God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, A Death in Duck, book two of the Reverend Lindsay Harding series, will be released on Amazon at the end of June. The friendly furry fellow at the left will feature on the book cover, which my lovely cover designer, Paige Nowak, is currently putting the finishing touches on.
<<Drumroll>> And so, here is a world exclusive, super top secret, just for you sneak peek at Chapter One. I hope you like it. Really, I do. Because it took me, like, a year to write this dang book. 🙂
‘Twas the weekend before Christmas, and frankly the chocolate Yule log wasn’t looking its best. Lindsay Harding had brought the cake as her contribution to an early Christmas dinner. She was dining for the first time at the home of her boyfriend’s mother, and she had scoured the internet for something to make that would mark her out as desirable daughter-in-law material. Snowman cupcakes were rejected as too cutesy. Cookies were dismissed as too cliché. The Yule log, however, sent all the right messages. It nodded to convention, while still demonstrating a bit of domestic flair. She pictured herself triumphantly unveiling it as she walked through the front door. Warren’s mother, Teresa, would gasp and exclaim, “Oh, Lindsay! You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.” Teresa might even insist that it sit in the middle of the table and act as the centerpiece.
Lindsay had spent much of the previous night concocting the dessert, rolling the thin cake into a cylinder and then coaxing two different colors of chocolate icing into the striations of a realistic wood grain. She had even sculpted little pinecones out of tinted marzipan to decorate the serving dish. But she hadn’t factored the unseasonably warm weather into her plan. When she and Warren had stopped to pick up a bottle of wine on the way over to his mother’s house, they’d left her car in the sun.
Now, here they were, seated at Teresa’s beautifully-laid table. Teresa’s homemade peppermint-scented candles formed part of a centerpiece that looked like a cover shot for Southern Living magazine. Teresa’s desserts—three kinds of cookies, a 2-tier fruitcake and a chocolate fountain—were arrayed on the sideboard like offerings to some pagan sugar god. And Lindsay’s chocolate Yule log cake slumped next to them like a large, soggy turd.
The only part of her vision that had been realized was that Teresa did indeed utter the exact words, “Oh, Lindsay! You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” as Lindsay removed the Tupperware top and exposed the melted monstrosity. However, those words were followed by the Southern woman’s kiss of death—“Bless your heart.”
Impressing Warren’s mother was always going to be an uphill battle. Teresa Satterwhite was everything that Lindsay was not—tall and gracious, a true Southern belle with perfectly-manicured nails. She owned aprons that complemented her outfits, and wore lipstick that complemented her aprons. Her perfectly-coiffed, carrot-colored hair was cut into a flattering angled bob and it shone atop her head like a radioactive tangerine. Lindsay, small and skinny with thick glasses and a wild blonde mop of hair, felt like one of those good luck troll dolls standing alongside a Barbie.
Lindsay sat at the table, feeling almost too self-conscious to enjoy the wonderful food on the plate before her. She turned to Teresa and said, “This all looks delicious. When there is more than one thing happening, I always find it so hard to coordinate all the timings and keep everything warm.” Lindsay’s usual cooking strategy was to put things in the oven for 20 minutes at 350°. If the food didn’t get cooked, she’d set the oven to broil and leave it until it looked done. The fact that her Yule cake hadn’t ended up as a burnt offering was a miracle in itself.
“Well thank you, honey. I do like to make an effort to make the holidays special for my babies.” She beamed lovingly at Warren and his sister Tanner. Warren returned his mother’s adoring smile, his warm brown eyes reflecting the light of the candles. Tanner, meanwhile, was turned sideways in her chair feeding morsels of turkey to her four Pomeranian dogs. They yapped and bounced straight up and down in front of her, like demented yo-yos. Warren and his mother shared the pale, freckly complexion of natural redheads. In Tanner, however, this pallor was taken to the extreme. Her skin and hair were a matching shade of pale peachy white. Only her coal-black eyes indicated that she wasn’t an albino. Tanner’s husband, Gibb, sat silently across from her, throwing food down his throat like he was trying to fill a sinkhole.
“Tanner, stop messing with the dogs. Mama is talking to you,” Warren snapped.
Tanner rolled her eyes at him and turned back to the dogs.
Lindsay had already had the pleasure of making the dogs’ acquaintance a few months earlier when she and Warren had been out on a double date to the movies with Warren’s sister and brother-in-law. Tanner and Gibb had pulled up in front of Warren’s house in their Ford Fiesta. Although this was their first time meeting Lindsay, they didn’t come up to the door when they arrived. Instead, they idled in the driveway, honking the horn until Warren and Lindsay emerged.
