We all secretly like to be teased a little. Seduced, even. Allow me to indulge that side of you with the first chapter of my book, How to Woo a Widow. Then get your own copy from Amazon or a signed copy here.
Author’s Note : It takes a village to raise a widow. Did someone say that? Someone should, because it does. At least, a lucky widow will have the equivalent of a very large village to help “raise” her. Fortunately for me, I am one of the lucky ones.
The list of those who have somehow touched my life is endless. There is simply no way I can include them all here. My family, of course, “unusual” as we all are, is awesome. Thanks for rolling with each of my new personalities as they emerge.
This book was years in the making. It evolved with me into what it is today, and I could not be prouder. Several people were instrumental in this. Lynda Roemer, Jennifer Sweeney, Christine Koenig, Scott Stoegbauer, Emily Muñoz, Cheryl Piche‘ Kathleen Gagg, William “Monsoon” Mimiaga, Chrissy Schiff, and Jim and Clancy Preston, all of you have suffered the growing pains of this book with me, and your never-say-die attitude can never be repaid. Unless this becomes a movie; then I can repay you.
Many thanks to the focus group efforts of Kristen Dietz, Beth Capria, Patti Meade, and Judy Hankins. Joyce Grimes Bone, Peter Gillis and Cilla McCain, thank you for your support. The editing and formatting work of Kerry Clair and Heather Donovan Jones both allowed me to save the last of my sanity and graduate from a manuscript to a book.
For each name here there are dozens of others who stand by me.
If there is anyone whose love was worth the pain of losing, it was you.
To Trevor, Colin, Sean, and Jeremy,
Thank you for challenging me to experience all of life, and inspiring me to be worthy of its gifts.
Please pick up your laundry.
If it wasn’t so un-funny, it would be funny, Claire mused. She’d never been afraid of much before – in her other life. Today, though, her nerves were on full alert as she neared her destination, desperately trying to find anything amusing about fearing Faith.
She twisted the rearview mirror to reflect her face while she tried in vain to remember a time she’d ever been scared of her big sister. But not even the night she’d backed the car their father had just given them into the lake could compare to this. This time Claire wasn’t sure Faith would write her antics off so easily.
“It’s going to take more than a smile and a joke to work my way out of this one,” she warned her reflection. Or, rather, the thing in the mirror that stared back at her. Surely the hollow-pitted cheeks and puffy eyes of this hag staring at her could not be the same Claire Hamilton who customarily basked in men’s admiring stares.
She turned her attention back to the road just in time to see a pair of chipmunks cheerfully scampering across the pavement in front of her. The sound of screeching tires broke the stillness of the spring afternoon, causing the horses in the paddocks she was now alongside to raise their heads and stare at her in what she swore was a disapproving manner. “Bite me, Black Beauty,” she muttered. “Go judge someone of your own kind.” Then she saw her equine jurists turn their attention away from her, to something on the ridge.
A horse and rider were tearing up the earth, churning chunks of new grass out behind pounding hooves. Claire idled her rental a moment longer, taking in her first sight of Faith since she snuck out of town six months ago.
From this distance, dashing across the farm’s high ridge, Faith may have been riding right out of a movie scene in which her character leads a charmed life. Her auburn hair had escaped the dainty hairclips she preferred and was streaming behind her, blending with the matching mane of her horse as Faith leaned forward alongside her mare’s neck. The horse galloping alongside moved in unison with his running mate. In that romantic movie that horse would be mounted by her surgically-enhanced Adonis of a leading man.
Perhaps to a casual passerby it would appear to be just such a scene. But Claire knew enough to look harder, and saw the bare back of the deep gold palomino horse. There was no leading man leaning over the horse’s neck, urging him on. Rather, it was Faith’s arm reaching out to pat him even as their speed increased. Claire was always amazed at Faith’s natural skills with life in general and horses in particular. “Freaking Faith,” she half-laughed. “Always finding a way to work a piece of magic into even the worst moments.”
