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A January Bride
A Year of Wedding Novella
By Deborah Raney
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Deborah Raney
All rights reserved.
Glancing at the chaos around her, Madeleine Houser set her coffee mug on the dining room table and shoved another packing carton out of her path. It didn't budge. She bent over and attempted to read the smudged label. Kitchen—good china. Oh. Good thing she'd resisted the temptation to kick the box.
Maddie looked into the kitchen where cupboards gaped open, hinges naked. The cabinet doors were lined up against the wall in the empty breakfast nook. Even after four days, the smell of wet enamel stung her nostrils. The flooring couldn't be laid until the electrician fixed the mess he'd made of the wiring. And she didn't dare put her china in the cupboards until all that was finished.
What had her sister gotten her into? Kate's husband had been transferred to Ohio, but with their mother in the nursing home here in Clayburn, Kate had begged her to leave her beloved New York loft and move into Kate and Jed's house on Harper Street while it was being refurbished to sell. "You can write anywhere, Maddie," Kate had pled in her best big-sister voice. "Besides, you can sublet the loft, and just think what you'll save on the rent."
So here she was in Clayburn, Kansas—the middle of nowhere—proving quite soundly that one could not write just anywhere.
Lugging the carton of china out of the way, she wove her way through the maze of boxes and poured another cup of coffee. She blew a long strand of dishwater-blond hair out of her eyes and slid into a dining room chair. In the midst of the piles of books and boxes and unsorted mail strewn across the table, her laptop computer glared accusingly at her.
Ignoring the disorder, she pulled the computer close, pushed her glasses up on her nose, and tried to remember where she'd left off. Ah, yes. The heartless landlord had just evicted the young widow. Oh, brother, Houser, how cliché can you get? Well, too bad. She didn't have time to change the whole plot now. She'd managed to write almost two thousand words this morning, but given her track record lately, she'd be lucky if fifty of them were worth keeping.
What had she been thinking to let her editor talk her into a January 1 deadline in the midst of this cross-country move? It was nearly October! "You can do it, Madeleine," Janice had crooned in her conniving editor's voice. "If we can get this book on the shelves before next Christmas, the first print run will sell out in a month. Come on. Say you'll do it. Houser fans are clamoring for your next book."
Over the six years Janice Hudson had been Maddie's editor, they'd become dear friends. But right now Maddie wanted to strangle her.
She edited the sentence in front of the blinking cursor and forced herself to return to the nineteenth century and the plight of Anne Caraway, her suffering heroine. Poor Anne. She'd lost her beloved William and been evicted from her home, alone with a small child to care for. Now, Maddie was about to throw Anne Caraway onto the mean streets of Chicago. It was the bane of an author's existence—this need to make her beloved characters suffer. To put them in the furnace and turn up the fire. But without conflict, there was no story, and conflict often equaled sorrow. So, onto the streets Anne Caraway and little Charlie must go. She typed furiously.
The faint echo of dripping water pierced her concentration. She glanced up from her laptop and tilted her head, listening. Was it raining? Who could tell with the heavy drapes covering the room's high windows? Those would have to go. But first she must finish this book. Brushing off the temptation to get up and check outside, she turned back to the keyboard. She typed twenty words before the drip, drip, drip became demanding.
She pushed her chair back and navigated the labyrinth of cardboard boxes. The sound seemed to be coming from the kitchen, but nothing was leaking there as far as she could tell. Dodging sawhorses the contractors had left, she crossed to the basement door. As a rule, basements gave her the creeps, but in this tornado alley on the Kansas prairie, it was a rare house that didn't have one. She'd been relieved to find Kate and Jed's charming Tudor had only a closet-sized cellar. Just enough space to provide refuge from a cyclone, but not enough to have dank corners where ... well, where whatever it was she was afraid of could hide.
She opened the door––and gasped. The wooden treads at the bottom of the flight glistened with moisture, and from the far end of the cellar, she could hear the unmistakable sound of water trickling into more water. A naked lightbulb hung over the stairs. Rats! The string attached to the pull chain was caught on one of the splintered rafters overhead. Maddie straddled the steps, one foot on the top landing, the other on the thin ledge that ran the length of the stairwell. Grabbing the door handle for support, she scooted along the ledge, grasping blindly for the string.
Next thing she knew, she was teetering on the ledge. She reached for something to steady herself. Unfortunately, what she found was the door, which slammed shut behind her.
The stairwell went dark. Miraculously she found the string with the next random swing of her arm. Not so miraculously when she pulled on the chain, the light flickered, then sparked. She heard the ominous sound of every electric device in the house powering down.
Had she remembered to save her manuscript? The old laptop barely held a charge anymore; it would be dead before the auto-save kicked in. She felt herself slipping and gasped when she hit the stairs. Hard. A sharp pain sliced through her left ankle, and she bumped down half the flight of stairs.