Tanner waved lazily out the window, “Hey. You must be Warren’s girlfriend. I’m Tanner. This here,” she said, gesturing to the large man with a wide black mustache who sat in the driver’s seat, “is Gibb.” Gibb wore a hooded sweatshirt and reflective sunglasses. If it hadn’t been for the roll of stubble-covered fat that formed his second chin, Lindsay might have mistaken him for the Unabomber.
Lindsay opened the door of the car to find the backseat entirely filled with small orange dogs.
“You can just put them on your lap,” Tanner said. She pointed to each of them in turn. “That’s George. That’s Ringo. And those two are John and Muffin.”
“Yeah. Paul got washed away during the hurricane last summer so we got Muffin to replace him.” Without warning, Tanner exploded into loud sobs and draped herself dramatically over the dashboard of the car.
Warren shot Lindsay a weary look over the top of the car. “As you can imagine, it’s still a painful subject for her. The hurricane was their Yoko Ono.”
“I’m so sorry about Paul. That must have been awful,” Lindsay said as she tried to maneuver her way into the back seat without smothering Ringo with her rear end. As a rule, she didn’t much like small dogs, and it was a particular struggle to extend her sympathies for the death of one of this band of glorified rats. Each one was about the size and weight of a cantaloupe. They climbed over each other on the seat, tongues lolling out of their mouths and eyes spinning wildly in their heads like furry little mental patients. Lindsay was wearing shorts, and during the ride the dogs took turns clawing their way up her thighs and then madly scrabbling to keep their footing on her lap when the car turned a corner. By the time they arrived at the movie theater, Lindsay looked like she’d been kickboxing a wolverine.
Despite the presence of the Fab Three (plus Muffin) and the dreadfulness of the movie—some inane crime spree buddy comedy chosen by Gibb—the double date had gone reasonably well. Gibb remained almost silent throughout the evening, emitting only occasional grunts to show agreement or displeasure. But Tanner kept the mood lively by telling a series of hilarious childhood stories in which she cast Warren as a rule-following mama’s boy and herself as a popular party girl. On the drive home, the dogs yapped continuously, rendering further conversation unnecessary.
“Oh, hey, y’all!” Tanner exclaimed, jumping up from the dinner table. “Gibb taught the dogs a new trick.” She summoned the dogs to the center of the adjacent living room, where Warren, Lindsay and Teresa could get a clear view. “Okay, boys,” she commanded, “Freshen up!” At this directive, the dogs proceeded to get into a line, one behind the other, and lick each other’s rear ends.
A strange hacking wheeze came from across the table, and Lindsay turned to see Gibb slapping his thighs. Despite the obvious amusement in his eyes, it was nearly impossible to tell from the sound he was making whether he was laughing or choking.
Teresa smiled tightly, her lips compressing and turning almost purple. “Gibb, honey. You really are too much. Bless your heart.” She rose and began to clear the dishes in front of her. “Our little Tanner really made quite the match when she married you.”
“Mama doesn’t much like dogs,” Tanner stage-whispered to Lindsay across the table. She turned to her mother, smiling as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. “Isn’t that right, Mama?”
Teresa’s fingers tightened around the salad fork she was holding.
Warren put his hand over his mother’s clenched fist. “Mama, you sit down and relax. Lindsay and I will clear up.”
“That’s so considerate of you, baby. You really are just the sweetest little boy any mother could ask for. But Lindsay’s our guest. We can’t have her cleaning!”
“Honestly, Mrs. Satterwhite,” Lindsay said, popping up out of her seat, “it’s no trouble. It’s the least I can do after you made such a wonderful meal.”
Lindsay and Warren brought all the china and crystal through to the kitchen and confronted the monumental task of post-feast cleaning. Lindsay had just plunged her hands into the hot, sudsy water in the sink when Warren embraced her from behind and buried his face in her hair. “Thank you so much for coming. This whole thing is a damn sight better with you here. At least Tanner waited until the end of the meal to start trying to give Mama a heart attack. And believe it or not, Gibb was on his best behavior.”
Lindsay spun around to face him. “You don’t need to thank me. This is fantastic! A real family Christmas. I’ve literally never had this. It’s like being in a movie.”
“What? National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?”
“No! One of the black-and-white ones where everyone keeps breaking into song. Honestly, this is perfect.”
Lindsay had had an unorthodox childhood, and it held almost no positive memories of Christmas. When she was six, her young parents had been arrested for running a small-scale marijuana growing operation out of their house. They went to prison for several years, and Lindsay was shipped off to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to live with her father’s elderly aunt. The two of them shared a small house near Corolla. Corolla was then a remote village; until 1984, just before Lindsay arrived, it hadn’t even had a paved road connecting it to the larger settlements of Duck and Kitty Hawk further south.
