The Stone Flower Garden

The Stone Flower Garden

Deborah Smith

$16.95 Reprint September 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9802453-7-0

Darleen Union and Eli Wade are childhood friends torn apart by a murder that has never been solved. But now, years later, long-buried secrets are about to, literally, be dug up.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

"On a dark spring night twenty-five years after I helped bury my Great Aunt Clara Hardigree, I found myself digging her up. I felt as if I was playing the lead in a scene from some grotesque southern soap opera. Scarlett O'Hara does the graveside scene in Hamlet. Alas, poor Clara, I knew her well."

For Darl Union, life in Burnt Stand, North Carolina, has always been a mixture of wealth, privilege, loneliness and sinister family secrets. Even her childhood love for Eli Wade, the son of a stone cutter, was tangled in a web of deceit and murder. His father, an innocent man, died for killing her great aunt.


Reviews

"For sheer storytelling virtuosity, Ms. Smith has few equals." -- Richmond Times Dispatch

"Smith knows how to generate genuine emotion, and readers will be wringing out their hankies by the time the protracted conclusion rolls around." -- Publisher's Weekly


Excerpt

On a dark spring night twenty-five years after I helped bury my Great Aunt Clara Hardigree, I found myself digging her up. I felt as if I was playing the lead in a scene from some grotesque southern soap opera. Scarlett O'Hara does the gravesite scene in Hamlet.

"Alas, poor Clara, I knew her well".

A propane camp lantern hissed and flickered among the ferns by my feet. I dug for my great aunt's bones as quickly as I could in the moonlit woods. A huge marble urn loomed over me, its cascading marble flowers and marble vines poking my shoulders and head like hard fingers. The Stone Flower Garden was as much a part of the forest, as much a Hardigree symbol, as Clara's hidden grave. I shivered. Appalachian mountains as old as the earth looked down on my shame, and beyond the deep glen with the bones and the marble urn, the lights of Burnt Stand, North Carolina, my sleeping hometown, winked knowingly at me.

"We always suspected you weren't cut from the strongest Hardigree stone." The Hardigree name stood for unbreakable women and unbreakable marble. But I, Darl Union, granddaughter of Swan Hardigree Samples, great-granddaughter of Esta Hardigree, had cracked.

And it was all because of a man. I looked up at Eli Wade, the man whose trust I'd betrayed, just as my silence had betrayed his wrongfully accused father, twenty-five years earlier. Eli watched me with no understanding of what I was about to show him.

I finally found Clara's skeleton no more than an arm's length down in the loamy forest sod. When I was a child, watching my Grandmother Swan dig the grave, it had seemed like a mile. Now Clara was just dirty bones waiting to be pulled up one at a time. Perhaps I should have brought one of Swan's finest linen tablecloths to wrap her in. A monogrammed one. We Hardigrees set a nice table.

The only thing that startled me was a necklace I plucked from the grave soil. When I wiped its small pendant and held it to the lantern light, I saw the twinkle of a diamond set in a tiny, polished chip of milk-white Hardigree marble. Grandmother had one just like it. So did it. It was a tradition in our family. Not a family crest, but the next best thing: Hard stone on hard stone, tinged with the soil of our ambitions.

I shivered again. Done, then. Every piece of infamous misery lay exposed. Nausea rose in my throat and I sat back on my heels with Clara's pendant clasped in my fist, my head bowed, my eyes shut. As a child I never meant to help Grandmother murder her and blame it on someone else. Like all the unforeseen fates "hate and true love and success and failure" it just happened.

"Your father didn't kill Clara," I told Eli. "Swan and I did."

Eli looked at the grave in shock, and then, slowly, back at me. Ineffable sadness and anger began to crowd the night air between us. I believed at that moment that he could never forgive me, and I could never forgive myself. "How could you do this to me?" he asked.

"Family," I whispered.

Children lose their innocence piece by piece. The layers are carved away until our hearts have been exposed and polished into an unnatural gloss. We spend the rest of our lives trying to remember why we ever loved so passionately and how we dreamed so simply, before life chiseled us down to the core.