When the stairwell quit spinning, she crawled back up to the kitchen and pulled herself to her feet, testing. Ouch! Her ankle had already swollen to the size of a small grapefruit. Damp and aching, she hobbled to the cordless phone on the kitchen wall. Dead. And her cell phone was upstairs in the guest room charging. Thankfully the landline in the dining room had a dial tone. She rummaged through the desk drawer until she found the thin phone book and flipped to the number of her neighbor, Ginny Ross. Ginny answered on the second ring.
"Ginny? Hi, it's Madeleine Houser next door. Is your electricity out?"
"No. Well, at least I don't believe so. Just a minute ..."
Maddie heard an oven door creak open and then what sounded like the ding of a microwave. "No. Everything's still on over here."
"Rats! I think I've blown another fuse. And there's water in the—ouch!"
"Madeleine? What's happened? Are you all right?"
Maddie cringed as she eased into the desk chair. "I'm fine. I fell down the stairs and sprained my ankle."
"You scared me. I thought you'd electrocuted yourself."
Maddie gave a humorless laugh. "Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid. Sorry to bother you. I just didn't want to call the electrician again if it was only—"
"I'll be right over."
The phone went dead, and Maddie sat staring at the receiver for a few seconds, until she realized Ginny meant her words literally. Maddie had met her neighbor only two weeks ago, but already she'd grown to love the woman. At eighty-four and widowed for a quarter of a century, Ginny epitomized the word spry. She was as independent as any of Maddie's thirty-something New York friends. With her own mother's mind ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, it was good to have a wise older woman to talk to.
"Yoo-hoo!" Ginny's cheery voice floated in from the mudroom.
"Come on in, Ginny. But watch your step."
Ginny bustled into the kitchen, weaving her way through sawhorses and stepladders. "Now what did you do to yourself?" She bent to inspect Maddie's swollen ankle. "Oh, my! Are you sure it's not broken?"
"I don't think so." She rubbed the tender area around the swelling.
Ginny scooted another chair close and helped Maddie elevate her foot. Then she went to the freezer and rummaged inside until she unearthed a package of frozen peas. "Here we go." She wrapped the icy bag in a dishcloth and draped it over Maddie's ankle. She glanced around the kitchen, taking in the renovation chaos. "How are you ever going to finish that book in this mess?"
Maddie couldn't help it. Tears that had been pent up for weeks overflowed. "Oh, Ginny, I'm already so far behind I can't imagine how I'll make my deadline. And without electricity, I'm sunk."
"Well, of course you are." Ginny made sympathetic clucking noises with her tongue and surveyed the kitchen again. "This will never do. I'd offer to let you write at my house, but I'm afraid my beginning piano students would make this wreck seem like a haven of peace."
Maddie swiped at a tear and forced a smile. "I appreciate that, Ginny. But it's not your problem. I'll figure something out. Maybe I can just go to the library...."
"Are you kidding? You'd have a constant stream of onlookers gawking and pestering you with questions." Ginny snapped her fingers and turned to Maddie with a triumphant gleam in her eyes. "I know just the place. My friend Arthur Tyler has that monstrous house sitting empty ever since his Annabeth died. They had a booming bed-and-breakfast until Annabeth got so bad. Arthur rarely has guests at the inn now, so I know he wouldn't mind if you went there to write. You probably wouldn't want to stay overnight, but you could use one of the rooms for an office. Arthur is a professor at the university. Keeps saying he's going to retire, but he never does."
Maddie hesitated. "Where is this place, Ginny?" She felt awkward about the whole idea, but she had to do something. She sure wasn't going to get her book finished here.
"It's just a couple miles east of town. Out on Hampton Road. Pretty little place. Peaceful. Annabeth's parents ran the inn for years. Named it after her, of course. Grover and I stayed there for our fortieth anniversary. Seemed kind of silly to stay overnight two miles from home, but it was nice. Kind of romantic ..." A faraway look came to Ginny's eyes, and an ever-so-faint blush touched her powdered cheeks. "Let me give Arthur a call. You just get the plumber and electrician here. I'll take care of everything else."CHAPTER 2
Maddie stood in the doorway of the inn and inhaled. Sunlight splashed saffron patches on the shiny wood floors and caused the jewel tones in the window coverings and upholstery to glow. In spite of her injured ankle, she felt better already, standing in the spacious parlor and looking into tidy rooms free of packing crates.
"Arthur said to make yourself at home." Ginny dropped a key ring into the pocket of her bulky sweater and ran a hand over the oak mantel. Her fingertips left a trail in the film of dust. She cluck-clucked and shook her gray head. "Annabeth always kept this place spotless. Even after she got so sick. Poor Arthur ..."
"Was Annabeth a friend of yours?"
"She was. A dear friend. She and Arthur both. It was a terrible thing, her dying." Ginny lifted a heavy pewter candlestick and wiped the dust away with the sleeve of her sweater.
"I'm so sorry ..."
