Enjoy this excerpt from The Ultimate Guide to Darcy Carter
©Teresa Slack Use by Permission only
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Three weeks later Darcy’s phone rang while she was adding another small southern town to her list of places worth visiting during her trip. “How’s it going out in the ‘burbs? Darcy?” Carla sounded her usual upbeat self, but Darcy knew she wanted something. She never called out of the blue to chat.
“Everything’s fine,” Darcy answered just as chipper. She lived in a small town, not the ‘burbs, but it never did any good trying to explain the difference to Carla. To her, any place boasting less than a million people was uncivilized anyway. “How are things in the city?”
“Couldn’t be better. Now, Darce, the reason I called…”
Darcy braced herself for the lecture surely on its way.
“Have you given any thought to the next book?”
“That’s all I’ve been thinking about. In fact, my research here at home base is finished, and I’m packing up to head south.”
“South?” Carla sounded thoroughly confused. “You shouldn’t have to go any farther than the soccer field or mini mall or wherever you people congregate to find Mr. Right. Or even, Mr. He’ll-Do-In-A-Pinch.”
“Carla. Hello. Did you hear a word I said the last time we talked? I’m not doing the Mr. Right book. I’m researching cafes in the South, remember? I’ve found all sorts of interesting places I want to check out. Renovated gas stations and five and dimes. Lost in those little throwaway towns that most of us bypass on the freeway without thinking about the people who live there.”
“Sounds great,” Carla said with little enthusiasm. “Nostalgia. Still sells books. I love it. But I thought you wanted to take a break before starting Mr. Right.”
“I am taking a break. That’s why I’m going to North Carolina. I plan to relax and unwind and get some research done at the same time.”
Carla chuckled. “Same old Darcy. You never change, do you? But see, the thing is, I mentioned the Mr. Right book to Brad and he went crazy. He loved it. Says it’s just the kind of title we need. Something edgy. He wants you to get started on it right away. The wheels are already turning on our end. Not necessarily the way I prefer, but he’s the boss. You know how it is. So Darcy, it really means a lot to the company that you write this book—”
Darcy was no longer comfortable with the way the phone call was going. This wasn’t just Carla giving some friendly helpful editor advice. “Carla, what are you saying? Does the publishing house have a problem with my books? Because last time I checked I’d sold over two million copies for the big happy family I thought we all were a part of.” She heard her voice rising and felt her face getting hot. “Am I nothing more than a Jerry Springer guest now? Whatever happened to quality nonfiction that continues to sell books? According to my last quarterly report, my first one is still selling strong.”
“It’s all right, Darcy, calm down,” Carla said a little too forcefully. “No one is saying you haven’t done more than what was expected of you. But, well, we all know there is more in you than sweet little pieces about selling your home or landing the job of your dreams.”
“So, you’re siding with Brad. Brad the Barracuda?” She enunciated Carla’s own nickname for the senior editor of their department.
“Darcy, you know I love you, girl. I’d gladly go to the mat for you. I have more than once.” She took another drag off her cigarette, and her voice softened. “Listen, sweetie, I think you should know what’s going on here. Yes, your books are still selling strong. But the company’s changing. Old man Baxter is getting older. He’s about to hand the reins over to George. Once that happens, George will be moving Brad up to V.P., and Brad wants a more contemporary backlist.”
Darcy’s heart sank. She remembered the two years of looking for a publishing house for her first book, and then getting it published. It had been a long frustrating journey. Once the first book was in print and the next two in production, things went much smoother. For the past eight and a half years she had been home pumping out books with no concerns about what was happening in New York. Each book she wrote was well received. Smooth sailing. Just the way she wanted it. Now they wanted edgy. Well, she didn’t do edgy.
She imagined herself back on the frontlines looking for another publisher. Yes, she had credentials now. Almost three million books in print and a twenty-book backlist. But would that be enough if the whole publishing world was looking for ‘edgy’?
“Darcy, are you still there?”
She blew out a puff of air. “Yeah, Carla, I’m still here.”
Carla only had her best interests at heart, but she also had a job to do. Keep the writers writing, the books on the bestsellers’ list, the money flowing in. Just how much going to the mat was she even capable of doing on Darcy’s behalf?
