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Third in the Bradleyville Series

One thing I have learned. The bonfires of change start with the merest spark. Sometimes we see that flicker. Sometimes we blink in surprise at the flame only after it has marched hot legs upward to fully ignite. Either way, flicker or flame, we'd better do some serious praying. When God's on the move in our lives, He tends to burn up things we'd just as soon keep.

After her mama's death, sixteen-year-old Jackie Delham is left to run the household for her daddy and two younger siblings. When Katherine King breezes into town and tries to steal her daddy's heart, Jackie know she must put a stop to it. Katherine can't be trusted. Besides, one romance in the family is enough, and Jackie is about to fall headlong into her own.

As love whirls through both generations, the Delhams are buffeted by hope, elation, and loss. Jackie is devastated to learn of old secrets in her parents' relationship. Will those past mistakes cost Jackie her own love? And how will her family ever survive if Katherine jilts her daddy and leaves them in mourning once more?



"Strong writing ... The characters are interesting,
and Collins pens some worthy descriptions."
--Publishers Weekly

"Finely tuned like a seasoned orchestra. Keep the tissues handy.
Readers will be sorry to see this series end."
--RT Book Reviews


Prologue

Copyright 2014 by Brandilyn Collins



~ 1996 ~


I remember how the sky mourned with us, hanging in shades of gray, chilled and fitful. How the wind moaned through the red-leafed trees in the cemetery. I was only fourteen. Nature’s sorrow seemed right to me, for surely the world could not go on as usual, undisturbed and blithe, in the face of our tragedy. Vaguely, I wondered if others in my family shared the same thoughts.

Looking back now, I know they did. Self-absorption is common to the grieving. Every act of nature shouts our loss—the merest drop of rain a tear for the deceased, a stream of sunshine hailing some bright memory.

My family and I huddled together, trembling more in soul than body, as we faced my mama’s casket. White and gleaming, it rested on wide strips of green fabric above an open and hungry grave.

“Should we lower it?” the funeral director asked.

No!

Daddy’s cheek muscles froze, tears glistening in his red-rimmed eyes. He nodded.

The wizened cemetery worker stretched gnarled hand to metal gear and started cranking. Chink, chink. Chink, chink. Slowly, the casket began to descend.

Daddy gripped my shoulder, grief bubbling in his throat. My brother, Robert, age ten, leaned against me, solemn, wooden. Chink, chink. Seven-year-old Clarissa clutched her coat around her, as if to wrap herself against the sound. I watched the bottom of the casket disappear, the blunt cliff of earth edge up its side.

Mama, Mama!

Memories pierced me like shards of glass. Saturday morning pancakes. Softball game cheers. Suppertime laughter. The way she hugged Daddy. Our talks of first love.

Cancer. Pain. Dulling eyes. Final words.

Lifeless head on a satin pillow.

Chink, chink.

Grandma Westerdahl wailed for her daughter.

The top of the casket disappeared. Still the man cranked. An errant leaf, brittle and worn, skittered across the ground to snag on his wrist. As if to say, Stop! Stop your turning, crank the other way, up and up. Turn back time! He flicked the leaf away.

Chink, chink. Chink, ch

Silence, save for the wind. The man rocked back on his heels, task done.

The ceremony was complete. Time now for us to go home. To leave Mama behind. My mind numbed. I could not grasp it—my mama’s warm brown eyes, her voice, her love, her life now stiffened, silenced. Covered by a casket, soon by soil. Her light, her dreams, her energy—a sputtering candle now spent.

We stood, bewildered refugees, staring at the open earth.

Grandpa Delham put his arm around Daddy. Grandma Delham reached for Clarissa, but my little sister pulled away. Carefully, she inched to the edge of the grave, then peered down. I can still see Clarissa, her blue coat flapping against lace-topped socks, her weight tilting forward on one foot, neck craned. I knew she had to see the casket, had to have a mental picture to take with her, to remember after dirt covered all.

Grandpa Westerdahl held his sobbing wife.

Clarissa took her time, then sidled back to us, bleary-eyed and pale. Daddy grasped her hand.

I, too, had to see. Approaching the grave, I braced myself and looked down. Expectation did not lessen the shock. The pure white of the casket screamed against black earth. I reminded myself that Mama was not really there. That her soul flew in heaven, hovered at Jesus’ feet.

Little comfort the thought gave me.

We had to leave. I had a family to take care of—a grief-stricken father, siblings who needed a mama. God, I can’t do this!

I took a step back, willing myself to say goodbye to Mama. Willing it and willing it. Somehow I managed a second step. A third. Then I forced myself to turn around. Rejoined my family. I hugged Robert, slipped my fingers around Daddy’s arm. Clarissa still held his other hand.

