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Including the return of a small community's most hated prodigal, a shock too soon eclipsed by the sort of murder that shatters country-safe complacency and sends sales of alarms and handguns soaring. A murder rooted in a tragedy so painful, it formed fault lines in the bedrock far beneath the time-worn prairie and the clear, unblinking sky.
* * *
"I love you like a sister, but don't be telling me which patients I can and cannot handle," Beth Ann Decker warned from the office doorway. She had already pulled on a jacket over her white scrubs and picked up her nursingbag. In ultra-conservative Hatcher County, residents expected a medical professional to look the part-even if she was caring for them in their homes.
Flushing to the tinted roots of her strawberry-blond hair, Cheryl Riker peered up from a cluttered desk in the center of an office crammed with file cabinets. Beth Ann saw that she'd moved her computer-which must have crashed again-into a corner on the floor to make room for still more charts. These past few years, revenue had skidded downhill like bald tires on a patch of ice-slick asphalt. But even in the best of times, the visiting nurse and hospice program was the redheaded stepchild of the system.
The chair creaked as the plump Cheryl struggled to her feet in an attempt to look authoritative. Though she was technically the director of the program, she had never been much good at the bossing side of the equation. "Look, I'm sorry. I don't think it's a good idea for you to take this particular patient, that's all. Let me call in Vickie, cancel her vacation."
Beth Ann shook her head. "You can't do that. That poor woman's been carrying on about this anniversary cruise for months-and when was the last time she had two weeks off anyway?"
Cheryl frowned, her face creasing into lines reminiscent of her mother's. Since her fortieth birthday earlier this autumn, Cheryl had been fretting about ending up looking like a Texas road map-a worry that only made her frown more. "If we had any other nurse available ..."
It wasn't a discussion worth repeating. With Emmaline Stutz out with a bad back and the current hiring freeze, there was no one else available-and both women knew it.
Cheryl shook her head, concern in her hazel eyes. "You can't go out there, Beth Ann. Hiram Jessup's daughter died in that wreck. And his son-well, you know what happened with Mark."
"Oh, for cryin' in a bucket. Three years in hospitals and rehab centers, and you think it's possible I've forgotten any of the details?" How could she with people reminding her every time she turned around?
At her friend's stricken look, Beth Ann added, "Come on, Cheryl. It's been sixteen years. Mr. Jessup and I have long since made our peace."
Not that they'd ever come out and discussed it, but at least Hiram didn't storm out of the town's only grocery store during their infrequent, chance encounters. He nodded almost amiably in church, too, when both showed up for Christmas services and Easter.
"What about that lawsuit?" Cheryl asked.
Beth Ann shrugged. "That's old business between him and my mama. It's nothing to do with me."
This wasn't exactly true, since her mother had filed suit on account of Beth Ann's injuries-or her medical bills, to be specific. But Cheryl, bless her heart, didn't argue the point.
"Maybe I should take care of this one ... brush up on my field experience." Cheryl fingered the tiny gold cross pinned to the lapel of her wine-colored blazer. She had once confessed to Beth Ann that she had only taken the supervisory position, with its long hours and myriad headaches, so she could wear "grown-up clothes." Scrubs, she complained, made her rear end look wider than a school bus.
"When was the last time you did patient care?" Beth Ann crossed her arms, banging her cane against the doorframe in the process. The stick was one more thing that kept her-and everyone else-from forgetting.
"I handled Mr. Jessup's intake after Emmaline went home with that back strain. Did all the paperwork myself-"
"Paperwork." Beth Ann shook her head. "Just let me take care of this. Please."
"Why? Why would you do this to yourself?" Cheryl demanded. "Why's it so important to you?"
"Because for sixteen years, I've been fighting an uphill battle trying to convince everyone in Hatcher County that my first name damned well isn't 'Poor.' I'm tired of it, Cheryl, sick to death of my mother having a better social life than I do-and most people don't even like the woman. This is it for me. If I can't prove I'm a competent professional with a future and not just a past, I'm pulling up stakes and starting over somewhere new. Somewhere no one ever heard of the Hatcher Red Hawks or some old car crash."
Cheryl sighed, then dropped back into her desk chair, which gave a squeal of protest. "And you think that nursing Hiram Jessup's going to prove to anybody you've moved on?"
