The Most Wanted

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A naive teenage girl in south Texas falls in love
with her prison pen pal. The object of her affection--a
charming, dangerously handsome young felon who romances her
through his letters to her. After ...
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Overview

A naive teenage girl in south Texas falls in love
with her prison pen pal. The object of her affection--a
charming, dangerously handsome young felon who romances her
through his letters to her. After a love affair that defies all
conventions, they marry and have a child while the father is
still imprisoned. But when he escapes prison to claim his wife
and child, what started as a passionate romance turns into a
terrifying ordeal of obsession and desire. The young girls only
hope is a fiercely dedicated public aid lawyer who is more of a
mother figure than the girl has ever known, and the only one
who can avert disaster for mother and child!


Praise for THE MOST WANTED: * "Poignantly told...Anyone who has
ever fallen for an unsuitable love will respond to Mitchard's
tale of the yearning that transcends reason."--People *
"Compelling, appealing, distinctive."--Chicago Tribune * "Even
more daring and powerful than her debut...superb."--Booklist *
"Mitchard has created unforgettable characters in evocative
Texas settings in this assured, accomplished, and achingly
lovely novel."--Library Journal * "Deeply affecting....readers
will undoubtably be engrossed."--Publishers Weekly



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Editorial Reviews

People Magazine
Poignantly told...Anyone who has ever fallen for an unsuitable love will respond to Mitchard's tale of the yearning that transcends reason.
Chicago Tribune
Compelling, appealing, distinctive.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Despite portentous foreshadowing, Mitchard second novel never achieves the dramatic momentum and the emotional immediacy of her acclaimed fiction debut, The Deep End of the Ocean. But her depiction of two female protagonists is so large-hearted and wise that readers undoubtedly will be engrossed in their story. At 14, Arlington "Arley" Mowbray is a sensitive, conscientious and atypical teenager in a small, tacky South Texas town. She writes poetry, for one thing, and, instead of dating boys, she is a virtual slave to her hard-as-nails mother, whose lack of maternal instincts is shocking. When love-starved Arley begins corresponding with 23-year-old Dillon Thomas LeGrande, in jail for armed robbery, she is seduced by the poetry he writes and, with the reluctant help of public defender Annie Singer, gains permission to marry him. Soon, protective Annie takes a pregnant Arley into her home and heart, complicating her own relationship with her fiance a death-row lawyer. Eventually, Dillon's true nature as a psychopath erupts, putting Arley and others in mortal danger.

Mitchard's facility with intertwining plot lines results in a surprise-packed conclusion (with perhaps one surprise too many). Her depiction of the dizzy rapture of first love, and her insights into the maternal bond (Arley's with her infant daughter; Annie's with Arley, her surrogate daughter) are deeply affecting. Yet readers will find a troubling credibility problem. That studious Arley can transcend her culturally bereft upbringing is at least plausible, but it is unlikely that bad-boy Dillon would have the sensibility, background or vocabulary to create the poems attributed to him (actually written by Mitchard's friend, poet Sharron Singleton). Since so much of the plot hinges on Dillon's gift for poetry, the reader is keenly aware of this major flaw.