As a group, we began to make our wearied way toward the car. To our home and life—without Mama. I clutched Daddy and trudged forward, even as my mind screamed, I can’t leave her, I can’t leave her, I can’t leave her! I could not look back. I had to go on, all of us did. My family needed me to be strong. I focused on my feet, one step at a time. Forward.

But a piece of my heart jagged loose and took a manic leap down the grave.



Chapter 1

 ~ 1998 ~


When Katherine May King set foot in Bradleyville she brought a tornado with her.

It happened on a Monday afternoon in mid- March—a year and a half after my mother’s funeral. I’d hurried my brother and sister home from school through a blustering wind and darkening sky. Clarissa dropped some spelling papers, and I had to chase them up the sidewalk as they dipped and soared like drunken butterflies. We blew in through our front door just as the downpour started.

“Whoa.” Robert set his books on the kitchen table with his typical nonchalance. “It’s sprinklin’ a might.”

“Winnie!” Clarissa opened the back sliding glass door. Our black-and-white spaniel shot inside, already drenched, and danced grateful paw prints around our legs.

“There goes my clean floor.” I grabbed a rag from under the sink and started drying her off. Then crab-walked around the wood, swiping at the tracks. “You two make sure all the windows are shut. This is gonna be a bad one. Then come back in here. Might as well start homework.”

“But I haven’t had my hour of TV.” My sister pouted.

I pushed to my feet. “You can’t watch television during a storm, Clarissa.” I hurried into the family room to unplug our set.

Although being on the phone wasn’t a great idea either, I made a quick call to Daddy down at the bank to tell him we were home safe. He told me to do everything I’d already done. “Wait the storm out before you drive home, Daddy. We’ll be fine here.” The bank was only a mile from our house, but I didn’t want him taking any chances.

The wind wailed like a banshee as I hung up. Clarissa high-tailed it back into the kitchen, eyes wide. “I’m scared.”

I hugged her, rubbing the top of her light brown head. Clarissa was small and immature for age nine, a frail body and a frail soul. Sometimes I despaired that she needed more mothering than I could give her. “It’ll be okay. Come on, I’ll get you a snack. Then we’ll tackle your math.” Clarissa and math were not the best of friends.

“Oohh.” My sister could drag out those two letters like no one else. Her tone would rise about four notes, and she’d add a little “uh” on the end. “I hate math!”

Before long we huddled at the kitchen table, Winnie at our feet. Robert had retreated to his bedroom, supposedly to study. My theory was that he cultivated dirty socks behind that closed door. I swear they grew from the carpet.

Clarissa and I could barely concentrate. Gusts rattled the windows, and our trees creaked and groaned. We struggled through six problems, Clarissa’s eyes flicking often to the backyard.

Then—silence.

Our heads snapped up. I stared through the glass door, frowning, then rose slowly from my chair.

“Jackie, what happened?” Clarissa’s voice tinged with fear.

“I don’t know.” I placed a palm against the door and peered out. Everything seemed deadly still. Not a drop of rain. Not the tiniest breeze.

The sky had turned pea green.

The silence roared in my ears. My skin tingled. Something was coming.

“Clarissa, stay right here.”

Before she could protest, I pivoted through the kitchen and toward the front door. Carefully, I opened it. Stepped outside on the porch. An eerie calm bathed our street. On shaky legs, I made my way down the sidewalk, then tipped back my head to view the sky.

In the distance, I saw a whirling black mass.

A moment passed before the sight registered. “Tornado!”

I flew back into the house, locking the door with fumbling fingers. “Robert! Clarissa!” I pounded down the hall to my brother’s room. He yanked open the door, gaping at me. “Come on.” I grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the kitchen, my thoughts flying in a dozen directions. We didn’t have a basement. I’d never been in a tornado before. Where was the safest place to go, what should we do? Clarissa met us in the hall, already crying from the fear in my voice. I forced myself to sound calm.

“A tornado’s coming. Get into the front closet.” I pushed her toward Robert.

“I’m scared!”

“Just go, Clarissa! I’ll get Winnie.”

Robert led her away without a word. There were times when my brother’s understatedness came in handy. I ran toward the kitchen, calling for Winnie. She trotted out, ears back. “Come on, girl, let’s go.”

Robert flung the closet door open, and we shoved coats aside. Outside a distant freight train rumbled. Clarissa hung back. “It’s gonna be dark in there.”

“Go, Clarissa!” I pushed her inside, then Winnie, all four paws sliding beneath stiffened legs over the floor. Robert jumped in and I followed, pulling the door closed. I couldn’t see a thing.

“Get down on the floor.” I felt for Clarissa.

“Jackie!”

I caught her shoulders and nudged her down. The freight train grew louder. “Robert, where are you?” I groped until I hit something solid.

“Ow, that’s my head.”

“Well, get down, you idgit.”

I knelt down, folding myself over top of Clarissa. The train fumed. “I want Mama!” Clarissa sobbed, and I shushed her with a quaking throat.

