Thursday, June 12, 2014

Today's FREE READ: Chapters One and Two Book #4: The Possum Hollow Hullabaloo



CHAPTER ONE

“It was a perfect wedding,” Jake Kelley said to his daughter as they watched the newlyweds drive away. “I’m glad they moved it up to October instead of waiting until Thanksgiving.” He rested his hand on Penelope’s shoulder—which he intuitively knew was sagging— as she turned to go inside the family home-turned-B&B, where her new daughter-in-law, Rosabel Deane Pembroke, had changed clothes after the reception in the parish hall of St. Hyacinth’s.
“Yes, it was, and it was nice of Harry and Mary Lynn to offer to drive Rosabel’s parents to the airport.”
“Too bad they couldn’t have stayed over another night.” Jake tugged at his tie, worn too long for one day.
“Barton felt he couldn’t leave the saddle shop any longer.”
“He said he didn’t have reliable help.”
“Well, not expert help anyway.” Penelope followed Jake through the dining room to the kitchen. “Are you hungry for supper?”
“What do you have?”
“Left-over beef stew. It won’t take long to warm up.”
“That sounds good. I’m going to catch the five o’clock news on TV. Holler at me when it’s ready.” He pecked her cheek. “Rosie’s a keeper.”
“Bradley adores her.”
“That he does.”
Penelope’s hand hesitated on the refrigerator door. “He’s not like his father.”
“Travis managed to keep every commandment but the sixth, I guess.” (Note: For Catholics, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is the sixth commandment.)
“He didn’t even blessed recognize it.” Penelope’s voice broke.
“Honeychild, that was his problem, and he’s answered for it by now.”
“Right.” Penelope shook herself. “I’ll call you when supper’s ready.” Taking the stew from the refrigerator, she spooned some into a pot on top of the stove and turned the knob to medium. Then she went back for a can of biscuits, peeled away the paper, and hit the cabinet at the perforation so that it opened with a pop.
“Pow! Right in the heart.”
Penelope jumped, then leaned against the cabinet without turning around. “Oh, it’s you.”
Sam’s arms went around her waist. “Yep. Sorry I couldn’t get here for the wedding.”
“You said you probably couldn’t.”
He nuzzled her neck. “How did things go?”
“Perfectly. Rosabel was gorgeous, and Bradley was…” Tears spilled out of her eyes and down her cheeks. “I want them to be so happy.”
Sam turned her toward him and cuddled her against his chest. “They will be, Nell.” He stroked her hair while she cried for a few minutes. “You were thinking about Travis, I bet.”
“I don’t know why. He’s been dead for two years and out of my life a lot longer than that.” She let Sam wipe her face with the clean handkerchief he always seemed to have handy.
“He was the father of your son. You can’t pretend he never existed, no matter what he did.” Sam’s voice soothed her churning emotions like cold water on a burn.
“Daddy just said he kept every commandment but the sixth.”
“Thou shalt not commit adultery. It’s there for a reason.”
She glanced up at him, then away. “I’m surprised you think so. You keep trying to get me into bed with you.”
“It’s not the same thing. Neither of us is married, and since Travis’s death, you’re also unmarried in the eyes of the Church.”
“That doesn’t make it right for me to sleep with you, and you know it.” She slipped out of his arms and began to lay out the biscuits on a baking sheet.
“I’ll settle for supper.”
“Daddy’ll be glad to see you.”
“How about you?”
“I guess I wish I wasn’t, but I always am.”
“Jake in his room?”
“Yes.”
“I’ll go out and keep him company then.”
Penelope added more stew to the pot and opened a second can of biscuits. Why do you always turn up when I’m the most vulnerable? What do you want from me—besides the obvious? You should know by now you’re not going to get that.
In the pantry, she took down a graham cracker pie crust and two boxes of instant banana pudding and put together a no-bake banana cream pie replete with sliced bananas and whipped cream on top. By the time the stew reached a comfortable bubble, the pre-heat light on the oven had gone out. She slid the biscuits inside and closed the door.
You know the way things are, but you keep coming back. I can’t think of a reason except that you love me, but you never say it, not in so many words. Most of the time you seem to know when I need you and manage to turn up—like tonight. But I don’t know much more about you than I did when you sent Shana and me on the run after the fire at Pembroke Point.