"It'll prove it to me," Beth Ann said quietly, a little embarrassed by her eruption. The outburst had been coming for months, she realized. Since she'd moved into the new place with her mother-now known as "Lucky Lilly" in light of last year's miracle-Beth Ann had been thinking a lot about her life. Or almost total lack thereof. She hoped to God it wasn't too late to step up to the counter and claim her share. "Maybe that's all I need."
Cheryl glanced toward the Bible-verse-a-day calendar on her desk, then tore off yesterday's page to expose the big, black 13 that lurked between the words Friday and October. Looking up again, she asked, "You're sure about this?"
Beth Ann nodded. What did she care about some silly superstition? She attended deaths year round and had recently concluded that the failure to live fully was the only true misfortune.
Cheryl nodded. "All right. If that's the way you feel about it. But there's one thing you'd better know first. My sister figured out about Hiram Jessup going on home hospice. And before you start lecturing me about patient confidentiality, I didn't say a word to her about it. She spotted my Tahoe over at his place when I did the intake, and she was talking to Norma Nederhoffer, that woman who does transcription for the doctors. Norma didn't tell her either, but she has this sort of grave nod."
Beth Ann understood. In Eudena, a town of just over four thousand, the combination of Norma Nederhoffer's grave nods and the sighting of a hospice worker's vehicle at a person's house had the authority of gospel, or at least the Wichita Falls Times Record. Besides that, Cheryl's younger sister Aimee-now Aimee Gustavsen-had been an infamous blabbermouth since Beth Ann first met her back in kindergarten. That girl could whip a rumor out of less substance than it took a prairie wind to spin up a dust devil.
"You know how Aimee's been lately," Cheryl continued. "Sort of disillusioned with this marriage business."
At thirty-three, the same age as Beth Ann, former Hatcher High Homecoming Queen Aimee was already on her second go-round. Like her sister, she had chosen a deputy this time out, although big, blond Ted Gustavsen was both younger and better looking than Cheryl's Pete. Still, not even the good-natured Ted could hold a candle to his wife's nostalgia for the days she'd put out for pretty much every boy her Baptist parents bad-mouthed. Mark Jessup chief among them.
Beth Ann made the connection. "She called him, didn't she? Told him about his daddy?"
Cheryl nodded and twisted her plain, gold wedding band around her finger. "You know Aimee. Once she decided it was Mark's duty to come back home, wasn't anything going to stop her. A few days ago, she looked him up on her computer, found a number for that company of his in Pittsburgh." Her lip curled in a look of disapproval. "Then she called him, bold as brass, and told him it's his place to come and take care of his daddy."
Beth Ann shook her head. "Mark Jessup won't be back. Not after his father turned on him like he did. Besides, people around here won't give two hoots about how rich he is now. All they'll think about is the boy they called Hell on Wheels and three dead cheerleaders, one for each year he served."
A more disturbing thought struck. "And then they'll think of Poor Beth Ann-oh, damn it. I'll bury him myself if he doesn't have the sense to stay away."
About an hour later that same October morning, Beth Ann was stunned to realize her words were more than bluster. She really did harbor homicidal instincts.
Previously, she would have admitted she could pull the trigger of a shotgun to save herself from some psycho rapist, or to protect her mama-though some of Eudena's population might fault her for the latter choice. But no matter how tough she talked, or how many people she had watched die these past few years, she couldn't imagine taking a life in cold blood.
Until she saw the big grille of the Ford pickup backed into the driveway of the lonely little house tucked among the scrub mesquites on Lost Buffalo Road. With pinpoints of light exploding across her vision, she gripped her steering wheel and dragged in multiple deep breaths.
"No way is that the same truck," she told herself. "No damned way."
Like the shiny black Camaro she had been driving that Homecoming Friday, the pickup truck of memory had to be long gone now, crushed flat and pancake-stacked behind the fence surrounding Culpepper's Junkyard. Beth Ann's job took her all over Hatcher County, but she'd drive ten miles out of her way to avoid both that stretch of highway and the one on Mustang Road.
With all her flesh-and-blood reminders, she didn't need or want one as immutable as steel.