Claire knew her sister was in the same twisted hell she had been in since the accident that stole both their husbands from them. The difference, thought Claire, is that while I ran away and made an even bigger mess out of it all, Faith took the tragedy and made it her bitch. Faith’s share of the settlement money from the accident was being put to good use.
In the nine months since that day Faith had started a new business as a highly sought-after riding instructor and trainer. She’d once managed this impressive horse farm/Bed and Breakfast just outside of the small New York town they’d grown up in. Now she owned it. And because she was Faith, for good measure she’d opened a satellite branch of the Equine Rescue for which she volunteered.
Whereas I held on for a whole three months before I nearly smacked the woman who was only trying to be nice to me, thought Claire. Closing her eyes, she could hear the little biddy’s voice; “You’re young, you’re pretty, you’ll find someone new.” Claire had simply pushed her grocery cart away from her and walked away from the would-be consoler. She walked out of the store, jumped into her car, and drove away. She didn’t stop driving for hours, until she was nearly out of gas and hundreds of miles away from home.
And that had been the start of her self-imposed six month exile.
She hadn’t intended to stay away for so long, but then that night had happened. She didn’t think she could every face her family again after what she’d done. She could barely face herself. She traced her fingers over the still-angry scar just under her navel, finding a sort of comfort in its presence; it would never allow her to forget what had happened, serving as a constant reminder that she must redeem herself, somehow.
The deep blast of a horn interrupted her reverie as a pickup truck screeched around her in a swirl of loose gravel and dust. She caught a brief glimpse of a finger in the air before the truck disappeared around a turn. “Up yours!” she yelled, not caring that he was long gone or that she was idling in the middle of the road. “Jerk” she muttered. “Must be a city driver,” she said to herself, taking a moment to reflect on how easy it was to forget this country town lay just eighty miles north of the Big Apple.
She risked another glance at the paddock as she eased her car forward. No sign of Faith anymore but the jury was back, and she flipped them off as she headed for the driveway.
Alive. Nothing made her feel alive anymore except this. Faith leaned over her saddle, kicking her feet from the stirrups and burying her face in her horse’s mane. The pounding hooves drowned out all the noise in her head and she closed her eyes, welcoming the refuge from reality. Beside her, she heard her husband’s horse Gunner galloping with them, and she reached her arm out until her hand patted his neck. They had been doing this for years, this daily ride, and it was the one ritual of her old life that Faith religiously maintained.
Here, Paul was with her. Taunting her to a race, or laughing into the wind. Here, there were no pitying stares or endless nights. No regret or grief. Just the pulsing of power surging from her horse into her; every stride infusing her with strength and restoring an ounce of happiness into her being. She closed her eyes and let her horses take over, trusting that Sage and Gunner would follow the routine as they always did. Too soon, she felt them slowing and knew it was almost over. Time to get back to work. At least she still had the cool down process to help transition from one world to the next.
Walking the horses out, a light spray with the hose and then vigorous rubbing with towels always left all three of them relaxed and content. She straightened in the saddle and was halfway back to the driveway when she heard Dexter barking. The aging, good natured Shepherd-Rottweiler mix shadowed Faith everywhere each day, but was no longer spry enough to accompany her on her rides. While she was gone though, he stationed himself at the front gates, allowing only those he knew and trusted to pass without a warning bark until his master had returned.
Faith heard the deep bark that intimidated anyone who didn’t know him. Squinting into the sun, she saw an unfamiliar car slowly approaching. Dexter trotted alongside, escorting the vehicle. The driver lean out the window and appeared to talk to the dog when suddenly the bark changed from warning to welcome. His tail swirled in a circle and he managed a few happy leaps before hurling himself at the driver as she parked and emerged from the car.
Dexter only lost his mind over a handful of people. This was not her sister Ellen’s minivan. It was not her sister Claire’s car either, but the last call she’d had with Claire a week ago had sounded different – like homesickness was overcoming whatever force had been keeping her away. Faith’s brain scrambled to process the rush of emotions that hit her when she heard Claire’s laugh and saw her sister sit on the driveway, allowing Dexter to fully envelop her in a canine welcome.
