Read an Excerpt
Residents of Jackson County, Florida, held their breath the morning of July 3, 1968, when old man Caldwell took to his bed complaining of a monstrous headache. As the clock struck two, he sat up, sneezed, wheezed, and lay back down, expiring before his head hit the pillow. The doc pronounced him at 2:03, then placed a call to the county seat. Someone in the county clerk’s office reportedly clicked a stopwatch and set it in the safe. County officials and city planners nodded to one another with greedy smiles, knowing that Charles Caldwell’s precious estate, known to all as Sycamores, would officially become county property at 2:03 p.m. on July 3, 2018. As to what purpose the property would serve, no one dared offer an opinion. But they could spend the next fifty years dreaming . . .
Darlene Caldwell Young, who was only six when her grandpa died, would later take quiet pride in the fact that her family home was not built on the sweat of slaves or the commerce of cotton, but on the courage, cunning, and risk necessary to garner a fortune during Prohibition. Though a current visitor to Sycamores would find alcohol only in bottles of vanilla, rum, and peppermint extract, Darlene considered her grandfather a genius. He not only managed to shelter Sycamores from taxes, but also devised the charitable gift annuity that provided a monthly income for any immediate Caldwell descendant residing on the property.
That income allowed life at Sycamores to continue as it always had, with a sedate and stately elegance. “Chase” Caldwell’s progeny were more than willing to let the rest of the world rush and worry and gobble meals behind a steering wheel. At Sycamores, and in Peculiar, the nearest town, life was meant to be savored.
Ready to take a load off her feet one Friday morning, Darlene sank into a rocker on her front porch. She pulled a tattered Japanese fan from her apron pocket and snapped it open, then frantically thrashed at the hot air. The porch lay in deep shade, but beyond it simmered a sun-spangled garden where roses nodded their heavy heads and sunflowers followed the blazing torch in the sky. Next to the sunflowers, Nolie was staking the top-heavy gladiolas while her dogs, Lucy and Ricky, romped across the grass edging the mile-long driveway.
Darlene frowned. The grass looked to be ankle deep, but ever since Daddy’s accident Nolie didn’t like to ride the tractor mower. Darlene would cut the lawn herself, but in this heat, she’d have to do it either before sunup or after sundown, and she didn’t want to risk running over a possum or armadillo in the vague half-light.
“Lawn needs mowin’,” she called, trusting that Nolie could hear her above the barking dogs. “Do you think we could get Henry to find somebody to come out and take care of it?”
Nolie looked up, her eyes shadowed by the wide brim of her straw hat. “Didn’t we just cut it?”
“Been nearly two weeks.” Darlene fanned herself again. “Those dogs are gonna be itchin’ if the grass gets too long. We won’t be able to keep the fleas off ’em, and I’m not gonna put up with another infestation in the house.”
Nolie turned, the hot breeze ruffling her long pullover apron as she watched her pets play. “You’d better call Henry, then.” She picked up her gardening basket. “Ask if he can find someone regular.”
“Only till the heat passes. Might as well save some money and do it myself once the weather cools off.”
Nolie waved in silent agreement as she followed the dogs and walked toward the driveway.
Inhaling the sweet scent of the honeysuckle vines, Darlene propped her hand on her chin and watched her baby sister. Oh, to be young and carefree again. Though Nolie had recently celebrated her fortieth birthday, her face was still unlined and her figure trim. Come to think of it, Nolie was still a child in many ways. Not surprising, considering she’d never been married, never raised children, and never been widowed. Darlene had borne the stress of all three, and wore the resulting laugh lines and worry ridges on her face.
Darlene straightened as an unfamiliar vehicle slowed on the highway and turned onto the property. A red pickup rattled over the gravel drive, its bed covered with a bright blue tarp and bulging like a Gypsy’s wagon. Nolie slowed as the truck drew closer, then the driver stopped and leaned over to lower his passenger window.
