Hawks Mountain by Elizabeth Sinclair

Trade
ISBN-13: 9781611940220

Bellebooks

ebook

ISBN: 1611940222

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

c2011, Elizabeth Sinclair

Chapter 1

The deafening explosion came from nearby.  Too near.  Near enough to rattle his eardrums and rock the earth beneath him.  He plastered his body against the ground. Choking sand filled the air.  The screams of injured and dying men echoed all around him through the following eerie stillness.

“Doc!  Over here, Doc!”

“Where are you?”

“I’m here. I’m over . . . .” But the pain slicing through his head kept him on the ground, helpless to help those who called to him.

Then the voice and the screams faded away, drowned out by the melodic chirping of a bird.  The air had cooled, and the sound of mortar fire receded. The scorching, abrading sand against his cheek became a cool caress.

Nicholas Hart opened his eyes, still afraid to move.  Residual fear shook his body.  Pin points of pain jabbed at his chest.  Sweat beaded his forehead and torso.  He looked down at his hands.  Red.  Blood?

Not until Nick inhaled the perfume of the wildflowers and the ripening wild strawberries crushed in his curled fingers and saw the green grass biting into his bare chest did he come back to reality.  He was not lying in the bomb-riddled streets of Baghdad.  Instead, he lay in a sun-dappled meadow on Hawks Mountain in West Virginia.

Slowly, the fear and tremors ebbed from his taut limbs, but, as always, the guilt remained.  He must have dozed off while reading and had that dream again.  That same nightmarish dream that had haunted him since he’d come back to the states a year ago.  Would he ever truly escape the horrors of war once and for all?

After inheriting a small fortune from his grandfather and then coming to Hawks Mountain, a place he’d visited and been happy and carefree as a child, should have helped, but so far even the peace of this majestic place had done nothing to erase the nightmares of his time in Iraq.

He sat up slowly and looked around.  Everything was at it should be.  A book, 100 Ways to Commit Murder and Not Be Detected, research for his crime novel, lay open on the ground beside his discarded shirt.  Remnants of his lunch lay scattered over the grass around his open laptop.  The laptop’s screen had gone blank.  Dead battery.

He must have been asleep for sometime.  Glancing at his watch, he sighed.  Two hours. Only a few more hours of daylight remained, thanks to his unscheduled nap.  He’d wanted to get the rest of the roof on his cabin’s porch before sundown.  Maybe if he hurried he could still get at least half of it done.

He gathered his lunch leftovers and shoved them in the brown paper bag in which he’d carried them down here.  Then he marked his place in his book with a paper napkin.  Grabbing his shirt, he wiped away the juice from the crushed strawberries on on his hands, then closed his laptop and stacked everything on top of it and stood.

“Who are you, and why are you trespassing on our land?”

He turned toward the woman’s voice and froze.

A few feet away from him, the sun dancing off her coppery curls, her curvy body encased in tight jeans and a brief, pink crop-top, stood perhaps the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  Even with the angry scowl distorting her features she was captivating.  As he stared at the woman, her youth became apparent, perhaps somewhere in her early twenties.  Though he felt ancient, it was close to his own age.

A breeze toyed with the loose curls framing her face and playfully whipped the bright strands around in wild abandonment.  The black duffle bag emblazoned with the Atlanta Falcons’ gold logo clutched in her hand made him wonder if she was a tourist passing through.  However, he deep-sixed that notion when he recalled her verbal claim to the land.  Definitely not a tourist.

Ignoring her questions, he continued to study the woman for a few moments longer, and then shook his head, denying himself the tiny flicker of enjoyment seeping into his senses and the sudden acceleration of his pulse rate.

“Well?  What do you have to say for yourself?  Why are you trespassing on my grandmother’s land?”

Ah, just as he’d suspected.  Not a tourist.  But she evidently had not been around here for a while.  First of all he would have definitely recalled seeing her before.  A woman like this did not drift in and out of a man’s life without him remembering her.  Second, she didn’t realize this was his land, sold legally to him by her grandmother, Josephine Hawks, over eight months ago.