Slowly, she slid off Sage’s back, removed the saddle and bridle, and gave her a light spank, sending the surprised horses on an unchaperoned trip back to the barn. She smiled as they trotted off and laughed when they abruptly veered left, back out into the field and splashed into the pond. “Looks like a good ol’ redneck cool down today, kids,” she said. Then she turned and saw Claire, now standing, watching her. Faith stared back a moment, wanting to calm herself before reacting. But instinct quickly took over; it was Claire, her baby sister. She may be exasperating – and this latest stunt would not go unpunished – but she was Claire.
If anything, losing their husbands together had only strengthened their bond, making Claire’s departure that much more difficult to understand. Faith still stung from her sister’s abrupt vanishing act but right now she didn’t care. She ran to Claire and the two women hugged tightly, tears freely flowing.
“You have some explaining to do,” said Faith. “But first you can help me catch my horses.”
## # ##################################################
For the first time since Faith moved into the farm’s main house, it felt warm and inviting. Spacious rooms boasted overstuffed furniture draped with snuggly throw blankets. Thick area rugs softened wood floors and the shelves brimmed with a lifetime’s worth of books. Working fireplaces in every room, staged with kindling and logs, waited only for a spark to light them.
Faith’s former bosses and previous owners of the farm had included it all in the sale, admonishing her to enjoy it the way they had for twenty years. But until tonight the housekeeper’s diligence was largely unnoticed. Faith rarely did more than pass through the downstairs, preferring instead to eat in her bedroom. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even been in either of the two living rooms.
In warm weather she sipped coffee or picked at her dinner from her balcony. She loved the view of the farm from that vantage point. It soothed her to see the horses in the fields and she had a spectacular view of both the sunset and the landscapers’ adherence to perfection.
She still maintained the lavish landscaping designed for the farm’s former wedding business. Vibrant koi still swam in meticulously maintained ponds fed by waterfalls. Cobblestone paths wound through two separate avenues of evergreens and flora leading to gazebos where countless vows had been exchanged.
The expansive lawn not only felt like carpet, but practically begged to be walked on. Its lush green color provided the perfect backdrop for three smaller gazebos with glider swings inside. These were placed at areas set slightly away from the main lawn, allowing guests to enjoy some quiet and privacy while also affording a view of the large white tents with sweeping lace entryways set up for receptions. As much as she loved the view, though, Faith was relieved that not everything was visible.
The first of three large barns blocked the view of the cabin she had once lived in with Paul. A larger version of the two bed and breakfast cabins, their cabin had a wraparound porch, two fireplaces, and an outdoor hot tub protected by a large wooden fence wrapped in grape vines. Almost an acre of dirt still awaited the grass seed Paul would never sprinkle on it. A small swing hung on the new swing set, all ready for the baby they’d been months away from adopting.
Eventually she would have to rent the cabin out. The thought filled her with dread. She couldn’t stand the thought of strangers living in the world that was supposed to be hers. And she loved having the whole place to herself each night.
“Wow! This place almost makes it all seem worth it, right?” Claire winked at her sister’s look of revulsion. “Lighten up, Faith – what’s the use of you being a widow if I can’t crack sick jokes to you. You’re supposed to get it.” It was Claire’s turn to lose the smile as she saw her sister’s shoulders crumple. Faith dropped into a plush armchair, her head falling to her chest. Claire rushed over and wrapped her arms around her big sister. ”Aw Faith, what’s wrong? I was kidding! Not about needing to be able to crack jokes with you…but about it being worth it. You know I was kidding, right?”
Faith straightened and leaned back from Claire. Her eyes were moist but she’d regained her composure. “No. I mean yes. I mean – I get it and it was actually funny. It’s just… I didn’t realize until this very moment how much I missed you. How nice it is to have you go through this with me, messed up as that is. And how mad I am at you for staying away! Where have you been? Why did you not come back for so long? How could you? Do you have any idea how worried we’ve all been?”
