Sneak peek of Moment of Weakness

I’m off next week to Chicago for the 11th annual Golden Crown Literary Society conference. Pictures to follow — hope to see you there!

In the meantime, gots a new book! Moment of Weakness is ready for pre-order at Bella Books. In honor of that, I thought you might like to do some pre-reading. This one’s a bit different, which I think you’ll notice right away.

CHAPTER ONE

Zann Redeker closed the conference room door behind her and blew out a sigh of relief. After months of twisting in the wind, something finally had broken her way.

It helped a lot that the mayor himself had vouched for her. A longtime family friend, Willard “Ham” Hammerick had helped plead her case with the town manager, all but offering his personal guarantee that she’d be a model employee from this day forward. Now he jostled her shoulder with a fatherly hand. “I know you’re glad this nightmare’s over, Zann. Come Monday morning everything goes back to normal, like it never even happened.”

She appreciated the sentiment but her life was still light years away from normal. At least getting her job back gave her a fighting chance. “Thanks for sticking your neck out, Ham. I promise I won’t screw up again.”

“I know you won’t. I’m just sorry we had to put you through all this rigmarole.” Always the gentleman, he helped her into her heavy parka as they walked toward the lobby. “Used to be when you made a mistake, you apologized and everybody moved on. Now the first thing people do is call a lawyer to see how much money they can get.”

“This was nobody’s fault but mine.” She would be forever embarrassed for the trouble she’d caused her bosses at town hall. In a rural hamlet like Colfax, Vermont, even the tiniest scandal was front page news. It wasn’t long ago that the townspeople were cheering her return from Afghanistan as a war hero. Now they probably thought her just another combat veteran with mental health issues. A walking cliché.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Zann. You made a mistake but you paid the price fair and square. It all comes out in the wash.” Ham’s masterful empathy and habitual use of folksy idioms endeared him to local voters, making his continuous reelection a foregone conclusion.

“Getting my job back…at least that takes the pressure off. Now all I have to do is sort this mess out with Marleigh and catch up on our bills.”

He gave her a grim half-smile. “I was sorry to hear you’d moved back home with your mom and pop. What’s going on with the house?”

Zann cringed to think how many people in the closely-knit town knew of their marital problems. “Marleigh got an offer from the real estate agent but she needs me to sign the papers too. Maybe now that I’m going back to work, we won’t have to sell. I’m heading over there right now to try to talk her out of it.”

It wasn’t only their house that needed saving. Marleigh didn’t trust her anymore, and like everything else, that too was her fault.

“Good luck, hon. We’re all pulling for you.”

Feeling exposed under his watchful eye, she thanked him again and skated tentatively across the icy parking lot to her SUV, a rusted Jeep Grand Cherokee with 164,000 miles of wear and tear. As usual, the engine turned over several times before finally catching and sending a blast of frigid air up from the floorboard. With her fingers shaking from the cold—to say nothing of her gut-wrenching anxiety—she tapped out a text on her phone: Just got big news can i come to your office?

More than a week had passed since they last spoke by phone, which should have been enough time and distance for Marleigh to calm down and rethink her rash decision to sell the house. Instead she’d forged ahead and jumped on the very first offer, dropping the papers off for Zann’s signature without even hanging around to talk.

The reply was devastating but not surprising. Only if ur ready 2 sign contract.

“Twist the knife, how ’bout it?” Zann pounded her steering wheel as she studied the ultimatum on her text screen. An open-handed slap would have been kinder.

Another fight about the house was the last thing they needed, especially with all of Marleigh’s coworkers straining to hear. She’d bring the contract, all right, but that didn’t mean she’d sign it. The house was all they had. If they sold it, what would bind them together?

It was after three o’clock, almost press time for the Colfax Messenger, the newspaper where Marleigh worked as city editor. They’d be winding down their workday.

On my way.

What choice did she have? With her back against the wall, there was nothing left to do but come clean. Marleigh had been right all along—Zann had hidden something from her since last May, a secret so explosive it could rock the very foundation of their marriage. But then keeping the secret had done that too.

Bottom line—she wasn’t the person Marleigh thought she was.

“Goddamn it.” This was it. The whole truth, nothing but the truth. It wasn’t just the last three and a half years they stood to lose, but the rest of their lives too.

