Growing up in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Laura Atwood endured terrifying abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Too many times she felt the brunt of his anger, and at the age of sixteen she ran away, determined to try and make a decent life for herself. Even so, the ghosts of the past aren't so easily shaken.
Laura meets and marries Jim McBane, a wealthy and successful businessman who sets her up in style. She lives in a ritzy townhouse, drives a BMW, and loves her role as his elegant, beautiful wife. But the modern fairy tale has a dark underbelly. Jim's overbearing nature begins to tarnish the golden dream Laura has built; even worse, when his criminal business dealings put her in danger, she narrowly escapes with her life.
Starting over again isn't what she wants, but she has no choice. Laura moves in with her aunt Gracie and begins to rebuild her life. Living in the Blue Ridge Mountains again, though, means her ghosts insist on being confronted. Each day brings a new struggle. But when love turns up again in the form of a kind country veterinarian, Laura finds she must finally face her past, even if it will be her undoing.
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By Alison Gieschen
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Alison Gieschen
All rights reserved.
Laura breathed shallow, quick, ragged breaths; her eyes darted back and forth beneath her closed lids. Suddenly, she woke with a gasp and bolted upright in bed, breathing heavily. She sat up and flung the covers to the side. Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, she cradled her head in her hands, taking deep breaths, trying to stop the shaky feeling left over from the nightmare. Twelve years had passed since she had lost her mother, but she still missed her desperately. The memory of that terrible night often haunted her in her sleep. She opened her eyes and looked around the bedroom. Soft light filtered through the floor-to-ceiling windows decorated with tan and brown curtains. A fifty-two-inch flat-screen television hung above the white marble fireplace across the room from her bed. Textured beige carpet covered the floor of the bedroom, contrasting the dark, polished bedroom furniture. As a child, she'd been lucky to have one pillow; now a stack of six decorative pillows lay on the floor next to her bed, which was covered with a thick, soft cream-colored quilt. Slipping off the bed into her sheepskin slippers, she drifted in a sleepy haze over to the window to bathe herself in the new morning light. Gently, she pressed her hand against the cold glass to give herself a shocking reminder that her life was not a dream. It was indeed a reality, although Laura would not have been surprised to wake up at any moment and find herself back in the shabby apartment that had been her home one year ago. Staring out the window from her second-story perch, Laura struggled with reality. Okay, I am Mrs. Laura McBane. I live in this beautiful townhouse in Asheville, North Carolina. That is my black BMW parked in the driveway below. Laura pulled her hand away from the window, backed up a few steps, and then turned and sprinted back toward the bed. Giggling wildly, she threw herself down on the bed and covered her face with her pillow. Her laughter faded into sobs, a few sighs, and then a calm stillness. Why did her life seem so unreal? Why couldn't she accept that fate had finally dealt her a decent hand? Couldn't a person shed the past, stop looking behind them, and live on for the future? There was no question she would try. Would she succeed?
Rising out of her analysis of her tremulous emotions, Laura kicked off her slippers and walked to her bathroom. The white Italian tile felt cold to her feet after the softness of her bedroom carpet. The bathroom was bright from the sun beaming through the glass panels in the ceiling. The marble vanity had two sinks; hers was to the right. She automatically went to her side and pulled open the solid oak drawer to get her toothbrush and toothpaste. Jim insisted that nothing be left on the counter. Everything had to be stowed neatly in the drawers, the countertops shined before she left in the morning. As she brushed her teeth she stared at the vases on the windowsill. There were gold-plated, intricate patterns weaved into their texture. They'd been here long before she arrived, and she guessed they were quite expensive. She removed her silk night garments and placed them neatly on the edge of the Jacuzzi tub. She stepped across the cold tiles into the large raised, all-glass shower stall and started the hot water. The steam from the hot water quickly clouded the cubicle. As she stepped into the shower, the steam offered little protection from the strange perception she had of being totally exposed, like a piece of artwork on a pedestal in a glass case. Having dealt with a lifetime of low self-esteem, Laura couldn't describe this feeling of vulnerability she often experienced to Jim. Her body was the only possession that remained from her former life—a life that focused on survival, not on enjoyment of physical beauty.
After three months of marriage, Laura still managed to take her morning showers after Jim had gone downstairs or left for work so that she could be alone. She wondered if there would ever be a time when she would stand in the shower, totally unconscious of her nakedness, while her husband performed his morning shaving rituals. With that thought still on her mind, she quickly finished showering, too preoccupied to languish under the soothing warm water. After wringing the excess water out of her long, wet locks, she stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in the oversized soft cotton towel. Fighting off the overwhelming nagging feeling that she should be in a hurry to be somewhere, she went back into the bedroom and picked out black stretch pants and a blue floral athletic top. She got dressed and returned to the bathroom to quickly dry her hair. She pulled it up into a ponytail and then moisturized her face and put on some eyeliner and mascara. Jim liked the natural look and strictly forbade her to wear much makeup except on the most formal occasions.
