After the Storm by Lenora Worth released on Apr 1, 2010 is available now for purchase.
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He was lost.
Jared Murdock didn't need a map to tell him that he'd been lost for a very long time. But sitting here on this steep, rain-drenched North Georgia mountain road brought it all tumbling toward him, like a mud slide unleashed.
"It wasn't supposed to rain this hard," he grumbled as he once again put his right foot on the gas pedal of the sleek black Escalade. Jared pressed firmly, but the big tires on the SUV kept right on spinning deeper and deeper into the mud hole in which he'd managed to get himself stuck.
"So much for four-wheel-drive," he said out loud, hitting his fist against the leather-encased steering wheel.
He knew he was close to the cabin his travel agent had rented for him on one of the foothills of Dover Mountain, but with the darkness and the storm, Jared couldn't tell if he'd made the right turn or not. Apparently not.
It had been such a long time since he'd been here. At least twenty years. That had been the summer before Jared had headed off to the University of Georgia. He'd come here to hike and fish with his grandfather before football and studies took up all of his time.
And then there had been so little time to get together after that. Wishing now he'd taken the time, Jared stared out into the angry night.
Maybe he'd been lost ever since, Jared mused now as he watched the storm's violent slashes of rain and wind descend over the ominous-looking woods and hills. The crash of thunder and lightning rumbled over the earth, shaking the windows of his vehicle.
Jared saw a flicker of dancing fire rushing out of the heavens, and then a tree deep in the forest split in half. "That one hit too close for comfort."
There was only one thing left to do. He'd have to walk the short distance up the steep mountain road to the cabin. That would have to be better than sitting here in the rain and dark inside his vehicle, an easy target for a tree to land on. He'd find the cabin, get a roaring fire going, get some sleep, then come back for the Escalade in the morning.
Things always looked better in the morning. Wasn't that what his grandmother used to say? "The light comes after the darkness, Jared," she would tell him. Grandmother Murdock had passed away while Jared was in college.
And his grandfather had passed away a couple of months ago. The grief of that washed at him like the rain hitting his windshield, fast and furious.
Jared turned off the motor and got out to go around the SUV, water and mud sluicing against the treads of his hiking boots. The downpour would have him soaked to the bone in minutes, but he didn't have much choice. Lifting the hood of his leatherjacket, he opened the back door and got out his duffel bag. At least he'd dressed warmly and he had warm clothes to spare in the aged leather bag -- if he could keep it dry. And there should be some food waiting in the cabin, according to the travel agent. At least coffee and soup, if nothing else.
Trying to remember what the woman had told him earlier, Jared searched the road and woods as he trudged up the ever-winding incline. It had been so long since he'd been here and the mountain refused to give him any clues.
Nor had the perky travel agent, who'd wondered over the phone why Jared wanted to stay at such a down-and-out tourist spot as Dover Mountain. "It used to be the place to go for a quiet retreat, but now it's fallen on hard times. It's awfully isolated there, Mr. Murdock. Certainly off the beaten path."
"Just find me a cabin," he'd growled into the phone.
She'd called back a few minutes later, her enthusiasm back full force. "There are several to choose from. Some of them are privately owned now, but some of them are rentals. Yours is the second one on the left, back off the road."
Or had she said the second one on the right?
Jared was too bone weary to remember what she'd said, or which cabin he'd always shared with his grandfather. But he hoped he'd guessed the right one when he'd tried to describe it to the confused agent. It didn't really matter now, anyway. He'd been too frustrated earlier to care whether or not the woman found him the same cabin. He only knew that he wanted to come back to this spot, this mountain, maybe in honor and celebration of his grandfather, maybe out of a sense of duty and guilt.
Tired. He was so tired. And he'd only wanted to get away. Lately the events in his life had just about worn him to a frazzle. And besides, he did his best thinking when he was alone, with no distractions. The adventurer in him liked the solitude of climbing rock faces and hiking through dense woods. But tonight his soul was crying out for something more, for something he'd lost the day his grandfather had died.
Actually, he'd lost part of himself long before Grandfather Claude had died. Meredith had seen to that.
During the next month, Jared intended to think his way out of having to end a fifteen-year partnership with his friend Mack Purcell. Well, at least now he didn't have to come up with a plan to save Murdock and Purcell Media Consultants; his ex-partner owned the company outright. Now Mack would have to decide what to do about expanding the company in a strained economy. Jared was out of the picture. Completely. Once he'd signed the final papers earlier today, selling out his shares to his partner, there had been no turning back. Jared should have felt relief, but instead he'd just felt drained and sick. Old and washed-out. Empty and betrayed.
We took too many risks, Jared thought now as the wind and rain whistled around his dark hair. And Mack had taken the one risk that had ended their friendship forever. Only, that risk had nothing to do with business. It had been strictly personal.
