strapped the chains meant for a broken down car around their family pet was odd to say the least.  Bessie had been a part of her life for so long it just felt wrong somehow for it to end that way.
   Just as Tom junior pulled out onto the old dirt road and headed toward Greg Jeffries’ butchering place, Momma stepped out on the porch looking as fresh and put together in a black sundress and neat ponytail as Jennie had seen her since before Daddy collapsed in the bedroom.  Uncle Tommy and Grayson Jennings were just about to climb into Uncle Tommy’s truck when Momma waved to Uncle Tommy.
    “Hello Tommy.”  She spoke quietly but they all heard her.  Uncle Tommy walked up on to the front porch, took her by the hand and kissed Momma on the cheek.
    “Elise!  I am so happy you came out to say hello.  Jennie said you were nappin’.”
     “I was but I heard ya’ll outside so I thought you might like a glass of fresh sweet tea bein’ that it is so hot these days.  Johnny would have never forgiven me if I let you leave here thirsty and without a proper thank you.”
     Jennie watched as her mother’s eyes, previously dark with sorrow almost sparkled as she talked to Uncle Tommy.  Perhaps the similarities between the brothers comforted her.  It really didn’t matter as much as she had expected it to.  Whatever the reason, Uncle Tommy had given Momma something to smile about for the first time in over a week.
   As they settled into the porch rockers, Jennie heard her mother giggle.  The sound was as foreign to her as anything; Momma hadn’t laughed in days.  A deep chuckle next to her caught her attention.  Having forgotten the young man standing beside her, she scowled as she looked up at him.
    “Just what is so funny?” 
     “The way you are watchin’ them, like you want to pounce on your Uncle or something.”
    “Not that it’s any of your business but my Daddy just passed away not more than a week ago.  Momma’s been so sad it’s strange to see her smilin’ again.  Course, Uncle Tommy is so much like Daddy…”
    Embarrassed that she had divulged so much, Jennie turned and walked away mid-sentence.  She had chores to do and they weren’t going to get done standing around with Mr. Brown Eyes as he cracked jokes that weren’t at all funny.
    She never heard the footsteps behind her as she filled the horse’s grain buckets from the bin inside the barn so she cursed at the sound of his deep voice.
   “Here, let me take those.”  Grayson Jennings and his sexy smile looked down at her from at least six – two or six- three feet of height, amusement at her choice of greeting shining in his chocolate eyes.
    “I can handle it just fine, thank you.”
    “I have no doubt that you can, Jennie.  I just wanted to give you a hand.”
    There was something about the way he said her name, the letters sliding off his tongue like silk that caused gooseflesh to break out all over her arms.
    “Fine,” she snapped.  “The horses are in the stalls at the end.  I’ll go feed the chickens and the rabbits.”
    Turning on her heel she stomped away to the chicken feed barrel, drew out the scoop and walked out of the barn to spread the feed in the chicken coop.  He was still standing there, crooked smile and all when she returned to the barn.
    “Are you always so angry when someone offers to help you?”
    “Do you always follow women around?  Some might call you a stalker.”
   “If I were stalking you, you wouldn’t know it.  I’m studyin’ criminal behavior, remember?”  He smiled brightly as he took the chicken feed scoop from her and dropped it into the barrel, still smiling.  He was infuriating.
     “How do you know my Uncle Tommy?”
      The change of subject was obvious but she didn’t know what else to say.
     “I work on his dairy farm during the day so I can pay for my classes at night.”
     “I don’t remember seeing you around here before.”
     “I’m guessing you were too busy mooning over that boyfriend of yours to rightly notice anyone else.”
    Her head whipped around at the mention of her lost love and she all but snarled at Grayson.
     “You know Michael?” 
     “From school.”
      “I think I would remember you if I had seen you around here before.  This town’s way too small to hide in.”
       “I don’t hide but I don’t go runnin’ through the streets lookin’ for attention either.  I’m a quiet sorta guy, you know?”
