Read an Excerpt
Sweet Southern Hearts
The Willow Hill Series
By Susan Schild
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Susan Schild
All rights reserved.
Linny's heartbeat galloped under her life jacket as they shot down the rapids of the Ocasoula River. Eyes wide, she watched as their orange raft careened toward a jagged boulder, bumped it hard, and spun them toward a patch of choppy water. As the water rushed around the three of them — Linny, her new husband Jack, and their beautiful, Ms. Outward Bound–type goddess of a river guide — they dug deep and paddled hard, straining to pull through the eddy. With a whoosh, they were pulled backward down the roaring, foaming river. Linny shot Jack a panicky glance, but he was grinning exultantly and looking like he was having the time of his life. With the flick of a braid and a pirate's smile, the guide thrust her paddle into the rapids, turned the raft around, and steered them downstream toward calmer water. Too soon to relax, though. Linny saw more rough waters ahead and tensed.
Be a shame to lose a third husband, she thought crazily and paddled harder.
The nimble-footed photographer from the outdoor center jogged along a path on the riverbank, snapping away as their raft rocketed toward the Turbinator, the Class III rapid that roiled ahead in the home stretch of the river trip. The photographer's ponytail bounced as he raced ahead of them, taking shots as their raft bucked, dove, and finally glided through the rain-swollen Ocasoula.
Soon, a shivering Linny stood at the takeout, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. She'd been splashed thoroughly and didn't want to think about how cold the water would have been if they'd flipped over. Though it was late June, the guide told them the water temperature was only in the midfifties. Linny found herself grinning like a fool as she waited for Jack to come back from the truck with his wallet to pay for their pictures. She'd been terrified, but she'd had a blast.
A white water rafting trip might not be high on most women's lists of a must-do on a honeymoon, but when Linny had seen how Jack's eyes sparkled as he reminisced about a rafting trip he'd taken when he was in his twenties, she'd said, "Let's do it!" in an enthusiastic, practically perky voice she'd hardly recognized. In this new and complicated marriage, being a good sport and flexible as Gumby were going to ease the way. Though rafting wasn't her thing, Jack had cheerfully gone on the vineyard tour with her yesterday and, on the drive up to the mountains, had tagged along, not looking bored, as she'd poked through vintage aprons and yellow Nancy Drew books at an antique store.
"Here you go, ma'am." The young man held out his camera and scratched one mesh-sandaled foot with the other as he watched her view the shots he'd taken.
In perfect clarity, the fellow had caught them at the moment she and Jack got sling-shot skyward in their raft after diving down into the roiling water of that last rapid. Linny peered more closely at the picture. The photographer had captured the Carolina blue sky day, the Day-Glo orange of the raft, the lithe young goddess at the helm, and her and Jack — the glowing, sun-drenched newlyweds. Twice coming down that river they'd almost flipped and been swept into the churning waters. Linny's teeth had chattered and she'd buzzed with adrenaline and fear, but she looked alive and exhilarated as she beamed at Jack, pure joy in her eyes. With powerful arms, he was digging away with his paddle, helping power them through. But Linny spotted two details that made her eyes well up: Jack's new gold band glinting in the sunlight and the look he'd given her just as the photographer had taken the shot was one of wonder and delight. He looked like he was thinking, How did I get this lucky?
"You did a great job." Linny smiled at the young photographer.
"Thanks." The young man blushed and pulled down the brim of his cap. He pointed to the visitors' center. "Just give me a minute to load the pictures and you can pick the ones you want."
"Thanks. We'll be over as soon as my husband gets back," she said.
He raised a hand and loped off.
Linny loved saying my husband. She'd probably said it too many times over the three days of this honeymoon. My husband and I are from Willow Hill. My husband is a veterinarian. My husband likes unsweetened tea. Linny smiled at herself. Yup, she was being obnoxious, but she didn't care. She was so dang happy that she couldn't stop. Well, at least for a while.