#

"When I grow up, I'll live somewhere as flat as spit on a marble table," Eli vowed. He was ten years old, homely, dirt-poor, smart, determined, and on an uphill course in his young life. Eli sweated and heaved as he helped his father, Jasper, push their overloaded pick-up truck up the frying-hot pavement of an unusually well-kept mountain road. The Wades had been moving uphill for two weeks, rising from their familiar Tennessee hill country into the Smoky Mountains, crossing the state line into western North Carolina then straight up the backbone of the tallest southern highlands. The damned old red-rusted truck had fainted on every steep grade.

Cooking pots, kerosene lanterns, and a rusty charcoal grill clanked on the sides of the truck's camper back like metal fish struggling on stringer lines. Low tree limbs tried to snag the dingy mattresses and lawn chairs bound atop. A dish cloth flapped from one of the camper's cranked-open side windows, as if waving at plain Annie Gwen Wade, Eli's mother, who plodded stoically along the mown roadside with sweat streaking her face and Eli's four-year-old sister, Bell, clinging to her neck.

Eli squinted ahead, watching sweat drip from Pa's grim face and thick arms. Pa maneuvered the steering wheel with one hand and threw his weight into the truck's open door frame. Eli winced. Sweat, poverty and pride clung to the Wade family like dust from Pa's quarry jobs. He was both ashamed of his father and fervently devoted to him. Suddenly Eli noticed a thin pine tree along the roadside. Five small handpainted signs were tacked in a row down its trunk.

God Bless President Nixon.

Jesus Won't Save Hippies.

Stop the war.

The first three were ordinary enough. He'd seen their kind all along the backroads. But the bottom two signs popped out at Eli like neon.

BURNT STAND, N.C. IS BUILT ON BLOOD, FIRE AND WHORES.

JEZEBEL'S DAUGHTER RULES HERE.

Good godawmighty. "Hey, look, Mama," Eli said loudly, directing attention to the signs with a jab of his hand.

Mama gasped. "You turn your eyes away."

"What do they mean?"

"I'm not sure how to tell you, so you don't look."

He bent his head and kept pushing. What kind of place were they headed to? When they rounded a curve Eli glanced up through wet, dark hair, scrubbed a dirty forefinger across the lenses of his cheap glasses, and saw the most amazing thing. There, white against the deep evergreen forest, stood two towering pillars of pinkish-white marble, one on each side of the road. Both sported handsome marble plaques filled with finely carved words. Eli gaped. More signs. Did Jezebel rule at the Pearly Gates?

"Now these here words are worth lookin' at," Mama said in soft awe. Eli read the plaques out loud, for Pa's sake. Pa, bare-eyed, could pick out the finest crack in a slab of marble, or find a shooting star across the Milky Way. He just couldn't read.

"Welcome to Burnt Stand, North Carolina," Eli read in a heavy drawl. "Marble Crown Of The Mountains.' And the other sign says, "Home of the Hardigree Marble Company. Established with pride in 1925 by Esta Hardigree, who lit the fire of progress and never let a stone go unturned for commerce."

Beyond the strange marble monuments were huge fir trees and blue-green mountains. The rhododendron-hemmed two-lane led up an escalating hill between high mountain forest so deep it cast cool, blue-black shadows in the broiling August sun. Eli and Pa pushed the truck a few more yards, finally cresting that last, torturous hill.

"My god," Pa said suddenly. Eli, Mama, and Bell gathered next to him in the middle of the road, gazing in stunned silence at a pristine valley and a kind of a town they'd never imagined.

"It's pink," Eli said.

Burnt Stand blushed, deceptively innocent under the sun.

#

Pink. My whole life was pink. Pink town, pink marble fortune, pink marble mansion, pink frothy clothes, pink skin. My name was Darleen Swannoa Union, but it might as well have been Pinky. Swan Hardigree Samples, my grandmother and namesake, kept me scrubbed and shaded so much I was probably the only white seven-year-old girl in Hardigree County, North Carolina, who had no freckles. I was the heir to the Hardigree Marble Company, a princess of southern mountain marble. I was pink and miserable.