However, he had no intention of explaining himself to her or anyone else.  If he had been so inclined, he’d have told all the speculating gossips in town why he was here long ago.  Instead he let their imaginations run the gamut between him being an axe murderer running from the law and a man dying from some horrible, incurable disease.

Clutching the laptop in one hand and balancing the brown bag and the book in the other hand, he tore his gaze away from her and turned his back, then slowly walked to the line of trees bordering the meadow.

“Where are you going?  Hey, you gonna answer me?  Mister?  You got no business being here.”

Casting one last glance over his shoulder, as if to reaffirm her existence in his mind, he turned away again. She’d dropped the duffle bag and taken one step in his direction.  Something about her pulled at him, but he fought it.  This woman may be beautiful, but that made her more of a threat to his solitude and no less an intrusion.  Whoever she was, he had no desire to let her into his life, not even the little bit that replying to her questions would allow.  He=d been alone for a long time now, and come what may, he planned on staying that way.  Sometimes, the loneliness almost overwhelmed him, but it beat the heck out of attaching himself emotionally to someone, then losing them forever.

####

“Well, I’ll be . . . .”  Rebecca Hawks stared after the stranger as he disappeared into the trees.  “If that doesn’t just beat all.”

Despite being upset with the trespasser, she had to smile.  She’d sounded just like her homespun granny and not a woman who had a college degree and had spent three years in the city working for Atlanta’s Office of Human Services.

As she gazed at the spot where the man had vanished into the trees, she made a note to speak to Granny Jo about him. Considering that he’d carried a laptop and a book and not a gun, he couldn’t be a poacher, but he was still a trespasser.  Even though Granny Jo probably wouldn’t object to the man cutting across Hawks’ land, Becky couldn’t tamp down her own unreasonable anger or the feeling of her private haven being invaded.

This was Hawks Mountain.  It had been in her grandfather’s family for generations.  Now that Grampa Earl was gone, it was Granny Jo’s land, and one day it would be hers. Becky felt an unwarranted need to protect it, to keep it safe from . . . .  From what?  A man who was perhaps only using it as a shortcut to the other side of the ridge?

Is that what city living had done to her?  Had she forgotten all the teachings of her gentle, hospitable grandmother in the seven years she’d been away from here?   Though the stranger was broad-shouldered, handsome as the day was long and silent as a rock, something about him called to her inner nurturer, something about the way his shoulders slumped and the corners of his mouth drooped that told her he wasn’t as strong inside as he appeared to be outside.  And, Lordy, the way his tanned chest bulged with muscle left no doubt as to his physical strength.

She shook her head.  You really need to get out of the sun and stop these foolish thoughts.  You’ve got enough of your own problems without worrying about someone else’s, someone you don’t even know. She picked up her duffle bag and stepped back on the dirt road leading up the mountain.

With the sight of the swaying pines, the smell of the sun-warmed earth and ripening spring strawberries in the air, she could almost forget the man in the meadow and the time she=d spent in Atlanta.  She could almost wipe from her memory the dark shadows that haunted her heart.

Almost.

She frowned and tried not to allow those memories admittance, but no matter how hard she tried, she could never completely erase the memory of the people she’d met as part of her job with the Department of Child Welfare. Crying babies without food.  Desperate mothers without a means to provide it.  The squalor everywhere.  No electricity.  Sickness.  Sometimes no heat.  Never enough funds, personnel or time to provide the help needed. And sometimes the tragic endings . . . .

Determinedly, she shook her head as if to dislodge those troubling thoughts and concentrated on her surroundings.  Like a hungry kitten in a dairy barn, she lapped up the familiar landscape’s beauty—beauty that always made her heart feel easy with life, beauty she hadn’t truly appreciated until her world had turned ugly.

She strained her eyes straight ahead, searching for the last familiar bend in the road that would reveal the white clapboard house where she=d grown up with Granny Jo, the only house on Hawks Mountain.  The house where Granny Jo would welcome her home with her all-encompassing embrace, the one safe haven that would help her heal.  The place that would provide the peace of mind and gentle familiarity for which her soul hungered.

