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About the author:
Writing is something Wendy has always found time for, and as an incurrable romantic, the romance genre was a natural choice. She joined Romance Writers of New Zealand and started honing her craft, and after years of contests and conferences, she was finally ready to publish her first book. With numerous historical romances now published, and hitting the best seller ranks on Amazon, Wendy has moved to contemporary also, and loving every minute of it. Born and raised in a rural area in the North Island of New Zealand, she lives with her husband of 30 yrs and her old dog Molly and is a true Patriotic Kiwi!
Here is a short sample from the book:
“Welcome to Lake Howling, Oregon.”
Branna made the appropriate baying noise as she drove past the sign, in acknowledgement of the three years she’d spent here during high school. Howlers, the locals called themselves, but she’d never joined their ranks, having been born in Ireland, and way outside the boundaries of the small town. Heading through the corridor of giant redwoods, she came out the other side and saw the lake to her right, glimmering in the late morning sunlight. The town was stretched along the first body of water. The Roar, a general store that from memory stocked pretty much everything from candles to bait, was positioned first, then the Howler, where you got a bed, meal and a drink, plus some dancing, if you could work out the moves that the locals had nailed.
Branna had noticed that not much had changed when she’d attended her friend Georgie’s funeral. The main street was still welcoming, the shop fronts quaint and tidy, flower boxes bright with blooms, and all the windows sparkled. The American flag still flew on top of the library, which was a small white building at the end of the street and was, from memory, the oldest in Howling, beside that sat the church. It was tourist season; the cabins would be packed with people wanting to hike in the woods, get onto the water, or pull something from it.
The office of Cooper Law, which was where she was headed, sat in the middle of town. Branna swung her van into a parking space, grabbed her purse, and climbed out. The heat settled around her as she stretched her hands above her head. After driving for days with only brief breaks to eat and sleep, all she wanted was to reach her destination.
Lowering her arms, Branna searched the face of the woman now standing before her, but didn’t recognize it, not that she’d come to know many people in her three years here. She was about 5’5”, Branna’s height, wore crisp white capris with an ironed crease down the fronts of both legs and a collared short sleeved shirt, and she had her grey hair neatly tucked into a plain white cap.
“I’m Elizabeth Heath, dear. Georgie and I were very close. I’ll be calling on you once you’ve settled in, to make the handover and welcome you to the club.”
“Club?” Branna had no idea what the woman was talking about. “Handover?”
“Book Club. Georgie nominated you.” The woman reached out to pat her hand. “But don’t think about it now; you settle in, and I’ll bring all the paperwork along in a few days.”
“Must be off, dear, or I’ll be late for the hike. The woman then hurried down the street away from her. Branna wondered what the hell all that was about. Shaking her head, she pushed it aside to deal with later.
The Hoot Café had a large front window, through which Branna could see several people seated at tables eating and drinking. To the left of the building, she saw another door, and on that was a plaque telling her that this was the entrance to Cooper Law. Pushing it open, Branna felt the relief of stepping out of the heat into the cool interior as she made her way up the narrow flight of steps, through another door, and then into the reception area.
“Good afternoon, how may help you?”
The name plate on the desk said Penny Bilks, and she was a perky brunette with a wide smile and white teeth. “Hi, my name is Branna O’Donnell, and I would like to see Mr. Cooper, if it’s convenient?”
Penny looked at her closely, blue eyes skimming over Branna in that way one woman did to another, and she smiled. “You probably don’t remember me, but I was Penny Wilkinson in high school.”
Branna looked closely and drew a blank. “Ah…well I was only here for a short time.”
“Three years, I remember,” the brunette said, jumping to her feet with what Branna thought was an excessive amount of energy. “Your daddy was my teacher for a year while you were here.”
So, her thoughts of slipping into Howling weren’t going quite as planned, Branna thought, eyeing the brunette and wondering what would come out of her fuchsia painted lips next.