We were in the dog days of summer. The air felt like a warm wash cloth over my nose. At night the frogs and crickets and whippoorwills outside my ornate bedroom windows at Marble Hall sang sadly, as if waning summer moons were a call to mourn. Not many weeks earlier, terrorists had killed nearly a dozen Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. Our local Baptist minister said that proved the end of the world was near, which made sense to me, since Jerusalem was in Israel.

The ground seemed to bake on a stone griddle. Burnt Stand hunkered over the state's only major marble vein. Polished pink stone gave the courthouse, the city offices, the library, and other downtown buildings a sheen of old-world elegance, an almost Mediterranean lightness among the green mountain forest. Barnyard fences glistened with it. Cast-off chunks lined our flower gardens. Back-yard tomatoes draped themselves on rough marble walls. The chamber brochure claimed every house and public edifice contained at least a foundation or trim of our precious bedrock. For decades tourists had come just to view our fabulous town square and stroll our marble sidewalks.

I hated those sidewalks. On that miserable summer day in 1972 they burned my pink-toe-nailed feet even through my pink sandals. Yet I stood under the awning in front of the Hardigree Marble Showroom as Grandmother commanded that I do whenever I waited in public: Shoulders squared, head up, hands clasped around my pink straw purse in front of my spotless pink jumper with the embroidered pink rose on the front. Itchy sweat flattened the pink ribbons that streamed from my long French braid. I was a sturdy brunette child with dark blue eyes interested in seeing the world without a pink veneer.

Standing next to me, nearly identical in her own pink jumper and ribboned braids, was my best friend and only playmate, Karen Noland. Karen and I shared a tutor at Marble Hall, my grandmother's estate, and didn't attend public school. We were never allowed to play with other children in town, and could only run free in the woods behind the hall. We were lonely but adored each other. We were both orphans being raised by our grandmothers. Swan Hardigree Samples and Matilda Dove, my grandmother's assistant, had known each other all their lives, and so had their dead daughters--our mothers--and so had we. There was only one major difference between my family and Karen's.

We were white, and they weren't. Even in our cloistered town, defined and ruled by my grandmother, that made all the difference.

I couldn't say Karen and her grandmother, Matilda, were black, because they were more of a honey color, with pale hazel eyes and long coarse hair the color of chocolate ice cream. Neither Karen nor I had ever seen a picture of Karen's dead mother, Katherine, so we had no idea what color she had been. Karen kept a picture of her father on her nightstand, and he was a nice looking black man in a Marine uniform. I knew only that Karen and Matilda were not the same as us, but not the same as the black people on farms around town, not black as the ace of spades, as people said. And I knew only that I loved them dearly.

"Wish we could walk down the street to the Hall," Karen whispered from the side of her mouth, as we stood at attention, sweltering. "We look like fools.".

"Only white trash and nobodies tread the side of the road like a gypsy," I intoned. It was a favorite saying of our grandmothers.

"Hot pink fools," Karen insisted.

I sighed. It was true. We stood like silly marble statues in front of the Hardigree Marble Showroom, where the south's well-to-do could order anything from a ton of marble flooring to a hand-carved cherub. Across from us, on the shady town park at the center of the square, an immodest replica of the Parthenon served as our park gazebo. Given to a grateful citizenry by Esta Hardigree, 1931, a plaque on the Parthenon confirmed. A group of ordinary children chased each other wildly across the park lawn. My heart ached with enforced dignity. Karen made a mewling sound. We could not violate our grandmothers' edicts.

As we stood there sweltering under our peculiar status--one little pink white girl and one little pink honey girl--an odd site appeared beyond the dip in West Main. An old pickup truck entered the square between giant magnolias along the marble sidewalk, creeping along without any apparent human guidance. Pots and pans swung from ropes on the camper back. The truck rattled like a cow bell. Mounds of boxes and burlap bags were strapped to the top with ropes, and a rusty pink tricycle had been chained to the truck's front bumper.