Darcy decided to take a stand. “Listen, Carla, I’ll think about everything you said. Tell Brad I’m headed to North Carolina next week. I’m already in love with this new book idea. I’ve got reservations at this little B&B in the heart of the Smoky Mountains that’ll serve as my home base. It’s called the Danbury Inn. Doesn’t that sound gorgeous? It’s been in the same family since the First World War. They’re doing something right because they’re known all over the South. They’ve been showcased in all kinds of magazines. Talk about nostalgic. Perfect location. You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque town. There are also quite a few diners and cafés in the area where I can get a lot of work done.”
“This sounds like it could take months,” Carla said, her tone doubtful.
“It might,” Darcy admitted.
“Just don’t forget the clock’s ticking. I need a finished manuscript on my desk by August if you want a book on the shelves in the spring.”
Darcy took a deep breath. “I’m not working against the clock this time, Carla. It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t release a book every six to ten months.”
“All right, whoever you are,” Carla shrieked in mock horror, “what have you done with Darcy?” She leveled her voice. “Listen, sweetie, you’re the one who got us all used to your hectic pace. Don’t blame us if we have a hard time accepting that you want to slow down now that your age is catching up with you.”
Darcy chose to ignore the old age comment, although at this moment she felt very old indeed. “Regardless, I’m not changing my plans because Brad wants edgy. I’m still the creator here. I can’t change what I write to please a bean counter.”
“Hold on now, Darce,” Carla cautioned. “That bean counter helped turn you into a million copy selling author.”
“I realize that, Carla,” Darcy said, fighting to keep her voice even, “and I appreciate the company taking a chance on me way back when. But I had a lot to do with selling those books, too. I’m not a puppet. Just let me write this book, okay? I won’t be out of town more than a month or two. When I come back, I’ll bring it to New York personally. Then I’ll have a meeting with you and Brad, and we’ll discuss my future.”
“Oh, Darcy, honey, I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I love you, Carla, but you have to trust me. I need this.”
“Well, have a good time in Mayberry, then. Get this café book out of your system. I’ll keep Brad out of your hair. As far as he’s concerned, you’re taking a break. This isn’t a slave state, you know. He can’t expect you to keep pumping out books at your pace indefinitely.” Carla chuckled. “When you get home, we’ll have our meeting with Brad. But trust me, Darcy, it isn’t only him who wants more contemporary titles. This idea is past due. I’ll agree to whatever you want, but I’m not giving up on Finding Mr. Right.”
I already have, Darcy thought ruefully as she placed the phone on its base. She stared out the window. Finding Mr. Right was a useless pursuit. She knew it and Carla had been around long enough to know it, too.
She wouldn’t be bullied into writing a book she didn’t believe in. She shook her head in disbelief. How had her career come to this? Twenty books behind her and she could be without a publisher by summer. She sat down at the kitchen table, and put her chin in her hands. What would she do then? Maybe that change in careers would come about sooner than she anticipated.
One thing she knew, she wasn’t going to spend the next few months looking for someone who didn’t exist. She might as well search for Sasquatch while she was in North Carolina for all the good looking for Mr. Right would do her.
Also Available by Tsaba House A Tender Reed
©Teresa Slack by permission only
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I awoke to the sound of Gypsy barking like a wild thing. She had spent the night outside on the front porch like she often did when the weather was nice. Leaving her outside overnight was not a problem. The farmhouse was two miles down a back road, off another back road, off a minor highway; and the nearest neighbors on either side, were both kin to us. Every now and then Gypsy would wake me up barking at another dog a couple of miles away with a combination bark/howl sequence, depending on how put out she was, to let anyone who cared know she was on duty and not to go getting any ideas. Normally I'd roll over and go back to sleep. She wasn't the watchdog she'd been a few years ago. I assume she finally realized nothing much happened around here that warranted losing a night's sleep. Unless someone was standing over me with a chain saw, she didn't raise her hackles. Even then I had my doubts.
I rolled over and looked at the clock: six-fifteen, and on my weekend off. I had planned to sleep in, which for me was about seven. I stuffed the pillow around my ears and tried to ignore her.
The barking continued, unabated. It wasn't her usual "there's-a-squirrel-in-the-tree" announcement, or "here-comes-the-meter-reader-and-I-haven't-got-anything-better-to-do" barking. She wasn't stopping. I could either stay where I was as the racket wore on my every nerve, or get out of bed.
Ugh, that dog! One of these days…
I threw the sheet off my damp body. For a moment the change in temperature, or maybe just the breeze from the sheet, cooled my skin, but then I was hot again. It was going to be another scorcher, like every other August day in northern Arkansas.
