THE TALKING TREE – Book One in the Hartwell Women Trilogy
My mother’s death had brought me back to upstate Barnham, New York on this crisp April morning. Chills rolled across my shoulders in paralyzing waves as I stared at the peeling paint and darkened windows of my childhood home. Cruelty and rejection had formed its core. I clutched my hands, drew a deep breath, and told myself this place no longer mattered, but I knew better. Until I could work through past issues, I’d always be bound in some horrible way to this house and the people who’d caused such pain.
Lady, my Golden Retriever, stood patiently at my side. “Come, girl,” I said, giving her a pat on the head. We walked toward the back yard to what I’d called the Talking Tree. It’d stood outside the house on top of the hill, its branches like welcoming, loving arms. My crippled stepfather had found the hill too difficult to climb, which was why I’d chosen it as my haven away from life in the gray, shingled bungalow below.
I entered the backyard and came to an abrupt stop. My special tree was gone! I raced up the hill through overgrown grass to reach the jagged-edged stump. Breathing hard, I stared at it with dismay. What had happened? Suspicion clenched my jaw. I bet Clyde had climbed the hill after all. It would be so like him to do something crazy like this.
Lady whined and nudged her head under my hand. I sank to the ground and hugged her, feeling as if Clyde had lifted his hand and struck me once again. And even though this blow didn’t carry the strength of one of his drunken rages, it hurt just the same. Tears stung my eyes.
I used to talk to that tree as I would have to the brother or sister I’d never had or the mother who’d never listened. And beneath the tree’s whispering leaves that broke free from the branches each fall, I’d grown fierce with determination to one day be as free as they.
I scrambled to my feet and fingered the stump’s pointy edges. Their sharpness pricked my fingers–and my heart. I never should have come here, I told myself, hating the feeling of being pulled back in time, of losing all the self-confidence I’d worked so hard to build.
I turned away and headed down the hill. Halfway, I paused to study the house. Its faded paint reminded me of my mother’s gray eyes–cold and empty. I brushed aside her image and hurried over to the neighbor’s house, where I would be staying.
Set apart from ours by a line of pine-scented evergreens, it had an air of respectability we’d never been able to achieve. Perky white curtains softened the tiny, paned windows of her home. Light shone through the sparkling glass, like a lighthouse’s guiding beam to a wayward ship. Inside, I knew, there would be peace and contentment.
At my knock, Doris Crawford quickly opened the door. “Marissa, my dear, it’s so good to see you!” She beamed at me and hugged me close. “Oh, how I’ve missed seeing that sweet face of yours! All those thoughtful gifts, all those nice phone calls can’t compare to actually holding you.” Tears shone in her eyes as she looked up at me. “The years away from here have done you good. You’re even more beautiful than your photos.”
My tense body gave in to her natural warmth, loosening in her embrace. I used to pretend that somehow things had gotten mixed up when I came into the world and Doris was the mother I was supposed to have. But even in the unhappiest of circumstances, fate can sometimes be kind. In this case, she’d given us each other.
“I’ve missed you!” I stepped back and studied her. It’d been ten years since I’d seen her. Well into her sixties and barely five feet tall, Doris still held herself with confidence. Keen intelligence shone from her blue eyes. A ready smile lit her round face, subtracting years from her age. To me, she’d always been beautiful.
I gave her another squeeze and followed her inside.
SWEET TALK – Book Two in the Hartwell Women Trilogy
The sign for Sarita, California, appeared ahead of me. I let out a sigh of relief and loosened my tight grip on the steering wheel. It’d been a grueling drive from Maine.
A car behind me beeped its horn, and I slowed to allow it to pass. I glimpsed a blond-haired man with handsome features. Our gazes met, and then he was tucking his silver Mercedes convertible into the line of cars ahead of me. A soft, giddy laugh escaped. California was the land of beautiful people. That man, whoever he was, had just proved it.
Searching for Treasures, the art gallery I now unexpectedly owned with my old college roommate, I drove past the cluster of small colorful shops along the water and continued up into the rolling landscape overlooking them. Following my failed marriage of little less than a year, her call for help had come at a time when I was vulnerable.
The carved wooden sign announcing the gallery beckoned. Pulling into the parking lot, I was overcome with second thoughts. I rested my head against the steering wheel. Maybe now, with the New Year beginning, my life would take a wild swing for the better. God, I hoped so. This move had to drag me out of the mental and emotional pit I’d wallowed in for the last several months–months in which I’d despaired of any real happiness, while pretending to be fine.
I climbed out of my SUV on travel-weary legs. The drive cross-country had seemed unending. I crinkled together the M&M wrappers that lay scattered across the passenger’s seat and grabbed the empty water bottle. I stacked the CDs. I’d memorized too many of them on the journey.
The door of the art gallery opened. I tossed the garbage in a trash can at the curb and hurried forward. Smiling, a tall woman with curly chestnut hair strode toward me. A young girl skipped along behind her.
“Allie!” Kristin Lewis held her arms open to me. “You made it!” Her voice lilted with happiness. “Daisy and I have been watching for you all afternoon.”
I returned her embrace, and turned to the young girl hanging back. My breath caught at her beauty–blond curls, wide blue eyes, and tiny, perfect features.
Kristin smiled at her daughter. “Daisy, you remember Allison Hartwell, don’t you? She’s your godmother!”
“My fairy godmother?”
I knelt before her and gazed into round blue eyes, fringed with enviable long lashes. My heart swelled. “Sometimes, it’s good to believe in magic.”
Clad in pink tights, red shirt and a green plaid skirt, she nodded. I hugged her gingerly, careful to avoid crushing the teddy bear she carried. I hadn’t seen her for over a year and she’d grown taller. Her little arms reached around me for a brief moment before she turned away.
I stood and faced Kristin, silently assessing my old friend. Normally vivacious and healthy, she looked exhausted. Dark circles smudged the white skin under her eyes. A smile wavered on her face. “I know, I know. I swear I haven’t slept in months. I was terrified I’d lose the business, have to start all over again, and be forced to move Daisy out of the school and her special class.”
“Didn’t the money I sent help?”
Kristin nodded. “It allowed me to pay off enough bills to order more inventory, but our troubles go much deeper than that.” Tears shimmered in her eyes. “I can’t believe she took off on me.”
I nodded with sympathy. Last fall, amid heartbreaking sobs, Kristin had poured out the story of her lover’s betrayal. Lisa Vaughn had taken off with all their savings, claiming it was her money. It’d left Kristin unable to pay her bills and without the means to build holiday inventory for the gallery. I’d known Christmas season was the best time for retail and had offered Kristin a loan. Instead, she’d suggested a business partnership. I’d jumped at the chance. My short marriage to Willard Jackson III had ended months earlier when he’d left me for his old girlfriend who he’d kept on the side. Temporarily living at home with my parents after the break-up was not my idea of unwedded bliss.
“We sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t we?” I said, attempting humor.