“Jesus, help us,” I prayed aloud.

The freight train turned into a roar of a thousand waterfalls. I couldn’t breathe.

Strange, the visions that blew through my head. I pictured our bodies broken and dying, our spirits going to heaven—to Mama. For a brilliant moment I felt intense, almost heartrending peace. Then thoughts of this world swept the vision away. We couldn’t die and leave Daddy alone. Besides, I was only sixteen and had yet to be kissed. Couldn’t God allow me my deepest longing on this earth—to fall headlong into a perfect love like Daddy and Mama had?

So much for noble thinking.

We trembled and prayed. Clarissa cried. Then the roar receded. Finally, all grew quiet.

I opened the closet door, not knowing if we’d have a house around us. We did.

I laid my head against the front door, listening, then eased outside. Branches littered the street like dominoes. Paper fluttered among the treetops. I saw a dark shape lying on the road a ways down, and my heart clutched. Who was it? I ran down the sidewalk toward it, neighbors spilling out of their own houses. How were Mr. and Mrs. B next door? They were elderly and couldn’t move very fast. My vision jerked up and down as I ran, feet slapping against wet pavement. I realized what the shape was and slowed, unbelieving. A dead horse in the middle of our street. The nearest farm lay across the tracks and outside town. If the tornado could pick up that heavy animal light as a feather and drop it near our  house …

I turned and gazed at the wayward pieces of paper, now sifting to the ground. Then sprinted to our house, heart hammering, to call the bank.

Which brings me back to Katherine May King.

At the time, I didn’t know everything that had happened, of course. Only much later, through secretive smiles and quiet revelations, would I piece together the details.

Katherine rolled into town that afternoon, expected by no one, chased by the storm. By the time she passed the handmade sign on Route 622 that read “Welcome to Bradleyville, population 1723,” rain poured in buckets down her windshield. She inched her way toward the first of the town’s two stoplights on Main, no other cars in sight. I can just picture her now, long red nails gripping the steering wheel and a defiant tune humming in her throat. The rain ceased and the world stilled about the time she hit the light. She stopped in the middle of the intersection, got out of her car, and studied the sky. And spotted the tornado.

That was enough to make even Katherine May King jump. She threw herself back into the car and gunned down Main in search of a safe building. The post office she passed up. Didn’t look like it had changed a bit in the past eleven years, and she knew it would offer little shelter. She passed the IGA grocery as well—a wise decision in retrospect, because a corner of its roof ended up blowing off. Spotting the bank on her left, she screeched to a halt at the curb and fought to open her car door. The tornado was closing in, and the force blowing down Main did everything it could to keep her from crossing the street.

Inside the bank, Daddy had received a phone call about the approaching monster and ordered everybody into the vault. He tried to call home, but nobody answered. He’d just shooed the last person into the vault when something made him turn around. Through the front glass doors he saw a sight to behold. A woman in form-hugging jeans and a ruffled blouse, raven-black hair flying around her face, staggered toward the door.

“Lord, help me.” Daddy practically flew across the bank. He crashed into the door and pushed with all his might before it opened. Reaching out both arms, he dragged the woman inside as the tornado screamed overhead. The bank shook. They had no time to reach the vault. “Here!” He pulled the woman toward the nearest desk, pushed her underneath and climbed in after her. The rumble turned deafening. She shot a wide-eyed look at Daddy, then buried her face in his chest, fingers clutching his sleeve. He threw both arms around her and held on.

A loud crack reverberated through the bank. Something exploded, followed by the sound of crashing glass. Daddy held the woman tighter as wind buffeted through the bank, sure they would both die, praying to God for us kids.

Finally, silence.

Daddy relaxed his grip. The woman raised her head. They faced each other in the dimness, listening. Daddy had the vague thought that she looked familiar. She blinked large brown eyes, as if thinking the same about him.

They crawled out from under the desk.

The bank was a mess. People emerged to find the glass doors shattered, papers and supplies littering the floor. A purse balanced on the edge of the counter. Daddy would eventually find his suit coat torn and crumpled against the back wall. Sick with fright, he stumbled to find a phone to call us. The woman pivoted after him, tugging at his shirt.

“Goodness, I must’ve looked a sight,” Katherine told me later, “my blouse all untucked and my hair in a million different directions.”

Maybe. But I can picture what Daddy saw. Katherine, all tanned and slim and fiery, basking in gratitude until it welled in her eyes. Not that I think she didn’t appreciate what Daddy had done. It’s just that she knew how to use it.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said. “You probably saved my life.”

Their eyes held for a moment. He nodded at her, then reached to snatch a telephone up from the floor. Katherine picked her way over glass, intent on seeing what was left of her car. Of course, she looked back. Daddy was saying hello to someone on the phone.

Me.

But his eyes were fixed on her.