####

Becky rounded the last curve in the winding road, stopped dead and for a moment drank in the sight of the home in which she’d grown up.  Before her, embraced by the loving bows of three large, oak trees, stood the house Grampa Earl had built for Granny Jo over fifty some years ago.

Quickly, she dropped the duffle bag and slipped off her tennis shoes, then buried her feet in the grass surrounding the house, just as she=d done as a child. She looked up at her home and sighed.  Home.  She was really and truly home.

From the side of the house, a large, gray bundle of fur came hurtling toward her, tail wagging, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth.

“Jake!  You remember me.”  Becky squatted and buried her face in the dog’s shaggy coat.  Jake, Granny Jo’s beloved companion, licked her face and pressed against her, almost knocking her over.  “I’d love to stay here and play with you, but that’ll have to wait until later.”

She stood, watched Jake amble to a spot of shade beneath a large oak, make several circles before flopping down and closing his eyes. Then she turned her attention back to the big house.  The white clapboard could use a coat of paint and a rung was missing from the front porch railing, but other than that, it was exactly as she remembered it.  As welcoming as the caress of the cool grass on her hot, tired, bare feet.

Planted in neat rows along either side of the front path leading to the porch, Granny’s multi-colored roses welcomed visitors.  Dwarf marigolds, looking like little puffs of golden sunlight, snuggled in against their feet.  Becky held her breath and listened.  The steady buzz of honey bees filled the silence.  She watched them flit from one beautiful rose to another and thought of the patchwork life she had led since leaving the mountain for college and then to find a tenuous destiny in the big city, far removed from the tiny community of Carson, West Virginia.  And, in the end, she’d found not her shining future, but a world filled with nothing but disillusionment, pain and ugliness and guilt at her inability to change any of it.

She shook away her unhappy thoughts, determined that nothing would ruin this homecoming for her.  Picking up her duffle bag, she hooked her sneakers over two fingers, then padded up the walk to the wide front porch.  Slowly, savoring the feel of the rough wood against the soles of her feet, she climbed the stairs.  When the second step from the top squeaked loud and clear, she nearly laughed aloud with joy.  Granny Jo called it her doorbell.

“Can’t a soul around here climb those steps and not make that board squeak,” she’d say with a sly grin and a playful wink.  “Except me.”

Then she’d laugh because she knew exactly how to ascend the stairs without hitting the squeaky board, and though Becky had begged her to tell her, Granny Jo had kept her secret from even her small granddaughter for many years.

On her eighteenth birthday, Granny had revealed how to do it.  Becky stared down at the step now and counted over three nail heads from the left, then placed her foot back on that exact spot, followed by her full weight. Again a loud squeak announced her arrival.  She waited and listened.

“Well, come on in.  Don’t stand out there waiting for an invitation.”  Granny Jo’s voice rang out through the screen door.

It had come, Becky knew, from the kitchen at the back of the house.  Granny’s domain.  Becky had often thought that the rest of the house could have burned to the ground, but as long as the kitchen remained intact, Granny would have shrugged it off.

Becky smiled and opened the screen door.  Stepping into the coolness of the dark front hall, she set her bag and shoes on the worn, braided rug at the foot of the stairs, inhaled deeply of the welcoming aroma of apples and cinnamon and fresh made cornbread that perfumed the house, and then padded down the passage toward Granny=s kitchen.

Still grinning, Becky stepped quietly into the warm, fragrant room.  Granny Jo was rolling out pie crust.  Sweat beaded her forehead just below the line of her salt and pepper hair, and a dusting of flour muted the bright colors of her flowered dress and apron.  As she worked, she hummed Rock of Ages.

After using the rolling pin to carefully place the top crust on the pie plate heaped with apple slices, she laid the pin aside.  The one-handled rolling pin brought a quick grin to Becky=s lips.  Grampa Earl claimed she=d broken the other handle off over his sorry head the first year they were married.  Granny Jo never said otherwise.  As a small child, Becky had speculated on what her dear grampa could have done that had made her peace-loving granny hit him hard enough to break her rolling pin.  But, Granny Jo kept that explanation stowed away with the secret of the squeaky stair, and to this day had never revealed a word about it.

