Etched in Shadows is now available in paperback and ebook from Bella Books. If you’d like to get your hands on an autographed copy, read my blog from a couple of weeks ago for details. I’ve already shipped out 12 books — would love to send out some more! Here’s the appetizer.
Etched in Shadows, Chapter 1
Ingrid Dowling was definitely a possibility. Tall and blonde, with long elegant hands just made for sexual adventures like the ones they’d enjoyed for the past three hours.
This was their third date—dinner and an art house film, but without the art house film. Originally from New York, Ingrid was a Wellesley grad, and thus more cosmopolitan than most of the lesbians in Charleston, South Carolina. She appreciated galleries, fine dining and frequent trips to New York, and owned an upscale clothing store. She was also a bit snooty, but at least self-aware, and probably a Republican. As long as they didn’t talk politics, that wasn’t a deal-breaker.
Alice Choate got a lot of grief over her picky nature when it came to dating, much of it from herself. It was frustrating to write off practically everyone she met the moment they fell short of her ideal.
What she needed was a new ideal, and preferably one who wasn’t already married to someone else. Ingrid just might do.
She eased her arm from beneath Ingrid’s languid body as gently as she could, hoping to sneak out without conversation that might spoil an otherwise perfect date. Staying all night in someone else’s bed wasn’t Alice’s style. Nor was it in her nature to invite women to her loft apartment. That was her safe place, which she’d bought three years ago after catching Ramona in one too many lies about her “business trips” to Atlanta.
“Mmmm…what time is it?” Ingrid mumbled, rolling onto her back but not opening her eyes.
“One fifteen. Sorry, I’ve got an early showing on Edisto Island.” Not all that early, but it was a better excuse than not being comfortable in someone else’s bed. She bent over to pick up her bra and shuddered at the persistent twitching between her legs. Her panties could go home in her purse.
“Call me,” Ingrid mumbled.
Alice would do better than call. Ingrid deserved something sweeter, like a truffle from WildFlour delivered in-person to her shop.
It felt good to have a possibility. It felt good to feel good.
“You’d be more fun to kiss if you knew what to do with your nose.” Johnelle Morrissey resisted the almost overwhelming urge to crawl back between the cool silky sheets. “Now get up so I can make the bed.”
Duncan, a three-year-old golden retriever with the disposition of a lamb, thumped his tail and laid his head back on the pillow.
“Your dog is so spoiled!” she exclaimed.
“My dog?” Her husband Dwight emerged from the master bath with a towel around his waist and the remnants of shaving cream still visible on his face. “How come he’s my dog every time he’s spoiled?”
“He’s also your dog when it’s raining.”
As if on cue, a crack of thunder rattled the windows of their historic three-story “single house,” so-called because its long structure was only a single room wide, with windows on both sides for cross-ventilation. Nearly all of the homes in Old Charleston, particularly in their Ansonborough neighborhood, shared this architectural design.
Dwight wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and nuzzled her neck. “Listen to that. You’re in for a bumpy ride to Philly. I think you should call in sick.”
He made no secret of the fact that he hated when she traveled for work. In fact, he wasn’t crazy about her working at all because he traveled so much in his job and wanted her home whenever he was there.
Johnelle inhaled deeply to take in his spicy cologne. “At least it won’t be pouring when I get there.” Nine straight days of intermittent April thunderstorms had turned the normally hospitable Charleston into a city of grumps, and she was one of them. She couldn’t wait to see the sun again.
Wriggling free of his grasp she claimed the bathroom to finish getting ready. The leftover steam from his shower immediately wreaked havoc on her shoulder-length auburn hair, which refused her efforts to straighten. Not that it mattered—one foot outside the door in this humidity would have the same effect. Alice Choate, her best friend since middle school, told her repeatedly she should give up, cut it shorter and let it curl naturally, but Dwight had a thing for long hair…maybe because he’d lost most of his.
