An Unlit Candle

For the past nine months (yes, I feel as if I am giving birth), I have been writing my latest novel. Ever since I published In This Small Spot and it was suggested to me that I write Mother Theodora’s story, this book has been slowly taking shape in my mind. It was daunting to write. Mother Theodora is such a beloved character. But how did she come to be the woman she is? What were the things that motivated and shaped her early years? What are her secrets?

Readers also begged to know what became of Lauren after the end of In This Small Spot. I couldn’t leave her out of this continuation of the story.

An Unlit Candle is the result of all of that ruminating, soul-searching, wondering about these characters. I had no real idea where this story was going as I began. I admit, it was probably the most challenging novel I’ve written thus far – how to span fifty years in a character’s life? I am very pleased with the result. I hope you will be, too.

The anticipated publishing date will be 1 October. I’ll post updates as we get closer.

Here’s the blurb:

The long-awaited follow-up to In This Small Spot

Patricia Horrigan is the eldest daughter of a family determined to gain entry into the upper echelons of Rochester society as the 1950s give way to the turbulence of the 60s. Born of an Irish father and a French-Canadian mother, Pip inherited the stubborn pride and fierce determination of both. With her life in the family business all planned out, she is most definitely not interested in throwing it all away to become a nun. But some calls will not be ignored, no matter how hard she tries. Fifty years later, she can’t help but wonder if her choices and sacrifices were worth it.

In present time, Lauren Thackeray has managed to put her life back together—in a manner of speaking. She has her weaving, her home, her chosen family, and she has the monastery and the lasting friendship of the nuns there. The one thing she doesn’t have, she doesn’t want. She won’t open her heart again after she barely survived the last time.

Gail Bauer is questioning her own vocation as an Episcopal priest. How can she minister to others when she’s not sure she believes anymore? In desperation, she flees, hoping to find answers.

In the shadow of St. Bridget’s Abbey, three very different women will need one another—to come to terms with their demons, to heal, and to rekindle the light that life has all but snuffed out.

For those who like to read excerpts (I know not everyone does), here is the first chapter:

The heavy weight of yards of velvet swirled as Pip tried to take a peek over her shoulder.

“Now, Miss Patricia, you stand still.”

“Oh, Felicia, why am I doing this? A bunch of people playing dress-up to try and impress each other.”

Felicia tutted from where she was kneeling, smoothing out the folds of the voluminous skirt. “They may be playing at dressing up, but they can’t help but be impressed when they see you. Mark my words, the men’s jaws will drop when you walk in, and all the ladies will be so jealous.”

She winced as she tried to get to her feet.

Pip bent to help her up. “That’s not going to happen. Can I look now?”

Felicia tilted her head, giving her creation one last inspection. Finally, with a nod of approval, she said, “Okay.”

Pip turned and couldn’t suppress a pleased gasp.

“Told you,” Felicia said proudly.

The reflection in the mirror was someone Pip almost didn’t recognize—her nearly black hair and dark eyes striking above the deep red velvet of her gown, the bodice tucked and molded against her curves. An embarrassed flush added color to her cheeks, contrasting with the luminous curve of ivory skin from neck to bared shoulders, accentuated even more by the upswept hair Felicia had agonized over.

“It’s too much,” Pip said, touching her fingers to the swell of her breasts above the plunging neckline. “Or not enough.”

“It’s perfect.”

She raised her eyes to see her father standing behind her in the mirror.

He stepped forward to share the reflection. “You’ll be the most beautiful one there, Pip.”

“Dad—”

“I know. You think this is silly.”

She turned to face him directly. “This is silly.”

“It might also be your ticket in. You know what these people are like.”

A frown creased her forehead. “I do know. And I don’t want in.”

He raised a finger to smooth the crease. “You say that now. But this is what we’ve been working for. Ever since my grandda worked his way over to America—”

“I know, I know,” Pip said, rolling her eyes. “With only an extra shirt and the family Bible, he got a job as a cook’s mate on a ship.”

“That’s right,” her father said. “And from there, worked his way across New York to start his own mill here in Rochester.”