Nothing like a best friend stealing a fiancée right out from under a man's nose to bring that man to a crashing midlife crisis.
"I'm too young for this," Jared reasoned as he battled the cold wind and the even colder water hitting his face. Too young for a crisis, but too stupid to see what had been so clear and right in front of his eyes.
Well, he could see now, Or at least by the time he'd trailed all the hills and bluffs of Dover Mountain, he'd have it all figured out. The cold air caused Jared's eyes to tear up and his nose to turn red. It was a wet spring night, unusually cold for April. Not a good night to be out on a lonely mountain road. Instead of helping him get his mind off things, being here only brought home the problems he'd left behind in his fancy Atlanta penthouse and the memories he'd tried so hard to leave behind in his mind. Maybe he should just turn around and go back to the city. But he didn't want to turn around. Jared's failures were chasing him up this mountain as surely as the driving storm was chasing at the trees.
He turned to the right and saw a single light shining from a cabin up the lane.
Always leave a light burning.
His grandparents had taught Jared that. Always leave the door open for hope, they'd said. Jared had come back here in hopes of finding some of the faith and strength his grandparents had tried to instill in him. And maybe finally to face his own shortcomings. He wondered if he'd be able to conquer those shortcomings.
Or even to make it up this drenched mountain to that beckoning light.
She was in trouble.
Alisha Emerson held one hand to her protruding stomach as yet another pain shot through her with the ferocity of a lit fuse. With her other hand, Alisha held the wall as she struggled toward the bedroom. Could this be it? Was her baby coming? But it wasn't time yet. The doctor and the midwife had both told her another two weeks.
In spite of the chilly Saturday night, sweat trickled down Alisha's face. She could feel the cold sweat of fear and anticipation moving down her back. She wished that she'd had a phone installed six months ago when she'd moved here, but Alisha knew it was too late to do any second-guessing now. She had refused a phone because she wanted to save money, and she didn't want to talk to anyone. She didn't want anyone to find her. Or call her. She'd been trying to protect herself and her unborn child. But now, she wished she'd thought ahead, just in case.
She'd thought she had everything planned out. Mrs. Wilkes had offered to let her oldest daughter, Geneva, come to stay with Alisha just before the baby came and even afterward. But Geneva wasn't due back in Dover Mountain for another week. She lived in Fort Stewart with her new husband, but had planned on coming home to stay during the spring while he went away on temporary duty in Iraq. The girl had readily agreed to the job, since she could use the money Alisha had offered, and since it would help to ease her own loneliness, too.
Alisha had never felt so lonely in her life. With a groan, she made it to the bedroom where a single kerosene lamp burned on a small grapevine table. At least she had that one source of light, since the storm had knocked out the electricity. The next round of labor pains knocked her down on the bed. Alisha grabbed the baby-blue chenille bedspread that had belonged to her mother, her fingers digging against the worn, plush fabric. Even the pain brought her a small measure of comfort on this dark night, since she knew that meant she'd soon have her baby in her arms.
But she wanted that baby to be born safe and warm, without any problems. She needed help. She'd never make it up the mountain to the Wilkeses' trailer with this terrible storm brewing outside. She probably couldn't even make it to the next cabin up the hill. And if she did, she might not find anyone there anyway. Loretta Wilkes had told her a renter was coming to stay for, a month or so. But Alisha wasn't sure when the renter was due to arrive.
And besides, she didn't like strangers.
"Lord, I need Your help now," she whispered in a fevered prayer. "I need You, Lord. You brought me here, You protected my baby in the womb. Please protect this birth. Please, Lord, bless this birth. Send me somebody, Lord."
Alisha's prayer became a constant plea as she struggled through the first stages of labor. Her water hadn't broken yet, so if she could hold on until morning, she might have a chance. She could at least go out on the road and wait for someone to come down the mountain then. The few commuters to Dalton and the other surroundings towns usually drove down the mountain around five each morning, but then with this storm . . .
Alisha let out a gasp as another realization hit her almost as hard as her labor pains. "Tomorrow's Sunday." No one would be coming down the mountain. They'd all be headed to church.
Tomorrow was Easter Sunday.
Telling herself not to worry, she realized this could just be false labor. She'd read about that. It was probably a false alarm, a welcoming warning of the real thing. No need to get all worried until things got worse.
Things got worse in the next hour. The pain in her stomach felt like a vise grip pressing on her center, her fear increased with each beat of her heart, and her back was hurting all over. She twisted to her side to relieve the pressure on her back, but the pain seemed to keep on coming.
Outside, the storm hit with the same intensity as the pains in her stomach. She could hear the wind moaning, could hear failing limbs crashing against the shingled roof of the tiny cabin. Thunder and lightning banged and hissed through the night, making her own pain seem more frantic and fast-paced.