“Okay, sure,” Branna said, because she had no idea what else to say. She wasn’t good with people; in fact, she kept pretty much to herself, which had been quite some feat living in Washington, but still, for the most part, she’d nailed it.
“Good to see you again, Branna,” Penny Bilks held out her hand, which was tipped with long, fuchsia-tipped nails.
“You too, Penny.” Branna shook her hand, then released it as quickly as she could.
Breathing more easily when Penny had disappeared through a door behind her, Branna then ran her hand through her hair and wondered what she looked like. Compared to the pristine Ms. Bilks, she probably came in a poor tenth. Looking down at her worn cut-offs and old grey T-shirt, she thought she should care, but really didn’t. At least her sneakers were clean with no holes.
“Mr. Cooper will see you now.” Branna shook the hand of the big man who walked towards her as she entered his office. His smile was genuine, and he wore his suit with ease, even for his size.
“Pleased to see you have arrived, Miss O’Donnell; a lot of us admired your daddy, and thought he did a lot for the school in his short time here, and, of course, now that he’s famous, we love him even more. His laugh was loud and rumbled up from his stomach.
“Thank you.” Branna wasn’t getting into a conversation about her estranged father with anyone, so she said nothing further.
“As Georgie’s friend and lawyer, I knew of your relationship with her, and let me say, I know what you meant to her, just as I’m sure she was special to you.”
Don’t cry, Branna gritted her teeth and nodded.
“I need you to sign a few things, and then you can be on your way to Georgie’s cottage. I hope you plan to stay?” His eyes were gentle and kind, and Branna saw he was genuine in his enquiry.
“I-I hope to stay awhile, but my plans are unsure at this stage.”
“Georgie had some money invested that will come to you also; the details are in here, plus her Mustang, Geraldine, of course.”
Branna had been looking at the papers on his desk, but at hearing the word Mustang, her head shot up. “She told me she sold the Mustang!”
Mr. Cooper laughed again.
“That 1966 Mustang belonged to her beloved husband, Dan, Ms. O’Donnell. No way in hell, if you’ll excuse me for cussing, would she ever part with it. She kept it locked in that big shed behind her house.”
Branna knew where it had been kept; she’d polished it, driven it, and learned to change a tire on Geraldine, just as she’d learned a whole heap of other life lessons at the hands of Georgie May Brown.
They talked a bit more, he about the will, she asking questions that she thought she should, when, in fact, fatigue was making her head a bit dizzy. Make that fatigue and a bit of shock over the fact that Georgie had left her the house, money, and Geraldine.
“Well, that about wraps it up, Ms. O’Donnell. You need anything, you just drop by.” Mr. Cooper stood and accompanied her back out to the reception area.
“You hand those keys over now, Penny, and Ms. O’Donnell can be on her way,” he added, stopping beside the other woman’s desk. “I’ll be seeing you around.” He then shook Branna’s hand again and went back into his office.
“I’ll walk you down, Branna. I need to get Mr. Cooper a mystery muffin for his afternoon snack.” Penny handed over a bunch of keys, then made for the door with Branna on her heels.
Branna let Penny chat as they walked back down the stairs and out onto the street, as her mind went over everything she’d just learned.
“Hey, watch out!”
Branna turned at the cry from Penny and saw a bike heading towards her. The boy tried to swerve, but it was too late, it hit her, knocking her off her feet. Her left hand hit the concrete first, and then her head. She must have blacked out, because when she opened her eyes, Penny Bilks was staring down at her.
“Stop, stay down, Branna; we need to get Doctor McBride here to look at you.” Penny tried to stop her from rising.
Hell no, ignoring the vicious pain in her wrist and head, Branna regained her feet. “It’s okay, I’m all right.”
“You’re bleeding.” Penny steadied her as she wobbled. “You need to see a doctor now.”
The boy whose bicycle had hit her didn’t seem hurt. He was picking it up and moving towards her.