Library Journal
It's clear from the start that bad things will happen in this book. And it's just as clear that Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean) is no one-book wonder. In alternating first-person chapters, 14-year-old Arlington (Arley) Mowbray and almost-40 attorney Anne Singer tell their stories. Arley, the youngest of her unmarried mother's three children, virtually raised herself, and her lack of love at home makes her susceptible to attention from prisoner Dillon LeGrande, whom she weds after three months of correspondence. Denied a conjugal visit with Dillon, Arley seeks out Annie, who feels an instant attachment to her young client; Annie hears her biological clock ticking, but her longtime companion, Stuart, doesn't want a child. So Annie turns surrogate mother, assisting Arley with the conjugal visit and through her ensuing pregnancy and childbirth, as Annie's life takes major turns and danger long hinted at is realized. Mitchard has created unforgettable characters in evocative Texas settings in this assured, accomplished, and achingly lovely novel -- Michele Leber, Fairfax County Public Library, Arlington, Virginia
Library Journal
It's clear from the start that bad things will happen in this book. And it's just as clear that Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean) is no one-book wonder. In alternating first-person chapters, 14-year-old Arlington (Arley) Mowbray and almost-40 attorney Anne Singer tell their stories. Arley, the youngest of her unmarried mother's three children, virtually raised herself, and her lack of love at home makes her susceptible to attention from prisoner Dillon LeGrande, whom she weds after three months of correspondence. Denied a conjugal visit with Dillon, Arley seeks out Annie, who feels an instant attachment to her young client; Annie hears her biological clock ticking, but her longtime companion, Stuart, doesn't want a child. So Annie turns surrogate mother, assisting Arley with the conjugal visit and through her ensuing pregnancy and childbirth, as Annie's life takes major turns and danger long hinted at is realized. Mitchard has created unforgettable characters in evocative Texas settings in this assured, accomplished, and achingly lovely novel -- Michele Leber, Fairfax County Public Library, Arlington, Virginia
School Library Journal
YA--Teen readers will connect with Arley Mowbray's thought processes if not with her unusual situation. Against the advice of others and her own common sense, the 14-year-old falls in love with, marries, and bears the child of Dillon, who resides in prison until he escapes. Their attraction grew through writing letters, and Arley knew little of the man Dillon had become. She is determined to raise her child under better conditions than she experienced, and is helped on many levels by her friend Annie Singer. The various types and dimensions of motherhood subtly come through in the well-designed characterizations. The writing is skilled enough to make readers care about the direction Arley's life takes, and the plot twists and vivid characters are sure to appeal to many YAs.--Catherine Charvat, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Part thriller and part romance, this quick-read melodrama by Mitchard (the Oprah-anointed The Deep End of the Ocean, 1996) tries to keep quite a few narrative balls in the air, juggling jailhouse love, teen pregnancy, escaped convicts, death row lawyers, biological clocks, and the whole capricious character of the lone star state of Texas. When Arlington Mowbray starts writing to Dillon LeGrande at his current place of residence, the Solamente River Correctional Facility, she doesn't expect much more than to fulfill a dare. At 14, what Arley, an honor student and track star, doesn't know about men could fill a book. And when Dillon's letters begin to arrive, full of poetry and cowboy cordiality, Arley starts to fall in love. She visits him, and the two decide to marry secretly. Which is where Annie Singer, lawyer for a women's defense organization, comes in, helping Arley arrange for her first conjugal visit with her now husband. After a tender and wild night in a trailer by the prison, Arley discovers that she's pregnant, is kicked out by her mother, and moves in with Annie and her longtime boyfriend Stuart. Arley's pregnancy only serves to emphasize the stalemate of Annie's relationship to Stuart, a death row attorney whose crusades for his clients always take precedence over a private life. When Dillon escapes from jail, Arley is placed in hiding in an isolated cabin, learning only from news broadcasts about the antics of the "Highwayman," the romantic persona Dillon has created (based on their favorite poem) for himself as he politely plunders the state. Arley waits for him to come and carry her away. Meanwhile, she's threatened by a forest fire and by the arrival of variousviolent family members—a crazy sister among them—and is surprised overall by a few too many revelations. A big, readable novel, but also one neither surprising nor penetrating enough to be especially memorable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451196859
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/1/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 4.28 (w) x 6.76 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Jacquelyn Mitchard
Jacquelyn Mitchard
Tackling themes of death, grief, and emotional turmoil without lapsing into cheap sentimentality, Jacquelyn Mitchard has made a career of pulling the heartstrings without patronizing her readers. With her debut novel The Deep End of the Ocean, the first book ever to be featured in Oprah’s Book Club, Mitchard began a career distinguished by intelligent and entertaining explorations of life’s darkest moments.

Biography

"Jacquelyn Mitchard has considered changing her name legally to The Deep End of the Ocean. This is because her own name is much less well-known than the title of her first book," so read the opening lines of Mitchard's biography on her web site. Granted, the writer is best known for the novel that holds the distinct honor of being the very first pick in Oprah Winfrey's book club, but Mitchard is also responsible for a number of other bestsellers, all baring her distinctive ability to tackle emotional subject matter without lapsing into cloying sentimentality.

Mitchard got her start as a newspaper journalist in the ‘70s, but first established herself as a writer to watch in 1985 when she published Mother Less Child, a gut wrenching account of her own miscarriage. Though autobiographical in nature, Mother Less Child introduced the themes of grief and coping that would often resurface in her fiction. These themes were particularly prevalent in the debut novel that would nab Mitchard her greatest notoriety. The Deep End of the Ocean tells of the depression that grips a woman and her son following the disappearance of her younger son. Like Mother Less Child, the novel was also based on a personal tragedy, the death of her husband, and the author's very real grief contributes to the emotional authenticity of the book.

The Deep End of the Ocean became a commercial and critical smash, lauded by every publication from People Magazine to Newsweek. It exemplified Mitchard's unique approach to her subject. In lesser hands, such a story might have sunk into precious self-reflection. However Mitchard approaches her story as equal parts psychological drama and suspenseful thriller. "I like to read stories in which things happen," she told Book Reporter. "I get very impatient with books that are meditations - often beautiful ones - on a single character's thoughts and reactions. I like a story that roller coasters from one event to the next, peaks and valleys."