“Pip, it’s time—oh…”

Pip’s mother stood, her hands clasped to her mouth. “Dieu, you look just like your grandmother. Doesn’t she, Patrick?”

“Aye, Marie. She does.”

Pip opened her mouth to correct father’s Irishism, as she liked to call them, but changed her mind. Between both her parents, there was never a chance she’d forget where she came from. A nervous tingle ran down her spine as Felicia gave the gown a last few swipes to remove imaginary bits of dust.

“You look so grown up, Miss Patricia.” Felicia dabbed at her eyes and sniffed.

Patrick offered his arm, and Pip couldn’t help but laugh as she took it, enjoying the way her skirt swept the stairs as they descended to the marble-floored foyer.

“Garrett, your sister’s ready,” Marie called, trailing behind them.

“About time.” A lanky young man unfolded himself from the sofa in the den where a gaily decorated ten-foot Norway spruce filled the bay window.

Loud footsteps echoed from the direction of the kitchen, and a girl skated around the corner, one hand clutching a spoon thickly covered with fudge. “I still don’t see why I can’t go.”

Pip smiled at her little sister, her cheek smeared with fudge. She reached out to steal a bit of chocolate off the spoon and popped it into her mouth. “Believe me, Josie, you’ll have more fun here than we will. Save me some fudge, will you?”

“One day, you’ll be invited to all the balls, ma petite,” Marie said.

Felicia fussed some more as she straightened Garrett’s bowtie and smoothed the wrinkled back of his tuxedo jacket. “I could steam this right quick.”

“We’re already late,” he protested. “If we don’t get there soon, there’s no point in going.”

Marie ran her hand over his glossy black hair to brush it off his forehead. “This ball will not get started on time. You’ll be fine.”

He scowled and squirmed out of his mother’s reach. “Well, let’s go.” He bowed with an exaggerated flourish of his arm. “If you’re ready, princess.”

Pip gave him a punch in the arm. Felicia wrapped a lustrous black silk shawl over Pip’s shoulders and joined Patrick and Marie on the front porch to see them off. Garrett helped Pip into the Thunderbird idling in the driveway, making sure to tuck her skirt in before closing the door.

Rochester hadn’t had any recent snow, so the streets and sidewalks were dry. Streetlamps glowed, golden orbs in the inky darkness as the T-bird rumbled its way toward Mount Hope Avenue, where the grand houses were all decorated, each more beautiful than the last. The house with all the traffic—their destination—was the grandest of all, with garlands of pine twined in gold and silver hung suspended between porch pillars, and glowing candles in every window. A brightly-lit tree sat on the porch to welcome guests.

“I feel like a fraud,” Pip admitted.

Garrett reached for her hand. “If I weren’t your brother, I’d be asking for the first dance.”

She squeezed his hand. “Thanks, Garrett.” She took a deep breath as he pulled into a semi-circular driveway, joining a queue of other cars. He came around to get her door for her, and a pimple-faced valet appeared.

Garrett handed him a folded bill. “No dents, no scratches.”

The valet’s face lit up. “Yes, sir.”

They joined the gaggle of young people entering the house—“it was more a mansion than a house,” Pip would tell Josie later. An air of anticipation washed over everyone. When the Wassermans had sent out their Yule Ball invitation list, all of Rochester had buzzed with who was included—“and who isn’t,” they whispered.

When Patricia and Garrett Horrigan’s names were included for the first time, Marie and Patrick had been elated. Not so, Pip.

“This is 1959 in America, not Jane Austen’s England,” she’d insisted. “I am not going to be presented. They’re not royalty.”

“In Rochester, they are. All the best matches are made by those invited to this ball.” Marie’s nostrils had flared in a foretelling that she would not be denied.

“Let’s just go and have a good time,” Garrett had wheedled. “It could be fun.”

Now, standing in line, ascending the mansion’s stairs to the lights and voices and music spilling through the enormous front doors, Pip whispered, “Still think this is going to be fun?”

Garrett snorted. “Just pretend we’re in one of the plays you used to make me put on with you.”

