Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel


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By Morning Light

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2006 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

Kerrianne Price sat on her bed with a heavy sigh. Today had been the second worst day of her life. Funny thing was, it was supposed to have been one of the happiest. Seeing her baby brother sealed to the woman he loved and watching them stare at each other with adoration shining in so blatantly in their eyes should have warmed her heart. And it had.

For a time.

Except that after Tyler and Savvy had driven away in their Jeep, decorated generously with shaving cream, streamers, and pop cans, her parents and other siblings had gone to their vehicles with their spouses, discussing the day and exchanging special looks that could only be shared by couples in love. Kerrianne didn't have any special looks cast in her direction.

Normally her big, loud, loving family was the main thing between her and despair. They were good to her, and she certainly didn't begrudge their happiness. Yet why did it hurt so much that when all was said and done, no matter how good they were to her, the space next to her was empty?

Kerrianne went home alone. Well, not exactly alone. Her three children were in the van—all of them falling asleep. When they were back in Pleasant Grove, eight-year-old Misty roused enough to stumble inside to her bed while Kerrianne carried in the little boys, one at a time.

The house was quiet—too quiet—as she knew it would remain in the late evenings for a long time to come. Tyler wouldn't be stopping by so often or staying the night as he had in the past. He was married now, and it was right that he spent most of his time with Savvy. But Kerrianne knew that for her it meant more hours of silence and loneliness. Oh, he wouldn't mean to leave her alone, as her other siblings hadn't meant to, but life took over. Despite her family's great love for her, not one of them could really comprehend the complete loneliness she felt.

The feeling was with her always. In church, in the grocery story, at the school where she was active in the PTA. After Adam's death, couples she had once been friends with slowly faded away as though they worried the same loss could touch their own happiness. No longer was she part of a pair but a fifth wheel, not necessarily unwanted but unneeded. But nowhere did she feel as out of place as in her own home in the dead of night when the children were sleeping. In her own big bed where her husband's pillow lay unused except to soak up her many tears.

She loved Adam intensely. Loved the shape of his head, the blue of his eyes, the smile he had reserved only for her. The way she felt safe in his arms . . . and loved. So loved.

On the worst day of her life, her perfect dream was shattered. Adam had died, his compact car crushed like a tin can by an old truck whose youthful driver had lost control. In a few hours it was over. Hours of suffering, of tears.

Next to the silence, Kerrianne most hated being alone. She hated not feeling Adam's touch on her face, watching him brush his teeth in the bathroom mirror, and listening to the love songs he sang for her on his guitar. She hated not being able to lay her head on his chest and listen to the beating of his heart.

"Adam," she whimpered, blinking back tears. Sometimes, if everything was right, she could feel him like a whisper against her skin. A touch of warmth on her senses. Often in the past years, she'd had the distinct impression that he was looking down on her and the kids. But of late these impressions were coming less and less often. As though to make up for the loss, Kerrianne found herself talking to him more than she probably should.

People told her she needed to go on with her life. Nearly four years. Yes, it had been a long time—seemingly a lifetime—but Kerrianne still felt she was living in limbo . . . waiting. For what?

But she knew.

She was waiting for Adam to come home.

Shaking her head, she impatiently wiped away her tears. Adam wouldn't like to see her this way; she hoped he wasn't watching now and seeing how cowardly she was behaving. She knew her lack of faith was showing, too, for she could never deny the comfort she received from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing where Adam was made missing him bearable.

A shadowy movement from the hall caught her attention. She heard feet brush against the carpet. Goose bumps rippled up her spine, and her heart began pounding furiously. Her muscles clenched, ready to defend her family. "Who's there?" she called.

The shadow stepped forward, becoming Benjamin, her six-year-old son. "Mommy, can I sleep with you?" His big eyes were large in his small face, now threatening tears. In the dim light coming from the window, his hair looked blonder than usual, his skin more translucent.