The Deep End of the Ocean undoubtedly changed Mitchard's life. She was still working part time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing speeches when the novel got Oprah's seal of approval and went into production as a major motion picture starring Michelle Pfeiffer. She didn't even consider leaving her job until, as she recounted to Book Slut.com, "my boss finally said to me, ‘You know, kiddo, people whose books have sold this many copies and are being made into movies don't have this part-time job.'" So, she left her job despite misgivings and embarked upon a writing career that would produce such powerful works as The Most Wanted, Twelve Times Blessed, and The Breakdown Lane. She has also written two non-fictional volumes about peace activist Jane Addams.

Mitchard's latest Cage of Stars tells of Veronica Swan, a twelve-year old girl living in a Mormon community whose life is completely upturned when her sisters are murdered. Again, a story of this nature could have easily played out as a banal tear jerker, but Mitchard allows Veronica to take a more active role in the novel, setting out to avenge the death of her sisters. Consequently, Case of Stars is another example of Mitchard's ability to turn the tables on convention and produce a story with both emotional resonance and a page-turning narrative, making for a novel created with the express purpose of pleasing her fans. "Narrative is not in fashion in the novels of our current era; reflection is," she told Book Reporter. "But buying a book and reading it is a substantial investment of time and money. I want to take readers on a journey full circle. They deserve it."

Good To Know

Mitchard is certainly most famous for her sophisticated adult novels, yet she has also written two children's novels, Rosalie and Starring Prima, as well as Baby Bat's Lullaby, a picture book. She currently has three new children's books in development.

Now that Mitchard has officially scored a successful writing career, what could be left for the writer to achieve? Well, according to her web site, her "truest ambition" is to make an appearance on the popular TV show Law and Order.

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Read an Excerpt

The Most Wanted


By Jacquelyn Mitchard

Signet Book

Copyright © 1999 Jacquelyn Mitchard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0451196856


Chapter One


    Annie

    That morning, I had crawled in to work, my pressed white cotton blouse already damp and crumpled at the waist just from the ten-minute drive to the office. I was beat from the heat and sapped from a major wee-hours bicker with Stuart. We didn't fight, Stuart and I. I don't think we ever really had a fight--not a blowout of the kind my sister and her husband have twice a month and laugh about later. Don had such a habit of hurling the contents of a cup or a bowl at the ceiling during his rants that one year, for their anniversary, Rachie hired an artist to paint a mural of stains--from coffee to ketchup--on the kitchen ceiling, so Don's outbursts wouldn't show. "He's just loud," Rachael said, "not dangerous."

    Don loved the mural. He beamed at Rachael and said, "That's why you're my best girl."

    "Enshrining their dysfunction," Stuart commented when I told him about it. "Well, to each his own."

    What Stuart and I had instead of fights were long, tortured, semantically dissective chats, in which each of us would try to out-lawyer the other--as if anybody ever prevailed in a personal disagreement through the use of logic. The night before Arley Mowbray turned up in my office and overturned my life, the chat had been about our marriage, which either was or was not imminent, depending on which of us you talked to. Stuart had been pulling cruise folders out of the Sunday paper and leaving them on my nightstand for months, as well as speculating aloud about getting La Casita to cater its famous ranch eggs for a brunch. But I, for my part, was not picturing a beige linen frock and a straw hat in my near future--though that was actually the only sort of wedding outfit I thought I could endure.

    Stuart especially thought it would be fun to fly to Las Vegas and get married early in the day so we could spend the night at the blackjack tables.

    "Don't you think that would be cool?" he'd razzed me that night, as I rinsed the leftovers of Greek salad from the Fiesta ware we'd just bought. "We could get one of those heart-shaped tubs. Like those old ads for the Poconos." I had to laugh, picturing Stuart and me in a red enamel tub, disporting ourselves among the suds. I wonder now whether Stuart felt the boat rocking for us, that fall, long before I did. He had ratcheted up his suitor act a couple of notches, though at the time I couldn't imagine why.

    People always say they know their lovers better than they know themselves, but when Stuart said that, it was literally true. Three days before I'd get a cold, he'd predict it by noticing a change in my eyes--and he was never wrong. He could gauge how bad my day had been by how long it took me to turn the key in the front door, and he'd be ready to offer a back rub (which, unlike another man's, would not turn into a front rub within the first three minutes). My parents loved Stuart from the moment they met him, but I forgave him that, even though he sometimes teased me by urging my mother on the phone to exercise her parental rights: "Miriam, she won't set the date. Why can't you just give me her hand? I thought that was how this worked." Long silences afterward, during which Stuart would simply smile and nod, made me assume my mother had launched into her own visions for my wedding. Marrying off the plain older sister would, for her, represent a major victory. Given her way, Mom would have the lamps on the dinner tables encrusted with pale-pink furled rosebuds and would fly little second cousins in from Chicago and Flagstaff to strew petals. I would hate this, but Stuart wouldn't have minded. He was a real person in that respect, adaptable and forgiving, and he proclaimed himself up for any kind of ceremony, large or small, that would end with my being his one and only. As for me, I'd never thought seriously about Stuart and me being married. Or about our being apart. Both things had always seemed excessive.

