Read an Excerpt
A CHAPEL SPRINGS ROMANCE
By DENISE HUNTER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Denise Hunter
All rights reserved.
Madison McKinley scanned the crowded town hall, wondering how many of her friends and neighbors she'd have to fight to get what she came for. Half of Chapel Springs had turned out to support the fire department. The faint scent of popcorn and coffee from last night's rotary club meeting still lingered in the air, and the buzz of excitement was almost palpable.
When she reached the front of the line, she registered for her paddle, then looked for her mom. She spotted Joann McKinley seated on the left, near the old brick wall.
Before Madison could move, Dottie meyers appeared in the busy aisle. "Madison, hello, dear. I was wondering if I could bother you about Ginger. I found a little knot behind her leg. I'm worried it might be something serious."
Last time it had only been a burr. Still, Madison set a hand on the woman's arm. "I'm sure it's fine, but I'll have Cassidy call you tomorrow and squeeze you in, okay?"
"All right, everyone," the emcee was saying into the mike. "It's about that time."
"Thank you so much, dear," Dottie was saying. "I'm so excited about this year's play. It's called Love on the Line. You are planning on coming out again, aren't you? You'll be fabulous as Eleanor."
Auditions were still two months away. "Looking forward to it. See you tomorrow." Madison participated in the town's production every year. She enjoyed the theater, and the proceeds supported the local animal shelter, a cause she was committed to.
She turned toward her mom and ran straight into a wall. "Ooomph."
Or a chest. A hard chest.
She looked up into the face of the one man she least wanted to see, much less slam into. She jumped back, looking square into his unfathomable coal-colored eyes.
She nodded once. "Beckett."
He returned the nod. "Madison."
His black hair was tousled. He wore a Dewitt's marina work shirt and at least two days' stubble. His jaw twitched. She hadn't spoken to him since she'd confronted him two weeks ago—for all the good it had done.
"Please take your seats," the emcee said.
She stepped to the left at the same time as Beckett. He was wide as Boulder Creek and twice as dangerous. She'd always thought so. The incident with her little sister had only confirmed it.
"Excuse me," she said.
He slid right and swept his arm out as if to say, After you, princess.
She shot him a look, then hurried down the aisle and slid into a metal chair beside her mom.
"Hi, sweetie. Good day?" Mom's short blond hair and blue eyes sparkled under the fluorescent lights, but it was her smile that lit the room.
"Twelve dogs, seven cats, two bunnies, and a partridge in a pear tree."
Beckett passed her row and slid into a seat up front by his sister. Layla had long brown hair and a model-pretty face. Their mom must've been beautiful, though Madison didn't remember her. Beckett leaned over and whispered something to his sister.
Madison tore her eyes away and loosened her death grip on the auction paddle. She refused to think about Beckett O'Reilly tonight.
The emcee took the podium and spoke about the importance of the fire station and their financial needs, then she introduced the auctioneer—hardly necessary since he also ran the local gas station. Moments later the bidding was under way.
Madison's eyes swung to Beckett's dark head. She could swear he was stalking her lately. He seemed to be everywhere she turned. If anything, the man should be avoiding her. Should feel ashamed of ... well, whatever he did to Jade.
Madison tracked the auction items, ticking off each one as they sold to the highest bidder. A handmade quilt, piano lessons, pie of the month, a cabin rental at Patoka Lake, and dozens of other things generously donated by the community.
Someone had made a miniature replica of the town's sign. Welcome to Chapel Springs, Indiana, it said. Prettiest River Town in America. A writer from Midwest Living had used the phrase twelve years ago, and the town had squeezed every last drop from it.
Evangeline Simmons, eighty-five if she was a day, amused all by driving up the bids. It was no secret that the fire department had saved her beloved Persian from a tree last month. So far her generosity had left her with two items she probably had no need for. But money was no object for Evangeline.
People trickled out as the auction wore on. Beckett left after losing a tool kit. Over an hour later, Madison grew tense as her item came up. The auctioneer read from the sheet.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen, this next one's a winner. Dewitt marina has kindly donated a sailing/regatta package. Lessons taught by sailing enthusiast Evan Higgins. Learn how to race on the beautiful Ohio river, just in time for our 45th Annual river Sail regatta, and sail with Evan Higgins, winner of the regatta for two years running! Now, who'll give me five hundred?" Madison's grip tightened on the handle, waiting for the auctioneer to lower the bid. Her breath caught in her lungs.
"All right, a hundred, who'll give me a hundred? A hundred-dollar bid ...?"
Casually, Madison lifted her paddle.
"A hundred-dollar bid, now a hundred fifty, who'll give me one and a half ...?"
In her peripheral vision she could see her mom's head swing toward her just as Evangeline raised her paddle—and the bid.
"A hundred fifty, who'll give me two, now two ...?"
Madison lifted her paddle, keeping her eyes straight ahead.
"Two hundred, now who'll give me two fifty, fifty, fifty ... ?Got it! Now three, three hundred, who'll give me three ...?"
