Dying of kidney disease, Joe spends his last days serving fatherless children in an under resourced community. Observing Papa Joe’s tireless love for “his kids,” Sam begins to find new purpose until she comes face to face with her heart’s desire. The innocence and hope of a child competes with the lure of revenge in an effort to show Sam how, even in life’s darkest of circumstances, Love is above all.
|Publisher:||B&H Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||5 MB|
|Age Range:||3 Months to 18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
LIFE USED TO be so beautiful. So full of magic and possibilities. Wonder and excitement. There wasn't anything I couldn't do. Couldn't be. Couldn't go.
When I was a child, I would sit for hours drawing and dreaming up crazy stories to tell all my friends. Multicolored crayon tales etched by wild imaginings. Stories about a place where the sun always shone. Or a place where a tin man could carry a little red-headed girl to the farthest point of the universe, way above the earth, on feet made of fire. Or a lonely island way out in the middle of the ocean, where a deer and a platypus lived in disharmony. They sat back-to-back on this tiny piece of land, never acknowledging each other. Until one day when they were both thirsty, the deer climbed up a coconut tree so they could share a drink. After that, they were the best of friends.
I thought my stories would inspire the world, make it a better place somehow. I was such a dreamer. And for a while it seemed that all my dreams would come true.
Billy Crawford was my world. The man of my dreams. The man I promised to love and honor and cherish until "death do us part." Believing, of course, that death would never really come.
Or that if it did, it would be a long way off in the future. Too far away to worry about today. Or even tomorrow.
Billy worked for the power company. I used to brag, "Wherever it's dark, Billy brings light."
Billy would laugh and say, "But only if there's a switch to flip."
While Billy made the world brighter, I wrote children's books, letting all who would read them know that the fairy tale did exist. Everyone and anyone could have all they wanted and more. All they had to do was believe in their dreams.
But how quickly dreams can be shattered. In one second. With one gun. One bullet cracking the silence of one night.
A dragon had come to slay my knight.
But that killer didn't just take Billy's life. He took mine too. Like Rapunzel, he locked me in a cold, dark tower where I lived alone, unable to climb down to where the world was green and warmed by sunshine. Colors had faded to black and white. The places that — once upon a time — had freely been mine were now barred to me.
WHEN IT CAME to Billy's murder, the only thing the police knew was that the killer wore a red hoodie and left behind a red mechanic's rag. They investigated for a few days. Maybe even weeks, if I think about it. They asked questions of all the wrong kinds of people. And then, without a single lead, they gave up their search. They placed Billy's file under the heading of "cold case" and also started investigating the next homicide, which they probably never solved.
But I could never move on.
Instead, I spent hours in my tower, drawing a new kind of story. Shadows of a man dressed in red. Tales of an oily, filthy rag, dropped like some kind of claimer's stake, marking off the deed. I drew those pictures and kept them tacked over my desk in the hayloft of our barn — mine and Billy's. And while the police moved on to other things, I stared at my dark art, determined to make a new kind of difference.
After a while, as prisoners will sometimes do, I grew to love my place in the tower, to relish the hours in the dark, studying those drawings. I found myself not minding the bitterness. Instead, I was somehow unexplainably existing on my sheer determination to right this horrible wrong. Those hours and those drawings kept me close to Billy, close to the final minutes of his life. Without them, nothing that was left to me made sense.
What do you do when you've lost your faith? Your hope? Your will to go on? What do you do when life doesn't make sense anymore? When drawing a breath — a single breath — takes all your effort, until even the effort is gone?
I used to dream of telling stories.
But I never dreamed mine would end like this.CHAPTER 2
THE WEEK BEFORE Billy died, I stood by the living room window of our farmhouse, staring past the lawn, the maples, and the split-rail fence to the ribbon of dirt road I knew he'd be driving down any minute. I held my sketchbook in one hand, the edge of the curtain in the other. Anticipating. Watching. Giggling like a schoolgirl.
I could hear his truck before I could see it. That blue-and-white '66 Ford Custom Cab — the very same one he'd picked me up in for our first date — belched out enough fumes and noise to wake the dead. After a few months of dating, when I asked him why he'd chosen to pick me up in such a relic, he said he figured if I was cool enough to go out with him in that old pickup, then I was worth keeping. Just like she was.
That day — that magical day the week before he died, before I knew how precious little time we had left — I stood at the window, listening. The truck barreled down the road doing about thirty-five miles an hour, which was ten miles over what it should have been driven. As soon as it passed through the gate, I dropped the curtain and dashed over to the living room's blue-green velvet sofa, planting myself so it'd appear I'd been sitting there for hours, drawing the title page for my next best seller. Like time had been lost to me.
I suppressed a giggle as the driver's door creaked open and slammed shut. I kept drawing as Billy's boots shuffled up the wooden steps of our cypress-log cabin, to the stained porch, and finally to one of the ten-paneled glass French doors. The door opened with a squeak and closed with a rattle.
