Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
Ellie Wayne doesn’t just live. She survives.
New York Times bestselling author Sharon Sala brings emotional intensity to an unforgettable story of survival, empowerment and raw courage.
Ellie Wayne has grown up in frightening circumstances, damaged by a sexually abusive father and mentally fragile mother.Scarred and still threatened by a father she hates and fears, Ellie believes her future holds nothing more than danger, shame and secrets . . . until the unspeakable happens, and Ellie is forced to choose.She can claim her life or continue to hide in the shadows.
One amazing man might be the miracle worker who can help Ellie see that she has the power to move on with her life, to hope for something more.If she can trust him.
Readers will cheer for this amazing woman as she struggles to leave victimhood behind.
Sharon Sala is a long time member of Romance Writers of America writing as Sharon Sala and Dinah McCall. She writes romantic suspense, Young Adult, and Women's Fiction. First published in 1991, she's a seven-time RITA finalist, winner of the Janet Dailey Award, four-time winner of the Career Achievement award from RT Magazine, five time winner of the National Reader's Choice Award and five time winner of the Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence as well as the Bookseller Best Award. Her books are New York Times, USA Today, Publisher's Weekly mass market best-sellers. Writing changed her life, her world, and her fate.
This summer look for the third book in her Young Adult paranormal mysteries, the Lunatic Ghosts series (My Lunatic Life, The Lunatic Detective) from Bell Bridge Books.
Visit Sharon at www.sharonsalabooks.com.
"New York Times best-selling author Sharon Sala has written a gripping, heart-wrenching story… She covers a wide range of emotions – love, anger, fear, rage, helplessness, hope. The plot is taunt and the characters well-defined. It grips you from the opening line and will keep you up all night rooting for Ellie – crying with her, feeling afraid for her, and wanting her to heal. It will shake you and make you cry…and it will make you want to hit something hard to work off the anger. One thing you will not be is unmoved." -- Shinjini Mehrotra, Modern Gypsy
Despite the long blonde curls and crybaby blue eyes, Ellie Wayne wasn’t like most five-year-old girls. Momma said she was fragile. Not fragile like the stuff Momma ordered from the QVC—fragile like sugar flowers on the bakery cakes at the Piggly Wiggly.
Daddy said she was ephemeral. Ellie didn’t know what that meant, but she thought it was good. It sounded better than being fragile. Fragile was something that didn’t last. She didn’t really remember it, but they all said she’d been a sickly baby and even now was still prone to every kind of ailment that came along, unlike her twin, Wyatt, who was her shadow.
Fern Wayne, Ellie’s mother, came from sturdy stock, but her large breasts and wide hips had been misleading. One would have assumed she would be perfect for childbearing—perfect for the family Garrett Wayne wanted, and to be fair, Garrett hadn’t been looking for beauty when he’d gone after Fern. He’d wanted a daughter. He didn’t care how many boys she birthed to make it happen, he wouldn’t be satisfied until he got his girl.
It had been easy for him to overlook her odd, androgynous features by focusing on the blonde hair and blue eyes she’d inherited from her Swedish ancestors, and there was the money she would one day inherit as the only child of Johan Strobel, as well. Strobel Investments was well-known in Memphis. Garrett always said you would be surprised at the number of people who traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
He and Fern had married within six months of their first date and were pregnant before the honeymoon was over. Everyone assumed Fern would birth fine, healthy babies, and yet her first attempt had been dismal. Garrett had been disappointed in Fern, but had taken one look at the four pounds and seven ounces of Ellie’s frail, naked body and fallen deeply, madly in love.
His silent condemnation of Fern hung over her spirit like a swinging scythe, taking swipe after swipe at her failure to breed hale and hearty children, until she imagined she could feel the sharp slice of the blade only a breath away from her throat. To counteract a future failure, Fern began hanging all sorts of religious icons upon the walls in the nursery. There were small crosses and large crosses—plain ones and ornate ones—crosses that had been blessed by holy water and some that had been blessed by her tears. She hung framed pictures of the Virgin Mary, of Jesus Christ, and of angels—all kinds of angels in every size and color—as physical proof of her piety in the hope that God would let Ellie live.
The fact that Ellie was now five years old had proved to Fern that all of her praying had worked. But the guilt of birthing a sickly child, along with the burden of raising her, had done a number on Fern. She’d grown old before her time, complaining constantly of womanly ailments usually left to middle-aged women and had taken up a life that revolved around bottles of pills and numerous glasses of wine—enough to get her through each day.
