#BookBlitz “Lies That Bind” by Ashley Farley

Title: Lies That Bind
Author: Ashley Farley
Genre: Womens Fiction/Suspense

Release Date: January 14, 2020
Cover Designer: damonza.com
Hosted by: Buoni Amici Press, LLC.

It’s a surprising second act for two women who decide to rewrite their lives in this enriching novel of friendship and starting over from the bestselling author of Only One Life.

After thirty years, college friends Lena Browder and Olivia Westcoat have met again by chance at an unexpected crossroads: an airport lounge in Atlanta. Lena is running away from home and her demanding family. Olivia is trying to find her way after a painful divorce. With their old selves in the rearview, they toast to a new beginning—and it starts with a spontaneous dare.

Agreeing to trade houses for a month of rediscovery, Lena will stay in Olivia’s Charleston condo. Olivia’s retreat? Lena’s isolated river cottage in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Two perfect getaways. Thirty-four days to reset.

With fresh new perspectives and the renewal of a heartening friendship, Lena and Olivia find their passions, reinvent themselves, and reclaim what they’ve lost. When unexpected romance blooms and careers take new detours, it’s also a time for courage and risk. Now they’ll have to make hard choices to follow through on their promise for a second chance and finally have the lives they dream of.

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Tweet: The brand new #womensfiction #suspense Novel Lies That Bind from @AshleyWFarley is now #Live and available to #BuyNow @Amazon #KindleUnlimited https://ctt.ec/TJ00A+ #Reading #Bookworm BAPpr

Ashley Farley is a writeaholic, exercise junkie, photography enthusiast. The author of the bestselling Sweeney Sisters Series, Ashley writes books about women for women. Her characters are mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives facing real-life issues. Her goal is to keep you turning the pages until the wee hours of the morning. If her story stays with you long after you’ve read the last word, then she’s done her job.

After her brother died in 1999 of an accidental overdose, she turned to writing as a way of releasing her pent-up emotions. She wrote SAVING BEN in honor of Neal, the boy she worshipped, the man she could not save.

Ashley is a wife and mother of two young adult children. While she’s lived in Richmond, Virginia for the past 21 years, a piece of her heart remains in the salty marshes of the South Carolina Lowcountry where she grew up. Through the eyes of her characters, she’s able to experience the moss-draped trees, delectable cuisine, and kind-hearted folks with lazy drawls that make the area so unique.

Ashley loves to hear from her readers.

Feel free to visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ashleywfarley or twitter.com/ashleywfarley.

Visit her website at http://www.ashleyfarley.net

#AshleyFarleyBooks #AshleyFarley #SweenySistersSeries

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#Spotlight “Love in a Pawn Shop” by Bonnie Edwards

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A pit bull, a pawn shop and a pain-in-the-butt kid brother. . .
Dix is good with two out of three. She’s had it with dusty shelves, desperate people and her teenage brother. With Riley about to graduate, Dix is ready to buy her one-way ticket to Paris.

Then sexy cop Dane Caldwell walks into her store on the hunt for stolen goods, and threatens her brother and her business.

The worst threat is to Dix’s heart…if she loses that, she loses her dream.

Dane soon realizes he’s found love in a pawn shop. Even the pit bull thinks he’s okay. Now all he has to do is convince Dix that love is more than just another complication.

Currently FREE at time of posting!

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#NewRelease “V is for Vengeful (The Women of V Book 3)” by Danielle Allen

V is for Vengeful cover

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Maybe it was the journalist in me, but if life taught me anything, it’s that nothing is free.

When nepotism cost me the coveted position of Editor-in-Chief at the Hamilton Herald, I was pissed. And when I brought my complaints to the advisors, I was forced to quit. So, I was going into my senior year with a major chip on my shoulder. Although I kept my composure in public, inside I was fuming. The powers that be had officially ruined my life. As a journalism major, fired from the school paper, my future looked a little less bright. So when I was selected as a woman of V, my desperation superseded my moral compass and I accepted without hesitation.

V would give me access to more opportunities than the Herald ever could.
V would take my career to heights I never even considered.
V would change my life for the better.
V would have me sabotage my enemies and leave their ashes in my wake.

I just didn’t consider the collateral damage.

But like I said, nothing is free.

People always want to know what V stands for. For me, V stands for vengeful.

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#ReleaseBlitz “Laws of Attraction (After Hours Book 3)” by A.C. Arthur

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LAWS OF ATTRACTION BY A.C. ARTHUR

Litigation attorney, Kelly Brandon, lands the case of her career when a college friend shares that she’s been sexually harassed by a popular baseball player. Inspired by her sister’s suicide a year ago, Kelly is determined to bring this offender to some form of justice. What she doesn’t expect is learning that the crisis manager hired to save the day for the ballplayer is Sterling Layne, a blind date turned one-night stand that Kelly tried valiantly to forget. Now, together, Sterling and Kelly must work to find a solution that works for everyone involved, while trying to resist the attraction that’s been steadily brewing since their first date. But there’s another aspect to this case that neither of them expect and when the danger reveals itself, Kelly and Sterling will be forced to take a long, hard look at the lives they’ve been leading and the future they are working toward.

AVAILABLE ON

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ABOUT A.C. ARTHURAC Arthur

AC Arthur was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland where she currently resides with her husband, three children, grandson and an English bulldog named Vader. An active imagination and a love for reading encouraged her to begin writing in high school and she hasn’t stopped since.

Working in the legal field for over twenty-five years, AC has seen lots of horrific things and longs for the safe haven of a romance novel. To date, she has written in several genres: YA paranormal (w/a Artist Arthur), small town romance as Lacey Baker, and sexy contemporary and paranormal romance. With intriguing plots and sexy love scenes, AC brings a new edge to romance!

CONNECT WITH A.C. ARTHUR

AUTHOR SITE | FACEBOOKTWITTER | INSTAGRAM | PINTEREST | BOOKBUB | GOODREADS | AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE

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#ReleaseBlitz “Corporate Seduction (After Hours Book 2)” by A.C. Arthur

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CORPORATE SEDUCTION BY A.C. ARTHUR

In the last four years, things have changed for Reka Boyd. With a college degree, a new job title and her best friend’s wedding to help plan, she has far too much on her plate to deal with dead-end relationships or get sucked into office drama the way she used to. But when erotic emails inundate the inboxes of everyone at the firm, and a sexy new IT guy shows up to get to the bottom of the situation, she can’t help but feel the heat.

Khalil Franklin is working undercover to help his friends find out whose spamming their firm email and why. Fresh off a break-up he’s not in the market for another love interest, but as the feisty and attractive paralegal questions his every move at the firm, he finds himself falling for her fast!

Who will be left standing when a chance meeting at a sex club hatches a plan for revenge and the email scandal erupts on the top floor of Page & Associates?

