FIRST Wild Card Tours presents…..Beyond These Hills by Sandra Robbins

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:
Sandra Robbins
and the book:
Beyond These Hills
Harvest House Publishers (September 1, 2013)
***Special thanks to Ginger Chen for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

In the romantic conclusion to the Smoky Mountain Dreams series, Sandra Robbins tells a story of love and loss. The government is purchasing property to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Laurel Jackson fears she’ll have to say goodbye to the only home she’s ever known. Can she find the strength to leave?

Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In the romantic conclusion to the Smoky Mountain Dreams series, Sandra Robbins tells a story of love and loss. The government is purchasing property to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Laurel Jackson fears she’ll have to say goodbye to the only home she’s ever known. Can she find the strength to leave?

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99

Series: Smoky Mountain Dreams (Book 3)

Paperback: 320 pages

Publisher: Harvest House Publishers (September 1, 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0736948880

ISBN-13: 978-0736948883

 

MY THOUGHTS ON THIS BOOK>……will post in the next few days…

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Cades Cove, TennesseeJune, 1935

The needle on the pickup truck’s speedometer eased to thirty miles an hour. Laurel Jackson bit back a smile and glanced at her father. With his right hand on the steering wheel and his left elbow hanging out the open window, he reminded her of a little boy absorbed in the wonder of a new toy.

The wind ruffled his dark, silver-streaked hair, and a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth as the truck bounced along. His eyes held a faraway look that told her he was enjoying every minute of the drive along the new road that twisted through Cades Cove.

If truth be told, though, the truck with its dented fenders wasn’t all that new. He’d bought it a few months ago from Warren Hubbard, who’d cleaned out a few ditches in Cades Cove trying to bring the little Ford to a stop. Rumor had it he kept yelling Whoa! instead of pressing the brake. The good-natured ribbing of his neighbors had finally convinced Mr. Hubbard that he had no business behind the wheel of a truck.

Laurel’s father didn’t have that problem. He took to driving like their old hound dog Buster took to trailing a raccoon. Neither gave up until they’d finished what they’d started. Mama often said she didn’t know which one’s stubborn ways vexed her more—Poppa’s or Buster’s. Of course her eyes always twinkled when she said it.

The truck was another matter entirely. Mama saw no earthly reason why they needed that contraption on their farm when they had a perfectly good wagon and buggy. To her, it was another reminder of how life in Cades Cove was changing. Laurel could imagine what her mother would say if she could see Poppa now as the speed-

ometer inched up to thirty-five. Land’s sakes, Matthew. If you don’t keep both hands on the wheel, you’re gonna end up killing us all.

But Mama wasn’t with them today to tell Poppa they weren’t in a race, and he was taking advantage of her absence to test the limits of the truck. At this rate they’d make it to Gatlinburg earlier than expected. When she was a little girl, the ride in their wagon over to the mountain village that had become a favorite of tourists had seemed to take forever. Now, it took them less than half the time to get there.

She glanced at her father again and arched an eyebrow. “You’d better be glad Mama stayed home.”

Her father chuckled. “Do you think she’d say I was driving too fast?”

Laurel tilted her head to one side and tried to narrow her eyes into a thoughtful pose. “I’m sure she wouldn’t hesitate to let you know exactly how she felt.”

A big smile creased her father’s face, and he nodded. “You’re right about that. Your mother may run a successful business from a valley in the middle of the Smoky Mountains, but she’d just as soon pass up all the modern conveniences the money she makes could provide her. Sometimes I think she’d be happier if we were still living in that one-room cabin we had when we first married.”

Laurel laughed and nodded. “I know. But I imagine she’ll be just as happy today to have us out of the way. She can unload her latest pottery from the kiln and get the lodge cleaned and ready for the tourists we have coming Monday.”

Her father’s right hand loosened on the steering wheel, and his left one pulled the brim of his hat lower on his forehead. “It looks like business is going to be good this year. We already have reservations for most of the summer, and our guests sure do like to take home some of her pieces from Mountain Laurel Pottery.”

Laurel frowned. There would be guests this summer, but what about next year and the year after that? A hot breeze blew through the open window, and she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. She mopped at the perspiration on her forehead before she swiveled in her seat to face her father. “Having the lodge and the pottery business is kind of like a mixed blessing, isn’t it?”

He frowned but didn’t take his eyes off the road. “How do you mean?”

Laurel’s gaze swept over the mountains that ringed the valley where she’d lived all her life. Her love for the mist-covered hills in the distance swelled up in her, and she swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. “Well, I was just thinking that we get paid well by the folks who stay at our lodge while they fish and hike the mountain trails, and Mama makes a lot of money selling them her pottery. But is the money worth what we’ve lost?” She clasped her hands in her lap. “I miss the quiet life we had in the Cove when I was a little girl.”

Her father’s forehead wrinkled. “So do I, darling, but you’re all grown up now, and those days are long gone. Change has been happening for a long time, but our way of life officially ended twelve years ago with the plan for the Smokies to become a national park. Now most of the mountain land’s been bought up by the government, and there’s a park superintendent in place over at Gatlinburg. I guess we have to accept the fact that the park is a reality.”

A tremor ran through Laurel’s body. She clutched her fists tighter until her fingernails cut into her palms. “No matter what we’re doing or talking about, it always comes back to one question, doesn’t it?”

Her father glanced at her. “What’s that?”

“How long can we keep the government from taking our land?”

“Well, they don’t have it yet.” The lines in her father’s face deepened, and the muscle in his jaw twitched. “At the moment, all the land that borders our farm has been bought and is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There aren’t many of us holding on in the Cove, but we’re not giving up without a fight. I have a meeting with our lawyer in Gatlinburg today to see how our court case is going. You can get your mama’s pottery delivered to Mr. Bryan’s store, can’t you?”

