Welcome to my reading room! During the winter months, I invite you to sit a spell and read a variety of free first chapters from my book selections.
The first one is taken from my novel, Masquerade, where an infertile woman grieves over a past abortion her husband knows nothing about. When she finally works up courage to tell him, tragedy strikes, followed by a surprise that leads her on a quest for answers.
CHAPTER ONE (Excerpt taken from my novel, Masquerade)
Regret barged into the bedroom and refused to leave. Like one of the boxes Celeste had carried from their trailer to their new house, a dark secret weighed heavy on her heart, especially in the last year.
She surveyed the pile of cartons beside the bed and located the one marked “Framed Pictures.” Tearing away the tissue paper, she smoothed her hand over the cool glass surface lodged inside the pewter frame, corners adorned with inlaid sapphires. A bride and groom smiled back at her. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Tatem.
In spite of her dismal mood, she was determined to enjoy her anniversary.
The heady aroma of English Leather entered the bedroom as she studied the portrait. She spun around and faced her husband. A silly grin ruffled his lips. She smiled and melted into Joe’s arms. She reached up and pressed her index finger into the dimple in his chin.
“Okay, you can come out now.” His voice teased her. “But first, put this on.” He gently turned her around and tied a bandanna over her eyes.
“What are you up to, you big sneak?”
With one hand around her waist and the other on her arm, Joe carefully guided her. Clutching the frame against her chest, she felt the floor beneath her bare feet change from carpet to hardwood, then back to carpet again.
Joe’s warm breath came near. His lips met hers in a lingering kiss. Then he released the blindfold from her eyes. “Happy Anniversary, Tater Tot!” His nickname for her ever since their dating days at Purdue University.
Her mouth flew open at the display before her. Several pots of burgundy, yellow, and white mums wrapped in shiny gold foil marked off a circle on the shag carpet. The wedding ring quilt gifted by her grandmother on their wedding day rested on the floor inside the circle. The room glowed with candles of varying sizes, too many to count, some atop boxes, others on the floor. “Close to You” played softly on the stereo.
Joe eased the frame out of Celeste’s hands and set it among the flowers, then swept his rough hands over her forehead and cheeks, finally coming to rest on her shoulders. “Surprised?” His arms slipped around her waist, and he pulled her close.
“Uh . . . very. When in the world did you have time to buy all this and set it up?” With working extra hours at Schreiber Metal Works, he’d barely had time to breathe, let alone plan a celebration.
“Ah, have you forgotten? I’m a man of many talents.” He waggled his dark eyebrows in a Groucho Marx expression.
She frowned, fighting back tears.
His hands slid down her arms. “What’s wrong?” Lightly squeezing her palms, he stepped back, head tilted, and studied her.
Heat filled her face. Their fifth year wedding anniversary required something better than pizza, but with the move and the beginning of a new school year, she’d been swamped with work. “I didn’t have much time or energy to come up with something all that special.”
“What? No filet-Mignon? How could you?” Mock horror swept over his face.
Determined not to be outdone, she playfully slapped him on the arm and started for the kitchen. “Wait right here”—hands splayed in front of her husband—“I’ll be right back.”
“No problem. I’ll just slip into something more comfortable.” His eyes sparked, and excitement rippled through her body.
When she returned carrying a heart-shaped pizza, he sat in the circle, one hand anchored on his right knee, the other resting on his left thigh. At the sight of him, she almost dropped the tray. Wearing silky boxer shorts, could he look any yummier?
“Come here, you.” His mouth curled into a playful grin.
Kneeling, she set the silver-plated tray between them. He gripped the back of her head and smothered her lips with a kiss. A delightful tingle traveled from her head to her toes.
Joe released her and sat back. “What’s this?” He stared at the pizza. “Creative. I Love You spelled out with my favorite topping, black olives.” Using the pizza wheel, he cut two slices, handed one to Celeste, and bit into the other. A cheese string trailed from his lips. When Celeste leaned over and swept the gooey mozzarella from his chin, he caught her hand and kissed it. Lips hungry for more, his mouth traveled down the side of her face. He blew a raspberry into her neck. The stubble tickled her skin. Giggling, she scrunched her head and shoulder.
She pushed on his chest. “Calm down, lover boy. Let’s enjoy dinner first.”
