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Ariana: A New Beginning

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©1998 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

The late November sunlight peeked weakly through the heavy layering of clouds in the sky. The dark billows threatened rain, but I didn't care. Anything was better than what I had faced at home a scarce half hour earlier. I pulled my long coat tightly about my body and sat down on the stone bench opposite my daughter's grave.

I always go to the graveyard when I am troubled. Somehow it seems to make everything clearer. But today things were about to get worse. A lot worse.

My bare hands slid into my pockets, and one hand touched paper. What's this? A smile played on my lips as I brought it out and recognized Jean-Marc's bold script. My husband had occasionally written to me during our nearly seventeen years of marriage, but it was uncommon enough to be unexpected. There was nothing to tell me this note was different. I felt only as if he were at the cemetery with me, warming my chilled hands in his.

"This is just what I need," I whispered softly. Jean-Marc was a good man who had a tendency toward tender, emotion-filled displays of love. He had mellowed over the years, and now his temper rarely surfaced; it was a pity his manner hadn't spilled over to all of our five children. I could still see fifteen-year-old Josette's face, her pretty features contorted with anger. It was she who had driven me here this afternoon.

Marie-Thérèse and I had just returned from the shopping spree I had promised for her sixteenth birthday. She had wanted to find something special for her first date the next week, and I had wanted to give it to her. Though my adopted daughter had grown into a beautiful, self-assured young woman, she was considerably reserved around people outside the family, and I was surprised she had accepted the date at all. Of course he was a member of our church, and of course he would be well-behaved. My Marie-Thérèse would choose no other. I had hoped to help make the experience a positive one.

Twelve-year-old André had met us at the door to our apartment. "Going somewhere?" I asked.

"To Grandma Simone's," he answered.

I nodded. Simone was my two adopted daughters' grandmother on their mother's side. She had only recently settled into an apartment within walking distance.

"Where are the others?"

"Josette's in her room. Dad and Marc went to fix Grandma Simone's sink. Pauline went with them." That last sentence surprised me. André was rarely without Pauline; though Marc and Josette were the twins, André and Pauline were just as close.

"I was sleeping when they left," André added sheepishly, answering my unspoken question.

"I wonder why he didn't call a plumber like we usually do," I said.

At that point, Josette swept into the large entryway, slipping slightly on the polished wood floor. "You took long enough!" she exclaimed. Her dark-brown eyes flashed as she surveyed her sister's purchases. "You got one of those jackets?" She turned to me quickly, her long dark hair fanning out around her. "But you wouldn't buy me one!"

"I said you'd have to wait until your birthday for a second jacket, that's all," I said calmly. "It was your choice to pick out the clothes you did when school started. You picked the nylon coat, not me."

Josette's lips drew together in a pout, marring her perfect complexion. She fingered the rich brown leather her sister had chosen. "You will let me borrow it, won't you?"

Marie-Thérèse hesitated, and I understood all too well her dilemma. Once Josette was given permission to borrow something, it was almost like giving it away; she wouldn't ask a second time. Besides, she didn't care well for her things. Stains and rips were common in her clothing.

Marie-Thérèse brushed back her light-brown locks with a lean hand. Her freckled nose curved slightly upward, giving her a delicate, pixie appearance. "We'll see," she said placatingly.

Her tone didn't fool Josette. "You think you're so great just because you get to go out alone with a boy. I'm the popular one; I'm the one who should be going!" She turned to me. "Mom, please let me go!" She had already been asked out on numerous occasions.

"Not until you're sixteen," I said.

She fumed with exasperation as her anger grew. Though I knew it stemmed from frustration, it bothered me that she had to react so violently. Couldn't she take lessons from her sister?

"A few months," she said, nearly bursting. "It's just a few months difference! I'll bet if Marie-Thérèse had wanted to go a few months ago, you would have let her, wouldn't you?"

I didn't answer. The truth was, I probably would have. Marie-Thérèse was a good judge of character, and she always behaved appropriately. Josette was too volatile, and I feared her immature nature and extraordinary beauty would get her into trouble.

"You just love her better than me, don't you, Mom?" Josette cried. "All my life, you've put her above me, just 'cause she's a little older. It's not fair!" She glared at both of us.

Marie-Thérèse turned pale. She darted a nervous glance at me before making her way around Josette, running through the kitchen and down the hall to the room they had shared since childhood.