AVAILABLE ON

AMAZON | ADD ON GOODREADS

LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST | INSPIRATION BOARD

~~~

 

ABOUT A.C. ARTHURAC Arthur

AC Arthur was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland where she currently resides with her husband, three children, grandson and an English bulldog named Vader. An active imagination and a love for reading encouraged her to begin writing in high school and she hasn’t stopped since.

Working in the legal field for over twenty-five years, AC has seen lots of horrific things and longs for the safe haven of a romance novel. To date, she has written in several genres: YA paranormal (w/a Artist Arthur), small town romance as Lacey Baker, and sexy contemporary and paranormal romance. With intriguing plots and sexy love scenes, AC brings a new edge to romance!

CONNECT WITH A.C. ARTHUR

AUTHOR SITE | FACEBOOKTWITTER | INSTAGRAM | PINTEREST | BOOKBUB | GOODREADS | AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE

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#Review “Gray is the New Black (Guerilla Grannies, Mission 1)” by Jo Michaels

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5/5 Stars!

Grannies come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and ages. Yet still blue-haired, little old ladies come to mind at the mere mention of the word.

Fuhgeddaboudit.

While two of the group are grandmothers… and Pearl has blue hair… there isn’t anything granny-like about this group of fifty-something lifelong-friends.

Though they’ve lived normal lives apart and experienced too many of life’s milestones—betrayal, loss, divorce, and widowhood—Pearl, Ethel, Opal, Minerva, and Alma are back together now, living on the outskirts of Atlanta.

And they’re bored.

So what do a ballistics expert, a chemical engineer, an edged weapons expert, a martial arts master, and a former member of law enforcement do for excitement? They find a crime to solve before the police can muck up the works.

It’s while solving a bank robbery that this snarky, irreverent team of badass boomers come to the attention of a secret government agency and are recruited into service. Far-fetched? Okay, a bit, but it’s a good look for this group.

Gray is the New Black is such a fun read because the characters are so relatable. These women are not prim and proper matrons of society. They talk about aches and pains and aging, but they also discuss flirting, dating and sex. Especially Ethel! Insults and f-bombs are part of the endless banter but without rancor or spitefulness. These women are family and the deep love and respect they have for each other is the running thread through the story.

Bits and pieces of each woman’s life are shared as the story unfolds and while some questions are answered, I couldn’t help but want to know more.

I volunteered to read an ARC of Gray is the New Black as part of a book tour, but 1-clicked a copy even before I finished, and I’ve preordered book two. This is Golden Girls meets James Bond meets Mission Impossible and I’m here for it!

Enjoy!

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coverGuerrilla Grannies, Book 1
Women’s Action/Adventure Comedy
Date Published: December 9, 2019
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These aren’t your typical grannies.
Pearl Etta Riggs just buried her husband of a million years (no, not literally, but it felt that way sometimes), and her dear friends are trying to find a way to cheer her up. So, they meet for coffee and cheesecake at their favorite place, the Cheesy Cream Café. Ah, the taste of childhood.
Ethel spots the story of a local bank robbery in the paper, and pitches solving it as “it will give us something to do.” She begs, she pleads, and she… Flirts with the waiter?
Alma, always the level-headed one, cites the fact that the man may be one of those panty-sniffing rapists for the reason they shouldn’t. Consider that she was raised by a Southern Baptist preacher and always naysays; her friends rarely listen to her sage advice.
Opal and Minerva are all in, as usual, and they work with Ethel to wear Pearl down. Eventually, she caves, gets Alma on board, and…
You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens after that. What? Did you expect the author to give it all away in the blurb?
It’s a crazy thrill ride full of laughs and shenanigans as these women take the law into their own hands. What happens after is anyone’s guess.
After all, gray is the new black.

Purchase Links

Amazon

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 Excerpt
Chapter 1
“Pearl, your husband just died. You could use some cheering up. We should do this.” Ethel put her forearms on the table, her hands clasped and her eyebrows wiggling, a smile on her face so big it turned her crow’s feet into eagle talons.
“He was such a good man.” Pearl’s heart constricted, and she dabbed at her eyes with the tissue again, trying to ignore the growing desire for action and adventure tickling the back of her mind. We could, but I’m not sure we should. We’re too damned old…
“It’s really warm in here. Why don’t you take off that hat, honey?”
That question snapped her out of her thoughts. She’d considered removing the thing several times earlier in the day, but she wasn’t sure how her friends were going to react to her new hairdo. Sighing, she relented, pulling the black, wide-brimmed cap off and closing her eyes, preparing herself for the onslaught.
Opal giggled behind her hand.
“You look like a couple of blue Easter eggs got busy on your head. What the hell did you do?” Ethel’s mouth was hanging open.
Indignation rose inside Pearl, and she squared her shoulders. “Like you have any room to talk. Your damned lavender streaks look like a grape-eating bird shit on your head.”
“Maybe, but that’s what I was going for.”
“Ladies. Calm down,” Alma said, patting their hands. “It’s not that bad.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Ethel muttered. “Makes her look like a school marm. An old one.”
Pearl stuck out her tongue.
“Hush, you two. You’re ruining my reminiscing.” Misty-eyed, Opal gazed around the diner, a soft smile on her lips. “I missed this place. Memories of our teen years came flouncing back through my head immediately with the smell of the coffee, the creaminess of the cheesecake, and even the waitresses shouting orders. I know we’ve been here several times since I moved back, but it never gets old. We didn’t have anything like this in Japan. Over there, it was mostly tea houses.”
“We remember.” Minerva pressed her lips together.
“Oh, yeah. I try to block that period out.” The smile disappeared.
“You always were an old softy.” Taking a long drink of her coffee and closing her eyes, Minerva reached out to pat Opal’s hand, seeming keen on changing the subject before she lost control of her emotions completely. “But I know what you mean. There was nothing that compared to this in Florida, either.”
Ethel ignored them and went back to her nagging, stabbing the front page of the newspaper for emphasis. “We have the skills, ladies. It’s not like it would be a difficult case to crack. Look at this loser.” She held up the paper and pointed at the man’s grainy security-footage photo.
He had a scruffy beard and a terrible haircut. Not an incredibly nefarious-looking fellow, but not very welcoming, either.
It was tempting, and Pearl was on the verge of saying yes when Alma butted in again.
“No. Noooo. Absolutely not, Ethel. You want us to go running all over the great state of Georgia trying to find a man that only made off with”—she squinted at the print and gulped—“half a million dollars?”
“There’s no such thing as only half a million dollars, sweetie. And yes, I do. Not only will it cheer Pearl up, but it’ll give our rusty educations some badly needed workouts.” Gently, Ethel lifted her cup and took a dainty sip of the strong brew. She sighed and put it back down. “I like my coffee like I like my men: sweet and white. Damn. This is good. Best coffee in Georgia!”
“Move your wrinkled old ass so I can go to the bathroom. This stuff’s going right through me.” Opal shoved, trying to get out of the booth.
With both feet planted firmly on the floor, Ethel pulled one side of her mouth into her cheek and lowered her eyelids halfway. “Or maybe I just want to sit here and see how long it is before you piss yourself.”
“You’re such a grouchy old bitch.” Minerva winked over her cup. “I love it.”
“Come on, Ethel. Let Opal out before she has to change her diaper.” Alma chuckled.
“Fine, fine.” Ethel scooted to the end of the bench and stood as she rolled her eyes. “Ow!”
“That’s what you get!” Opal retorted as she sprinted for the ladies’ room.
“What’d she do?” Minerva asked.
“Pinched me on the ass. Hard.”
Everyone laughed.
One of the waiters came over and asked if anyone needed anything.
Ethel leaned forward, her elbows on the table, coffee cup between her raised hands, and ticked her head at him, indicating that he should lean closer.
Pearl watched in earnest as the young man leaned down and put his ear close to Ethel’s mouth. Her lips moved, and her eyes sparkled.
His eyes widened, his face turning bright red as his jaw dropped.