“I didn’t know you had a meeting with the lawyer. Don’t worry about the pottery. Willie and I can take care of that.”

A smile cracked her father’s moments-ago stony features at the mention of her younger brother, who was riding in the truck’s bed. “You make sure that boy helps you. He has a habit of disappearing every time I have a job for him. I sure wish he’d grow up and start taking on some responsibility around the farm.”

Laurel laughed. “Willie’s only twelve, Poppa. When he’s as old as Charlie or me, he’ll settle down.”

Her father shook his head. “I don’t know about that. He’s always gonna be your mother’s baby.”

Before she could respond, the truck hit a bump in the road and a yell from behind pierced her ears. Laughing, she turned and looked through the back window. Willie’s face stared back at her. “Do it again, Pa,” he yelled. “That was fun.”

Her father frowned, grabbed the steering wheel with both hands, and leaned over to call out the window. “Be still, Willie, before you fall out and land on your head.”

Willie stood up, grabbed the side of the open window, and leaned around the truck door to peer into the cab. “Won’t this thing go any faster?”

Her father’s foot eased up, and he frowned. “We’re going fast enough. Sit down, Willie.”

The wind whipped Willie’s dark hair in his eyes. He was grinning. “Jacob’s pa has a truck that’ll go fifty on a smooth stretch,” he yelled. “See what ours will do.”

The veins in her father’s neck stood out, and the speedometer needle dropped to twenty. “If you don’t sit down and stay put, I’m gonna stop and make you sit up here between your sister and me.”

“I’m just saying you ought to open this thing up and see what she’ll do.”

The muscle in her father’s jaw twitched again, and Laurel put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. How many times had she seen her no-nonsense father and her fun-loving brother locked in a battle of wills? Her father took a deep breath and shook his head.

“Willie, for the last time…”

Willie leaned closer to the window, glanced at Laurel, and winked. “Okay. I’ll sit, but I still think we could go a little faster. Jacob’s gonna get to Gatlinburg way before we do.”

The truck slowed to a crawl. “Willie…”

A big grin covered Willie’s mouth. “Okay, okay. I’m just trying to help. I know Mr. Bryan is waitin’ for these crates of Mama’s pottery. I’d hate to get there after he’d closed the store.”

“He’s not going to close the store. Now for the last time, do as I say.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sittin’.”

Willie pushed away from the window and slid down into the bed of the truck. Her father straightened in the seat and shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with that boy. He’s gonna put me in my grave before I’m ready.”

Laurel laughed, leaned over, and kissed her father’s cheek. “How many times have I heard you say that? I think you love sparring with him. He reminds you of Mama.”

For the first time today, a deep laugh rumbled in her father’s throat. “That it does. That woman has kept me on my toes for twenty years now.” He glanced over his shoulder through the back glass toward Willie, who now sat hunkered down in the bed of the truck. “But I doubt if I’ll make it with that boy. He tests my patience every day.”

Laurel smiled as she reached up and retied the bow at the end of the long braid that hung over her shoulder and down the front of her dress. “I doubt that will happen. You have more patience than anybody I know. There aren’t many in our valley who’ve been able to stand up to the government and keep them from taking their land. Just you and Grandpa Martin and a few more. Everybody else has given up and sold out.”

There it was again. The ever-present shadow that hung over their lives. Cove residents were selling out and leaving. How long could they hang on?

“Seems like we’re losing all our friends, doesn’t it?” Her father shook his head and pointed straight ahead. “Like Pete and Laura Ferguson. We’re almost to their farm. I think I’ll stop for a minute. I promised Pete I’d keep an eye on the place after they moved, and I haven’t gotten over here in a few weeks.”

Ever since Laurel could remember there had been a bond between her father and the older Pete Ferguson. Each had always been there to lend a hand to the other, but now the Fergusons were gone. Their land sold to the United States government and their farm officially a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

She glanced at her father’s face, and she almost gasped aloud at the sorrow she saw. The court case he and Grandpa Martin had waged over the past year had taken its toll on him. He was only a few months away from turning fifty years old, and Grandpa would soon be sixty-five. They didn’t need the worry they’d lived under for the last twelve years. Why couldn’t the government just give up and allow them to remain on their farms in the mountain valley that had been their family’s home for generations? That was her prayer every night, but so far God hadn’t seen fit to answer.

Her father steered the truck onto the dirt path that ran to the Ferguson cabin. The wildflowers Mrs. Ferguson had always loved waved in the breeze beside the road as they rounded the corner and pulled to a stop in the yard.

Laurel’s eyes grew wide, and she stared, unbelieving, through the windshield to the spot where the Ferguson cabin had stood as long as she could remember. Her father groaned and climbed from the truck. For a moment he stood beside the vehicle’s open door, his hand resting on the handle. He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what he saw. Then he closed the door and took a few steps forward.

Laurel reached for the leather bag that sat on the floorboard near her feet, unsnapped the top flap, and pulled out her Brownie box camera before jumping from the truck. She hurried to stand beside her father, who stood transfixed as he stared straight ahead. Willie, his face pale, climbed from the back of the truck and stopped next to their father. No one spoke for a moment.

Willie pulled his gaze away and stared up at their father. “Where’s the house, Pa?”

Their father took a deep breath. “I guess the park service tore it down, son.”

A sob caught in Laurel’s throat as they stared at the barren spot of land that had once been the site of a cabin, barn, and all the outbuildings needed to keep a farm productive. “But why would they do that, Poppa?”

Her father took a deep breath. “Because this land is now a part of the park, and they want it to return to its wild state.”

Willie inched closer to their father. “Are they gonna tear our house down too?”

Her father’s eyes darkened. “Not if I can help it.” He let his gaze wander over the place he had known so well before he took a deep breath and turned back to the truck. “Let’s get out of here. I shouldn’t have stopped today.”