As for Garrett, he knew his worth down to the penny and ignored his flaws. He was a lanky man with a long, narrow jaw and a wild shock of red hair. His beak of a nose over-powered his face, centered between a pair of wide-set eyes in a shade of watered-down green so pale they seemed to have no color. His lips were thin, but curved often in a smile upon seeing his daughter.
Despite Ellie’s fragile hold on life, Garrett was determined she would not die—tending to her when Fern took to her bed to pray. He bathed the little runt of a babe, changing her diapers, delicately cleaning her lily—which was what Fern called her girl parts—doing everything for Ellie but the nursing. And if his teats could have produced milk, he would have done that, as well. But no matter what he did for his infant daughter, from the time she could voice an opinion, her allegiance had always been to her twin, who was the boil on Garrett’s life. From morning to night, it was always about what she and Wyatt played and where she and Wyatt went. Garrett found himself angry, even jealous, over her single-minded devotion.
And, the older Ellie got, the more withdrawn her mother became. She was no longer available as a wife for Garrett or a mother for Ellie. Garrett believed it was because Fern feared a second pregnancy would be a repeat of the first—something she knew he would not abide—but the truth was Fern Wayne had run clean out of prayers.
So this was Ellie’s life—a father who dominated her every move—a mother who was little more than a ghost—and the center of her world, her twin, Wyatt.
It was Sunday, and Ellie was in her bedroom in her silk panties and socks, waiting for Daddy to come dress her. She knew how to dress herself, but Daddy always made her wait. She kept digging her toe into the thick pile of the carpet, wishing she could dig a hole big enough to hide in.
"You could dress yourself, you know,” Wyatt muttered.
Ellie frowned. Wyatt had the adjoining bedroom and got to dress himself, but Ellie didn’t have that freedom, even though they ran back and forth between rooms. "Daddy says no.”
"You don’t have to do everything he says.”
"Yes I do. So do you.” Panic edged her voice. "Right?”
"I’m sorry, Ellie.” He reached out to calm her. "I didn’t mean to upset you. You’re right.”
Ellie nodded, but she was getting cold without any clothes. Chill bumps were breaking out on her skin and being undressed was making her nervous.
When she finally heard the sound of footsteps hurrying toward her room, she slapped her hands on her chest, covering the tiny raisin-like nipples just as Daddy came rushing into her room.
"There you are, my darling,” he said, eyeing her thin, reedy limbs. "Oh no, you’re cold, aren’t you? Here now. Let’s get dressed lickety-split and you’ll be all warm again, okay?”
Ellie felt Wyatt’s disapproval, but he made himself scarce. He didn’t like Daddy, and Daddy tolerated Wyatt, interacting with him only when Ellie insisted. She didn’t understand how a parent could love one child more than another, but she was only five. She figured things would become clearer when she got older. Grown-ups were always telling her, "You’ll understand when you get older,” so she assumed it was a fact.
She stood like a mini-mannequin waiting for window dressing and bore Daddy’s ministrations like a soldier; then one foot at a time, she slipped her tiny feet into the stretchy white stockings he was holding. Her breath caught in a moment of panic as Daddy pulled them up her legs, taking care to smooth out the wrinkles with his long slender fingers.
"Don’t want to leave any droopy spots, do we?” he asked as he finally pulled them up over her panties.
Ellie exhaled. "No Daddy. No droopy spots.”
Then he went to her closet and stood for a few moments, searching through the hangers.
"Ah... here it is. This dress is my favorite.” He turned around, holding a blue wool with small white sheep appliquéd around the yoke. "How about this one?”
She nodded, holding up her arms as he slipped it over her head then buttoned it down the back. It was soft. And it was warm. Ellie began to relax.
"I want to wear my shiny black shoes, Daddy.”
Garrett frowned. "It’s cold out so I thought we’d do the furry boots.”
Ellie began to panic. "It’s okay. I’ll wear the boots.”
He shook his head and smiled as he cupped Ellie’s chin with the palm of his hand, then ran his long thin fingers down the side of her cheek. "No. No. If my little angel wants to wear the shiny black shoes, then she shall. That’s what families do for each other. I do a favor for you. You do a favor for me.”
Ellie didn’t want to do Daddy any favors, but it was already too late to take it back.
He got the black shoes from a shelf in her closet and then sat her on the side of the bed.
"One foot in,” he said, buckling the shoe on her small, skinny foot. "Second foot in.” Ellie aimed her foot at the shoe as he slipped it on. "Just like Cinderella, right?”
Ellie’s heart began to pound.
"So if you’re Cinderella, then what does that make me?”