    Since we'd met in Chicago, where we were both public defenders and Stuart was just beginning his novitiate as a capital punishment abolitionist, we'd marveled at our easy, undemanding fit. Displaced New Yorkers greet each other with pathetic relief no matter where they wash up, but almost instantly, it was clear that Stuart and I had a shared sense of things that went way beyond a common city of origin. We agreed on things no one else even considered. We both thought Dionne Warwick could sing rings around Whitney Houston. Locked in separate rooms and allowed to make only one phone call, we would each order pizza with green peppers and pineapple, easy on the cheese. We both thought Jack Nicholson was the world's most overrated actor and Jackie Gleason the most underrated.

    "You can have all of them," Stuart said the night we met. "You can have Chinatown. You can even have The Godfather, Part Two. There is only one real movie. The Hustler. The Hustler is my life."

    I could count on him never to say "presently" when he meant "currently." He could count on me to be able to sing all the Belmonts' parts if he sang the Dion parts on "Runaround Sue."

    Ten years later, our routine was still just as predictable and satisfying. We worked all week like dogs and then gave ourselves over utterly to our daylong Sunday date, which only an execution, or the threat of one, could derail. A long, late breakfast and then a drive to one of the hamlets sprinkled around San Antonio. Thirty minutes by car, and you'd feel time had dialed back thirty years--that's how small those towns, like the towns Arley and Dillon grew up in, really were. People sold Miz Stern's settee or Miz Brainard's quilts for the equivalent of East Coast pocket change. Not that Stuart and I bought anything much. The rare tchotchke aside, our antiquing journeys mainly amounted to wishful foraging, in the spirit of a more roomy and prosperous someday we somehow never really articulated. "We should just keep the furniture we have, Anne," Stuart told me once. "By the time we get around to a house, this stuff will be antiques."

    Do I remember the words and thoughts I had the night before I met Arley so clearly only because it was the night before? Do things seem more meaningful because subsequent events etch certain cues into a framework that has more weight? I remember rinsing the plates and listening to Stuart sketch increasingly weird motifs for our wedding, and I remember that I suddenly thought, Who will get the Fiesta ware? Why did I think such a thing?

    It scared me. "Well, Stuart," I'd said finally, "at least it'd be a story to tell the grandchildren. Except there wouldn't be any grandchildren."

    And that started it, not a new discussion but a thinly disguised variation of a debate we'd had six times, this one distinguished only by its more urgent tenor. I could make Stuart see all the reasons why I didn't want to get married unless we were going to have a child, and I could even get him to understand them. But I couldn't get him to feel the same way. A child was beside the point, he would insist. The point was that "living together" at our age was just laziness or perversity--trying to prove something to an audience of people who were either dead or no longer gave a damn.

    I, personally, thought that it was Stuart who was trying to prove something. Despite all his stalwart cheer, what I really sensed in Stuart about getting married was a great giving up, like the big get-it-over-with sigh he gave every morning as he got up off the couch to run, after lying coiled in the fetal position, his shoes unlaced, for fully ten minutes. He seemed to believe that marriage, like running, would be healthy for a person, even if initially strenuous and cumbersome.

    "Stuart, you don't regard getting married as an adventure," I told him that night.

    "You don't regard it as an adventure, either," he replied.

    "But you shouldn't get married after ten years just because you've run out of other things to do."

    "I haven't run out of other things to do. I assumed that we'd get married one of these decades, Anne. We're the oldest living cohabitators in America."

    "Not so," I told him, picking up a bolster to throw at him. (I hate this trait in myself, this willingness to cut the tension in a debate with jabber and slapstick when I should say nothing and let the frosty silence work my will, the way other women do.) "Your uncle Stan and Missus LePollo are."

    "They're trying to avoid losing their Social Security. Pretty soon we'll be doing the same thing. So how about it, schweetie? What've you got lined up for a week from Saturday? Or Sunday, if you're busy? Let me make an honest woman of you, even if you are a lawyer."

    "You mean that's what you want to do? Just mosey on over to the Bexar County Courthouse and lasso up a judge?"

    "I already said it would be romantic to just elope."

    "To downtown?"

    "Well, you didn't seem to like the Elvis Chapel idea. So what do you want to do? Rent the back room of Mister Allegretti's in Hoboken? Or did you want a chuppah, and a lightbulb to step on?"