Laurel raised the camera and stared down into the viewfinder. “Let me get a picture of this before we go.”

Her father gritted his teeth. “Take as many as you want. Somebody’s got to record the death of a community.”

None of them spoke as she snapped picture after picture of the empty spot that gave no hint a family had once been devoted to this piece of land. After she’d finished, the three of them returned to the truck and climbed in. When her father turned the truck and headed back to the road, Laurel glanced over her shoulder at the spot where the house had stood. She had always looked forward to visiting this home, but she didn’t know if she would be able to return. Too many of her friends were gone, scattered to the winds in different directions. The holdouts who still remained in the Cove lived each day with the threat that they too would soon be forced from the only homes they’d ever known. If her family had to leave, they would be like all the rest. They would go wherever they could find a home, and the ties forged by generations in the close society of their remote mountain valley would vanish forever.

Andrew Brady set his empty glass on the soda fountain counter and crossed his arms on its slick white surface. The young man who’d served him faced him behind the counter and smiled. “Can I get you somethin’ else, mister?”

Andrew shook his head. “No thanks. That cold drink helped to cool me down some. I didn’t expect it to be so hot in Gatlinburg. I thought it would be cooler here in the mountains.”

The young man grinned and reached up to scratch under the white hat he wore. “Most folks think that, but our days can be a bit warm in the summertime.” He glanced at several customers at the other end of the counter and, apparently satisfied they didn’t need any help at the moment, turned his attention back to Andrew. “Where you from?”

Andrew smiled. “Virginia. Up near Washington.”

The young man smiled and extended his hand. “Welcome to Gatlinburg. My name is Wayne Johnson. My uncle owns this drugstore, and I work for him.”

Andrew grasped his hand and shook it. “Andrew Brady.”

“How long you been here, Andrew?”

“I arrived Thursday.”

Wayne picked up a cloth and began to wipe the counter. He glanced up at Andrew. “You enjoying your vacation?”

Andrew shook his head. “I’m not in Gatlinburg on vacation. I’m here on business.”

Wayne shrugged. “I figured you for a tourist. Guess I was wrong. They come from all over now that the park’s opening up. I hear that we had about forty thousand people visit Gatlinburg last year. That’s a far cry from what it was like when I was a boy. We were just a wide spot in a dirt road back in those days. But I expect it’s only gonna get better.”

Andrew glanced around the drugstore with its well-stocked shelves and the soda fountain against the side wall. “It looks like this business is doing okay.” He shook his head and chuckled. “I don’t know what I expected, but I wouldn’t have thought there’d be so many shops here. Mountain crafts are for sale everywhere, and the whole town is lit up with electric lights. It looks like the park has put this town on the map.”

Wayne propped his hands on the counter and smiled. “I guess folks in the outside world thought we were just a bunch of ignorant hillbillies up here, but we been doing fine all these years. We’ve even had electricity since back in the twenties when Mr. Elijah Reagan harnessed the power on the Roaring Fork for his furniture factory. He supplied to everybody else too, but now they say we’re gonna have cheap electricity when TVA gets all their dams built.”

Andrew nodded. “I guess it’s a new day for the people in the mountains.”

“It sure is, and we’re enjoying every bit of it.” He picked up Andrew’s dirty glass and held it up. “You sure you don’t want a refill?”

Andrew shook his head. “No, I’d better be going. I have some things to do before I head out to Cades Cove tomorrow.”

Wayne cocked an eyebrow. “Only one reason I can think why you might be going out there. You must be joining up at the Civilian Conservation Corps.”

Andrew pulled some coins from his pocket to pay for his soda and laid them on the counter. “No, I’m not with the CCC. Just intend to visit with them a while.”

Wayne shrugged. “There’re a lot of CCC camps all over the mountains, and those boys are doing a good job. You can see part of it when you drive into the Cove. They built the new road there. It sure makes gettin’ in and out of there easier than it did in years past. I reckon Roosevelt did a good thing when he put that program in his New Deal.”

“Yeah, it’s giving a lot of young men a chance for employment.” Andrew smiled, picked up the hat that rested on the stool beside him, and set it on his head. “Thanks for the soda.”

Wayne studied Andrew for a moment. “You never did tell me exactly what your job is. What brought you to Gatlinburg from Washington?”

“I work with the Park Service. I’m here on a special assignment.”

Wayne’s eyes narrowed, and his gaze raked Andrew. “Special assignment, huh? Sounds important, and you look mighty young.”

Andrew’s face grew warm, and his pulse quickened. Even a soda jerk could figure out that a guy who looked like he’d barely been out of college for a year couldn’t have gotten this job on his own. But with his father being a United States congressman and a supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, it hadn’t been hard for his father to arrange this appointment.

The worst part for him, though, had been his father’s command that Andrew had better not embarrass him on the job. He swallowed the nausea rising in his throat and tried to smile.

“I guess I’m just lucky they thought I was qualified.”

“Well, congratulations. Come in for another soda the next time you’re in town.”

“That I will.” Andrew turned and headed for the exit.

When he stepped outside the drugstore, he stopped and stared at the newly paved road that wound through the town. Before long that stretch of highway would wind and climb its way up the mountainsides all the way to Newfound Gap that divided the states of   Tennessee and North Carolina. He’d heard that spot mentioned several times as the ideal location for the dedication of the park, but the event was still some years away. His assignment here would be one of the factors that determined when it would take place.

Andrew took a deep breath of fresh mountain air and turned in the direction where he’d parked his car. Several tourists brushed past him, but it was the approach of a young man and woman who caught his attention. Obviously honeymooners, if the glow of happiness on their faces was any indication. Ignoring everybody they passed, they stared into each other’s eyes and smiled as if they had a secret no one else knew.