"You're such an idiot." The slow drawl came from André, who up until then had watched the display in silence.

Josette whirled to face him, her dark hair once again flying, giving me the impression of a cat arching angrily to face a dog. "What!"

"Mom doesn't love her better than you, she's just trying to make up for Marie-Thérèse not having her real mother!"

Am I doing that? I thought. Aloud I said, "Don't call your sister names, André."

"Sorry, Mom." He was instantly contrite. André had always been the child most attuned to my feelings. Ever since he was a baby, he had given me practically no trouble.

Josette stomped into the kitchen, muttering something under her breath about nosy little brothers. André laughed. "Don't worry, she'll get over it." He kissed my cheek. "I'm leaving now." Coat in hand, he disappeared through the door.

I followed Josette into the kitchen. The dishes from lunch were still sitting on the table. I knew it was her turn to clean up.

"Please change your mind," she pleaded. "I'm old enough. Why can't you see that?" A flash of memory came to mind—a memory of me at the same age. There was no doubt who Josette got her nature from. Had I ever been so young and innocent? So passionate?

"Whose turn is it to clean up?" I asked lightly.

Her face darkened a shade. "Mine," she muttered. "That's all you care about. Dishes and your precious Marie-Thérèse!"

I faced her, my patience fading. "Enough! That's enough!"

Her mouth was open, but clamped shut as she recognized the seriousness in my voice.

I stalked to the door. "When I get back, I'd better find a lot of things changed around here," I declared. "Especially your attitude!" I grabbed my coat from its hanger in the closet near the door and left the apartment.

Now at the graveyard on the outskirts of Paris, I pondered my life since Jean-Marc and I had adopted our young nieces after losing their parents to AIDS. We'd had our problems, but life had been very good. It was hard to believe that ten more years had passed, and I would soon be forty. Forty! Where did the years go?

There was only one thing I really regretted. I had wanted to have a child with Jean-Marc's green-brown eyes. I had thought it might happen in the years after we had adopted the girls, but I had been disappointed. Perhaps that was one more reason why I had been given Paulette's children to raise. The Lord knew that I would never have any more of my own.

Our three biological children all resembled me. Oh, André had his father's firm jaw, but each had my oval face and dark-brown eyes, as well as my thick, unruly brown tresses instead of Jean-Marc's more manageable hair. Marie-Thérèse, of course, looked like her mother. Little Pauline, with her round face, resembled my husband more than anyone; she took after her father, Pierre, Jean-Marc's brother. But none of the children had those extraordinary green-brown eyes.

Feeling a bit foolish, I smiled and laughed aloud, purposely steering my mind back to the letter in my hand. Becoming sentimental seemed to go with turning forty. Something to do with holding on to youth, I supposed.

Jean-Marc had used a simple sheet of lined paper with holes that told me he had taken it from the six-ring binder he always carried in his briefcase. Not very romantic, but at least he had thought to write to me. It was the four-day-old date that first gave me an inkling that something wasn't right; it was odd for my husband to keep silent about it for so long. His usual way would be to contrive something to force me to look in my pocket. He would have taken me out for dinner and asked me to hold the car keys, or some such thing. Why was this different?

These thoughts raced through my mind as I focused on the words and their meaning.
My Dearest Ari,

Have I told you recently how much I love you? Every day you grow more beautiful to me. I don't know how to tell you that I've failed you. I guess by writing this letter, I'm running from having to face you, but I have learned over the years that I can't solve the big things alone. This is one of those things, Ari.

My pulse quickened fearfully, and my hand went to my heart. I didn't want to read the rest. Regardless, my eyes moved relentlessly down the page.
The bank is failing. I've done everything I know to do and have employed the best people to try to stop it, but I can't. It's my fault because I approve all the decisions, but I daresay that several of my employees will be investigated. I suspect they have been embezzling since before your father turned the bank over to me last year—perhaps for many years before that.

Everything we had was tied up in the bank. Everything. I don't know what we're going to do. Our insurance will end next month, and there are Pauline's treatments and special drugs. The children's college and mission funds are gone, too, though we might recover a portion later on. The funds were not insured as they should have been, as the company promised they were—one more thing to be investigated. I just don't know where to go from here. I guess I need to find the heart to start over.

I'm sorry, so very sorry I have failed you. Please forgive me.

