Great Books

I just got back from a writer’s conference. I came away encouraged about my own writing journey.

I was also reminded about how important it is for us all to share books we love and to recommend them to our friends.

So, to pay it forward, here are some of the best books I’ve read in the last few months:

(Disclaimer: they are written by friends, acquaintances, and complete and utter strangers. I wouldn’t say I liked it only to be nice.)             

liz candle I’m in the middle of Here Burns My Candle by Liz Curtis Higgs. So far, I love it. Liz is simply the best at what she does: bring Biblical truths alive by retelling Old Testament stories with fictional characters set in auld Scotland. This one is about Lady Marjory Kerr and her family (think Ruth and Naomi).


Other recent reads:

leavingyesterdaysm Leaving Yesterday by Katie Cushman. Katie’s books get better and better. This one is about the mother of a prodigal who discovers evidence that her son may have committed a horrible crime. Should she hide the evidence and give him a fresh start?

ashorethingsm A Shore Thing by Julie Carobini hasn’t released yet, but it’ll be out in July, perfect for reading on a sandy beach somewhere. Callie Duflay loves all of God’s creation. Except maybe that new architect in town who seems bent on developing the last unobstructed shoreline in the area.


bs_NBT  Two new ones from Susan May Warren are Nothing But Trouble and Double Trouble. Trouble follows PJ Sugar across the country and back home to Minnesota. No matter her intentions, she seems to mess up her life. I love the humor and situations PJ gets into. The writing is wonderful, too.


More to come as I continue to read, but I hope that will give you some ideas if you’re flipping through amazon or bn.com or the local library.


Last movie: Election – I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad that I managed to live so many years without seeing that one.

Today, I’m praying for: Mel, Tom, Kim, and Rosie.


Fiction Friday: Mu Zhun Rolls

This is a non-winner, non-placer, non-anything from the Coveted Dead Bird. One of the judges said it was racist and offensive.

My apologies. In advance.

The Coveted Dead Bird rules specify that it has to be set in or near the Valley. I’ve always liked that little Chinese cemetery on Avenue 12 near 99.


Mu Zhun Rolls



I heard the sound as the other end of my burden jerked almost out of my grip. “What?”

“I almost dropped it, Larry,” came the hushed and strained reply, seeming from a disembodied voice.

“Well, don’t.” I tightened my grip on the casket and blew out a breath. A cloud of dust rose and settled on my face. Oh well, it would be just another layer the dirt already in the grooves of my face and creases of my eyelids.

I felt Homer shift his grip and my load lightened a little. Enough so I could heave and push and climb out of the grave. We set the final home of Mr. Sam Lee on the ground and I wiped my forehead.

“Let’s put Mr. Lee into Mr. Sing’s plot.”

“I thought we was gonna change him with the storekeeper.” I still couldn’t see Homer through the dust and grit we’d stirred up, but his voice came through loud and clear. Too loud.

“Shhh.” I listened but didn’t hear anything.

We crouched in the darkness of the little Chinese cemetery in Madera County. The whoosh of cars and trucks on Highway 99 reached me. We were about a quarter mile from the freeway but only a stone’s throw from the irrigation district offices. If it was a light stone, like pumice or something.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go. We’ve got to shift three more of these graves and that should be enough. I want to put Mr. Lee in the Sing plot, Mr. Sing will take Mr. Chung’s spot, and Mr. Chung will move to the Lee grave.”

“Larry, explain again to me why we’re doin’ this.” Homer’s voice was confused and I stifled the urge to yell.

“Because we killed Mr. Lee, and if the coroner figures it out, we’re going to prison for a long time.”

“Okey doke.”

The other end of the coffin began to inch its way across the hard pan so I hefted my end up and guided Homer to the empty hole by the monument. A granite slab erected by the county to memorialize the old burial grounds shared prominence with the original marker. This place started as a cemetery for Chinese workers in the old Borden colony in the 1800s, before Madera became the county seat.

Homer’s puffing breaths reminded me of Thomas Lee’s gasps as he struggled for air yesterday. “Mu zhun,” he said, between chokes. He’d turned blue and dropped off his stool in The Java Well, my coffee shop out in Madera Ranchos, the settlement over the freeway and down Avenue 12.

I’d had the place a couple of years. I served coffee and muffins and breakfast sandwiches in the mornings, coffee and sodas the rest of the day. I’d just started offering lunch, mostly nachos and sandwiches I could make easily with stuff from Costco or Smart and Final. Yesterday though, I’d decided to try and cook some Chinese food from scratch. Thomas had just eaten my Mu Shoo pork before he keeled over along with all my hope of going straight and staying out of jail.

A twit of a teenage girl called 911 before I could stop her. The paramedics, volunteer fire department, sheriff’s deputy, and CHP all showed up. The ambulance carted Thomas off before I could explain it was an accident.

Homer’s a nice guy but sometimes not too bright. He’d dumped a whole box of cayenne into the ginger, garlic, and soy sauce I was boiling on the stove top. Then he put a healthy dose on the plate he served to Thomas. I’d just discovered it and was running out from the kitchen to stop anyone from eating, when Thomas started choking. I guess the shock and fire in his mouth made him aspirate a chunk of pork and he heard the angels singing his name, calling him up.