“Michael Tucker, how many times have you been told not to ride your bike on the sidewalk!” Penny snapped at him.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Bilks. Is she okay?”
“I’m fine, really,” Branna added, as he looked doubtful. Branna slowly pulled out of Penny’s grip. “No need to fuss, Penny.” Backing away from them, Branna reached her van, and then with a final wave, she climbed in. Forcing a smile onto her face, she managed to back out and direct the car out of town before she let out a long painful moan.
“Mother of God, that hurts,” Branna hissed briefly, looking at her wrist. It had started to swell, and her head was throbbing so much her vision felt blurred.
Heading through town, Branna passed the bus stop she’d spent three years of her life waiting at every morning, and then the park that was used for any occasion that warranted it, then headed along the lake. She passed cabins and houses. The bulk of Howlers lived in a cluster to the right of the main street, spread backwards and up into the hills. Ten minutes from town, the houses had thinned until she reached a left turn that led her down a narrow road, then with another right, she headed parallel to the lake, and minutes later she was driving slowly up the old gravel drive that led to Georgie’s house. Not Georgie’s, yours, Branna thought.
The house was down a long driveway with overgrown trees on both sides, and huge towering redwoods at its rear. Reaching the end, Branna rubbed at the knot of emotion in her chest as she saw the small weatherboard cottage the color of gingerbread, trimmed in white. Parking the van, Branna took a moment to just look at the place that, for so many years, had housed the one person she loved to distraction.
“Come here, Branna love, come and heal all the hurts inside you. Find peace, and happiness will follow. My soul will rest easy knowing my home is now yours, Branna, and know that I will be there to share it with you.” Georgie had left these words in a letter to Branna, a letter that also told her she had inherited the house.
Georgie May Brown had been one of the two people that kept her sane when she’d lived here. At Georgie’s hand, she had learned so much more than her love of writing. Here, she had learned life skills.
Grabbing her purse, while trying not to use her sore arm, she let herself out of the van, then made her way onto the front porch. The two chairs she and Georgie had sat in for hours were still there. Fumbling around for the keys in her bag, she found them and opened the door. Her hand shook as she placed it flat on the wooden surface and pushed it wide, then walked into a room full of memories.
Everything was how she remembered it, right down to the lace doilies scattered around the arms and backs of the furniture. She walked slowly from room to room, trying to ignore the thumping in her head, and when it got too much, she found Georgie’s medicine supplies and swallowed a couple of pills.
It felt strange to be here without her friend. Strange that there were no cooking smells or the sound of classical music.
“I miss you so much,” Branna whispered.
Branna made it to the sofa she had slept on a few times, and fell onto it. Kicking off her sandals, she pulled the blanket off the arm and managed one-handed to throw it over herself. She would unpack later; for now, she needed sleep.
Jacob McBride walked into The Hoot with only one thing on his mind. Chicken pie with a cheesy crust. Jake liked food, but he was downright dedicated to this pie, and that was why he only allowed himself to come here twice a week, three tops.
“Hey there, Jake, what’s happening?”
“Penny,” Jake gave the shapely brunette a nod. “How’s it hanging?”
“I’m a woman, Jake, things don’t hang, and we get real pissed off if they do.”
He and Penny had been friends since high school, and he’d been teasing her for at least that long. She didn’t give him too much angst, and that was reason enough to continue their friendship, considering he wasn’t big on talking, or for that matter, building any more friendships these days.
“Got it. Don’t mention things hanging to women,” he added, standing at the counter as Buster bagged up his order without him even drawing a breath. That was one of the pluses in a whole heap of negatives that was good about living in your home town again; everyone knew what you liked.
“I have news,” Penny drew out the S for dramatic effect.
“Hurry it up there, Buster, a man’s starving here,” Jake said, with one eye on his pie and the other on Penny, hoping she’d just leave so he could eat in peace, or he could leave before she started in on her news.
