AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Release Date: June 2nd, 2015
RITA Award for best contemporary
“This book abounds with characters . . . that leave and breathe and mesmerize the reader.” — Romantic Times
But in his thirties, he had found work that kept him on the road, work that kept him from having to be in a place long enough to hate it. To a log cabin in Wisconsin, a Quaker meeting hall in Pennsylvania, a plantation outside Charleston, a Spanish mission north of San Diego, wherever there were old buildings and the money to restore them, Tom went.
He called himself a carpenter although he was not. But he couldn’t stand being called an historic preservationist; that made it sound like he wrote grant applications, took developers to court, fought zoning laws, and he did none of that. He was a craftsman; he did the actual work, returning the keepsakes of America’s past to their original condition.
Skilled and knowledgeable, with standards of perfection that had exasperated his wife, Tom was good at this work. Very good. A man down in New Orleans had been waiting for a year and a half for Tom to come solace his nineteenth-century termite-tunneled staircase, and a family society in eastern Massachusetts kept telling Tom that they wanted no one else to restore the paneling in their ancestral cottage.
Tom was now in South Dakota, his footsteps echoing hollowly through the empty rooms of a weathered farmhouse ten miles outside Gleeson, a little town about halfway between the James River and the Old Sioux.
But he wasn’t here to restore this house, to turn it into a little tribute to the harsh life of Dakota farming. Although Tom had woodworking skills that had stirred a staid preservationist magazine to its first italics, although he could tell at a glance whether a piece of wood had been milled with an eighteenth-century whipsaw or a nineteenth-century sash saw, he was here on this June afternoon for the most routine sort of remodeling. He would patch plaster, put in a new dishwasher and garbage disposal, and carve the smallest bedroom into two bathrooms.
This was Tom’s childhood home, where he had grown up, where he had only spent the briefest time since his return from Southeast Asia, and he was readying it to be sold. His father had retired to Florida last winter, and the house hadn’t sold and wouldn’t, Tom thought, not without a new kitchen and more bathrooms.
Tom moved through the familiar rooms, his mind half-occupied with plans, with thoughts of plumbing lines and electrical circuits, and half-occupied with memories. He paused at the window of his old bedroom, his boot resting on the sill, his arm across his knee, staring out across the sweeping fields. The spring wheat was green, and wild flowers, black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace, littered the ditches alongside the blacktop road. He couldn’t see town—in this part of the country the prairie rolled in gentle swells and after the Dust Bowl, farmers had planted lines of trees between fields to break the fierce wind’s force—but he could see the radio tower, a thin silver line against the blue sky. As a boy, he had lain in bed, staring at the tower’s red lights, wondering what happened to the sound, where it went.
Well, now he knew where the sound went. He’d been there, and it hadn’t been worth the trip.
Suddenly Tom minded being thirty-six.
How simple things had been in childhood, back when he was a boy. Pleasures were so acute, so pure; nothing in adult life had come close to the glorious rush of freedom when school was finally out for the summer. Life had such intensity, such immediacy: the sharp smell of wild onions, the chill of a creek during spring thaw, the unfamiliar shape of a girl’s body inside a soft sweat shirt.
There had been three of them who had shared those times—two boys and a girl, the boys born within a week of one another, and the girl only two months later.
Memories—Huck swinging so high that his bare feet thrust into the green mass of the cottonwood trees on the far bank, when the old rope frayed through, sending him and the tire crashing, splashing, into the creek below, with the sound of Curry’s clear laughter ringing through the summer air.
One of Curry’s long braids getting caught on a fence and her impatient jerk that left strands of corn-yellow hair snared on the twists of the barbed wire, the sun bleaching them to glistening hominy.
The smell of damp hay during a summer thunderstorm, the three of them in the hayloft, leaning toward one another, as a pocketknife was passed around—three quick slices and bloodied fingertip smeared against bloodied fingertip as if shared blood could have made them closer than they already were.
The gasping and choking when, crowded together on the seat of a pickup, they had passed around a small pint bottle, their first one; their high spirits becoming giggles and Tom noticing the feel of Curry’s leg against his own.
