Today marks the first anniversary of the publication of my first novel, A Shadow on the Snow. To celebrate, I’m throwing a happy 1st birthday and giveaway party. To enter, go to the sidebar and sign up for my newsletter. When you receive my first newsletter that day, reply to me with your favorite Christmas story and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
First prize is pictured–a signed copy of A Shadow on the Snow; a signed copy of Christmas fiction off the beaten path, which contains “A Rose from the Ashes”, the Christmas mystery short story that kicked off my Rae Riley mystery series; a signed copy of From the Lake to the River, which contains my very first published mystery short story, “Debt to Pay”; and an ornament from the Buckeye State, where all my mysteries are set.
Three runners-up will win one book of their choice. U.S. residents only. You must enter by 5 p.m. EST on Dec. 10. I will announce the winners through a special announcement to my newsletter subscribers that evening.
If you haven’t read “A Rose from the Ashes” or A Shadow on the Snow, you can read the first pages of both stories below.
I’d love for you to join the celebration!
From “A Rose from the Ashes”
Glancing left and right, I crunched across the frozen weeds to the abandoned children’s home. I could not afford to be spotted now. If only I could take a few seconds and snap some pictures. The light from the early December sunset was perfect. Gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.
At the back wall of the home, I slung the strap for my camera across my chest and climbed through an opening that once held a window. I dropped to the bare ground, my long, dark gold braid catching on a loose nail in the sill. I disentangled myself and crossed the dirt floor. The fire had burned the wooden floor away. And the roof and the whole interior. The four stone walls loomed above me like a medieval fortress as the sunset’s rays spotlighted sections of the garbage-strewn floor.
I knelt by a large fireplace, straining to detect any sound of psychics, ghost hunters, or thrill-seeking high school kids who had come to catch sight of the ghost of Bella Rydell.
Nothing but a few caws from crows and sighs as gusts of wind sailed through the empty window frames.
A lonely place. Very lonely, stuck on twenty acres of unused county land.
Shaking off a shiver, I unzipped my down vest and removed the two roses. I laid them on the rusty iron grate of the fireplace.
These would start everyone in the county talking again.
I retraced my path to the window opening, hoisted myself onto the sill, then sat suspended, my right leg swaying.
What was that?
Scrutinizing the naked trees, black against the dimming sun, I held my breath.
Wind. Just wind, rattling the dried-up weeds. No people.
Exhaling, I landed on the brittle grass and ran into the woods. As I approached my battered, black truck, I took a few pictures. If someone spotted me, I could say, with halfway honesty, I was out here capturing the sunset.
An hour later, in my one-room apartment over Mrs. Blaney’s garage, I warmed my hands around a mug of tea and stared at three wrinkled envelopes.
Jason Carlisle. Walter R. Malinowski IV. Terence O’Neil.
Those names on the envelopes were burned into my brain.
I set down my mug, picked up my phone, and scrolled through photos until I found my favorite. My mom and I stood on a beach in North Carolina. She was in front since she didn’t even come to my shoulder. Her brown hair had grown back long enough to mousse and brush back, and her cheeks had filled out so the bones didn’t look razor sharp. I touched her beaming smile.
Mom, I will do what you want. I promised. But I’ve got to do it my own way.
Since I’d placed the first pair of roses in the grate on Halloween night, I’d gotten to know the men attached to the names a little better.
But I still didn’t know which one was my father.
Or which one tried to murder my mother twenty years ago.Or if my father and her attacker were one and the same
From A Shadow on the Snow
I’M NOT FOOLED, RAE. YOU’RE JUST LIKE YOUR MOTHER.
I stared at the sheet of copier paper in my hand as the note fluttered in a gust of January wind.
Really? It had only taken three weeks for someone to hate me and my mom enough to leave an anonymous insult?
Turning over the envelope, I saw my address was written in the same marker,
same all-caps style. It was postmarked. I must have missed it when I grabbed my
mail last night.
Shivering on the miniscule landing to my apartment, I blew out a sigh, which formed a little cloud in the freezing air. At least the idiot hadn’t crept up to my mailbox in the dead of night. I shivered again, and it wasn’t from another gust.
People could hold a grudge in Marlin County, Ohio. I’d learned that in the last three weeks since I discovered Mal was my dad and announced Bella Rydell was my mother. The strained smiles, cold stares, conversations that didn’t get much past “hello” and “I’m fine.” Mom had made a lot of enemies, but that was twenty years ago. I’d told everyone who asked the story of how she’d been saved and changed her life. Well, most of it.