Andrew shook his head in sympathy as they walked past him and wondered how long it would take them to face up to the reality of what being married really meant. He’d seen how his friends had changed after marriage when they had to start worrying about taking care of a family. He’d decided a long time ago it wasn’t for him. He had too many things he wanted to do in life, and getting married ranked way below the bottom of his list. Convincing his father of the decision, though, was another matter. The congressman had already picked out the woman for his son’s wife. “The perfect choice,” his father often said, “to be by your side as you rise in politics.”

Andrew sighed and shook his head. Sometimes there was no reasoning with his father. He wished he could make him…

His gaze drifted across the street, and the frown on his face dissolved at the sight of a young woman standing at the back of a pickup truck. Her fisted hands rested on her hips, and she glared at the back of a young boy running down the street.

“Willie,” she yelled. “Come back here. We’re not through unloading yet.”

The boy scampered away without looking over his shoulder. She shook her head and stamped her foot. Irritation radiated from her stiff body, and his skin warmed as if she’d touched him.

As if some unknown force had suddenly inhabited his body, he eased off the sidewalk and moved across the street until he stood next to her. “Excuse me, ma’am. Is there anything I can do to help?”

She whirled toward him, and the long braid of black hair hanging over her right shoulder thumped against her chest. Sultry dark eyes shaded by long lashes stared up at him, and a small gasp escaped her lips. “Oh, you startled me.”

His chest constricted, and he inhaled to relieve the tightness. His gaze drifted to the long braid that reached nearly to her waist. He had a momentary desire to reach out and touch it. With a shake of his head, he curled his fingers into his palms and cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry. I heard you calling out to that boy, and I thought maybe I could help.”

Only then did her shoulders relax, and she smiled. Relief surged through his body, and his legs trembled. What was happening to him? A few minutes ago he was mentally reaffirming his commitment to bachelorhood, and now his mind wondered why he’d ever had such a ridiculous thought. All he could do was stare at the beautiful creature facing him.

She glanced in the direction the boy had disappeared and sighed. “That was my brother. He was supposed to help me move these crates into the store, but he ran off to find his friend.” She smiled again and held out her hand. “My name is Laurel.”

His hand engulfed hers, and a wobbly smile pulled at his lips. “I’m Andrew. I’d be glad to take these inside for you, Laurel.”

“Oh, no. If you could just get one end, I’ll hold the other.”

He studied the containers for a moment before he shook his head. “I think I can manage. If you’ll just open the door, I’ll have them inside in no time.”

She hesitated as if trying to decide, then nodded. “Okay. But be careful. These crates are filled with pottery. My mother will have a fit if one piece gets broken.”

He took a deep breath, leaned over the tailgate of the truck, and grabbed the largest crate with Mountain Laurel Pottery stamped on the top. Hoisting the container in his hands, he headed toward the store and the front door that she held open.

As they entered the building, a tall man with a pencil stuck behind his ear hurried from the back of the room. “Afternoon, Laurel. I wondered when you were going to get here.”

She smiled, and Andrew’s heart thumped harder. “We didn’t leave home as early as we’d planned.” Her smile changed to a scowl. “Willie was supposed to help me, but he ran off.” And just as quickly, her expression changed again to a dazzling smile. “Andrew was good enough to help me get the crates in.”

Mr. Bryan helped Andrew ease the crate to the floor and glanced up at him. “Any more in the truck?”

Andrew nodded. “One more, but it’s smaller. I don’t need any help getting it inside.”

“Then I’ll leave you two. I’m unboxing some supplies in the back.” Mr. Bryan turned to Laurel. “If anybody comes in, holler at me, Laurel.”

“I will.”

A need to distance himself from this woman who had his heart turning somersaults swept over Andrew, and he hurried out the door. Within minutes he was back with the second container, but he almost dropped it at the sight of Laurel kneeling on the floor beside the first one. She opened the top, reached inside, and pulled out one of the most beautiful clay pots he’d ever laid eyes on. Swirls of orange and black streaked the smoky surface of the piece. She held it up to the light, and her eyes sparkled as she turned it slowly in her hands and inspected it.

He set the second crate down and swallowed. “Did you make it?”

She laughed and shook her head. The braid swayed again, and he stood transfixed. “No, my mother is the potter. I help her sometimes, but I didn’t inherit her gift. This is one of her pit-fired pieces.”

She set the pot down and pulled another one out. She smiled and rubbed her hand over the surface. Her touch on the pottery sent a warm rush through his veins.

“Exquisite.” The word escaped his mouth before he realized it.

She cocked her head to one side and bit her lip. “Exquisite?” she murmured. She glanced up at him, and her long eyelashes fluttered. “I’ve searched for the right word for a long time to describe my mother’s work. I think you’ve just given it to me. They are exquisite.”

He swallowed and backed away. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

She shook her head. “No, thank you. You’ve been a great help.”

“I’m glad I could be of service.” He searched his mind for something else to say, something to prolong his time with her, but his mind was blank. He took a deep breath. “I need to go. It was nice meeting you, Laurel.”

She smiled. “You too, Andrew. Goodbye, and thanks again.”

“Goodbye.” He slowly backed toward the door.

Outside in the fresh air he took a deep breath and pulled his hat off. He raked his sleeve across his perspiring brow and shook his head. What had just happened? He’d felt like he was back in high school and trying to impress the most popular girl in his class.

He closed his eyes for a moment, and the image of her holding the pottery in her hands returned. He clamped his teeth down on his bottom lip and shook his head. She’d misunderstood. It wasn’t the pottery he was describing when the word had slipped from his mouth.

Exquisite? The word didn’t do her justice.

And she had a beautiful name too. Laurel. He straightened, and his eyes widened. He hadn’t even asked her last name.

He whirled to go back inside the store but stopped before he had taken two steps. His father’s face and the words he’d spoken when Andrew left home flashed in his mind. Remember who you are and why you’re there. Don’t do anything foolish. People in Washington are watching. He exhaled and rubbed his hand across his eyes.