When he straightened again, she winked at him, and he mumbled something under his breath before rushing away. She chortled, sipping her coffee, a look on her face like she was the cat that got the cream. “Where were we?”
“What was that about?” Minerva asked. “What did you say to that poor boy?”
“I don’t tease and tell.”
“Ethel, really; he’s half your age!” Alma turned bright red.
“Yes. Yes, he is. I figure, if I can grab ‘em young, they won’t keel over like my husband did.”
“You really have to let yourself off the hook about Leo, sweetie.” Minerva put her hand on Ethel’s. “He just had a bad ticker.”
“Yeah, right. He was only thirty-five and fit as a fiddle. Not really enough time to develop heart problems.”
Gazing at the other women, Pearl gave thanks they were back in her life. It was rare to find so many amazing women, and she loved having all of them around again after so many years apart. Her heart filled with the love of friendship and comradery they’d forged, and she stabbed her chocolate cheesecake gently, putting it in her mouth, the flavor bringing back so many memories.
“Can I get back in, or is your replacement hip not high-tech enough to get you to your feet again?” Opal crossed her arms over her bosom and cocked her head to one side.
In a huff, Ethel scooted out again and got to her feet. “My hips are all mine, thank you very much. Not a single shred of titanium in my…” Her face turned red, and she sat back down.
Opal, Minerva, and Alma knit their brows.
Pearl could barely breathe she was laughing so hard, but she forced an inhale so she could speak. “You almost lied!”
“Shut up.”
When the questioning looks of the others landed on her, she held up one finger and pulled herself back together. “Just think about it.”
A collective gasp went up.
“When?” Opal asked.
“How?” Minerva added.
“Did it hurt?” Alma’s face was so red it was bordering on purple.
Ethel grimaced. “About two years ago. You don’t want to know. Yes. A lot.” Slapping the newspaper again, she caught Pearl’s gaze. “Please? If not for me, do it for them.” Gesturing at the other three, Ethel stuck out her bottom lip. “Look how old and decrepit they’re getting. This will give them new life.”
Alma pressed her lips together and shook her head a tiny bit from side to side as she gave that look she was best known for. They were going to get into trouble if they went along with it, and Ethel would be the ringleader, as she always was.
A war broke out inside Pearl. She wanted to do it, but she knew they really shouldn’t. Nothing good ever came of Ethel’s ideas—well, rarely.
As though she could read their thoughts, she huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Y’all are no fun anymore. It’s not like we don’t have the skills. I was an upstanding officer of the law until a few years ago.”
“Seven, if you’re counting.” Alma smirked.
She got a look from Ethel that would’ve melted a car. “Fine. Seven, but Pearly is a chemical engineer! She could make us some knockout gas or something.” Turning, she continued as she pointed at each lady in turn. “You’ve knocked down whole buildings in huge cities without a single hiccup, you’re a freaking ninja, and there’s no one on the planet better with a blade than Minerva.”
“Gotta know how to use them if you’re gonna make them.” Minerva winked.
“I’m not a ninja,” Opal muttered into her coffee cup.
“Okay, martial arts master.” A laugh burst out of Ethel. “And a master of disguise, am I right?”
“That was way back in the eighties. I’m not even sure how to use all the newfangled stuff on the market.”
“So you’ll brush up on your skills!” She turned back to Pearl. “Please?”
“I’m afraid we simply can’t right now. We’re all too old, anyway.”
“Why can’t we, moneybags? Did Mansfield not leave you enough cash? And like hell we’re old. Gray is the new black, bitches.”
No one said a word for a long time, as though they were all sharing Pearl’s thoughts. It was an interesting idea, and she didn’t want to go home and sit in her newly empty house without Manny. There were too many crushing memories contained in those walls. Construction was nearly complete on the new house in Manny’s most recent development, Shady Pines, and she wondered if it would be better to occupy herself with something else until everything was done. Nearly all the houses were built already, there were only about ten to go, so she wouldn’t be busy with an agent on site yet. It had been Manny’s dream to build a whole neighborhood before letting anyone see it.
Her fingernails tapped the tabletop. Finally, she inhaled, but her pending speech was cut off by Alma once again.
“Ethel, you’re crazy as a Bessie bug. Forget it. No way. If I have to be the voice of reason, then so be it. We’re absolutely not doing this.”
“But, Alma, wh—”
She held up a hand and shook her head. “We don’t know what kind of criminal that man is. He might be a murderer or one of those crazy, panty-sniffing, rapist guys. When it comes down to it, we’re just five old women. Flesh versus gun, the firearm always wins—as you well know.”
Ethel’s hand moved to her shoulder, rubbing the place she’d been shot in the line of duty.
A phone ringing brought the conversation to a halt. Heart beating too fast, Pearl dug through her bag and pulled out the offending device, flipping it open and putting it to her ear. Her daughter, Katarina, was on the other end.
“Hey, Mom. Any idea when you’ll be home?”
“In a few minutes. Alma and I were just about to leave.”
“Okay. Do you want me to cook dinner?”
“No thanks, baby girl. I just had cheesecake. I’m all set.”
Katarina laughed. “You and that cheesecake. Be safe driving. I’ll see you soon.”
“I will. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
After flipping the phone closed, Pearl threw a twenty on the table, put her hat back on, and bumped Alma’s hip. “We need to leave. Katarina called.”
“That girl. You’d swear you were ninety the way she checks up on you all the damned time.” Ethel rolled her eyes.
Nothing would’ve given Pearl more satisfaction in that moment than smacking the shit out of something, but she held her temper. “She just cares.”
“Yeah, cares about losing her free babysitter.”
“Stop it! I love my grandchildren!”
“I never said you didn’t, but you’re in too deep. Your daughter and her husband can afford daycare.”
“Not today; okay, Ethel? Not today.”
Lines around Ethel’s face softened. “Okay. Sorry.”
“Y’all get up and give me and Alma hugs!”
Everyone squeezed Pearl extra tightly and told her to be safe.
Alma led the way to the car and got in on the passenger’s side, putting her seatbelt on right away.
She’d always been the levelheaded, law-abiding, church-going one. Any time there was trouble worth getting into, she’d shut Ethel right down with a snarky remark or soundbite of wisdom from dear old Daddy. What made Alma even more insufferable was, they’d avoided a lot of bad situations because of her naysaying. Her daddy had been a Baptist preacher, and he’d always threatened her with the wrath of God if she misbehaved. Though, if she ever wanted something badly enough, she always did it. Pearl knew that, and she planned to use it to her advantage.
Solving a local bank robbery was becoming more tempting by the minute. She was positive her crew of misfits could pull it off without a hitch. Everyone but Alma got excited when it was first brought up, and their eyes took on that gleam like when they were younger and were about to do something they’d never forget.
Pearl started the Caddy and put it in reverse after clipping her own seatbelt into place to avoid getting yet another speech about proper vehicle safety. As she backed up, she plotted a way to make Alma agree to take on the bank robbery case.
They were well on the road to home when Pearl started talking again, deciding the best way to get what she wanted was to use the new widow angle and a little fast talking. “You know, I’m not sure I want to be in that big old house by myself all day every day.” She glanced to the right. “Without Manny there, it’ll sure feel empty.”
“I can stay with you a couple of days if you want.”
Damn. “No, no. Kat will be there today and tomorrow with her family. I just meant when they leave.”
“Won’t you still have the kids every day?”
Damn! She’d forgotten about that. “I was thinking I’d ask if they can start daycare.”
“Really?”
“Mmhm. Ethel’s right. I deserve to have a proper retirement from raising kids.”
“You just have the one, like me. Not like it was that hard.” Alma smirked.
“I’m not saying it was hard, just that I’m tired of babysitting. Plus, it’s all I can do to lift that baby anymore.” Even as the words left Pearl’s mouth, she regretted them. Elizabeth was the sweetest baby ever, even more so than her mother had been.
“Pearl, I know what you’re doing.”
Alarm bells rang in Pearl’s head, and she sat up straighter behind the wheel. Trying to sound like she had no idea what was going on, she asked, “Oh? What’s that?”
After a deep sigh, Alma shook her head and closed her eyes. “Fine. If you want to do the bank robber thing, I’m in.”
“Really?”