Madison sighed, waited a moment before nodding.
"Three, now who'll give me three and a half, three fifty, fifty, fifty ...?"
Evangeline turned toward Madison, her eyes twinkling. She raised her paddle.
Evangeline. Madison hadn't counted on spending so much. Would serve the lady right if she dropped out. Just imagining the spry old woman on the bow of a boat, trying to manage the ropes and sails and whatnot, all four-foot-eleven of her ... It was tempting.
Madison could, after all, just go down to the marina and buy the lessons, but then she wouldn't be virtually assured of a win, would she? She needed Evan Higgins for that.
"Three fifty, do I hear three fifty ...? Got it! Now four, who'll give me four ...?"
A murmur had started in the crowd that remained, a few chuckling at Evangeline's antics.
The woman lifted her paddle.
"And now we're at four and a half, four and a half, who'll give me five, five, five ...?"
Madison clenched her jaw. She glared at Evangeline's silver head. It's a good cause. It's a good cause.
"And we have five, five, who'll give me five fifty, five fifty, five and a half ...?"
The rumbling had grown louder, though half the crowd was gone now that the auction was nearly over. The remaining people were being rewarded for their patience with a good show.
"Five fifty, fifty, fifty ...?"
Evangeline turned, and their eyes met. Her thin lips widened into a grin, then she folded her hands on top of her paddle.
"I've got five, now, five fifty, five fifty ... anyone, five fifty ...?
And ... sold at five hundred to Madison McKinley."
Madison expelled a heavy breath. She was five hundred dollars poorer, but she had her lessons. She was going to learn to sail, and she was going to win the regatta. For Michael's sake.
"You want to do what?" Dad stopped the basketball middribble, straightening from his crouch. His short gray hair was tousled and damp with sweat.
Ryan gave up the guard and faced Madison, hands on slim hips, frowning at the interruption. The firstborn of the McKinleys and steady as an oak, he was the sibling they turned to in a crisis.
Madison hadn't planned to tell her family just yet, what with the stress over Jade, but they were going to find out eventually. "She said she wants Michael's boat." PJ, the baby of the family, flipped her long brown ponytail over her shoulder. She'd inherited her dad's brown eyes and her mom's winning smile—though it was missing at the moment.
"So that's what the sailing lessons are all about," Ryan said.
"You know they actually put the boats on water," PJ said.
Madison swatted her sister's arm.
"Jo," Dad called, his eyes on Madison. "Know what your daughter's planning?"
Joanne set a container of potato salad on the cloth-covered picnic table. "You mean the regatta? I was at the auction, remember? You know the burgers are getting cold, right? Daniel, honey, could you grab the silverware?"
"Sure thing, Momma Jo." Daniel Dawson had been an honorary member of the McKinley family since Ryan brought him home in junior high. His wealthy grandma had raised him while his parents were off doing more important things. Daniel had recently won the mayoral election in Chapel Springs, following in his grandfather's footsteps.
At the mention of burgers, Dad dropped the ball. It patted the concrete as they walked off the court.
PJ kicked Ryan in the backside for no apparent reason, and he threw her over his broad shoulders just because he could. She squealed and pounded his back, but he didn't set her down until they reached the table.
"Brute," PJ said, giving him a playful shove.
Ryan saved lives, and PJ could feed an army, but when they got together it was like they were twelve. She was home for the weekend from culinary school.
They took their seats at the picnic table. Twilight had swooped across her parents' backyard, but the white lights strung over the patio and along the landscaping twinkled brightly. The mild spring temperature had beckoned them outside for the weekly family meal. Somewhere nearby, a cricket chirped from the flower garden, which was already burgeoning with new life.
Across the yard, the white farmhouse sprawled over the oak-shaded knoll like a plump aunt, arms spread wide for a comforting embrace. Beyond the house, corn grew about half the year on two hundred forty acres of gently rolling farmland. Her dad, proud to be one of Indiana's sixty-one thousand farmers, had never pressured the McKinley kids into filling his shoes, freeing them to find their own way. They were still working on that part.
Once they were seated, Dad said grace and they dug in. Grilled burgers, potato salad, green beans from last year's garden, and of course corn. There was always corn at the McKinley house.
"How's the planting going, Dad?" Ryan swatted a fly. "I can help next week if you want."
"Sounds good. I could use the help." Dad dished out a heaping spoonful of potato salad. "She wants to sail that old broken-down barnacle, Jo."
Madison placed her napkin in her lap, her eyes glancing off Mom. Despite her mother's perpetual smile, sadness had lingered in her blue eyes since Jade's sudden departure.
"Is that so?" Mom's look said more than her words. She knew Madison better than anyone. Knew the turmoil losing Michael still caused, even though Madison hadn't shed a tear, even though she rarely spoke of it. A girl didn't lose her twin brother without repercussions.
"For Michael." Her family stilled, even PJ, and that didn't happen often. "It's important to me."
Michael had been a capable sailor, though he hadn't lived long enough to sail in the regatta. It had been his dream to be the youngest winner ever—the current record holder being twenty-seven. And with their twenty-seventh birthday around the corner, time was running out.