“When aren’t you starving?” the man behind the counter asked. He had cropped dark hair, a thick neck, and linebacker’s shoulders, but Buster Griffin was saved, in Jake’s opinion, from being downright intimidating, by soft green eyes and long girly lashes that during high school had got him into plenty of fights. There was also the apron he wore continually as proprietor of The Hoot.
“You remember how I told you Georgie Brown left her place to Branna O’Donnell?” Penny said.
Jake was pretty sure she hadn’t, but nodded anyway as he took his first bite. He thought about Branna Rose O’Donnell as the pastry melted in his mouth…her soft pale skin, thick black hair, and pretty green eyes. He remembered she’d intrigued him. Rosebud, he’d nicknamed her just to get a reaction, which he had; she’d fired up every time he’d used it.
“Bet that pissed Brian Reynolds off. He’s been at Georgie for years to sell it to him,” Buster said, before Penny could speak.
“He’s a real estate man, Buster, and knows a good deal when he sees one,” Jake added.
“Well, anyway,” Penny waved a hand about to get their attention. “She just arrived back in Howling today to pick up the keys. She gets the Mustang too.” The last was said with a sneer, which made Jake roll his eyes.
“I offered Georgie good money for it two years ago, Penny, and she turned me down. Let it go already; I have.”
“Anyway,” she waved her hand about again. “She looked tired and scruffy, but still has those endless legs and that pretty face. I was always jealous of her for looking beautiful in those hideous clothes she always wore, without a scrap of makeup, while the rest of us spent hours getting ready for school. Wasn’t real chatty either.”
“Can imagine that didn’t endear her to you none, Penny,” Buster muttered from behind the counter, which made Jake salute him with his pie.”
“You saying I’m a gossip, Buster?”
“I’m sure you were going somewhere with this O’Donnell story, Pen. How about getting there before we retire?” Jake interrupted before they got into it like they often did.
“I don’t remember much about Branna O’Donnell, but I do remember she was not real loose with her tongue, that’s for sure,” Buster added. “Being that way myself, you tend to notice it in other people.”
“I remember her, and she was belligerent in high school, can’t imagine that much has changed over the ensuing years,” Jake said, and then took a larger bite for his second. He tried to make it last, but usually failed.
“Get you with the big words,” Buster said.
“Belligerent or ensuing?” Jake questioned.
“When she left the office,” Penny said, ignoring their conversation, “She looked a bit preoccupied after talking with Mr. Cooper, and learning what Georgie’s legacy entailed.”
“Strange how she got everything, don’t you think?” Buster said.
“Not so strange when you realize that she and Georgie talked every week on the phone, and she was always sending her gifts. Georgie went up to visit Branna too, once a year since she left Howling.”
“How do you know this stuff?” Buster said, looking at Penny.
“Branna did all that?” Jake whistled. He’d been gone for most of those years, and only returned briefly on holidays. “I guess that explains the legacy then.”
“Anyway, that’s not the whole story,” Penny added.
“Do we need the whole story?” Jake eyed the chocolate muffins that were the size of his fist and filled with a soft gooey caramel center. This he knew, as he’d sampled them…many times.
“Branna O’Donnell walked straight in front of Michael Tucker, who was riding his bike on the sidewalk again. He knocked her off her feet; the sound of her head hitting the concrete, Lord, it made me shudder,” Penny said.
Penny wasn’t above exaggeration to make a story good, but Jake could see she was sincere in this.
“I think she hurt her arm too, but here’s the thing, Jake. She just climbed to her feet with my help, and after I steadied her, she told Michael she was fine, and then got into her van and drove away.”
“And the problem here is?” Jake said, looking at Buster, who was now polishing the glass on his cabinets while listening to Penny’s story.
“There was blood on the sidewalk, Jake, quite a bit of blood. And she was unsteady on her feet, and her eyes looked kind of funny when she glanced my way.”
“Why didn’t you make her go to visit Mom?” Jake swallowed the last mouthful, closing his eyes as he savored it.