Jean-Marc

I blinked twice and shook my head, but the words on the page before me did not change. My heart thudded dully in my chest, and a queasy feeling gripped my stomach. Everything gone? But how? Why? I reread the letter slowly, letting realization penetrate my soggy brain.

Fear was my first emotion—what would we do? How would we pay the bills?—but anger came close on its heels as I instinctively tried to protect myself. We were too old to have to start over! It wasn't fair—we had worked so hard to save and be frugal. Now that the children were older, our life together, Jean-Marc's and mine, was supposed to allow us more time to explore our relationship. We shouldn't have to worry about eking out a living!

The more I thought along these lines, the angrier I grew. I imagined confronting those who had wronged us, seeing them locked away forever behind thick prison bars. They could never replace the comfortable security they had stolen from my life. What about my children? What about little Pauline, who needed a daily dose of drugs for her HIV treatments? All our careful plans for the future now lay in ruins. Could this really be happening?

The anger intensified. Minutes ticked away into an hour as I became absorbed by my fury. Intertwined so intimately with the fear, I felt it eating away at parts of my soul. I knew I should make it stop; yet, in some indescribable way, I wanted to feel the sharp pain because it seemed to further justify my wrath.

Jumping to my feet, I began to pace back and forth before the headstones of my brother, Antoine, and my daughter, Nette. The normally brilliant green grass of the graveyard was faded with the cold, and the trees had lost many of their leaves; yet there was a strange, austere beauty here, even during this time of year. The frail light reflected off the scrollwork on top of the gray stone on Antoine's grave and seemed to send a brief, piercing flash which stopped me abruptly.

The panic I had yielded myself to was suddenly overcome by another emotion, a stronger one of compassion. Poor Jean-Marc! How long had he known? How many months had he tortured himself with these same visions as he tried to shield his family? If I felt the devastation this clearly, how deeply his must run! He had always been confident of his ability to support us—what must he be feeling now?

This new emotion was welcome; it coated my anger, sweet over sour. I had to get to Jean-Marc.

My feet nearly ran down the cobblestone path, boots crunching on loose pebbles, but I hesitated before reaching the black cast-iron gate. I stared at the menacing, pointed tips that topped the fence surrounding the graveyard. Even in the diluted light, they gleamed like inky arrows.

What would I say to my husband? What had I to offer him, except perhaps my own anger at the situation? No; before I faced him, I needed to have something to offer, something to start us in a positive direction. I knew he must be deeply wounded at what he saw as his failure, and my reaction would be a defining moment.

I sighed aloud. "Oh, thank you, Father," I prayed. I didn't want to think about what I might have said had I discovered this note in Jean-Marc's presence. Whatever it was that made him write instead of telling me himself had worked to our advantage.

I methodically retraced my steps and sat again on the stone bench, drawing from my pocket the now-crumpled letter. My coat had opened, and I smoothed the paper out over the thick black leggings I wore underneath a semi-dressy gray sweater. The fear in my husband's simple words was obvious, and it renewed the trepidation in my own heart. I wondered if our lives hadn't changed forever in this short moment of time.

I stopped myself. It was only money. What did it matter as long as we still had each other? Our love had already suffered through much more than this. "You'll get work," I practiced saying aloud. "I can too, now that the children are older. It's not that big a deal. We'll get through this."

That was when I heard steps to my left, on the path that led to the gate and my car parked beyond. I wiped the tears off my cheeks with hands stiff from the cold. I glanced up, thinking to nod and smile at the stranger as he passed. Our eyes met and held. For a moment I didn't recognize the man with the longish dark-blond hair who stared at me. His head cocked slightly backward and to the side in an oddly familiar way, and in his gloved hands he held a bouquet of white roses.

White roses!

At once the flowers bridged the seventeen years between us, and his features became even more familiar: the lean face, the dark-brown eyes, the slight cleft in his chin—all spelling out a certain rugged handsomeness. The compelling smile on his full lips made his expression almost boyishly eager, and I sensed the magnetism that had always hung about him. I stood, trying to gain the advantage height might give me. It made no difference; he was taller still. Why was it that just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, they did?

Lifting my chin slightly, I gazed into the face of the man I had once loved so desperately—the dashing playboy who had nearly destroyed my life, the man who had killed my daughter, my precious Nette. I had hoped never to see him again.

My heart hammered in my ears as I spoke. "Hello, Jacques."

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