When at last they stepped inside, Pip forgot to pretend. It might have been 1859. The grand double stairs swept up to a balcony, the banister wrapped in garland and tinsel and red holly berries. In the center of the foyer stood another Christmas tree that must have been twenty feet tall. Servants in uniform were waiting to take coats and hats, while others glided by, holding trays with flutes of champagne and exotic hors d’oeuvres. Women in elegant gowns were accompanied by men in tuxedos, promenading about before wandering into one of the many rooms that opened off the foyer. To the right, couples were dancing to the strains of what sounded like an entire orchestra. To the left, a richly paneled library held several men, smoking and talking. Another room, definitely more feminine in its décor, held long tables groaning under the weight of the food just being set out by yet more servants.

Pip’s head swiveled as she tried to take it all in. She was startled when Garrett said, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Wasserman. Garrett Horrigan. May I present my sister, Patricia?”

Pip wondered briefly if she should curtsy but settled for an extended hand. “Your home is lovely. Thank you so much for inviting us.”

Mr. Wasserman looked rather like an overstuffed penguin, a bored smile pasted on his bearded face as he nodded vacantly, propped dutifully beside his wife to receive their guests.

Mrs. Wasserman, regal in a silver lamé gown that perfectly matched the silver of her hair, said, “Your father has become one of the city’s most important businessmen, my dear. We’re so pleased you could come. Enjoy yourselves.”

Garrett squired her away.

“Holy moly,” Pip murmured. “Have you ever?”

“Josie would give her eyeteeth to see this,” Garrett said with a chuckle.

Before Pip could reply, another young man bounded forward. “Hey Garr, Pip. Isn’t this crazy?”

“Hi, Andy,” Garrett said. “Any more of our gang here?”

“Yeah,” Andy said, his eyes glued on Pip. “Wow, you look so…”

“Watch it,” Garrett warned. “And keep your eyes on her face.”

Andy’s plump cheeks, already pink from excitement—and a bowtie that threatened to strangle him, Pip thought—turned a more brilliant scarlet.

“May I have this dance?”

Pip turned around to find herself staring into the handsome face of another of their friends, John Baldwin. “Why not?”

With a wave to Garrett and Andy, Pip allowed John to escort her onto the dance floor, joining the other couples dancing to a waltz. They swept around the room, twirling like figures atop an old-fashioned music box.

“Who knew those cotillion lessons would ever come in handy, huh?” John asked with a dazzling smile.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Pip said, giggling.

The music had barely faded before another young man had asked Pip to dance. For the next two hours, she didn’t sit out a dance. John came back for four more. At last, breathless and warm, she begged off.

“I have got to sit for a few minutes.”

John escorted her to a line of chairs at the edge of the room. “I’ll get us something to drink. Be right back.”

Pip felt glances being cast in her direction from a clutch of women of mixed ages. She smiled and nodded in their direction, but they turned their backs and continued to whisper with their heads together.

The miller’s daughter.

To them, that’s all she would ever be. No matter that all of them, regardless of where their family’s money had originated, were the recipients of some ancestor’s hard work and dreams.

She needed air. Wandering from room to room, she found her way to one with a door out to a dark balcony. She slipped outside into the welcome cold air, taking a few deep breaths. A set of stairs led down to what seemed to be a small garden, barren now. She descended and walked along a gravel path. Turning to look back toward the house, its windows spilling light down upon the garden where she stood, she thought again this was all like something out of a Regency novel.

She rounded a turn in the path and was startled to find she wasn’t alone. A sudden cloud of cigar smoke enveloped her, and she coughed.

“Oh, my dear, I’m sorry.” Mr. Wasserman waved one hand in a futile attempt to waft away the smoke, a fat cigar clamped between his teeth.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Not at all.” He gestured toward a bench behind him. “Won’t you join me?”

She sat down.

He held up the cigar. “Do you mind?”

She shook her head, but he took the precaution of sitting on her downwind side. She noticed his bowtie was undone, and his shirt collar was unbuttoned.

“Got a little stuffy in there, didn’t it?” she said.

“Stuffy.” He gave her a sideways glance. “Yes, it’s stuffy.”