At age thirty-nine and with her streak of bad luck with husbands, the odds of her and Jack finding each other and falling in love weren't great. Linny sent up a quick prayer of pure gratefulness. After her beloved first husband, Andy, had died of a brown recluse spider bite while cleaning out a shed for Linny — an item on the too-long honey-do lists she always kept for him — she'd been lost for so many years and thought she'd never be happy again. Then Buck the charmer came along. She should have known a golden boy driving a vintage Caddy wouldn't be good husband material, but she'd married him anyway. He'd turned out to be trouble, but just as she was considering divorcing him, he'd up and died on her. When his aneurism blew while he was in bed with a woman named Kandi, he'd left her broke.
Linny had sworn she'd steer clear of men or die trying, and then she'd met Jack. Technically, she'd accidentally hit him in the head with a bourbon bottle while recycling at the dump. She smiled and shook her head, remembering. Most women would pretty up that how-we-met story, but Linny told people the unvarnished version. Maybe she just wanted to spread the word that second chances, fresh starts, and true love were all still possible, even at their ages. The happily ever after you yearn for just might not look the way you thought it would.
So, a few days ago in a backyard ceremony, Linny had married Jack. A small-town vet with a twelve-year-old son and an exquisite ex-wife who was just a little too chummy with him for Linny's taste, Jack came with complications. But so had she. And today she was buoyant and happy.
Jack strode toward her in his Levi's and the dark green T-shirt she'd picked out for him — the extralong one that that fit his tall, rangy frame and was also the exact color of his pine green eyes. Her shivering lessening, she grinned at him.
"Let's warm you up, shug." He wrapped her in one of his large and slightly doggy-smelling fleece he'd gotten from the truck and began to rub her shoulders.
She leaned in to him, enjoying the warmth and solid heft of him, and rested her head against his broad shoulder. "Okay." Hugging him always made her feel safe, like finally arriving home after a long, arduous trip.
On the way back to the cabin Jack cast her a sideways glance from the driver's seat of the truck. "Did you have a good time?"
"I did." Linny sighed. "This has been the best honeymoon ever." As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt her face flame. Why had she said that? She wasn't ranking her three honeymoons, holding up cards like the skating judges with numbers one through ten printed on them. Linny shot him a glance to see how hurt he looked, but he just patted her knee and whistled between his teeth as he adjusted the rearview mirror.
Linny shook her head. She'd drive herself crazy yet.
The tires of Jack's red truck crunched on the gravel as they pulled up beside their hideaway. Linny took Jack's hand as they walked up the front path, admiring the square-cut logs and clean lines of the two-room rustic log cabin. She'd rented it after obsessively comparing reviews on travel websites. Perched on a high ridge, their cabin was skirted by lush pink rhododendron and gave long-range views of the green and blue patchwork quilt of the valley laid out before it. She'd chosen the perfect, cozy honeymoon spot.
Linny took a quick shower, dried her hair, and slipped on a cool floral sundress. Jack was on the front porch playing his guitar, and she smiled as she heard him strumming. Padding barefoot to the tiny kitchen, she opened a beer for Jack and poured herself a glass of the crisp Pinot Grigio they'd bought at the vineyard the day before.
Pushing open the screen door with her hip, she handed Jack his beer. He sat in a rocker, cradling the guitar. A self-taught musician, Jack was still self-conscious about his mistakes, but he was coming along fast. He took a draw of beer, put the bottle on the floor, and eased into the opening chords of James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind." Giving her a sorry-if-I-mess-up smile, he began to sing quietly in his warm tenor.
Leaning against the railing, arms crossed, she watched him and felt a wave of contentment. She held out her hand and examined her glittering ring, made from the emeralds Jack and Neal had dug out of a gem mine especially for her. Unbeknownst to her, the father-son adventure weekend they'd taken last summer was for the express purpose of finding stones for her ring. To have Neal involved in the gem hunt was a majorly smart move on Jack's part, especially because her stepson still watched her warily, worried that she'd try to replace his mother. The stones weren't particularly high quality, but Linny didn't care. She loved the ring.