Grimacing, she shifted so she could see the windup clock by the bed. Well after midnight, but still a long time until morning. Trying to stay calm, Alisha began timing her contractions. They were coming about every ten minutes and lasting about thirty seconds. From everything she'd read in her pregnancy books, this was all right for now. If she could just stand the pain. She didn't think beyond what she would do if they started coming faster and lasting longer. She didn't think beyond the timings.
"But I have to think," she said to the silent, creaking cabin. "I have to be prepared. Didn't I learn that lesson a long time ago?"
Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Alisha managed to get up and gather some clean blankets and sheets and place them on the rocking chair by the bed. She held onto the wall by the window for a while, watching the driving rain just past the tiny porch. The woods and trees looked so angry and full of turmoil as water and wind covered them in a heavy whitewash. Alisha longed to go out into the rain, to be washed clean again. To be pure and fresh again. To find some beauty. Every now and again, the wind would pick up and the rain would blow past the window in a great huffing breath of swirls and water.
As she stood there, Alisha realized that she was utterly and completely alone. After a while, another contraction hit her. She held on to the wall, her gaze on the trees being tossed about out in the forest, her prayers trapped inside her throat as she worked against the increasing pain and fear. Then she went back to the bed and tried to rest.
A few minutes later, Alisha lay back as another contraction passed, her eyes focused on the driftwood-and-seashell cross hanging on the planked wall across from the bed. Her now-deceased mother had given her the beautiful cross when Alisha had gotten married over ten years earlier.
"Never forget who gives us strength, honey," her diminutive mother had told her in a tear-strained voice.
Keep your eyes on the cross, Alisha told herself now. Don't think about the bad stuff. Don't think about him. He's gone now. He can't hurt you anymore. He can't hurt your baby. Keep your eyes on the cross. God will not leave you comfortless.
But she had to wonder, would God help her tonight? Or would He bring about His own certain justice to make her pay for her sins?
"For my child, Lord," she said into the night. "I'm asking for the sake of my child. He is little and innocent. Please, Lord, don't punish my child."
She must have drifted into a moment of sleep. She woke quickly, but lay still, breathing deeply, the pain subsided for now. When she got a bit of energy, she'd have to go to the kitchen and boil some water. And she'd need more towels and some sterilized scissors. She wasn't sure how she was going to deliver this baby all by herself, but if her contractions got worse, she'd have to do the best she could. She felt thankful that she was in good physical shape from exercising and from walking up and down this mountain every day, come rain or shine. Besides, thousands of women had done the same, hadn't they?
Frantically, she sat up and searched the small room for one of her baby books. Finding one on the aged dresser, she struggled to step across the space and grab it. She'd just have to follow the step-by-step instructions shown in the book and hope that everything went okay.
Keeping that thought in mind, she stood against the dresser, taking in her haggard appearance in the cracked mirror, then quickly threaded her long auburn hair into a hap-hazard braid and tied it with a ribbon she found in a drawer. Then she sat back against the bed, her fingers hurriedly turning pages to the spot that listed what to do if you have to give birth alone.
Another pain racked her body, causing Alisha to feel the need to find release. Dropping the book beside the bed, she gritted her teeth and groaned. She wanted to push, but was afraid she shouldn't do that yet, so she lay back down on the bed and held to the wrinkled spread, trying to remember the breathing exercises she'd memorized from reading her pregnancy books over and over. She needed to pant so she wouldn't bear down.
Even as she huffed and counted and tried to focus, Alisha felt a lone tear moving down her left cheek. It fell with a big, cold splotch onto the yellow-flowered flannel of her nightgown, just over her heart. It didn't take long for other tears to follow. She could feel the wetness on her cheeks and neck, at first warm but soon turning icy cold against her hot skin.
"Mama, I'm so afraid," she said, her eyes trying to focus on the cross through her tears. "Mama, I need you. I need someone to help me --"
Her plea ended in a scream as her water broke and a huge wave of nausea and panic hit her with all the force of the next contraction. Dazed, she glanced down to check for the color of the water. It was pink-tinged amniotic fluid, which meant her baby was getting ready to be born. But . . . how long would she be in labor? No one could answer that. No one was here to answer that.
She listened for answers, but only heard the hissing of the fire in the nearby den and the now-soft dance of the rain failing outside. That and her own labored breathing.
Copyright © 2004 Lenora Worth
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I loved the story and the way the romance developed. I also loved the mystery aspect of the story and would recommend this book to anyone looking for an enjoyable, clean, story
This is a good example of the inspirational romance that Steeple Hill is known for. The story is not complicated and it is fairly easy to follow the hints that are given toward the resolution of the plot. I do wish, however, that Steeple Hill would do a better editing job. I found a number of blatant errors, like calling Tate Wilkes, Hank Wilkes at one point, that interrupted the flow of my reading. I find that terribly irritating.