Christmases with Aunt Harding were sparse affairs. Usually, they would pass Christmas Eve with Aunt Harding reading aloud from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Aunt Harding’s house contained very few books, and almost no works of fiction. She made an exception for Dickens. Her own parents had allowed her to read his novels as a child, and, since her mind was sharp as a drawing pin, she concluded that they must be good for a child’s intellectual development.
On Christmas morning, Lindsay and Aunt Harding would exchange gifts. Lindsay usually made her presents from the flotsam she found washed up on the beach near the lighthouse—shell necklaces, sun catchers made of wave-smoothed glass. Aunt Harding’s gifts to Lindsay tended toward the more pragmatic. She vividly remembered the gifts Aunt Harding had given her during the four years they’d lived together: Age 7: a shovel (“For gardening, beach combing and self-defense, if necessary. It’s a tool, a toy and a weapon all in one.”), Age 8: a watch (“Because you’re always lollygagging.”), Age 9: a giant tin of protein powder (“You’re too small. Other children always single out the weak ones.”), Age 10: a hunting rifle (“Because it’s time you got your head out of those library books and started learning about life.”).
After the presents were opened, they would hop into Aunt Harding’s old Jeep and drive to Raleigh to visit Lindsay’s parents. They would first head to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women to see Lindsay’s mother. After an hour spent making awkward small talk, they’d drive ten minutes down the road to Central Prison to eat vending machine soup with her father.
Lindsay’s father, Jonah, became a born-again Christian while he was in prison, and when he was released, he started a small storefront church. When she was 10, Lindsay returned to their hometown, Mount Moriah, North Carolina to live with him. Lindsay’s mother was released a year later, after serving extra time for her involvement in a jailhouse gambling ring. The little family passed one strained Christmas together as a family before Lindsay’s mother disappeared from their lives. From that time on, Lindsay and Jonah spent their Christmases doing the work of his church. His ministry grew and grew over the years until it occupied its current quarters in a large red brick building on the edge of Mount Moriah. The nativity story in the Book of Luke replaced Dickens for Christmas Eve reading. On Christmas day, Lindsay would make the rounds with her father, visiting parishioners in the hospital, in nursing homes, or in prison. It was noble work, but hardly the stuff of a child’s Christmas fantasies.
“For your sake, I wish we could have celebrated on Christmas Day. It’s not really a movie Christmas if it takes place on December 21st,” Warren said, releasing Lindsay from his embrace.
“I’ll take a real Christmas whenever I can get it,” Lindsay smiled. She turned back to the sink and continued washing dishes. She had been slightly disappointed not to be able to spend the holiday with Warren. He was a police officer for the force in New Albany, the largest of the small towns in their part of the North Carolina Piedmont. Since he was the only member of the force without children, he had volunteered to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. His mother didn’t want to forgo the traditional family celebration, so they decided to move the whole thing to the Saturday before Christmas.
For the first time in her four years of working as a hospital chaplain at the Mount Moriah Regional Medical Center, Lindsay did not have to work on the holiday. In fact, her boss and best friend, Rob Wu, had miraculously given her the entire week off from Christmas Day until New Year’s Day. This was unprecedented; Rob usually did everything in his power to schedule her for punishing back-to-back night shifts and as many holidays as he could manage. Looking back on his generosity during the weeks that followed, Lindsay realized that she should have known something was amiss.
Teresa peeked around the door. “Okay, kids! It’s time for dessert and presents.”
Lindsay was just drying her hands on a towel when she heard Warren’s phone start to buzz. They had been dating for almost 6 months, and she had come to learn that even on his days off, Warren was never really off duty. As one of only two detectives, he could be summoned to work whenever a serious incident took place. As he listened to the caller, Warren’s face took on a grave expression. He hung up the phone and looked at her. “I’m sorry, Lins. I’ve got to go.”
“But we haven’t even opened presents.” Lindsay realized she sounded childish, but she couldn’t keep the disappointment out of her voice.
“I’m sorry, but it’s important. They need me.”
“It’s always important. They always need you.” Warren’s dedication to his work was one of the things that had drawn Lindsay to him when they got together the previous summer. Working together, the two of them had kept an innocent woman out of prison. While others on the New Albany force had been content to accept easy answers, Warren always kept pushing until he arrived at the truth. Lately, however, Lindsay had begun to realize that Warren’s ambition and drive had serious downsides. Whenever they talked about the future, Warren made it clear that if anyone’s career was going to be sacrificed on the altar of marriage and family, it would be hers.