For a moment inside the store he’d been distracted. He was the son of Congressman Richard Brady, and his father had big plans for his only living son.

He glanced once more at the pickup truck that still sat in front of the store and pictured how Laurel had looked standing there. When he’d grasped her hand, he’d had the strange feeling that he’d known her all his life. How could a mountain girl he’d just met have such a strange effect on him?

He pulled his hat on, whirled, and strode in the opposite direction. Halfway down the block he stopped, turned slowly, and wrinkled his brow as he stared back at the truck. The words painted on the containers flashed in his mind, and he smiled.

It shouldn’t be too hard to find out her last name. For now he would just call her Mountain Laurel. His skin warmed at the thought. A perfect name for a beautiful mountain girl.

He jammed his hands in his pockets and whistled a jaunty tune as he sauntered down the street.

First Wild Card Tours presents….Mountain Homecoming.

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:
Sandra Robbins
and the book:
Mountain Homecoming
Harvest House Publishers (March 1, 2013)
***Special thanks to Ginger Chen for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sandra Robbins and her husband live in the small college town in Tennessee where she grew up. They count their four children and five grandchildren as the greatest blessings in their lives. Her published books include stories in historical romance and romantic suspense. When not writing or spending time with her family, Sandra enjoys reading, collecting flow blue china, and playing the piano.

Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In the second book in the Smoky Mountain Dreams series, acclaimed author Sandra Robbins spins a tender tale of God’s faithfulness throughout the generations.

Rani Martin, Simon and Anna’s only daughter, is a beautiful and spirited young woman living deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. She has plenty of ideas about the man she’ll marry someday, but none of them could have prepared her for the return of Matthew Jackson.

Matthew left Cades Cove as a child after his father’s death. Now he’s come back to build a new life for himself, and it’s his dearest wish that Rani be a part of that life. But the people of the Cove won’t let him forget the sins of his father, and Matthew can’t forget the darkness of his own past.

Is there a place for Matthew in the Cove? And can the light of Rani’s love overcome his pain?

 

MY THOUGHTS ON THIS BOOK

I’m about half way through reading this book, so will post review here tomorrow….Wed. Wonderful book so far!

 

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99

Paperback: 304 pages

Publisher: Harvest House Publishers (March 1, 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0736948864

ISBN-13: 978-0736948869

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Cades Cove, Tennessee

June, 1914Rani Martin stared through the cabin window at the Smoky

Mountains rising above the valley she loved. Usually the sight of the foggy mists curling around the hills made her happy. But try as she might, she couldn’t find anything to cheer her up today.

There had to be something that would take away the misery gnawing in the pit of her stomach. Poppa always told her she could do anything she set her mind to, but she didn’t know how she could be happy about losing the best friend any girl could ever have.

After today, there would be no reason for her to visit this cabin. Tomorrow Josie Ferguson and her husband, Ted, would load their belongings in their wagon, take their baby, and do what many of their friends and neighbors had already done—move out of Cades Cove. Josie, the one she’d shared secrets with all her life, would be gone, and Rani would be left behind with only memories of her best friend since childhood.

She didn’t understand what any of the folks who’d left the Cove were thinking. How could they leave the most beautiful place on God’s good earth?

It was springtime, the best time of year in the Cove. The winter snow had melted and the mountain laurel was in bloom. It wouldn’t be long before rhododendrons dotted the mountainsides and azaleas reappeared on Gregory’s Bald. This year, however, Josie wouldn’t be with her to share the wonder of the Cove coming back to life after a hard winter.

To Rani the prospect of living anywhere except the mountain valley where she’d been born scared her. She’d had an opportunity to see what existed in the outside world when she spent a year attending school while living with Uncle Charles in Maryville. It had been enough to convince her that life wasn’t nearly as good anywhere else as it was in the Cove. But others didn’t share her thoughts, and they’d left. And now Josie was going too.

With a sigh she turned back to the task she’d abandoned moments ago, helping pack up the kitchen utensils. Her throat constricted as she pulled the cake plate she and her mother had given Josie from the kitchen cupboard. She wrapped her fingers around the pierced handles and stared down at the hand-painted red and yellow roses on the delicate china dish. She’d thought it the most beautiful plate she’d ever seen when she first spied it at the store in Pigeon Forge.

Tears filled her eyes, and she loosened her grip with one hand so she could trace the gold band on the fluted rim. “I can’t believe it’s been three years since your wedding.”

Josie Ferguson bit down on her lip and nodded. “Ted’s always said this was his favorite of all our wedding gifts. It reminds him of the molasses cake your mother let him and his sister help make the day George was born.”

“I’ve heard Mama tell that story so many times. But she has one about every baby she’s helped deliver.”

“She’s been a blessing to the women she’s helped birth their babies. Everybody loves Anna Martin.” Josie’s eyes grew wide. “And of course your father too. I don’t think I can ever love another pastor like I do your pa. I’ve listened to him on Sundays ever since I can remember.”

“But you won’t be there anymore.” Rani set the plate down on the table and glanced at the baskets and tubs scattered across the kitchen floor. Pots, pans, and cooking utensils protruded above their sides. The tears she’d been holding back poured down her face, and she covered her eyes with her fingers. “First my brother decides to spend the summer at Uncle Robert’s farm in Strawberry Plains instead of coming home from school, then my cousin Annie gets married and moves to Townsend. Now you’re going too. What will I do with all of you gone? I’m going to feel so alone.”

“No, you won’t.”

Rani dug her fists into her eyes to stop the tears and gritted her teeth. “Why couldn’t Stephen have come home when school was out at Milligan College instead of spending the summer on Uncle Robert’s farm?”

Josie propped her hands on her hips and tilted her head to one side. “You know why.”