Ellie shivered. Daddy was staring at her with those funny green eyes. The words got stuck in the back of her throat. She looked around for Wyatt, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Garrett prompted her again as he buckled up the last shoe. "Who does Cinderella love? Come on. Tell Daddy. Who does Cinderella love?”
"Her prince. She loves her prince.”
"That’s right. So that makes me your prince, doesn’t it, Ellie?”
Ellie gritted her teeth. Her words sounded squished, like they’d been forced through lips too tight to open, only Daddy didn’t care. He just laughed. She watched his eyes crinkle so tight she could barely see the color. Wyatt called them frog green and reminded her how lucky they were that their eyes were blue. She shivered as Garrett slid his hands beneath her arms and lifted her down from the bed.
He held out his hand. "Now off we go or we’re going to be late for church.”
"Is Momma coming?” Ellie asked.
He took her coat from the closet. "No. Momma isn’t feeling well. She’s still in bed.”
"Can Wyatt come? I want Wyatt to come, too.”
Garrett paused. This was one of the few times that she reminded him of Fern, and he didn’t like it.
"No, Ellie. Wyatt doesn’t go with us. This is our time. You’re Daddy’s girl, remember?”
The First United Methodist Church sat on the corner two blocks down from Ellie’s school. Ellie loved the old church with all of its multiple steeples and gables. She thought it looked more like a castle than a church. All it needed was a moat and a dragon. Ellie would sit quietly during services without really listening to Preacher Ray, pretending she was the princess locked up in the tower, just like in the story Rapunzel that Momma sometimes read to her when she was sick. Ellie also liked the lemony smell of the polished wood and the way the sunlight came through the stained-glass windows, spilling all kinds of colors into her lap as the choir sang songs about Jesus.
Every other Sunday, the choir sang Washed in the Blood of Jesus. Ellie didn’t much like that song. She couldn’t imagine taking a bath in blood, even if it would wash away her sins. She wasn’t too sure what sins were either, but according to Wyatt, sins were things people did that were bad and got them sent to hell. If that was so, then that’s where Daddy was going. She just hoped when he went, he didn’t insist on taking her with him.
After church was over, Daddy paraded Ellie down the aisle, soaking up the compliments as if they were about him instead of her. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before, and she stayed mute, which she knew was exactly what Daddy wanted, until she overheard someone say what a beauty she was.
"Yes, she has a baby-doll face, for sure,” Daddy said.
Ellie frowned. She wasn’t sure what that meant because her baby-doll Rita had a big, flat face, a little bitty nose, and a mouth that didn’t open. As soon as she got home, she yanked free of his grasp and ran ahead of him to her room, grabbed her dolly from the bed, then carried her to the dresser mirror.
She looked at both their reflections, trying to figure out what Daddy meant. Rita’s eyes didn’t blink and her mouth didn’t open so you could see her teeth. Even more confusing, Rita’s hair was straight and brown, not blonde and curly like Ellie’s. She laid Rita back on the bed as she heard Garrett calling her to come eat, but she was going to remember this. Next time Daddy wanted to play, she was going to send Rita. Maybe then he’d leave her and Wyatt alone.
Even though Daddy didn’t like Wyatt, he was the other half of Ellie’s world. Wyatt wasn’t afraid of snakes or spiders—not even the big, black, fuzzy ones that could hop farther than Ellie could jump. Wyatt called them trantlers. Wyatt was brave and smart and knew stuff—important stuff. Wyatt wasn’t even afraid of storms, or monsters under the bed.
But Ellie was afraid. She was afraid of almost everything and had known, for as long as she could remember, that when the monster came, there was nowhere to hide. Not under the bed. Not in the back of her closet. The only thing between her and the monster was Wyatt—the other half of her soul.
That night, about an hour after Daddy tucked Ellie into bed, it began to rain. She heard drops hitting the window like tiny rocks, pop,pop, pop, then faster until the sound was lost within the wind and the oncoming storm.
Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled, rattling the glass in the window close to her bed. Ellie gasped and pulled the covers up over her head as Wyatt slipped in.
"Don’t be scared, Ellie,” Wyatt said. "I’m here. I’ll keep you safe.”
"Is it gonna come a twister?”
"Naw... it’s the wrong time of year for a twister,” Wyatt said. "This is just wind and rain.”
Ellie snuggled a little deeper beneath the covers as the sound of their own breath amplified within the small dark space.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
In through the nose. Out through the mouth.
She opened her eyes and realized she could still see tiny flashes of the lightning through the covers, but it wasn’t scary anymore. She began to pretend she was seeing fireflies, soaring from tree to tree, then up into the sky, and the rain and thunder became giant water balloons being popped by the fireflies’ lights. It was a good place to be, deep beneath the covers, in the dark, with Wyatt at her side.