Her Jeep plowed through the slush onto Colfax’s Main Street, now bustling with after-school traffic. Between the crosswalks and bus stops, it took almost ten minutes to travel a quarter-mile to the newspaper office, a flat one-story building at the edge of the town’s modest commercial district. The lined spaces near the door were reserved for customers, so she parked alongside Marleigh’s gray sedan in the area designated for Colfax Messenger employees. Five cars…that was practically everyone on staff, making this a spectacle for all to see.

The stakes of her last-gasp appeal were high—if Marleigh said no this time, it really was over.

***

On my way, the text read.

The coffee turned to acid in Marleigh’s throat. It wasn’t in her nature to be so pigheaded, but Bridget had a point—pigheadedness was the only language Zann understood anymore. One of them had to be the adult. Now three months behind on their mortgage, they faced foreclosure by the bank within days if they didn’t act.

Financial ruin wasn’t even the worst of it. Even if they somehow staved off bankruptcy, their marriage had suffered a savage blow. Her heart still held out for a miracle but her rational side was quickly losing hope. The woman she’d married only three years ago had been a kind, peaceful soul whose love felt like the most precious thing in the world. Was it even possible for Zann to be that person again? Their love should have been for all time. Six months of nudging, begging and demanding hadn’t worked. Zann was on a road to self-destruction and she was taking Marleigh down with her. With each day that passed, the end game looked more and more like divorce.

Divorce. She’d never even uttered the word aloud and now it seemed all but inevitable. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It wasn’t supposed to end at all.

“Everything okay?” Bridget asked, peering from her adjacent desk over a pair of Oliver Peoples reading glasses. The lenses were the lowest possible strength, she’d explained, since she didn’t actually need them. Apparently her boyfriend Luc thought they gave her a sophisticated flair.

“I just got a text from Zann. Says she has big news about something, asked if she could come by.” Feeling guilty for her weakness, she quickly added, “But I told her only if she brought me the signed contract.”

“Good for you. You need to hold the line on this, Marleigh. I’m here if you need backup. You’re the one who taught me to stand up for myself.”

“I think I can handle it,” Marleigh muttered.

The heavy glass door swung wide, sending a gust of wintry air around the room. Editor Clay Teele entered and stomped his snow-covered shoes on a welcome mat that stretched all the way to the chest-high customer service counter. Though short and wiry, he always managed to overpower the room with his intensity. “What have you got, Anderhall?”

Marleigh held out her working versions of the day’s assignments. “Suspicious garage fire on Highbridge. Owner of puppy mill pleads guilty to animal cruelty charge. I’m still working on the police blotter for tomorrow…couple of break-ins, vandalism at Hannaford’s, and a hit and run on a parked car at the armory.”

“Over a thousand expected for Winter Festival,” Bridget said, adding her story to Clay’s pile. “Plus I got some good snow pictures from Barry. And the high school honor roll’s out. I went over this morning and got quotes from some of the kids.”

Clay’s shoulders drooped, his typical response to a slow news day. Scandalous drug busts, graphic vehicle accidents and raucous town council meetings sold more papers. That mattered a lot with all the ads running for Christmas sales. “Please tell me there’s something exciting in sports.”

Terry Henderson, whose desk sat behind Marleigh’s in the back corner, continued typing as he answered, “Bruins won, Celtics lost. Got those off the wire. Colfax varsity plays Rutland tonight.”

Marleigh, Bridget and Terry were all that remained of a local news staff that had withered from a dozen over the past six years amid a continuing downturn in newspaper readership. Clay culled national and state news from the wire services and wrote a daily column for the editorial page, answering directly to the corporate office in Burlington.

Tammy Hatch, the youngest Messenger employee at twenty-four, handled advertising sales. Like Clay, she had a glass-enclosed office with a door, a blessing to everyone since she spent ninety percent of her time on the phone chattering with potential advertisers.

Though Clay was editor and boss, it was Fran Crippen who kept the place going. A widow with Colfax roots going back to the American Revolution, she’d managed the customer service desk for almost forty years and knew every subscriber by name.

Marleigh punched up the lead on her puppy mill story and submitted the final version electronically to Terry’s inbox for copy edits. She was ahead of schedule for a change—which gave her a few minutes to talk if Zann actually stopped by.

As Clay disappeared into his office, Bridget leaned over and murmured, “Is it my imagination or is he crankier than usual?”

“He’s always like that when he gets back from a meeting at corporate. They’re probably leaning on him for more budget cuts.”