She dreaded the next two days in Philadelphia. Onsite training had once been the best part of her job at Southern ImageTech but the drudgery of travel had taken its toll. There was nothing glamorous about slogging through airports with a briefcase full of technical manuals on medical imaging scanners, and nothing fun about eating and sleeping alone in strange cities. At least these trips were rare now that Anthony Donaldo was CEO. He thought her more valuable as a technical writer so she traveled only when the other reps were unavailable.
Dwight reappeared in the doorway wearing jeans and a polo shirt. He had nowhere else to be today after taking her to the airport. “Did you wake Ian?”
“Twice already. Your son listens about as well as your dog.”
“Time to pull out the big guns.”
“Nah, he’s gotten so he sleeps through that. I need something with a lot more bass.”
Their son, a high school senior, juggled a full slate of extracurricular clubs and activities on top of his advanced placement classes, and it wasn’t unusual for him to work at his desk late into the night. Dragging him out of bed for school took a team effort, and they were counting down his last five weeks until graduation as eagerly as he was.
Johnelle chuckled as strains of Pink Floyd blared up the stairway from the living room below. The Creightons next door probably thought their penchant for classic rock at seven a.m. was downright weird.
With her makeup and hair as good as they were going to get, she rifled through the closet for her gray pantsuit, a polyester blend that wouldn’t wrinkle on the plane or spot if it got wet. That was another thing about traveling for work—she was expected to dress better on the road, whereas their office was business casual. It amazed her how Alice managed to look fresh all day in silk and linen, but then Alice had a fashion flair that made sweatpants look great.
Smiling to see that Dwight had already taken her suitcase downstairs, Johnelle followed him into the kitchen, snatching his bagel the second it popped from the toaster.
“Duncan already licked that one,” he said smugly as he dropped another into the slot.
“Yum! I kiss him on the lips, you know.” She slathered the bagel with cream cheese and offered Dwight the first bite. “I’d steal your coffee too but then I’d spend the entire time stuck on the plane thinking about how much I need to pee.”
She felt mildly guilty for complaining, since he traveled forty-plus weekends a year to home shows to sell designer lighting. His elite travel status, however, always guaranteed him a first class seat, a rental car with his name on it and an upgraded hotel room. No lines, no hassles.
“What are you fixing Ian for dinner tonight?”
“I’m probably fixing to take him out for a steak.”
She’d asked for that. It was a rare bone of contention that he seldom took her out to restaurants since he ate so many of his meals on the road. Other than that, he was quite possibly the perfect husband, the sweet, sexy, dependable sort of guy most of her friends wished they’d married.
As a younger man he’d had a shadier side that Johnelle had found dangerous and exciting. Only Alice knew the true story of how she and Dwight had met during her sophomore year at the University of South Carolina—he was the scruffy dude who supplied her sorority with marijuana. He graduated that year and got a real job, shaving his scuzzy beard and trading in jeans for slacks and sports coats. Her kind of guy and she snatched him up before someone else could.
Ian shuffled into the kitchen and plucked the second bagel from the toaster before it was fully browned. “What’s so funny?”
She hadn’t realized she’d been laughing. “The look on your father’s face when you stole his breakfast.”
At six-one, Ian towered over both of them, but there was no denying he was their son. He had her reddish-brown hair and brown eyes, but the crooked smile and dimpled chin were unmistakably Dwight’s. “Some guy’s coming to church tonight to speak to our youth group about African missions. There’s supposed to be hotdogs and stuff so I probably won’t be home until eight thirty.”
Johnelle batted her eyes at Dwight. “So much for your steak dinner, smarty pants. It’s gruel for you.”
“Where are you going, Mom?”
“Philadelphia,” she answered haltingly in her best Katherine Hepburn imitation, despite knowing Ian had no idea who Hepburn was. “I’m training this afternoon and tomorrow morning at Penn Presbyterian. Not sure if I’ll be home in time to make dinner…we may have to go out.”