“Yes, but just so you know, this isn’t a good idea, and it’ll probably end badly, but I’ll do it. For you. We really could use some flexing of our skills. I know I’m itching to blow something up.”
Pearl wanted so badly to squeal like a schoolgirl in that moment, but she kept her face as stoic as possible. “Well, if you insist. Wouldn’t want you blowing up things without supervision.”
“That’s not what I said!”
“Oh, look. You’re home!” She put the car in park and grinned. “Love you! I’ll call Ethel and tell her! Meet at my house at ten tomorrow morning! I’ll have Enrich make us brunch!”
Alma closed the door, and Pearl sped away, her cellphone already in her hand.
“Ethel? Alma’s in.”
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About the Author

 photo Gray is the New Black Author Jo Michaels_zpssgymhjib.jpgJo Michaels loves writing novels that make readers gasp in horror, surprise, and disbelief. While her browser search history has probably landed her on a list somewhere, she still dives into every plot with gusto, hoping “the man” will realize she’s a writer and not a psychopath about to go on a rampage. Her favorite pastimes are reading, watching Investigation Discovery, and helping other authors realize their true potential through mentoring. She’s penned the award-winning Pen Pals and Serial Killers series and the best-selling educational book for children, Writing Prompts for Kids, which has rocketed the kids that use it into several awards of their own.

Most of Jo’s books feature the places she’s lived: Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia. That’s given her a special amount of insight to what makes those locations tick. Her works are immersive and twisty, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Contact Links

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RABT Book Tours & PR

#Excerpt “Things That Women Do” by Cynn Chadwick

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coverWomen’s Fiction
Date Published: September 13, 2019
Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.
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After Anna Shields receives an invitation from her estranged Aunt Lydia, she flies to Tennessee to find a number of older women-Tasha, Sadie, and Chloe-also living on Lydia’s farm. Losing power during a blizzard, the women share dark and startling secrets. Skating between past and present, they reveal frighteningly desperate things that they have done. Anna begins to realize, to her shock, that these things are connected to her own past and become key to her future.

Purchase Links

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Barnes and Noble

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EXCERPT

Chapter One

1985

Tasha watched from the kitchen window as the young woman and child made their way through her yard. The woman seemed to be carrying something large, and the little one was skipping along behind. Tasha dried her hands and lifted Riley from the high chair, dusting cookie crumbs from her shirt.

“Want to go outside to play?” Tasha asked her daughter.

Riley nodded. “On the jungagym?”

“Sure, on the jungagym.” Tasha thought if she were to design playground equipment, she’d call her company JungaGym. They went out the back door and into the yard, following the woman and child, dressed in matching overalls, marching past the garden towards the tobacco field, as if on a mission. Tasha couldn’t tell if the little one was a girl or boy with shoulder length hair. She wasn’t sure what the woman was carrying on her hip, either. Tasha thought the visitors more curious than dangerous—but she was new to the area, and this was unusual. As her husband Mack would say, “Be aware of your surroundings at all times.” He’d been in the military for half a minute, and this was his takeaway line.

“Hello?” Tasha called out.

The woman stopped and turned.

“I’m Tasha.” She waved as she approached. “Knightly. Tasha Knightly.”

“I’m Sadie. Sadie O’Grady. Nice to meetcha.” Sadie was wearing a white tank top under a pair of too-large bib overalls, unbuttoned at the hips. She was obviously very pregnant. Under one arm, she hefted a giant turtle.

The towheaded toddler holding his mother’s free hand was introduced as Jacob. He looked up at Tasha, his grin wide and toothy. She saw the same lace of flowers woven through his hair as his mother’s.

Sadie rubbed the bump of her belly. “And this guy, his name is Joshua, as soon as he gets here.” She looked down to Tasha’s knee, where Riley hung like a drunk on a lamppost with her thumb in her mouth. Tasha ruffled her fingers through Riley’s soft curls. “This is Riley, and obviously,” she gestured to the house behind her, “we’re new to the neighborhood.”

Sadie looked around to the bank of forest rising behind them, the open pasture before them, and the tobacco fields running beside them. “Haven’t you noticed you are the neighborhood?”

Tasha laughed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s me, my husband Mack, Riley, and the baby.” Tasha thumbed over her shoulder. “Lacy; she’s asleep in her crib. But yeah, that’s about it for the neighborhood. Just us.”

“Unless you count those cows over there.” Sadie pointed to the hill.

“I find comfort in the mooing.”

“I hear ya. Before we moved here, I’d mostly always lived in neighborhoods, in towns. That first night, I remember sittin’ on our porch, sayin’ to Jimmy, “It’s a stygian blackness—’”

“I’m sorry,” Tasha interrupted. “What sort of blackness?”

Sadie did not pause. “Stygian. It means extreme darkness, sometimes a forebodin’ sort of darkness. It’s from the River Styx.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Tasha admitted to Sadie. This was something unusual for her, admitting she didn’t know something. Usually, she’d pretend to know, try to grasp the gist of the topic, and listen. Listening seemed to be the greatest knowledge of all, to Tasha. Blurting her ignorance to this stranger in her yard with a turtle under her arm was not like Tasha; yet there was something innocuous about Sadie—a gentleness, with no judgement—making her somehow safe. Or at least that’s how it felt.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” Sadie said. “I’ve been readin’ all about the underworld lately, Hades, and the River Styx is part of that story.”

“I like that word, stygian,” Tasha said.

“It’s a good one! Sounds just like what it means: ‘beyond darkness.’”

“Yes, ‘beyond darkness.’”

“It’s lonely,” Sadie mused, and stared across the field.

Tasha allowed Riley’s hand to slip from her own. The little girl had taken her thumb from her mouth and was eyeing Jacob, who was eyeing her back.

“That’s how it feels out here, sometimes. Especially when Mack is away on business, or hunting, or helping some old friend out of a jam.”

Sadie’s gaze narrowed. “Your husband…he’s gone a lot?”

“Let’s just say he’s not around a lot. I don’t mind, really. Sometimes it’s easier.”

“I understand. My Jimmy travels, but we’ve got cows, goats, chickens, and what have you. Can’t say I get very lonely.”

“You don’t? What about people? Don’t you get lonely for people?”

“Not really. You can’t see with your naked eye, but there are actually a bunch of us mamas and babies tucked into our own little coves all up and down this valley.”

“There are?”

“Sure! I happen to be your closest neighbor: just a quarter mile up the goat path.”

“Are those your goats I see every now and again?”

“They shouldn’t be. There’s a bunch of wild ones that run loose. Don’t let them near your kids; they’ll butt them.”

“Good to know.”

“If mine are this far, they’re too far. They’ve all got the same pink collars and jingle bells. And they won’t hurt you, unless you antagonize them somehow.” She hefted the turtle against her hip.

Tasha jerked forward. “Can I help you with that?” she offered, not really wanting to touch the turtle.

“No, that’s OK. I’m gonna let him go down by the creek.”

“Can I take Jacob? Hold onto to him while you make your deposit?”

Sadie pressed Jacob’s hand into Tasha’s palm and grabbed the turtle as it began to slide from her hip. She lifted it upside down, over her head. Her skinny arms concealed her strength as muscles flexed. She walked a high step through the tall field grass, seeking out the perfect spot. Spying a shaded area, she headed for the damp creek bank. Once there, she squatted and brought the turtle down carefully from her head, pointing it to the water. All the reptile’s limbs, tail, and head had retreated into the shell of his home. Sadie planted bunched fists on nonexistent hips. After some time, she toed it. She thought it might be dead, then decided, for no one reason, that it wasn’t. She turned and made her way back through the field towards Tasha, holding onto the toddlers.

“Can you stay for bit?” Tasha asked, as they walked towards the house. She gestured to a play area under the canopy of a big oak tree. There was a picnic table and lawn chairs cooling in the shade. Riley loosened from her mother, took Jacob’s hand, and skipped to the nearby sandbox.

“If you don’t mind, I’d love to sit down for a minute before headin’ back,” Sadie said, and made her way to a lawn chair.