She took three placemats from a drawer and unrolled them on the table. When you’re here, you act like you belong to the family, but then you go away again, and I don’t know where you go or when you’ll be back. I can’t live that way, not again. I always knew Travis was shacking up somewhere, and he’d be back eventually, but it tore me to shreds even after I stopped loving him. I won’t ever live like that again.
When the oven timer dinged, she took out the biscuits before she went to the door leading to Jake’s apartment. “Supper,” she called down the narrow hallway, smiling as she heard the television go silent. Jake loved his television, but he didn’t have to be called twice to eat.
“Smells good, Nellie.” Jake pulled out his chair and sat down. “Got any strawberry jam for those biscuits?”
            She set the grape-leaf jam pot on the table and sat down, too, unfolded her napkin, and crossed herself in unison with her father. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.” As she crossed herself again, she cut her eyes toward Sam, knowing in advance that his hands were in his lap.
You said you lapsed, Sam, but you won’t tell me why. How does a man lose his faith? How can a man—how can anyone—live without it?
****
“Where are Brad and Rosabel going on their honeymoon?” Sam asked as he rinsed the dishes and handed them to her to load the dishwasher.
“Just up to Eureka Springs. Both of them have to be back at work on Monday. But they’ve talked about taking a cruise later.”
“That’s nice. I guess they got the house finished the way they want it.”
“It’s really cute. Bradley even has a den.”
“A man-cave, huh?”
“They brought the pool table from Pembroke Point. It didn’t really fit with the antebellum atmosphere.”
“When will the house and grounds open to the public?”
“This summer, they hope. We’ve got a couple of women interested in being docents, so they’re studying the history of the place while someone from the history commission is overseeing the furnishings—on his own time.”
“So Brad decided to let them help.”
“Yes, but conditionally. The man can’t make any changes unless Bradley approves them.” Penelope wiped the cabinet with a paper towel and tossed it. “Of course, the farm’s still in operation, thanks to Chuck Runyon, so they have to work around that.”
“Chuck’s a good young man, even if he did try to play Dick Tracy with Lewis Collier and company.”
“He felt he had to redeem himself for those portraits going missing. Anyway, the farm will pay its own way. Bradley doesn’t want an admission fee for touring the house.”
“Sounds like he has everything under control.”
“I think so.”
“Want to go sit in the swing?”
“Why not?”
The turn-of-the-century yard lamp now wired for electricity cast just enough light on the porch for Penelope to see Sam’s face. “You need a shave. I guess you’ve been traveling.”
He nodded.
“Biking?”
“Not this time.”
“So did you dispossess my car from the garage to hide yours?”
He grinned. “Sorry about that.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Right, I’m not.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her, lightly at first, then with a hunger that both pleased and disturbed her. “I’ve missed you, Nell.”
“I missed you, too.”
“You’ve been busy with the wedding.”
“I still missed you.” She laid her head against his shoulder as he set the swing in motion with his foot.
“How are things going for Shana and Peter?”
“All right.”
“Ex-in-laws made any trouble recently?”
“Not that I know of, but they’re not going to give up. They’ll just watch their step for a while.”
“And then what?”
“Then they could try for custody again.”
“Have Peter and Shana set a date for their wedding?”
“Not yet. I think Shana’s got cold feet.”
“Because of Tabby?”
“In a way. She still feels the Bainbridges could use her past against Peter in a custody fight.”
            “Maybe they’ll give up.”
“They’re evil people.”
Penelope recognized Sam’s silence as agreement.
“How about Possum Hollow? Things quiet out there these days?”
“Tammy Turney’s fiancé is due home from Iraq in a few months. She’s the librarian and sort of a Jill-of-all-trades at the school out there. George Harris, the principal, says they may lose her, depending on where Jack ends up being stationed.”
“He’s staying in?”
“He’s career.”
“That presents a problem for the school then.”
“She’s been wonderful with the kids, but the whole staff is devoted to keeping them in school and trying to get some of them into town for junior high and high school.”
“They don’t have a lot of luck, do they?”