So, now here I was, thirty-six hours later, in the Borden cemetery in the middle of the night, shifting graves around. Homer and I’d snuck into the funeral chapel and broken Thomas out. A couple of well placed kicks took care of the door.

The only thing I could think of was to bury him in the Chinese cemetery and to move around enough graves so the authorities couldn’t figure out which one he was in. Thomas had told me about this place. He’d come and done some research on some of the gravestone names, to see if he could offer some translation to help find families in China.

Five hours later the sun peeked over the Sierra Nevada range in the east and I sent Homer on his way. I finished shoveling the last of the dirt over Thomas, except he was under a stone that belonged to Cho Hung. Most of those buried in the 19th century were later moved and returned to their villages in China. If no hometown could be found, they stayed. There were still seven old stones and about twice that many graves.

I hoped that bought me enough time to blow the Central Valley. I always wanted to see Portland. Maybe I would head north.

I loaded the shovels in the bed of my pickup and headed back to The Java Well. A Chevy Malibu sat in front of the shop. As I unlocked the front door, some Asian people got out, an elderly couple and a kid in his twenties, and approached me.

“Mr. Coyle?” the kid asked.

“Yes?” I stopped with the key in the lock.

“I am Jonathan, Thomas Lee’s cousin. I have brought his parents.”

I faced the couple who were blinking back tears. They made slight bows which I returned. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

The kid translated in rapid Mandarin and paused as the man replied.

“My great-uncle wishes to ask about his son’s death.”

Just what I was afraid of. “Of course,” I said. “Let’s go inside.” I held the door open for them to enter, then followed, switching on the lights.

“Our family would like to hear about his last day.” The kid seemed to be the spokesman.

“Have a seat.” I indicated the overstuffed chairs in the corner. “Would you like coffee?”

I waited for the translations and the head shakes. “No, thank you. Please just tell us about Wu Sing.”

“Wu Sing?”

“Excuse me. Thomas.”

“Oh sure. He came in most days for coffee and a muffin. But Monday, he was running late and got here about lunch time. I has made Moo Shoo pork and he decided to have some. As he was eating, he choked. We tried CPR and everything.” Thanks to Cell Phone Spice, that was true. “It was no use.”

Another pause full of gibberish I didn’t understand. They spoke for a few minutes.

Then I saw a sheriff’s department car pull into the lot and park by my Tacoma.

The door opened. “Larry, what were you thinking?” asked Deputy Don Robbins, a regular at Java Well.

“Hey, Don.” I couldn’t read his voice, if he was in official mode or just being friendly.

“You ever hear of surveillance cameras?”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.” Definitely official.

“Where’s the body?” He rattled his handcuffs as he asked.

No sense in trying to bluff my way out if they got us on tape, sneaking Thomas out of the mortuary. “I wanted to give him a decent burial.”

“Are you his executor? Do you get to make those decisions?”

I shook my head. “These are his parents. Please tell them this is Deputy Robbins who helped try to save Thomas,” I said to Jonathan.

He obliging made the introductions and paused as they told him something.

“They would like to know the details of Thomas’s final day. What did he eat? Did he say anything?”

“Don?” I raised my eyebrows as I asked his permission.

He shrugged. “Go ahead.”

“He was eating the pork, he choked and tried to talk, then he collapsed.”

The parents dabbed at their eyes as Jonathan repeated it.

“Okay, Larry. Enough of this UN summit. Where is Thomas?”

The jig was up. “In Borden cemetery.”

“You dug a new grave?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Excuse me,” Jonathan said, looking from Don to me in confusion. “We have one more question. You said Wu Sing tried to talk. What did he say?”

“It sounded like Mu Zhun.”

The parents looked up at that.

“He was eating Moo Shoo pork, so I think he was saying he choked on it.”

Don was shaking his head. “Coroner says he didn’t choke.”

I stared at him. “Sure he did. I was right here.”

“If he choked, he couldn’t talk. It was his heart.”

The old folks started jabbering as Don kept talking about infarctions and heart disease.

Then another voice joined the fray. “Larry!”

I looked behind me to see Homer come in from the kitchen. “What are you doing here?”

“I felt bad, about Thomas and all. So I came to make some more Moo Shoo Pork. Look, Larry.” He held up two boxes, one marked Cayenne Pepper, the other Paprika. “The pepper is full. I used paprika. It’s not hot. We didn’t kill him.”

Jonathan’s voice had the next loudest volume. “But mu zhun isn’t moo shoo, it’s graveyard.”

Don and I froze and turn toward Jonathan. “Say that again,” I said.

“Why would Wu Sing talk about a graveyard?” Jonathan asked.

The weight that had been bearing down on me for the last day and a half sprouted wings and got ready to fly off. “There’s a local Chinese cemetery that Thomas liked to visit.”

“Ahh.” Jonathan repeated this to his aunt and uncle who looked at me.

I nodded. “Yes. I buried Thomas there.”

Don laughed. “I don’t believe this. You knew Thomas wanted to buried there and that’s why you busted him out of the funeral home?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry I didn’t wait to get official permission, but I felt bad since Thomas died here. I wanted to honor his wishes as quickly as I could.”