As her vision cleared, she realized that the pickup's paint was a darker blue, that its bright chrome wheels and fancy mud flaps decked out a vehicle far newer and nicer than the one wrecked sixteen years before. Still, both intuition and the Pennsylvania plates assured her that the truck belonged to him.
That reckless son of a bitch, Mark Jessup. "Jess" to all his friends, back in the days when he'd still had some.
Why hadn't he just taken the easy way out-hiring a private health care aide or two to supplement the county's offering? That's what a lot of men did when their mama or daddy's final illness threatened to part them from their important, out-of-town jobs. Most of the women came back, then tied themselves into tight knots trying to juggle the needs of their kids back home along with those of the ailing parent, but the men ... Beth Ann wondered if in the high-school shop classes, the guys spent time soldering guilt-proof armor around each soft and naked conscience.
But evidently, Mark Jessup's shielding had a crack. Maybe on account of what he'd done to his sister Jordan.
At the thought, Beth Ann considered putting her Subaru, a peeling, red station wagon as homely as it was indestructible, back in gear and cruising past Hiram Jessup's place. Once she made it out of sight-a drawn-out process, considering the flatness of this stretch of prairie and the crisp brilliance of the cobalt sky-she could call the old man to say she'd had car trouble. Anyone who'd ever seen the War Wagon would believe it.
Then she could phone Cheryl and tell her that maybe it was time to trot out those mothballed patient-care skills of hers after all.
But Beth Ann hesitated, convinced that sooner or later-probably sooner, considering her supervisor's penchant for easing her job stress by yakking with her little sister-Aimee would learn that Beth Ann had turned tail. And word would hit this county like hail stones bouncing off tin roofs.
She gritted her teeth as she pictured dings and dents. Did you hear what happened to Poor Beth Ann? Would've been kinder to whack her upside the head with a two-by-four than showin' up the way he did. Always the nervy one, that Jessup boy. Nervier than a rabid coyote.
Facing Mark Jessup couldn't be half as painful as losing her toehold on what passed for respect here in Eudena. Damned hard-won respect, for a never-married female on the wrong side of thirty, a woman who had chosen to ease the passing of the dying instead of working with-or having-babies. A woman who had once been pulled alive from a smashed Chevy ringed with dead cheerleaders.
Maybe Beth Ann would have gone inside, or maybe she would have chickened out and driven north to Oklahoma and straight through to parts unknown. But she never knew the answer because at that moment, the house's front storm door creaked open, and a tall figure descended the wooden steps that led down from the front porch.
A man and not a boy. And still every bit as handsome as store-bought sin.
Beth Ann felt her stomach drop through the floorboards, felt every molecule of air leave her lungs. All these years later, she still knew him, though time had filled out the gangly promise of once awkwardly long limbs, though the king-of-the-world grin that had won so many conquests had given way to an expression so grave and guarded it was hard to imagine he was the same person.
But she'd heard that prison could do that to a man.
There were other changes, too. His once-tawny hair had darkened to a rich brown. He wore it thick and wavy and a little on the long side. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself it suited him, as did the faded jeans and denim jacket thrown over a navy sweatshirt. Heavy stubble darkened his cheeks, as if he'd missed a couple of appointments with his razor. Which made sense, for he must have moved fast to get here so quickly after Aimee's phone call.
But the suddenness of Mark Jessup's arrival meant nothing, Beth Ann figured as she pulled her car into the driveway. It was just a pretense of devotion, an act to show his hometown he wasn't some kind of monster, after all.
Pretty ballsy, considering how people felt about him. If she didn't have so much cause to hate him, she might even admire his nerve.
He didn't appear to notice her as he opened the truck's front door and pulled a suitcase from the narrow backseat. A big suitcase and a duffel, as if he planned on staying a while.
As if he had that right.
Of course he does, the nurse in her insisted. He's the only family. No one but his father was entitled to run Mark off at this point. As Hiram had before, on account of Jordan. As-dying or not-the old man might again.
Out of pure selfishness, Beth Ann hoped he'd do exactly that. But as she climbed out of her wagon and went for her supplies, she decided she had earned the right to peevish thoughts.
She hesitated, frowning down at the cane she'd left tucked behind her nursing bag. A glimmer of her mother's vanity flashed through her, and she thought of leaving the stick, so Mark's first impression of her would not be one of weakness.