He took another bite, his gaze fastened on her. “What’s that perfume you’re wearing? Smells like the beach.”
“It’s not perfume; it’s lotion with cocoa butter.”
Reaching for her arm, he gently buried his nose in her skin and breathed deeply. A satisfied sigh escaped his lips. He plowed through another pizza slice, then smeared his hands on his shorts.
The record now over, he rose to reset the needle for a second round of the Carpenters. He retrieved two wine glasses and an ice bucket hidden behind the grouping of mums and lowered to the floor across from Celeste. He spun the goblets and set them between them.
Warmth filled her heart. She brushed the crushed ice away from the bottle. “Ooh, Barbaresco. I’m impressed.” She lifted the bottle from its cradle, gripping the base with one hand and the neck with the other. Seemingly out of nowhere, a haunting scene flashed before her eyes.
Her mother pulled the covers down, urged her into bed. Here, drink this. Her severe face grew large like a character in a horror movie. It’ll help the pain go away . . . pain go away . . . pain go away . . . away . . . away . . . Her voice echoed in Celeste’s mind.
Joe reached for the bottle, bumping her back to the present. “You’re sweating.” He peered at her face.
Celeste swiped her upper lip.
“Brings back memories, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, don’t you remember? Our honeymoon. The resort staff put a bottle of Barbaresco on our bed along with two chocolate kisses.”
She blinked and ran a hand through her shoulder length hair. “Of course.” She managed a wobbly smile, torment cramping her abdominal muscles. In her mind, she shoved the skeleton in her closet into an empty box and tossed it in the trash.
After using a corkscrew to open the top, Joe poured a small amount into a glass. Swirling the red liquid under his nose, he inhaled deeply. “Hmm . . . cherries, hickory, slightly hot at first”— he flashed his eyes at her—“then spicy, not so different from you, my love.”
“Let me taste that.” She grabbed at the glass.
He stuck his hand out. “Not so fast. These things take time.”
“What things?” Her husband sure was dragging this out.
He poured a second glass and handed it to her. Leaning forward, he crossed arms with her and took a sip. “You know, just like at our wedding reception.”
“Yes, yes, I get it.” She conjured up another smile and took a quick sip, then unhooked her arm and set her glass down.
He puckered his brow. “You seem fidgety.”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Nothing. Maybe a little anxious to—”
“You sly dog.” He shot her a silly sideways glance.
She reached for her glass. No timid sip this time. A swig filled her mouth and wormed its way down her esophagus, settling into her stomach. Pain go away . . . go away . . . go away. Jumping up, she ran from the room.
“Hey, where ya going?”
“I’ll be right back.” Rounding the corner of the living room into the kitchen, she nearly slipped on the shiny hardwood. Once in the bedroom, she maneuvered around several boxes and yanked open her vanity drawer. She sorted through socks and underwear until she unearthed their wedding album. The black nightie Joe had bought her on their first anniversary lay folded beside a velvet box filled with costume jewelry.
She shrugged out of her baby doll blouse and slacks. Anything to distract her mind. Pushing the pain of past memories aside, she envisioned the look on Joe’s face when she stepped into the living room wearing the lacy lingerie. The sight of her would certainly make up for any momentary angst he might have detected earlier.
One final glance in the vanity mirror, a quick swipe of soft plum lipstick to accentuate her porcelain skin and jet-black hair, and she was set. Grabbing the album off the bed, she slinked back to the living room.
“Whoa.” Joe’s mouth flew open.
Sidling over to him, she dropped to her knees and placed the album in front of them. He drew her close and kissed her neck.
“Pictures first, remember, like at our wedding.”
“Look who’s talking. You’ve been dragging out this entire evening way beyond frustration. Well, two can play this game.”
“Okay, okay.” He huffed and sat back, hands limp in his lap.
“Look at this.” Celeste pointed to a photo of the two of them standing under an archway in a late summer garden. Eyes shining, she held a bouquet of white lilies. Pink and white roses snaked around white latticework. “And the powder pink roses accented the hot pink gowns my attendants wore—”
“Yeah, yeah.” He drew his finger down her back as she leaned over the album.
“You’re not even looking,” she huffed.
He snapped to attention. “I’m looking already. I’m looking.”