Back then it was a secret a small, inquisitive child yearned to learn.  As a woman, Becky didn’t have to ask.  Now she knew all to well that even the best of men had a dark side.

Granny crimped the edges of the crust with practiced fingers, and then trimmed off the excess. Picking up the pie to insert it in the oven, she turned, and noticed Becky for the first time.  Tears instantly filled the old woman’s clear gray eyes.

“My Lord, child.  You’ve come home.”  Granny Jo set the pie aside and then rushed to embrace her granddaughter.

Warm, welcoming arms swept around Becky and gathered her to that familiar ample bosom.  Contentment unlike any she found anywhere else but here enveloped her. At last, she’d truly come home and very soon her life would be better.  She would be better.

Disengaging their tangled embrace, Granny Jo held her at arm=s length. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home, child?”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

Truth be known, Becky hadn’t known she was coming back until yesterday, when she’d returned home to their tiny apartment and found Sonny, her college sweetheart and live-in boyfriend, in bed with another woman. When she’d confronted him, it resulted in the first and last time he’d laid hands on her.

Next thing Becky knew she was in the bus station with Sonny=s duffle bag and what little money she=d had to her name and no idea where she’d go.  Then the man behind that barred window had asked, AWhere to, ma=am?@  And she knew instantly.  She wanted to go home.  She wanted to go home to Granny Jo and Hawks Mountain.

AWell, you certainly did surprise me,@ Granny said, pulling Becky from her memories, then planting a warm kiss on each of her granddaughter=s cheeks, just like she used to do when she’d put Becky to bed every night.  Her grandmother peered behind Becky, and she knew Granny had expected to see Sonny, the man she’d spoken of in all her letters.  But she didn’t ask.

Instead, Granny stared deep into her granddaughter=s eyes.  “How long you plan on visiting?”

Becky could only push one word past the knot of emotion closing off her throat.  “Forever.”  Granny frowned, but just as Becky knew she would, Granny asked no questions.  When the story needed telling, she would leave it to Becky to chose the time and place.

“Lord, just look at me, blubbering like a baby.”  Dabbing at her moist eyes with the hem of her apron, Granny stepped back.  “Let me get this pie in the oven and pour us some sweet tea, then we=ll go out on the porch where it=s cool and catch up.”

Granny scurried about the kitchen.  She slid the pie into the cavernous oven of the gleaming black woodstove, then, after closing the heavy door, she cleaned away the clutter from her baking.

Becky watched, her mind wandering back to the days when she=d worked in this kitchen and dreamed of escaping Hawks Mountain.  How foolish she=d been.

The big kitchen looked exactly as it had the last day she’d spent in here with her grandmother.  Granny’s old wood-burning, cookstove dominated.  Beside it a modern electric range, which Granny shunned except for the most mundane cooking, looked out of place, like an intruder from the future. Granny claimed nothing tasted the same cooked on its sleek glass top as it did when cooked over the wood from the forests of Hawks Mountain.

Beside the white enamel sink with its built-in drain board stood a pie safe.  During Becky’s growing up years, it had always been full with Grampa Earl’s favorite pies, cookies, corn muffins and fresh baked bread.  Since Grampa Earl’s death, all but one of the shelves held a mixture of dishes, bowls and glasses, brought down from higher shelves for easy reaching.  Now, a small batch of cornbread and one lonely pie occupied the bottom shelf.

In the center of the worn, gray linoleum-covered floor stood Granny=s workbench, the kitchen table.  Over the years the old pine table had served a myriad of purposes: a work surface, an eating table, a desk at which Becky had done homework and had at times held the tin washtub in which Granny rinsed her “delicate unmentionables,” fine lace and nylon underwear, specially ordered from Raleigh. The only concession the old woman made to the well-heeled life she’d led before becoming Mrs. Earl Hawks.

AIf an accident happens, a body needs to be presentable from the skin out,@ she=d said every morning, as Becky got dressed for school.

Ice cubes clinking into glasses drew Becky=s attention back to her grandmother.  Granny Jo set the tall glasses on the table.  Into each she poured golden brown, sweet tea.  After adding a slice of lemon, she handed one to Becky.