Pip started to laugh but choked it back, afraid she was being rude, but Mr. Wasserman let out a belly laugh and shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket. He puffed on his cigar and eyed her.

“You’re… the Horrigan girl.”

“Yes, sir.”

He nodded and puffed some more. “Here looking for a husband, I suppose, like all the others.”

“Oh, gosh no.” It burst out before Pip thought about what she was saying. “I mean, I may get married someday, but I want to work, live my life before that.”

He frowned as he flicked some ash off the end of his cigar into the decorative ashtray beside the bench. “You say that as if your life will be over once you marry.”

“Won’t it?” Again, she sought to pull her words back. “It’s just, I watched the girls ahead of me in school, smarter than most of the boys. Either they didn’t go on to college at all, or they did but never finished or just never used their degrees. They got married and had children and never did anything for themselves.”

He shifted to look at her more closely. “And what do you want to do? Work for your father?”

She tipped her head to think. “I could, I suppose, after I graduate in June. Garrett, my brother, already is. The mill will need to be updated to stay competitive. But we don’t need the canal or rivers for transport anymore, not like my great-grandfather did. I think my father should buy a bakery, make our own brand of bread and rolls, control the entire thing, practically from field to stores.”

Now that she’d been sitting still for several minutes, she shivered in the cold. He noticed and reached for his jacket.

“Here,” he said, draping it around her shoulders.

“Thank you.”

“Why a mill?”

“What do you mean?” She pulled the lapels of the jacket together and settled back against the bench.

“Why did your great-grandfather start a mill?”

“He was only twelve, the last of his family to survive the Hunger. When he buried his last baby brother, he left his home in Connemara, worked his way to Belfast, and got a job on a ship.”

She turned to Mr. Wasserman. “Are you sure you want to hear this?”

He nodded, and she continued.

“The ship’s cook was German and took my great-grandfather on as his mate, taught him all kinds of things, but what my great-granddad loved best was baking. The flour on the ships was riddled with bugs and had lots of chaff—the leftovers after the fine flour went to rich people. Eventually, on one of his voyages to America, he decided to stay. He worked his way across New York, mostly on the barges, but when he got to Rochester, the mills here were producing such good flour that he hired on, eventually became a manager, saved every penny he could, until he had enough to buy one of the smaller mills. And that was that.”

From somewhere behind them came the sound of raised voices. They both got up and hurried to find the source of the commotion. Rounding the corner of the house, where the kitchen apparently was, one of the uniformed servers had a Negro woman by the arm as she struggled to pull free.

“What’s going on here?” Mr. Wasserman demanded.

“Caught this one going through our cans,” the waiter said.

Pip spied a small girl and an even smaller boy, hiding behind a hedge, watching everything. The woman herself was wearing dirty, stained clothing, her eyes large and terrified.

“Call the police,” Mr. Wasserman said, turning to leave.

“Wait,” said Pip. “Please. She’s just hungry.”

The kitchen door opened, and another server emerged, carrying a tray with half-eaten food scraped from the plates of the guests inside. He paused at the strange sight before him.

“Look at all the food going to waste,” Pip said. “They weren’t stealing anything.”

“They? They who?” Mr. Wasserman asked, looking around.

Pip pointed at the hedge, where the children’s frightened faces could be seen peeping through the branches. “This is all being thrown away. Please.”

Mr. Wasserman’s whiskers bristled as his jaw worked back and forth for a moment. “Bag it up.”

“Sir?” said the first server, still holding the woman’s arm tightly.

“I said, bag up everything on that tray.” Mr. Wasserman pointed his cigar at the second waiter. “Give it to her. But,” he turned to jab a finger at the woman, “I want you to take it and leave, hear? Don’t go telling your friends they can all show up here for a free handout.”

The woman gave a tiny nod.

The second server went back inside while the first let go of the woman’s arm. A couple of minutes later, the second man returned, carrying a large paper bag and handed it to the woman.

“Thank you, sir,” she squeaked and backed away. Her children scurried to her, and they all disappeared into the darkness.

A few more heads had appeared in the kitchen doorway, wondering what all the commotion was.

“Back to work, all of you,” Mr. Wasserman said.

He led Pip back into the garden.