Dwight stuck out his tongue. “Maybe you should bring us home a couple of Philly cheesesteaks. Then I can sit on the couch and scratch while I burp.”
“And while I iron your shirts.”
Ian rolled his eyes. “You guys are crazy.”
“He doesn’t know the half of it,” Johnelle said. “Wait till we show up at his graduation dressed as characters from Star Wars.”
“That settles it. I’m not graduating.”
She kissed him on the forehead. “Be careful driving around in this rain. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
Apparently giving up on breakfast, Dwight carried her overnight bag out and came back to walk her to the car with an umbrella. When they were two blocks from the house, he stopped the car. “I can’t remember if I shut our bedroom door before I let Duncan back in from his walk.”
Which meant their bed was probably full of wet dog. “It’ll be fine.”
He cast a sidelong look. “You’re taking this unusually well.”
“I figure there’s no way you’d let me come home to muddy paw prints on my best sheets. You’ll wash them. I have faith.”
“More likely I’ll give Ian ten bucks to do it for me.”
“Just my luck I’d find the single most undomesticated man in all of South Carolina and marry him. I should have married Alice.”
“We both should have married Alice. Not only does she clean up after herself, she knows how to fix things. Have her look at the dryer vent next time she’s over.”
“I guess you have to know all that stuff if you’re selling real estate.” Alice didn’t just sell real estate. She and her mother Dessie handled some of the finest properties in Charleston County.
As they neared the airport, Dwight gently took her hand and intertwined their fingers. “Sorry you have to go, honey. I know how much you hate this.”
“I do, but it gives me an appreciation for what you go through. I honestly don’t know how you do it week in and week out.”
“Sometimes I don’t either. But every time I make noise about moving up to management, they offer me more money. I now make more than most of the vice presidents.”
She sighed and pulled his hand to her lips for a soft kiss. “There’s more to life than money, especially when it means working as hard as you do. We need to sit down one of these days with a financial planner and figure out how to get off this hamster wheel.”
“Maybe next year when I turn forty-five.”
Every time they seriously broached the subject of planning for retirement or Dwight changing to a less demanding job, he pushed it off to a new arbitrary benchmark. When his next birthday came around, he’d talk about getting Ian through college at Wake Forest, where one year’s tuition and fees cost the same as four years at a state university. Then he’d want to go to fifty or fifty-five. No matter how much he groused about the hassles of travel, there was little doubt he loved his job, and she secretly thought he relished his social life on the road with all his vendor pals.
“What time’s your flight?”
“Seven fifty-five, Coastal Express.”
“A regional jet? Why didn’t you take one of the bigger airlines? You don’t even get frequent flyer miles with Coastal.”
“That’s what happens when a hospital calls at the last minute to schedule. Mary Ann said I was lucky to get a seat at all. Besides, they’re the only ones who fly nonstop to Philly. You know how much I hate to change planes.”
Dwight parked in the departure lane and set her overnight bag on the curb. “Call me when you get there.”
“How will you hear the phone with the vacuum cleaner running?”
“Ha! That’ll be the day.”
“A girl can dream.” She stepped into his bear hug and tipped her head up for a warm kiss. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He’d preprinted her boarding pass the night before, which allowed her to go straight to the security line. She reached the gate in time to hear her name called by the airline agent, and hurried to the counter.
“I’m Johnelle Morrissey.”
The agent, a plump young man bursting from his white uniform shirt, handed her a new boarding pass without looking up from his keyboard. “Ms. Morrissey, I’ve reseated you to accommodate a party traveling together. You’ll be in Thirteen-B.”
Once upon a time, he might have apologized for the inconvenience but this was the age of oversold flights where passengers got bumped at the sole discretion of a gate agent with an attitude, one who didn’t have to apologize for anything. At least it was still an aisle seat.