The fantasy ended with a scratch, scratch, scratch at her bedroom door. It was the monster. He was here. She reached out in the darkness, her voice hardly more than a whisper.
"Wyatt. Did you hear that? The monster is here. He’s coming to get me.”
"I heard,” Wyatt said.
"I’m scared,” Ellie whispered, then crossed her legs and squeezed them tight against her lily, but it was too late. She could already smell the sour odor of pee-pee. Ellie Wayne had wet the bed.
The scratch,scratch, scratch of the monster’s footsteps was in the room now and coming closer.
Ellie closed her eyes and rolled up in a ball. Maybe if she got small enough, the monster couldn’t find her. She said a silent prayer to Baby Jesus, just in case He was listening, and promised she’d take a bath in that blood every Sunday if He’d make the monster go away.
Then just like that, the darkness was gone and the covers were at the foot of the bed. Ellie could smell the monster’s breath. It was always the same. Wyatt said it smelled like roadkill. Ellie thought it smelled a little like Momma’s Christmas pudding just before she lit it on fire.
"No, no, no,” she sobbed and started to shake as she felt the monster’s claws sliding across the sheets, coming closer and closer for her body.
"Don’t cry, Ellie, don’t cry,” Wyatt said. "I’ll go with the monster. You stay here and sleep.”
The rain had stopped by morning. Ellie was in her bed alone when she woke. It made it easier to pretend that what happened last night had been nothing but a really bad dream. She got up slowly, thankful it was a teacher’s meeting day, which meant no school today. She and Wyatt could go down to the creek that ran along the back side of their property. Daddy didn’t like for her to get dirty, and Momma was always scared she was going to get sick, but sometimes Ellie just had to break rules or go crazy.
"Wanna go hunt crawdads?” Wyatt asked as he walked into the room.
Ellie nodded as she pulled a clean pair of panties out of her dresser and put them on.
"Can we go barefoot?” Ellie asked.
"Naw... you know Momma won’t let us, but we can take our shoes off after we get to the creek.”
Ellie grinned and quickly finished dressing, then she and Wyatt headed for the kitchen, following the smell of frying bacon. She liked having secrets with Wyatt.
Fern was at the stove when Wyatt and Ellie walked in.
"Good morning,” Fern said. "Are you hungry?”
"Yes, Momma,” Ellie said. "I want bacon and toast and Wyatt wants eggs.”
Fern paused, then turned around, eyeing what Ellie was wearing. "It rained last night. It’s all wet and muddy outside, so I think you should play inside today.”
Ellie moaned. Wyatt muttered under his breath.
"Momma. We want to go outside. We won’t get muddy, we swear, right, Wyatt?”
Fern’s lips pursed. "You and Wyatt always manage to get into trouble.”
Ellie refused to answer. She knew from past experience that she couldn’t outtalk Momma. It was better just to let her talk to herself.
Fern carried the bacon and toast to the table and slid it under Ellie’s nose.
"Smells good, Momma, but don’t forget Wyatt’s eggs.”
Fern rolled her eyes. "Have I ever forgotten?” She laid a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs onto the table, then poured two glasses of juice.
As soon as they’d downed their food, Wyatt and Ellie were out the door. Fern followed them onto the porch, still calling out warnings as they disappeared over the hill and headed down to the creek. Even before they got to the trees, they could hear the swift rush of running water.
"Ooh, I bet there’s lots of water in the creek today,” Ellie said as she ran headlong toward the sound.
Wyatt was more hesitant. It was his job to keep her safe and he knew what would happen if he didn’t.
"It will be too deep to wade in,” he reminded her as they reached the trees on the ridge above the creek.
Now it was time to slow down. From here on, the ground sloped downward rather sharply, and even though it was grassy, the recent rain would have made it slippery.
Wyatt was thinking that very thought when Ellie suddenly slipped, and down she went with a squeal, taking him with her.
They hit a bush, then a tree, then lost their grip and slid farther, moving ever closer to the water below.
"I can’t stop!” Ellie cried.
Wyatt clenched his jaw, his focus centered on the half-grown sapling they were about to hit.
Ellie reached toward it, but it was Wyatt who grabbed hold of the trunk and stopped their descent.
"Oh my gosh,” Ellie gasped, as she rolled onto her back to catch her breath.
From where she was lying, she could see pieces of the sky through the trees. Parts of it were dotted with white puffy clouds, and parts of it were a pure, clear blue, and all of it was framed in rich spring green—like God’s version of a patchwork quilt. Ellie thought it was beautiful. If not for the fact they were covered in mud, it would have been worth the fall.