"Did you have a bad dream?"

He shook his head. "I just want you."

Kerrianne wasn't surprised. Since starting first grade, Benjamin had been more clingy and anxious to have her close. During the first few months of school, she had gone every morning before lunch to help in the classroom just so he could see her and feel comforted. Now she only went once or twice a week. "Come on, then." She patted the bed. "You can stay here until you fall asleep. There's plenty of room."

He smiled and climbed up next to her, holding out his arms for a big hug. "I love you, Mommy."

"I love you, too."

Kerrianne was tucking the covers around him when he spoke again. "Mommy, if you found a daddy, then you wouldn't have any room for me here, would you?"

Kerrianne forced a strangled laugh. "Where did that come from?"

"I heard two ladies talking. They said Savvy's dress was too fancy and that you should get married."

"Who were they?"

She felt him shrug. "Don't know."

Kerrianne felt a wave of bitterness, remembering how one woman at Adam's funeral had told her she should get remarried soon, as though a husband were replaceable, like a car part or a pair of jeans. Aloud, she said,

"Well, they shouldn't have said anything. It isn't any of their busin—it's really not up to them."

"But I wouldn't mind. I could always bring my blanket and sleep on the floor." That was Benjamin, accommodating to a fault.

"Don't worry, honey. You won't have to sleep on the floor."

He lay on her left arm and snuggled into her side. After a few minutes she could tell he was asleep, but she didn't move, savoring the momentary peace. Kerrianne was so grateful for Benjamin, for all her children. Being their mother was enough . . . wasn't it?

Her right hand stole out to touch Adam's pillow. The fabric was cold. Fighting tears, Kerrianne took her arm out from under Benjamin and hugged the pillow to her chest. It no longer smelled like him—the pillowcase had been washed many times since his smell had first faded—but it comforted her nonetheless.

After an hour of restless tossing, Kerrianne got up and went outside to her garage where she kept her stash of semisweet baking chocolate in her chest freezer. In the dim light from the single overhead bulb, she inched down the cold cement steps, jabbing her toes against Misty's bike tire. Stepping over the bike, she opened the lid. With dismay, she saw that she was down to one smallish bar the size of her hand. That meant another trip to the store when she thought she'd bought enough to last two weeks. She couldn't risk being without a stash. Grabbing the chocolate, she let the freezer lid fall and went inside the family room, ripping off the plastic as she went.

She stopped at the CD player to slip in one of the new CDs her brother Tyler had made of Adam's taped songs. He'd done a great job, undistinguishable from the original, and she was grateful that with the extra copies and the hard drive backup, she would never have to worry about losing at least this part of her husband. His guitar music had been important to him, and so it was important to her.

She sat on the couch, bringing a foot under her and the chocolate to her mouth. The first bite was difficult to work off with her teeth, but the shards of cold chocolate melted quickly in her mouth. By the time she was finished with the chocolate bar, she was feeling significantly better. As long as there is chocolate, she thought, women will somehow manage to survive.

* * *

When the morning light angled through Kerrianne's blinds to wake her at nearly eight-thirty, she was tempted to stay in bed, to put Adam's pillow over her head and block out the light. After all, everyone deserved to sleep late on Saturday. But if she did that, she wouldn't be able to get the mail. She was one of the first houses on the postal route, and she hated the idea of letting the mail sit in her box unattended. Not that it was in much danger of being stolen. There had been a rash of mail thefts years ago that had started her morning habit, but there hadn't been trouble lately.

There could be again. She pushed herself from bed, knowing it was little more than an excuse. The mail gave her purpose, forcing her out of bed on those days that she wanted only to stay in bed forever and drown in her own tears. Days when even the bars of semisweet chocolate in her freezer failed to make her feel better.

Reaching out, she softly stroked Benjamin's blond hair. She had forgotten to take him to his bed last night, but it really didn't matter. There was plenty of room here. Of all the children, Benjamin took after Adam the most. Sometimes looking at him brought a swell of pride—as it did right now—but at others it brought a bitter
despair.