A chill climbed the chinks of Darlene’s spine as she stood and walked to the edge of the porch. This was how every TV crime show began—a suspicious vehicle pulled up beside an innocent woman while the driver asked about a missing puppy or for directions to the police station. But this road led to Sycamores and nowhere else, so the stranger had either made a wrong turn or was fixin’ to kidnap one of the Caldwell women.
Darlene clenched her teeth. “Don’t be a dumbbell, Nolie. Don’t you get in that truck.”
As if she’d heard and wanted to rebel, Nolie stepped over the shallow drainage ditch at the side of the drive and walked toward the vehicle. Without even a moment’s hesitation she reached for the door handle and hopped into the cab.
Honestly! That girl had no awareness of danger, no understanding of propriety, and absolutely no common sense. Darlene had spent many a sleepless night worrying about what would happen if Nolie met a dangerous killer who summoned her into his car—well, now she knew. Nolie would not only get in, she’d invite the maniac home for supper.
Even Darlene’s children had never been that trusting.
Darlene stood in hypnotized horror. If that truck started kickin’ up dust in a sudden U-turn, she was calling the sheriff and raising holy heck—
But the pickup continued rumbling toward the house, its giant tires making soft popping sounds as it rolled over the gravel. Darlene pressed her lips together, then stepped inside the foyer, where Daddy’s shotgun leaned against the marble windowsill.
The stranger in the truck might not have evil intentions, but when two single women lived only a short distance from the state hospital for the criminally insane, Darlene would rather be safe than sorry.
Nolie pushed at the brim of her hat to better see the man who’d identified himself as Erik Payne. He was certainly spruced up for a hot day in May—the middle-aged man wore a white shirt, a red tie, and dark blue trousers with a crease so sharp it might have been topstitched. He looked like a politician on parade, but what kind of man deliberately chose to hang a tie around his neck in this heat? Then again, he said he was from Chattahoochee, and everyone knew that place was home to the Florida State Mental Hospital.
She pursed her lips, dreading what Darlene would say about her getting into this man’s pickup. Darly would take one look at him and figure he was a recovering mental patient, an escaped criminal, or, given his red, white, and blue attire, a desperate politician.
Nolie tilted her head. “You say you’re from Chattahoochee?”
He kept his gaze on the driveway as the truck rolled forward. “Yes, ma’am. Before I lost my job I was pastor of the First Community Church there. You ever hear of it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t get over that way much.” She shifted her gaze from his clean-shaven face to his hands. Smooth and pale, with clean and evenly trimmed nails, they looked like a preacher’s hands.
“So.” The reverend cleared his throat as he applied the brakes and stopped a few feet from the front sidewalk. “Should I be nervous about talking to your sister?”
“Why would you be?”
“Didn’t you notice? The woman’s carrying a shotgun.”
Nolie laughed. “She won’t hurt you. But she sees herself as bein’ in charge of the house, so she tends to be a little overprotective. She’s the one to talk to if you’re lookin’ for work.” She gripped the door handle and grinned. “And you’re in luck—I happen to know she’s looking for someone to mow the lawn and all like that. Since she started having hot flashes, Darlene can’t take the heat.”
A wave of crimson brightened the preacher’s face as he shut off the engine and pocketed his keys. “Alrighty, then. I guess I’m as ready to meet her as I’ll ever be.”
“Her name’s Darlene Young. Come on with me and I’ll introduce you.”
Nolie slid out of the truck and stopped to pat Lucy’s and Ricky’s heads—the anxious dogs had followed the pickup after Nolie hopped in. After seeing that she was okay, they positioned themselves like armed guards between the approaching preacher and their mistress.
Erik lifted both hands. “Do those lions bite?”
“They’re Leonbergers, and they’ve never bitten anyone—yet.” Nolie stepped toward Erik, then looked at the dogs and touched the stranger’s arm. “It’s okay, baby dogs. This man is a friend.”
