I am thrilled to share the news that my latest novel is heading to the formatter! And here is the gorgeous cover.
This is my fifteenth novel. That seems almost impossible. What a journey this has been. I love this story. It’s set in 1983/84, an era that was so formative for me.
Here’s the blurb:
Henrietta Cochran has spent nearly forty years dealing with the effects of the polio she contracted in 1945. Her braces and crutches restrict her, define her, but they also give her independence. Almost. She hates that she has become increasingly reliant on a series of live-in companions to help her. For some reason, the companions never seem to want to stay very long. So Henrietta retreats further and further into her art, where her physical limitations don’t matter.
Into her life sails Meryn Fleming: out, outspoken, and fiercely political. She’s young, enthusiastically diving into her first job as a history professor at the local college. When she falls, almost literally, into Henrietta’s path, she seems like a godsend.
Little does Henrietta know that this young woman is about to upend her carefully structured existence. Ryn challenges everything, barging right through the walls Henrietta has built to keep others at a distance.
To Ryn, Henrietta is an enigma: prickly and easily insulted at the slightest suggestion that she can’t do things for herself; a brilliant artist capable of producing the most beautiful paintings; and sometimes, when Henrietta doesn’t realize she’s letting her guard down, a tender and sensitive woman.
With Meryn’s youthful optimism pitted against Henrietta’s jaded acceptance of the world as it is, life will never be the same for either of them.
I’m expecting this to be an early/mid-November release, just in time for Thanksgiving!
For those of you who enjoy reading excerpts, here’s a bit of the first chapter:
Henrietta poured a little water into a bowl and stirred it into the gesso she’d already spooned in. Picking up a well-used brush, she applied the mixture to a new canvas. Sunlight diffused indirectly through the floor-to-ceiling windows forming the north wall of her studio, where the trees beyond—not quite ready to turn—beckoned and begged to be captured. Again. Though she’d seen these same trees—birches with their starkly white trunks, majestic oaks more than a hundred years old, spreading maples whose leaves would become brilliant crimson and orange in a few weeks—go through this same cycle every year for nearly forty years, it never failed to stir her.
She tried to ignore the thumps coming from the front of the house and the repeated openings and closings of the front door. She tried, too, to ignore the nervous feeling in her stomach. It was going to be a bad night. Probably a bad month or two before things calmed down again. But the calm never lasted long. And then she’d go through this same cycle, just like those trees.
While the prepped canvas dried, she picked up a sketchpad and pencil and laid out a composition to be transferred to the canvas later. She sketched in a view of the pond below as it would appear when the leaves began to fall, with the meandering flagstone path from the house, down the hill, to the pond itself.
She paused. It had been a while since she’d been down there. Maybe later today…
She stiffened at a timid knock on the studio door behind her. A thin voice said, “Miss Cochran? I’m all packed.”
Setting her pad down, Henrietta swiveled on her stool.
“I’m sorry to leave you—”
“No need to apologize, Amanda,” Henrietta cut in.
“It’s just my grandma needs someone, you see.” Amanda’s pale, watery eyes flitted about the studio, her hands twisting the strap of her purse as she looked anywhere but at Henrietta.
It was a reaction Henrietta was accustomed to. “I understand.”
“I’ve made you a turkey sandwich.” Amanda waved a hand in the direction of the kitchen.
A long silence stretched out between them until Amanda shuffled back a step. “I’ll just be going then.” She waited a moment, but when Henrietta said nothing further, she said, “Good-bye.”
Henrietta swiveled back to the windows, listening to the fading sound of footsteps tapping over the kitchen’s linoleum floor, then silence on the living room carpet, then more taps on the foyer flagstones. When the front door thudded shut for the last time, she sat staring out at the trees, but no longer seeing them.
After a while, she picked her pad up. Her pencil rolled off and fell to the floor. She plucked another from the can on her table and continued sketching. Ignoring the rumbling of her stomach, she continued working as the light gradually shifted. She set the pad on a tabletop easel and opened a tin of watercolors. Over the next few hours, the sketch blossomed. Pushing back to scrutinize it, she made mental notes about what to change when she turned it into an oil painting.
Her hands tremored with the hours of work and lack of food. Pushing stiffly to her feet, she reached for her crutches and made her way to the kitchen, where Amanda’s sandwich sat on a plate on the table along with a glass of tea, the ice long since melted.
On the kitchen counter was a key. Amanda’s key. The key that had been issued to and returned by more companions than she could now remember.
She briefly considered making something fresh, a hamburger maybe, but instead lumbered to the table. Settling herself at her accustomed place with its view of the country club golf course across the road, she ate her stale sandwich and drank her watery tea. This late in the day, there were only a couple of solitary golfers wandering around out there.
As she ate, she ran through an inventory of sources to check with tomorrow. Amanda hadn’t been stimulating company—the woman hadn’t any more than a high school education and considered Harlequin romances to be literature—but she’d been pleasant and reliable.
When she was done, Henrietta shuffled first her plate, then her glass to the counter where she could push them nearer the sink to wash them and place them in the drainer. She paused as she left the kitchen, undecided between going to the living room to watch television or going to the bedroom to read.