“Yeah,” Rani sighed. “He didn’t want to hear Poppa talk to him all summer about following in his footsteps. I don’t know why Poppa can’t see that Stephen doesn’t feel led to preach even though he agreed to that year at Milligan College. He wants to go to medical school. Of course that’s what Mama wants too. I’m glad they don’t have that problem with me. I don’t want to live anywhere but right here in Cades Cove…even if I am going to be alone.”

Josie rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Like I said, you won’t be alone. You’ll have your ma and pa, and Stephen will be here for a visit in July.” Josie wrapped her arms around Rani’s shoulders and hugged her close. “I’m the one who’s going to be alone. I won’t know anybody over at Townsend. You know Ted never has taken to farming, and there’s nothing else for him in the Cove. His new job pays real good. They’re going to furnish us a house too.”

Rani drew back in shock and gaped at Josie. “House? Have you seen what that high and mighty Little River Logging Company calls houses? I went with Poppa to Townsend last month, and I couldn’t believe what the workers were living in. They call them setoff houses because they bring them in on railroad cars and set them off on the hillsides or even right next to the railroad. They’re nothing more than one-room shacks with tar paper roofs. When the lumber company gets through cutting all the trees in one place, they load the houses onto a train and ship them to the next spot for their workers.”

Josie’s lip trembled, and her forehead wrinkled. “I know.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “But what can I do, Rani? Ted is my husband. We have to go where he can find work.”

Rani gazed past Josie to the cradle in the next room. “I can’t stand to think about you living in one of those things, especially now since you have a baby. Can’t you convince Ted to stay in Cades Cove? This is the only life you know.”

Josie pulled the corner of her apron up and wiped her eyes. She took a deep breath. “We’ll be fine. I’ll come back to visit, and you can come to Townsend to see me.”

Rani snorted and shook her head. “No thanks. I have no desire to share a one-room setoff house with you and your husband, not to mention your baby. I can’t believe Ted would be so disloyal to the Cove to go work for a company that’s trying to destroy our mountains.”

“Are you accusing my husband of turning his back on his friends?” Josie’s eyes flared and grew dark with anger.

Rani had seen that look before and realized she’d gone too far. She really needed to follow her mother’s advice and not be so outspoken about the company she thought was using the Smokies as a quick way to make money. Her opinion of Little River Lumber differed from that of many who’d left to work for the logging company. Now she had sounded like she believed Ted to be a traitor to his friends.

She reached out and grasped Josie’s arm. “I’m sorry, Josie. I didn’t mean to criticize Ted. It’s just that I’ve been so upset over what Little River’s doing to our mountains. Colonel Townsend has bought 86,000 acres of forest land all the way from Tuckaleechee to Clingman’s Dome. I don’t care if he does own the company, he’s a foolish man. They’re cutting every tree in their path. If somebody doesn’t stop them, the Smokies will end up as barren hillsides.”

Josie waved her hand in dismissal. “As usual, you’re being overly dramatic. That’s not going to happen. Like I said before, they pay well, and we need the money. End of discussion.”

Rani opened her mouth to respond, but the set of Josie’s jaw told her it would be useless. With a sigh, she picked up the cake plate from the table and handed it to Josie. “I hope you’ll think of me every time you use this.”

Josie took the plate and clasped it in her hands like she held a priceless treasure. For the first time Rani caught a glimpse of fear in Josie’s eyes, and the truth struck her. Josie didn’t want to leave Cades Cove, but she had no choice.

“I will,” Josie whispered. “I wanted this to be the last thing I packed. After all, you’re my best friend.”

Rani burst into tears and threw her arms around Josie. “We’re more than best friends. I think of you as the sister I never had. ”

“Me too.” Josie pulled back and wiped at the corner of her eyes. “But you know we could really be sisters.”

Josie’s words shattered the mood of moments ago and swept all the sadness from Rani’s mind. She took a step backward and wagged her finger in Josie’s direction. “Oh no. Don’t start that again.”

“Why not? George is crazy about you. All he talks about is how he wants to marry you, and you won’t give him any encouragement. If you married him, we’d be family. Sisters-in-law.”

Rani couldn’t believe they were having this conversation again. “I’ve told you at least a hundred times that George is a good friend, but I don’t love him. Even if I did, I don’t think I’d marry him.”

A skeptical expression crossed Josie’s face. “What’s the matter? Isn’t he good looking enough for you?”

Rani’s mouth gaped open at the ridiculous suggestion. “Oh, Josie, you know I would never think that. The truth is George is the youngest child in his family, and he’s spoiled rotten. If he doesn’t get his way, he sulks for days. I wouldn’t want a husband that I have to coddle and give in to all the time.”

Josie dropped her gaze to the cake plate she held and wrapped a burlap sack around it before she tucked it in the side of one of the baskets. “I have to admit you’re right. As a matter of fact, Ted told me George had an awful argument with his pa the other night. It seems he’s upset because he’s going to be left behind in the Cove after we leave.”

Rani held up her hands in exasperation. “You see what I mean. George can only see what he wants. He doesn’t realize what a great opportunity he has to work with his father on one of the best farms in the Cove.”

“But, Rani, you know he’s in love with you. That ought to be enough to make him a good husband.”

“Maybe it would be for somebody else, but not for me. I’m just eighteen years old. I have plenty of time to think about getting married. When I do, it’s going to be because I love a man so much my heart aches when I’m away from him.”

Josie turned to Rani and propped her hands on her hips. “Yeah, you’ve always had those romantic ideas. I think it must come from all those stories about how hard it was for your pa to get your mother to marry him.” She leaned closer to Rani. “Well, for those of us who don’t have a great love like that happen in our lives, we have to settle for the next best thing. It’s not like there’s a lot of men to choose from in the Cove. Being married to George is better than ending up an old maid.”

