If you read To Save Him in 2016, then you’ll be familiar with Love and Darkness. I’ve rewritten it, but not much has changed in the new version–save the touches I’ve done with the entire Small Town Secrets series tying all the stories together.
A couple things: this book is releasing in August and the giveaway is going to be huge, so keep your eyes peeled for that. And the cover reveal will be coming soon, too!
In the meantime, though, I wanted to tease you with a chapter. Enjoy!
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Chapter One of Love and Darkness
After my husband left with his shiny new girlfriend, I tried picking up the pieces but floundered. I was fortunate enough to already be an established independent author, but I had to step up my game, now spending seven or more hours a day writing and marketing as opposed to a max of thirty hours a week. Since Mel devolved into irresponsibility after he left and seemed to have forgotten he had kids, I became the sole breadwinner for my family. It involved hard work and discipline, but I’d done it, emerging a victor. So screw Mel.
No. Fuck him.
One afternoon a few years after the sleazeball left, I was busy writing, going at quite a pace. On this particular day, I had about forty-five minutes left before the kids got home from school and I’d skipped my last break, because I needed to get the words down on paper. As of yet, I hadn’t met my daily goal.
And now the damned doorbell wasn’t helping.
After typing a couple of notes so I could pick up where I left off, I clicked the save icon and rolled my chair back from the desk. So big deal. My routine had been interrupted. I could handle this.
This was, after all, what grown people had to deal with.
I expected the postal carrier with a package, considering that guy was the only person who stopped by for me anymore. Most times, if the doorbell rang, it was one of the kids’ friends and it was later in the day.
Instead, I answered the door to a striking young man, one I’d never met before. I was certain of that, because he had the kind of face I’d never forget. Dark brown hair that barely grazed his shoulders and deep brown eyes that were the color of rich coffee, cheekbones a model would kill for, and a smile on his lips that his eyes didn’t reflect. There was a deep sadness in them, beckoning me to ask why. But that probably wasn’t for me to know.
Should I know him? Or was this maybe a ruse—another bullshit move by my ex? Was this young man getting ready to serve me with paperwork? I steeled myself for the inevitable. “Yes—er, no.”
When he started to turn away, I said, “It hasn’t been Mrs. Morton for a very long time. I used to be Mrs. Morton.”
A look of relief softened his features. “My name is Brandon Abbott…and I served in the Marines with your son Gabe.”
Those words alone pushed what little oxygen I had left in my lungs out where it evaporated and mingled with the air of the planet. I tried to take in a deep breath but it caught in my throat. Seconds later, I felt dizzy. Worse, my heart felt a familiar ache, one that had dulled as time had passed as I’d accepted that I’d never see my son again.
I realized, though, that this young man might have been one of the last people on this earth to see my beloved firstborn alive…and I had to know more. “Please come in.”
As I stepped aside, Brandon said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
“Please—no ma’am.” It made me feel old to be called ma’am, but before he took to calling me Mrs. Morton again, I said, “Call me Kimberly.” Although he seemed a tad uncomfortable with my directive, he nodded just the same and walked through the doorway.
As he passed by me, I took note of his clothing: faded blue jeans with black boots and a chain around his neck that disappeared under a black tee topped with a red flannel long-sleeved shirt. Once I closed the door, I led him into the house proper. “Please have a seat,” I said, waving my hand toward the living room furniture.
He chose the stuffed gray chair next to the window, and I examined his face once more, trying to picture him and Gabriel hanging around together, struggled to see in my mind what my eldest son would have looked like today. Gabe had had his father’s dark brown hair paired with blue eyes, but he’d inherited his heart-shaped lips and apple cheeks from me. I felt another pang of melancholy as I looked at this young man named Brandon, and envy tugged at my heart. Gabriel had been my rock—solid, steady, and empathetic—when his dad had left. He’d just been starting his freshman year in high school and could have used some support as well, but he instead became my pillar, and he likely had only felt capable and strong because of his basketball coach, a man who had become my son’s mentor.
So I drank in the vision of this young man, one of the last people on earth to ever have the opportunity to enjoy my son’s company, and I swallowed hard, willing the tears back—and he must have sensed the turmoil inside me. “I’m sorry. Maybe this was a bad idea.”
“No, not at all.”
He swallowed. “It seems like my presence is upsetting you.”
“No. It’s not you. It’s just—still hard to accept that he’s gone. He was…my baby. Please…” I said, my voice trailing off, hoping my eyes were saying what my lips could not.
His voice was quiet, so I almost had to strain to hear him speak. “Your son and I were in the same platoon, and some things happened to us that have forever bonded us as brothers.” When he paused, I wondered if his eyes seemed to lose focus because he was experiencing the moment as if it was happening in front of us. “The day before he passed, Mrs.—Kimberly, we were talking about our families and how badly we needed to go home, be with the ones we love, and it was clear to me the bond between you and Gabe was strong. He said you were his ‘recharge,’ and he talked about you so much that night, I felt like I already knew you. And then…when Gabe died, I knew I had to meet the woman who’d given birth to such an amazing human being…and I had to let you know how very much your son loved you.”