Anger flared, and Beth Ann snatched up the thing. Other than the lackeys who worked for him in Pittsburgh, who cared what a murdering ex-con thought? She needed the cane for stability as she carried supplies in for her patient, so she would damned well use it.
Besides, that indignity beat the hell out of letting him see her fall on her rear while she struggled up the porch steps.
Leaving the hatch open-she'd need to make a second trip-she heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel just behind her.
"Can I give you a hand with tha-?"
He stopped speaking as she turned, and Beth Ann felt perverse satisfaction as she watched the color seep from his face, heard the sharp catch of his breath.
"Beth Ann-you ..." he tried, but he could get no further. Though the duffel remained slung over one shoulder, his suitcase landed on the gravel with a thunk.
Once more, tiny lights burst across her field of vision, but she faked a smile anyway. Or at least she hoped that's what it looked like.
Professional, she ordered herself. You're his father's nurse, that's all. Top of your class at Midwestern State.
She leaned her cane against the bumper and stuck out her right hand. "Yes, and the last name's still Decker. I'm the traveling RN assigned to Mr. Jessup."
Before taking her hand, Mark stared at her a beat too long. Looking for damage, she supposed, telltale remnants of the collision that had forever altered both their lives.
Excerpted from Head On by Colleen Thompson Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 24, 2012
Imagine being the car on the cover and driving 90. That's what it's like. This book hit me head on. Thrown together with the bad boy who'd injured her years ago, Beth Ann's life becomes very complicated. This book is a dangerous and fun roller-coaster ride. Another one setting read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 6, 2007
Beth Ann Decker¿s life changed with a terrible accident. She was in a car with three other fellow cheerleaders, and they were hit by another car. Her friends were killed, and she was left crippled and scarred. What was really scarred was her whole life. What followed was endless surgeries, endless days of physical therapy and the endless pity of the small Texas town that couldn¿t seem to let go of the terrible memory. Now years later, Beth Ann works as a hospice nurse, easing the final days of the terminally ill. But tragedy comes to call again, sending Beth Ann to deal with the grief of the present and the past. The driver of the original accident, Mark Jessup, also survived the crash. He¿s now a rich businessman and a single parent. Mark returns with his son, to the small town of Eudena to care for his failing father. It¿s not a joyful homecoming. Mark and his father never got along, and after that fateful night when three cheerleaders died, his father washed his hands of Mark. See Mark not only caused the death of three young women, one of them was his sister. Fate comes full circle when Beth Ann is sent to help ease the final days of Mark¿s father. Beth Ann had once held a crush for Mark, but all the memories¯good and bad¯crash in on her as Mark opens the door. Worse, she is sad that he sees before him a woman who is less than perfect. Only, Marks sees the woman beneath. In a small town were memories are long and grievances are never forgotten, the past arises once more to haunt Mark and Beth Ann. Someone has decided that the time for payment has fallen due for past sins. Thompson gives a realistic portrayals of people whose lives changed on a flip of the coin, of people struggling to build a future from the rubble of their past. She weaves the small town mentality, suspense and romance into a heady mix, which keeps the reader spellbound. Very highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2007
Beth Ann Decker has worked hard to lose the title of Official Tragic Figure of her small Texas hometown since that long ago night when a terrible accident killed three other teen-aged cheerleaders and left her crippled and scarred. She survived the surgeries and physical therapy, and has proved herself of worth as a hospice nurse, helping the terminally ill and their families deal with death. Now the gruesome murder of a loved one has her using all her knowledge to deal with her own grief, and the entire population is back to calling her ¿Poor Beth Ann.¿ The other driver in that fateful wreck, Mark Jessup, has grown up. He has built both a financially successful and philanthropic business and is raising his son alone, hopefully in a home with more love and support than he received as a boy. Now Mark has returned to Eudena to care for his dying father, the very man who disowned him sixteen years before when he proved himself worthy of the town¿s bad boy label of ¿Hell On Wheels¿ by causing the accident that killed three girls, including his own sister. Mark did his time for the crime, and has become a better man through the grief of his actions. While he feels he is foolish to hope for his father¿s forgiveness, he knows he must try, even if it means bringing his mixed race son into the bosom of the conservative Texas Bible Belt. While willing to handle any aspersions the town might