"I'm being brave, Adam," she whispered, though she couldn't feel him near. "I am."

Resolutely, she pulled on a pair of old sweats. It wouldn't do to get the mail in her robe if the mailman was still nearby. Passing the family room, she heard the TV on. Apparently Misty and Caleb were already up watching their allotted hour of Saturday cartoons.

Four-year-old Caleb spied her as she peeked in the room. "Mommy!" Immediately, he left the TV and launched himself across the room and into her arms.

"Good morning, sweetie." She kissed him, enjoying the feel of his plump arms around her neck. His thick hair had darkened to a light brown over the years and was sticking out in all directions as it usually was, unlike Misty, whose hair curled in many ringlets like a porcelain doll, looking beautiful even without a brushing. Or Benjamin's, whose finer strands knew how to lay obediently flat.

"Getting the mail?" he asked.

"Yes."

"I'm coming, but first . . ." He wriggled from her grasp and disappeared up the stairs toward the room he shared with Benjamin.

Smiling, Kerrianne went out onto her porch. The November frost was already melting on the lawn from the rays of the sun. She could see the mail truck down the road and watched the mailman reach from the cab to put letters in the boxes. The truck pulled up at her house, and the mailman hesitated when he glanced up and saw her waiting. Kerrianne smiled, unsure if he could see her response. She was surprised when he climbed from his vehicle and started up the walk. He had letters in his hand, but not a package, nothing that should evoke such a treatment.

He was wearing the blue uniform coat, the blue trousers with the dark stripe down the side, and the heavy boots he always wore in the winter. In the summer it was a blue shirt and long shorts that showed remarkably fit and tan legs. Kerrianne blushed at the thought. Not that I ever look at his legs, she told herself. Suddenly, she became aware of her stringy hair, unwashed face, and shapeless sweats.

Why would she think about that now?

She shifted her bare feet uncomfortably on the cold welcome mat. The door banged behind her, and Caleb appeared with a large blue ball. He giggled before he threw it at the mailman, who was now only a couple of yards away. Surprised, the man gamely stuck out a hand for the ball, barely missing the catch.

Her son giggled. "You missed!" he sang, dancing from foot to foot on the cold porch.

"Caleb!" Kerrianne scolded, though she couldn't force too much objection behind the words. He was simply too cute.

The mailman grinned. "That's okay."

"I always throw him the ball," Caleb protested.

Kerrianne blinked. She knew her son often watched for the mail truck on the mornings she was getting the other children ready for the school bus but had never dreamed he'd been throwing balls at the mailman.

"It's really okay." The man bent over for the ball. "I'm just slow this morning. It's a little cold."

"I'll say." Kerrianne shivered.

"Here's your mail. Thought I'd save you the trip to the box." His eyes went to her bare feet, which were becoming quite frozen. He couldn't have possibly seen from the curb that she was barefoot. How did he know? Did people always dash out to the mailbox without their shoes—even in the winter?

"Thank you." Kerrianne accepted the letters, meeting his eyes briefly. They were a dark, intense gray, unreadable in his handsome face. His hair, black and curling slightly, was longer in the back than she generally liked to see in a man, but it suited him well. He wore an extremely short beard, as though he'd let the hair grow for only a few weeks, something she hadn't noticed in all the years he'd been on her route, but it suited him, too.

She felt a strange disappointment when his eyes left hers and went to Caleb. He balanced the ball on the tips of his fingers. "Catch!" he called.

Caleb held out his hands, and the mailman tossed it to him in a way that told Kerrianne he had practice with small children. She smiled at the delighted grin on Caleb's face when he managed to hang onto the ball.

"Again, again!" Caleb chanted.

"Honey, he has to go."

"That's all right. One more time, okay, buddy?" The gray eyes glinted as he said the words.