Jack missed a chord and winced. Noticing her ring studying, a smile played at his lips.
Linny smiled back. Ruthie, the office manager in Jack's veterinary practice, said that after Vera divorced Jack, some women clients feigned reasons to bring their pets in for appointments just to spend time with him. "A woman with a poodle named Precious claimed the dog had ADHD, and another time a tummy ache-toothache-itching issue," she'd said, rolling her eyes and patting Linny's arm. "So glad he fell for you."
Thank goodness he was the type of man who was oblivious to his own charms, unlike her late hound-dog of a second husband. But banish the thought. She wasn't going to allow regrets to tarnish the present. Linny slid into the rocking chair beside his and sipped her wine. After a moment she began to softly sing along with him. No volume from her. She was prone to sudden scale changes and croaks.
A phone trilled from the kitchen and Jack gave her a smile as he put down the guitar and went to take the call.
His son, Neal — her new stepson, she reminded herself — had called to talk with his dad twice each of the three nights they'd been on their honeymoon. Was that normal for a twelve-year-old? A lot of the other stepmothers in the Bodacious Bonus Moms — the online support and advice blog she'd been reading voraciously for the last few months — complained about their teenage stepchildren not sharing a word with them or their husbands because they were too busy texting and Snapchatting friends.
Linny took a sip of wine and thought about it. How much did Neal's clinginess have to do with his mother, Vera, and her new husband bickering? Petite Vera, with her little-girl voice and perfect white-blond loveliness, reminded Linny of an airy, sweet pink confection, but with her sense of entitlement and demands, she was no cream puff. Her husband, Chaz, was a trial lawyer, and no pushover either. She could see why they butted heads. And with Vera's moneyed background and silver-spoon tastes, her wealthy new husband getting into hot water and losing a lot of his — no, their — money probably didn't sit well with her. Linny felt a flash of mean-spirited pleasure that perfect Vera was having problems, then chided herself. Tension in that household hurt Neal and she didn't want that.
Jack came back to the porch, rubbing a spot between his brows and talking on the phone in that soothing voice he used with scared animals at his veterinary clinic. "So they're fighting nonstop. Can you just go to your room and turn on the white noise app on your phone?" He paused and scowled. "That loud, huh?"
Jack looked at her. "Can you hold on, buddy?" He put the phone to his chest, his expression serious. "He's crying and he never cries. I'd send him to the grandparents, but they're all out of town."
Linny inhaled sharply and racked her brain. "My sister loves Neal to pieces, but she's so overwhelmed with her new baby. I could call her, though ..." she said.
Jack shook his head slowly, his face tight. "We need to go home, Lin. Neal needs us."
Linny nodded mutely, feeling bereft. There went her week-long honeymoon, right out the window. She gazed off for one last long look at the rolling land of the valley and slumped in her chair.
Jack spoke to Neal calmly. "We'll be back this evening and you're going to come stay with us for a while until things simmer down." He paused, listening, and his voice grew firm. "I don't care if your mama doesn't like it. I'll deal with her. Right now, everybody needs to just settle down." He ended the call and sent her an apologetic look. "Lin ..." he began.
She held up a hand and tried to smile. "I understand, Jack. I really do." Rising, she trudged in to begin packing, trying to fight the disappointment crashing down on her like a great wave. She and Jack had the rest of their lives to spend together, she reasoned, but it didn't help.
Vera and Chaz were selfish, Linny thought as she thunked the milk, yogurt, and luncheon meat into the cooler she was packing with unnecessary vigor.
Gathering their toiletries and clothes to put in the suitcase, her heart squeezed for Neal. The last thing a sensitive boy like him needed was a ringside seat to the fight of the century. Going home was the right thing to do.
Jack stepped inside and gave her a wry grin. "I just texted Vera and told her the fighting was upsetting Neal and that we were coming home early to take him for a few days. I didn't ask her, I told her. That should set off a firestorm." He grimaced and held up his phone. "The furious calls should start in four, three, two, one ..."