“I’ll run in and check on the baby.” Tasha dashed by. “I’ll bring down some…tea? Sparkling water?”

“Water would be great,” Sadie mopped her brow, and was grateful for the breeze. She watched Jacob and Riley leave the sand box and head to the play fort. They’d crawled through a small doorway at the bottom, and were suddenly waving to her from the top.

“Mama! Do you see me?” Jacob called. “I’m up here!”

“Is that you, all dressed in shinin’ armor like a knight?”

“With a sword!” Jacob waved a thick stick out the opening as evidence.

“See me?” Riley shouted excitedly.

“In the gold cape, wearin’ a gold crown and holdin’ a gold wand? Is that you?”

“Me!” Riley stomped her feet, and shook a puny stick with authority.

Tasha carried a tray as she returned, laden with sweaty glasses of ice water, juice boxes, and an array of cheese and crackers. She set them on the table between the lawn chairs.

“Wow, you just whipped up a feast!” Sadie sat up and piled pieces of cheese on a few crackers. “I am a little hungry, I admit.”

“So, how’d you wind up bringing that giant turtle here?” Tasha asked, watching Jacob and Riley chattering away on the swings.

“This isn’t the first time he’s invaded my pond. They do bite, so I like to get him away from the kids and animals. In the past, I’ve set him loose over near Lydia’s place.”

“Lydia? Wintersen? The woman who paints birdhouses, down at the Sunday market?”

“Yep, that’s Lydia. She paints birdhouses, barn-board signs, stuff like that…Yep, that’s Lydia, all right.”

“Oh, she is just lovely. I bought an old milk can she’d painted with our name on it; it’s on our front porch.”

Sadie grinned, and looked away.

“What? Why do you think that’s funny?” Tasha asked. “Are you laughing that I put a milk can on my porch?”

Sadie waved her hand, “No! No, I think that’s sweet. No, I’m smilin’ because those milk cans, and birdhouses, and every what-not Lydia puts a paintbrush to…Well, folks just love ’em. Especially tourists.”

“Oh, I see. I’ve been sucked into a tourist trap?!” Tasha became indignant. “Well, I like to think of it as contributing to the local economy. Helping out the natives, and such.”

This made Sadie sputter the mouthful of water she’d taken. She giggled and shook her head.

“Now what’s so funny?”

“Oh, all those things she sells at the market, from her tool-paintings to those booties she knits are just pocket change to Lydia.”

“What do you mean?”

“Between Lydia Wintersen’s land holdin’s, rental properties, and stock market investments, believe you me, she’s got more money than the pope.”

“Then why is she selling her wares at the market?”

“Maybe because she wants you to think she’s poor, not because she’s actually poor, no—not even close.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Did you buy that milk can ’cause you thought some poor farmer was doing her best to make ends meet, or because you loved it?”

“Well…actually, I love it. And I was looking for something like it for the porch.”

Sadie shrugged, “OK, well, I might be wrong…”

Tasha laughed. “No, it was the birdhouse and booties I bought because I thought she was a poor farmer trying to make ends meet.”

“See!” Sadie leaned forward and raised her finger. “I rest my case. Lydia’s got her very own tourist trap goin’. It’s all based on the notion that folks love to come here, and want to take a little piece home. Lydia’s a part of that magic.”

“I can see that. I bought into it, for sure. I will say, I love my booties.”

Sadie laughed. “Well, you might not have need of another bird house, but you’ll want to keep buyin’ those booties. She sells them all over the country, you know. There’s usually a waitin’ list.”

“I did just order a pair for Mack. I had no idea how popular they are, not that it’s surprising.”

‘Honestly,” Sadie leaned forward as if about to confide a secret, and whispered, “I think Lydia’s big money actually comes from her real paintings.”

“The ones on the barn-boards?”

“No, Lydia’s a true painter. I mean, an artist. Her paintings are hangin’ in galleries all over the country. Big galleries, too!”

“Seriously?”

“I accidently saw a check for over ten grand stapled to a receipt for one she’d sold.” Sadie gave Tasha a quick glance to see if she was being judged for her slipped confession. “I wasn’t snoopin’,” she protested, defending herself. “I was makin’ a phone call from her desk, and it was just layin’ out there in the open. Hard to miss.”

Tasha grinned.

“I had to look away just to not see it,” Sadie said, slyly.

Tasha burst into giggles.

Sadie turned sideways to face her. “I didn’t say I wasn’t a snoop, mind you, but I do have rules. If it’s just layin’ out there for all the world to see, who am I not to see it?”

Tasha shook her head. “Oh, Sadie, you are funny.”

Sadie smiled, taking in the compliment. She settled back in her chair and said knowingly, “I will say this: that Lydia Wintersen, given all her dough, is one of the best people in the world.”

Tasha smiled. It confirmed what she already felt. “I’m glad to hear that; I like her. She invited me to a…gathering, I think she called it. Sometime next month?”

“Oh, you should definitely come. It’s a gatherin’ for women and children.” She whirled a finger in the air to include the surroundings. “For our neighborhood. All weekend. We set up tents, cook food over fires, and hang out.”

“That sounds nice.”

“There’s always music, and we let the kids loose. You’ll meet your neighbors, if you come.”

“I’d like that…” Tasha hesitated. “Where does Lydia live?”

“Just over that little ridge. Past those cows you like listenin’ to. Those are her cows.”

“Well, I had no idea.”

Sadie pointed to a spot to the left. “See through that gap between those two big hemlocks? That’s Lydia’s chimney. At least, one of them.”

“Well, that’s not very far. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I have seen smoke coming from over that way.”

“She’s been there a long time. We—me and Jimmy—we actually rent our farm from her right now.” Sadie kicked at the dirt. “One day, we might buy it.”

“That’d be nice.”

“On the other hand…when the furnace goes out, it’s nice having a landlady to fix it,” Sadie said, somehow working it out in her head as she thought about her circumstance.

“That’s true too.”

“We make a bit of a triangle, we three: you, me, and Lydia. I’m over there on Adam’s Mountain, you’re here on Bench Bald, and Lydia’s up Cady’s Cove. ABC!” Sadie smacked the arm of the chair as she realized the connection.

“Well, this just makes me happy,” Tasha said. “What a great couple of neighbors to discover!”

Sadie smiled and patted her shoulder. “And for us, too.”

“So, why’d you decide not to let the turtle loose at Lydia’s?” Tasha asked.

“He kept comin’ back! I thought maybe if I turned him loose facin’ south instead of north, he’d find somebody else’s pond to call home. But I think maybe the real reason I headed this way was to meet you,” Sadie said.

“Me?”

Sadie interrupted, shouting, “Jacob! You get down from there before you crack your head open!” Jacob was hanging upside down from the top rail of the swing set, a good distance from the ground. “I mean it! Don’t make me get up!”

He reached for the chains of the swing and flipped himself through, landing as if it were an Olympic dismount. He almost bowed, as it was near perfect, but stopped himself.

“You’re lucky this time, mister!” Sadie called out, but Jacob and Riley had already rounded the fort, hiding on the other side.

“He’s about to give me a heart attack,” Sadie said, and sat back.

“I thought you handled that quite calmly,” Tasha noted. “I was close to making a run for him.”

“Oh, no! You can’t do that with Jacob; he’ll make it worse. That kid will start walking along the beam, or whatever crazy boy idea he gets in his head next. Just like his father.”

“Is Jimmy a daredevil?”

“No, Jacob’s a true daredevil; Jimmy’s more like a reactor. Daredevils actually think through their deeds somewhat; Jimmy just blindly stumbles around in his,” Sadie remarked, surprised she’d shared Jimmy’s failings so easily with Tasha. “It’s why I started studyin’ numbers. Tryin’ to figure out our little family.”

“Numerology and all that?” Tasha asked. She’d grown up in San Francisco, so a lot of this New Age stuff wasn’t terribly new to her.

“Sort of. Jimmy, Jacob, and I all have five letters in our names. And fives are all about adventure: risk-takin’, high energy. I have to admit, there’s a lot of that goin’ on in our little house. That’s why I’m givin’ this one,” Sadie patted her belly, “a six-letter name. Sixes are calmin’, nurturin’, unconditionally lovin’. I admit, I can use some unconditional lovin’.”

“Couldn’t we all,” Tasha agreed. She kept her eye on Riley, who was now dancing across the lawn.

“Sorry, Jimmy tells me all the time I get obsessed. He’s probably right. Lately, it seems like I get into the weeds about things.”

“What about threes?” Tasha suddenly thought to ask.

“Threes? Oh. They are big deal numbers. They’re symbolic, and they’re everywhere.”

“You mean like the Holy Trinity?”

“Holy Trinity is only one. The ancient Chinese thought three was the perfect number.”

“Why is that?”

