Read an Excerpt
By Susan Crandall
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2004 Susan Crandall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe freezing February rain beat steadily on the roof of Luke Boudreau's old Taurus. Through the water-spotted glass, he watched the winter-stripped trees mimic his own unsettled insides as they jerked and twisted in the gusty wind. He hunched a little deeper into his jacket collar and rubbed his chilled fingers against his thighs. Mississippi was the South, for God's sake, the Magnolia State. How could it be so damn cold?
He'd been parked here on this levee, watching the storm punish a broad, sweeping bend in the Tallahatchie River for the past hour. The rain slanted in silvery sheets. The clouds hung so low and gray that, despite the fact it was mid-morning, an artificial twilight encompassed Luke's solitary torment.
The moment he'd been both dreading and anticipating for the past five months had come. In all that time, he'd debated long and hard about what he would say, yet had found no words to convey his regret.
This morning he'd changed his clothes between civilian and army uniform three times before leaving his motel in black pants, a sport coat and tie-funeral clothes. He came to Mississippi as a man, not a soldier. Still, he felt as unprepared as if he'd come straight from the battlefield to speak to the mother of the man who shouldn't have died.
Died. He could thinkof no four letters more powerful, more cutting, more capable of drawing raw emotion to the surface, like blood in a fresh wound. Even so, that word was far from adequate to express what had happened to Calvin Abbott. Abbott had been obliterated. But no one outside his own team would ever know the reality of it.
Each and every time Luke closed his eyes to sleep, he heard the shouts, the garbled static of his communications earpiece, the steady whomp-whomp of the helicopter blades, the explosions, the automatic rifle fire, his own ragged breathing-Abbott yelling his name. It was Luke's own private hell, one he couldn't share, even with his fellow Rangers.
Occasionally, a moment in his life allowed the memory to sag to the rear of his mind. But quickly his own body brought it back to the forefront. His fingertips still tingled; every step was marked by a stiff and painful right knee. Today's weather brought a sharp and steady stabbing in his back.
At least he could feel. He reminded himself of that every day.
He put the car in drive and bounced along the gravel levee road, each rut and pothole sending a white-hot shaft of pain up through his shoulder blades.
His white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel loosened when he reached the two-lane blacktop that led to Grover. It was odd, he noticed, the way asphalt weathered to an orangish pink here, instead of bleached gray.
Heavy vegetation pressed close to the roadside, making some stretches look as wild and untamed as it had been in the days of the plantations. Areas that weren't cultivated with cotton supported trees so large and ancient they created a brittle archway overhead. Occasionally, those trees were made grotesque, forming shapes of prehistoric monsters, by the kudzu vines that had engulfed them. All in all, the atmosphere made him feel as if he were driving through an old black-and-white horror picture.
He concentrated on the faded broken yellow line bisecting the lanes, silently ticking off the distance between him and Calvin Abbott's bereaved mother.
Occasionally, dilapidated mobile homes or tin-roofed shanties rose like cankers in the brush beside the road, the rain sheeting off the gutterless roofs to puddle on the ground. Once, a mud-caked mongrel dog shot out from a lane, giving chase for a good quarter mile before he tuckered out and gave up.
Grover first appeared in dribs and drabs along the highway: a car dealer; a field; the John Deere dealer; a field; the Dixie Drive-in, "Home of the Calhoun Burger"; a baseball diamond with a single set of sagging bleachers; a Piggly Wiggly with six cars in the parking lot; a dated yellow-brick high school. Then, tree-lined neighborhood streets with small bungalows and shotgun cottages that soon made way for larger, more stately old homes.
He passed an old brick church whose interior lights shone through the intricate stained glass, a beacon of warmth in the cold, stormy day.
When Luke reached downtown, he was hit with a strong sense of familiarity. The square was still festooned with Christmas lights that draped over the streets between the courthouse dome and the two- and three-story buildings that housed storefronts and offices on all four sides. Browning evergreen wreaths with big red bows that dripped rain and twitched in the wind encircled the globes of sidewalk lampposts.
On the courthouse square was a Nativity scene-apparently separation of church and state hadn't yet been an issue in Grover, Mississippi.