“Cripes, we’re down to six people. It’s all we can do to get the paper out as it is.”

Marleigh worried every day the honchos in Burlington would decide to cut their losses on the cluster of small-town dailies and shut them all down. They’d folded a handful already and were hiring stringers to cover local news for the statewide Burlington edition. In fact, she’d taken on some freelance work in nearby Middlebury to make ends meet after Zann lost her job.

“Luc says I ought to try working at the Montreal Gazette,” Bridget scoffed. “Like I’m just going to walk in there and get a job. I reminded him I’m not even Canadian.”

After years of being emotionally and physically abused by her former husband, Bridget deserved someone who would lavish her with the finer things. That was Luc Michaux, a day trader from Montreal who had fallen in love with both Bridget and the small town life of rural Vermont.

“What are you and Luc up to this weekend?”

Bridget scrunched her nose and shrugged. “Not sure. He’s been in New York all week. He’s been so busy…hasn’t even called me in like, two days.”

Marleigh briefly considered inviting her over to hang out, but she needed to finish packing. If their sales contract went through, she’d have only a couple of weeks to get out. The buyers were paying cash and wanted to close by the end of the month.

“Don’t look now, but somebody’s coming,” Bridget said. Her desk afforded the best view of the entrance. “And I’ll be damned…it looks like she’s got the papers in her hand.”

Just knowing Zann would walk through the door any moment filled Marleigh with both longing and dread. Longing for the thrill Zann had aroused since the first day they met, and dread that today could be the beginning of the end. The last time they spoke, Zann had warned of leaving Vermont once and for all if they split up. Sign on with a private military contractor and return to a war zone, she said. Threats like that were hard to swallow, but they only prolonged the suffering. Marleigh had to put her own feelings first for a change and let the chips fall.

At five-eleven, Zann was a formidable woman, no small thanks to the stiff posture ingrained through years of military life. Her usual swagger had faltered somewhat since her troubles started last summer. She glanced hesitantly at Marleigh’s coworkers, peeled off her gloves and fleece cap, and shook out her shoulder-length dark hair. With a small wave to Fran she ambled closer, her aching smile threatening to break Marleigh’s heart. In a gravelly voice, she said, “Hey…think we could go somewhere private and talk?”

The calm words were a welcome change from a month ago, the last time they’d stood face to face. Then, Zann had been desperate for a lifeline and anxious about having to move out of the house.

Marleigh stole a glance at the papers in her grip, confirming it was the contract with a 72-hour deadline she’d hand delivered to Zann’s father three nights ago. The finality of signing over their house gripped her as she rolled her chair back and gestured toward the hallway leading to the restrooms and break area. “Let’s get some coffee in the back.”

The break area was barely large enough for the card table and four plastic chairs. A refrigerator stood against the far wall where a small window overlooked the employee parking lot. The counter held a cheap coffeemaker and an apartment-sized microwave, with storage cabinets above and below.

Zann shrugged off her parka and draped it over a chair, all without letting go of the papers. “You look great. As usual, I mean…you always look great to me.”

Marleigh took the compliment in stride. There was nothing special about her appearance today. She wore old corduroy jeans and a black fleece pullover that zipped to her neck. Her caramel-colored hair, short and straight, was overdue for a cut. She suspected the compliment had more to do with Zann just being glad to see her. “What you look is tired, Zann. You taking care of yourself?”

“Best I can. It hasn’t been easy…I know, not for you either. ”

“Of course not. I hurt just as much as you do.”

“I haven’t signed these yet.” Zann slapped the papers in her opposite hand, then drew in a deep breath and nearly choked as she let it out. “I’m so sorry for getting us into this mess. It kills me to think everything we worked so hard for could be gone forever just by writing my name on this stupid piece of paper. I’d do anything to keep that from happening. That’s why I’m here, because I need to tell you something. Please just try to keep an open mind. If you hear me out and still decide this is what you really want, I’ll go ahead and sign it.”

“I appreciate that, Zann. I really do. We can’t hold on any longer. At some point, we have to just…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it—they were saying goodbye to their dream.

Zann’s face fell, but she recovered instantly with the same strained smile as when she’d walked in the door. “There’s still time to work this out. I promise I didn’t come here to give you the same old shit again.”