"Hey, cowboy," I said without looking up.
"Hey, purty lady," he said, sounding more like he'd just woken up than gotten home from work. "You make it to the bank for me today?"
"Good, 'cuz I just ran out." Billy stepped around the back of the sofa, leaned over, and kissed the top of my head. I drew in a breath — he smelled of warm sunshine and that morning's aftershave.
I cut my eyes over to his, all crystal blue and focused on mine. After a moment he sat beside me, dropping his gaze to my lap. "And you are finally gonna write that thing. Firebird. Betcha it'll be your best ever."
His eyes returned to my face, and for a moment we were locked in our own kind of embrace. We didn't need our arms or hands or even the words people who are in love say to each other. We had our eyes, and that was enough.
"All right. So where they at?" He kissed my cheek, stood, and walked back toward the door.
"What? Where's what at?"
"My two-dollar bills. My Jeffersons?" He stopped at the old ladder on the wall, the one he'd stained and added some hooks to and positioned between two windows framed by knotty pine. He hooked his white hard hat on one, his work jacket on another.
"Oh," I said, returning to my drawing, all the while pretending it was my sole focus in life. "I put them in the coffee mug cabinet."
"The coffee mug cabinet?"
I kept my head down, but my eyes followed him toward the kitchen.
"Now why in the world would you want to go and do that?"
He opened the cabinet and hit the floor in one fluid movement. Three carefully placed hens flew out, clucking and carrying on. And why shouldn't they? They'd been kept in there long enough, waiting for his return.
I dropped my sketch pad to the floor. Billy hauled himself up, brow cocked, looking more boy than man. "Oh, you're gonna get it," he said.
I was out of the door in a flash, dashing across the porch, jumping down the stairs. I ran as fast as I could, with half of my long red hair flying behind me, the other half slapping me in the face.
Billy gained on me in the barn where he tackled me, and tossed me into a pile of hay. Dust and broken pieces of grain swirled around us. He held me there for a few moments, tickling me until I had nothing left but gasps and giggles.
"Come on," he said when he knew he'd worn me out. "Let's take the horses out for a ride."
We rode for what could have been hours but felt more like minutes. We cantered through the fields of our property, staying close to the tree line, past rolled bales of hay, and up to a summit where the air had grown thick with evening and the sky had turned to fire. Still sitting astride our saddles, we watched the sun set, waited for the afterglow, neither of us saying a word. We didn't need to. Billy and I could read each other without speaking.
Finally, he said, "I love you, you know that?"
I nodded. "I love you too, cowboy."
And I did. More than anything in this life, I did.
THAT SATURDAY MORNING Billy came up with the idea of going camping.
"Why not?" He'd just come out of the shower, towel wrapped around his waist, water trickling down his chest. His hair stood on end in wet spikes of adorable. "The weather's perfect for it. We can ride Cricket and Penny out to the west side of the property. Watch the sun go down. Build a fire ..." He pretended to act sheepish. "You know ... and fool around a little."
I laughed out loud.
He walked over to the bed where I sat propped up, sipping on coffee and reading a novel.
I closed the book, laid it on the bedside table next to my coffee mug, and reached for the white chenille comforter to draw it over and around him as he climbed in next to me. "It's been a long time since we went camping," I said.
"I know." His left index finger ran the length of my bare arm, drawing gooseflesh.
"I don't even remember how long."
"I think the pup tent's in the barn somewhere."
"I'll get it." His eyes met mine. "You can bring your sketch book. Keep working on that story."
"Mm-hmm." By now his lips traced where his finger had drawn. "So ... what do you say?"
"What do I say?" I asked, sliding under the cover, drawing it tight under my chin. "I think camping is a fine idea."
To which Billy fell back onto his side of the bed and laughed.
THE NIGHT TURNED magical. Billy dug a pit, surrounding it with rocks, and made a fire, while I threw our sleeping bags and camping pillows between it and the tent. The fall air was crisp, and the fire warmed us, singing a crackling tune, joining voices with the crickets and the occasional tenor hoot owl. Earlier we'd watched as the sun slipped behind the hills, bathing them in an orangey glow until they grew black, forming only an outline against a midnight-blue sky. Now I sat cross-legged with my sketch pad in my lap, colored pencils between my teeth and behind my ears, working furiously on my little firebird. Billy poked the fire awhile before leaning back on his elbow and staring upward. Knowing Billy, he was probably counting the stars and looking for those he could wish upon.
After a while I sensed him studying me, so I looked over at him and smiled.
"You finally started your book?" he asked.
I went back to my work. "No," I said around the pencil before removing it. "It's just an idea at this point. It's nowhere near where it needs to be."
"Tell it to me."
I tilted my chin toward him. Gave him "the eye." Billy was always teasing me about my stories. Saying things like, "All right for children, but I'm not sure you can make a film out of it." But the truth was, Billy was nothing if not proud of me.
"I'll be nice," he said, though his smile was crooked, making me doubt the sincerity of the words. But the firelight played across his face, bringing out his boyish charm. "C'mon."
"All right." I chose another of my colored pencils from behind my right ear, tucked the first one in its place, and went back to work. After a deep breath, I began with the words that had been forming in my head for such a long time. "Once upon a time, there lived a little baby oriole named Firebird. Now Firebird just lived for the sunshine. He would bask in that glow for hours and hours. But when the rains would come, he would complain to his mama. He wanted to know why God gave storms the power to take the sun away. And Mama bird would just smile and say, 'You'll understand someday, when you walk on the clouds.'"
Again, I pulled a pencil from behind my ear and replaced it with the one I'd been using. After a moment of careful sketching,
I returned to my story. "Now, over and over again, the rains would come. And over and over again, little Firebird would complain to his mama. But one day, when a huge storm rolled in, his mama had a different answer. 'It's up there waiting for you. But you have to go see it for yourself.'
"Now Firebird was scared. He hadn't used his wings much at all. Yet up he went into the great unknown."
I looked at my husband. His face was somber. His eyes intent.
"Danger," I said. "Turbulence."
Billy gave me a half smile. I watched the rise and fall of his chest. His breathing that told me that, like a child, he was right there in the moment of the story.
I looked at my sketch pad, to the wide-eyed oriole I had fashioned from colored pencils and imagination. "But instead of answers, he was met with lightning, thunder, and howling wind. He feared the storm would rip him apart. He was on the verge of turning back when ..." I looked at Billy. "... it happened. He broke through the clouds. And there it was: The sun, more beautiful than ever. And in that moment, it all became clear. No storm could take the sun away. The sun was always shining."
I tore the page from the pad, slipped it toward Billy. "It was as constant as his mother's love. All he needed to see it was a little 'walk on the clouds.'"
Billy looked at my drawing and then back up to me. He was proud of me. Proud of my ability to tell my stories. Proud to call me his wife. As proud as I was to call him my husband.
I looked back at the fire. Watched it lick away at the night air.
"Not bad," Billy finally said. "For a start."
I felt my heart smile before it reached my face. "I should have known you'd say something like that."
Billy grinned. "I love it. Best one yet, didn't I tell you?"
"You keep that drawing for me, you hear?"
"I'll put it in my wallet. Carry it everywhere I go."
The flames popped.
"Sam, you gotta write this. Every story you write gets better, but this one is the best. Seriously. Write it. Promise me."
"All right," I said. "I promise."
THREE DAYS LATER the rains came. By the second day it seemed that somewhere out there a man named Noah ought to be building an ark. Late one afternoon, after putting in an already difficult day, Billy got called in to work, as we knew he would.
"Don't wait up," he said, tucking the white hard hat under his arm. "I'm probably gonna be awhile."
"I won't," I said. But I knew I would.
It was about ten o'clock when I received the call from the police officer over in Nashville telling me I needed to come down to a neighborhood known as the Commons, to a small grocery store called Murphy's. He said there had been an accident involving Billy, and he gave me the address.
"Is he all right?" I asked, already jumping into a pair of riding boots I kept by the front door.
"You just need to come on down. That's all I know to tell you right now, Mrs. Crawford."
I ran out of the door and into the pouring rain, not bothering with an umbrella. Once inside the car, I was soaked through and through, but I didn't care. My hands shook as I tried to start the car. I dropped the keys to the floorboard, had to retrieve them in the dark. When I finally got the car started, I jerked it into gear and bounced over the ruts in our driveway. I was doing close to forty-five by the time I drove through the gate.
Usually Nashville is a thirty-minute drive. That night it was more like an hour. An hour of shaking uncontrollably, in spite of the self-reassuring prayers I spoke aloud, telling God to make it all right. Once inside the city limits, I plugged my GPS navigator into the cigarette lighter and typed in the address while waiting at a red light. The system told me I was only five minutes away. Five minutes from knowing what I know now. Five minutes from my life never being the same again.
I saw the reflection of flashing red lights before anything else, each one running across the dark, rain-drenched buildings like mice scurrying from a cat. I parked the car as close as I could get, and then got out and ran toward the ambulance and police cars.
I remember now how my mind registered seeing the ambulance, thinking it was a good sign. If Billy were dead, I reasoned, there'd be no need for an ambulance. Its presence surely meant he was alive. Maybe he'd been shocked by a live wire. Or fallen off a ladder. He'd spend time in the hospital, but after a week or so he'd be back at home. Then back to work. Life would return to normal. Surely ...
I reached the building where a dark-green awning with the words Murphy's Liquor Store hung over the door and the front stoop.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unconditional"
Copyright © 2012 Free to Love, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
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