Underneath the superficial differences between his own Yankee hometown and Abbott's southern counterpart (the courthouse was definitely southern, painted white with arched second-story windows that flanked a small balcony over the main entrance; most of the surrounding businesses had galleries that extended over the sidewalk, providing both protection for the pedestrians and porches for the second floor), the small county seats were essentially the same. Same cluster of businesses around the courthouse square. Same dated storefronts. Same untimely removal of tired holiday displays.
It felt just like going home.
Instead of a growing sense of welcoming, the similarities made Luke feel as if he had sand under his skin. He hadn't been home to Indiana for more than a day or two at a time since joining the army over fifteen years ago. Since his release from the stateside hospital a week ago, there'd been a quiet burning in his gut telling him not to go back. He'd decided it was because he couldn't go home and pick up his life-the life he owed to Calvin Abbott-without first seeing Abbott's family.
But in the dark of night, when the truth couldn't be pushed away with mundane tasks, physical therapy and innocuous friendly conversation, a knot of fear replaced that burning, and he knew his life, his identity, was the Army Rangers. He was special ops from bone to skin; there wasn't anything else in him.
He turned left at the courthouse and headed west. Calvin's mother owned a greenhouse and nursery called Magnolia Mile, just outside town. Luke was going to take his chances on finding it himself before he stopped somewhere and asked. He had a strong sense of obligation not to speak to someone who might have known Calvin before he spoke to his mother-in the same way the next of kin had to be notified of a death before the general population.
The rain slackened and the windshield wipers began to skip and complain across the glass. He turned them to intermittent.
Businesses fell away in the same sporadic way they'd increased on his way into town. He passed a swampy bog, then moved into a stand of old growth forest. He was just about to decide he was on the wrong road when he saw a brightly painted sign with MAGNOLIA MILE written in fancy script over an ornate gold arrow pointing to the right, down a single-lane chip-and-seal road.
He turned. After traveling that narrow road another several minutes, Luke started to think he'd turned too soon, had missed the part of the sign that said, TURN RIGHT 1/4 MILE. The road bottomed on a low bridge over a creek, then took a near-ninety-degree turn to the left. And there it was, MAGNOLIA MILE written on a sign in front of a very large yellow Victorian house. The ornate white-trimmed front porch made a sweeping curve as it wrapped around the left side of the house. It seemed a little out of place in an area where all of the large homes sported columns and galleries, mimicking antebellum architecture no matter when they were constructed.
A matching story-and-a-half carriage house topped with a large cupola and weather vane sat behind the main house. Luke could see a couple of large, old-fashioned glass greenhouses set yet farther back. He followed the crushed-stone drive to the carriage house, which had MAGNOLIA MILE over a double French door.
Off to the side of the carriage house, a large screen of fancy white trelliswork hid the nursery stock from immediate view. In front of the screen was an artful display of sculpted garden decorations, birdbaths, benches, wrought-iron gates and arches, tiny waterfalls. Even in the miserable weather, it looked inviting. Abbott's mother obviously had a talent for her work.
Abbott had a younger brother, Cole, who was still in high school. Luke supposed it was a bit of cowardice that made him arrive here during school hours. But he allowed himself that. It was going to be difficult enough to face Abbott's mother; facing the youngster who worshipped him would be more than Luke could stand.
He got out of the car and hurried inside, the first couple of steps the most painful; he'd been in the car too long. The first floor of the carriage house had been converted into a shop. It was warmed by a potbellied stove and smelled of old wood, peat moss and fertilizer. Various houseplants hung in baskets from the rafters. The cash register sat on a long counter near the left wall. There was a tent-shaped paper sign beside it that said, IN THE GREENHOUSE. C'MON BACK.
Luke had been away from small towns long enough for an unattended cash register to make him nervous. He went to the back door. It was a good thirty yards to the first greenhouse, and the rain had picked up again. At least the crushed-stone walkway would keep him from sinking knee-deep in mud. He lowered his head and made for the greenhouse at a gimpy trot, trying to avoid the deepest of the puddles.
Two things hit him when he pulled open the steamed-over glass door. A wave of hot air, and Def Leppard rattling the glass panes with "Pour Some Sugar On Me."
"Hello?" He didn't see anyone right away. His gaze scanned over the green leaves springing up from the plant tables. There, in the far corner, he saw two arms with fisted hands making simultaneous circles overhead in time with the music. Occasionally, light hair would bob above the greenery.