The dogs’ stiff tails relaxed to swing back and forth in happy arcs. “They’re beautiful,” Erik said, following Nolie as she led the way up the sidewalk. “I’ve never heard of that breed.”
“Not many people have,” Nolie answered, pleased by his interest. “They’re a lot more common in Europe than over here. I had these two flown over from Germany when they were pups.”
Giving the preacher another reassuring smile, Nolie turned toward the porch—and stifled a groan. Darlene stood between the center columns at the top of the stairs, holding the shotgun as if she meant business. “Darly”—Nolie gave her a warning look—“you can put the gun away.”
Her sister eyed the stranger with a steely gaze. “I don’t know this fellow.”
“That’s only because you’ve never met him. Darlene, I’d like you to meet Reverend Erik Payne. Reverend Payne, this is my sister Darlene Young.”
The minister took a hesitant step forward, his hand extended. “Mrs. Young. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Darlene lowered the gun and shook his hand without smiling. “What brings you all the way out here, Reverend Payne? We don’t need any more Bibles—we already have one for every room and a twenty-pounder on the coffee table.”
“Please, call me Erik. And I’m not selling anything.” He pulled a folded handkerchief from his pocket and wiped perspiration from his forehead. “Since you asked, ma’am, I was pastoring a church in Chattahoochee until those folks decided the time had come for me to move on. With the employment situation being what it is, one of the deacons gave me your name—he said you and your sister might be willing to take in a stray. I’m not looking for a handout, mind you, but a job and a place to live for a short while. I had to leave the parsonage, so I’ve been staying in a cheap hotel off the highway while I look for work.”
Nolie tugged on Darlene’s apron. “You were just sayin’ we need a man to mow the lawn. And wouldn’t it be nice to have someone replace that old siding on the guesthouse? He could do that and a lot of other chores around here. I know you have a long list of things that need fixin’.”
Darlene glanced back at the old house behind her. Nolie knew her sister was thinking about the shutters that needed painting, the mud-dauber nests needing to be knocked down, and the guesthouse that could use a face-lift . . .
“That’s just part of owning an old house. No matter where I sit, I find myself lookin’ at somethin’ that needs doin’.” Darlene shifted her gaze back to the minister. “Before we can commence, Reverend Payne, I have to ask somethin’ and I’d appreciate an honest answer. Why did that congregation ask you to leave?”
The minister blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Did they catch you stealing from the offering plate? Or were you spending too much time counseling somebody’s wife?”
Nolie lowered her gaze, afraid the minister would see the blush she could feel burning her face. Darly had never been one to mince words, but why did she have to be so blunt with a man of the cloth?
The reverend’s mouth twisted as he loosened the knot of his tie. “Nothing like that, ma’am. I—well, I was five years married when I took the church. My wife supported me all the time I was going to school and seminary, but once we went to Chattahoochee and actually got into the work of the ministry, she decided she didn’t like being a pastor’s wife. She didn’t like living in a parsonage, she didn’t like going to parishioners’ baby showers, and she didn’t like sharing me with a hundred other people. So a year ago she picked up and left, and after six months she divorced me. The church was good enough to allow us some time in case God wanted to restore our marriage, but when that didn’t happen, the church decided that a divorced man couldn’t be a good example to the flock. They asked me to leave, so here I am. And that’s probably a whole lot more than you wanted to hear.”
Nolie studied her sister, but she’d never been good at guessing Darlene’s thoughts. Anything could be going on behind that implacable expression.
The preacher dabbed at his forehead again, then shoved his handkerchief back into his pocket. “That’s God’s truth, ma’am; you can call and ask anyone in Chattahoochee.”
Darlene leaned the shotgun against a porch column, then folded her arms. “What could you actually do for us, Reverend Payne?”
He glanced at Nolie as a half smile crossed his face. “Honestly, ladies, I haven’t done much manual labor lately. But as a kid I did some painting, lawn mowing, and gardening. You tell me what needs to be done, and if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll go to the hardware store and find somebody who can teach me.”