The ache from her body made the decision for her. She made certain the front door was locked and deadbolted and then made her way down the short hall to her room.
Following a ritual honed over decades, she closed the door, drew the curtains, turned down the bed, and then went to the bathroom. When she was done with her nightly routine in there, she returned to the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress, carefully placing her crutches within easy reach.
She bent over to untie her shoes and unbuckle the lowest straps on her leg braces. Laboriously, she unbuttoned her blouse and skirt, her fingers fumbling with the buttons and zipper. She wriggled out of her clothes and folded them neatly on the chair beside the bed. With the clothing out of the way, she tugged on the leather straps binding her back brace. As soon as it was off, her spine partially collapsed under the weight of her slight trunk.
She undid the higher straps on her leg braces, grasping the metal uprights on either side to free her feet and legs from the restraints. Her thick hose were always difficult to don and doff, but they were an essential barrier between her skin and the braces. She groaned a little as she rubbed the indentations in her muscles left by the straps.
Reaching for the nightgown on the chair, she slipped it over her head. Grasping first one leg, then the other, she swung them onto the bed and pulled the bedclothes up to her chin. She picked up her book, Danielle Steel’s newest, and read until her eyes were too heavy to continue. Certain she’d be able to sleep now, she reached over and switched the bedside lamp off.
Darkness and silence settled on the house, but she was instantly wide-awake. Every whirr of the air conditioning unit, every creak and groan of the house, every outside noise that filtered through the windows startled her. She rolled over to turn on the radio on the bedside table, twiddling the dial until she found a station playing soothing classical music, but the noise only served to heighten her anxiety as she imagined other, more sinister sounds being masked by the radio. She turned it off again and lay there, listening.
She fought the familiar rise of panic, forcing herself to concentrate on her breaths, visualizing her lungs pulling air in and expelling it under her own power. In, out. In, out. She heard Una laughing, her beautiful face smiling down at her.
It took ages, but the panic faded. Knowing sleep would not be hers that night, she switched the lamp back on and picked up Danielle Steel again.
* * *
Loaded down with an olive-green army duffle over one shoulder and a guitar case in her other hand, Ryn stood on the sidewalk, looking up at a three-story Victorian. She shrugged the duffel straps higher on her shoulder and climbed the porch steps. Before she could knock, the front door opened, and she was nearly run over by a young woman. Ryn had a quick impression of big hair, bigger earrings and short shorts before the woman muttered a quick “Sorry” and teetered down the wooden stairs as quickly as she could in heels.
Shaking her head, Ryn stepped through the open door and reached back to push the door shut behind her. From upstairs, she could hear music coming from a stereo—no, make that two or three stereos.
A door at the far end of the hall swung open and an older woman bustled through from the kitchen beyond, wiping her hands on a towel.
“Yes?” asked the woman. “May I help you?”
“I’m Meryn Fleming. Are you Mrs. Middleston?” Ryn held out a hand.
Mrs. Middleston took it in a dainty fingers-only grip, looking Ryn up and down through her wire-rimmed glasses. “You’re the new professor at the college?”
Ryn beamed. “I am.”
Mrs. Middleston looked doubtful. “Yes, well, your room is up on the third floor.”
She led the way up the wide staircase, flanked by an ornate, carved bannister. As Ryn followed her up and around a second-floor landing, then up to the third floor, she thought she heard mutterings of “since when are they hiring twelve-year-old boys”. Apparently Mrs. Middleston, despite what her plumpness and silver-blue hair would suggest, was in better shape than she appeared if she had enough breath to mutter, because Ryn was huffing by the time they got to the third-floor landing with its eyebrow window giving a bird’s eye view of the street below and the village beyond. Two rooms opened off this landing, and Mrs. Middleston gestured into the room on the right.
Sunshine spilled onto plain, white matelassé bedspreads on the two twin beds, one piled high with stuffed animals and rumpled clothing.
“I insist on all the girls making their beds every day,” Mrs. Middleston was saying as Ryn looked around. “Sheets and towels are laundered every Saturday. See that yours are downstairs by nine that morning, and the clean ones will be ready by three.”
The one dresser’s top was littered with bottles of perfume, jars and tubes of makeup, and more bottles of nail polish, along with about six hairbrushes.
“I understood I was to have a room to myself,” Ryn said.
“Oh, well, when you called, I didn’t have another girl, but since then, I do,” Mrs. Middleston said, fussing with a wrinkle in the empty bed’s cover and straightening the neatly folded towel and washcloth sitting at the foot of the bed. “You’ll like Vanessa. She’s a very nice girl. Three of those drawers are yours.”
Mrs. Middleston looked Ryn up and down again, sighing in a disapproving way at the cut-off Levi’s, black Converse high-tops, and T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign. “Yes, well, curfew is ten o’clock during the week, eleven on weekends. And I warn you, I’m very prompt with locking the door. You will have a shelf in a cupboard in the kitchen and may use the refrigerator for milk or lunchmeats. No food in the rooms. That is an absolute. I don’t want mice. And no alcohol on the premises.”