Surprise trickled through him. Abbott's mother was ... boogying?
Luke called hello again, working to reform the image he'd created of Abbott's mother. Luke had imagined a softly rounded body topped with semi-stylish gray hair that smelled of freshly baked cookies, snow-white Keds and a theme sweater. Maybe Yanni or John Tesh. Certainly not Def Leppard.
The dancing continued. He walked toward that corner of the greenhouse, calling out twice to no avail.
When he reached the aisle where he'd seen the hands, he stopped and stared.
Abbott had said his mother was "unconventional." But no way could Luke see what was before him as a mother. Definitely not Abbott's. A long strawberry-blond braid hung down the tall slender back, swaying as the young woman undulated provocatively with the music. Her short top rode up, showing a curving waist over her low-slung jeans. Those graceful arms bent and she rested her hands on her hair as her head bobbed from side to side. Luke had never seen a sight quite so unconsciously alluring.
Def Leppard continued to beg for little Miss Innocent to sugar them up-and Luke wanted just that.
She spun around. Luke opened his mouth to speak, but her eyes were closed. Her hips moved in a way that he'd forgotten a woman could. Her elbows came forward, her hands still on the back of her head. Her navel winked at him. Luke's mouth went dry.
You can't just stand here. "Ex-" he swallowed, trying to get some moisture back over his dry vocal cords. "Excuse me!" he shouted.
Her eyes opened. Her hands flew to her heart and she jumped several inches in the air. "Good Lord, man! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Her voice held a strong Mississippi accent, but not the backwoodsy sort, more like a southern debutante, sorority girl at Ole Miss. Then her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest. "Just how long have you been standing there?"
Luke felt heat come to his cheeks. Jesus, was he blushing? "Not long." He wasn't sure she could hear his denial over the bass beat of the music.
She pinned him with a challenging glare that told him she'd heard just fine. She had beautiful light green eyes that flashed the same fire he'd seen in her dancing. But the way she tugged the hem of her top over her jeans showed just how uncomfortable his spying had made her-no matter what her show of cool.
"I'm-" "Wait!" She walked toward him, holding up a finger. "Let me turn this music down." She stepped around him and trotted to a table beside the door he'd come in.
As she passed, he caught a scent as sultry as that dance she'd been doing. She dressed in a manner that said she didn't work at looking good-which somehow made her all the more appealing. He tried to figure her age. It was hard to tell; she wore no makeup and had a very youthful spring in her step as she ran to the table. Much too young for you, Luke, ol' boy.
She turned down the music and looked at him again. "Now we can talk like regular people. The plants have to have four hours of music a day." Her smile was open and friendly. As he looked more closely at her eyes, he thought perhaps she wasn't so young.
He shuffled his male curiosity back into the closet as he took several steps in her direction. "The plants like rock?" "The boss lady insists they prefer classical, something with energy. She doesn't like them to hear ballads-makes them depressed. Def Leppard has plenty of energy." She flipped her long braid back over her shoulder and lifted her chin slightly.
Luke thought he saw a hint of blush on her cheeks that belied her rebellious stance. Again, he was drawn to her complex mixture of innocence and spunk.
"I see." He shifted his weight from his bad knee. "I'm looking for M-" he started to say Mrs. Abbott, but knew Abbott's mother had remarried after his father died; Cole was actually his half-brother. Calvin always referred to his mother as Liv, never Mom, or Ma, or Mother. Luke had no idea what her last name was. "For Olivia," he finished. Using her first name felt disrespectful to his military-trained tongue.
"She had to go to town. She should be back in about fifteen minutes. Can I do something for you?"
"No, actually, it's personal." He paused and looked around. "I'll just wait in my car." He started to take a step, but immediately felt his knee begin to buckle. Shifting his weight back to his good leg, he saved himself an embarrassing stumble.
She cast a quick glance at his bad knee, her forehead wrinkled with a frown. Then her gaze passed over the ugly, jagged scar on the side of his neck. He tensed, dreading her questions, her pity.
Her gaze then connected with his. He wasn't sure what he saw in her eyes, but it wasn't pity. "Wouldn't you like some coffee while you wait?"
"No, thanks. I don't want to interrupt your ... work. I'll just wait outside for Olivia."
Excerpted from Magnolia Sky by Susan Crandall Copyright © 2004 by Susan Crandall. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.