Darlene looked away a moment, then nodded. “In return for your help we’ll give you use of the guesthouse and supper every day. But how long do you think you’d be stayin’?”
He took a deep breath and scratched his chin. “I don’t rightly know about that. I do know I’ve been called to the ministry, so as soon as I’m settled, I’m going to start sending out resumes. God called me to preach and teach, so that’s what I intend to do . . . just as soon as the Lord opens a door.”
Nolie smiled. “So we’d be waitin’ on God with you.”
“That’s the gist of it, yes ma’am. Would that be acceptable?”
“Hold on a minute.” Darlene narrowed her gaze. “The man who sent you to Sycamores—he got a name?”
A smile finally broke through Darlene’s inflexible mask. “All right, then. I know Beverage, and I know he wouldn’t have sent you to us if you couldn’t be trusted.” She nodded at Nolie. “I s’pose we can work something out. You agree, Magnolia?”
Nolie stared in pleased surprise, then grinned. “I don’t see why not.”
The minister practically melted in relief. “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you, ladies.”
Nolie smiled, glorying in the moment. She’d been holding her breath, hoping Darlene would see that the good and Christian thing to do would be to help this man regain his footing. He had a look in his brown eyes, the same look she saw when one of her dogs got hurt, and she couldn’t bear to see any living creature in pain.
Like Momma always said, far too many people were quick to dish out advice when what a hurting person really needed was a helping hand.
“I say, ‘Welcome to Sycamores.’” Nolie grinned as the dogs picked up on her excitement and began to bark. “Come on. I’ll walk you over to the guesthouse. It’s not fancy and it needs some work, but it’ll keep you cool at night and dry in the rain.”
“No matter what it looks like,” the reverend said, following her, “it’ll serve as an answer to prayer until it’s time for me to move on.”
In her doctor’s Manhattan office, Carlene Caldwell looked out at the downtown skyline and couldn’t resist a sense of foreboding. Where was her young doctor, and why did he have to keep her waiting? She eyed the thick folder on the man’s desk. Why did one simple procedure require so much paperwork?
She folded her hands in her lap and wished she hadn’t given up smoking. If ever a situation called for a cigarette, this one did.
“Are you okay?” Martin asked.
“I’m fine.” She tried not to look at her agent, who sat next to her and jiggled his crossed leg more energetically than usual. “By the way, I want you to know how grateful I am that you were willing to come down here with me. I’ve been dreading this appointment for weeks, so it’s nice to have someone along. You know, for moral support and all like that.”
“You must be anxious—your Southern speech patterns are showing.” Martin laughed, but his laughter had an edge that did little to comfort her. “I’m always happy to help you, Carlene. It’s the least I could do after all our time together.” His brow furrowed. “How many years has it been?”
She turned, grateful for the change of subject. “Let’s see—I got my first part in ’84, and signed with you right after. So that’s—what?”
“Twenty-eight years. You never have been any good at math.”
“That’s why I trust you to keep my accounts straight.” She smiled at him. “We’ve lasted longer than a lot of marriages.”
“Including yours . . . and all three of mine.”
Carlene glanced at her watch, then sighed and crossed her legs, struggling to get comfortable in the utilitarian chair. “Good thing we never married.”
“Good thing I never asked. I knew you had better taste.”
She looked over her shoulder at the closed door. “What could be keeping that doctor?”
Martin’s eyes softened. “Are you worried about what he might say?”
“No—well, yes. I keep hoping for good news, but common sense tells me something’s not right. My throat tells me something’s not right. I don’t even talk like I used to; this rasp in my voice is driving me crazy—”
“Some people might find it sexy.”
“Those people know nothing about how the human voice makes music.”
Martin fell silent, then reached across the space between them and squeezed Carlene’s arm. “I’m sorry you’re in this spot.”