“Sure you did.” Don looked from me to the Lees. “Do you wish to press charges against Mr. Coyle for stealing your son’s body?”

Another pause while Jonathan repeated everything, but I didn’t have to hear his version of their answer. Their hugs and tears told me I was in the clear.

Homer wrapped us all in a group hug. “We didn’t kill Thomas. But Larry, do we have to shift the bod—” He stopped talking as the breath left his lungs. Might have had something to do with the elbow I shoved in his solar plexus.

Don looked at us quizzically, but nodded as he listened to the Lees, all three of them, talking at once.

I finally broke away and moved behind the counter. I fixed the first pot of coffee for the day. And thought about the Moo Shoo pork I’d be making for lunch.


Fiction Friday: Blindsided

This is one of my first romance rejects and I still have a soft spot for it. I think Meredith deserves a novel.


Meredith examined her chipped fingernail polish and considered what to do about it. Deciding she was too busy for a manicure, she made a mental note to buy polish remover. She liked having her nails a pretty color under the grime.

As she returned to her project, an older model Mercedes pulled into the driveway of the garage and died with a backfire. A tall, slender man got out. Wiping her hands on the shop towel in the back pocket of her coveralls, she greeted him.

“Can I help you?”

“I sure hope so. I’m traveling and my car is missing and backfiring. It started about twenty miles out and I just made it to town. I asked at the cafĂ© for a reliable garage and they sent me here. Are you the mechanic?”

Meredith knew what was coming next. “Yes, I am, but even though I’m a woman, I assure you I know my way around cars and I’m sure I can fix yours.”

The man smiled. “You misunderstand. I prefer female mechanics, when I can find one.”

Meredith was taken aback. “You deliberately take your car to women mechanics?”

“Yep. I’m not a car guy, never have been. I discovered a long time ago that women who understand cars are much nicer about mechanical issues. Men don’t trust a guy who doesn’t know cars. They think something’s wrong with me. But women are used to being thought dumb when it comes to automotive things, so they explain problems very simply. And I’ve found them to be more honest as well.”

Meredith had never heard of a man who preferred to deal with a woman when it came to his car repairs. She stared at him for a moment. He didn’t seem to be unbalanced. In fact, he appeared very nice. And she liked the way his eyes looked into hers. Straight and purposeful.

“Ok, let’s take a look. Go ahead and pull your car into this bay here and leave it running so I can listen to it.”

The man returned to his car and as soon as the engine turned over, Meredith was sure what the problem was. She motioned him into the vacant bay and asked him to pop the hood after he put it in “park.”

She leaned over the engine to be sure of her diagnosis.

“When was the car last serviced? And who did it?”

“I had a tune up just yesterday. Annie, my regular mechanic, did it. She and her husband are friends of mine so she knew the car had to be in good shape for this trip. I hate having to find a mechanic when I’m on the road, for the reasons I already mentioned.”

“Well, I’m afraid Annie put in the wrong size spark plugs. Your engine is fried. And your road trip is over until you get another engine or a rental car.”

“That’s not possible! Even I know enough not to make that mistake. Annie would never do that to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I want a second opinion. Do you have another mechanic here?”

“Larry’s is the shop down the street. You may prefer a male diagnosis on this one. And since the engine is already ruined, driving it to the next block won’t make it any worse.”

The man got back in his car and drove it, belching and backfiring, down the next street.

Meredith shrugged and returned to the carburetor of the MG she was working on. The British were good at a lot of things, but designing a fuel system was not one of them.


An hour later, Meredith heard the car return. The carburetor was almost ready to install in the MG.

He parked in the same bay and walked over to the shop bench.

“Larry agrees with you.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m right.”

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t believe Annie would make such a mistake… Can I sit and think for a minute?”


“My name is Leland Spencer. Call me Spence.”

“I’m Meredith.”

“Nice to meet you, Meredith. Well, it would be under different circumstances. By the way, are you related to Larry at the other shop? He got very defensive when I said I wanted a second opinion.”

“No, but he is my mentor. He’s helped me a lot over the years. He used to send me his overflow business. Now I have enough to keep busy. His is more of an all around shop and I specialize in foreign cars.”

“This business must be tough for a woman.”

“It’s not too bad. This is a small town though, so everyone knows that I know what I’m doing. It would be rough if I were starting out as a stranger somewhere.”

“How did you get interested in cars?”

“I’ve always been a “car chick,” as long as I can remember. You know how some people can hear a song lyric and tell you the writer, performer, label, and year released? I’ve always been able to do that with cars. I know who made what model, in what year, the specs and how each year is different. I think I got it from my grandfather. No one else in my family is interested in cars.”

“Even your dad?”

“No. My dad is the reason I knew what the problem with your car was as soon as I heard it. He did the same thing with the spark plugs when I was a kid. We barely made it home from a camping trip and the engine was ruined. He quit doing his own tune ups then.”

Spence grinned at her. “And I bet you started doing them for him.”

Meredith smiled back. “It wasn’t too long before I took over.” She had never talked to a man like this before. He didn’t seem at all threatened by her knowledge. And the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled was very distracting. She made herself focus on the carburetor on the bench in front of her.