And at last Curry, looking nothing at all like herself with her mass of curly hair, hair the color of sunshine, piled on her head and the tan of her arms and neck hidden under the lace of her grandmother’s Edwardian wedding dress; Curry escorted by Tom’s own father down the aisle of the church to where he and Huck stood, awkward in their rented tuxedos.
But of course it had been Huck who had stepped forward, Huck who had taken Curry’s hand.
Tom shrugged and turned from the window. That had been a long time ago. It had been the best, the sweetest time in his life, the time before growing up, before marrying, before that jungle war, but what was the point of remembering? Better check the attic joists. Attic joists made sense; memories didn’t.
But as he moved to the low-ceilinged closet to hoist himself through the attic’s trapdoor, he heard a noise. A door opening, then a voice.
“Hello. Anyone here?”
Someone must have seen his out-of-state plates and had stopped in to check. That would be just what people did around here.
He walked down the hall to stairs, stopping at the landing, glancing across the banister.
And there in the hall below him, the sunlight from the open door throwing a bright rectangle across the dusty floor, stood a boy, tall but not quite full-grown, with hair light brown, almost sandy, and a few freckles across his nose, and a grin that—
It was Huck. Dear God, it was Huck. Tom vaulted down the remaining steps. “Huck!” he cried. It’s you; it’s really you. At last, it’s—
Sir? Why was Huck calling—
Tom stopped, sick. It wasn’t Huck. It couldn’t be. Huck was dead, wasted in the central highlands of that country neither one of them had heard of until they had to go fight for it.
If it weren’t Huck, it had to be… Slowly Tom walked across the room and extended his hand. “You must be Huck James’s boy.”
The boy blinked, surprised. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
Tom cursed his own clumsiness. Of course the boy was surprised. He wouldn’t remember the man he was named for; he wouldn’t think of himself as Huck James’s boy, but as Huck James himself. And Tom knew him to be sixteen. Sixteen-year-olds don’t like to be called “boys.”
“I’m Tom Winchester.”
What would he say if the name meant nothing? I knew your parents once. No, that was wrong. I’m Tom. I’m the reason you’re called Huck. That’s what they called us—”Huck and Tom, Tom and Huck. “
The boy’s face was politely blank. “Pleased to meet—” But then sweet recognition. “Oh, you’re Mom’s friend!”
Mom! He was talking about Curry. Someone calling Curry “Mom”—how odd that sounded.
“Yes, I am, and I was hoping to see her,” Tom said. “I wanted to ask her about this business of selling the house and barns without the farmland, if she thought it made sense.” He had worked out what he’d say, what reason he’d give for knocking on her door when he had kept away for so many years.
“She’s home now,” the boy—her son—answered. “Why don’t you come with me? I can show you the back way… if you don’t mind climbing a fence, that is.”
“I don’t mind.” And I know the way. Through the field, over the fence, across the creek on three stepping stones, and through the orchard. I know that path. Slogging through the mud and bamboo, through the mottled, watery light of the strange jungle, I was on that path with its smell of sweet Dakota prairie.
Silently Tom followed young Huck outside. The path was much fainter now than it had been when he had run down it two, three, four times a day.
“You go to the high school?” he asked. We went there, the three of us, driving together every morning, tossing our books in the backseat every night, not taking them out until the next morning.
“I’ll be a junior next year.”
“Do you like it?” We hated it, sitting in those classrooms, with the town kids, learning things we didn’t want to know, being inside when we wanted to be outdoors.
“Well enough. I play basketball, that helps.”
“On the school team?” We didn’t do that; we were country kids, and we had chores in the afternoons, chickens and hogs to feed, water to pump, peas to weed. “What position?”
“Well”—the boy’s face went a little red—”our center graduated last year, so I’m hoping… although I’ll only be a junior.”
How Huck, the other Huck, had sneered at the high school team, jeering that they were slow, awkward. Had it been a pose, had he longed, desperately longed, to be on the team, unable to admit it even to himself?
No, don’t think that way. Don’t let the memories change on you. That’s what happened when you were here last; just two hours and all the memories changed. Don’t let that happen again.