She choked on a desperate laugh. “If I’d known losing my voice for six months was even a possibility, I would never have had the surgery.”
“Didn’t they warn you about all the things that could go wrong?”
“Of course, and I signed the stupid consent form. But nobody ever expects that any of those things will actually happen.”
Martin shifted in his chair, then cleared his throat. “By the way, how’s your understudy doing? Are the producers happy with her?”
Carlene shrugged. “I think so. But almost anyone could play Golde. It’s not what I’d call a demanding role.”
“Any thought about what you might like to do next?”
“That will depend on what I learn today, won’t it?”
The door behind them finally blew open, revealing a young doctor who wore a wrinkled brow and a concerned expression. He walked around the two guest chairs, then paused to shake Carlene’s hand. “Thank you for coming in, Ms. Caldwell.”
Carlene introduced Martin, who stood to shake the doctor’s hand. She leaned forward. “I hope we can skip any other formalities, Dr. Weston. I have to know—is my throat going to get better, or will I spend the rest of my life sounding like I have laryngitis?”
The doctor twisted his mouth and perched on the edge of his desk. “You sound fine to me.”
“I don’t think I sound fine. I want the voice I had before the surgery.”
“You haven’t noticed any improvement since I last saw you?”
“Your upper register is still affected?”
“My upper register is gone. I used to have a five-octave range; now I can barely manage two.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The doctor rubbed his palm along the seam of his trousers, then released a rapid volley of words: “I asked you to wait for the result of the latest scan because I was hoping the scar tissue would recede. But, apparently, the thyroid cartilage has elongated and reinforced the loosening of your vocal cords. I was hoping you’d be better after several months of recuperation, but sometimes, due to factors beyond our control, our purposes are thwarted and our goal is not achieved. You are able to speak, and that may be the best result we can hope for.”
Carlene blinked, her mind reeling in the verbal onslaught. Finally she grasped one word: “You thought I’d be better? Doctor, I can’t simply be better. I have to be exceptional. I have to be able to sing like I used to. I was hoping to sing better than before.”
The doctor’s expression remained locked in neutral. “I’m sorry the results of your surgery were not what we expected.”
Carlene struggled to swallow as her scarred throat tightened. Not what he expected? Why didn’t he call this what it was—a disaster, catastrophe, calamity, and tragedy?
“Martin, I can’t—” She closed her eyes as the office walls swirled and swayed. Martin barked a command, then a strong arm supported her shoulders and held her upright.
A moment later, she opened her eyes to find that the room’s walls and ceiling had resumed their proper places. She fixed her gaze on the doctor’s white lab coat, now only a few inches away.
Martin took her hand. “Are you all right, Carlene? Would you like to go home? I could call a cab—”
“So that’s it?” She lifted her chin and looked at the doctor, who was moving back to the chair behind his desk. “My voice is ruined.” The sounds rasped as she forced the words over her wounded vocal cords.
The doctor’s mouth changed just enough to bristle the fashionable stubble on his cheeks. “I’m so sorry the results were not . . . optimal.”
“You’ve already said that.” She blinked, then focused on Martin. “I think I’m ready for that cab now.”
Martin helped her up as the doctor stammered. “If—if there’s anything I can do—”
“You can explain everything to my lawyer,” she said, walking toward the door, “when you tell him how you destroyed my life.”
Carlene let her head fall to the back of the seat as Martin slid in beside her and gave the cabdriver her address.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’m not going home. I ought to be at the theater.”
“Whatever for? Your understudy has the part covered.”
“I’ve been helping out backstage. I don’t want everyone thinking I’m some kind of invalid, and as long as I’m getting paid . . .”
Martin stared at her, then waved in surrender. “The Forty-sixth Street Theater, then,” he told the driver. “And Sixth Avenue after that.”
She crossed her arms. “Thanks for humoring me.”
“I don’t understand why you’re doing this to yourself. You ought to go home; you need time to consider your options.”