“I don’t know anyone who quite worships my chicken pie like you do, Jake.”
“God’s truth, if you asked, I’d probably marry you, man.”
“Ha, yeah, maybe we could make it work.” Buster, like Penny, was an old friend of Jake’s.
“She wouldn’t go, Jake, turned white at the thought, and then just up and left me and Michael Tucker standing right there on the bloodied sidewalk.
“That much blood?” Jake drawled.
Penny rolled her eyes. “The point is, I think someone should check on her. What happens if she’s got one of those concussions and no one looks in on her and she’s up there dead for weeks?”
“Yes, because Georgie lives about two day’s hike from here, and then there’s the trek over the mountains,” Buster drawled. “But it’ll be the wolves that get her.”
“The snow’s gonna play hell with the rescue party,” Jake added.
“Will you two be serious?” Penny snapped.
“What’s the problem here, Pen? You and Branna suddenly buddies or something? If she’s hurting, she’ll find her way to Mom at some stage.”
The breath whistled through Penny’s teeth as she tried to haul in air. “It’s not about whether I like or dislike her, it’s about this being Howling, and how we look after people who live in our town, Jake. What if she’s up there alone in Georgie’s house needing medical help?”
“Weren’t her and Annabelle friends in high school? Maybe she’d call in and see her?” Buster suggested.
“That was ten years ago!” Penny shrieked.
“You think they didn’t keep in touch?” Jake asked.
“They didn’t even talk to each other at Georgie’s funeral, Jake, which pretty much tells me they didn’t.”
Jake thought about the funeral, ran through the people he remembered, but drew a blank on Branna O’Donnell. “She was there?
Penny nodded. “Dark glasses, black hat, pale face, and black dress.”
Jake and Buster fell silent as they tried to remember.
“Oh for pities sake, you two have got to be the most unobservant men in America!” Penny said.
“That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think? I mean, I happen to know that Billy Lee wasn’t observing much when he missed that mighty fine pass I threw to set him up for the winning touchdown that lost us the game on Saturday. What you reckon, Buster?”
“Billy Lee couldn’t observe a Semi bearing down on his scrawny ass from a foot away,” Buster added.
Jake nodded as Penny ground her teeth together.
“So, if you could, that’d be great, thanks, Jake, seeing as you pass the end of her drive on your way home.”
“Could what?” Jake questioned.
“Go see if she’s okay, you being a doctor and all, and her closest neighbor; you’ll be able to check if she needs help.”
He looked from her to Buster and back again. “Why would I want to do that?
“Because you know how to.”
“I’m a mechanic now, Penny. I don’t practice medicine anymore.”
“Pffft, that’s just you playing around,” she waved her hand about and headed for the door. “So, maybe take her to see your mom if you think she needs an X-ray.” Penny pronounced it x er ray, which used to annoy the hell out of Jake when he still gave a shit.
“I’m not going.” The door swung shut on his reply, but Jake knew she’d heard him. “Why did I come back here?”
“It sure as hell wasn’t for some privacy.”
Jake snorted at Buster’s words. “Why is it so hard for this town to understand I don’t want to be a doctor anymore?”
“Because you’re one of their favorite sons, and they had big expectations for you, and refuse to believe you’re not living up to them.”
“What do I have to do? Take out an ad, run naked down the main street yelling that I’m a fucking lunatic now, and not fit to look after people?”
“Bad night, bud?”
Jake was disgusted to see that the hands he ran down his face were shaking. “The worst.” He still saw the blood all over them.
“Well, snap the fuck out of it, because I’m bringing the Jeep over later, and you need to stop it making that noise.”
Sucking in a deep steadying breath, Jake forced himself to calm down. “Buster, the Jeep is one big noise.”
“Whatever, just make her run sweet again.”
“I gave up miracles many years ago.”
“I didn’t,” Buster said softly, giving Jake a steady look.
~ excerpt from A Promise of Home, © Wendy Vella, 2015