Oh, God. His words, meant to be like a soft blanket to warm and hold me were instead like a knife plunged straight into my heart. The water was welling up in my eyes, blurring my vision. Because the tears were dangerously close and I didn’t want to cry in front of this stranger, I clenched my hands together, digging my nails into my palms. “Can I get you something to drink?”
He was a sweet young man, understanding that I needed a few moments alone. “Sure.”
“That would be nice. Thanks.”
Nodding, I stood, smoothing my hands on my jeans before turning around to walk toward the kitchen. Although I managed to not sob out loud, the tears started dropping as soon as my head was turned. By the time I arrived in the kitchen, they were out of control, and I knew there would be no iced tea until I could let out the overpowering emotions that had taken over my heart. I snatched a napkin off the table and held it up to my eyes, my chest heaving as I let the tears flow.
Several minutes passed before I could get any kind of control over myself, likely because I was holding back from a full-on emotional onslaught. I didn’t want to sob loudly, but the potential to do so lay dormant inside my chest. I sighed, letting it go for the moment, and then I blew my nose into the napkin. Then I ran cool water in the sink, splashing it on my cheeks and under my eyes, hoping to alleviate the redness and puffiness my little crying jag had likely caused. Next, I quickly threw a kettle on the stove, hoping the fire would bring the water to boiling in a hurry, and, while it heated, I gathered everything else I needed—glasses, sugar, spoons, a tray—and made the tea as quickly as I could. After another few minutes, I was finally heading back to the living room.
I hoped that Brandon wouldn’t comment on the evidence of crying on my face nor the length of time it had taken me to bring the tea. He stood in front of the couch with his back to me, looking at the pictures of my family on the wall. When I set the tray on the coffee table, he pivoted. “Are these all your kids?”
He was looking at the last formal photo my kids had taken together. Before then, we’d had photos of all five of us together, but those were stored away in a closet somewhere. The particular photo Brandon was looking at showed Gabe as a freshman in high school holding his brother on his lap, and both were slightly in front of their sister who was standing. Annabel had been in second grade at the time and Melvin Jr. wasn’t even in school yet. The enormity of how time passed by faster and faster every year made my shoulders suddenly feel heavy. I glanced at the photo of my children’s faces again, marveling that there was no mistaking that they were siblings. They had the same dark hair, same light eyes, the same oval face. Gabriel, though—he always looked serious, choosing to shoulder more responsibility than he needed to.
Oh, my sweet boy.
“Yes,” I answered, recognizing the catch in my throat for what it was, and I swallowed, hoping to regain my composure. After all, I did have two other beautiful, healthy, live children who needed my continued love and nurturing. “That’s Annabel and JR.” I was not going to explain how I refused to call my son by his given name, considering he was his father’s namesake. That my husband had bailed before his youngest was old enough to walk created so much animosity that I refused to say his name except when necessary, and I feared that my innocent infant could potentially sense how much I loathed it. Thus, Melvin Jr. had become JR—as in the two separate initials, as if they stood for something like James Richard or John Robert, but they instead symbolized my refusal to call him Junior—before his first birthday cake. “They should be home from school in the next hour.”
“I should probably go then.”
“Oh, no. Please don’t. Not yet. I’d love to hear your favorite moments with my son—over a glass of iced tea.”
After seeming to give it some thought, he said, “All right.”
I poured tea over one of the glasses filled with ice before handing it to Brandon. He took a lemon wedge off the small plate on the tray and then stirred a spoonful of sugar in the glass. After I poured some tea for myself, I sat down. “Thank you for indulging me.”
He sat in the gray chair again. “I’m sure it must be difficult for you.”
Oh, he had no idea, but I wasn’t going to burden him with it. Life is for the living…or something like that. Undoubtedly, he also felt the hole Gabriel’s passing had left in his life, because my son was just one of those kinds of people. He filled rooms with warmth, love, and laughter, and those same rooms felt very empty after he left them. I nodded but kept my mouth shut.
Brandon said, “So you wanted to hear a story about Gabe and me?”
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all.” After taking a sip of his tea, his voice grew soft. “There’s one story I want to share. You might not know it, but there’s a lot of hazing that goes on in the military—especially with new recruits. People don’t talk about it and it’s not supposed to happen, but it does anyway. It mostly happens with the new guys, and it’s all part of the experience. The idea is to either toughen a guy up or push him out—because, either way, he doesn’t belong the way he is. A huge part of military is belonging and oneness and becoming a team. That’s drilled in early on, so much that you don’t question it.