She moved toward the hall. “I’ll leave you to unpack. You’ve already paid your first month’s rent, so your next payment isn’t due until the first of the month.”
Ryn set her guitar down and let the duffle fall from her shoulder onto the bed. There was a pause in the clatter of Mrs. Middleston’s shoes on the stair treads.
“Oh, and no men!” she called from the stairwell.
Ryn snorted. “Fat chance of that.” But she mumbled it under her breath, certain that Mrs. Middleston’s hearing was as sharp as her appraising gaze.
She had hoped for a desk, but maybe it was better that there wasn’t one. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to be doing much more than sleeping here. She checked the dresser but, contrary to what Mrs. Middleston had said, there were no empty drawers. Ryn unceremoniously tugged open the three drawers on the left, closest to her bed, and scooped the contents onto Vanessa’s bed. She refilled them with her clothes from the duffel. She had to wrestle a few hangers free from the back of the stuffed closet to hang her teaching clothes—khakis and white shirts.
The floorboards vibrated with the bass thumps coming from a room below her on the second floor. She hoped Mrs. Middleston’s curfew extended to limits on playing loud music. With her unpacking done, she went downstairs to the ground floor where she found Mrs. Middleston in the kitchen.
“Can you tell me how to get to the campus from here?”
Mrs. Middleston looked up from her scrubbing of her already spotless stovetop. “You’re teaching there and you don’t know where it is?”
“My interview was over the telephone.”
“Well, it’s hard to miss. You could probably walk all of Bluemont inside half an hour. We’re on the south side of the village. St. Aloysius is on the north. You can go either way on this street. If you turn north, you can’t miss it.”
Ryn jogged down the porch steps and went to her car—a 1972 AMC Hornet. She reached into the back of the little station wagon to retrieve a backpack stuffed with textbooks and notebooks. When she closed the hatch, she pressed down the curling corner of a Re-Elect Carter bumper sticker adhered to the glass alongside many others.
Giving the fender a pat, she said, “You stay here, Nelly.”
She shrugged the backpack straps into position as she walked down the tree-lined street. When she rounded the corner, a stone church steeple poked into an impossibly blue sky. As Mrs. Middleston had said, she hadn’t walked more than fifteen minutes before she found herself in the village’s small town center—complete with a tree-lined square and statue to some past war hero. Cars parked diagonally on the streets surrounding the square, and people wandered up and down the sidewalks, entering and leaving the little shops lining the streets.
Ryn took in the quaintness of the scene. It was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. So different from Pittsburgh.
Another few minutes brought her to the campus of St. Aloysius College. It was just as picturesque as the village—four main buildings of gray stone arranged around a grassy quad, a few mature oaks scattered around to provide some shade on this warmish late August day while one tall fir tree stood like a sentinel in the center of the space.
She scanned the signs on the buildings and found hers, Rayburn Hall. According to the little signs fastened to the wall at the base of the stairs, the history department was on the second floor.
Sweat beaded on her forehead by the time she found the department secretary’s office.
“Hi,” she panted, dropping her backpack onto a wooden chair inside the door. “I’m Meryn Fleming, the new history professor.”
The owlish woman behind the desk blinked at her a few times through enormous eyeglasses that magnified her eyes. “Good Lord.”
Ryn nodded solemnly. “Yes, she is.” She glanced down at the sign on the woman’s desk. “Beverly. Could you point me to my office?”
Beverly got to her feet, and Ryn realized she must have had her desk chair cranked to its highest position, because she was hardly taller standing than she had been sitting. She reminded Ryn even more of a bird as she led the way with short, staccato steps. Down the corridor, around the corner to… what looked like a converted broom closet. A desk and chair and one bookshelf had been crammed inside, but there was a window overlooking the hills beyond the campus. The bookshelf already contained what she recognized as the textbooks she’d be teaching from.
“You should have had Professor Aldren’s old desk, but he shared an office with Professor Geary, and Dr. Talbert thought you’d prefer being by yourself.”
Beverly peered up into Ryn’s face, searching as if trying to make up her mind about something. She crooked her finger, and Ryn leaned down obligingly. “I shouldn’t say this,” Beverly whispered. “I mean, I just met you, but you’re the only other woman in the department, and a young one at that. Stay away from Professor Geary. He has a reputation as…” She blushed. “Well, he likes the girls. The younger, the better.”
Her flared nostrils and pursed lips indicated just what Beverly thought of Professor Geary.
Ryn grinned. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” She nodded toward her cubby. “And thank Dr. Talbert for me. I appreciate both of you thinking of me that way.”
“Oh, well.” Beverly blushed and smiled. “You’re most welcome. I’ll leave you to set your office up as you like. I’m sure you’ll want to get started on the classes you’ll be teaching. I’ve placed the current syllabi on your desk. If you need anything, just ask. Professor.”
Beverly’s heels clicked away down the corridor, and Ryn dropped into her office chair, twirling around. She ran her hands through her short hair with a happy sigh. She was here. Her first teaching job. At a Catholic school in the middle-of-nowhere New York. But it was a start.
“Thank you, Goddess.”
copyright © Caren J. Werlinger 2019