throw at him, even the suspicion of a horrible murder, he will not tolerate the least bit of disrespect toward his child. When Beth Ann shows up with her cane at his door to administer care to his father, both must deal with their memories and their grief. And when the underlying attraction of their earlier years collides with the passion that ignites between them now, Beth Ann knows it is not pity that she sees in this man¿s eyes, but only the heat of desire. But what would someone do to avenge the past or to hide the dangerous secrets that would destroy them? A small town web of deceit and fear threatens to end not only the fragile bonds of Mark and Beth Ann¿s budding love, but their very lives, including the life of an innocent five-year-old boy. Colleen Thompson has created a spine-chilling story with realistic and frightening plot twists and two powerful characters, each finding their own truths in those of the past. Fast-paced yet sweetly sensitive, this story will have you glued to its pages. Enjoy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In Hatcher County, Texas, using a cane to walk, Beth Ann Decker works as a dedicated hospice nurse while most locals feel pity towards her because she survived a deadly tragedy with noted physical reminders. Sixteen years ago her life changed dramatically when an automobile accident left three cheerleaders dead and she badly injured in her car to this day she still limps notably. The driver of the other vehicle, Mark ¿Hell on Wheels¿ Jessup walked away without a scratch although he spent time in jail for vehicular homicide and never recovered from his sister being one of those he killed. --- Mark returns to Hatcher County for the first time since the deadly crash to care for his dying father, who rejected him when he most needed his dad. The older Jessup has not forgiven Mark for the death of his daughter and even now takes his anger out on his grandson, Eli, snubbing the lad. However, Mark has other problems as he quickly becomes the prime suspect when a murder occurs. He also finds he still desires Beth Ann, but feels guilty over what he did to her. She reciprocates as the demon she always though he was turns out to be a false assumption instead he is a caring father and son struggling with what he caused. When someone tries to kill Beth Ann, Mark risks his life to keep her safe. --- Although sixteen years have past since the trauma that shook Hatcher County, few if any have healed. Thus when Mark returns home festering wounds reopen as this town without pity forgives no one. Interestingly readers will believe in the love between Mark and Beth Ann although they would seem more obviously natural enemies and in Mark¿s case a whole lot of regrets. The murder subplot seems unnecessary, as the plausibility of the lead couple¿s relationship and the reaction of the townsfolk to the return of the prodigal killer make this a fine tale. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 22, 2007
Beth Ann is a hospice nurse in Hatcher County, where she's lived all her life and where her world was shattered 16 years ago in an automobile collision in which she was the only survivor. Ages of therapy finally helped her get back on her feet to live a fairly normal life, if it weren't for the pronounced limp that remains. The boy who caused the accident, Hell on Wheels as he was known then, went to prison and has never returned to Hatcher County -- until now. Mark Jessup is back in town to tend to his terminally-ill father, a father who turned his back on his son and is now turning his back on his grandson, but his return is ill-timed when he becomes a suspect in the first murder since that worst day of his life all those years ago when his younger sister died at his hands. Running into Beth Ann came as a surprise and shock, but all the old feelings he had for her then come rushing back to him. Mark can't ask her forgiveness, but he's glad she's gotten her life back as much as she can. However, one thing leads to another and soon Beth Ann and Mark can't keep their feelings hidden, especially when Beth Ann learns Mark isn't the monster she had in her mind for so long. And they must team up when attempts made on Beth Ann's life start escalating. Vowing to rid herself of the 'Poor Beth Ann' label the townsfolkd have given her, she gives her love and faith with full force to Mark and tries to catch a killer to end the terror in her life once and for all. This is the first time I've read Colleen Thompson, and Head On is a great way to start with a new author to read. The idea of a town totally involved in each others' lives and secrets that revolve around a fatal mistake works so well in this story. Mark and Beth Ann are both strong but wounded people by the same tragic incident in their past, an incident and past that should make them enemies but instead brings them together in a wonderful world of love all their own. I'm looking forward to finding more of Ms. Thompson's books and sitting down to a great read fest!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 21, 2010
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Posted December 23, 2009
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