“What options? I’d say the doctor was pretty definite about my prognosis.”
“I think you should get a second opinion. What does this young guy know? After all, he botched the surgery—”
“And I’ll let my lawyer take care of that. I’m not going to confront a hotshot medical expert about his substandard surgical skills.”
“So you’re going to sue?”
“If I have a case, I’d be foolish not to. Isn’t that why surgeons carry malpractice insurance?”
“Fine. But while your lawyer’s pursuing justice, you and I need to talk about your future. Just because your voice isn’t what it used to be doesn’t mean you’re ready to be put out to pasture. You’re a fine dramatic actress, and I’m not giving up on you.”
“I’m almost fifty, Martin—too old to be a leading lady.”
“No one has to know how old you are. You look great, and that’s all anyone cares about.”
She snorted. “I look like a spit-and-polished used car. People can tell my odometer’s been set back, they just can’t tell how far.”
Martin ignored her quip. “We could find a play with a great supporting role. Look at all the actresses who have played Broadway well into their eighties—”
“That’s a pretty short list. And actresses, even great ones, are a dime a dozen in New York. I wouldn’t make the cut. Any success I might have achieved has come because I could sing.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true, though you’re sweet to try to convince me otherwise. But you’re right about needing time to think. Maybe I should go home.”
Martin tapped the Plexiglas window between the back seat and the driver. “We’ve changed our minds. Can you take us to Inwood instead?”
Carlene braced herself as the cab made an abrupt turn onto a congested side street.
“We could look for TV work,” Martin said, settling back. “Maybe you could audition for a soap. Some of them are moving to the Internet.”
“And play some up-and-coming starlet’s grandmother? No thanks.”
“You could interview for a network morning program, audition for a few cable shows, maybe go on Celebrity Apprentice—”
She glowered at him. “I don’t need to grovel. I don’t want to be in the spotlight unless I deserve to be there.”
“But you have talent, and with that comes a responsibility—”
“I had a talent.” Despite her intentions to remain strong, her chin quivered. “For six months I’ve dreaded this possibility, so I’m not going to harbor any delusions. I was an exceptional singer and a decent actress, but I’d be lucky if my reputation extends as far as the outer boroughs. No one in Hollywood is clamoring for my head shot. No one in network television even knows my name.”
“They could learn it.”
She snorted softly. “The market is already crowded with aging singers. I’m not going to force my company on anyone.”
“You’re too young to retire.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“What else would you like to do?”
She pressed her fingertips to her temples. “I’ve never considered being anything but a singer. I never . . . I mean I don’t think I ever had a choice to be anything else.”
She closed her eyes as the cab jounced through a pothole. The doctor’s announcement had floored her with its finality, but the news hadn’t come as a complete surprise. For the last four months she had been warming up her lower register with scales and vocal exercises. But every time she approached the D an octave above middle C, her throat closed. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t coax out any sound.
She groaned. “I should never have gone to that ENT. My coach said I needed only a few weeks’ vocal rest, but that seemed too simple. So I had to go to the fancy throat doctor and he had to try a new technique . . .”
She blinked back a sudden rush of tears. Why had she thought surgery would help? Because she was hoping for a better voice, as if medicine could improve a God-given gift.
She wrapped her fingers around her agent’s hand. “I’m sorry. I know you’re trying your best to be supportive, and I appreciate it. But right now I’m not feeling optimistic.”
He shifted to face her. “There’s no reason this has to end your career. You take some time to think, and after you’ve come up with an idea of what you’d like to do next, give me a call. I’ll help you get whatever gig you want.”
She squeezed his fingers. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m not willing to sully the reputation I spent years building. I’m going to go back to my apartment, take stock of my situation, and maybe go for a walk in the park. That should clear my head so I can come up with a plan about what to do next.”
“I’ll always be here for you.”
“I know you will.” She squeezed his hand again. “You’re not only a good agent, you’re also a good friend.”