Ginny nodded, then gave a resolute bob of her chin and brightened. "I'd show you the rest of the house, but I don't think your ankle would appreciate that steep staircase yet. Arthur said you could set up shop in one of the guest rooms. He lives in the apartment on the lower level—doesn't use any of the house proper—so I'm sure you'd be welcome to use the main living area here if you prefer. Or you could hole up in this bedroom." Ginny opened the wide French doors off the living room to reveal a guest room beautifully decorated with dark, Old English antiques. "It's the only guest room on the main floor. And by the way, the only bathroom on the first floor is in here."
Maddie poked her head into the room and took in the modern pedestal sink on the far wall just outside a door that apparently concealed the bath.
Ginny pulled the doors closed and led the way through a wide arched doorway into the dining room. To the left, an open staircase led down to the apartment where the proprietor lived, Maddie presumed. The steep stairway was defended by an oak railing, and in the middle of the dining room sat a huge, round, antique oak table on an oriental rug. The walls wore old-fashioned wallpaper in shades of plum and burnished gold. A fine antique buffet held a silver tea service and baskets of teas and jams. Beyond that, an open doorway led to a small galley kitchen, where an array of dishes and baskets and jars of canned goods were displayed on open shelving.
"You're sure Mr. Tyler won't care if I set up right here?" Maddie tipped her head toward the dining room table.
"I'd say this is perfect," Ginny said, obviously pleased with herself. "I'll leave now so you can get to work."
"Oh, Ginny, it is perfect. How can I ever thank you?"
Ginny winked. "Just finish that book, sweetie. I've only about three chapters before I finish my last Houser novel, and then I'm fresh out of reading material."
Ginny bustled out the front door, and Maddie was left in the blessed quiet of the old house. She took her laptop from its case and set it on the table, positioning her chair for a lovely view through the arched doorway all the way to the front hall. She connected the power adapter and plugged it in. When she was satisfied with the arrangement, she unpacked her sack lunch and hobbled into the kitchen to put it away.
The refrigerator shelves were empty save for a few cans of soda and a package of ground coffee. Maddie put her lunch on the middle shelf, feeling strangely as though she were trespassing. But Ginny had said Arthur Tyler insisted she have free run of the place, including full use of the kitchen.
She dumped the dark sludge from the coffeemaker's carafe and found fresh filters in a drawer under the counter. Once the coffee was brewing, Maddie went back to the dining room to finish setting up shop. She unloaded her bag, placing her dictionary and several reference books to her left, notebook and pen to her right.
She popped a Mozart CD into her computer. Classical music filled the room, and Maddie sighed as she sank into the brocade padded chair, slipped off her shoes, and propped her swollen ankle on the seat of a neighboring chair. The timeless melody, the rich aroma of fresh coffee, and her Victorian surroundings transported her back in time. And when she put her fingers to the keyboard, the words flowed as they hadn't in months. I don't know you, Arthur Tyler, but God bless your generous old heart.
For the next two hours, Maddie typed, getting up only to refill her coffee mug. Her plot was moving along nicely when a polite meow made her look up from her computer.
A monstrous gray-and-white cat stuck its head through the stairway balusters and peered at her. Coming up the last steps, the cat sashayed over to Maddie, arched its back, and rubbed against her ankle before plopping down on her right foot.
Maddie took off her glasses and laid them on the table. "Well, hello there, kitty." She reached down to stroke the leonine head. "They didn't tell me about you."
The cat purred in response and nestled closer to Maddie. Though the house didn't have the chill she'd expected of a high-ceilinged Victorian, the cat's warmth was welcome. The old schoolhouse clock on the wall over the stairwell ticked a reassuring cadence, and she wrote for another hour while the cat napped.
The clock's muffled chime and the growl of her own stomach brought Maddie out of Anne Caraway's world and back to the present. Wiggling her toes and lowering her left foot from its elevated position on the other chair, she nudged the cat. "Sorry, kitty, but I need to get up and stretch a bit."
The cat yawned, bowed his back, and gave a short, friendly mew before following her into the kitchen. Maddie took her lunch from the refrigerator and ate it, leaning against the kitchen counter, her mind still on her story. Though her ankle throbbed, it felt good to stand up and flex her muscles a bit. After she finished her sandwich, she filled the sink with warm, sudsy water and washed the dishes, putting them to drain on the old-fashioned wire dish rack. She'd forgotten how nice it was to be in an operational kitchen, and she spent a few extra minutes tidying the kitchen before she went back to her computer.
Her feline friend had disappeared. The clock chimed the half hour and she looked up, surprised to find it was two-thirty already. Checking her word count, she was thrilled to discover she'd written almost three thousand words. A few more days like this and she might actually believe she could make her deadline. She saved the file, closed her laptop, and began gathering her belongings.
Before she left, she scratched out a note for the inn's owner.
Dear Mr. Tyler,
Thank you so much for allowing me to work from your lovely home. It was such a peaceful day, and I accomplished more than I'd hoped. I so appreciate your generosity, and if you're certain it's not too much of an inconvenience, I'll plan to come back tomorrow.
Excerpted from A January Bride by Deborah Raney. Copyright © 2014 Deborah Raney. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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