“Anyway, that means that when established guys start picking on a newer guy, for whatever reason, you tend to turn a blind eye. It’s not that you outright condone it, even though by allowing it to happen, you are. And this poor kid—for days, he was picked on, and it was relentless. I don’t get why, ‘cause he’d made it through boot camp. That alone proves something. But they made fun of everything about him—the pitch of his voice and the twang in it. His name, his height. I think his constant torment was putting us all on edge. One night, we were all returning from mess, and the three main guys who’d been egging each other on decided they were gonna give Edgar a swirlie. You could see it on the kid’s face that night, that they’d just about broke him. But Gabe had had enough. He stood up from his bunk, walking over to Edgar’s before the three troublemakers got there, and he said, ‘I don’t think so.’ That made them angry, of course, because Gabe was ruining their evening’s entertainment. Never mind that they could have gone to the movie showing on post or anything else. They wanted to make this guy’s life miserable. The leader of the bullies said something like, ‘Oh, yeah, whatcha gonna do about it?’ Gabe, though. He was cool as a cucumber. ‘You wanna find out?’ I scrambled down off my bunk then so I could get his back if he needed it.”
“That was very kind of you.”
“Not really. I’d been one of the ones content to let the kid get bullied and turn a blind eye. Your son, he was a leader. I tell you what, Mrs.—sorry—Kimberly, that wasn’t the only time he inspired me to act. He was that kind of guy.”
The tears welled up in my eyes again. I’d always known my son was a leader as well as caring and compassionate, making him the perfect big brother. “Thank you for sharing that with me, Brandon. It’s good to know that he made others’ lives better while he was still here.”
“That he did.” After taking another drink of tea, he said, “I should probably go now. I just wanted to let you know how much you meant to your son.”
I wasn’t quite ready to let go yet. Brandon was probably the only connection I had to my deceased firstborn. Maybe it was irrational, but that was how my mind saw it. “Why don’t you stay for dinner? I know Gabriel’s sister and brother would love to meet you.”
“I’d hate to impose.”
“It’s not an imposition—and I know Annabel and JR would love to visit with you.”
After grappling with my offer for a few moments, he said, “Okay. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You’re more than welcome. I just need to decide what to make for dinner. Do you have any food allergies or preferences?” I almost enjoyed the idea of making a special meal—I hadn’t liked cooking in a long time, partly because it felt like no one appreciated it, but adding a guest changed everything.
“No, m—I mean Kimberly. Sorry. That’s hard after being drilled in the services for so long. Anyway, I’m just grateful for a hot meal. They say not to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
My mind was already probing the contents of my kitchen, trying to think of a meal I could make that Gabriel would have wanted to come home to. Steak and potatoes? Chicken and dumplings? Lasagna? None of those were possible right now, but then I thought of one of my kids’ favorite meals, something I thought I had all the ingredients on hand for. “Do you like spaghetti?”
“Yes, but I’ll gladly eat whatever you feed me. Marine food isn’t known for being palatable so whatever you make I’m sure will be delicious.”
As my throat constricted with another onslaught of emotion, JR crashed through the front door.
“Hey, mom! Guess who made the baseball team?” When he saw Brandon, he paused. “Oh, hey.”
While I wanted to ask him where his sister was, I focused on being polite. “JR, this is Brandon, a friend of Gabriel’s who’s stopped by to pay us a visit.”
“Gabe?” My youngest seemed confused at first but he was my hyperactive social butterfly, quickly rebounding. “Nice to meet you.”
“You as well.” I was impressed with how polite Brandon was, much like Gabriel.
“So you made the baseball team, son?”
“Yeah. They posted the results of yesterday’s tryouts during lunch today. And I’m pretty sure I was their first pick.”
“They were wise to choose you.” I wanted to hug JR, but I knew he’d have none of it, especially in front of a stranger. “I’m so proud of you, son.”
Finally, Annabel walked through the door, but her eyes were mostly glued to her cell phone. Although she waved, acknowledging our existence, she charged up the stairs toward her bedroom without so much as a hello. “Teenagers,” I offered as an apology. “I’m sure you figured out that was my daughter.”
“Annabel, you said?”
“She looks a lot like you.”
I laughed, because she did not, and he really hadn’t seen enough of her to make a fair judgment. Aside from the mane that flowed to her shoulder blades, she was the spitting image of her father. “She probably wouldn’t like hearing that.”
JR jumped in the wake left behind our dwindling conversation. “Can I go to Joey’s to play games till dinner?”
“Since we have a guest, why don’t you either get your homework done or help me entertain while I make dinner?”
I wasn’t sure what the twinkle in JR’s eyes meant until he said, “I’d rather show him the Xbox if that’s okay.”
“The—JR, our guest doesn’t want to watch you play a videogame.”
“Actually, Kimberly, I wouldn’t mind playing a game with your son if that’s what he had in mind.”
“Oh, hell, yeah!”
“JR, watch your mouth.”
“Sorry, mom.” To Brandon, he said, “C’mon. It’s in the family room.” Our guest stood and smiled—the biggest grin I’d seen on his face since his arrival. Maybe playing a game would be best for both males. As they walked out of earshot, I heard JR start to ask, “Have you ever played…”
They left me alone with far too many weighty thoughts.
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Love and Darkness is going to be in KU for the first three months and then I’ll publish it wide sometime after that. It’s available for pre-order if you’d like to check it out: