You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
Whitaker House (March 1, 2012)
***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me a review copy.***
I adore Sharlene MacLaren's writing style. She creates the most amazing characters and while I haven't been able to read this one yet, I wanted my readers to know that she has this new book out - definitely worth getting!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
“Shar” grew up in western Michigan and graduated from Spring Arbor University. After college she traveled worldwide performing with a music group and then returned home to start teaching school. She married her childhood friend, Cecil MacLaren, with whom she raised two daughters (and now has three grandchildren). After over 30 years as a teacher, Shar asked God for a new mission that would fill her heart with the same kind of passion she’d felt for teaching and raising her family. She found her mission writing Christian romance, and since 2007 has released ten novels that have earned her numerous awards and an ever-increasing base of loyal readers who are comforted, inspired, and entertained by her books.
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Ellie Booth is on the run from her bootlegging stepfather whom she’d witnessed murder a man in their home state of Kentucky. Landing in Wabash, Indiana, she seeks a cover identity and hastily marries Gage Cooper, a widower with four children. Ellie quickly falls in love with the Cooper kids, and, not long after, with their father. But tensions mount when Ellie’s stepfather picks up her trail and Gage discovers his new bride hasn’t been entirely honest with him. Filled with colorful historic detail, emotional drama, and lighthearted humor, Ellie’s Haven is the action-packed follow up to Livvie’s Song in MacLaren’s River of Hope Series, set in 1920’s Wabash, Indiana.
List Price: $10.99
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (March 1, 2012)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight….
Nothing wakes a body faster than a barking dog competing with the heated shouts of furious men. Eleanor Booth threw off her heavy quilt and leaped out of bed, pulled her flannel collar up tight around her throat, and raced across the gritty floor to the window. With her fingertips, she rubbed a circle of frost off the pane and peered out into the cold, dark morning, squinting to make out the shadowy figures that appeared to be facing off just feet away from the rotting front porch. An icy chill surged down her spine.
“I ain’t payin’ you one cent more, Sullivan. You done took me for every last penny.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Byron. Your pocket ain’t empty till I say it is, and as long as you keep producin’ hooch, the greenbacks’ll keep rollin’ in. You stop payin’, and I’ll shut you down quicker than a lizard on hot sand.”
They were at it again—Byron Pruitt, Ellie’s worthless stepfather, and Walter Sullivan, that crooked government agent. Byron’s dog, Curly, didn’t let up his fierce, frenzied barking, which ought to have deterred the dispute but seemed to fuel it instead.
“Byron,” Ellie’s mama, Rita, pleaded in a panicked tone. “Byron, pay the man so he’ll get off our property.”
“Shut up, woman, and git back inside! I ain’t payin’ ’im another dime!”
Ellie snatched her fraying robe from the foot of her bed, slipped it on, and rushed out of the room, toes gone numb from the frozen air wafting up through the floorboards. Tennessee winters didn’t generate much snow, but that didn’t stop the temperatures from plummeting into the single digits.
She entered the dark, tiny living room and found her mother standing in the open doorway, shoulders hunched, hands clutching the door frame. Her grayish-black hair was mussed every which way, and her tattered flannel nightgown hugged her narrow frame.
Ellie shot a hasty glance at the potbelly stove in the middle of the room, where nothing but a few embers glowing through the blackened glass. More shivers stampeded down her spine. “What’s goin’ on?” she asked, coming up behind her mama.
At the sound of her voice, Byron gave a half-turn, and that’s when Ellie spied the sawed-off shotgun in his arms. “Git back to bed, missy,” he groused. “You ain’t needed here.”
Walt Sullivan had a gun, too—a pistol—but he kept it holstered, one hand hovering over it.
“Byron, put that gun down before somebody gets hurt,” Ellie said firmly.
“Yeah, Pruitt. Listen to your purty li’l daughter.”
“Shut yer tater trap and git off my land, Sullivan.”
“Not till I get what’s due me.”
“I done paid you. Now, git!”
“’Fraid you paid me half.”
“You keep raisin’ the rates, you dumb ox. How you ’spect me to make any kind o’ livin’?”
Sullivan chortled. “That ain’t my concern, now, is it? I swear, if you don’t pay up, I’ll come back with my men, and we’ll turn your whole operation into mincemeat by midday.” He made the mistake of taking a step toward Byron, whether to intimidate or to show his authority, Ellie couldn’t say. She knew only that it was a mistake.
Byron raised his rifle and quickly fired off three shots, each one reaching its intended target. For a brief moment, his eyes glistened in the vanishing moonlight. Then, eyes bulging in an expression of shock, he dropped to the ground like a sack of wet cement.
Utter mayhem followed. Curly kept barking and ran circles around the fallen body, while her mama shrieked. “Byron! You—you—you’ve shot ’im. Is he dead? Oh, dear God, help us!” And Ellie, to suppress her own sobs, turned away from the body, where red fluid already oozed from mouth and nose. She clutched her stomach to keep from retching right there on the floor.
“Shut up, just shut up, both o’ you!” Byron roared. “I have to think.” With eyes flaming and nostrils flaring, he turned and started pacing.
The women kept quiet, save for the occasional gasp of air, and hugged each other. Ellie swallowed down some of the bitter juice churning in her stomach and chanced a peek over Mama’s shoulder.
Byron paused and crouched over Sullivan’s body, feeling for a pulse. He cut loose a curse. “He’s dead, all right.”
Ellie’s mama gasped and released her to cover her mouth with her hands. “Oh, mother of all things holy, Byron! What in the world have you done?”
“Shut up, I told you, ’fore I shoot you, too!” He raised his gun at her.
On impulse, Ellie leaped between them, her arms raised. “Put that gun down, you fool!” She had to tell herself to breathe.
The man’s beady eyes stared as if to bore holes through her, but he lowered his weapon. Still, she knew Byron Pruitt had no soul—she’d known since the day she’d met him—and she’d go to the grave wondering why her mama had married him after her father had died. Perhaps, she’d seen him as her only hope of surviving in the hills. Some protector he’d turned out to be, operating an illegal distillery that brought the scum of society straight to their door. If he ever turned a profit, her mama never saw it, for what he didn’t gamble away he paid in bribes to keep the authorities off his back.
“I gotta get rid o’ this body,” he muttered, sweeping five stubby fingers through his scraggly hair.
“No,” Ellie said quietly. “We have to call the sheriff.”
“Are you crazy?” he spat, stepping over the body and walking toward them, his eyes as wild as a rabid dog’s. “We ain’t callin’ no sheriff. I kilt a man, a government man, in cold blood. You think any court o’ law’s gonna let me off the hook?”
Ellie huddled close to her mama and wrapped a protective arm around her.
“W-we won’t tell,” Mama said, her whole body quivering. “We promise, Byron.”
Ellie couldn’t believe her ears. “Mama, how can you say that?”
Byron’s eyes bulged with madness as he climbed the rickety porch steps and entered the house. The worst kind of cold slithered in the door and tangled around Ellie’s ankles. “Because you two’re in this with me, that’s how she can say it. I’ll tell the cops you both played a part, that you talked me into doin’ it.” He raised the shotgun and poked the barrel into her mama’s chin, lifting it.
Ellie swallowed hard and stiffened. “Byron, don’t you dare hurt her.”
Her stepfather was a perpetual terror, always cocking a gun, sharpening a knife, or speaking not-so-veiled threats. It seemed that nothing satisfied him more than creating havoc in their little household. Byron Pruitt was a viperous lunatic, and if it hadn’t been for her beloved mama, Ellie would have left years ago.
Byron slid the muzzle up Mama’s face and held it at the center of her forehead. “I ain’t lyin’, Eleanor—if you don’t help me bury that body an’ promise to keep yer trap shut ’bout what you saw, I’ll kill yer ma.”
“You are plumb crazy,” Ellie whispered through her teeth.
“Don’t believe me?” He cocked the rifle and chortled. “I’ll blow ’er head off right now.”
Mama whimpered as a lone tear trickled down her trembling cheek.
Byron redirected the shotgun at the floor and pulled the trigger. A unison scream sounded as Ellie and her mama clutched each other and stepped away from the cloud of dust that rose from the splintered hole in the boards. Outside, Curly barked even louder, and Ellie could hear the chickens fussing in the coop.
But she heard nothing except the pounding of her own heartbeat when Byron stuck the barrel of his gun in her mama’s temple. “I’ll kill ’er, Eleanor, I swear it. You go to the cops, and she’s as good as dead. And here’s an interestin’ li’l tidbit: you workin’ alongside me at that liquor still makes you my partner in crime.” He laughed, the sound cold and hollow. “Them head beaters don’t look too kindly on us moonshiners, an’ with you bein’ one of us, well, they’re likely to lock you up tighter’n a pickle in a cannin’ jar. Just don’t forget that.”
She hated that he was right. “Fine. Just put that stupid gun down.”
He complied, but only after he’d held it in position for what seemed like another minute, an ugly sneer on his face. “Good. I’m glad we’re clear on that.” He pulled the gun strap over his shoulder. “Well, come on, then, both o’ you. We got a body to bury.”
Hours later, Ellie could barely believe she’d actually dug the grave of Walter Sullivan. Granted, she’d done it with Byron’s rifle aimed at her. Twice she’d emptied her stomach contents into the hole, only to hear the gun cock and Byron tell her to hurry up and finish before somebody came along.