    It was kind of entertaining. And because of that as much as anything else, I didn't want to rev up the child thing. It wasn't that I craved reproduction with every waking breath. But I was thirty-nine that winter night, and I figured that if I was going to give the matter an honest chance, it would have to be soon. In fact, I'd been sort of madly dicing around with our birth control in recent months, not really taking any reckless chances, but not covering every base, either, just to see if anything happened. Nothing had.

    Unlike virtually every one of my single friends, I'd never had an abortion or even a serious pregnancy scare. My period marched in unremarkably every month, took off its cardigan, and stayed for the exact same four days it had since I was thirteen. Was I that careful?. Or that sterile? In the past few years, the distinction had begun to matter. And so I dithered around that night: I wasn't ready to have a child right now. I wasn't ready to say I never wanted one. I didn't spend my days at Women and Children First spinning fantasies about my own nestlings, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to see what reasons I had for choosing not to be a mother.

    "Stuart, I think the way it goes for most people who stay childless is that they're tempted to have children but they know they have good reasons not to. I just don't have those good reasons."

    Didn't that sound sensible?

    "A person doesn't have a child because she can't think of a reason not to, Anne. And you do have reasons not to. You have a demanding, draining job--"

    "Which I don't even want half the time," I interrupted. "I could do fifty other things. Part time, even."

    This was the major difference between us: I found my work interesting and even compelling, but it was not a calling, as Stuart's was for him. This often made things easier: when Stuart got the chance to work in Texas (the equivalent of Jerusalem for a death row lawyer), I could tag along, certain I'd find a job. And I did. I could even see myself working in private practice one day. It would not put my soul in jeopardy to make more than thirty thousand dollars a year, and I was still a doctor's daughter: I liked my sheets to have the two hundred thread count, and I bought new running shoes twice a year, while Stuart wore his until they were as thin as ballet slippers. Capital punishment, the Knicks, and I--in that order, I sometimes felt--were the reasons Stuart got out of bed in the morning.

    "You're getting to a dangerous age," he'd told me that night, making his opening argument for the prosecution.

    The defense objected: "People have kids much later now, Stuart. You know that."

    "And there are already too many children in the world...."

    "There are too many lawyers in the world too."

    "Anne," he pleaded, "you know what I am. You know what I do. When I think of that mix with a child in it ..." It wasn't just the hours, the strain, the pitiless economic pasting they took (Stuart and his colleagues at the Texas Defense Center made salaries that didn't seem horrible on paper, until you factored in days that lasted seventy-two hours, none of them billable). All that did make for a fragile personal life, true enough. But the real reason death row lawyers didn't have children was that life was incompatible with death.

    For Stuart's clients, everything that could go wrong with life had. "The mental slowness we pleaded was no stretch. The guy was a rock--he was plant life with a tongue." So Stuart's best Texas friend, Tarik, once said of Willert Styles, a spree killer Tarik had battled three years to save, whose date with fate (Stuart and his friends called an execution "dinner and a movie") took place just a couple of months before. "He was a bag of lawn clippings with legs, and his parents would have treated lawn clippings better."

    "If they're so worthless," my girlfriend Jeanine used to ask Tarik, "then why is it so important for them to live?"

    "It's only important for them not to die," Tarik would tell her.

    I'd heard it all so many times. I even believed in it. I was proud of Stuart's convictions. Still, an overwhelming lassitude seized me whenever Stuart pulled the "what I am" card in one of our discussions. From that moment on, it would be like running in cold syrup. We'd pirouette around the impasse like smart people: Stuart would say his work was just like having a baby; it ruined his sleep and trashed his social life. But it never grew up, I'd respond, it never got smarter and made you a valentine.

    Back and forth. Back and forth.

    Point, Stuart, Advantage, Annie.

    The unspoken fact was that there was no way to compromise: one of us would have to blink. It was inevitable that we'd eventually wash up on the place where there was nothing left but to consider what would happen if we couldn't get married. Would we go on as we were? Break up?

    I knew that for Stuart, remaining the kind of loverly pals we'd always been, in bed and out, was a life goal. But I didn't know if it still was for me.

    So that night I started to feel really sorry for both of us. How poignant it was that, despite neither of us really being wrong, nothing could really be all right. Sad, even contrite, Stuart began nuzzling my shoulders: another of his life tenets was that a nice sexy interlude could bridge all human spans. I didn't exactly disagree with this prescription, usually. But this time, unlike other times, neither of us could even summon the will for sex. Looking back, I see that sense of something beginning to end must have prepared the ground for what took root between Arley and me. Of course, if you had asked me then, I would have told you that Arley's kind of trouble was the distilled essence of everything about Women and Children First that could grind a lawyer to a stump. Some nights, my junior colleague, Patty Flanagan, and my friend Jeanine--an adoption social worker--would end a just-girls night at our favorite haunt with a toast to Louise Marker Drew. Mrs. Drew was the Texas whiskey heiress who stunned her kin twenty years earlier by bequeathing her entire estate to found a legal support center for women in trouble. "To Missus Drew," Jeanine would say, "defending the sacred right of women to make piss-poor life choices!"