“Well, I guess I better call Annie and see what she has to say.” Spence dialed his cell phone as he walked over to the car. He spoke in a low tone for several minutes, then disconnected and walked back to Meredith.

“Annie agreed with your assessment. And she’s heartbroken. She delegated my tune up yesterday to a new employee. A man. He sabotaged several other customers too. She’s going to have an awful fight with her insurance company over this.”

“Oh no, I’m so sorry. That’s one reason I haven’t hired any help yet. I’m just not sure I can trust a man to take directions from me.”

“What are my options?”

“The same as earlier. A new engine. It will take me at least a week to get and install one. Larry may be able to do it a little faster, if he’s not backed up. Or you can call the wrecking yard and see how much they’ll give you for the car. Some of the parts will be usable. Or there’s a rental car agency across town.”

“I love that old car, so I guess I’ll go with a new engine. And a rental to finish this road trip. I’ll plan to be back in a week.”

“Leave me your cell number so I can call you if I run into any other problems.”

Spence wrote on the back of a business card and handed it to her. She glanced at the card before stapling it to the work order.

“You’re in the beauty supply business?”

He grinned. “Ironic, isn’t it? My mom did hair when I was a kid. Just like you know all about car models and specs, I can tell the difference between honey blonde, gold blonde, and sandy blonde. I know all about skin, hair, and nail care products so I started my own company recently and I’m visiting salons that carry my merchandise. Making personal contacts.”

She smiled back. “Right before you got here, I chipped my polish. I’m too busy for a manicure, but it looks awful. I was just going to take all the polish off.”

“Can I see?”

Meredith extended her hand and he held it while examining her nails. She felt a shiver run up her spine as he ran his thumb and forefinger over each of her fingers.

“I’ll have to spend the night in town. Can I take you to dinner? You can tell me about cars and I’ll give you some hints to help your polish last longer.”

Meredith laughed aloud. “I’m very tough on my nails. I’d like to know how to keep grease out from under them.”

“And I want to learn how to change my own oil. Maybe we can come to an agreement to teach each other some of those things we need to know.”

“Perhaps we can…”



Straight as a Cable Car

I was in San Francisco for the day recently and I rode a cable car. I think for the first time. Even though I grew up (mostly) in the East Bay area, we seldom made it to the city. And when we did, we had places to be and didn’t take time to ride the tourist attraction.

But besides being a novelty to get tourists to part with their cash, the cable cars also make darn good transportation up and down those famous hills.

For one leg of the trip, I ended up perched on the outside of the car, clinging to a pole. I set myself firmly on my feet, girded my belongings on my shoulders, and gripped the pole like a third grader on the playground when the bell rings.

But, the death grip turned out to be overkill.

I never felt unsafe, or about to lose my footing. I hardly even shifted my weight from one foot to the other because of the car’s movement.

It took a day or two to figure out why.

The cable car goes in a straight line. It’s attached to cables and rails under the ground. It felt even more stable than a train on rails. Now the car we were on didn’t even go around a corner, so I may be way off on my conclusion, but I decided the straight path made all the difference.

There was no veering off the track because the cable car never shifted from its straight course.

We got where we were going with minimal discomfort, in a timely manner, and with no annoying and useless detours.

Wouldn’t life be easier if I did the same?

Followed my path. Didn’t get distracted. Just kept going. Up. Down. Ahead.


Currently reading: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert. I enjoyed (mostly, with a few reservations) her Eat, Pray, Love. She still has lots to say and lots to make me think about and she does it with lovely writing.

Last movie: Valentine’s Day

Today I’m praying for: Mary Lou’s family, Katy, and Gerry Adams, Irish politician/activist.


A Shore Thing is a sure winner




I just finished Julie Carobini’s upcoming summer release, A Shore Thing.

Julie has created a charming Central California Coast village, Otter Bay. It reminds me a little of Moro Bay and a little of Cambria, both idyllic seaside communities.

Callie Duflay believes in leaving the slightest carbon footprint she can. She’s aghast to discover the last stretch of open coastland is slated to be developed. She organizes a community coalition to fight the proposal.

Gage Mitchell is an architect who designs buildings to fit into their environment without unduly taxing the natural resources.

Callie and Gage discover you can disagree about important issues even while your heart insists on following its own path.

I really enjoyed A Shore Thing. Julie created believable characters who aren’t too good to be true. They struggle with reconciling what they believe with how they live.

I highly recommend A Shore Thing.

In the interest of full disclosure and something about blogs and free books and the IRS, I have to say that I read an advanced reader copy of the book that I received for free. And Julie is a friend. But, as anyone in my critique group will attest, just because I like you doesn’t mean I won’t tell the truth about your writing. So, you can believe me: Julie is a good writer. She’ll touch your heart and make you think a bit about your own carbon footprint. She does it not with preaching at her reader, but with a believable character who lives a realistic life.


Fiction Friday: Pride and Pasteurizing

This is my most recent Coveted Dead Bird winner, from 2008. Thanks to my friend and fellow writer Shawna Marie Bryant for the title help!



It is a truth universally acknowledged that an ill-tempered man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of killing.

Jane Austen probably never had to deal with a corpse. Antonia Burns stared at the purple and dead face of Eustace Perrin. Antonia had often fancied a parallel between her life and Austen’s Pride & Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennett. Until this night.