He looked at her with growing impatience. “And the hospital always needs you. How many times have you covered somebody else’s shift or stayed late when you didn’t even need to?”
“If I’m sitting with a patient, I can’t just get up and walk out because my shift is over. It’s not like, ‘Oh, hey, person who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s 7 o’clock now. Can your spiritual crisis wait until tomorrow? I’m supposed to go and see Thor with my boyfriend in 20 minutes.’” Her words sharpened with each syllable.
“Look, Lins. I’m disappointed, too. You know I’d rather stay.” He placed his hands gently on her shoulders.
She sighed and tried to smile. “How am I supposed to get home? You drove me.”
“I’m sure Gibb can give you a lift if you want to stick around for dessert.”
The memory of sixteen tiny sets of claws was still too fresh; she wasn’t sure she could handle the 20-minute drive home with Tanner, Gibb, and not-so-Fab Four. “That’s okay. Really. I’ll come with you. You can drop me off after you finish.”
“It could be awhile. Someone has,” he paused and lowered his voice to a whisper, “passed beyond.”
Despite the macabre topic, Lindsay almost cracked a smile. “‘Passed beyond?’ Are you sure they didn’t ‘Go to their eternal rest?’ or ‘Cross over Jordan’s River?’ You can tell me ‘somebody died,’ you know. Chaplains deal with death and dying almost every day.”
Warren put his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. “Sorry. You win. I forgot that you’re the Cadaver Queen, Extinction Expert.”
“Come on, Lindsay. I know you’re disappointed. I’ll make it up to you next week. We’ll spend the whole New Year’s holiday together. No interruptions. I promise.” He looked annoyingly handsome—the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, his full lips curled into a playful smile.
There were occasions when Lindsay found Warren’s even-temperedness irritating—his near-inability to become emotional sometimes felt like an implied judgment of her own, more volatile nature. Today, however, she allowed herself to be soothed. “I’m sorry, too. Just take me with you, okay? If you get stuck at work, I can get Rob to come and pick me up after he gets off work.”
They headed into the living room to give their apologies to Teresa, Tanner and Gibb, who were sitting near the fire drinking mugs of hot apple cider.
“At least let me make you up a plate of desserts to take with you,” Teresa protested. “I can’t let you leave here unless I can be sure that you’re more stuffed than the turkey.” She advanced toward the adjacent dining room but stopped in mid-stride. “Oh dear.”
On the sideboard, spattered with chocolate, stood Ringo, George, John and Muffin. Lindsay had left her chair pushed back from the table when she went into the kitchen to clean, and the dogs had managed to use the chair as base camp for their ascent onto the sideboard. They had bypassed the cookies, the fruitcake, and the chocolate fountain and headed straight for Lindsay’s Yule log. Their furry orange manes and tiny paws were painted with smears of frosting. They had hollowed out the entire middle of log, leaving only an empty shell of icing at the sides. The whole scene looked like a shoebox diorama of miniature lions devouring an unlucky wildebeest.
Tanner rushed past and gathered all four dogs into her arms at once. “This is terrible!” she screeched. “Oh, good lord!”
Lindsay stepped past Teresa toward the Christmas carnage on the sideboard. “You don’t have to apologize. Don’t worry, really,” As soon as she caught sight of Tanner’s expression, however, she realized that the concern had been directed at the dogs, not at her.
Tanner’s black eyes stared accusingly at Lindsay. “Don’t you know that chocolate is poison for dogs?! You might as well have baked strychnine muffins!”
“There’s only milk chocolate in the recipe,” Lindsay quickly reassured her. “I think they’d have to eat pounds of it before it’s really dangerous.”
“What are you? Dr. Doolittle?” Tanner snapped. “Gibb, get our coats. I’ll meet you in the car. We’re gonna have to take ‘em all to the animal hospital and have their little stomachs pumped.” She stroked the dogs as tears formed in the corners of her eyes. “Hang in there babies. Mama’s got you now.” She rushed out the door without a backwards glance.
They stood for a moment in shocked silence.
“Well, guess we’d better head out, too. Thanks for supper, Mama,” Warren said, leaning down to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Sorry we have to rush off.”
“That’s okay, baby. I know how important your job is,” Mrs. Satterwhite said, tousling his hair affectionately.
“Yes. Thank you so much for the lovely meal, Mrs. Satterwhite,” Lindsay said. Gibb had retrieved the coats and was pushing past them out the door. “Please tell Tanner I’m sorry about the chocolate. I didn’t really intend for the cake to be eaten by dogs.”
As he passed her, Gibb uttered the first words that he’d spoken all night. “Yeah, it looked more like you intended it to be put in a slop bucket and fed to hungry pigs.”