Becky’s hot palm closed around the icy glass.  Unthinking, she raised it to her forehead and swiped it across her skin.  She could not recall when anything felt so wonderful, so life affirming.

Taking their tea, the two women adjourned to the porch and the twin rockers that had occupied it as long as Becky could remember.  Before Granny Jo could sit in the one she=d used since the rockers had come home from Clemens in the back of Grampa Earl=s old pickup truck, Jake, hurried up the steps and sprawled his shaggy gray body at her feet.  He rested his chin on the toe of her slipper.  Granny scratched behind one of his over-sized ears, then patted his head.  Jake’s eyes closed in contentment.  Life was good.

Becky sat in the rocker that bore the imprint of her grandfather’s backside. As the heat of the sun-warmed wood seeped into Becky’s body, her gaze drifted to the spot under the big oak where Grampa Earl rested.  A simple white cross marked his grave.  Granny repainted the cross every year on his birthday.  Beside it she’d planted a white, peace rose, which had just started to open its buds.  Granny Jo missed her husband as much as Becky missed the gentle old man who’d told her stories of this ancient mountain.

He=d been quit a man, Earl Jedadia Hawks.  A farmer by trade, he=d always been ready to try something new, even the electricity he=d had strung into the house before he’d brought home his new bride, Josephine Walker of the Charleston, South Carolina Walkers.  Many years later, he=d told Becky he didn’t want Granny Jo running back to the big city just because she didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing.

In the end, Grampa Earl had nothing to worry about.  He’d laughed and said that Granny had taken to Hawks Mountain like a hog to corn mash and settled in before he’d had time to get out of his wedding duds.  Granny had always claimed that, because, underneath where it really counted, she must have been a country girl all along.  Besides, she always added, she=d have walked through briars in her bare feet if it meant she=d be able to keep that handsome Earl Hawks by her side.

Too bad something as simple as being able to flush a toilet or to throw a switch to turn on a light hadn’t convinced Becky to stay on the mountain.  So much pain and heartache could have been avoided.  But, in retrospect, she wondered if anything could have stopped that head-strong, adventure-seeking girl from leaving.

“Well, girl, if you’re gonna just sit there staring off into space, I might just as well go back to my baking.”

Granny’s teasing voice roused Becky.  “I’d forgotten how beautiful it is here.  I want to soak it all up.”  Becky sighed and leaned back in the rocker.  With a shove of her foot, she propelled the chair into a soothing to and fro motion.  “It’s so good to be home.”

Granny patted her granddaughter’s hand where it lay over the arm of the chair.  “Good to have you back here.  This place gets mighty lonely.”  She sipped her tea.  “Of course, now that I have a neighbor close by, it doesn’t seem quite as bad, but he’s not one for talking or visiting with folks.  Stays mostly to himself up there and spends a lot of time walking through the woods and the meadow.  Still, it’s awful nice knowing he’s there.”

Instantly Becky’s mind raced between an image of the man she thought to be a trespasser and the gut feeling she’d been ignoring for months that Granny needed her.  Guilt washed over her.  She should have come sooner, and she would have, except he’d been too busy trying to save the world.  But she was here now, and she’d watch over Granny and their mountain.

Then the meaning of her grandmother’s words sunk in.  “You sold part of the mountain?”

AYep. Had to sell off a few acres up on the ridge late last year to pay taxes.  Shouldn’t have to do that again though, now that I have an outlet to sell my quilts.”  She glanced at Becky. “A young woman saw one of the quilts on the clothesline and stopped to ask who made it.  I told her I did, and she asked if I’d make some for her to sell at the Fairfax craft fair.  Can you imagine people willing to pay a lot of money for the same quilt that’s been on your bed for twenty years? It appears to me that they could just sit down and stitch their own, if they wanted one so bad.”  Granny shook her head and chuckled.  ATakes all kinds.”

Becky hadn’t yet gotten past the neighbor thing.  “You sold land to someone?”

“Yup.”

“How close is this  . . . neighbor?”  Becky fought down the feeling she’d experienced earlier in the meadow . . . that her idyllic world had been invaded.