DON’T FORGET TO SMILE
Release Date: June 2nd, 2015
Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Contemporary Novel
“Don’t Forget To Smile is also about families, the ways they push us forward and the ways they hold us back, the ways we make our own families and give back to the families we are born to.” — Dear Author
But this was not the part of Oregon where you would expect to find a person like Tory Duncan. She wouldn’t have been such a surprise in Portland, which has its share of designer sportswear, young lawyers, and BMW dealers. And she would have fit in on the coast too. Interesting people move to the coast, coming up from San Francisco to build interesting houses, strange shapes that jut out into the ocean. In fact, Tory had spent a year on the coast, the first year after her divorce, not doing much, mostly admiring the scenery and letting her standards drop.
Then she left the coast and moved inland. Her bar was in Sullivan City, a pine sawmill town on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. When people think of the Cascades, they think of the western slopes with the magnificent Douglas firs and the dense undergrowth, a tangle of ferns sometimes higher than a man’s head. You can’t see the sky in the western forest, and the air is thick and soft. But on the other side of the mountains, the eastern side, there’s not so much rain; the forest is pine, sunny and parklike—much more ordinary than what they’ve got in the west.
Sullivan City is a pretty ordinary place as well, one more working-class town, big enough to have a high school, a Pizza Hut, stoplights and a fairly good fabric store, but not at all the sort of place where anyone would ever want to own a stone-and-timber health food restaurant. Tory bought her building before construction was finished, and she opened it as a bar for loggers. The men who worked in the woods came here; the guys from the sawmill and the planing mill went to Robertson’s. At Robertson’s, the bartender was exactly what you would expect a bartender to be.
Tory was not. She was from South Carolina, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, a Kappa Delta, and before she had gotten divorced, she had been living almost like a Tri-Delt—the Tri-Delts were the debutantes, the only thing above the K.D.’s. And she was beautiful. Her face had clear, delicate lines and high cheekbones that caught the light; her eyes were a vivid green, and her hair blond, a swirl of honey and wheat that fell to her shoulders and curled under at the ends. She had the clean, open sort of all-American beauty that did as well with the four shades of eyeshadow, silk shirtwaist, and linen blazer she had once worn as it did with the neat jeans and light flick of mascara she wore now.
In college, Tory had been the perfect Southern coed. Her mother had taught her to be ever the good listener, to be endlessly cheerful, interested, sympathetic, always willing to adapt her mood, interests, values, and beliefs to whatever company she was in. A perfect Southern coed—and now one hell of a fine bartender.
Other people might think that that was coming down in the world, but Tory didn’t. Not even close.
It was the last Sunday before the start of hunting season, and through the first half of the NFL game, things were pretty quiet in Tory’s bar. Tory suspected that her Sunday regulars were home, working their way through lists of chores their wives had made up, hoping to buy themselves some free time next weekend. It was just as well that things were slow because Tory’s second bartender, Pete Miller—known around the bar as “Rich’s father”—had asked for the afternoon off. Tory and her waitress, Nancy Smith, were handling what business there was alone.
Which wasn’t difficult because Nancy was a good waitress. She always arrived early; she never forgot who ordered what, and when she had time she was nearly as good a listener as Tory. She didn’t greet the customers by name as Tory did or comment on their problems, because when Nancy had taken this job she made it clear she didn’t plan on talking. Ever.
Nancy stuttered. It was a godawful stutter, a real jackhammer of a thing, and she had dropped out of high school as soon as the law had let her. She got her G.E.D. and lived at home, doing correspondence courses. At twenty-two, she was on her way to being one of the better-educated people in town when Tory, who had frequently seen her at the post office, had offered her a job.
Nancy smiled at customers instead of asking them what they wanted. She wrote down the orders and passed them to Tory. This system worked nicely when Rich’s father was on duty. Just as Nancy didn’t talk very well, Rich’s father didn’t hear very well.
During halftime on this Sunday afternoon, people finally started drifting in, grumbling about the gutters they had cleaned, the screens they had put up, the cars they had washed. Tory and Nancy took their orders and listened to their complaints. Tory drew beer, poured chasers, mixed Seven-and-Sevens and bourbon-and-gingers, and changed the channel when the NFL game was over. It was just a usual Sunday afternoon at Tory’s, a decent working man’s bar.