As Laura drove to the gym, she was reminded of the first time she met her husband. Laura had seen Jim several times at the club where they were both members. At first, Jim just watched her from a distance. She noticed many men watching her when she exercised, but Jim was the most intense. Many of the single women had joined the club with the hope they would meet an attractive, muscular hunk. Laura was one of the few single women who joined simply to keep herself in shape. She was tall and slender, with an above-average build, but she worked hard to stay in shape. Sheepishly, she'd admitted to herself that if, by chance, she did meet an incredible man, she wouldn't turn him down. But the way her life had been going, she was not going to hold her breath. Most of the women sent out signals like radio towers, transmitting their intentions to any man who was interested enough to look in their direction. Laura, on the other hand, never returned the interested look of the male population and therefore discouraged most of the possible suitors.
When Jim finally made his move, Laura was not surprised. He made an excuse to talk to her, pretending he was waiting in line to use the piece of equipment she was presently occupying. Apparently, he had scoped out her routine in advance and knew the order of the equipment she would be using.
"Good machine for developing upper abs." She could still hear the first sentence he ever spoke to her, the first time she heard his deep, sensual voice. It sent shivers down her spine. Breathless from nervousness as well as effort, she'd offered little response. "Yeah, I guess so," was all she managed to reply.
Fortunately, Jim was as smooth as he was handsome and as experienced as she was inexperienced. He somehow managed to integrate his routine into hers in such a casual and unobtrusive manner that before she was done with her thirty-minute workout, he already knew her name, age, and place of employment and had arranged a dinner date.
Their six-month courtship proceeded in much the same fashion as their initial meeting had. Jim was the rock-solid, confident leader. Laura followed, succumbed, and fell hopelessly in love with his wisdom, strength, confidence, and unwavering force that directed her life in a new and exciting direction. Jim spoke of her beauty, her naiveté, her Ivory-girl complexion and seemed totally oblivious to her warnings about her unsophisticated upbringing. His motto, which he repeated to her constantly, was, "It's not where you've been that's important, but where you are going." He would always follow that remark with, "Stick with me, babe, and you'll go places you never imagined."
Laura understood she had a lot to learn about living within a new social class. She knew Jim enjoyed the challenge; it was like shaping a raw lump of clay into a beautiful vase. It gave him the opportunity to mold her and shape her to fit into his world. For the first time in her life she felt that she had a purpose in the grand scheme of life, a position to fill, a role to play, and a person she loved dearly to fill the void that had been present for as long as she could remember. Jim provided a solid foundation to build her future upon. It was a life to be proud of, and the best part of it all was her future included this gorgeous, successful man. He once told her that showing her the world and all it had to offer was like seeing it all for the first time, and it helped him appreciate the finer things in life.
Of the time they had spent together thus far, their honeymoon held the fondest memories. The newlyweds chartered a sailboat in the Virgin Islands, a forty-foot sloop. Since Jim had become an accomplished sailor during his college years, he had no difficulties handling the navigation around the islands. The two of them, alone, formed a deep bond that was nurtured and fostered by the elegance of their boat and the beauty of the islands. It was almost magical, she thought back wistfully. Suddenly, a flash from a particular moment invaded her more pleasant memories of the trip. Sailing between the Virgin Gorda and Tortola, the day had been perfect. She remembered drinking in the beauty of the crystal-blue water as it rolled along past the bow of their boat, breathing in the scent of the salty sea air, and languishing in the warm rays of tropical sun cooled gently by the ocean breeze. They pulled into a small harbor just in time to see the last rays of the color-injected sunset and spent a happy hour watching the last fragments of color disappear below the horizon. Laura set out their usual happy-hour hors d'oeuvres, and Jim popped open a bottle of savory red wine. As Jim poured the wine into the crystal stemware, he lifted his glass toward the horizon and then toward Laura. He remarked in a mock British accent, "Ah, I wonder what the poor people are doing right now?"
Jim immediately picked up on the look on Laura's face and inquired in a concerned tone, "What's the matter, sweetheart? Did I say something wrong?"
Laura slid over and hugged Jim tightly. She kissed him on the cheek. "You just have no idea, do you?"
"Idea about what? What are you so perplexed about?" he responded.
"What it's like to live on the other side. I do. And all I can say is thank you. Thank you for taking me away from all that pain and emptiness," Laura explained.
Jim looked into her sparkling green eyes and ran his fingers though her long, soft brown hair that gently blew across her face in the gentle evening breeze.
"You never deserved to live that way, Laura. It was all a mistake. You should have been born into a royal family and fed from a silver spoon," he crooned to her playfully.
"I don't know about that ..."
Jim pressed his fingers against her lips, once again holding her back from unleashing her memories of the past.
"Stick with me, babe, and you'll forget all about your past."