“Thank you,” Pip said.

He tried to puff on his cigar again, but it had gone out. “Blast.” He tossed the stub of the cigar into the ashtray and sighed. “Best get back in there, or there’ll be hell to pay.”

He buttoned his collar and fumbled with his bowtie. “Blast.”

“May I?” Pip stepped closer and tugged the two ends to get them even. “I always tie my father’s ties for him.”

She slipped out of the jacket and handed it back. He frowned at her as he donned it.

“Don’t you go telling everyone about that, either,” he said, jerking his head toward the kitchen.

She hid a smile. “No, sir.” As she stepped back into the lights and music and conversation, she thought she heard him mutter something that sounded like “baby brother” and “ship’s cook”, but when she turned around, Mr. Wasserman had disappeared into the crowd.

copyright 2021 Caren J. Werlinger

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17 thoughts on “An Unlit Candle

  1. I was immersed in the characters from the beginning. You caught me by surprise at the date, 1959. And the T-Bird. I once dated a guy with a sleek ’59 T-Bird! Everything about the ball spoke to an earlier era. Just lovely. Pip already knowing that she wanted to explore life. How she chose the contemplative life will be so intriguing to read.

  2. Even with just this little “tease”, it’s easy to see this will be another winner. Your style of writing is mesmerizing. I can’t wait to read more!

  3. Caren, Finished An Unlit Candle a few days ago. It had me hooked from the start. I felt bereft when I finished In this Small Spot last winter, but I have to say that after I finished reading Candle, my feeling was more one of elation. Nice work and really good writing! In less than a year I’ve read all of your books (that is, with the exception of the Dragonmaga series because I’m not into fantasy. That might have to change, however.) Please continue writing, please!
    I hope you are adjusting to and enjoying retirement. I was in a similar situation of retiring a little earlier than I had wanted to at the beginning of this year, but surprisingly I haven’t looked back, and life is good.

    P.S. As a follow up, the Highlands Inn in Bethlehem did sell, apparently to someone who uses it as a private residence, early in the summer. My wife and I are still grieving.

    • Amy, thank you so much for your comment, and for reading. If you do decide to give the Dragonmage Saga a try, I think you’ll find it more similar to my other books than you’d expect from a fantasy. The retirement transition is going well. I’m really sorry to hear the Highlands Inn is no more. We meant to return, but our vacation there remains one of our favorites.

    • Amy, I can say the same, I love Caren’s stories. But, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend her Dragonmage Saga. I happened to finish it the morning that Ukraine’s president spoke to congress and that juxtaposition magnified the horror of human’s history of war, the insane devastation it brings to human culture, And how it threatens a healthy future as a peaceful creatures on this planet. Set in Ireland and saturated with history and ancient lost cultures – it speaks to what we need currently as we face a divided politic and deafness regarding the earth’s health brought about by humans arrogance. The main character’s unique upbringing allows for a heroine unlike most for her connection more to the animals and earth than to humans influenced by cultures that think they are supposed to dominate. I serendipitously followed this story with Diane Beresford-Kroeber ‘s non-fiction book To Speak For The Trees which made me wonder if Caren has read her work too!

  4. I have been burning through your books including In this Small Spot ( I was crushed!) and An Unlit Candle which was beautiful. I’m now reading Year of the Monsoon, the eighth one of your books since I found Invisible, as Music early this month. I continue to be grateful for the incredible stories and the characters I wish I knew personally 🙂

    I’m trying to take a break so I don’t end up having to wait for another. I even put off Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone by Gabaldon when it came my way from the library, because I was beginning Unlit Candle.

    Everything I have read has been like books the way they used to be. They feel not rushed, but lovingly created, full and rich. Thank you!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, and wishes for a happy and soft new year.

    • Kath, thank you so very much for this! I know my books aren’t everyone’s cuppa, so the fact that you’ve enjoyed them this much makes my heart happy! The very Merriest of Christmases to you and your family and friends, and here’s to a healthy, sane 2022 for all of us!

      • Happiest, healthiest of New Years to you and yours ~

        ( And your books are definitely for me ~ continuing gratitude )

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