“I’m not sure yet; I haven’t gotten that far in the book.” Sadie grinned. “It’s patterns, in mostly everything. Beginning, middle, end…past, present, future…birth, life, death!”

“Good grief!” Tasha exclaimed. “I hadn’t thought about it ’til now, but threes do seem significant when you think about Greek mythology, where you have the three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades…”

“What do they stand for?”

“Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades—”

“The underworld,” Sadie interrupted.

“Exactly,” Tasha said. She stood and raised her hand to her brow to shade the sun rounding the oak tree. “Now, where did those little buggers go?” she wondered aloud. “Oh! There they are, heading for the creek.”

“Jacob!” Sadie cupped her hands and yelled through the little megaphone. “You get back here!”

The children stopped mid-field, and seemed to discuss the matter between themselves.

“Riley!” Tasha’s turn to shout as she took a step toward the field. “Come back here, right now!”

As if weighing their options the little pair hesitated, then turned around and ran back to the play area.

“Testing us,” Tasha said and returned to her chair.

“Yeah, they are. And that’s a good thing, I suppose.”

“Another set of threes,” Tasha returned to their conversation, “‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ ‘The Three Apprentices,’ three guesses in ‘Rumplestiltskin’…There are a lot of threes in fairy tales.”

“Like I said, threes are a big deal everywhere.”

“We could probably name them all day,” Tasha agreed.

“Think about it: you, me, and Lydia living in a triangle. ABC…it means something. Life paths, compatibility, even destiny. Maybe that’s why I dropped that turtle off here, today…threes.”

“Or coincidence.”

“There are no coincidences,” Sadie stated. “How could there be, when God is everywhere and in everything?”

“You believe that?”

“Of course. I mean, just look.” Sadie swept a hand across the landscape in front of them. “I think all of that has a little piece of God in it, just like you, just like me. And that means we’re all related—bugs, grass, turtles, and people alike…”

“I like that idea better than thinking of some gray-bearded, judgmental old man looking down on us and deciding our fates—or coincidences.”

“Yeah, I gave up on all that a long time ago, when I gave up the Baptist Church—Southern Baptist.”

“Yikes…” Tasha wasn’t very religious. She’d grown up going to a progressive church, back home in San Francisco. She had only heard stories about the Bible-belt Southern Baptists. Mack’s family did go to one of those churches, but Mack had no interest in attending.

“Oh, yeah. I left the church when I met Jimmy. He was into TM; you know, Transcendental Meditation?”

“You mean floating and stuff?” Tasha asked.

“It’s more complicated than that, but yeah, that’s part of it. I did it for a while, but then I got bored with all that sittin’ and thinkin’, tryin’ to find a higher power…when what you really want is a hot dog.”

Tasha laughed out loud. Sadie’s straight-faced deliveries added to the substance.

“True enough! You laugh, but have you ever sat cross-legged for, like, five hours, listenin’ to the grumblin’ tummies of everybody around you, and not had images of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches dance in your head? No?” Sadie smiled. “Then don’t laugh.”

“So, I take it you don’t do TM anymore?”

“No. I don’t, but Jimmy does. Funny how he’s stuck with it.”

“Do you go to church?”

“Oh, hell no…unless you count this right here.”

“Well, I wasn’t, but I get it.”

“I’m doin’ a lot of readin’ about ancient goddesses, Mother Earth, the universe, rituals. Have you read Starhawk?”

“No, doesn’t ring a bell.”

“I’ll loan you my copy of Spiral Dance. You’ll like it.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that. I am a big reader, I admit. I’m glad to meet another.”

“True enough, I’ve always got three or four books goin’ all at once.” Sadie pushed herself up from the chair. She stretched her back, and called to Jacob to come along. “We’ve got to get back,” she said. “Thanks for the water and the rest, and the chat.”

“I am so glad you decided to dump your turtle here, today,” Tasha said.

“Destiny!” Sadie grinned.

“Maybe.” Tasha shook her head. “Hey, want to get together for a playdate one of these days?”

“Playdate? Hell, come over any time. We don’t need to make a playdate.”

“All right then. How will I find you?”

“Follow the goat path; it’ll spill you into our backyard.” Sadie headed for the little lane. She put out her hand for Jacob, and they went up the skinny path.

 

 

If it hadn’t been for the babies, the mortgage, no money, and being trapped in the crack of an ass of a mountain in Nofuckingwhere Tennessee, Tasha would’ve packed up the girls and headed back to the Bay Area, where life mattered. She would not be going to some lame women’s gathering at her new acquaintance Lydia’s. Going home was her fantasy, prayer, and fondest wish ever since Mack dragged her here, “temporarily.” Two years later, it felt permanent.

A quagmire.

The ground sucked at her ankles as she walked across the yard; grapevines tangled her hair as she passed. In the garden, on her hands and knees, she felt an urge to lie face down in the dirt, allowing the vegetables to grow over her, covering her; allowing autumn winds to blow dry husks and brown leaves, hiding her; allowing sugary white snow to drift over her stripped white bones, forming a perfectly splayed, frozen five-point star. That’s how they’d find her—eventually.

She should have known you don’t build a giant McMansion in the middle of a cow pasture in bum-fuck Egypt if you’re only going to stay for a couple of years. “And then Paris, Babe!” Mack had said when she reminded him after the first year, and again after the second. He’d been pretending until this morning. This morning, the truth had come out.

This morning, he’d complained that she was taking the girls camping with a bunch of witches, from what he’d heard down at the lodge. That he even belonged to a lodge was news to her. He’d kept his redneck ways hidden the whole time they were away at college—but now that he was back home in hillbilly country, he was a full-blown bumpkin.

“What is the point of sleeping in some moldy tent on a cow-pied pasture with a bunch of women dancing around naked?” he’d demanded.

“What is the point of spending a weekend riding in go-carts chasing little white balls around a manicured lawn with a bunch of men wagging their dicks around?”

“I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”

“Then how about dignifying this answer with the truth? When the hell are we moving out of this shithole state?” She threw it in his face again, but she couldn’t help herself; she’d had it. “When’s Paris, Mack? Or any fucking where but here?”

He slung his golf clubs over one shoulder and his travel bag over the other. “Never, Tasha. We’re never leaving. This is my home. Now it’s our home. Get used to it.”

Then he slammed the door in her face.

 

 

Pushing a stroller carrying provisions, Tasha trundled up Lydia’s long winding driveway with Lacy in the pack on her back and Riley skipping along ahead of her. She heard the festivities spread around the farm before she saw anyone. The first sounds were squeals of children’s laughter, coming from the creek. There was distant drumming, music, and the easy, melodious chatter of many female voices. As Tasha rounded the bend, she could see brightly colored tents pocking the far pasture. A dozen or so hoisted animated flags flapping in the wind, signaling home base for roaming children. There were a few small plumes of smoke rising from cook fires, and there was a larger fire pit anchoring the temporary community.

What she hadn’t told Mack was that she wouldn’t be sleeping in a moldy tent on a cow-pied field. Instead, she’d been invited to stay in her own bedroom in the farmhouse, along with a few other mothers with babies. She headed for the cool shaded porch, peppered with women. Lots of women of all ages, sizes, colors…and in varying stages of undress. Tasha noticed that all of the women were braless, and most were topless; she felt awkward and overdressed in her bra, mom jeans, and Disney T-shirt.

Riley pointed to the porch and called out “The Story Lady!” The little girl flew up the steps and landed in Marie Raposa’s lap. Marie was known far and wide as The Story Lady. She’d been holding story hour every Saturday at the library, ever since she was a teenager. She played guitar, had a bunch of puppets, and rewarded cuddles with the candy she kept in the pockets of her calico apron. Marie was married to Frank Raposa, the local butcher (and philanderer), with whom she had a bunch of kids. Riley snuggled against Marie’s soft bosom. Tasha shrugged, and Marie waved her away.

As Tasha began lugging the stroller up the stairs, she was shadowed by a figure at the top, eclipsing the sun. Tasha shaded her gaze as a turbaned Lydia, carrying a large platter of fruits, cheeses, and breads, descended the steps and settled in front of her. Nestled among the pink peaches, rosy apples, and rounded melons, Tasha saw two plump bosoms belonging to Lydia, whose grin widened as she watched Tasha’s eyes fall to the friendly fruit.