      “You don’t seem so quiet right now.”
      “You make it easy to talk.”
       The silence that fell over them was tense, electrically charged.  Jennie searched for something witty to say but she was so emotionally drained from the day, her usual gift for gab was long gone.  It was time to end it and get rid of the handsome Grayson Jennings.
     “Well, thank you for your help with feeding the animals.  I’ve got to get inside and make something for dinner for Momma while she is actually awake and out of her room.  I’ll be seein’ you.”
    She was already halfway to the house as she waved a hurried goodbye but she heard Grayson’s quiet words as clear as day.
    “You can count on it.”
    Sleep was slow to come that night.
    Finally collapsing in her bed at half past nine, Jennie fully expected to fall deep into a dreamless sleep.  Her body ached with exhaustion, her mind and emotions were completely drained.  Instead, she tossed and turned, begging the sandman to finally come and put her out of her misery yet no relief came.  Her thoughts were full of chocolate brown eyes and crooked smiles.
    Giving up completely on sleep sometime around midnight, she padded quietly out of her room and down the hall to the kitchen.  A full moon provided enough light that she didn’t need to flip any switches.  Taking a glass from the cupboard, she filled it with ice cold water from the tap and slowly drank it as she stared out the window over the sink.  The pasture seemed oddly empty and quiet knowing Bessie was no longer out there.
    It was Labor Day weekend.  The streets would be full of townsfolk tomorrow for the annual parade and festival.  Momma always entered her strawberry pies in the pie tasting contest but not this year.  The only one who had done any work in the kitchen lately was her and there was absolutely pie baking talent in Jennie’s genes.   
    Maybe Momma would want to go to town for dinner.  The fried chicken and pulled pork sandwiches bound to be served would make a nice change from all the casseroles they were still working on from Daddy’s funeral.  She could almost taste the barbeque and cole slaw in anticipation.
   She made up her mind on her way back to bed- even if Momma refused, she would go for a bit.  A change of pace might be just what she needed to get Bessie- and Grayson Jennings- out of her mind.  A good nights’ sleep and some pork barbeque could fix anything.
   What she didn’t count on was running into the handsome aspiring cop at the first booth she stopped at.
    His deep voice nearly made her drop the fried dough she had just purchased.
     “Hello Jennie Marshall.  Nice to see you again.”  His lopsided grin held a certain amount of boyish charm that she was finding very hard to resist and that aggravated her.
     “Hello, Mr. Jennings.”  She really hoped he couldn’t hear the sound of her heart pounding against her chest wall.
      He laughed.  “Please, call my Grayson.  Mr. Jennings make me sound so… so… old.  Are you … here with anyone?  Your Momma maybe?”
       She tossed her tangled curls over her shoulder and began to walk away from the food cart.  “Nope.  Momma wasn’t quite feeling up to going out today.  I had few errands to run so I thought I might grab some lunch.”
    “Starting with desert?”  He reached up and rubbed a smudge of powdered sugar from her cheek.  Her skin tingled where he made contact, throwing her insides into a tornado of turmoil.  Her cheeks flushed as she looked down at the greasy hunk of sugar covered dough in her hand.  Little white dots of sugar covered her tank top that was as red as her cheeks.
     “I always eat my desert first.  What if I get full?”  She actually laughed at her own joke.  It was the first time she had laughed since Daddy died.  It felt good.
      “I suppose that would be the best plan.  I think I will join you.  Wait here.”  Grayson stepped over to the pie tent and grabbed a piece of apple pie, dropping a dollar on the table and hurried back to her.  “There, now we can have desert together.  Maybe afterwards you will let me get you a barbeque dinner?”
      Jennie couldn’t help but smile at the hopeful look in Grayson’s eyes.  She was supposed to annoyed but he was so charming it became difficult to hold onto her annoyance.  Before she could stop herself, she agreed to the invitation.  “OK.”
     “Just like that?  OK?  I thought I might have to apply my strong powers of persuasion to convince you.”  There went that crooked smile again. 