I shoved the piece of paper back in the envelope, tossed it inside my apartment, and locked the door behind me.
Holding my tripod and a roll of leftover bulletin board paper in one hand, I clutched the strap of my backpack with the other and climbed down the icy steps to the pad in front of the garage. Picking my way across Mrs. Blaney’s snow-covered lawn, I pulled the keys to my ancient truck from the pocket of my down vest. The Rust Bucket sat by the curb, draped in a thin layer of snow that couldn’t disguise its demolition derby appearance.
After ten cranks of the key, the engine caught. I grabbed the gear shift, and it didn’t move. Not a millimeter. I hit the steering wheel. Not this morning. Why this morning?
I fished my phone out of the other vest pocket and checked the time. If I walked fast and ran where it was safe on the slick pavement, I’d still make it to the library on time. Although Mal had shown me how, I still couldn’t unjam the gears without someone helping.
Grabbing my backpack, and leaving the paper and tripod behind, I slammed out of the truck. Some snow fell off. I wouldn’t have been surprised if both bumpers had too.
Avoiding the slick sidewalk, I ran along the edges of the yards, heading
uphill to Main Street. In Marlin County, if you weren’t going uphill, you were going downhill, sort of a scaled down version of the West Virginia county Mom and I had lived in when I was in middle school.
The sun shone ice white in a clear sky so blue it looked like an illustration in a hyper-cheerful picture book. But despite the sun’s dazzling appearance, not an ounce of warmth made it to the hilly streets. I pulled my scarf over my mouth and nose and held my arms tight against my sides. Maybe I should have taken Mal up on his offer to buy me a proper winter coat.
I zipped my vest to my chin. I hadn’t spent the past seven months figuring out who my father was and if he had tried to murder my mom when she was pregnant with me so I could live off of him. I was nineteen. I’d been on my own pretty much since Mom’s last round with cancer. If I froze to the bone because my jean jacket and vest only kept me warm above fifty degrees, fine with me. Nobody in Marlin County was going to accuse me of being a manipulator. That’s what a lot of people thought the daughter of Bella Rydell would be like.
Whoever sent the note thought manipulation was an inherited trait.
My left boot hit a slippery spot. I flung out my arms, steadying myself. With my camera only wrapped in a towel in my backpack, I didn’t want to fall. Avoiding broken bones was a good idea too.
At the top of the hill, I passed the sandstone courthouse, decorated in icicles like a giant wedding cake, glittering in the piercing sunlight. No time for a photo shoot, although if I could capture the way the icicles glistened, it could look like an ice castle in a fairy tale without any filters or photo editing.
I crossed Main Street, striped with white streaks of salt, followed Woodward Avenue down along the side of the library, and turned into the parking lot.
Jill Cerda, second-in-command and my boss when the library director wasn’t working, tromped over to the employees’ entrance through piles of snow, her unzipped coat flapping in the wind, her fine, graying hair dancing around her face. The cold must not have bothered her. She had plenty of insulation—at least 200 pounds packed onto a body that was a lot shorter than my five-eleven.
I assembled my professional smile, friendly but not too familiar. “Morning.”
The slight tilt of her head might have been a nod back. Jill punched in the code on the security keypad and sauntered inside. I hurried in as fast as I could without running her over. Lowering my scarf, I drew in a deep breath of unfrozen air, and my lungs appreciated it.
Jill glanced at her phone. “Leandra is late.”
“She’s not working today, ma’am. Leandra and Devon switched morning shifts, and Devon won’t get here until after her girls head to school.”
“I wasn’t informed of the switch.” Jill made a scolding noise with her tongue. “Did they clear it with Barb?”
“I’m sure they did, ma’am.” I took off my hat and fluffed my tangle of dark gold hair.
“That means you’re opening alone.” Jill aimed a finger at me. “You can’t goof off. Keep your mind on your work.”
A protest came to my lips, but I clamped them shut. Better to say nothing and get away from her.
In silence, we walked down the hall to the employees’ kitchen, flipping on lights along the way. Three weeks ago, she wouldn’t have spoken to me like that. Since she’d found out who my mom was, she hadn’t had a nice word for me.
I hung up my coat on a rack, changed from boots to loafers, and put my lunch in the fridge. From my backpack, I took out two books on photography I had to return. I placed my backpack inside an empty cupboard. Leaving it by the coat rack seemed a certain way to get my camera broken.