This was when the gunmen came in.
Of course, no one knew they were gunmen. There were two of them, just kids really, looking like anyone else—faded jeans, straw-colored hair, wispy beards, a type that was a dime a dozen both on this side of the mountains and over on the coast. But they were young and seemed nervous.
Tory thought nothing of that. Looking like she did, she made a lot of men nervous.
“Can I see some I.D.’s?” she asked. The drinking age in Oregon was twenty-one, and Tory carded people.
One of the kids pulled down the zipper of his grey sweatshirt and reached inside. Tory expected a driver’s license. She got a gun. A big black metal gun. She stepped back, lifting her hands in the air.
She heard a shriek. It was Nancy. The other kid had stuck a smaller gun, a Saturday night special, in the girl’s ribs and was prodding her toward the wall.
The men in the bar were on their feet. One started forward; another thrust his arm out, stopping him. Tory’s regulars all hunted; they knew guns. And when someone was pointing a gun at you, you did what he told you to.
Which was just fine with Tory. She had spent years doing exactly as she was told; she was hardly going to quibble now. She looked at the gun; the barrel was a black circle pointing at her. Why was this happening? Just when she had finally gotten things going well, so well that neither her mother nor her ex-husband had anything to feel smug about… at least not until now. This could turn into an “I told you so” of major proportions.
Tory kept looking at the gun; it was quivering. The kid’s hand was shaking; he was nervous.
Oh, great. Just her luck, to be held up by a bunch of amateurs.
Listen, we’re all a bunch of amateurs too. My waitress stutters, my bartender can’t hear, my janitor is an ex-junkie out on parole, and I used to twirl a baton for three hours a day. Give us a break.
TILL THE STARS FALL
Release Date: June 2nd, 2015
“. . . emotional and exciting . . “ — Sunday Independent, Plymouth (U.K.)
“. . . beautiful, lyrical writing, fascinating characters, an interesting time and setting, a touching renewed romance . . .” — Rachel Potter, All About Romance
In a minute the phone would ring and she would pick it up and someone she did not know would tell her that Danny French was dead.
The evening news had left no hope. On the fifty-third day of a hunger strike designed to raise money for a shelter for homeless women with children, Danny French was in a coma, hours from death. Back in New York reporters were gathered on the sidewalk outside the shelter where he lay, waiting for the death of this literate, sensitive, impatient man. He was a public figure. His death would be news, publicity to be exploited. He was also Krissa’s brother.
Surely he had never believed that it would come to this, to actual death. Every time she had spoken to him, he had been confident, even exhilarated. He had been so sure of success. Then suddenly it was too late. He was in a coma, and he was going to die without her having gone to say good-bye.
Going to die. No, he might already be dead. At this moment, a stranger, a reporter, might be dialing her number to tell her that her brother was dead.
She didn’t see him that often, just once or twice a year. They spoke on the phone every month, but that was all her doing. Danny cared deeply about the disturbed, unfortunate people who haunted the streets of New York City. But a sister and her four boys… that was hard for him. Ordinary things were not easy for Danny.
But why did he have to do this?
She felt the sound before she heard it, a stirring current of air. The phone was ringing. She stood up. It was on the wall a few feet away. It rang again. She had to answer. Not answering wouldn’t change anything; it wouldn’t keep him alive. The molded plastic receiver slipped against her moist palm.
“Krissa, it’s Quinn.”
She never thought of the call coming from him. But wasn’t it right, here at the end, that it should be Quinn? He and Danny had sung together, he and Danny had shared the best that life had given either one. Yes, this was fitting, this was right, that although they had not spoken to one another in fifteen years, the silk of Quinn’s voice should be the lining of Danny’s casket.
“…have started IV’s…”
Krissa too had not spoken to Quinn in all this time, and yet his voice was still familiar, deep, velvety rich. And for a moment, for a heartbeat, she was nineteen, twenty again, and none of this had happened. She was twenty-one, twenty-two, and she was devotedly, passionately in love with him, Quinn, her brother’s partner.
“…and they’ll be on their way to the hospital…”
IV’s? Hospital? For the first time she heard his individual words. “What are you saying? Did he give up?”