    “I’m hungry.  I’m gonna eat either way, no harm in you sitting at the same table right?”  She tried to sound flippant, uninterested but she couldn’t seem to hold the distant tone.
    “No, I don’t rightly think there is any harm in sharing a table.”  His ever-present smile grew bigger, more crooked.
   Grayson Jennings was not handsome in the traditional sense.  His body- strong and hard from working the fields was large, almost cumbersome as he walked through the crowds.  Close cropped hair, as dark as the eyes she couldn’t seem to resist was typical of any farmer in the area and then there was that lopsided smile, akin to that of a six year caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  No he was nowhere near as classically good looking as Michael was with his crystal blue eyes and towheaded mop he had never outgrown but he did something to Jennie that Michael never had- the feelings were different, not so obvious as they were for her first run in with puppy love.
    They made their way through the crowds, eating desert and chatting about the weather in search of an empty picnic table or a shady spot under a tree.  Jennie heard herself laughing and for the first time in what felt like months, she was relaxed.  Grayson was easy company, he made her feel good and she relished that feeling after so many days of feeling so rotten.
    She should have known there was no way the day could keep going so well.  As soon as they settled in on a grassy knoll, Jennie looked up and caught site of the two people she had sincerely hoped she would never, ever see again.
    About twenty feet in front her, holding hands and gazing at each other with disgusting lovesick expressions stood Trisha and Michael.
     “Seriously?”  She mumbled jumping to her feet and dumping what was left of her fried dough on the grass.  “I have to go.”
     “What’s wrong, Jennie?”  Grayson rose from the ground reaching for her hand as she turned to leave.
      “Nothing.”  She replied hurriedly.  “I just have to go is all.  I don’t like leavin’ Momma home by herself for too long.”
      Grayson followed her eyes toward the couple standing across the street from them.  “Oh.”
      “I’m sorry.  I really do have go.  Thanks for the company and sorry ‘bout lunch.”  Jennie was already halfway to the parking lot where she had parked Momma’s car that morning.  She tried very hard to convince herself that the disappointment in Grayson Jennings eyes was because she had wasted a perfectly good desert and had nothing to do with her blowing him off.
     By the time she reached her car, she was practically hyperventilating.  The vision of Michael and Trisha all happy and wrapped up in each other wouldn’t leave her mind.  She leaned her head against the steering wheel and willed her heart to slow its tumultuous rhythm. Her hands shook as she tried to plug the key into the ignition.
    The price she paid for thinking it was OK to be happy for a little bit.
   Poor Grayson, she had left him sitting there alone and probably feeling really foolish.  Well, maybe it was for the best anyway. 
  She was a waste of his time.
  Emotionally unavailable.    
  Damaged goods.
  Besides, men were trouble.  How did she know Grayson Jennings wasn’t a dog like Michael?  Best to just concentrate on taking care of things at home.  After she went to her interview on Tuesday, her days and her nights would be full anyway.  There wouldn’t be any time to spend with good looking wanna-be cops with crooked smiles.
     By the time she turned onto the rutted, dirt road that led to her home, she had talked herself down from everything except the deep sadness that still lingered over seeing her former best friend and her first love together. 

    The rest of the weekend was uneventful.  Jennie busied herself around the yard, weeding the vegetable garden, picking berries and taking care of the animals.  The emptiness in the barn where Bessie had once spent her time made her sad but she pushed all her active emotions to somewhere deep within her gut.
    She only saw Momma once as they passed in the hallway Monday evening.  Jennie was on her way to the kitchen to make dinner, Momma was on her way back from the kitchen with a bottle of wine and a box of crackers.
    At least she was eating something.
    Unlike Jennie who was still thinking about the lunch she walked out on at the Labor Day festival.  Grayson was so easy to be with, she felt so relaxed for the short time that they spent together.  But right now she had to focus on taking care of business.  She had promised her father she would take care of Momma and keep the farm going.