“Just up there on the ridge.” Granny pointed toward a jut in the mountain side above them.

“Who is it?”

“Oh, you don’t know him.  He’s new in these parts.  A writer from New York City.  Seems like a nice enough fella, but he’s awful quiet and pretty much stays to himself.”

“New York?:  The trespasser. A city man.  Sonny was a city man. Icy unease pricked her skin.  “Granny, do you know anything about him?”  Becky had stopped rocking and leaned forward in the chair.

Granny Jo laughed.  “Not a thing except that he came here once as a child with his granddad and never forgot it.  Course the people in town have all kinds of stories made up about why he’s here.  They just can’t resist inventing a good yarn when they don’t know the facts.”   Granny clicked her tongue, then sipped her tea and gazed out over her roses toward the big oak.  “I suppose Earl is spinning in his grave because I sold off part of his mountain, but it couldn’t be helped.  I figure he’d be even more upset, if I lost the whole kit >n caboodle.”

Becky was only half listening.  She didn’t like the idea of a stranger living so close to them.  Strangers couldn’t be trusted.  Especially city strangers.  Then again, sometimes even people you think you know couldn’t be trusted either.  Sonny’s angry face flashed through her mind.  A chill swept down her spine, and the familiar nausea rose in her throat.  Absently, through the material of her dress, Becky caressed a bruise still visible on her upper thigh. She clutched her middle and closed her eyes, fighting down the memories that threatened.  When she opened them, Granny Jo was staring at her, concern wrinkling her brow.

Granny Jo stopped rocking and leaned toward her. “You all right, girl?”

“Fine,” Becky managed with a forced smile.  AI guess the cold tea and my warm stomach didn’t hit it off too well.”  Granny was prudent enough not to point out that Becky had yet to even sip the cold beverage.  “Does this new neighbor have a name?” she asked, trying to draw attention away from herself.

“Hart,” Granny said after studying Becky for a few more moments.  “Nicholas Hart.  Goes by Nick.”

Becky tried not to read anything into a strange man living within walking distance of them on the ridge.  She wasn’t stupid, she knew all men weren’t alike.  Still. . . .

To get her mind on a new track, she clutched at something else Granny had said. “You’re selling your quilts?”

Granny sat straight in the chair and stared at Becky.  “Haven’t you been listening, child?  I just told you that I’m being paid a handsome sum for every one I can make.”  She leaned back in the rocker and set it back in motion with her foot.  “I got a tidy bit tucked away now.  Had I known it would bring in so much money so fast, I never would have sold that land.@  She sighed, then smiled and rocked contentedly.  “But that’s water under the bridge.  Shouldn’t have to sell anymore land now.”  Granny chuckled.  “That should keep Earl happy.”

Becky nodded in agreement.  She knew Grampa Earl would have been even more upset if his Jo wanted for anything and held onto the land just so she could starve to death in her own home or lost it altogether.  But that didn’t stop the waves of guilt washing over her for not realizing that Granny had hit hard times.  Becky should have been able to read it in her letters, but she hadn’t.  Either she’d been too concerned with her own troubles or Granny had managed to cover it up with cheery news of the valley and the people in it

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have sent you some money or come home and been here to help.  Maybe then you could have kept the land.”

Granny patted her arm.  “Honey, I do turn on that TV in the front room from time to time.  I’m not entirely ignorant of what goes on outside this valley.  I know social workers don’t get paid a whole lot.  I never expected you to send money.”

“But—”

“No buts about it.  You had your own life and your own expenses.  You didn’t need to be sending it home. Besides, I managed to work it out by myself anyway.”

Granny’s no-nonsense reply ended the conversation.  But it did nothing to erase Becky’s guilt about not being there for her grandmother when she needed her or Becky’s misgivings about having a strange city man living right on their doorstep.*

Buy a copy of HAWKES MOUNTAIN at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Borders

—————————-

Best-selling, award-winning Elizabeth Sinclair is the author of twenty romance novels.  She is currently writing the third book in the Hawks Mountain series.  Book 2, SUMMER ROSE, will be released in Jan. 2012.

Visit Elizabeth’s website at: www.elizabethsinclair.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social-IN Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

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