From our sidewalks, our park, and our shop fronts, people stared. I craned my head and finally made out a tall, handsome but rough-looking man pushing the truck from the driver's side. A thin, brown-haired woman walked behind, the skirt of her limp polyester dress swaying above her thin tennis shoes. She carried a little girl who burrowed her head into her mother's neck.

And then, I saw the boy.

He was tough looking, with skinned black-brown hair except for a shaggy lock that fell across his high forehead and his thick, black-rimmed glasses, the kind old men wore. His body looked long and thin inside faded jeans and a t-shirt. He bent his slender shoulders to the truck's back corner like an ant pushing a boulder. Lean muscles strained in his arms. He looked like a boy Jesus, pushing a pick-up truck instead of pulling a cross.

"No, a Gypsy boy", I thought for redemption's sake, though there'd never been evidence of Gypsies traveling through Burnt Stand, before. At least the boy was in charge of his world, moving it. My world was as rooted as the marble cherubs in the Hardigree showroom window, and I had no control over any of it. I watched with fascination as the rattling truck inched around the oval circuit of the town square, then headed toward me. Slowly, the boy and his world eased into a small, empty parking space directly in front of the Hardigree Marble Showroom's elaborate white doors and soaring arched windows. Twenty feet from Karen and me. We had a front row seat.

"Strangers and white trash," Karen whispered fearfully, and backed up until she was pressed against the marble fa├žade of the showroom offices. She gave me a comical Lucille Ball look of horror. "You better come over here with me!"

I shook my head. The exciting, frightening outside world had suddenly parked right before me. The boy's chest heaved. He dragged a hand over his glasses, smearing dirt and moisture on them as he raised his head. When he spotted me, he did a double take. I knew I looked like a big, pink-dyed Easter chick, and my face burned with humiliation. As if he couldn't be certain I was real, he pulled his glasses off and cleaned them on the tail of his white t-shirt. I stared at him openly, and he stared back. His eyes were large, brown, and soulful, with long lashes. The most beautiful eyes I'd ever seen. He tilted his head as he tried to see me without aid. "Yep," he said. "You're still pink."

"Eli, you wait right here with Bell," the woman said, setting the little girl down next to him. "Your pa and me'll be right out, you hear?"

"Yes, ma'am." He took his baby sister's hand. She slammed herself against him and hid her face in his stomach. His mouth flattened in resignation, but he patted her on the head. His mother looked my way and smiled shyly. "Hello," she said. "You're the prettiest sight."

"Hello, ma'am," I replied primly. "And thank you." Grandmother had trained me in graciousness via innumerable teas, dinners, and picnics. I had been presented to the governor, the vice president, and more than a few marble barons, including an Italian man friend of hers who barely noticed me except to call me il mio piccolo e aumentato. My little rose. Italian for pink. "How do you do, ma'am?"

"Why, pretty good, thanks."

"Annie, let's go." The hard-looking man scraped a comb through his dark hair and rubbed his face with a towel he pulled from the truck's cracked vinyl dash. He ignored me and went instead to Carl McCarl, my grandmother's handyman. Carl McCarl shuffled like an old, bald bear as he mopped marble sidewalks and washed down buildings. He was in a bad mood. Grandmother had ordered him to go up on the main road when he finished there, and tear Preacher Al's signs down off the pine tree again.

Preacher Al had been a stonecutter in the old days, but he went crazy at some point, forcing Great-Grandmother Esta to throw him out of town. He only preached through his pine tree pulpit, and everybody ignored him. Swan said he was a sad old man, and her mercy toward him always amazed me. Carl McCarl went up on the road regularly and took down his lurid signs. Swan would never explain their meaning to me.

"Excuse me," the boy's father said to Carl McCarl in a deep, working-man's drawl, the voice of cornfields and textile mills, long-haul truck routes and late-night roadhouses. "My name's Jasper Wade. I'm here to see Tom Alberts. Said to look for him at the Hardigree showroom here in town. Is this it?"