    As long as the interview went well, she could be employed by the end of the day.  Then there would be no time for Michael, Trisha or Grayson Jennings and his incredible chocolate eyes.  She fell asleep that night reminding herself that her priorities had been decided already- Momma and work and the farm didn’t leave time a personal life.  She was still working on that train of thought as she got ready for the interview the next morning.
   For the first time all summer, there was a steady, drenching rain.  Not like the downpours that had come and gone periodically but a day likely dedicated to rain.  Her curls were wild and out of control as usual- on the one day she wanted to look put together she couldn’t even get them to stay in a knot at the nape of her neck.  Finally giving up, she grabbed an umbrella and made a break for the car.  It was time to focus on what was important. No more thoughts of Grayson Jennings or any man in her life.
   So why did she strain so hard to get a good luck at the faded black pick-up truck that passed her in town?  Was it because the driver had deep chocolate eyes and a smile that could stop ships?  Of course not.  She was just being cautious, checking her mirrors, right?
    Forcing all thoughts of Grayson Jennings out of her mind, she prepared herself for her very first job interview.  By the time she presented herself at the front desk, her confidence was high.  It waned a little when she found herself seated at the end of a long conference table facing three very imposing individuals but they were kind to her, first expressing their condolences over her father and then easing into the grueling list of questions about experiences, interacting with co- workers and handling situations such as racial bias and sexual discrimination.  But, after the longest two hours of her life she was offered a job on the line.  Beginning the next morning at six she would be trained to make paper, just like her father had done for the better part of twenty years.
     Momma was actually sitting on the porch when Jennie pulled up in front of the house.  The sun had been working hard to make an appearance but the sky was still overcast.  Tree branches hung heavy with water over the drive, large drops splashing on the windshield as Jennie made her way along the gravel and parked close to where her mother sat sipping sweet tea.  She was dressed in white linen pants and a baby blue top that accentuated the deep ocean blue of her eyes. 
     Momma dressed?  In something other than black?
    Was she expecting company?  Jennie didn’t remember anyone calling the day before.  Maybe Momma was just finally feeling better.  Then why did her hands shake so much as they lifted the glass of tea to her lips?
     A bull frog croaked loudly from somewhere in the field beyond the driveway.  The marshy land was home to many amphibians.  As a child, she and Daddy would explore the marshes together, marveling at the beauty of the wildlife.  Her heart ached for those days, long gone forever.
    “Hi Momma!”  She called up to the porch.
   “Good morning, Jennie-girl.  Where have you been so early?”
   “Interviewin’ at the paper factory.  Remember, Momma?  They called on Friday?”
“I told you Jennie, you need to go to college.”
   “And I told you, Momma, I will.  The community college is just twenty minutes away- I hear they have some great night programs.”  She had only actually heard about one program, the criminal justice tract Grayson was on but that was enough to keep her statement from being a lie, right?
    “Oh, Jennie.”  Momma sighed as she sipped her tea.
     “In case you care, I got the job.  I’ll be making money Momma, you don’t have to worry about a thing now.”
    “Oh, there will still be plenty of worries, sweet pea.”  There was a hint of humor in Momma’s words, something that actually pleased Jennie.  Maybe they really were going to be OK eventually.
      “I start tomorrow.  Working on the line, just like Daddy did.  I’m pretty sure they gave me some special concessions for being John Marshall’s daughter but it doesn’t matter.  I have a job now.”  There was no hiding the pride in her voice, even if she wanted to.
      “That’s wonderful Jennie girl.  My baby has grown up quite a bit since…in a short amount of time.”
     A tense silence fell over them.  Momma was right; it seemed a lifetime ago that Daddy had stopped to give her that ride while she nursed a broken heart.  But, mourning period or not, life went on around them and Jennie for one couldn’t spend any more time ignoring it.  Apparently neither could Momma.
    “Momma are you expecting guests?”
     “What?  Why?”