“You made it!” Lydia said, her voice welcoming. “After we spoke yesterday, I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”

Tasha recalled the phone conversation, in which she’d confessed that she didn’t think she’d be able to make it. She’d confided that her husband wasn’t wild about the idea of the girls in a tent. This led to Lydia’s offer of a bedroom in the house instead. “For the sake of the baby’s health,” was how Lydia had put it.

“Here, let me put this down and show you to your room.” Lydia’s eyes held Tasha’s for a moment longer than she would normally have allowed a near stranger, but Tasha could not look away. She felt pulled, then pushed, her insides stilled in ways that both frightened and intrigued her. This woman was about to shift the plates under the planet where Tasha had been planted, only she didn’t know how.

 

 

It was the last day of the gathering, and Chloe Middleton awakened early. The drizzly rain pattering the roof of the tent was soothing. She was not alone, she noticed, but sandwiched between Lisa and Jane Raposa, Marie’s (The Story Lady’s) little girls, each curled into a tight ball on either side of her. She didn’t remember them coming to bed the night before, and couldn’t recall when they’d arrived—but she didn’t mind, as they were keeping her cozily warm in the damp morning air. Dawn was dark, and gray light filtered through the moonroof. She watched the storm clouds gathering above. Wrapping her arms around each little body and hugging them closer, she ran her fingers through their equally soft curls. She believed this was the perfect last morning of a perfect weekend of wonderful women. Oh, she liked that thought: A weekend of wonderful women. It sounded like a good title for a story. She wished her notebook were within reach, as she always liked to write these ideas down. Looking at the wooden box beside her sleeping bag, she saw the journal clenching a pen in its fold and managed to stretch just enough to grab it without disturbing the little girls.

She flicked on the flashlight she kept under her pillow and opened the book, dislodging the pen. She was immediately confused as she shone the light on the page. The handwriting was foreign, not her own; large, scrawled, black letters were etched into the page. The pressure of the ballpoint had dug gullies and divots into the paper.

 

Frank

See how many whores will fuck you without me around to take care of your 7 fucking kids, clean your dirty fucking house, and blow your tiny fucking dick.

The Story Lady

 

Carefully extricating herself from between the little girls, slowly Chloe slid up and out of the sleeping bag. She pulled on shorts and sweatshirt, then counted breaths as she tied her sneakers. Her hands were shaking so much she kept snagging the tent zipper. “Come on, Chloe; keep it together,” she hissed. Finally freeing a passage big enough to slip through, she saw the little girls had curled around each other as she re-zipped the tent flap. She stood to see the stilled and sleeping camp huddled beneath the mist. Light drizzle steadily drenched everything; she pulled up her hood, looked to the house, and ran for Lydia.

They’d signaled a quiet alarm. Lydia sent Chloe and Sadie to send a whisper through the camp for some to start the search and some to stay with the children. They spread out. Numerous pairs ran in the many directions while others stayed with the children, including the little Raposa girls. Chloe and Sadie went together across the fields. They noticed the small hanks of calico cloth littering the goat path between Lydia’s and Sadie’s farms. Initially, the ragged patches were tied to bush and tree branches; further along, Chloe could tell they’d been ripped and tossed, like rose petals leading to a romantic evening—except these shredded pieces of colorful fabric were now muddied and wet. As the women followed them, Chloe grabbed Sadie’s hand and wouldn’t let go.

They stood before the gap in the sliding door of Sadie’s goat barn, where the tattered remnants of The Story Lady’s calico apron lay in a heap. The barn was a tall weathered building once used to house hay, but it now contained more than a dozen of Sadie’s favored barnyard animals.

“Wait,” Chloe tugged on Sadie’s arm. “Don’t go in there alone. Shouldn’t we get someone? Lydia?”

Sadie pointed to the calico apron, now a mere scrap of its former self. “She’s in there, Chloe. What if she’s hurt?”

“You’re right. You’re right.” Chloe let go of Sadie, who pushed the door wide enough for the pair to enter the dark cavern. As Chloe’s eyes adjusted, she felt the dry warmth of the barn; the sweet smell of hay and the musky smell of goat mingled, making her stomach turn. The animals were rousing, huffing, snorting, and beginning their morning rise.

It was Sadie who startled her by shouting, “MARIE? You in here?”

Nothing.

They walked along the opposite edges of the rectangular barn, passing stalls, troughs, hay bales, and feed sacks, only to meet at the other end. They turned and stood, staring down the length of the yawning gloom.

“Where could she be?” Chloe whispered.

Sadie held her breath, listening to all the familiar sounds: goats grunting, the hum of the generator, water dripping from gutters and catching in rain barrels at the corners…but there was another sound, a small sound that did not fit. A creaking, warped-wood wincing sound, rhythmic like a docked boat might make: a sound out of place in this barn. Sadie let her ears tune in and her eyes followed upwards, to the hay loft: to the long pole rafters, to the rope tied to the joist, tied to Marie’s snapped neck. Just above them she saw a slight flutter of white, the slip of a nightgown waving in surrender.

Someone forgot about the little girls. Everyone was screaming their mother’s name; hysteria loosed, women grabbed babies and children grabbed hands, and all ran towards the horror, not away from it. Wailing women and sirens coming led, each sounding the urgency, the emergency, and the exigency of the chaotic mass of bodies racing through the wet grasses. Across river stones, jumping post rail fences, they spilled like ants escaping fire, not knowing they were heading for flood waters that would carry each away on a fragile leaf of a morning that none, not even the youngest, would ever forget.

It was Chloe who saw them first: the little Raposa girls, clinging to one another. Hands grasped tightly, they skittered through skirts of mothers and clumps of children. Their curdling yells for “Mama!” reached Chloe’s ears, and she ran towards them. When she saw Lisa and Jane making for the barn door, she double-timed her own little legs, and leapt to catch their clasped bodies; instead, just out of range, she slipped in the mud, fell, and came up empty-handed. Like a receiver who had both wind and ball knocked from her grasp, she rolled over in time to see the little pajama-clad pair slip through the door. She was upright when the rise of their screams began echoing through the barn, sending swallows and swifts from its eaves. It stilled everyone. Like a tableau vivant caught on stage, the shrill keening signaling the little girls’ terror filled the cove like a reverberating ringing caught in the curve of a bell.

 

 

Lydia threw another log on the fire and watched as the sparks flew up into the black starless sky. She sank back into the lawn chair, and leaned both elbows on both knees. Sighing heavily, as if there was not one more thing her body could do, she pulled papers and pot from her pocket and carefully began to roll a joint. Next to her, Chloe uncapped the jar of white moonshine, strawberry infused, made by locals in stills hidden in the hollers of these hills. She let the liquid tingle inside her mouth before swallowing. It was smooth, sweet, and satiny sliding down her throat. People have the wrong idea about moonshine, she thought. She looked over to Lydia, licking the gummed sleeve of the joint. Just like they have the wrong idea about weed. Lydia took a hit and passed it to Chloe, who traded it for the Mason jar. Lydia thought, Not even weed and ’shine can cut through the fogged horror of this morning.

Sadie emerged from the darkness, coming from the path in the woods. She sat beside Chloe, took the joint, held her breath, and exhaled a long, humming sadness. “Jimmy says not to worry about the boys. Says I can stay here tonight—if that’s OK with you, Lydia.”

“That’s fine with me, Sadie.”

“I’m staying, too.” Chloe said, handing Sadie the jar of moonshine. ’Shine was something Sadie would normally pass on, since she wasn’t much of a drinker, but she took the jar and stuck her nose in the opening. It was like getting a big whiff of a pungent, sweet flower. She inhaled again, and once more.

“For God’s sakes, Sadie; quit sniffing, and just take a sip. You’ll be glad you did,” Lydia said.

Sadie took a sip and another toke, then passed both down the line.

Up the drive came a pair of headlights, a car slowly bouncing towards them.