“We’ve already been through everything a million times. What’s left to say?” The resignation in her voice had more to do with hopelessness than resistance. She could never not listen—that’s why Bridget had urged her to avoid another bargaining session. Even after all they’d been through, she’d always be a slave to Zann’s magnetism. “I’ll listen, but don’t expect it to change anything.”

“That’s all I’m asking. Thank you.” Zann leaned against the counter and folded her arms, blowing out a nervous breath. “First of all, I just came from a meeting with Malcolm and Ham. I start back to work on Monday—same job, same salary. Everything back just like it was.”

A part of her wanted to leap for joy. Zann had been suspended from work for the last five months, causing what had been an almost-manageable crisis at home to spin completely out of control. It had upended not only their financial stability but Zann’s sense of purpose. In practical terms, this could put them back on solid ground.

But was it too little too late? It didn’t fix the underlying problem—Zann was grappling with a personal demon from her past and refused even to say what it was.

“And now comes the big news,” she went on, her wide green eyes showing a glint of cheerfulness that didn’t jibe with the occasion. “I went for the psych eval like they asked…and like you asked. Turns out I’m not even all that crazy. Can you believe it?”

“I never thought you were. I just thought you needed to talk to somebody.” Except she’d hoped that somebody would be her. Zann had kept her in the dark for too long.

“We set up three more sessions but he says we can go longer if I think I need it.”

Marleigh wanted to cheer, but after so many empty promises there was no shaking the fear that this was purely an attempt to manipulate her into calling off the sale. Zann wasn’t easy to trust anymore—she could very well keep her appointments but sabotage her progress and they’d be back where they started, especially if she lost her job again.

“Look, Marleigh…this is what you wanted, isn’t it? Everything’s going to be okay now. I love you.”

“I know you do. And you know how much I wanted you to get help. But it doesn’t change how much you hurt me.”

“How many times do I have to say it? I’m sorry. All this crap I’ve been going through has nothing to do with you.”

“It has everything to do with me if you shut me out. I’ve never given you a reason not to trust me, not once.” Her voice rose with every word, enough that she forced herself to close her eyes and take a deep, hissing breath.

This was their pattern. Or rather, Marleigh’s pattern. She started every conversation wanting badly to believe Zann was ready to turn the corner. In the end, the hurt would overwhelm her and she’d lash out. The issue wasn’t only the lack of trust. Zann had ignored her pleas for so long that it began to feel like deliberate indifference to the toll it was taking on their marriage. The final straw came when Marleigh concluded that she was the only one who cared about saving what they had.

“You’re the only person I’ve ever completely trusted in my whole life.” Zann took a step toward her, holding her hands out as if begging to be believed. “It was never about you. Hell, I could barely stomach telling the psychologist, and he hears this kind of shit all the time. But I swear I’m ready to talk now. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Marleigh couldn’t deny her surge of hope that today might be the breakthrough Zann needed. That they needed. The fact that she’d finally confessed to someone had to be good news. “Whatever this is, Zann…I’m pulling for you. I want to see you happy again.”

“I can’t be happy if we aren’t together. Simple as that. The reason I haven’t told you…I was scared you wouldn’t love me anymore.”

Marleigh’s arms opened automatically as Zann closed the distance between them and enveloped her in a hug. She was utterly powerless every time Zann reached for her.

“Can we hold off a little longer, Marleigh…please? I don’t want to lose our house. We’re supposed to grow old there. Give me one last chance to fix this. If I screw it up this time, I swear I won’t fight you anymore. Just please don’t throw us away yet.”

As she buried her face in Zann’s warm neck, strong arms tightened around her waist. And her heart responded the same way it always had. She wanted so, so badly to say yes, but…

The window casing shuddered from a change in air pressure, a faint signal that someone had entered the lobby. Marleigh broke their embrace. “Look, this isn’t the time or place to—”

Two sharp pops erupted in the outer room.

Zann gripped her shoulders tightly and whispered, “Those were gunshots!”

ISBN: 9781594935572e

4 Responses to “Sneak peek of Moment of Weakness”

  1. Ordering it soon. Another great one!

    Susan Mast Sent from my iPhone drsamast@yahoo.com

    >

  2. Will this be available at GCLS?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Takeaways from GCLS | KGMacGregor.com - July 20, 2017

    […] by to get it signed. It’s now available from Bella in both paperback and ebook. Here’s Chapter One to get you started. If that grabs you, you can follow the link at the end and download the rest. […]

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