Caleb tossed the ball and then caught it again. With a smile and a wave the mailman strode toward his Jeep.
"Thank you," Kerrianne called.

He turned without slowing his gait. "I've got a boy his age. I know how they are. Have a good day."

Kerrianne wished he wouldn't go. She wished she could talk to him . . . about the weather, the mail route, politics—anything. She groaned. What am I thinking? With a sigh, she opened the door and went inside. Next thing she knew, she'd take up going to fast food restaurants just to for some conversation. Or make an extra trip to Macey's to talk to that friendly checker who liked to chat with customers.

How desperate am I? Kerrianne wondered.

"Mommy, are you okay?" Caleb asked, following her inside.

She crouched down next to him. "I'm fine, honey. I'm just missing Uncle Tyler."

"But you saw him yesterday."

"I know, honey. But he's married now, and we won't see him quite as much."

|Caleb frowned. "Oh." Then he brightened. "Then we'll go see him whenever we want."

"That's right. We'll go see him. Come on, now. Let's make breakfast."

Kerrianne thought longingly of chocolate, but she'd eaten it all. Besides, it wasn't healthy living on chocolate alone, and she also didn't want to fight another acne battle. She didn't care what skin experts said about chocolate not causing blemishes. The only time she ever broke out was after raiding her stash.

* * *

Ryan Oakman whistled as he made his way back to his mail truck. He normally hated working Saturdays, as he liked to spend the day with his children, but they were shorthanded today, so he'd come in, even though he'd already put in his five days that week. He was glad it was a slow mail day; he'd be home by four, maybe earlier if he hurried. That would give him plenty of time to be with the kids before the play that evening, and he could use the overtime with Christmas coming up. Tiger wanted a bicycle and Ria was angling for a video game and a new baseball mitt. Not any baseball mitt, mind you, but the best money could buy. She was serious about her baseball. She was serious about every sport she played.

Ryan frowned as he thought about his daughter. She was a girl, but she didn't seem to realize it. She dressed like a boy and even cut her hair short. Not like the blonde girl who lived at this house, the one who looked like a dainty porcelain doll. Still, even the blonde girl enjoyed tossing the ball about with her little brothers. He'd usually see her outside several times a week—except this past week when it had become so cold.
Thinking of the boy made him smile. He and Tiger were two of a kind; it was too bad they didn't live near each other so they could play.

Glancing up at the house, he saw Mrs. Price turn to go inside. She was an interesting sort. In all the years he'd been on the route they'd rarely exchanged more than two words. Yet every morning she was there. In warm weather she often sat on the porch waiting, or she would come out as he drove away from her house. He'd occasionally look back and see her sitting on her porch, holding the mail and lifting her face to the sun.

She was an enigma to him. There was something tragic about her face, something intense, but he had no idea what it meant. All he knew was that she waited each morning for the mail, almost as though her life depended on it. At first he had wondered if she was waiting for a certain letter, but over the years her habits had not changed.

He'd been glad to deliver her mail. He made sure to be on time. None of the others people who lived on this route seemed to care about the time he came, but she did, and that was enough. Even when his own life was in turmoil and he wondered if he could go on another day, he had forced himself to go to work because he knew she'd be waiting. It had been a reason for him to get out of bed, when there had been so many other reasons to give up.

Laurie, he thought. Two years had passed since his wife's death. The thought of her no longer brought the searing pain, but only the terrible ache of loss. He'd gone on with his life for the sake of the children, as Laurie had urged him to do in the weeks before her death. He'd even started dating this past year, and while it felt strange at first, he'd become accustomed to the company of other women. But lately he'd begun doubting that another woman he could connect with on the same level even existed. Perhaps Laurie had been his one and only chance for love. At least he had the promise of eternity with her.

That morning Mrs. Price wasn't the only one waiting for him on his route. Down two houses, Maxine Madison, a sixty-something widow, was out on her porch and came trotting up to his truck before he even came to a full stop.