The departure lounge was teeming with business travelers, the usual crowd for Monday morning, lost in their Wall Street Journal or New York Times.
Ten after seven. Alice probably wasn’t even up yet…which made calling her all the more irresistible.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, lady,” a groggy voice said.
Johnelle laughed, picturing her friend burrowed beneath the burgundy sateen summer duvet she’d bought on their trip to Europe last fall. “I was jealous. Dwight just dropped me at the airport and I couldn’t stand the thought of you sleeping in.”
“And to think I just called you a lady,” Alice said. Her utterance was followed by an exaggerated yawn. “This is the Philly trip, right? I think there’s a Mondrian exhibit at the Museum of Art. How far is that from where you’re going to be?”
“Not far, I think. How do you even know these things? You never go to Philadelphia anymore.” Not since graduating from Bryn Mawr nearly two decades ago.
“It’s called reading cultural magazines for pleasure. You should try it sometime.”
It wasn’t only that Alice was well read. She was also well traveled and her most sophisticated friend in Charleston, living proudly as an out lesbian in a conservative community where that took courage and confidence. “I don’t have time to read. You forget I have a husband and son who think the Laundry Fairy is real.”
“And whose fault is that? It’s probably too late for Dwight but you still have a chance with Ian. Someday his future wife is going to want a word with you, and that word won’t be thank you.”
“That’s two words.” The abrupt sound of a coffee grinder caused Johnelle to momentarily jerk the phone from her ear. “You should warn me before you do that.”
“Like you warned me when you called twenty minutes before my alarm went off? I’ll have you know I was dreaming about Sandra Bullock.”
It suddenly occurred to Johnelle why Alice was sleeping in on a Monday. “I almost forgot. How was your date with Ingrid?”
“Moving right along…details to follow when we’re sharing a bottle of wine. We’re still both trying so hard to be charming that neither one of us is actually real. Either she’s very nice or she’s a sociopath.”
For the life of her, Johnelle couldn’t imagine why Alice was still single. A bitter breakup from Ramona Pearson—speaking of sociopaths—three years ago had left Alice tentative about new relationships but she wasn’t ridiculously cynical or paranoid about falling in love again. Johnelle wanted to see her swept off her feet by a billionaire baroness with a yacht just so she could rub Ramona’s nose in it. “What does she look like?”
“Like an Ingrid, I guess…sort of a broomstick with straight blond hair.”
“You have such a way with words. I’d hate to hear how you describe me.” Alice had never been stingy with the compliments, which always seemed to come whenever Johnelle was feeling particularly dowdy. “Hold on…they’re saying something about my flight.”
“For those traveling to Philadelphia this morning on Coastal Airlines, we’re experiencing a slight delay due to a maintenance issue. We’ll update our departure time as soon as we get more information. Please remain…”
“Great, a maintenance issue. Just what you want to hear when you’re taking off in a downpour.”
“Maybe they’ll cancel your flight and you can go back to bed. Better yet, meet me for croissants at WildFlour.”
The mention of their favorite bakery made her mouth water. “Now you’re just torturing me because I’m stuck going to this stupid training session. We need to meet for breakfast when I get back.”
“Is Dwight traveling this weekend?”
“He leaves Wednesday for Phoenix. Won’t be home till Monday morning.”
“Let’s do it on Saturday and then we can have some fun,” Alice said. “Want to see a couple of mansions on Kiawah Island?”
Every time they toured extravagant homes, Johnelle dreamed of moving to a new house, one that didn’t involve climbing two flights of stairs to reach the master bedroom. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. You’re still on Dwight’s shit list from the last time we did that.”
“Tell Dwight it’s time to sell the house and get something new and modern.”
“I don’t want something new and modern, just something with only two floors.”
“I know, but he’ll freak out and open his wallet for all the remodeling you want.”
“Ha! Sometimes I think you know my husband better than I do.” Alice was her maid of honor nineteen years ago, and had been a staple in their house ever since—family.