“No, no. The city did. They are releasing the funds. Danny’s getting everything he wanted. He won.”
“He’s not going to die?”
A slender shape appeared at the foot of the kitchen stairs. It was Adam, Krissa’s middle son—her child of light, the one most like herself. The left knee of his gray sweatpants flapped down from a triangular-shaped tear. He must have heard the phone ring and gotten out of bed.
“It’s Uncle Danny, isn’t it?” His voice was tight. “Is it over? Is he dead?”
Krissa murmured something into the phone, some words of gratitude and farewell, she wasn’t sure what, and she crossed the kitchen, opening her arms to her child, now as tall as she. He was thin and strong, his young muscles tensed.
Children shouldn’t have to suffer like this. The anxiety, the dread, the dark, bewildering murk that had been following her day after day had spread to them. They too had been bewildered and confused. They didn’t understand any more than she had why Danny had chosen to do this to himself, why he had decided to let himself die. They were children; they shouldn’t have had to endure this.
Her grief and confusion burst into anger. You son of a bitch, her heart shrieked at her brother, do what you want to yourself. But how dare you, how dare you, do this to my kids?
* * *
Washington, D.C., December 1992
Quinn slid in the antenna on the narrow phone and laid it back down on the piano bench. He had been here all night, playing requiems—Brahms, Verdi, Faure—searching for solace in the dignity of the music. Only through music could he make sense of his grief, grief for a man he had not spoken to in fifteen years, a man he had thought he hated.
How Danny would have jeered at the piano. It was a nine-foot concert grand; it had cost more than many people’s houses, and Quinn had it right here in his living room. How can you? He could hear Danny’s voice in his head. When people don’t have places to sleep at night?
It hadn’t always been like this. They had been the two lead singers of Dodd Hall, one of the premier rock bands of the early seventies. Together they had written more than a hundred songs and sung many of them over and over, night after night, first in the little clubs and coffee house of New England, then in the massive stadiums in the largest cities in Europe and North America.
Then it had ended. In Madison Square Garden one night, Quinn had strapped on his guitar, put his hand over the mike, and in a white-hot flame of anger hissed at Danny, “Enjoy this one because it’s the last. I will never sing with you again. I will never be on stage with you again. I will never speak to you again.”
And he hadn’t. He hadn’t spoken to Danny since that night. He hadn’t sung a Dodd Hall song in public since that night.
So what do you do when your partner—the man who shared the most glorious moments of your life—what do you do when he takes fifty days to starve himself to death? Do you go to New York and sing at his funeral?
No need to answer that one now. The wily trickster had pulled it out of the bag again.
Release Date: June 2nd, 2015
RITA Award for best contemporary
“The always terrific Kathleen Gilles Seidel brings to life a modern love story.” — Romantic Times
And the megabudget Aspen Starring Alec Cameron? It was a bomb. No one watched it.
Alec Cameron hadn’t asked anyone to produce a show starring him. The network had approached him with the idea, and he hadn’t thought it a very good one. He said so frankly and clearly. Soaps shouldn’t have one particular star; the cast should be an ensemble. Daytime should never feature one actor so prominently.
Of course if daytime was going to feature one actor so prominently, Alec would just as soon that it be him rather than someone else. The network executives kept talking about his proven audience appeal, his unquestioned talent. The idea started sounding better and better. Pretty soon Alec was persuaded that it was downright excellent.
The network hired a new writer, a playwright who had never written for television, much less for daytime. The man watched three weeks worth of soaps and then, based upon that vast experience, announced that he was going to revolutionize the structure of the soap opera. There would be no core families, no super couples, no amnesia.
“What do you mean, my character has no family?” Alec asked during his first meeting with the man.
“Oh, we’re not going to be doing families. We’re not interested in families.”
A soap that wasn’t interested in families? That’s what soaps were about: families, connections, blood. The family stories held everything else together. A soap had to have families.
Jenny Cotton knew that. She was a creator and head writer of My Lady’s Chamber, and she was very interested in families. Her show was set in the past, her characters wore intricately tied cravats and flowing high-waisted gowns, but they still belonged to families. Jenny wasn’t interested in revolutionizing the structure of anything. The structure of the soap opera was fine. She worked on what needed to be worked on. My Lady’s Chamber had better writing and more consistent, believable characters than anything on daytime.