My ears pricked up. Tom Alberts was my grandmother's business manager, handling the grubby details of firing and hiring workers at the quarry and the showroom. Hardigree Marble employed over 300 people. A good third of Burnt Stand's workforce.

Carl McCarl turned slowly and stared at Jasper Wade for a long time. Jasper Wade scowled and flexed his massive forearms. "You got a problem with me, Mister?"

"Go round back. Around that corner, yonder. Down the alley. Ring the doorbell at the office sign. And don't worry about that there truck. I'll get you a mechanic to look at it."

Jasper Wade's face loosened with surprise. His expression said his whole life had been hard work and back doors, and any kindness was unexpected. "Thank you kindly." He motioned for his wife to come along. I watched them walk down the burning sidewalks and disappear down a marble alley at the end of the block. Carl McCarl watched him until he disappeared. I had never seen the old man so interested in just another stonecutter, or in anyone, for that matter. He wiped his forehead with a hand that trembled, then shuffled inside the showroom.

I shrugged off his strange behavior as I returned my attention to the boy, pondering how to test him. Greetings, I said to people, instead of Hello. I had read the salutation in a Victorian book of manners, and it clung to me like the scent of a comforting nosegay, a test to find the other lonely souls in the world. This happened because Swan kept me so isolated and spoke to me as if I were a small, pink adult. And so I had become a caricature, like a bad reproduction of a classic marble vase. A faux child. No one ever responded in like to my salutations. My whimsies were far too ponderous. My heart pounded. "Greetings," I said loudly. I waited for him to say something stupid.

After a moment spent chewing a thought, the boy nodded. "Greetings," he answered seriously, the first boy who ever had.

I smiled in disbelief. "My name's Darl Union. What's yours?"

"Eli Wade."

"Is that your sister?"

"Yeah." His little sister burrowed deeper into his stomach, clutching his t-shirt in her small fists and hiding her face.

I looked closer at her. "Can she breathe like that?"

He shrugged. "Aw, she's a trout. She's grown herself some gills."

This was the funniest thing I'd ever heard, and now I fully admired Eli Wade's way with words. I opened my mouth to say so, but from the corner of my eye I saw trouble coming. The children in the park included several older boys, all white except for Leon Forrest, the son of a tobacco farmer. Leon lounged nearby, skinny and dark as night, scowling and grimy in old jeans and a t-shirt. He was waiting for his daddy to come out of the feed and seed store. He sneaked peeks at Karen every time he saw her in public. He had a crush on her. She ignored him..

My stomach clenched as a gang of boys left the park and bounded our way. "Darl, Darl, you come over here with me!" Karen hissed. I didn't budge. Eli's shoulders tightened and his head came up. He pressed his glasses high against the bridge of his nose and scoured the other boys with a look. In return, they offered some creative spitting and sneering. Stonecutters' sons. Tough as rock.

"What the heck kind of truck is this?" one said. The others joined in.

"I ain't never seen nothing so sorry."

"You all live in that thing?"

Eli said nothing. As if expecting the worst, he pried his little sister from his shirt front, picked her up, then opened the truck's passenger door and set her on the faded vinyl seat. She whimpered, gave the scene outside one quick, terrified look, then scooted down, out of sight. I heard her sobs. When Eli faced the gang again they closed in a little. One of the more swaggering types hooted and shot out a hand. He prodded Eli's shoulder. "Hey. Hey. What's wrong with that girl--is she some kind of retard?"

Eli punched the boy as quickly as a black snake snatching a mouse. The boy tumbled backwards into the others. Suddenly everyone was yelling. Eli stood there with his feet apart in dirty tennis shoes, his fists drawn up like a boxer's, his whole attitude quiet and deadly. Heat fogged his glasses. ""Get him"," a boy yelled, and they all stepped forward. Fists began swinging. One of them slammed Eli in the mouth, and he went down. The others piled atop him.

My life as a statue was over.