    Patty and I didn't really feel that way about our clients, not usually, not any more than Jeanine believed in chastity belts for her serial-birth mothers. Some of my clients squeezed my heart with their courage and gallantry. But others ... you did get weary. A young woman would show up with a fat lip and a big belly, and you'd get her sorted out--a training job, a place to live--and eighteen months later she'd be back, with the same fat lip and big belly. After seven years, burnout was not just a concept. At first--in fact, for a long time--I fooled myself into believing that my involvement with Arley was so intense because it constituted a career crossroads, either a new beginning or a last hurrah. It was never that. It was, from the beginning, a person-to-person call, a near-biological obligation. I hadn't had such an experience before--how could I have recognized it?

    That morning in December, all I wanted was for the poor and downtrodden to get their asses in gear and quit flopping over like carp for anything with hairy legs stuck in a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots with lifts. I was sick of hearing about how much some crankhead fruitcake looked like Michael Bolton and how, no matter how bad he was, no one else really understood how good he was inside.

    The name "Arlington Mowbray" was taped across the top of the first intake file in my In box. It was real Texas. Everybody seemed to have been named after a character in General Hospital. I took one look at the top line: "Female, aged 14, married, wishes to obtain ...," picked up the file, and went out into the hall, ready to pass it off to the first sap I ran into, Matt or Raul or Patty. After all, I was the boss. Why did I have to lead the charge into the valley of the doomed every damn day?

    But as I was searching for my intended victim, I saw her. She was sitting in the lobby, just under the big plant shelf. Lilia, our secretary, was obsessively sponging off the philodendron, and the tall, dark-haired teenager didn't even seem to notice the drops of water that spattered her purse, her arms, and the folder on the chair beside her. It wasn't just that she was beautiful, though she was. What was remarkable was that she seemed not to have been touched by teenhood to the slightest degree. Her rope of shiny dark-brown hair hung over one shoulder in an ordinary braid. She wore no jewelry; her ears weren't pierced with even a single punch--a fashion statement most girls would have considered wildly conservative if not worse. Strangest of all, she had no blemishes. Except for the thick wings of her brows, her skin was as pure as an eight-year-old's.

    As I watched her that first day, I saw her reach around reflectively to grab hold of the thick brush formed by the end of her braid and sweep it across her lips, a gesture I would come to know as intimately as the smell of my own pillow. Arley was reading Seventeen, and she was reading it the way I used to read Seventeen, as if she were studying for SATs. I saw her run her thumbnail furtively down the inside gutter to slice out a page, then fold it with the speed of a magician into the front pocket of her jeans, which, I noticed, were ironed. I knew what she'd do later on: she'd try to duplicate that stunningly coordinated ninety-dollar outfit with something in the same colors at Kmart for $15.99, which she would wear with self-conscious delight for three weeks, until it opened at the seams and unraveled.

    I can think of half a dozen possible triggers--my biological clock, Arley's touching intelligence--but none of them would fully explain the immediate fusion. I'd seen a great many young women in trouble, all needing my help or my protection, needing the things my credentials could provide. And a few had extraordinary potential.

    But of all of them, only Arley--without the worldly wisdom to understand her presumption--tried to offer me something in return. Propelled, and later terrified, by her own need, she recognized mine. I don't know why.

    I don't know how long I watched her; knew only that after a time, I realized I felt like a peeper and should say something. But I couldn't. I couldn't summon the words. I saw her look at her hair in the mirror, lift it up on the back of her neck and turn, gazing at her reflection in the fish tank across the room as if she were peering into a pond. She tried a haughty look. She tried next to look deliriously joyful, putting on one of those open-mouthed smiles that seem to have caught someone in the midst of saying, "I'm having the time of my life!"

    And when I saw her do that, I was lost; I know that now, and she knows it too. Those first moments, I was swamped by a tidal current of memory for my sophomore self, when I was so desperately unhappy that I kept threatening suicide, until my mother finally said, "So kill yourself already. Just shut up about it."

    "Don't ever cut it," I finally said to Arley that day, forcing myself to stride into the room, holding out my hand to shake.

    She grinned. "I'm not going to cut it. I'm just going to hate it, every day from now until January, when the weather cools off."

    "And when it's cooler?"

    "Then I'll feel like a princess."

    "So it's worth it? Or is it only half worth it?"

    That stopped her. She seemed to think I was scraping deeper than the topic of hairstyles, and maybe I was. "I need to see the lawyer," she said then, a splash of color lighting her dark skin. "I have to do this"--she pointed to her file--"because I have to go back to school."

