THE TALKING TREE – Book 1 -The Hartwell Women
My mother’s death had brought me back to upstate Barnham, New York on this crisp April morning. Chills rolled across my shoulders in paralyzing waves as I stared at the peeling paint and darkened windows of my childhood home. Cruelty and rejection had formed its core. I clutched my hands, drew a deep breath, and told myself this place no longer mattered, but I knew better. Until I could work through past issues, I’d always be bound in some horrible way to this house and the people who’d caused such pain.
Lady, my Golden Retriever, stood patiently at my side. “Come, girl,” I said, giving her a pat on the head. We walked toward the back yard to what I’d called the Talking Tree. It’d stood outside the house on top of the hill, its branches like welcoming, loving arms. My crippled stepfather had found the hill too difficult to climb, which was why I’d chosen it as my haven away from life in the gray, shingled bungalow below.
I entered the backyard and came to an abrupt stop. My special tree was gone! I raced up the hill through overgrown grass to reach the jagged-edged stump. Breathing hard, I stared at it with dismay. What had happened? Suspicion clenched my jaw. I bet Clyde had climbed the hill after all. It would be so like him to do something crazy like this.
Lady whined and nudged her head under my hand. I sank to the ground and hugged her, feeling as if Clyde had lifted his hand and struck me once again. And even though this blow didn’t carry the strength of one of his drunken rages, it hurt just the same. Tears stung my eyes.
I used to talk to that tree as I would have to the brother or sister I’d never had or the mother who’d never listened. And beneath the tree’s whispering leaves that broke free from the branches each fall, I’d grown fierce with determination to one day be as free as they.
I scrambled to my feet and fingered the stump’s pointy edges. Their sharpness pricked my fingers–and my heart. I never should have come here, I told myself, hating the feeling of being pulled back in time, of losing all the self-confidence I’d worked so hard to build.
I turned away and headed down the hill. Halfway, I paused to study the house. Its faded paint reminded me of my mother’s gray eyes–cold and empty. I brushed aside her image and hurried over to the neighbor’s house, where I would be staying.
Set apart from ours by a line of pine-scented evergreens, it had an air of respectability we’d never been able to achieve. Perky white curtains softened the tiny-paned windows of her home. Light shone through the sparkling glass, like a lighthouse’s guiding beam to a wayward ship. Inside, I knew, there would be peace and contentment.
At my knock, Doris Crawford quickly opened the door. “Marissa, my dear, it’s so good to see you!” She beamed at me and hugged me close. “Oh, how I’ve missed seeing that sweet face of yours! All those thoughtful gifts, all those nice phone calls can’t compare to actually holding you.” Tears shone in her eyes as she looked up at me. “The years away from here have done you good. You’re even more beautiful than your photos.”
My tense body gave in to her natural warmth, loosening in her embrace. I used to pretend that somehow things had gotten mixed up when I came into the world and Doris was the mother I was supposed to have. But even in the unhappiest of circumstances, fate can sometimes be kind. In this case, she’d given us each other.
“I’ve missed you!” I stepped back and studied her. It’d been ten years since I’d seen her. Well into her sixties and barely five feet tall, Doris still held herself with confidence. Keen intelligence shone from her blue eyes. A ready smile lit her round face, subtracting years from her age. To me, she’d always been beautiful.
I gave her another squeeze and followed her inside.
SWEET TALK – Book 2 – The Hartwell Women
The sign for Sarita, California, appeared ahead of me. I let out a sigh of relief and loosened my tight grip on the steering wheel. It’d been a grueling drive from Maine.
A car behind me beeped its horn, and I slowed to allow it to pass. I glimpsed a blond-haired man with handsome features. Our gazes met, and then he was tucking his silver Mercedes convertible into the line of cars ahead of me. A soft, giddy laugh escaped. California was the land of beautiful people. That man, whoever he was, had just proved it.
Searching for Treasures, the art gallery I now unexpectedly owned with my old college roommate, I drove past the cluster of small colorful shops along the water and continued up into the rolling landscape overlooking them. Following my failed marriage of little less than a year, her call for help had come at a time when I was vulnerable.
The carved wooden sign announcing the gallery beckoned. Pulling into the parking lot, I was overcome with second thoughts. I rested my head against the steering wheel. Maybe now, with the New Year beginning, my life would take a wild swing for the better. God, I hoped so. This move had to drag me out of the mental and emotional pit I’d wallowed in for the last several months–months in which I’d despaired of any real happiness, while pretending to be fine.
I climbed out of my SUV on travel-weary legs. The drive cross-country had seemed unending. I crinkled together the M&M wrappers that lay scattered across the passenger’s seat and grabbed the empty water bottle. I stacked the CDs. I’d memorized too many of them on the journey.
The door of the art gallery opened. I tossed the garbage in a trash can at the curb and hurried forward. Smiling, a tall woman with curly chestnut hair strode toward me. A young girl skipped along behind her.