Linny stood with a hand on her hip, sent him a crooked smile, and waited. The phone rang, its tone sounding more shrill and urgent than it usually did.
Jack rolled his eyes, turned it off, and slipped it in his pocket.
Despite knowing that going home was the best thing to do, as they wound down the mountain in the truck, Linny fantasized about what it would be like to deal less with Vera, if just for a little while. Maybe she and Chaz would get a sudden burning desire to live off the grid for a year to fix their marriage. They'd move to a cabin with no plumbing in Talkeetna, Alaska. Normal-looking couples did it all the time on all those Alaska shows Jack and Neal watched. Vera and Chaz could rebond while chopping firewood and fixing their broken snowmobile, which they urgently needed to go into town to get much-needed supplies because a blizzard was fast approaching. For one long moment Linny imagined how serene life would be with Vera in Talkeetna. She and Jack could walk together through a field of wildflowers, each holding one of Neal's hands — something the boy would never allow them to do. Bluebirds and hummingbirds would fly around them.
Flushing guiltily, she glanced at Jack as though he could read her mind, but he was flipping down the sun visor. Linny blew out a sigh. Glumly, she stared out the window. She didn't really wish for that Alaskan adventure for Vera. Neal really needed his mother and he'd grown to love his stepfather, Chaz, too.
Linny and Jack were quiet for much of the long drive home from the mountains to Willow Hill. Even her Technicolor daydream of Vera battling icy winds as she trudged to the outhouse in fifty below weather didn't cheer her up. Linny was just too disappointed to make conversation. Jack looked pensive, the muscles in his jaw working.
Her phone rang and she glanced at the screen. It was Ruby, one of her mother, Dottie's, two best friends. Had something happened to Mama? Her stomach tightened as she pictured her mother lying on the floor like that woman on the TV commercial who lived alone and didn't have the emergency clicker necklace.
But Ruby sounded cheery. "Hi, sweetheart. Hope you're just walking on air now that you're freshly married. You tell that handsome hunk of a husband of yours that I said hey." Ruby had been a looker in her heyday and still had a flirty streak.
Linny breathed out. This wasn't a meet-me-at-the-emergency-room call. She called to Jack, "Ruby says hey, you handsome hunk of a husband."
Jack shook his head, but his mouth crooked up.
"We're at your mama's house and you need to talk to her," Ruby said. "For weeks now we girls have been planning to go to the RV show at the Civic Center to make a final decision about what kind of camper or RV we want to rent for our trip. We're fixing to get in the car to go and now she's making all kinds of excuses for staying home. This is the last day of the show," Ruby said, sounding exasperated.
Since coming to terms with learning that her late husband had had a longtime mistress, her mother had shaken off her dour, church lady demeanor and blossomed. She'd given up the yard sale habit that bordered on hoarding, taken a two-week Caribbean cruise with her girlfriends, and was now seeing a charming older man named Mack whom she'd met on the ship. Oh, and Dottie — a card-carrying Baptist and member of the Sisters of Dorcas ladies' prayer circle — had won $250,000 on the nickel slots on the ship. So, emboldened with her first big vacation, Mama and her two friends had cooked up this RV adventure they called their "trip to see the US of A." It was all the three of them had talked about for months.
"Let me talk to her," a woman's voice said insistently. Linny heard a fumbling as the phone changed hands. "Dessie here," said her mother's other best friend, in her usual brisk tone. "This is the second time she's backed out of the RV show. Yesterday she said her feet were hurting her and today she's claiming her sugar's high."
Linny paused a beat, baffled. "She doesn't have bad feet or sugar problems."
"We know," Dessie said drily.
"Can you put her on the phone?" Linny asked, rubbing the spot on her temple that had begun to throb. What was going on?
More fumbling sounds, and the phone clattered as it dropped to the floor. Dessie picked back up. "Your mama doesn't feel like talking right now. She and Curtis are going in to take a little lie down."
Excerpted from Sweet Southern Hearts by Susan Schild. Copyright © 2017 Susan Schild. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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