“Not without the parents’ support, and truant officers aren’t fond of poking around in the Hollow. They make a few attempts, just to say they went looking, but they don’t try too hard.”
“You can’t blame them, I guess.”
“Well, nobody likes looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun. Bradley says the state police could come in and clean out the whole place, but it’s low on their list of priorities. So we just keep trucking along.”
“I hope you stay out of there.”
“Mary Lynn and I are in charge of Christmas at the school. You know that.”
Sam’s arms tightened around her. “Just be careful, Nell.”
“Christmas is three months away.”
“But I’m here now, and I might not be here then.” He ran his fingers through her short, ash-blonde hair, recently touched up for the wedding. “So what’s Santa bringing me?”
“Not what you want.”
“But something close?”
She lifted her face. “Something close, I guess.”
“I’d settle for some good old-fashioned necking right now.”
“Necking, as in…”
His hand drifted down her arm, though it didn’t stray. “Let me rephrase that.”
“Oh, Sam, you never give up.” Her desire for him began to stir.
“Nope.”
She closed her eyes and gave herself up to his lips.


CHAPTER TWO

Sam left after breakfast on Sunday morning, saying he’d be back late. “What can he possibly do on Sunday?” Penelope asked Jake while they lingered over a second cup of coffee.
“See a man about a dog?”
“That’s corny, Daddy.”
“Best I’ve got. The kids should be home today.”
“I thought I’d put in a roast before we go to Mass. They might stop by for dinner.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised.” Jake pushed back from the table. “I’ll go get ready.”
Penelope arranged the roast in the blue enamel pan, sliced an onion over it, and added some water and beef bouillon  cubes, garlic salt, and pepper, then shoved it inside the top oven set at 300 degrees. Upstairs she changed her jeans and t-shirt for a navy dress, hose, and low heeled beige pumps. Reaching for her missal, her fingers brushed a piece of folded paper sticking out of the front cover.
I’ll be really late tonight, Nell, so don’t wait up. I should know tomorrow how long I’ll be here this time.
Penelope crumpled the unsigned note and tossed it in the wicker wastebasket by the desk. You never know when you’ll be here or for how long, and I know it’s not your fault, but it makes me crazy. What if you leave one of these days…disappear…don’t ever come back? What am I supposed to do then? I wonder if Bradley would know where to start looking for you?
During Fr. Loeffler’s homily, her mind bounced between Friday’s wedding and Sam. Later, Mary Lynn caught her in the parking lot. “The Deanes got off all right. I didn’t call you when I saw the garage door was closed.”
“What does the blessed garage door have to do with it?”
“You always leave it open except when your Gray Ghost is there.”
“He’s not my Gray Ghost.”
“Whatever he is then.” Mary Lynn waved to passing parishioner and fished her car keys from her favorite zebra print bag which didn’t match her dress. “Harry went to early Mass so he could play golf with Hal Greene.”
“I can’t believe they’ve patched things up after everything that happened—Harry writing that threatening letter and all.”
“He apologized to Hal.”
“Still. I wonder when Darby Dolan will go to trial?”
“I heard she’d been denied bond.”
“Well, I certainly hope so! She’s responsible for at least one murder and involved in two more. And she wouldn’t have thought twice about killing me, too.”
Mary Lynn grimaced. “Don’t say that.”
“What’s on your agenda for this afternoon?”
“I’m going to work on some things for the community center. A couple of the elementary teachers are coming over to talk more about a Christmas pageant for the opening.”
“Are you going to include the children from the Hollow?”
Mary Lynn’s well-shaped brows went up. “Why would you ask that?”
Penelope shrugged. “I don’t know. It was just a thought.”
“Do you think we should include them?”
“It might be a nice gesture. They’re so isolated out there.”
“Their school’s as good as ours in town—maybe better because of the staff’s personal commitment.”
“You’re right about that. Well, let me know what I can do to help.” She beckoned to Jake who was deep in conversation with the Widow Baker. “Let’s go home, Daddy.”
The Widow Baker looked disappointed, but she smiled at Penelope and waved. Penelope nodded back and got into the SUV.
“She asked me if I liked chicken a la king,” Jake said with a smirk as he climbed in beside his daughter.
