Clay Alexander’s charmed existence starts spinning out of control when his father threatens to shut down Maple Valley’s woolen mill – unless Clay conforms to his family’s expectations.
Is Tracy and Clay’s love meant to be, or will they forever be on opposite sides of the merry-go-round?
Her children. His parents. Her pride. His honor. The welfare of an entire town.
MERRY GO ROUND… Hang on for dear life.
Tracy Jones Tomlinson stepped up to the front porch at her parents’ house and turned to see if Theodora, Titus and Timothy had caught up to her. She was just ready to yell at them to quit fighting and hurry up when she heard voices.
“Did Tracy and Trevor say anything about being late, Mom?” she heard Rachael asking, probably from the kitchen. “The pork tenderloin’s going to dry out if they don’t get here soon.”
Her mother responded. “I told you to use Tracy’s recipe – you know, the one that came from Trevor’s mother. It always comes out of the oven so melt-in-your-mouth tender when it’s simmered in that heavenly gravy she makes.”
“This is the recipe I use at The Painted Lady,” Michelle said. “It always turns out perfectly. Everybody loves it.”
“Well, Tracy didn’t say anything to me, but I know Trevor’s schedule has been extremely hectic lately,” their mother said. “Every time I’ve talked to her recently he’s been off on one errand of mercy or another. Such a dear man.”
Tracy froze. She’d been keeping Trevor’s secret and playing the part of the perfect pastor’s wife for over two years. She was sick of it; tired of making up stories about where he was, covering for him at church, and having to pretend that they had the proverbial marriage made in heaven.
“I hope the church up in Blooming realizes how fortunate they are to have Trevor,” their father added in a loud voice. “Trevor works night and day for that church. I’m sure the parishioners give them what they can afford, and of course they have the parsonage, but a man as hard-working and talented as Trevor could be making ten times as much money in the private sector.”
She peeked around the corner just in time to see Rachael and Michelle giving each other the look. Not one family gathering could pass without the traditional Isn’t Trevor Tomlinson wonderful? speech being delivered by their father, their mother, or both. She risked another quick glance. Mac and Jake were probably down in the basement playing with the kids – at least they didn’t have to be subjected to their dad’s well-practiced oration.
“That Trevor has such a heart for shut-ins,” their mother added. “He visits each one in the Blooming area at least once a week, besides his regular visits to the nursing homes and the hospitals in Austin and Red Oak.”
“He’s been up to Rochester to visit folks at the Mayo Clinic at least twice this month,” their father added. “You just don’t find men like him in the world very often anymore.”
“I know I’ve said it a hundred times if I’ve said it once, but Tracy is so blessed to be married to a man like Trevor,” their mother said.
Her sisters exchanged another look. Yeah. Well, for once, it appeared her sisters were right.
She heard the kids behind her and took her cue. “Hello! Sorry to keep you waiting.” She held the screen door open while Theodora, Titus, and Timothy entered the kitchen single file, their mouths shut, their faces angelic looking.
Michelle wiped her hands on her apron. “Hi, Teddy! Wow. Did you do something different with your hair? I love the way it sweeps around in back.”
Theodora beamed silently as her aunt spun her around to get the full effect of her new hairstyle, then turned and threw her arms around Michelle. “Thanks, Aunt Michelle. Mom still refuses to call me Teddy. And, she hates my new haircut.”
Michelle returned “Teddy’s” hug and smiled fondly at the boys. “How ya doin’, Ty? Hi, Timothy. Nate and Josh are downstairs playing with Ian and baby Sarah if you want to go tell them dinner is ready.”
“If everyone could please have a seat,” Rachael said, looking impatient.
“Nate and Josh are here? All right!” Timothy crowed.
Even Titus’ face lit up for a second. Nate and Josh, Jake’s children from a previous marriage, lived three hours away, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with their mother, and spent every other weekend with Michelle and Jake.
Their mother went to the door and looked out. “Did Trevor have trouble finding a place to park?”
“He’s not here,” Tracy told her with feigned surprise. “I’m sorry. I thought I told you he wouldn’t be able to make it.”
“I’m sure you didn’t, dear.”
Her mind went blank. Panic clutched at her side. What was wrong with her tonight? She was a master at keeping a straight face when she was trapped in a half-truth and had to find the right words to cover her tracks. She’d been practicing since she was what – eight or nine? She knew hundreds of ways to bend words, to get out of a jam without actually lying. Sadly, the web of deceit she and Trevor had woven since he’d asked her for a divorce had stretched even her reserves.