“Ladies and gentlemen, maintenance informs us they’ve completed their check and we’re ready to begin boarding. As a reminder, each passenger is allowed only two…”
“That didn’t take long. Sounds like we’re ready to go.”
“You need me to pick you up tomorrow?”
“That’d be great, especially since my forgetful son has been known to leave me stranded at baggage claim. Six twenty-five on Coastal Airlines.”
“You got it. Fly safe. Love you.”
“Love you too, sweetie. Now go to work!”
Johnelle’s row was called in the first boarding group, which meant she was in the back of the plane. Not just the back, she discovered—the very last row next to the lavatory, hands down the worst seat on the small plane.
In the window seat was a boy of about thirteen, his brown hair hanging over his freckled face. He was engrossed in a handheld video game that emitted beeps and pings loud enough to escape his ear buds. If she had to listen to that for two hours, she’d be a basket case by the time they reached Philadelphia.
Suddenly a gentleman in a polo shirt and sport coat appeared beside her, his stiff brown crew cut grazing the ceiling above the aisle. He addressed the boy. “Sarah, your mother wants you to sit up front with her.”
“I was fine here.”
Johnelle was startled by the distinctly feminine voice and did her best not to stare as the girl crawled past her and stalked sullenly up the aisle.
With great difficulty, the man tried to situate his long frame in the narrow seat his daughter had vacated. It was truly ridiculous to expect normal-sized people to fit in such a small space, let alone someone over six feet tall. The young man in front of them, an African-American, was so large he’d apparently been forced to buy two seats.
“Why don’t we switch?” she offered magnanimously. “My legs aren’t as long as yours.”
He objected, but only mildly, and they clumsily swapped seats.
“The captain has illuminated the Fasten Seatbelt sign. At this time we ask that you turn off and stow all electronic devices…”
Only twenty minutes late, Johnelle noted, hardly enough to disrupt her schedule. She couldn’t wait for that magical moment when they broke out above the clouds and saw the bright morning sun.
They taxied for what felt like an eternity before the pilot finally announced they were number four for takeoff. By then twenty minutes had become forty and several passengers were growing restless about their connecting flights. While she didn’t have that to worry about, she’d be cutting it close to kick off her training session on schedule at eleven o’clock.
As patiently as she could, she passed the time in the takeoff queue looking over her training notes. Practically every word of her presentation was in the product manual she’d meticulously authored, but which technicians couldn’t be trusted to read. Anyone on staff at Southern ImageTech could handle this training.
With that realization, Johnelle made the decision to tell Anthony as soon as she got back to the office that she didn’t want any more training assignments. One Morrissey on the road was enough, and Dwight worked so hard to provide for her and Ian that he deserved to have his family home when he was lucky enough to be there.
The rumble of the engine over her left shoulder signaled their imminent roll down the runway. Raindrops made horizontal lines on the window as the plane gathered speed, and the overhead bins rumbled from side to side on their mounts until the wheels finally left the ground. Within moments the runway faded beneath them in the mist and she pressed her shoulders into the seat to feel the G-force of their climb.
Suddenly a deafening pop sounded from the opposite side of the plane and they wobbled for several seconds, sending a collective gasp through the cabin. Even after they stabilized, Johnelle knew something was wrong because she no longer felt the thrust of upward momentum. Despite the roar of the plane’s thrusters, they weren’t gaining altitude. Abruptly they pitched hard to the right, a maneuver she realized was aimed at getting them back to the runway as soon as possible.
Treetops returned into view directly below, and just ahead, the Ashley River. Then the engines went eerily silent and the plane lurched sideways again before dropping sharply.
They were going down.
Screams erupted all around her but Johnelle had no time to fear for herself. This would devastate her family, especially Ian. Dwight and Alice would have to be strong for him. Methodically ticking off her last conversation with each of them, she satisfied herself that she had left them with words of love.
She was prepared to die.
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