Maxine was definitely a striking, noticeable woman. She had a ready smile, piercing eyes that seemed to see everything, and a little bit of attitude. Once she'd told him that she was going to the grave kicking and screaming, and that was why she dyed her hair, exercised every day, and kept her wardrobe updated. "I may be getting up there," she'd said, "but I'm far from dead yet."

Pushing away the memory, he smiled. "Up early, I see."

She snorted. "Early? Are you kidding? It's almost nine. I've been up for hours. I've already walked three miles, done all my laundry, answered five e-mails, and read five chapters in my new book. Early, schmurly."

"Wow, I wish you could have done my route for me. That way I could be home sleeping." He covered a yawn with his hand.

"I bet you stayed up late last night because of the play, didn't you?" She paused, but when he didn't reply, she rolled her eyes. "That's a hint in case you didn't recognize it. Goodness, you have to spell out everything for the younger generation these days."

Ryan stifled a smile. Younger generation. He hadn't thought of himself that way for many years. To tell the truth, thirty-four didn't feel all that young. "What are you talking about?"

Maxine's pale brown eyes narrowed. "Did you forget my tickets?"

"Tickets?" he asked innocently.

"Humph!" She folded her arms and glared at him.

He titled his head back and laughed. "Don't worry, Maxine, I got 'em. I know you've been waiting." He pulled the pair from his coat pocket and handed them to her.

Maxine's face relaxed, and a grin appeared. "You'd better have remembered. I'm taking a friend to your play tonight."

"Oh, is it that gentleman I saw you with last month?"

Maxine gave a little gasp and glanced heavenward. "Then I wouldn't have needed the tickets; he'd have been buying. Our generation isn't like yours at all. The gentleman always pays. No. I'm taking a woman friend with me tonight."

Ryan imagined two little old ladies watching the play together. He grinned. "I'll be sure and put on a good show."

"You always do, dear." She patted his hand that was braced on the side of the truck. "Now where's my mail? Come on, I don't have all day. There's stuff to do, people to see, so let's get a move on. I'm not getting any younger, unfortunately."

Ryan handed her a small bundle, his mouth twitching. "I bet that widower has a hard time keeping up with you."

"Him? Darn right. He's lucky to make it to the end of the walk. But he'll get in shape, you'll see."

"Oh, does that mean I hear wedding bells in the future?"

Maxine looked aghast. "Are you kidding? And have to wash his clothes and make dinner each night? No way. I've paid my dues. If I was younger, maybe I'd feel differently, but I'm enjoying running my own life. No, getting him in shape is purely for my own good. I don't enjoy sitting on the porch sipping juice all day. Now if they let us have coffee, it might be worth it . . ." She looked at him expectantly, but he didn't react. "I'm kidding, for crying out loud. Vile stuff, coffee, but there's no reason we can't make a joke now and again. You have to tell that wife of yours to get you out a bit more. It's plain as the nose on your face that you're working too hard."

Ryan's face froze, though he tried not to let Maxine see. She didn't know him, not really. For all the years she'd chatted with him at the curb, they hadn't gotten that far into his personal life. The only reason she knew of his involvement at the community theater was that she'd spotted him there a few months earlier. She certainly didn't know about Laurie. She didn't know that this job, the theater, and his kids were the entire extent of his life.

"You okay, Ryan?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he managed. "Just fine. And you're right. I'm working too hard. But I won't be tonight. You'll enjoy the play. My little girl's in it, too. Plays a boy, though. She's the skinny one with the cap that follows Robin Hood around. She's hilarious. If you have time, come on back and meet her." His breath was coming easier now, and he was relieved to see the concern leave her face.

"Will do. Bye, now. Thanks for the tickets." With a little wave, Maxine headed up the walkway.

Ryan pushed on the gas, determined not to stop again. Any more delays like that and he might not make it through this day.

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