“Um…” She had already nursed the counseling-a-hurting-parishioner angle to death, and given the excuse about Trevor having to visit a very ill member of the congregation too many times over the last few weeks for it to be plausible. Their church wasn’t big enough to warrant such never-ending pain and suffering among its members. Besides, the children were still within earshot. Whatever she said now would have to jive with what she had told them earlier.
“I’m sure I told you about the conference, Mom.” She kept her tone light. “He’s been gone all week. He did call the other night though, and he told me to give Ian a big birthday hug. Is he downstairs with his daddy?” Tracy was halfway across the spacious kitchen by the time she finished speaking and around the corner before her mother could formulate the words to disagree with her again.
“Conference? Something to do with the church?” She heard her dad ask.
“I have no idea,” she heard her mother say.
Tracy gripped the handrail at the top of the stairs and stood concealed from the sight of the others. She could hear Jake’s melodious voice, Mac’s deep, rumbling laughter, and Timothy’s high-pitched squeal of excitement mingling with the noisy clatter of the other children’s voices.
It wasn’t really lying, she tried to convince herself. Keeping your troubles to yourself was just what the Joneses did. Problems, personal flaws, shortcomings, and weaknesses of the flesh were squelched – squashed if necessary – and made to disappear long before they ever became public knowledge. These people lived victorious Christian lives even if it killed them.
Unless you were taken with a serious disease, of course. No one asked to be sick. There was no shame in sharing your woes when one of you was ill. She certainly didn’t wish Trevor any harm, but him being sick would have been easier to explain than what was really going on.
She herself was feeling ill just imagining what people would say if they knew their perfect pastor / son-in-law / husband of the year was gay.
“Watch out for baby Sarah!” Jake’s voice startled her when it suddenly resounded over the enthusiastic din. “She’s not quite as big as you are, Timothy.”
Tracy stepped to the bottom of the stairs. “Hello, everyone! Happy birthday, Ian.” She knelt down and scooped her little nephew up in her arms. “Hi, sweetie.” She had barely managed to kiss his chubby cheek when, in his eagerness to rejoin the bigger children, he squirmed out of her arms and slid the remaining distance down her legs to the floor.
“Wow. He’s so strong,” she said, shocked.
“He likes to move.” Mac raised one eyebrow. “The only time he sits still is at night when Rachael reads him bedtime stories.”
“Sarah sure has grown.” Tracy nodded at Michelle’s husband, Jake, who was sprawled at one end of the sofa, his long legs outstretched and his arms hooked behind his neck.
Jake smiled down at his only daughter. She lay on her stomach on the floor in the center of a rainbow-colored afghan Rae had crocheted for her. “She’s our little snuggle bear.”
Tracy felt a flash of envy. Her babies were all growing up so fast. Timothy still liked to climb into bed with her in the morning for a little snuggle, but it wouldn’t be long before he’d be just as bad as Theodora, who acted as though she loathed her much of the time, and Titus, who stayed as far away from her as he possibly could when given the choice.
She sighed. Neither Jake nor Mac asked where Trevor was, assuming incorrectly that he was upstairs with the other adults. Tracy slumped down into her father’s old recliner and curled her legs up underneath her. “I thought Luke and his mother were coming today.”
“Rachael had a last minute call from a client from the Cities. Today was the only time her husband could come to see the house she’s interested in. Luke volunteered to take the appointment. Uncle Luke and Grandma Zimmerman are going to come celebrate your birthday tomorrow night at our house, aren’t they, Ian, old boy?”
Mac reached down and scooped the birthday boy off the floor just as he was about to jump into the middle of the Candy Land game board the older children were concentrating on. Mac whistled. “Close call.”
Luke Zimmerman, who was Rae’s partner in the real estate office she’d opened four years earlier, and his mother, a sweet, matronly woman with the complete antithesis of their own mother’s personality, had become adopted uncle and grandma to Rae and Mac’s baby, Ian, during the period Rae had been estranged from the Jones family.
Tracy’s stomach churned, remembering the shock they’d all experienced when they’d learned of Ian’s illegitimate conception. The whole fiasco Rae had gone through with Mac and Luke would pale in comparison to the bombshell Trevor was about to drop.
She resisted the urge to cry – again. No matter how screwed up Rae and Mac’s beginnings had been, Ian was a true gift from God. Much as she’d tried, Tracy could not see how any good could possibly come from Trevor’s admission. Shame, embarrassment, and grief – yes. Total, utter humiliation – definitely. Devastation not only in terms of her life but the fragile development of her three innocent children – most certainly. But joy? No one could convince her that anything positive could come from Trevor’s announcement that he was leaving her for someone else, especially when that someone else was a man.