“Allie!” Kristin Lewis held her arms open to me. “You made it!” Her voice lilted with happiness. “Daisy and I have been watching for you all afternoon.”
I returned her embrace, and turned to the young girl hanging back. My breath caught at her beauty–blond curls, wide blue eyes, and tiny, perfect features.
Kristin smiled at her daughter. “Daisy, you remember Allison Hartwell, don’t you? She’s your godmother!”
“My fairy godmother?”
I knelt before her and gazed into round blue eyes, fringed with enviable long lashes. My heart swelled. “Sometimes, it’s good to believe in magic.”
STRAIGHT TALK – Book 3 – The Hartwell Women
A bruising hand gripped my upper arm and jerked me around. Startled, I dropped my purse. A tough guy glared at me with glassy eyes. His thin lips curled into a sly sneer that turned my mouth dry.
A young drug addict. My stomach fisted. Damn! I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings. The chill from the rainy Tuesday evening in Boston crept into my body stiffened with fear.
“You’re Samantha Hartwell, ain’tcha?” the druggie demanded. His eyebrows angled into a fierce scowl that sent fear skittering down my spine.
I nodded, surprised he knew my name. Not a good sign.
He moved his face close to mine. His warm breath reeked of garlic and alcohol. I swallowed hard and yanked against his painful grasp.
“You stay the hell away from Caitlin, you hear?” he snarled. He jerked me closer, making me stumble. “Stop fillin’ her head with all that art stuff. She’s not doing that no more.”
My mind took a moment to grasp what he’d said. This was about Caitlin? The guy was shouting and practically wrenching my arm off because of Caitlin Rafferty?
“I don’t know who in hell you are, but Caitlin has real talent.” My voice shook, but I forced myself to stand my ground. Nobody was going to tell me what I could or could not do.
He jabbed a finger at me. “Stay away from Caitlin, Bitch. She ain’t no artist. She’s my woman and she does what I tell ‘er. If I hafta come back and find you, you’re gonna be sorry.”
He shoved me against my car and marched away as if he owned the sidewalk beneath his feet.
Adrenaline left me in a torrent of tumbling waves, turning my bones to jelly. I collapsed against the car and glanced all around, but the leather-jacketed goon who’d threatened me was nowhere in sight.
Gathering strength, I picked up my purse and made my way up the stairs to my fourth floor office in the Back Bay. I’d need to calm down before I could drive home. Caitlin had told me about her boyfriend, Anthony Carbone, but I had no idea he was such a controlling jerk.
Inside my office I paced restlessly, trying to shake off the fear that clung to me like a tiger’s claws. I’d founded Straight Talk, my non-profit consulting business, to help other young women grab a foothold in business and get a grip on their unsteady lives. For some, the task was easy, but for others, like Caitlin Rafferty, the challenge was overwhelming.
Taking a deep breath, I told myself to be strong. But Anthony’s sharp-edged words, the way he’d so easily bruised my arm, and the sickening odor of his breath made my stomach churn. I eased myself into a chair. It would take more time to gather my wits before I attempted to return to my car.
I wouldn’t call the police. That would cause problems for Caitlin and might hinder what I was doing for the other women who’d asked for my help. I’d come too far to let anyone ruin my plans. Running Straight Talk was what kept me focused… and sober. Without it, I didn’t know what I’d do. It wasn’t until I’d stated my name before a circle of people in AA that I began to understand what I’d been given– another chance at life, an opportunity to help others, a reason for living.
Friday afternoon, I replaced the phone receiver and sighed. I’d told no one Caitlin’s boyfriend had threatened me. Too many people would tell me to forget her; it was too dangerous. But I couldn’t do that. As I saw it, her entire future rested in my hands.
Advising troubled women in start-up businesses was no easy task. I rose to stare out the window of my office and watched college crews in their shells row steadily along the Charles River, dipping their oars in the water in a regular rhythm that soothed me.
Zach Adams stuck his head into the office. “Tough day?
I turned and smiled at my best friend. “Tough week. Glad it’s Friday.
“Me too. Let’s get out of here and party.”
I laughed. Zach was a recovering alcoholic like me and our idea of partying was to have an extra Diet Coke.
“Derek Roberts’ photographs are showing at the Winthrop Gallery on Boylston Street. I said I’d drop by. Want to come?”
“Sure. He’s famous and I’d like to see his work. Anything to shake off this bad feeling I’ve got about Caitlin.”
He raised his eyebrows.
I was still at a loss as how best to handle the situation. She hadn’t shown up for our meeting yesterday. Her absence could be due to any number of reasons. I hoped Anthony Carbone wasn’t one of them.
“Between her family problems, her boyfriend and her drinking, she’s like a freight train running out of control. There’s no stopping her.”
“Some people just don’t know when they’re on the right track.” Zach grinned at me.
I groaned at his usual wacky sense of humor and picked up my purse. “You’re incorrigible. Let’s go have some fun and meet this Derek guy. ‘Could be interesting.”