I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the queen-sized bed, the linoleum cool and delicious under my bare feet. I went to the window and hit the pane with the heel of my hand to loosen the swollen wood. Someday I would install vinyl windows. It sure would be nice to have windows that slid smoothly up and down, and didn't have to be propped open with a stick of wood. I had dialed the flashing number at the bottom of the screen during one of those TV commercials last fall, and the guy offered me a discount if I agreed to replace every window in the old farmhouse. Only two-twenty per, installed. That was big of him. This house had thirty windows if it had one.
I stuck my head out the screen-less window to see what had Gypsy stirred up. She was on the front porch directly below me. I couldn't see her through the porch roof, but I could tell by her infernal barking she was standing next to the left roof support, above the top step, her usual post. I listened for any other noises that may have disturbed her. Could it be another dog barking; Uncle DeWitt doing some early morning tinkering down the road; a masked gunman breaking through the front door? All was quiet, except for Gypsy.
"Gypsy!" I hollered in my early morning croak. It was a good thing for me there was only family within a half-mile radius. If my melodious voice reached them through the leafy trees and other morning sounds, they wouldn't be alarmed. "Knock off that barking."
She paused for a half second before going right back at it. She wasn't going to listen to any commands from me as long as she knew I wasn't serious enough to come downstairs to correct her.
With an aggravated huff, I left the window and flopped on the edge of the bed. I stepped into the pair of cotton shorts I'd stepped out of the night before, pulled them up over the tail of my thin nightgown, and padded down the stairs in my bare feet.
If she was carrying on over a dead snake she'd dragged onto the porch, I was going to really let her have it. The other night, she'd dug a mole out of the yard and then barked at the blind, confused creature and knocked it around every time it struggled to get back underground. She wouldn't kill it; she just tortured it for her own pleasure. My beloved Australian Shepard-Beagle-Collie mix was a Nazi.
I finally had to kill the mole with a shovel and throw its body over the fence. If I had to get that up close and personal with a snake, Gypsy was going to be in hot water.
I yanked the front door open with enough force to demonstrate my irritation at getting woke up so early. I stepped out onto the porch and set my fists on my hips to drive home my point. Gypsy stopped barking long enough to glance at me over her shoulder before turning back toward the road and starting in again. Well, the posturing hadn't worked. It was time to get serious. "Gypsy, for crying out loud, is this necessary? Do you think the neighbors appreciate hearing your mouth at six o'clock in the morning?"
Gypsy and I lived alone on what remained of my family's farm. Consequently, I had taken to talking to her like she was a person instead of a dog from the first day I brought her home. I enjoyed her company above any other living creature on the earth, so I figured she deserved the respect. I also believed she understood more that came out of my mouth than the usual "Sit" and "Stay". In fact, those were the words she chose not to understand.
Rather than heed the irritation in my voice and stature, she leaped off the porch, bypassing the steps in one bound, and landed deftly on the worn dirt path. She headed to the opening in the white picket fence, some fifty feet away, where the path met the road. She dashed through the opening where a gate once stood and made a right turn toward the mailbox on the other side of a thirty-year-old lilac bush. The white gate that I passed through every day on my way to and from the school bus had been missing for years. Even back then the gate was loose, one hinge rusted and squeaky, the other completely gone. Uncle Jeb was never handy around the house, regardless of how he talked. I couldn't remember exactly when the gate disappeared for good, but I think it was around the time I started applying for scholarships, when I had a personal reason for checking the mail. I still painted the wooden fence every other year so it remained white and crisp against the lilac and forsythia bushes, but I never gave a thought to the missing gate—until now.
I could see Gypsy's hindquarters sticking out from behind the lilac bush. Her fluffy tail was erect, the tip twitching ever so slightly. She barked once more for effect, and then got quiet. While she still felt the need to proceed with caution to whatever was on the other side of the fence, she was no longer threatened. At least I could dismiss the notion of someone waiting for me with a chainsaw; I hoped.
I wished now I'd taken the time to slip into a pair of shoes before hurrying out the door. The dirt under my feet was cold and wet. I'd track mud into the house when I went back inside if I didn't spray them off with the garden hose around back. I winced as a pebble dug into the ball of my foot. That blasted dog, one of these days I was going to wring her neck. Whatever she was carrying on about had better be worth all this trouble if she knew what was good for her.
I stepped through the garden gate and turned right. The dirt path ended and I stepped into the dew-covered grass. Gooseflesh rose on my bare legs. "Gypsy, what's all the…" I began as I rounded the lilac bush.