Claire plunked herself down beside Faith, pulling a pillow onto her lap and embracing it. She shifted her legs up beneath her, rocking herself gently as she answered. “I know. I’m sorry. So sorry. For so much. But I’m not as strong as you, Faith. I never was. And I couldn’t take being here anymore. Everything reminded me of him, and I couldn’t make it stop hurting. I still don’t know how to make that stop.” She stared into her lap as she continued, unable to meet her sister’s eyes.
“There’s more, too. Lots more to tell and to figure out how to live with. But I can’t explain everything now.” Cautiously she lifted her eyes, and Faith’s heart lurched as she saw mirrored in Claire’s eyes exactly what she was feeling in her own soul.
Their strong bond notwithstanding, the sisters had never been much for deep talks about feelings and such. Words failed Faith now, too, so she reverted back to their usual tactic – diversion. Claire had no time to react before she felt herself toppling through the air. She was grateful the carpet in Faith’s bedroom was thick and soft, because she landed hard and had to focus on defending herself against the blows of the pillow Faith was wielding.
“Pillow fight!” Claire yelled as she rolled away from Faith and launched herself onto the bed. Arming herself with her own cushy weapons, she lost whatever momentum she had when Faith winked at her and responded, “Not just any pillow fight – it’s a widow pillow fight.”
Faith jumped on the bed beside Claire, straddling her sister as she rained blows upon her. Suddenly, Dexter was beside her, barking and trying his best to lick both sisters. “What the…” Faith got out before she was captive in his slobbery hold. “Dexter!” Claire yelped. “Who knew the old mutt could still make it up here?”
The house lights burned all night as the sisters took turns cuddling with Dexter and catching up on life. Faith reluctantly realized her prodding was useless; Claire was not ready to provide details of her absence. She gave up on the barrage of questions. Instead, she filed away the nuggets Claire did offer; the aimless driving until she found a place to nest, the small ranch in New Mexico she called home for a few weeks, the friends she made when she moved to Albuquerque.
They touched briefly on the night their husbands were killed. Claire reminisced about how excited Jack had been to land his position embedding with troops in Afghanistan. Faith pointed to one of Jack’s pictures hanging on her wall. Jack’s practiced eye and knack for capturing emotion blended beautifully in the print that depicted Faith and Paul on an evening ride.
Neither woman had spoken to anyone else about the moments when the policeman showed up at Jack’s going away party. How the oblivious guests had continued partying, unaware of the world crashing down on the sisters. Jack’s best friend Ben, well into a bottle of his favorite bourbon, had stumbled over to the women as the officer was speaking.
Claire recalled that she’d barely processed what the officer was saying when Ben threw up all over her feet. Both sisters managed a small laugh at that memory before the power of the rest drew them back. Jack had wanted to run out to the nearby store for some more beer. Claire argued, telling him he was too drunk to drive.
Paul had swooped past her and grabbed the keys from Jack’s hand, volunteering to drive his inebriated buddy. Claire mouthed a “Thank you” to him as Jack planted a wet kiss on her cheek and she flinched away from his bourbon-laden breath. “Be right back, toots,” he said, as Paul called out to her to tell Faith where he was. And then they were off.
They had been gone much longer than the twenty minutes the errand should have taken when Claire began to worry. Faith had asked her where their husbands were and Claire realized then it had been over an hour. Panic had just struck when she saw the police car pull up.
The memory of the rest overpowered the young widows. Tears poured down their faces and Claire pretended to laugh as she said “Whoa! Time out! Way too heavy for my first night back! How about we save the rest for another time?”
Faith readily agreed. She tossed Claire a box of tissues and the sound of noses being blown mixed with Faith’s voice as she filled Claire in on her own life. Business was thriving and Faith momentarily forgot her woes as she described it to Claire. Claire envied the way her sister so clearly had found an outlet for her energies. If one didn’t know any better, it would appear as though Faith’s life was as rich as her work.
It was nearly dawn before fatigue overtook the two. Neither was sure who fell asleep first, but as the first rays of light snuck through the blinds, both were sound asleep – with Dexter snoring alongside them.