“Supper’s ready!” Rae yelled down the stairs. “Come and sit up to the table before it gets cold!”
Tracy stood and stepped back to let the children go ahead of her. For the first time, she felt a flash of compassion for Rae. Being the oldest – the trailblazer – probably hadn’t been an easy role to play. But then, Rachael was the most logical, articulate, and gutsy of the three of them. It was almost as though she’d been chosen for the part.
Things that Rachael had argued herself blue in the face over, she and Michelle had done to little more than a raised eyebrow.
Sweet, obedient, middle child, Michelle had never had Rae’s rebellious nature. Michelle had been so easy-going and even-tempered, and their parents, so busy arguing with Rae and gushing over her, that poor Michelle had practically gotten lost in the shuffle.
It hadn’t taken Tracy long to realize, after watching Rae constantly butting heads with their parents, that the key to peaceful coexistence in the Jones household was to keep your mouth shut and toe the line. She’d had just as much of a wild streak as her older sister, but unlike Rae, she’d never had the urge to flaunt it.
Tracy’s philosophy had always been what your parents don’t know won’t hurt them. She’d basically done whatever she’d pleased when she was in high school. She’d just made sure her parents were none the wiser. To the best of her knowledge, even Rae and Michelle didn’t have a clue to most of the things she’d gotten by with.
She thought back on some of the escapades she’d participated in when she was younger – things she’d never admit to in front of her children. She’d been only a few months older than Theodora when she’d sneaked off to a concert to hear Rita Coolidge sing “Fever”. Her parents thought she’d been at youth retreat at Bible camp.
She shuddered to think that Theodora was fast approaching the same tender age she’d been when she’d gone on her first date with Trevor. Her parents had been so thrilled that she was dating a “nice boy” from their church that they hadn’t seemed to care that she was only fifteen to Trevor’s world-wise eighteen years. She and Trevor had had sex for the first time when she was barely sixteen. If only she’d known then what she knew now.
She put her mother of three / pastor’s wife persona back on and trudged up the stairs.
“We saved you a seat right beside Mom, Tracy,” Rae said as she rounded the top of the stairs.
Tracy glared at her sister. Darn conniving Rae, she thought, taking note of her sister’s spot at the opposite end of the table.
Mr. Jones cleared his throat. “Let’s bow our heads for a word of prayer.”
Tracy kept her head bowed and listened as her father proceeded to give thanks for the meal. She’d spent her whole life perfecting the art of camouflaging not only her actions, but her true feelings. As a pastor’s wife, she’d become a pro at putting on a brave face for the world – more importantly, for her children. She’d had to. She would not let Trevor Tomlinson cloud her babies’ lives with the knowledge that he had, quote, an inborn preference for male companionship.
Her mother passed her a bowl of mashed potatoes. “So tell me about Trevor’s conference, Tracy. Was it something the church recommended he attend?”
Tracy took a deep breath. “No, just a topic Trevor was interested in. It’s sponsored by a Christian organization in California. He took some vacation time so he could go.”
Her father cleared his throat. “What denomination is this group with then?”
“I have no idea, Dad. I didn’t ask.”
“There are some pretty radical religious groups out in California. I’m sure Trevor knows better than to get mixed up in anything the folks at Fellowship wouldn’t approve of.”
Her shoulders tensed. What was it that gave her father such an uncanny sense of knowing when something was amiss? “You know Trevor as well as I do, Dad. The man doesn’t do anything that he hasn’t thought out carefully and thoroughly researched.” There, she had dodged the issue without actually lying. Well, maybe she had. She knew good and well that the conference he was attending was sponsored by a Christian gay rights organization. Trevor was pursuing his supposed calling to minister to gays and lesbians within the Christian community.
“Tracy, dear. Your father asked you a question.” Her mother’s voice penetrated her stupor like a knife.
Her mother reached over her plate and put her hand on her forehead. “Is something wrong? Your cheeks are all flushed. Are you coming down with something? It feels like you might have a fever.”
They were all staring at her now, from little Ian on up.
Her head started to spin, the room, too. Lights were flashing and Rita Coolidge’s husky alto voice was singing.
Don’t cry out loud
Just keep it inside, learn how to hide your feelings
Fly high and proud
And if you should fall, remember you almost had it all.
“Sorry. I’m not feeling too well all of a sudden. Please excuse me,” she mumbled. She touched her napkin to her lips, pushed back her chair, and fled the room, as completely and utterly ashamed as if they’d been able to read her mind.
“Do you think one of us should go after her and see if she’s all right?” Mac looked at Rae, then her mother.