She’d left Eustace on the patio of the Fig Garden Swim and Racquet Club for ten minutes. Maybe twelve. Fifteen at the most.

Oh dear. She leaned closer to examine the ribbons she’d just noticed wrapped around his neck. A pink silk ribbon, just like the sash of her sister Jamie’s white eyelet dress, along with a yellow one.

Antonia whirled and hurried into the dance. Father, Father…where was he? She scanned the chaperones then wove around the dance floor until she could grasp his elbow and bring his ear to her mouth.

“Eustace is dead. Where is Jamie?”

“My dear?” Father stared at her and she nodded. “Excuse us, please.” He guided her away from the two men he’d been addressing. With an arm around her waist, they moved to the double French doors leading from the crowded dance to the concrete patio. It was quiet and cooler than the air conditioned room full of teenage perspiration, paternal pipe-smokers with cherry tobacco in the breast pocket of their suits, and the mothers clinging to glasses of Chardonnay. Just another summer evening at the club.

Father strode to the crumpled body and placed two fingers on the side of Eustace’s neck. “What happened?”

“My cheeks grew tired of forcing smiles and he wouldn’t ask Jamie to dance so I suggested we walk out here and cool off. I intended to talk about Jamie’s even temper and my own low tolerance for fools.”

Father shook his head and stood. “And then?”

“I excused myself to the powder room and I found him when I returned.”

“We must tell Reyes but we can’t leave him here alone for some unsuspecting fools to find.”

“I’ll be right back.” Antonia returned to the dance and searched for Arturo Reyes, the soother of ruffled feelings, restorer of besmirched reputations, restocker of Tanqueray, and club manager.

Why, oh why had she let Mother talk her into this? Because Mother determined to marry one of the Burns girls to Eustace Perrin, come what may. He’d already spent several afternoons calling at their home in old Fig Garden while sister Jamie persisted in trying to charm him and Mother fluttered around the parlor.

Eustace seemed determined to remain churlish, no matter the season or time of day. Poor Jamie had tried everything to coax a smile. She played his favorite piano selections, baked her special lemon scones, and even gave him a glimpse of cleavage during a tennis match.

With no encouragement to keep trying, Jamie tacitly passed him to Antonia who agreed to accompany him to the dance at the club. Only to appease Mother though. Antonia had no interest in dating, much less marrying, a disagreeable old man such as Eustace Perrin.

To be fair, he was Jamie’s elder by just a year. But with a perpetual scowl and shuffling gait, he seemed closer to Father’s age. Though he did try to peek down Antonia’s dress. She’d caught his gaze twice during dinner and his hands kept wandering when they danced. After several turns around, she’d pleaded heat exhaustion and asked to rest outside a moment.

“How’s this?” Eustace had asked, holding the door open to the patio.

“Thank you.” Antonia swept out and walked to the top step leading to the lawn. A tug on her sash pulled her back. When she turned, it slipped through the threads holding it to her waist.

“May I?” Eustace reached a hand around each side of her to tie the wide ribbon in the back.

“No.” She slipped out of his embrace and sidled away from him. “I mean, thank you, but I’ll just hold it until Jamie can—”

“Why do you avoid me?” He still held the ribbon but his eyes bored into hers with an intensity she’d not seen before.

“It’s not that. I hardly know—”

He interrupted her yet again. “I know your parents’ circumstances and I’m prepared to pay your father’s debts if you’ll consent to marry me.”

Indignation fought with revulsion mixed with relief. At last his intentions were stated. But what did he mean… “Debts? My father has no debts. The almond crop was a bit off this year, but we’re fine.”

Eustace shook his head sorrowfully. “No, my dear. Why do you think your mother aimed Jamie at me? Insipid, bland Jamie. I went along because I wanted to meet the spirited Antonia I’ve heard so much about. And you, my dear, are anything but plain and ordinary. The spark in your eye when you noticed me admiring the cut of your frock.”

“Mr. Perrin. I appreciate your attentions, but I assure you, you’re mistaken in your estimation of my regard for you. I do believe you and Jamie are well suited. When you get to know her, she is nothing like your assessment.”

“I’ve watched her and I’ve watched you. There is no comparison.” He pursed his lips and leaned in. “And I’ve made my intentions plain to your mother. She approves.”

Antonia took a step back. “Jamie is sweet and even tempered and accommodating. Everything I am not. She will make an excellent wife.”

“But I want a woman who will challenge and excite me.” He gripped her arm and pulled her closer.

“Mr. Perrin, please!” Antonia whirled away and dashed across the patio and back inside where music still played and couples twirled and dipped on the dance floor. She caught Jamie’s eye across the room and jerked her head toward the restroom.

A minute later, they met in the powder room where Antonia quickly relayed the conversation on the patio.

“Oh, sister.” Jamie covered her mouth in dismay. “You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what? Tell that lecherous and evil man I wouldn’t marry him?” As she spoke, Antonia realized she had not actually declined. A single minded man such as Mr. Perrin may believe her to be playing hard to get. “Oh no.” Her shoulders sagged. “I’ll have to speak to him again. And tell him in no uncertain terms.”