Now, she watched her mama working at the stove to prepare lunch. In the living room, Byron sat in his rocker next to the fire and cleaned his gun, Ellie knew, to rid it of any traces of telltale gunpowder.
Ellie moved up beside her mama and touched her shoulder gently. “You’ve been stirrin’ this soup for fifteen minutes, Mama. Why don’t you go sit down a spell? You’re plain tuckered out.”
“What you two whisperin’ ’bout in there?” Byron barked.
“Nothin’,” Mama called back. Then, with lowered voice, she sputtered to Ellie, “You can’t stay here. You gotta leave today. I wouldn’t be able to bear it if anythin’ happened to you.”
“I can’t leave you with that maniac, Mama. He’s insane.”
“Of course you can, and you will. I’ll be fine. The minute he heads out to the barn, I want you to grab whatever you need and then skedaddle across the field to the Meyers’ house, you hear? Ask Burt to drive you down the mountain. He’ll do it.”
“What you two blabberin’ about?”
Byron’s brusque voice in the hallway had Ellie whirling on her heel. “Nothin’, just like Mama said. Go sit down. Your lunch is ready.”
“Humph. You best not be plannin’ to run off anywheres,” he grumbled before shuffling off to the table. Ellie caught the smell of his breath, and her stomach lurched, though she should have been accustomed to the stench of whiskey by now, considering the hours she’d worked at the still, where the air was saturated with mash. She would always associate the odor with Byron—and his shotgun, which was the only thing that had kept her working there.
The legs of his chair scraped against the sooty floor as he scooted in closer to the table, his back to them. With an icy chortle, he muttered, “You two don’t got nowheres to go, anyway.”
Three hours later, Ellie bumped along in the backseat of a Model T driven by Burt Meyer. Mildred, his wife of forty years, sat up front with him. Quiet tears dampened Ellie’s face as Burt maneuvered the automobile, its brakes squealing in protest, down a narrow pass.
She’d had no more than minutes to throw a few belongings into a little suitcase, hug her mama good-bye, and then sprint along the worn path across the cornfield. Mama had given her strict orders to locate her deceased husband’s aunt in Wabash, Indiana, and not to send word to her for at least a month, and then only through Burt and Mildred. “We can trust them,” she’d said as she’d helped her pack, Ellie crying all the while. “Don’t tell them where you’re goin’, though, and when you write to me, put the letter inside a small envelope and then tuck that inside a bigger one. Put your return address on the inside letter, never the outside one, you understand? The less information Burt ’n’ Mildred know, the better off they’ll be. They’re good people. I don’t want them gettin’ involved in this mess, other than to drive you to the train station.”
“You sure you want to leave your ma?” Mildred asked, bringing Ellie’s attention back to the present. The woman turned around and looked her in the eye. “You seem awful broke up ’bout leavin’, honey.”
Ellie wiped her cheeks and nodded. “I’m nineteen. High time I make my own way.”
“And get away from that fool stepfather o’ yours,” Burt muttered. “Too bad Rita didn’t leave with you.”
Mildred glared at her husband. “Now, Burt, that ain’t none of our concern,” she scolded him gruffly. When she was facing front again, Ellie heard her add, “Even if you’re right.” In a louder voice, she said, “We’re goin’ to miss you somethin’ fierce, Eleanor. Always did love it when you came across the field to visit us.”
“And brought them scrumptious pies with you,” Burt tacked on. “Won’t be the same up on West Peak with you gone.” He glanced back at her and winked. “Where you travelin’ to, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
“I…I plan to head north, look for a job. Not quite sure just where yet.” She could at least tell them that much.
Mildred turned around again, her brow wrinkled in concern. “You don’t got a plan, Eleanor? Why, we cain’t just drop you off if you don’t have no sort o’ arrangements.”
“Sure you can,” Ellie said, forcing brightness into her tone. She wiped away the last of her tears. “I need to break out o’ my cocoon.”
“Darlin’, if you want to break out, why don’t you go south? It’s so blamed cold up north.”
“Daddy has an aunt I’m plannin’ to stay with.” She regretted the disclosure immediately, but it did seem that they deserved an explanation of sorts. They’d always been so kind to Mama and her.
“Say no more,” Burt spoke up. “Long as you’ll be safe, that’s enough for Mildred and me.”
“He ain’t a good sort, that Byron Pruitt,” Mildred said, as if she knew that he had something to do with Ellie’s departure.
Ellie determined to purse her lips for the rest of the trip, lest some hint of the sordid murder slip past them. Best to keep it buried in the deepest parts of her soul.