I leapt in a pink heap atop the downed boys, clawing and slapping as I pushed my way to Eli. I heard Karen squealing and looked up just enough to catch her bounding forward in my defense. One of the boys shoved her, but suddenly Leon Forrest had that boy by the collar of his shirt, shaking him. When the rest of the boys realized two girls and tough, black Leon Forrest were in the fight--and not just any two girls--they backed off as if poisoned. Eli Wade got to his feet and wavered in place, blood streaming down his chin. I was sprawled on the pavement.

The whole gang stared at me, the color draining from their faces. The pink rose appliqué had been half-torn from my skirt, my pink hair ribbons were akimbo, and I was in a furious pink froth, with my skirt halfway up my waist, revealing pink panties. I glared from them to the row of fingernail scrapes on my arm, oozing blood. "S-s-sorry," one boy said.

"Aw, shit," another intoned.

"He's mine," I said. "You leave him alone or I'll tell my grandmother to fire your daddies from the quarry." I was devoid of mercy or nobility in the heat of the moment. I felt a hand under my armpit. Eli pulled me to my feet then stepped in front of me gallantly while I jerked my skirt down. He squinted behind his fogged glasses, but his fists were steady. "Git, assholes," he said to the boys. They turned and ran.

My breath backed up into my skull, and I felt dizzy. When my eyes cleared, Eli was looking at me with a frown. I shook my head. "Don't be afraid. I didn't mean it about their daddies. All the stonecutters belong to us Hardigrees. Now those boys know you're one of them."

"Blood dripped from his nose, and he wiped it furiously. "I don't belong to nobody. Leave me be." He climbed into the truck, hauled his wailing sister out, and shut the door. "Shussh, Bell," he soothed, as he sat down on the running board with her in his lap. "Nothing ain't hurt but our pride."

Karen snatched my arm and swung me around. "Look at you! Oh, Darl! We're going to be in trouble." One of her braids was mangled. Crisp, wiry brown hair tufted from the ruined plait like stuffing from a pillow. "You okay, Karen?" Leon Forrest asked, as he hovered nearby. "Your do's comin' undone."

She whirled toward the tall dark farm boy as if he intended to stain her much paler brown skin. "You go on. Shoo. Go away."

"As long as you ain't hurt."

"I'm f-fine," she sputtered. "Go on, boy. Thank you. Bye."

He sighed as if he could live on that small gratitude, then headed down the sidewalk, his shoulders hunched. I gazed unhappily at Eli and his sister. She burrowed her head in his stomach and sobbed. He sat there stoically, ignoring me.

At that moment Karen's grandmother, Matilda, drove up in her gold sedan and slid out of the big car in a quiet whoosh of fine fabric. Matilda was an imposing woman, tall, slender, and impeccably neat in a tailored blue dress, her thick chocolate hair molded into a short, fashionable hairdo, her skin light enough for freckles. Only degrees of skin tone separated her from Swan, in terms of their majestic effect on people. "What in the world?" she asked, and her hazel eyes flashed angrily at Eli. "Who are you, young man?"

He stood, prying his little sister away for a moment. He bobbed his head to her, a polite gesture few white children made to colored women. "Eli Wade, ma'am."

She went very still, her hand rising, slowly, to her throat. "Wade," she said softly. Like Carl McCarl, she seemed stunned..

"He didn't do anything wrong," I said quickly. "I'll take the blame for him. He's mine, Matilda. Please?" I smoothed my hand across my arm, swiping blood from my scratch. I had seen this in a movie. Blood rituals. Before Eli Wade could pull away I drew my finger through the blood beneath his nose, then dabbed it on my own cheek. Unaware of any other forces swirling around us, I met the slow, amazed heat of Eli's stare. "My stonecutter." I told him.

I had decided we were cut from the same rock.

#

"The past is carved in stone. Never leave the pieces for someone to find". Swan Hardigree Samples had written that rule on a slip of paper when she was a girl, and had never forgotten it. The warning ran through her mind now as she held a yellowed photograph at her desk in the dark luxury of her library at Marble Hall. Matilda pulled an armchair beside Swan's desk and they bent their beautiful heads together over the photograph.