“What did you tell her?”
“That I did.”
“So did you get a dinner invitation?”
“I reckon I will.”
“Oh, Daddy.”
“Now, Nellie, you know I’m not going to do anything silly like go courting, not at my age. Besides, I never loved anybody but your mother, and that’s just the way it is.”
“I guess you’ve got a right to your life.”
“You wouldn’t put me in the old folks home?” Jake fastened his seatbelt and cackled. “A man never gets too old to be flattered by a woman’s attention, especially one who can cook.”
Penelope eased into the street. “Daddy, when you were growing up, did the kids from Possum Hollow ever come into town? Ever participate in anything?”
“Not that I can remember. Why?”
“I just wondered. Mary Lynn’s thinking about a Christmas pageant for the town kids when the community center opens. It seems kind of mean to leave out the ones from the Hollow.”
“The Hollow’s the Hollow, Nellie. Nothing’s changed.”
“It just seems a shame, don’t you think?”
“I think the school out there is doing everything it can for the children. More than most would.”
“So maybe things will change eventually?”
“Honestly? I doubt it.”
“It’s a shame.”
“Right. It’s a shame.”
****
Rosabel and Bradley showed up about the time Penelope was taking the roast out of the oven. “We’ve been smelling that all the way from Eureka Springs,” Rosabel said, kissing Penelope’s cheek.
“What’s for dessert?” Bradley asked.
“Peach cobbler.”
Amaryllis’ chief and only detective lifted his eyes heavenward and licked his lips. “You did good, Mother.”
“She produced you,” Rosabel said. “That’s good enough for me without the peach cobbler.”
Over dinner the conversation drifted to the community center. “Mary Lynn is meeting with some of the elementary teachers this afternoon to talk about a Christmas pageant for the opening in December,” Penelope said. “I asked her if the Possum Hollow children were being included.”
“Why would you ask that?” Bradley helped himself to more green beans with bacon bits.
“Why not?”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” he said. “I just meant they’ve never participated in anything before. The school is lucky to keep them through sixth grade.”
“I didn’t realize that,” Rosabel said. “So they just ignore the compulsory attendance laws?”
“Pretty much, Rosie,” Jake replied. “Always have.”
“That wouldn’t happen in Nevada.”
“Difference is, they can’t hide on the plains like they can in the backwoods of Arkansas,” Bradley said.
Rosabel buttered her second roll. “You’re right, they can’t.”
“What do you hear from Tammy Turney, Mother? Isn’t Jack due home any day now?”
“That’s what Tammy said last time I talked to her. I don’t know what the school is going to do without her.”
“She won’t be easy to replace.”
“I wouldn’t mind helping out on my days off,” Rosabel said.
Bradley frowned. “I wouldn’t mind you helping out either if it was anywhere but Possum Hollow.”
“It’s safe enough as long as you stay at the school,” Penelope said. “Mary Lynn and I never have any problem when we do Christmas boxes out there. Besides, Bradley sends Parnell Garrett out there with us.”
“I guess the school’s safe enough,” Bradley said, “but it’s not secure. There’s a difference.”
“I’m a police officer. That should count for something.” Rosabel patted his arm.
“You can’t take a weapon on school property,” Bradley said. “But they’re going to need help when Tammy leaves. If you’re willing to give up your time off, that’s up to you.”
Rosabel patted him again. “We’ll talk about it.”
****
Rosabel tried to help Penelope clean up, but Penelope waved her away. “You two go on. You’ve got to unpack and get ready for work tomorrow.”
“I want to stop by the station and check in,” Bradley said, slipping his arm around Rosabel. “And you can check your shift.”
Rosabel hugged her mother-in-law. “Thanks for a wonderful welcome-home dinner. I can’t wait to cook some traditional Lebanese fare for you and Jake.”
“You just get settled in, and then give us a call.”
Bradley fished his keys from his pocket. “We’ll see you soon, Mother. Pawpaw, take care.”
“Of what or whom?” Jake asked.
“Daddy, don’t start.”
Jake’s eyes rounded with innocence. “Who, me?”
Penelope heard the young people laughing all the way down the flagstone walk through the garden to the driveway.


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