"You saved my life.”
"We’re awful muddy now. Momma’s gonna pitch a fit.”
"We’ll wash the mud off in the creek, and our clothes will be dry by the time we get home.”
Ellie nodded then started to laugh.
"What’s so funny?” Wyatt muttered.
"We aren’t supposed to get in the water, but now we have to take a bath in the creek or Momma will know what we did.”
Wyatt grinned. "So let’s get going.”
Ellie carefully pulled herself upright, and then crawled on her hands and knees to a more level spot before heading for the water.
A small turtle had taken up residence on an outcropping of rocks, positioning itself in such a way to catch the few rays of sun coming down through the canopy.
"See, even the turtle is drying out,” Wyatt said as they reached the creek. "Take your shoes and socks off. I’ll wash off the mud.”
"We’ll have to take our clothes off, too,” Ellie said. "I know how to scrub. I watched Momma do it in the sink.”
Wyatt shrugged. Getting naked was no big deal to him, but Ellie didn’t like it.
"What if someone sees us?” Wyatt asked.
Normally, it would have been Ellie asking that question, but today felt safe. The monster only lived in the house. It didn’t come to the creek.
"We can hurry,” Ellie said and quickly stripped. Wyatt cleaned up their shoes, then Ellie took the clothes down to the creek and knelt by the water.
Her naked limbs were snow-white and thin, like the trunks of new cottonwood saplings. Her hair brushed against her shoulders as she bent over the water, scrubbing the pieces of the clothing back and forth, just like she’d watched Momma do.
The water was cold, but the sun was warm against her back. She could feel the tickle of new grass against her legs and feet where she knelt. She liked the damp, earthy smells of moss and mud, and the rush of blood coursing through her body, keeping pace with the runoff from the rain. It made her feel alive and clean.
She thought about asking Preacher Ray on Sunday if she could get washed in the creek instead of being washed in the blood. It seemed like a less messy option.
"Are you done?” Wyatt asked.
"Soon as I wring out my shirt.”
She was reaching for her panties when she heard her Daddy’s first shout.
"Ellie! Where are you?”
Wyatt shook her. "Get dressed.”
Every piece of clothing she tried to put on was too wet. It either stuck to her skin or she couldn’t find an opening. And all the while, Daddy kept coming closer.
"Ellie! Answer me. I know you’re here.”
Ellie moaned. "Oh no, oh no, I can’t get them on.”
Wyatt was in a panic. He kept trying to pull at the tiny bits of clothing. Finally, he found the neck of her T-shirt and yanked it over her head. "Your arm. Put your arm in here.”
At that moment, Garrett stopped at the top of the creek bank and looked down. The fact that his daughter was naked and standing at the verge of the rushing water nearly stopped his heart. She’d fallen in.
"Ellie,” he yelled and started down through the trees, crashing through brush as he ran.
Ellie’s legs gave way. "It’s too late. It’s too late.”
"Stand up, Ellie,” Wyatt begged, then saw the thin stream of urine running out from between her knees and realized she was already gone.
He turned to face his father, his fists doubled.
"Ellie. What happened? Did you fall in?”
When Garrett reached for Ellie, Wyatt swung, his fist connecting with the side of Garrett’s jaw. Granted, it wasn’t much of a blow, but it was unexpected enough that Garrett stopped.
"Don’t touch her,” Wyatt yelled.
Garrett’s eyes narrowed angrily. "Don’t touch her?”
"You heard me,” Wyatt shouted.
"Ellie, get up. You’re going to get sick out here without any clothes,” Garrett said.
"She’ll put them on. I’m gonna help her,” Wyatt said. "You just stay back and let me do it.”
"Wyatt, you need to shut up. I’m the father, not you. Back off. I need to tend to Ellie.”
Garrett began unbuttoning his shirt to put around Ellie.
Wyatt started to panic. Daddy was too big and he wasn’t listening.
"I’ll do it,” Wyatt said. "Just leave Ellie alone.”
Garrett’s eyes narrowed. "Do what?”
"Whatever you want,” Wyatt said, and tried not to shudder when Garrett smiled.
"You know what I want,” Garrett whispered.
Wyatt could hear Ellie panting, like a dog that had run too far and too fast. Bowing to the inevitable, he quietly gave up.
"It’s okay, Ellie. Hide your face,” he said.
Ellie was praying. She was always praying, but Wyatt already knew it didn’t do any good. God was always busy when Daddy wanted to play.