It had been taken on a rolling back street in Burnt Stand on a spring day in the mid-1930's. Swan's aging mother, Esta, posed with jaunty elegance before the scaffolding and the piled stone block of yet another fine marble home she was building. Esta Houses, she called them. She was building her own town, building her own version of the past, and grinding the rest to dust. A tight bow of dark material banded her ample hips in a long-waisted dress. Her bodice sagged a few inches too low, revealing a crevice of fine bosom below a neck with skin going as soft as pale crepe.

Around her, workmen posed awkwardly, their hats in their hands, obedience in their eyes. Behind her on a rough pedestal of tumbled stone, gazing out steadily at the camera, Swan herself stood in the glory of a 19-year-old's future, lovely and reserved in a long slender skirt and high-buttoned white blouse, her eyes stern but still capable of warmth and humor. Her younger sister Clara lay on her side atop a low stone wall, dressed in schoolgirl cotton but lounging like a southern Cleopatra, even to the sly expression on her face. Off to one side, away from the whites, Matilda stood much as Swan did, with steady decorum and quiet command, a heavy cameo closing her blouse at the throat. Strangers assumed she was a live-in colored companion, or a personal maid of some kind.

Behind and above them all, framed by the unfinished marble walls of the house, a tall, dark-haired white man stood with his long legs braced apart on scaffolding. He was dressed in worker's clothes and had the muscular build of a stonecutter, but there was more pride than humility in his face. He'd hooked his thumbs in loose pockets over long thighs. He seemed to be standing easily atop the world. Their world.

His name had been Anthony Wade.

"What a handsome sight Anthony made that day," Matilda said. "We could barely keep our eyes off him."

"But he only had eyes for you." Swan put the photograph back in a small marble-and-wood box with a lock on the lid. She flicked the dial and handed the box to Matilda. "I wish you hadn't kept that."

"It's the only picture I have of him." She paused, her throat working. "Thank you for helping me find his family." They touched hands for a moment. Swan nodded to her, but grimly. "This family of Anthony's came long after he left Burnt Stand," Swan reminded her. "You owe them nothing."

"I owe Anthony," she said.

"If Clara hears about us bringing them here, you know there'll be trouble."

"She won't hear. No one remembers Anthony but us--and old Carl. No one else will associate the Wade name with him." She rose, and took the box. "I have to help Anthony's son and his family, Swan. I have to try."

Swan nodded wearily. She indulged Matilda, though she herself had long since given up on sentiment and kindness of the overt variety. She and Matilda had survived hard childhoods, small-minded dictates, men who came and went, and daughters who never understood and died young. She feared that bringing the Wades to Burnt Stand was a mistake she'd regret for the rest of her life.

"Send Darl in," she told Matilda.

Matilda frowned. "She's claimed Eli Wade as her personal project. She'll defend him. I don't know what to make of it. You should have seen them together. Like two little warriors." An amazing child, Swan thought.

She steepled her chin on one hand, and shut her eyes. Darl was bright, smart, beautiful, loving. Her future could be ruined so easily. Like fine hard stone, she had to be chiseled just right. Swan would not make the same mistakes she'd made with Julia, Darl's mother.

"I'll let her have the boy for now." Swan opened her eyes and looked at Matilda. "She'll understand her place and his, soon enough."

"Don't we all?" Matilda said sadly, and left the room.

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ISBN: 978-0-9802453-0-1

Her son has eloped with the First Daughter. Secret Service agents have invaded her famous apple farm. The First Lady is her worst enemy. The President's handsome nephew is trying to make her fall in love with him. For "Sweet Hush" McGillen, life is suddenly a bushel of trouble.

Our Price: US$16.95

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Just a Little Bit Guilty

Deborah Smith

$11.95 December 2009
ISBN 978-0-9843256-4-1

Classic Romance From New York Times Bestselling Author Deborah Smith

Our Price: US$11.95

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