Rani flinched at Josie’s words. She remembered how Josie had cried four years ago when Charlie Simmons left the Cove, bound for California. At the time she’d thought it was because he was Ted’s friend. Now she wasn’t so sure. “Is that what you did, Josie? You settled for the next best thing?”

Josie’s face drained of color, and she put her hand to her throat. “Rani, I didn’t mean…”

“What’s goin’ on in here?”

At the sound of her husband’s voice at the back door Josie’s body stiffened, and she glanced over her shoulder. Rani’s heart lurched at the lack of expression on Josie’s face. She might very well have been looking at a stranger who’d come to her door instead of her husband. “I need to check on the baby,” she said, and hurried from the kitchen.

Ted Ferguson frowned and gazed after his wife as she hurried into the next room. His eyes darkened, and the look in his eyes told Rani he longed for something he would never have from Josie. After a moment he took a deep breath and smiled at her. “You two havin’ another one of your friendly arguments?”

Rani forced a laugh from her throat and wiped her eyes. “No argument. We’re just a little emotional over the two of you leaving the Cove. It seems all my friends are taking off for different places. My family may be the only one left before long.”

Ted shook his head. “Naw, you won’t be. They’ll have to drag my pa out of the Cove to get him to leave. He says he intends to be buried at the church he’s gone to all his life.”

“That’s what my pa says too.” Rani picked up the empty basket sitting on the table. “I left you some fried chicken and a fresh loaf of bread that Mama sent. She thought you might get hungry on your way to Townsend tomorrow.”

“She always thinks about other folks. Tell her I’m mighty obliged, and I hope I see her soon.”

“I will.”

Ted followed Rani into the next room where Josie was holding her son. No one spoke for a moment, then Josie swallowed and handed the baby to Ted. “Take care of Jimmy a minute while I walk Rani out.”

As Rani stepped onto the front porch, she glanced down at her dog lying next to the door. She snapped her fingers, and he jumped to his feet. He shook his shaggy body, wagged his tail, and awaited her command. It was so easy to communicate with animals. Give them love, feed them well, and reward them for good behavior, and they’d do anything you asked. Too bad people weren’t like that.

Josie had a husband who did all that for her, but today Rani had discovered the secret Josie had kept so well hidden—she would never be able to return Ted’s love. Rani didn’t want to end up like that.

With a sigh, she reached down and stroked her dog’s head. “Good boy, Scout. You did what I said. Now let’s go home.”

With Scout at her heels, she and Josie walked to the road that ran in front of the cabin. As they neared the edge of the yard, Rani turned to Josie. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you too. We’re leaving early in the morning. So I guess I won’t see you again. I hope you will come visit me in Townsend. We’ll make room.”

Rani nodded. “We’ll see. You take care of yourself. And Ted and little Jimmy too.”

Josie smiled, but Rani could see the tears she was fighting to control. “Goodbye, Rani.”

Rani started to speak, but the words froze in her throat. She pressed her lips together and hugged her friend before she turned and started the long walk home. Scout trotted along beside her, and she didn’t look back. She wanted to, but she didn’t think she could stand the sight of Josie watching her walk away.

She glanced down at the dog and smiled. “Well, Scout, it’s a two-mile walk home. Do you think you can make it?”

The dog stared up at her and yelped a reply without breaking his stride.

“I think I can too.”

She didn’t mind walking. It had always been her way of getting around the Cove, and it gave her time to think. Today she had a lot to mull over. Her discovery about Josie’s feelings that she had settled for the next best thing still bothered her. She’d never imagined that Josie might have been in love with someone else.

Now that she thought back to four years ago, she remembered Josie seeming happy all summer. At the time, all she would say was that she’d had her first kiss and was in love. Rani thought it had to be Ted because he had been in love with Josie for years. But it must have been Charlie Simmons, and things hadn’t worked out. And soon after Charlie’s departure from the Cove, Josie had agreed to marry Ted after putting him off for so long.

Today she had learned the truth. Josie had settled for something—someone—she didn’t want. How could she have done that? She must have thought she was doing the right thing, but she’d been wrong. And she was wrong about something else. Being an old maid wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a woman. To Rani’s way of thinking, being married to someone you didn’t love was far worse.

She squared her shoulders, clenched her fists at her side, and looked down at Scout. “I promise you, Scout, I will never settle for second best, even if it means I never get married.”

From the moment he rode into Cades Cove a peace like he hadn’t experienced in years came over Matthew Jackson. He pulled his horse to a stop and breathed in the sweet scent of mountain laurel drifting on the air. It smelled like home. He was back where his heart had remained.

Had it really been twenty years since he left the Cove? He closed his eyes and tried to recall every memory of the days following the death of his drunkard father. Even now the thought of the life he, his mother, and his little brother had endured made the old anger he’d tried to bury resurface. With his father drunk most of the time, survival had been hard. But his mother had seen to it that there was always food on the table. Then their lives had taken a turn for the worse when a tavern brawl had ended with his father lying dead of a gunshot wound.

Matthew had been almost ten years old at the time, but overnight he became the man of the family. He’d turned to a newcomer in the Cove, Anna Prentiss. Of course she was Anna Martin now. But to him she’d always be the angel who’d found a place for his family to live and had seen they were taken care of.

He even remembered the last words he’d spoken to her the day they left the Cove. She stood beside the wagon loaded with his family’s few belongings, and he’d said, “I’ll be back here someday.” And now, thanks to the money he’d saved working for the Little River Company, he had returned with the deed to his old homestead in his pocket.

But would the people of the Cove welcome the return of Luke Jackson’s son? His father had been a troublemaker and a bully, not to mention an abuser of his wife and children. The sturdy mountain folks didn’t have time for a man who didn’t take care of his family. As his mother used to say, people have long memories, and he was sure they could recall every one of his father’s misdeeds. Now he was about to see if those memories had labeled him a ne’er-do-well like his father.