Gypsy looked at me over her shoulder and then sat back on her haunches, barely missing my foot. She turned back to her discovery.
I followed her gaze. My breath caught in my throat. Gypsy sensed my reaction and jumped forward, I suppose, to assure me there was no cause for alarm.
She put her nose against the trembling little boy, circled him and the little girl huddled next to him in the cold grass, and then looked back at me. "I told you it was important," her reproving gaze told me. "Now what are you going to do about it?"
I forced myself out of my trance and moved gingerly forward, so not to startle the wide-eyed children staring up at me.
That's when I recognized them. "Jonah? Emma?"
Neither of the children's expression changed.
Gypsy nudged closer, apparently satisfied that all was well. She put her nose against the little boy's neck and sniffed. He turned his head toward her and his lips twitched into a smile. A tiny hand reached out and disappeared into her thick, dark red coat. It was all the encouragement Gypsy needed. She shoved against him and nuzzled his neck. Then she reached across him to inspect his sister, knocking him over with her broad body in the process.
I stepped forward. "Gypsy, stop."
I heard a muffled giggle.
I took hold of Gypsy's collar and pulled her back. The little boy lay on his back in the grass, his knees pulled up to his chest where Gypsy had upended him. At the sight of me towering over him, the giggling ended abruptly and his face sobered.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
He stared up at me. After a moment, he pulled himself upright and asked in a tiny voice, "Are you my Aunt Shell?"
"Shell." That's what my kid sister, Nicole used to call me before she could pronounce Michelle. Someone must have told him where he was going and who to expect. He never would have recognized me on his own. The last time I saw him, nearly two years ago, he was still a baby. I wouldn't have recognized him either had I seen him somewhere else, under different circumstances.
At the sound of the little boy's voice, Gypsy lunged forward and broke free from my grasp on her collar. She loved everyone, but children were her favorite. She inspected the little boy's face with her wet nose, before straddling him to get to his sister again. Emma shrank away from the big dog's face, apparently not as sure of her intent as Jonah.
I moved forward again and took hold of her collar once more. "Gypsy, that's enough," I said sternly. I gave her collar a firm jerk. She reluctantly complied and sat down at my feet, never taking her eyes off the children.
"Yes, I'm your Aunt Michelle. You must be Jonah and Emma." I leaned forward and held my arms out to him. He paused for only a moment before reaching willingly for me. From what I remembered, he had been a shy baby, but the wet grass and fear of spending—who knows how long—out here by the gate, drove him into my arms.
Gypsy whimpered and looked like she was about to pounce again, but a growled "stay" command from me kept her in her place.
I took Jonah in my arms and straightened. He wrapped his legs around me. His bare feet chilled me through my thin nightgown. How long had they been sitting out here? Not long since Gypsy had just started barking, but long enough that he shivered in the morning air.
I shifted Jonah to my right hip and reached out my free hand to his sister. Emma looked from my hand to Jonah and back again before reaching out to take it. She stood up on shaky legs. Her feet were also bare. She was dressed in a pair of cotton shorts and a baggy tee shirt that looked like she'd slept in it. She gave Gypsy a nervous look. Gypsy stood up and returned the stare, eager, waiting. Cautiously, Emma reached out with her other hand and took hold of Gypsy's collar.
When our bedraggled group stepped away from the lilac bush, I noticed a frayed book bag in the grass. I presumed it contained their belongings. I would come back for it later, after I got them into the house, into something warm and dry, and put some food in their bellies. It looked like they could use it. I headed up the dirt path, no longer concerned about the mud that would be tracked across my relatively clean floors.
Jonah bounced on my hip, his cold feet snuggling intentionally against my warmth. Emma's hand trembled in mine. I still hadn't heard a peep out of her. Gypsy, who wasn't that big of a dog, came nearly to the little girl's shoulder. She strode beside Emma, her head and tail erect, the only one in our raggedy group apparently happy with the situation.
I was a registered nurse; trained to take care of the situation first, fix what was wrong, make everyone as comfortable as possible, and ask questions later. I didn't need to worry right now about how they came to be under my lilac bush. I didn't want to think of them sitting alone outside, just inches from the road where anyone could have come by in the early morning light and run them over.
And I certainly didn't want to worry about Nicole. As my mind conjured up questions, I resolutely pushed them aside. There was too much else to worry about now. I couldn't think about what terrible thing may have befallen my sister to cause her to leave her two young children in my front yard without a word of explanation. Or worse, that nothing had happened and she just plain abandoned them.