    "Are you in college?" I asked, just to see what she'd say.

    "I was going to say I am," she told me, with a level look. "But you all got the facts of me right in front of you. I'm only in high school, ma'am. Freshman year."

    "So what brings you here?"

    She brushed her lips with her braid, thoughtfully. "I guess because I think they should respect a person's civil rights."

    "This person is you?"

    "Yes. Me and my husband. My husband Dillon."

    "You really are married, then?"

    She stared hard at me. "Are you the lawyer?"

    "I'm one of them, yes."

    "Are you my lawyer?"

    "I might be, if it turns out that you need a lawyer."

    "Then you already know about what I'm here for. I told the lady."

    "Why don't you tell me?"

    "I am legally married. Even though I'm ... well, I'll be fifteen."

    "When?"

    "In April."

    "And, Arlington, just how--"

    "It's Arley. Arley Mowbray. Well, now it's really Arley Mowbray LeGrande. I'm sorry to interrupt, ma'am."

    "Pretty name."

    "Arlington is the name of a town. Between Dallas and Fort Worth."

    "Is that where your family is from?"

    "No, I ... we're all named after towns in Texas, my sister and my brother and me."

    "Why?"

    "Well, my mama--" she began, and then said, "Does that matter?"

    "No, of course not. Just making conversation."

    "Yeah."

    "So how did you come to marry so young.?"

    "It's not so young. We just read Romeo and Juliet, and she was exactly my age." I couldn't help but smile. She saw it.

    I said, "Yes, but that didn't work out so well."

    "This will."

    "I hope so."

    I took her into my office, and she immediately began playing with the perpetual motion gadget on the desk, just the way every child who came into that space did, instantly and with utter concentration, experimentally plomping the steel balls on strings one against the other. I paged through the intake forms again, thinking almost exactly what Stuart would say later, that Arley's story was fit for the Hallmark Hall of Fame of bad ideas. Not everyone goes to prison for just cause, particularly in the republic of Texas, but from the facts, Dillon LeGrande came from the kind of people who could have found trouble in any quarter of the lower forty-eight.

    The eldest of four sons of a mother widowed once by a refinery explosion and once by a knife fight, Dillon seemed to have more or less raised himself in the little town of Welfare, one of those single-tavern burgs on the ragged hem of San Antonio's outskirts. Arley's family lived only a few miles west, but their orbits didn't seem to have overlapped, despite their having attended the same magnet school in Alamo Heights. Dillon's brothers were roughneck punks, in and out of foster care and baby jail for the usual drinking-fighting-truancy stuff, but Dillon seemed to have stayed out of trouble--officially, anyway--until the night he and his brother Kevin decided to take a friend and his handgun and hold up a gas station in Comfort, a few miles north of their home. The hapless kid working the cash register ended up with his left arm shattered by a gunshot wound, and Dillon and Kevin wound up in Solamente River Prison. As the elder and, supposedly, the shooter, Dillon had been given eight years.

    Arley and Dillon had begun corresponding in September. She'd visited him once. He'd pledged his troth. For two full weeks, they'd been husband and wife.

    I sighed. Ordinarily, I started interviews with a stab at outlining goals: Why were we here together? What had happened and what was needed? But for some reason I found myself eager that day to influence a situation I knew very well was none of my business.

    And so I asked Arley, "What possessed you to do this thing? What possessed your mom to sign for it? Was he your boyfriend before he went in?"

    Arley shook her head. "I didn't have a boyfriend before him. I just got to know him through the letters."

    "Three months ago."

    "Three months." She squared her shoulders then and said, "He's really good." And I knew what she meant--good in the sense that applies to a child, or to a nun. "I know what I'm doing. I might only be fifteen--"

    "You're fourteen."

    "Okay, but I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing when it comes to this. My husband--Dillon--has a clean record for his ... incarceration, and he really should be out in less than two years. It's all right there."

    "So what's the problem?"

    "Ma'am," said Arley, coloring deeply, "he needs me to be with him before that." I could tell it was killing her to do this, and I felt like a shit. She would not have said any of this for worlds, except that Dillon mattered more to her than her sense of decency. I didn't realize then what an exaggerated sense that was, or why, though I would come to see that Arley's decency was exactly like her skein of heavy hair--equal parts discomfort and joy.

    "He wants a conjugal visit," I suggested.

    "And I do too."

    "It's been denied."

    "Yep."

    "You want to have sex with him."

    "I want to ... be close to him."

    I put my face in my hands. "Well, Missus LeGrande, unless there is something that you are not telling me, unless there is something I learn about your husband that you have not told me: for example, that his record suggests that he constitutes a risk to your health or well-being"--beyond the obvious, I thought--"or a risk to the security of Solamente River Prison, your request and his petition together should work. Now, your responsibility--"

    "I can pay ...."