Laura went to the changing room at the gym and put her duffle bag in her locker. The room was empty this morning, except for her. She stood in front of the large mirror and studied her reflection. She made a vow to herself. The sense of her inadequacies, guilt from finally achieving the fairy-tale life, and doubt that she could live up to the task presented to her of being the model wife were dispelled. As she looked in the mirror, she adjusted her ponytail; she met the gaze of the woman staring back at her and said, "Positive thinking, love for Jim, and hope."
Energized and excited, Laura headed into the gym for her morning workout. It was the first item on the agenda of any model corporate wife.
Laura's daily schedule had pretty much been established by her husband since the day they returned from their honeymoon. Jim had insisted that she quit her job as a secretary for "that going nowhere" accounting business and take her time deciding what career she would like to pursue. He hadn't objected to the idea of her working; it was just that he wanted her to be in a position that offered advancement. He wanted her to work for a company that was reputable and that would treat her right. In the meantime, Jim insisted that she start her mornings with a good workout at the club. From there, her day progressed the same way every day of the week. She returned from the club in time to shower again, tidy up the townhouse, and run any small errands she or Jim needed doing. Then she met Jim for lunch precisely at noon. Jim insisted on this quality time together, since he was required many days to stay late at work, and he left for work by 5:00 a.m. each morning. If they missed having dinner together, at least they had spent time together at lunch. Many days, Jim had put in seven hours of nonstop work by noon.
The sleek black BMW rolled easily into the visitor parking space outside Jim's office building. Giving her this car as a gift was just another reminder that Jim did nothing halfway. At work, he was quickly becoming indispensable to the growing marketing research–based company. The company was in the process of expanding into real estate by purchasing large tracts of land and not only researching the development needs of the area but selling the land after it was developed. There was a growing need for retirement homes in their area, as well as higher-priced modern homes for the young executives flooding into the area. Not only were the North Carolina mountains the number-one retirement spot in the country, but industry had seized the fever and began moving their companies into this beautiful, low-cost area as well.
As his boss Tom Sharp would describe him, Jim was a mover and a shaker. Their relationship was one of mutual respect, known rarely in the working world. Tom knew that Jim was an entrepreneur, a person who made things happen. Jim knew that Tom was a planner, a designer, a person with foresight and experience who could see into the future and guide him in the right direction. Not everyone in the company was happy about the relationship between Tom and Jim, and grumbling undercurrents ran through some of the small cliques of employees.
As Laura entered the small but distinct two-story building that Jim's company, Sharp Enterprises, had recently built, she took a deep breath, pulled open the large glass door, and stepped into the lobby. The receptionist recognized Laura immediately from her daily visits to Jim and gave her a pleasant smile. Laura proceeded directly to the elevator. Laura had mentioned to Jim that she might like to work for the company as a receptionist or secretary, but Jim had dismissed the idea, spouting the rule about spouses being employed at the same company.
"Besides," he would tell her, "your best bet is to go to school and get a degree in something you really want to do. For the first time in your life you have the time, money, and opportunity. The sky is the limit for you."
The elevator rode smoothly to the second floor. It was immaculate and still smelled like new carpet. The color palette of the building was deep maroons, black, and beige. Modern art hung on the walls of the hallway and elevator. The door opened automatically, and she stepped into the hallway leading to Jim's new office. Walking down the hallway always made Laura feel like an intruder. Heads would turn from their focus on the important papers they were engrossed with. She always wondered why those people left their doors open if people walking down the hallway were such a distraction. A few of the faces she recognized from Jim's introductions during the few parties she had been to with him. After five years of working for this company, Jim had not developed any personal friendships with his coworkers other than his boss. She reached Jim's office and realized she had been holding her breath as she had walked down the hallway. Chiding herself for still being nervous about meeting her husband at his place of employment, she took a deep breath and paused to knock on Jim's half-open door. Laura was concealed from Jim's view because his desk was against the far wall. She paused when she heard Jim's familiar voice carrying on a conversation with who could be no one other than Tom.
"I know this particular mountain like the back of my hand. For Christ's sake, I used to camp there when I was in Boy Scouts," she heard Jim say.
"I agree that it is a prime location, Jim," Tom responded, "but you can't build a resort on a mountain you don't own, now can you?"
"There has to be a way for us to obtain that property. Everyone has their price," Jim countered.
"Jim, we offered them more than the current market value for the land, and they declined. There is too much property out there to get upset over one failed deal."
"You're wrong on this one, Tom. The view from this mountain, the picturesque streams, and the gentle slope, ideal for building, would make this place a gold mine. It is just a matter of time before someone talks these hillbillies into selling, and we might as well be the ones that seal that deal."
"Well, I do admit that it is prime property. And the specs on the resort that we would like to build there would be nothing like this area has ever seen. I guess we could brainstorm on a few more ideas for procurement, if you get my meaning. You are right that there probably are ways ... I just don't know," Tom added without conviction.
Excerpted from Blue Ridge by Alison Gieschen. Copyright © 2013 by Alison Gieschen. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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