"And you think you can actually win in that thing?" Dad asked.
She hadn't meant to blindside him. "I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's a hunk of rotten wood."
He was making it sound far worse than it was. "I'm going to restore it."
Her dad breathed a laugh.
Okay, so it was in rough shape, but Michael had saved for it for two summers. On the doorstep of seventeen, he'd bought a boat instead of a car. She still remembered the look of pride on his face when he'd shown it to her.
"She's all mine, Madders," he'd said, running his hand along the flaking white paint at the bow. "I'm going to be the youngest winner ever, you'll see."
"In that thing?" she'd asked.
"It's just cosmetic stuff. Her bones are good."
"It's still in the barn, honey," Mom said now, setting her hand over Dad's clenched fist.
"Thanks, Mom. It won't be the fastest boat out there, but the race is handicapped, so I have a good shot."
"She can't swim, Jo."
"That's what life vests are for, Daddy," PJ said gently.
Dad's lips thinned. He was torn, Madison knew. Between wanting to support her and being afraid for her.
"I'll be fine. I'll take every precaution. I'm getting lessons, aren't I?"
"Let me know if I can help," Ryan said. "I can, you know, crew or whatever."
PJ nudged him with her shoulder. "You wouldn't know a sail from a bath sheet."
"Oh, and you would?"
"Children. Eat your supper."
A few minutes later PJ launched into a story about a soufflé disaster, lifting the mood. By the time Mom set the apple pie on the table, Dad's expression had lightened, though Madison noticed that Daniel was quiet tonight. She caught him casting a look at the empty seat next to her. She understood. It seemed strange without Jade there.
After supper, Madison helped her mother with the dishes while the others played HOR SE. She scrubbed the burger platter while Mom loaded the old brown dishwasher.
Madison loved the little house she rented—which until two weeks ago Jade had shared—but there was something comforting about her parents' home. Something about the predictable squeaks in the old wood floor, the hourly chime from the grandfather clock, and the familiar scents of lemon and spray starch. She rinsed the platter. Even the ancient spray hose, which was more trickle than spray.
After the dishwasher had whirred into action, Mom leaned against the sink ledge. The pendant lights illuminated her face, settled into the laugh lines around her eyes.
"Are you sleeping okay, honey? You look tired lately."
"I'm fine." Madison had never told Mom about the nightmares, and she wasn't about to worry her with them now.
Her mom gave her a long, knowing look. The kind that made Madison realize that she could shutter off her heart to the outside world, but Mom would still see right through.
"You know, Madison ... if it's peace you're looking for, you won't find it on the regatta course."
Madison put the platter away, the old cupboard giving a familiar creak. Was that what she was after? Peace? Did a person ever find such a thing after losing someone they loved so much? Someone so innocent and undeserving of death?
Mom took her hands, which had begun wringing the towel. "I wish I could help. I can't, but I know Someone who can."
"I know, Mom." She'd heard it often enough. From her parents, Pastor Adams, even Ryan. If showing up at church could fix what ailed her, she'd have been healed long ago. She was as regular as the pianist. All the McKinleys were.
Mom's eyes turned down at the corners and glimmered with sadness.
"Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Really. Learning to sail will be ..." She squeezed the word past her lips. "Fun."
"I don't know how you'll have time with the play and all. You know how busy you get every summer with all the rehearsals."
"It'll be a lot, but I can handle it." It wasn't like she had a husband and kids. Or even a boyfriend.
Madison hung the towel on the oven door, and they meandered outside and sat on the concrete stoop. Mom grabbed a handful of sunflower seeds from the bag she kept there and tossed them onto the dirt path near the birdbath.
"I should've gotten you a birdfeeder for Mother's Day."
Mom tossed another handful. "This is just as easy."
"It's a wonder you don't have a sunflower forest out there for all the seed you've thrown over the years."
"The ground's too hard. Besides, the birds snatch it up as quickly as I scatter it."
A sparrow fluttered to the ground, picked up a seed, and made off with it.
"See what I mean?"
On the court, PJ whooped. "That's an R. So that's H-O-R for all of you." She might be small, but the girl could shoot. The men groaned as she sank another shot.
"I finally heard from Jade today," her mom said.
Madison turned. "Why didn't you say something?"
Joanne shrugged. "I told the others before you arrived. She only left a message. Didn't say where she was. I don't think she's coming home anytime soon."
Madison's lips pressed together. Beckett. What did he do to her? "She didn't say what happened?"
"No. It's been a long time coming, I think. Jade's always been restless, and I've had a feeling she'd leave sooner or later. I just wish I'd said something. I hate the thought of her out there all alone."
Madison put her arm around her mom. "She's an adult, Mom. She can take care of herself."
Neither of them said what they were both thinking. Jade might be an adult—she wasn't even the youngest sibling—but she was the most vulnerable of all the McKinleys.
Excerpted from Barefoot Summer by DENISE HUNTER. Copyright © 2013 by Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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