“I’ll go.” Jamie’s expression wavered between sympathetic and doubtful before she slipped out of the restroom. Antonia had waited three minutes before following. Surely that was long enough for Jamie to convey Antonia’s regrets and perhaps change Eustace’s estimation of her own potential as a helpmeet.

When Antonia returned to the patio, there was the dead body of their erstwhile suitor and no sign of her sister.

Another scan of the room yielded Arturo talking to Mother. About what she felt sure she knew. But now was not the time for Arturo to tell her mother of their attachment. Antonia hastened to their family table, Mother looking up at Mr. Reyes, an intent expression on her face.

“Arturo–Mr. Reyes, I mean—my father asked me to invite you to join him on the terrace.” The struggle to keep from alerting Mother warred with the need to impress Arturo with the urgency of her request.

“Of course,” he said. “Mrs. Burns, may we revisit this matter in a moment?”

Mother sighed and her jaw tightened. “Most assuredly.”

Arturo’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Excuse me, Mrs. Burns. Miss Burns.” He dipped into a hint of a bow before melting into the crowd.

“Sit, child.” Mother pushed open the adjoining chair with a toe.

Antonia complied but only perched on the edge.

“We have family standards to maintain,” Mother said. “And your future is settled.”

Eustace’s words about Father’s debt came back to Antonia. “Why, Mother? Why are you so eager to marry off one of us to that disagreeable man? I hope it’s not his money.”

Mother’s eyes didn’t meet Antonia’s. “What if it is? You have no idea what it’s like, raising daughters in the Central Valley. We’re outnumbered by men who farm, men who teach, and men who govern.”

“He said something about debts.” Wanting to learn the truth fought with the urge to hurry outside to observe the arrival of the sheriff’s deputy.

“You know the market for almonds has been down recently.”

“Almonds are a super food, the market is booming.” Even as the words left her mouth, Antonia knew the boom was too little, too late. Especially given the new requirement that raw almonds must be pasteurized, at an additional cost to the farmer. All the grim looks passed between her parents and the overheard whispers in the last months became clear. “He didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“Please tell me Father didn’t invest in the golf course instead of the pasteurizer.” The Running Horse development in southwest Fresno had become a giant money-sucking mire of mud traps and sand but Father still believed it had potential to host a PGA event. Maybe even a US Open someday. Antonia had begged him to instead put some money into the company that held contracts to pasteurize seventy percent of the almonds in Fresno County. Arturo listened to her and they now had enough to buy a home. They’d planned to secure her parents’ permission and announce their engagement tonight. Until Mother and Eustace ruined it.

“Antonia, you can pass judgment later. Right now, find Mr. Perrin and be nice. He’s already declined Jamie. If you’re not pleasing, we’ll have to encourage his interest in Marla. But I know you’re his first choice.” She winked. “Where is Jamie?”

Antonia grasped at the excuse. “I’ll look for her.” She rose and walked away, her stomach tight at Mother’s words and intent. Whoring her daughters. Antonia would have her sisters live with her and Arturo before she consented to see either of them engaged to Mr. Perrin.

Oh. She stopped in the middle of the dance floor, forcing couples to part around her. Eustace Perrin was dead. There would be no need to move out. But also no hope of rescue.

“Antonia! You’re in the way.” Marla jostled Antonia’s arm as her partner swung her around. “What’s going on? Mother’s not going to try and make me marry Mr. Pinched Face, is she?”

Antonia shook her head, barely registering the words. So Mother had already set the stage for displaying Marla. Too bad it was all for naught.

Outside Antonia found Father conferring with Arturo. The faint whine of a siren grew until it stopped abruptly just before turning into the driveway from Maroa Avenue. The lights continued, casting blue and red streaks and turning her dress into a tacky plaid. “Has anyone seen Jamie?” she asked.

“In my office,” Arturo said. “She came to me in hysterics and I asked Minerva to see to her while I approached your mother.” Her heartbeat sparked at his steady gaze.

Oh, my. Antonia averted her head to hide the heat on her cheeks as she hurried around to the half-hidden door at the rear of the building and slipped down the hall. “Jamie?”

“I’m here.” Her shaky voice pierced Antonia.

“What happened?” Antonia dropped to Jamie’s side on the leather sofa in the dark paneled office. “I went back to the patio and you were gone, but Eustace…”

“I found him. But I…I just … I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. Oh, Toni.” Jamie drew a shuddering breath.

“It’s okay.” Antonia reflexively hugged her sister close. “Arturo and Father are seeing to him.”

“I don’t understand,” Jamie said. “He was fine when you left?”

“Smug and insufferable. As usual.” Antonia stood and lowered a hand to help Jamie up. “We should go and see if Father needs anything.”

“Please, Toni. I can’t bear to go out.” Jamie’s knuckles whitened as she held her arms close. “His face, so … so purple and angry. Like he couldn’t believe what was happening.”

“Yes.” Antonia agreed. “But …” She lowered her voice. “I saw your sash.”

“You did?” Jamie’s puzzled voice announced her unconcern. “It fell off during one of the dances and Mother retrieved it. Where is your sash?”

Antonia flashed back to Eustace holding the yellow grosgrain and telling her he’d settle Father’s debt if she agreed to marry him. “I don’t know…” She stood. “I have to go. You can wait here.”