Day after day Alec would get his scripts for Aspen, and he would stare at them, disbelieving. Everything was wrong. There wasn’t enough recapping of prior episodes; viewers who had missed a few shows got lost. Two, sometimes even three, stories peaked at the same time, diluting the intensity of all of them. The characters were glamorous, but not engaging. Whoever was writing these scripts didn’t know anything about soaps.
If he had been just another actor in the cast, Alec might have kept his mouth shut, but his name was part of the title, his face was featured in the credits, so his reputation was on the line. With the morale of the cast dropping like stone, he had to do something.
He tried to play fair with Paul Tomlin, the writer. He kept his criticisms out of the greenroom and the dressing room corridors where the actors hung out. His business was with the writing staff and the production staff. He met with them, reasoned with them, pleaded with them. This was his fourth soap role, he had won back-to-back Emmys. He knew a lot about what made soaps work. Get back to basics, he urged. Characters that the viewers care about, stories that touch the heart. And families, please give us some families. Mothers, grandfathers, unknown half-sisters, adopted third cousins, anything.
“Families are passé,” Paul said with a sniff. “No one cares about families anymore.”
No one cares about families? Alec could only stare at him. Where was this guy from? Didn’t he know anything about the daytime viewer?
Alec kept on. He wasn’t doing this only for himself. Aspen Starring Alec Cameron employed a lot of people. Actors, craftsmen, trades people, gofers, and hairdressers would be out of work if the show got canceled. Just as surely as if he had to meet the payroll himself, Alec felt responsible for these people’s livelihoods.
At the end of the first year the network became desperate too. Alec found himself working five days a week, with forty pages of dialogue to learn a night. The show started going on location, expensive jaunts to Peru and Finland. It didn’t help. A story that was boring at home was going to be boring in Italy.
My Lady’s Chamber, on the other hand, actually had a foreign setting, Regency England. But it never went on location. It couldn’t afford to. It didn’t need to.
At last after a wearying, mind-numbing eighteen months Alec’s ordeal came to an end. Aspen Starring Alec Cameron changed its title to Aspen!! and Alec’s character skied into an avalanche. He was fired.
It was a relief. He could stop feeling responsible. Someone else was taking the sword out of his bloodied hand. “You have fought long enough, my friend.” The doctor was closing the chart. “You may die in peace.”
Alec slept for a month and then went home to Canada to visit his own family. He returned to New York, renewed, refreshed, ready to work again, and discovered that he might just as well have stayed home. His name was as muddy as his father’s potato fields. No one would hire him. He was finished at the age of thirty-two.
He was being blamed for everything that had been wrong with Aspen. He was difficult, the reports went, temperamental, obstinate, a perfectionist.
He couldn’t believe it. He had always been one of the good guys, punctual, professional, dedicated. How could anyone call him difficult? He was Canadian. The world’s longest unprotected border and all that. Canadians didn’t know how to be difficult.
“But these people know me,” he protested to his agent. “They know I’m not like that.”
“They also know that you were part of a bomb.”
There was no quarreling with that. In fact, he hadn’t just been “part of” a bomb. He had starred in it. A Bomb Starring Alec Cameron. Not a perfect career move.
Putting bread on the table was not a problem. He did voiceovers for commercials, work that wasn’t very satisfying but was quite lucrative. He got a decent-sized part in a good movie, but he had never liked film work, standing around and waiting while people fussed to get the lights exactly so. Nor did he like the space ship/desert island atmosphere of a movie production. He belonged on a soap. It suited his acting style; it fit in with his desire to be a regular guy, someone with a job, a person who went to work every morning, saw the same people, was a part of a team. Acting in the soaps was clearly what he was meant to do with his professional life, and all of a sudden no one was letting him do it.
Then that strange, little, historical show, My Lady’s Chamber, needed to recast the part of His Grace Frederick Charles Edmund Stairs, the fifth Duke of Lydgate, and an instinct flashed along Jenny Cotton’s arms.