     “Well, you are awake for one.  And all dressed up fancy.”
   Momma laughed.  “All dressed fancy?  You are a funny girl, Jennie.”
     “But you are.  You have to admit the last week hasn’t been done in high fashion.  Are we getting’ company?”
      “No.  Well, your Uncle Tommy is gonna be droppin’ by.  Says he has some papers for me from takin’ Bessie.”
        Uncle Tommy was dropping by?  For that Momma got out of bed and prettied up?  Would Uncle Tommy come alone?  The thought surprised her as did the mental image of a very handsome Grayson Jennings causing a slight fluttering in her chest.
    What was she thinking?  She had no time in her life for any sort of messiness and relationships were just…well., messy.  The broken heart she was still nursing was enough mess for her right now. 
     “Well, tell Uncle Tommy I said hello.  I got some work to do out back.”  There was no sense in pressing Momma further.  Daddy was only gone a week, Uncle Tommy was more than likely a comfort to her since they had both loved the same man in some way.  Mourning was as individual as the sunrise; no two were ever alike just as no two people experienced loss the same way.  As long as Uncle Tommy came alone, he could visit any time he liked.  Daddy would have been pleased to know that someone was able to get through to Momma.
    The crunch of gravel on the road told her Uncle Tommy was arriving so she hurried into the house to change out of the only dress she owned, the black sheath she had worn to bury Daddy.  It seemed oddly fitting to her to wear it to the interview at the company where he father once worked.  
     Taking care of the animals took much less time than it had a few days ago.  She was starting to get into the swing of things.  After picking whatever peas and tomatoes were ripe she headed out into the hayfields to see how tall they had gotten.  Daddy’s only cash crop was the hay.  He quickly discovered as a young farmer that corn and wheat weren’t his thing but hay was easy and there was a market for it- farm animals had to eat.  After one very tough and bank breaking season, Daddy took the job at the paper mill and focused on subsistence farming and hay bales. 
The grasses were tall, almost to her waist.  Pretty soon she would have to harvest them.  Running the hay baler scared her.  All farm equipment made her uneasy, so many things could go wrong and so many horrible injuries could occur.  Two years ago, Jimmy Johnson in her algebra class lost a leg when his daddy’s International hit a boulder and threw him from the seat.  A chill washed over her at the thought of all the blood that must come with losing a leg.  She would just have to find someone who knew what they were doing to teach her to run the machine.
    Grayson Jennings was probably a whiz with a hay baler.
    It didn’t matter, she had no time for him and his silly smile.
   Two hours after leaving Momma on the porch, Jennie headed back inside to get dinner started and prepare for her first day of work in the morning.  Light laughter filtered in from the front of the house; Momma’s laughter.  She tip toed to the front room and peeked through the edge of one of the chambray curtains.  Momma and Uncle Tommy were still sitting in the matching rocking chairs, drinking sweet tea and talking and laughing.  Momma looked so happy and relaxed, more happy or relaxed than she had in years. A flash of anger hit Jennie and she stomped her way out onto the porch.
    “Momma!”  She snapped just a little too sharply.  “It’s almost time for dinner.  Do you want to lie down for a bit before we eat?”
    Momma and Uncle Tommy eyed each other, a touch of humor and something else an infuriated Jennie couldn’t quite place.  Well, Momma?”
    “Simmer down, Jennie girl.  Your uncle was just getting ready to head on out.  I’ll be into the kitchen to give you a hand in a few minutes.”  There was obvious dismissal in Elise Marshall’s voice, her tone firm and authoritative.  Jennie turned on her heel and stormed off.
   What was wrong with her mother?  She was acting like a silly school girl ransacked by puppy love!
    Oh wow!  Was that how she had acted when she was with Michael? Yuck! That was downright embarrassing!  Of course, she was only seventeen.  Momma was a grown woman who was supposed to be mourning the loss of her life’s love.