“I will.” Jamie settled herself in the thick cushions.

Antonia retraced her steps and joined Father and Arturo. Eustace’s body had been sheltered behind some drapes and a small crowd had gathered, although she heard music still drifting from the ballroom. She found her father talking with a uniformed officer and tried to catch his eye. What would Elizabeth Bennett do in this situation? Nothing came to mind but finally Father met her gaze and took his leave from the deputy.

She grasped his hands. “Is it true, Father? Did you invest in Running Horse? Are we bankrupt?”

“We’ll discuss it later.” He smoothed his hands over hers. “Did you find Jamie?”

“She’s in Arturo’s office.” Antonia turned her back to the others, moved a step away, and clutched her father’s sleeve. “But I saw her sash around his neck. The sash Mother was holding for her. Was it the murder weapon?”

“Jamie’s sash?” His brow furrowed. “Get your sisters and take them home.”

She left Father with the officer and hurried inside. Jamie seemed still in shock but came along to the banquet room. Marla whined when Antonia pulled her off the dance floor and back to their table. Mother licked her fork and set it on her dessert plate as the trio approached.

“What are you doing here, Antonia? I told you to find Mr. Perrin and—”

“He’s dead. Strangled with Jamie’s sash.”

Mother only shrugged and raised her glass. “Well, you got your wish. You don’t have to marry him. And I told you everything would turn out.”

“What are you talking about? If Father’s bankrupt because of Running Horse and the almond crop still has to be pasteurized and Mr. Perrin died with Jamie’s sash around his neck, how is everything all right?” Antonia’s voice rose with frustration.

Mother glanced around before leaning closer. “You are his espoused wife. You will inherit.”

Antonia sank into the chair. “We were not engaged. I have no claim on his estate.”

“You were affianced. You just didn’t know it yet.”

Disgust rose in Antonia like a Fresno thermometer on an August morning. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. But it doesn’t matter.”

“He changed his will this afternoon,” Mother said.

“Daddy? What’s wrong?” Marla’s voice trailed off and Antonia turned to see her father approach with the deputy and Arturo.

“Margaret. Why?” Father’s voice shook and Antonia stared at him. He couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like.

“To save our family.” Mother stood and held her hands out. “No one else cared enough to sacrifice their comfort to ensure we have a roof over our heads and food on the table.” The deputy placed handcuffs on her wrists and closed them with a ratcheting sound that echoed in the sudden quiet of the ballroom. “Someday, darlings, you’ll understand. When he asked for Antonia’s hand, he let slip that he convinced Charles to invest in Running Horse. He ruined us and wanted my daughter in return. I did what I had to.” Mother walked out, her head high.

Father wrapped the three of them into his embrace. “I should have told her everything.”

Antonia pulled away. “It’s true? Mother killed him? How will we pay for a lawyer? When we have nothing?” Antonia closed her eyes and swayed a bit before she felt Arturo grasp her elbow.

“Not at all.” Father straightened his shoulders. “We may lose what I invested in Running Horse, but I also own a substantial part of the new pasteurizing facility. Arturo and I.”

“You do?” Could it be true? Had he listened to her? Done as she recommended?

“We have enough to pay a team of medical experts to declare your mother incompetent or temporarily insane.”

Another similarity between Antonia and Elizabeth Bennett emerged. Readers through the ages wished to throttle Mrs. Bennett. Antonia’s mother had instead done the throttling.

“She must be crazy,” Antonia said. “To kill a man instead of bidding him farewell.”

“Yes” Father said. “And we’ll hire the best defense attorneys to prove that. We Burnses may be prideful but we’re not poor.”


Fiction Friday: Hopeless Romantic

This is another Woman’s World reject. I’m building up quite the portfolio…



Hopeless Romantic

“That’s so sweet,” I said. “I’ll take it.”

“I wanted it to find a good home,” the man said. “Somewhere it’ll be appreciated and loved.” He smiled, a wistful lifting of the corners of his lips. Someone hollered a question across the yard. “I’m Brian, by the way. I’ll see you at the cash box when you’re ready.” He nodded at a card table at the end of the driveway and hurried to take care of his other garage sale customers.

I sat in a maple rocking chair. He’d told me the most beautiful story about how his grandmother rocked his dad in it and then his mom rocked him. He had hoped his wife would cuddle their children in it someday. “But it wasn’t mean to be,” he’d said.

I didn’t know quite what that meant. Did his wife die? Maybe they couldn’t have kids? Oh well, I shrugged.

I’d asked if he knew the history of the chair and he seemed fine with telling me the story.

And then I had to have it. I tried to pretend I was indifferent to see if he would come down on the price. He wouldn’t. I couldn’t blame him at all. If it were in my family, I’d never let it go.

I gave up haggling just when he was called away. I sat for another moment in the chair, rocking and thinking and looking around.

The sale was arranged on the lawn and driveway of a cute bungalow on a corner lot. Furniture and small appliances shared the space with tables full of dishes and knick-knacks.