    I sighed. "Well, you pay what you can pay. We generally work those things out fairly well. But what I was going to say was, your responsibility is to tell me the truth and give me some patience while I try to work this out without litigation--that is, without having to--"

    "Without going to court."

    "Exactly. Because I think that would be best for everyone involved, including you and your husband and the state of Texas and, God knows, me."

    "Well, I can be patient."

    I hope so, I nearly said, looking at her and thinking, You haven't been a bit patient so far; why can't you be patient enough to grow your last inch or two before you load all this on? I wanted to say, Kid, this barge is never going to get any lighter, and it will only sink lower in the water, no matter how fast you pole or bail. But there was something in her gaze, a kind of pleading, that suggested she already understood everything--the sorry way this looked, the inappropriateness of her claim, the risk of shame--about this thing she'd launched, and that it was beyond her, entirely beyond her, to correct the path of flight.

    And I sensed what I would later know: that Arley needed no help from me at experiencing guilt or regret. That she'd seen the world as mostly a place of recklessness all her young life. I'd learn that she had created a plan on paper, her Book of Life Goals, out of fear of growing up the way she'd been raised--that is, recklessly--and that, much as she loved Dillon, it hurt to see her carefully written entries on sports and clothes and manners become so many sticks and ladders, marks in rainbow ink, meaningless as bird tracks.

    As we stood up, I managed to avoid the impulse to pat her shoulder. Suddenly she pointed to the purple folder she carried and said, "I'm going to leave this with you all now. But there's just one thing."

    I sighed. "What?"

    "In our letters. In here. You'll see that I lied at first. I said I was older."

    "I see. But he knows now? Everything?"

    "Yes, ma'am. Everything. And he doesn't mind." I looked at the lean curve of Arley's waist and thought, I'll bet he doesn't, I'll just bet he doesn't one bit, but all I said was, "Well. Then it's no problem for me, I suppose."

    I watched her close the door behind her, and said to myself, Well, we will just have to find a way for this girl to land as softly as possible. Then I sat down with my cold coffee, to read the "evidence" in her purple folder, which she'd labeled in filigreed sticker letters, "Dillon and Arlington LeGrande."

Continues...


Excerpted from The Most Wanted by Jacquelyn Mitchard Copyright © 1999 by Jacquelyn Mitchard. 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.

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 24, 2012

    great story telling

    his book was left in the breakroom at my work, with nothing to read I picked it up and I could not put it down, I read on my breaks and lunches and at home to finish. I was caught up in the story telling of this book. It was liking watching a falling star, you just can't take your eye off of it. She gave the characters depth and a soul. It makes you realize you really have to go through the fire to see the light. I loved this book, I have read Deep End of The Oceana gong time ago and liked that book, but this was much better. I look forward to reading more of Jacquelyn's works.
    jackie

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  • Posted November 24, 2008

    Great Book so far

    I''m listening to the audio cassette for this book and only on cassette 1, but it's a great book so far. I am really enjoying it.<BR/>Great job!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2008

    One of the best books

    I have read this book over and over, I loved it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2002

    A complete waste of time

    I read the Deep End of the Ocean a few years ago and did not care for it at all. I decided to give Jacquelyn Mitchard another shot, so I picked this up a couple of weeks ago. I was once again completely disappointed. It was almost painful for me to get through this entire book, but I already had some time invested in reading it, so I continued to through the end. The plot was not realistic, especially with the subplots towards the end of the book...with the main character's sister and another character that end's up being the 'hero' at the end. This book could have been condensed to half its length and told the same story. The storytelling just did not keep me interested. There were too many extraneous words & thoughts that were not necessary. Bottom line....I would rather spend my time watching paint dry on the walls than to pick up another Jacquelyn Mitchard novel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2002

    Have read better

    I found myself frustrated with the girl Arly. By the middle of the book I was no longer rooting for her. I did like that the book was easy to follow. I wouldnt recommend you spend money on it. Go to the library for this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2001

    Dreadfully Dull

    Unrealistic and dull. Weird sub-plots too.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2001

    Take Another Look at this Book

    If you passed over this book, take another look. I read Deep End of the Ocean by the same author and enjoyed this book every bit as much. At a little past middle age, I could identify with Arly, for letting her infatuation with Dillion cloud what judgement she had at fourteen, and with Annie for wanting so much for someone else it was hard to separate her desires for herself and her driving passion to see Arly become everything Annie thought she could be.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2000

    Loved it!

    I just had to write in and say how much I loved reading this book. It's a wonderful read. The author should be rewarded with your purchase of her books, and you will be even more rewarded by reading both The Most Wanted & The Deep End of the Ocean.

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    Posted November 29, 2008

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    Posted December 22, 2008

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