“Oh, crap. Who the hell is that?” Lydia squinted. “I am in no mood for anybody but us.”

Tasha turned off the ignition, and looked over to see that Riley was sleeping soundly on the seat next to her. She adjusted the pillow, and pressed a teddy bear securely into the crook of the little girl’s arm. Turning around, she checked to see that Lacy was safely strapped in her car seat, thumb in mouth. She tucked the blanket around the baby’s shoulders, and quietly slid out of the vehicle, closing the door gently. She walked towards the fire, where she saw that Lydia was not alone, but with Chloe and Sadie. Tasha did not know the two women well, but found she loved them anyway. All three of them, actually, Tasha considered as she approached. She was totally in love with all three of them. This thought comforted her, even though it wasn’t entirely true; she did love them all, but it was only one of them whom she was in love with—and this thought terrified her.

“Tasha!” Chloe exclaimed. “Is everything all right?”

“It is,” she said. Warming her back against the fire, she stood facing the three older women. “I was just…Well…” she turned and gestured to the car. “The girls are asleep in there.”

“Sit down,” Lydia said, patting the seat beside her. “Here.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mean to intrude…”

“No intrusion from you, Tasha,” Sadie took a long hit off the joint. “For a minute there, we thought you were Carly Samson; she would have definitely been an intrusion, but we like you.”

Tasha smiled, but it was an effort.

“You OK?” Lydia asked.

Tasha nodded, but actually wasn’t sure. She gladly sipped from the mason jar Lydia handed her, and let it settle her shaking hands and slow her thumping heart. “It’s just that when I got home, Mack had left a message saying he was going to spend another night away. And…Well…after this morning, I just didn’t want to be alone, I guess.”

“No worries there,” Sadie said. “Why do you think we’re all here?”

“I’m glad you came,” Lydia said, and patted Tasha’s hand.

Chloe soothed, “It’s times like this when it’s best not to be alone with the images imprinted in our minds. Sometimes they can be more terrifying than what we see with our own eyes. You can always look away from what’s in front of you, but when it’s in your brain…well, there’s no escaping it then.”

They were quiet for a while, each lost in her own thoughts.

“Chloe, did you know Marie was that unhappy?” Lydia asked.

Chloe’s eyes didn’t leave the fire when she nodded, somewhat regretfully. “I didn’t know it was this bad. I didn’t know that she was so angry, so desperate, so…determined.”

“What do you mean, determined?” Tasha asked.

“Oh, I don’t know how to even admit this, but Marie knew Frank was cheating on her. She told me so, and then I…Well, she and I would…Oh, it’s too awful.”

“You and she would what?” Sadie pressed. “You can’t just leave it there.”

“We went spying on him.”

“Spying?”

“Like detectives. We’d follow him, watching through the windows; when possible, we’d take pictures. Marie would make notes. She swore it was for evidence later, when she filed for divorce—but she never filed, or even got a lawyer. It was almost as if she was more interested in plotting her revenge than actually carrying it out. I never thought…never could have even believed that this is how she’d do it. What have I done?”

“You’ve done nothing, Chloe, except try to help out a friend.”

“I don’t know about that, Lydia. A real friend wouldn’t have egged her on, treated it like a game. A real friend would’ve known it was unravelling her. A real friend would’ve listened better.”

“I’m sure you listened just fine.”

Chloe reached into her pocket and pulled out her journal, handing it to Lydia. “Then why’d she leave this in my journal?”

 

Frank

See how many whores will fuck you without me around to take care of your 7 fucking kids, clean your dirty fucking house, and blow your tiny fucking dick.

The Story Lady

 

Lydia read the note and passed it along to Tasha, who read it with wide eyes and passed it to Sadie.

“Jesus,” Sadie muttered. “What the hell?”

“You wouldn’t expect that those words came from Marie, would you?” Tasha said.

“You never know about people,” Lydia offered.

“I feel like I should’ve known about this. I should’ve known better, more…Or…I don’t know, something that could’ve helped or stopped her,” Chloe said.

“That’s not your burden,” Sadie said. “That’s a burden for Frank Raposa to bear.”

“That and seven orphaned children,” Tasha concurred.

“What should I do with this?” Chloe held up the journal. “I probably should’ve given it to the sheriff, but I just didn’t have the heart to expose any more of Marie than was already bared in her…passing.”

“Those poor children. That’s not something they should know about,” Sadie said.

“Frank Raposa should know it.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure Frank Raposa knows exactly why Marie did what she did, note or no note. If anything, Marie did put an end to his running around, pretty sure of that,” Lydia said.

Chloe said, “Lisa and Jane Raposa are going to be living with that final horrible image of Marie burned into their brains forever, just like it’s burned into ours. That’s bad enough.”

Tasha couldn’t help but shed a tear as she listened to the three older women, and tried to swallow back a sickening sadness.

“Throw it in the fire,” Lydia said.

Chloe looked stunned. “The note?”

“Yeah, the note. Get rid of it.”

“But…Shouldn’t I…tell someone?”

“Tell who? We know. That’s enough.”

“She’s right,” Sadie said. “No one needs to know about this. It’ll only be fodder for gossip, and you know how this valley loves gossip.”

“I don’t know,” Chloe hesitated and glanced again at the vileness written on the page. “Tasha? What do you think? You’ve been quiet.”

Tasha shrugged. “I think it’s the saddest thing in the world. The madness she must have had inside her…the pain that drove her to do such harm…to everyone. To herself, her kids, Frank…” a tear slid down Tasha’s cheek, and she felt embarrassed. “And to us.”

They all turned to her, surprised by the usually reserved Tasha’s forceful words.

“She did this to all of us,” Tasha said accusingly. She admitted to herself there were many times in the last few years when she’d thought to leave Mack, maybe even exit the planet; but she wouldn’t, couldn’t, knowing her absence would affect everyone in her life, even if she were no longer in it. “It was selfish,” she said quietly.

“She’s right,” Sadie said. “Marie did this to us all. We all have to live with a piece of this horror now.”

“Throw it in the fire,” Tasha said. “Words like that will only twist an already twisted heartache.”

Chloe felt her heart beating. Words…words mattered. She was a writer; she knew. Words were mightier than the sword. They were also mightier than the dollar, the position, even the purpose, because just a few right ones strung together in the right order, delivered to the right audience at the right time, could right the world—or wreck it. Her own words had earned her money, position, and purpose her entire adult life. They comprised her writerly sword, and with it she had learned how the right words could lift or crush a spirit. Tasha was right; Marie’s words made her suicide worse, somehow, more ugly than pitiful—if that’s fair, she questioned herself. Chloe ran a finger over the black etchings on the paper; the ridges of the imprinted symbols were scored into the page like Braille. She felt the fierce anger in each furrowed incision.

“No child should ever know something like this about her parents,” Lydia said, holding Chloe’s gaze. “It’ll be our secret, Chloe; we’ll keep it for those poor little Raposa kids.”

With that, Chloe ripped the page from her journal and tossed it into the flames.

 

~~~

About the Author

 photo Chadwick final book jacket 1 1_zps2zd1dk0q.jpgCynn Chadwick is an author of seven novels: Cat Rising; Girls With Hammers; Babies, Bikes, and Broads; Cutting Loose; Angels and Manners; As The Table Turns; and That’s Karma, Baby… Her books have been nominated for the Lambda, Golden Crown, and Stonewall Literary Awards. Over the course of her career, she has done readings and speaking engagements including: Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, The Authors’ Arena at Book Expo America in Chicago, Human Rights Campaign Headquarters, DC, AWP in Atlanta, Amelia Island Book Festival, FL, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville and UNCA are just a few of her past speaking and reading engagements. She holds a BA from Norwich University and both an MA and MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. Over the last, nearly, thirty years, she taught creative writing to fifth-graders and senior citizens, teachers and homeless teens, college students and convicted felons and have been equally touched by each of their stories. She lives with her wife Elenna and their Springer Spaniel, The Amazing Andy, in the Blue Ridge Mountains is where she taught in the English Department and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

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