     The more she thought about Momma giggling out there on the porch with her deceased husband’s brother, the madder she got.  Had her mother no shame?  And Uncle Tommy?  He couldn’t wait a year or two before hitting on his dead brother’s wife?
     The anger and frustration clamped down on her chest.  She had to get out of there.  She ran out the back door and around the front of the house.  Ignoring her mother’s calls, she ran down the driveway and onto the dirt road she had spent an entire lifetime passing along by bus, on foot, in Daddy’s dreadful pick- up truck.
     No one had touched Daddy’s truck since the last time he drove it on the day that he died.  It sat in the driveway as a memorial to the man that owned it.  A week’s worth of dust covered the windshield.  Every time Jennie thought she might move it, park it by the barn maybe and out of the center of the drive, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.  And so it sat, strong and bold and a constant reminder of the man that would never again drive it.
     Twilight was quickly settling in around her when Jennie heard the sound of a truck’s engine coming up behind her.
     Uncle Tommy.
       Determined to ignore him, she continued walking, kicking rocks and cursing under her breath with almost every step.  Jennie was never one to cuss but in recent weeks it seemed she was doing it a whole lot more.  Another step towards becoming an adult?
      She marveled at how much she had changed, grown up actually, in just a couple of weeks.  Turning eighteen was supposed to be a monumental birthday, legally become an adult who could smoke if she so chose or buy all the lottery tickets she wanted.  She could join the military but couldn’t legally carry a weapon.  Turning eighteen gave her the right to vote and apparently the ability to swear and cuss as much as she wanted.
    Uncle Tommy’s truck slowed slightly as it neared but he never stopped.  It was probably for the best, she was in no mood to be cordial.
    By the time she decided to head back home the sky had turned a deep purple hue, highlight by thousands of tiny twinkling stars.  The moon was but a mere sliver in the sky but it was enough to light her way back along the familiar old road.  The night sky was a carbon copy of the last night she spent with Michael.  Everything had seemed so perfect then in contrast to the mess of lost dreams and broken emotions that it had become.
   The house was dark but for a lone bulb glowing in the living room window.  Jennie let herself in and silently made her way to her bedroom hoping to avoid any further conflict with Momma.  She had a big day ahead of her and the best thing she could do was get some sleep. 
  The stillness in the house since Daddy left was unnerving.  It was as if his life force sucked all the energy from their home, negative and positive.  She and Momma moved about the house in a  haze; an eerily quiet haze.     
   Pausing outside her mother’s bedroom door for a moment she thought she heard the sound of quiet crying.
   Had she been wrong?  Did Momma still miss Daddy as much as she did? 
   There was no denying the charge of excitement Momma had been exhibiting when her husband’s brother had come to visit but perhaps the reasons were completely different than Jennie had first thought.
   Continuing on to her own room, she pressed the door closed gently so as not to disturbe Momma.  She collapsed on top of the lavender and white eyelet comforter she had covered her bed with since her tenth birthday and buried her face in one of the dozen throw pillows she had always loved.  Using her left arm she swept all the rest of them onto the floor in frustration.  Hers was the bedroom of a little girl; innocent and sweet.  Lavender walls, thick purple carpet and white sheer curtains exuded innocence and youth.  That sweet, innocent girl was gone.  The sun didn’t rise and set on the shoulders of her first love anymore, her days were no longer filled with idle chit chat and local gossip and she was no longer unscathed by loss and heartbreak.
  Jennie rolled over and screamed in to the mattress as loud as she could.  She screamed until her throat stung and her lungs ached.  Then she yelled every foul word she could think of into her pillow.  The pent up frustrations and anger buried deep worked their way to the surface until she was exhausted from the effort.
   Throwing her body over so she was on her back, arms flung out to the sides, she studied the terrain of the popcorn ceiling over her bed.  Her eyes were wet, her throat beyond sore.  How she longed to be ten again, when life was simple and the only cares she had were making sure her bed was made and getting to the school bus on time.
    Growing up was turning out to be a real bitch.