When I entered the two-story lobby, the brilliant sunshine pouring through the tall, narrow windows that faced Main Street almost made the overhead lighting unnecessary. The harsh ceiling fixtures lit the room in a consistent, ugly glare, killing the homey atmosphere the fireplace, overstuffed chairs, and couch gave to the stacks and racks of books, magazines, and newspapers. But I switched them on as part of opening procedures and smiled when they made almost no difference.
Behind the checkout desk, I turned on the computers and pushed the bin with items patrons had dropped off overnight from the slot in the front wall. As I bent over, my hair tried to blind me, and I lifted it up and back. So, it was going to be one of those days when my hair was out to get me. Unless I braided it or secured it somehow, I could never be sure it wouldn’t turn on me.
I lifted a mass of books and DVDs from the bin. Could Jill have sent the anonymous note? It didn’t seem like something a person in her fifties would do. She would have been in her thirties when Mom lived here and preyed on any guy with a decent bank account. Had Mom had an affair with Jill’s husband? But the unsigned note indicated someone afraid of revealing his or her true feelings. Jill had no problem showing me how much she disliked me.
I had almost finished scanning in the materials when Devon Majors and her two daughters, bundled to their eyes, rushed past the windows. I got the keys from the drawer, went to the inner doors, unlocked them, crossed the tiny room with the mat —what was the special name for this little room?—and opened the outer doors.
Devon waved to Liberty and Serenity as they trudged down Main Street. She ducked inside and tugged off her knit hat. The sides of her long, dark brown hair were pulled back in a series of braids, revealing the studs that lined the edges of her ears and a glimpse of the vivid feathered serpent tattooed on the back of her neck, while the rest of her hair poured over her shoulders like molasses.
“Rae.” Jill’s heavy voice dropped from the balcony overlooking the lobby. “Have you pulled the items for the hold shelf?”
“Just about to print the list.” I hurried behind the desk.
“You haven’t even printed it?” Jill sounded outraged, like I’d let the toddlers in Storytime make a collage with broken glass.
“Rae’s working alone this morning.” Devon looked up to Jill, shrugging out her red parka. “I just got here.”
“I know that.” She planted meaty hands on the black metal railing. “I’m not sure the library can afford to have you come in after your daughters go to school, Devon. Perhaps you’ll have to stick to the regular schedule like the rest of us.”
A fire leaped into Devon’s forest green eyes. She might have been more than half a foot shorter than I was, but she never looked small, especially when she was mad.
She glared up at Jill. “Don’t you think—”
“Here’s the list.” I waved the sheets. “We’ll get the items pulled and set aside in no time, ma’am.”
“You’d better.” Jill disappeared into the shelves of nonfiction adult books, the floorboards creaking under her footsteps.
Devon tossed a braid behind her shoulder. “I owe you. I was about to tell Jill what I thought of her, and I can’t afford to lose my job.”
One of the million things I liked about Devon was that she didn’t filter her words or her feelings. I also liked that although she was thirty- two, she treated me like a friend, not a kid. The only real friend I’d made in the county before I discovered who my father was and that I had about 6,000 relatives.
“I can’t afford for you to lose your job either.” I handed her half of the list. “You’re one of the few people around here who doesn’t care that I’m the daughter of Bella Rydell.”
“Don’t let Jill, or anybody else, get you down.” She glanced at the sheets. “Everyone will get used to the truth about you, and most of them won’t care. But that’s one of the problems of living in a small town or a rural county like Marlin. There’s not a lot of new blood moving in. It gives people time to hold on to old wrongs.”
“Mom and I usually lived in small towns. It was cheaper and safer than the city. But it was hard getting accepted.”
“Wellesville is better than most in that area. I wasn’t sure how people would react to two little girls who were half Native American in a county that’s ninety percent white. When Shayne and I were traveling around the country, we never knew when someone would take offense to his non- white bread looks. But, except for a few losers, no one has made any nasty comments. The kids at school think it’s cool.”
Devon stepped closer and added, “Give it time, Rae. It’ll get better.”
I rolled the hem of my sweater. “I don’t like how people treat Mal because of me. Even people at church. I don’t want to cause him trouble.” “Your dad knew what a storm he’d stir up if he acknowledged you. He’s an adult. He can take it.”
I hoped she was right. I prayed she was right. Since early Christmas morning,
when Mal and I figured out he was the only one who could be my dad out of the three men my mother had told me were possible candidates, getting to know him and his family had gone better than anything I had imagined.
My stomach tensing, I swallowed hard.
I didn’t want to mess things up now.