“That’s more like it.” Smirking, she turned the page. Four faces leapt off the page, her mother’s one of them. Dread flooded her abdomen, spiraling her into a dark hole.
Closing the album, she laid it aside.
“You’re not interested anyway.”
“Those are just pictures, Celeste . . . uh, beautiful pictures, that’s for sure. But hey, I’ve got the real thing right here. Let’s make some new memories, how ‘bout that?” He pulled her into a warm embrace, then released her. Standing, he urged her to her feet, wrapped his arms around her, and began to sway to the music. “Do you know how beautiful you are?”
She couldn’t speak through her tears. Wasn’t that the same question he’d asked over and over again that weekend? The weekend that changed her life forever?
Her hand on the banister, Sonya Miller paused on the bottom step in the foyer and sucked in a sharp breath. This was one of those days when she wondered if she’d survive to the end of the homeschool year, and it was only September. Six kids, ages ten and under, kept her mopping floors, grading papers, reading stories, and wiping noses.
She lowered to the step and scratched Snarls, the family’s retriever, behind the ears. He panted and pawed at her skirt. His shiny brown eyes tented by raised brows mirrored her worry.
“Are you as weary to the bone as I am?” She offered a weak smile, rubbed his nose. “It’s okay, boy, we’ll manage somehow.”
She gazed out the window. The last golden rays of the sun gracefully bowed to the entrance of the full moon, and still no Sam. How she wished her husband could give up the gas attendant job, so he could spend more time at home. But they needed the extra income to make ends meet. On top of that, the promised payroll increase at Harvester Foods never materialized. Hopes raised, then mashed like a pile of boiled potatoes.
Snarls nudged her hand, and she smiled into his furry face. “I hate to complain,” she confided to her faithful friend. “It’s uncomely, I know, especially for a woman. Besides, Sam keeps food on the table and a roof over our heads.” She stroked Snarls’ back. “Without his financial support, the family would be sunk. In all fairness, he does pitch in around the house on occasion. A load of laundry here. A math lesson there.”
Feet pounded the floor overhead. Harsh words erupted between her two eldest sons, then a door slammed.
She stood, her ear cocked toward the upstairs racket. “Boys, I want you in bed by the time I get up there,” she yelled, and Snarls barked in response.
“Yeah, you tell’em, boy.” She sighed, pressed the small of her back, and trudged up the steps, Snarls skittering past her. Her foot landed on a ball, and she grabbed the railing for support. A sharp pain shot up her calf. Grimacing, she stooped and rubbed her ankle. How many times had she told those kids not to leave toys on the stairs? Definitely time to incorporate another safety lesson into health class, since many household injuries, even deaths, stemmed from falls.
Better yet, apply a penalty for this “ball” infraction. First, she’d have to root out the careless little culprit. But not tonight. In the morning. Things always looked better in daylight.
She lifted her face to the high ceiling of the old farmhouse stairwell. “Lord, bring Sam home . . . please,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
Sam was a good husband, so why the growing feelings of resentment? She forced her mind to wrap up in the thought of his strong arms, her head pressed to his chest, ear absorbing the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. A heartbeat they both shared.
More scuffling overhead, then a loud thump. Another argument to arbitrate without Sam. If bodies didn’t litter the floor by now, they would by the time she reached the boys’ room. She’d make sure of that.
She reeled in her temper and plodded up the remaining steps. Calm down, Sonya. Deep breath. Counting to ten now.
At the top of the stairs, all was quiet except for Tommy’s nasally breathing which sounded from his crib. She frowned. Must be allergies again. She’d set up the vaporizer. Slipping a strand of hair behind her ear, she peeked in the bedroom shared by two children. Lily knelt on a mat and looked for something under her bed. When the floor creaked, she turned her head toward Sonya. Eyes wide, she blinked slowly. “Pooh?” she said in a loud whisper.
Sonya opened the closet and pulled out a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh from under a pile of toys. She helped Lily slide under the covers, then sat on the bed and tucked the yellow bear with red shirt under the little girl’s arm. “How ‘bout you keep Pooh on your bed instead of tossing him in the closet?” Sonya pulled the covers up as Lily plunged under holding her favorite toy.
“I not mix him in the closet.” Seven-year-old Lily spoke with the mental acuity of a three-year-old.
Lily unplugged her thumb from her mouth. “Like salad.”