He could count on one hand the folks who would welcome him back. Simon and Anna Martin. Granny Lawson. They were the ones who made his childhood bearable, and he could hardly wait to see them. But first things first. He had to go to the place where he was born and fulfill a promise he’d made to his dying mother fifteen years ago.

He’d leaned close to her frail, fever-ridden body to catch her last words spoken in that familiar mountain twang: “When you git back to the Cove, see if    ’n my mountain laurel bush is still there, the one yore pa planted for me when we was first married.”

After all the heartache his father had put her through, she still held to the memory of the early days of her marriage when she’d been so happy. Even now the thought of how her eyes had sparkled for a moment, reliving a happier time, made him feel as if a hammer had crushed his heart. His mother and little Eli, his brother. Gone too soon.

He cleared his throat and swiped at his eyes. No need to think about those things now. This was homecoming day, but it was different from what he’d dreamed about when he was a boy. He’d come back alone.

Straightening in the saddle, he spurred the horse forward and concentrated on the road twisting through the valley he loved. All around him were the sights and sounds he’d longed for, but he focused on getting home and seeing the place he’d left twenty years ago.

When he pulled the horse to a halt at what had once been the cabin where he’d lived, his heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. It was worse than he’d expected. The skeleton of a cabin sat near the tulip poplar tree he’d climbed as a boy—bigger now than he remembered. The house’s roof had long ago succumbed to the forces of nature and had caved in. A few timbers marked the spot where it had once been. Weeds grew across what had once been a yard.

Even in its best days the cabin hadn’t been much, but it could have been if his father had concentrated on making a life for his family instead of spending his time in a drunken stupor. The old hatred welled up in his heart, and he whispered the plea he’d prayed every day since he could remember. “God, don’t let me be like him. Make me a better man.”

The promise he’d made his mother flashed into his mind, and he climbed down from the horse and tied the reins to a sapling. Taking a deep breath to slow his racing heart, he headed around the side of the house. Had the mountain laurel plant survived the years?

His gaze drifted to his feet, and a warning flickered in his head. The weeds along what used to be a path had been trampled. Someone else had passed this way not long ago.

With hesitant steps, he inched forward. The knee-high weeds swished against his legs. He caught sight of his mother’s plant that now towered higher than his head, and he stopped in amazement. It wasn’t the bloom-covered bush that made his breath catch in his throat. It was a young woman who appeared unaware of his presence. With her arms outstretched and her face turned up to the sun, she whirled in circles in front of the mountain laurel bush while saying something in a language he didn’t understand.

Her bare feet hammered the hardened earth around the plant in a pounding rhythm. Pink blooms from the mountain laurel bush ringed the top of her head and several more protruded from the mass of black hair that reached below her shoulders.

She moved with the grace and elegance of a queen, and he thought he had never seen anyone more beautiful. He tried to speak, to alert her she wasn’t alone, but he felt as if he had come under her spell and had been forbidden to move.

Suddenly the air crackled with frantic barking, and a dog emerged from the other side of the bush. His hackles raised, he positioned himself between Matthew and the girl. She jerked to a stop and stared at him, wide-eyed. The dog snarled and inched forward.

Her dark eyes narrowed, and with one snap of her fingers she quieted the dog. She didn’t move, and her arched eyebrow told him his company wasn’t welcomed. “Stay back, mister, or I’ll sic my dog on you.”

He glanced down at the dog, whose body still bristled as if he was ready to attack. “I don’t mean you any harm, miss.”

“Then why did you sneak up on me?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t. I stopped when I heard your voice. What were you saying?”

“Just some words I learned from a Cherokee woman.” She frowned and glanced past him. “Are you alone?”

“I am. I just rode into the Cove from Townsend.”

Her body stiffened, and her lips curled into a sneer. “Townsend? Are you with the Little River Company?”

“I have been.”

“It figures.” She spit the words at him as if they were distasteful. “We get a lot of Little River workers checking out the Cove. You people are always searching for another stand of timber to cut down, aren’t you?” She bent down, grabbed her discarded shoes, and slipped them on her feet. Then with her arms rigid at her sides and her fists clenched, she took a step toward him. “Well, you can go back and tell your bosses we don’t sell our land and our trees to outsiders who want to clear cut their way through the Smokies.”

The defiant look in her eyes shot daggers at him, and they felt as if they poked deep holes in his heart. This girl’s words echoed the fierce pride shared by all the Cove residents for this valley, his valley, the place he called home. He wanted to tell her he agreed with her, that all he wanted was to live again among the people he remembered. Instead, other words emerged from his lips. “I worked for their railroad, not the logging company.”

She shook her head, and one of the blooms tumbled to the ground. Her eyes widened, and she glanced up as if she’d forgotten she wore a crown of flowers. A flush covered her cheeks, and she yanked the blossoms from her thick hair. “They’re the same to me. Maybe you didn’t cut our trees, but you carried them away.”

Matthew swallowed hard. There was something so familiar about this girl. Her brown eyes, dark complexion, and the high cheekbones reminded him of someone. It wasn’t possible he could have met her before. She probably hadn’t even been born when he had left the Cove. But still, there was something. He took a step closer, and the dog growled. With a smile he stopped and held up his hands. “I’m not coming closer.”

“Good.” She sniffed and snapped her fingers again. “Let’s go, Scout. It’s time we got home.”

He didn’t move as she strode past him, her head held high and her dog at her side. He turned and watched her disappear around the side of what had once been his home. Her straight back and determined stride reminded him of the spirited mountain women he’d known. They attacked the harsh life in the Cove and planted the seed of unyielding loyalty to the land in their children. Just like his mother had done with him.

Someone had instilled that same devotion in this girl. He hoped he’d get to meet the person who had done that, for he had just encountered the fierce mountain pride that had ruled his life. And it thrived in the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

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