I spend most of my Saturday mornings driving around to sales. I love old furniture. The dull glow of wood rubbed by years of elbows and hands makes my heart swell as I think about all the people who have touched and been touched by the tables and chairs. And I look for books to add to my classroom. There are a lot of classics out there, molding in cardboard boxes and waiting for a new reader.

A little round stand caught my eye across the yard and I made my way over to it. Golden oak with a shelf under it, it was perfect for the reading corner of my classroom where I’d already decided the rocker would go.

I turned around to find the seller again and ask him how much when I noticed my rocking chair being carried away.

“Hey,” I called, running to catch up with it. “That’s mine.”

A man with broad shoulders in a denim shirt turned around. “No, it’s not,” he said. “There’s no ‘sold’ sign on it. And you were no where near it.” He turned away again and headed toward the check out area.

“I was just looking at something else.” I hurried to get in front of him. “It’s mine, I love it. And I agreed on a price with the seller.”

“Sorry to hear that.” His eyes were the same shade as his shirt and they crinkled as he squinted against the sun. “But it’s perfect for what I need.”

“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously. He didn’t look like the kind of guy who cared about a chair’s history.

“The spindles on the arms here.” He hefted the chair. “They’re gonna be accents on the shelves of a bookcase.”

“You’re going to cannibalize my new rocking chair?” Heat rushed to my face.

“No.” He looked at me a little strangely. “I’m going to take this old chair apart and use it another way.”

“I can’t let you do that.” I grasped the chair by the rockers and tried to pull it away from him.

“Hey!” He tugged back, wrenching it out of my hands. “Are you crazy?”

“I’m not letting you destroy my chair.”

“You need to get a grip. It’s just an old rocker. I can use it to make something new.” He gestured at the sale around us. “There’s a set of six dining chairs. Go rescue them.”

“I want this chair.” There was no way I was going to let him win.

“What’s the big deal?” He looked really curious and I paused, not sure how to explain it.

“I know the history of this chair,” I said. “The mothers and babies it’s rocked. The stories that have been read in it. And now his children will never get to fall asleep in it. I have to have it!” My voice rose and I looked around to see if anyone noticed.

He chuckled and shook his head. “What’s your name?”

“Julie,” I said. “Why?”

“Brian!” he called. The man who told me about the chair was on the other side of the yard with his back to us. He turned around and flushed when he saw us with the chair.

He approached slowly. “Hi, Tucker. Is there a problem? No? Okay, well-” He started to walk away when my nemesis spoke up.

“Just a second. What did you tell Julie here?”

“Hmmm? Oh, nothing really, just…” his voice trailed off and he looked at the house.

“You fed her a line about being a baby rocked in this chair, didn’t you?”


“What’s going on?” I asked. Had I been made a fool of?

“Brian bought this chair at a flea market last week,” Tucker said. “And his wife – that’s her helping that man try out the treadmill – she wanted something bigger for the bay window in the living room. And I know because she’s my sister.”

“Really?” I looked at Brian. “Why would you make up such a story?”

“I needed to get rid of it. And you wanted a romantic history.” He grinned apologetically. “I never actually said I was rocked in it.”

“What about, ‘it wasn’t meant to be’?”

He shrugged. “Kate didn’t like it and you did.”

“Here.” Tucker sighed and set the chair in front of me.

“What’s this?”

“Oh, just take it before I change my mind.” He ran a hand over the curved back. “It would have made a great bookcase though.”

“I could see it as a bookcase.” I almost looked behind me to see if someone else said that.

“What about mothers rocking their babies and all that?” He looked into my eyes and my heart pounded.

“Rocking is fine, but what I really need is a place to store books.”

“I happen to have a beautiful red maple unit that just needs some finishing touches. Can I show it to you?”

“Only if it has a romantic history,” I said.

He smiled. “If it doesn’t now, it will soon.”


Must See TV


We’ve been watching a new show, Undercover Boss and we’re hooked.

The premise: a CEO or COO or BMM (Big Muckety Muck) hangs up his pinstripes and puts on coveralls. He works at various entry level jobs in his corporation and comes away with a new appreciation for the people on the “frontlines.”

There’s a formula.

(So far), it’s always a male exec. Cameras follow him around and the people he works with are told he’s the subject of a documentary about working entry level jobs.

He works with one person whose attitude is exemplary, then finds out they have a health issue.

He discovers some company policies are being over enforced (people docked 2 minutes for each minute they clock in late, waitresses subjected to demeaning “team building” games, etc.).

He shares a meal with an employee. Usually they invite him home, but sometimes a family member brings the meal to the workplace. This way he gets to see the person behind the uniform.

Finally, the people he’s worked with are called to corporate headquarters where he reveals his true identity.

The hard workers are recognized and appreciated. Some are given vacations, or promotions.

The bad guys are dressed down on national television, but usually in a way that lets them salvage their dignity. Frankly, I wonder how many of them were simply showing off for the cameras, particularly the slimy Hooters manager.

It’s great to see the BMMs as it dawns on them that it’s JimmyJoeBob cleaning the portable johns who makes it possible for BMM to have his house in the ‘burbs with a putting green in the backyard.

The folks on the front lines are the public face of their company and it’s great to see that recognized and rewarded.

We’ve already set our DVR to record it, so I don’t even know when it’s on.

It’s well worth an hour a week.