Sonya snorted a soft laugh. “Right.” She wove her fingers through the child’s curls. “You go to sleep now.”
Lily smiled around her thumb and clamped her eyes shut. She was a dear little girl, but perhaps they’d jumped too quickly when they signed on to be foster parents to a special needs child. Certainly they had their hands full caring for their biological children. Yet they’d always felt compassion for unwanted kids. Neither she nor Sam could ignore that heart tug.
Lily’s eyelids flew open. “We forgot to pray.”
“Yes, I guess we did.” Sonya had been too tired to follow through with the family’s nightly ritual, which typically took place right after supper.
“Let’s sing our prayer.” Lily maneuvered to her knees, her eyes shining.
Sonya glanced over her shoulder at the crib. Tommy, now awake, fingered his blanket and peered through the slats. “Okay.” She scratched her head, sifting through her memory files for a song.
“When I am Afraid, I Will Trust in God. Let’s sing that.” Still on her knees, Lily bounced up and down on the mattress.
Sonya nodded. She couldn’t count how many times Lily had reminded her to turn to God in the midst of fear. And she was doing it again.
As Lily sang, Tommy clapped his chubby hands. When she finished, she reached under her pillow and drew out a sheet of white paper. Crooked letters formed with various crayon colors spelled Lily. She beamed and handed it to Sonya.
“Good job writing your name. I’ll post this on the refrigerator.”
Lily flew into Sonya’s arms. For a few seconds, the twosome rocked and hugged. Sonya breathed in the shampoo-sweetness of the child’s hair. At last, they released one another, and Lily slithered under the covers. “Night, Sonny.”
“Good night, Lily.” She smoothed the child’s damp ringlets from her forehead. Passing the crib, she touched Tommy’s plump cheek and covered him with his blanket. His chest rose and fell on a sigh.
A scrubbing sound propelled Sonya to the bathroom where six-year-old Mia and four-year-old Hannah stood on stools brushing their teeth. Thankfully, they’d obeyed when she shooed them away from the supper table and told them to get ready for bed. “About done, girls?”
Mouths foaming with toothpaste, the girls nodded, spit into the sink, and stumbled over each other to get to the towel. With a tap on their bottoms, Sonya sent them giggling out of the bathroom and into their bedroom.
In the hallway, a light from Matthew’s and Anthony’s room drew her attention. She uttered a silent prayer for grace. Both boys lounged on their twin beds, one reading and the other fiddling with a model airplane. Snarls lay in a ball at Matthew’s feet. Whatever argument had previously taken place was either resolved or kept under tight wraps in mom’s presence. Relieved, she tapped the doorjamb. “Lights out, boys.”
“Ah, can’t we stay up until daddy gets home?” Anthony flung his hands onto the chenille bedspread. Ever the dramatic one, her second son clung to Sam like a koala to a tree.
“Not tonight, honey. We’ve got another school day tomorrow, and I want you rested.” She moved into the bedroom. “Now, get under those covers and get to sleep.” She made a scooting motion with her hands.
The boys groaned, but obeyed. Sure, they scuffled at times, but didn’t all boys? They were good kids, really. Not much to complain about on that score. But sometimes she felt like a single parent, and single moms with six kids to teach and care for were sure to burn out sooner or later. Nerves on edge, tears so close to the surface. She shouldn’t be feeling this way so early in the school season, especially after the summer break. Even though they couldn’t afford to take a vacation, they’d made up for it with trips to the park and the lake, with enough snow cones sloshing around in their bellies to carry them through to next summer.
She backed out of the bedroom, flicking the light off as she exited. After checking to make sure Mia and Hannah were in bed, she started down the stairs. She collapsed into the living room rocker and stared out the window. How long she sat there she didn’t know. At last, the front door pushed open and in walked Sam, apology stamped all over his face.
Something in her bristled, and she fought against a rising tide of anger. Yes, she could fuss at him for not being there to read a Bible story to the children, sing, and pray, but what sense would that make? He couldn’t help it if he had to work late. If only she could contribute somehow to the household income. Maybe that would ease her husband’s workload and give him more time with the family.
But buying Sam more time with the kids might cost Sonya her sanity. And the way she felt lately, it might not take much to push her over the edge.
Masquerade available in paperback here.
Masquerade available as an ebook here.