“I’ll go,” Michelle spoke up quickly. She didn’t know what was wrong with Tracy but she felt certain that whatever it was, their mother – most likely Rae, too – might make it worse. Her eyes locked with Jake’s for a second while she slid her chair away from the table. Aside from some occasional good-natured grumbling, Tracy never got upset – at least not in front of the family. She couldn’t imagine what was wrong.
“Please don’t wait on us. The food will get cold,” Michelle insisted to the family’s stunned silence. One did not get upset at a Jones family gathering. There was no reason one could possibly have to get upset. All was good and well; everything was always fine in the Jones family. (And you’d better remember it if you know what’s good for you.) Their father’s words rang in her ears as she headed up the stairs.
The door to the half bath her parents had added the year after Michelle went off to college was open. She turned to Tracy’s old bedroom and rapped lightly on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Michelle.” She held her breath during the brief silence that followed.
She opened the door slowly and smiled at Tracy.
Her sister pulled her legs up to her chest and leaned back against the headboard of a canopied bed her parents had brought home from a garage sale when they were girls.
“What’s wrong? We were worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” Tracy said, looking anything but fine. “I’m feeling a little better already. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”
“Maybe you’re lonesome for Trevor. Has he been gone all week?”
“This week and part of last.” Tracy’s eyes narrowed and glinted with what looked like unaccustomed hostility. “You’re lucky Jake doesn’t have to travel too often anymore.”
“Yes.” Michelle hadn’t been in Tracy’s room for years. A riotous field of blue, purple, and yellow paper daisies clung stubbornly to the sloped ceilings and walls of the old bedroom, a vivid reminder of days long past.
She looked back in Tracy’s direction and caught her sister’s eyes following hers.
“I suppose my choice of wallpaper offends your decorator’s sensibilities,” Tracy said.
“There’s no accounting for some people’s tastes,” Michelle teased.
“This wallpaper was the rage back in the ‘80s! And who are you to talk anyway? You had lime green love beads in your room when you were in high school.”
Michelle rolled her eyes. “Don’t remind me.”
“I’ve been after Mom to redo one or the other of our rooms so she’d have a decent guest room when company comes.”
“You and me both. I’d do it as a designer, I’d do it as a daughter, I’d do it for free if she’d just give me the go ahead. She told me that the only people who stay overnight here are your kids and an occasional missionary who’s speaking at their church. And according to her, neither of them cares what the room looks like as long as they have a comfortable bed to sleep in.”
Tracy rolled her eyes. “Yes. We pastor’s families and missionaries are so busy thinking about heavenly things that we pay no attention whatsoever to how people’s homes are decorated.”
Michelle smiled. “That certainly explains why your home is so lovely.”
“What’s sad is that the people at church feel the same way as mom. The only reason the parsonage looks the way it does is because I took the initiative to paint or repaper all the walls and sew new drapes for the windows. The church would have left it the way it was for another two or three decades.”
“It was pretty awful when you first moved in.”
Tracy smiled. “Thanks for helping me pick everything out. I didn’t mind doing the installation but I wouldn’t have known where to start when it came to coordinating designs and colors to match our hodgepodge of furniture. I know it wasn’t fun having to scour bargain basements and remnant shops to find things that were in my budget.”
“It was fun! We made a good team. Remember that mismatched paint we got at Sherwin Williams?”
“All thirty gallons of it – for a mere dollar a gallon. I can also remember you glopping a little from this gallon and a little from that gallon in a pail until you had the perfect shade.”
Michelle giggled. “You did a great job using it all to its best advantage. You really have a talent for painting and papering. It must be the Jones perfectionist gene.”
“That gene is probably the one and only thing all three of us sisters have in common.” Tracy sighed.
“I think you’re right. I try not to drive my subcontractors crazy with my high expectations but it’s difficult. I’d give anything to have someone like you to contract jobs out to, Tracy. You’ve got such a good eye for detail.” Michelle waved her arm around the room. “Look at these walls! The pattern match is perfect, the seams are indistinguishable, and the design is level – and this house is as crooked as can be. This stuff has been here for more than twenty years and it looks as smooth and flawless as the day you put it up.”
“Now you sound like Mom. Why should I replace it when it still looks brand new?” Tracy mimicked.
They both laughed. “Well, call me if you ever decide to go into business, Tracy. You know me, I’ve got a million good ideas but I hate installation work. Hey – you could call yourself The Handy Woman.”
“Sure.” Tracy giggled. “You know, I’m really starved all of the sudden.”
“What are we waiting for then? Let’s go eat.”
By day, Sherrie Hansen owns and operates a Victorian bed and breakfast and tea house in Northern Iowa called the Blue Belle Inn. By night, she enjoys not only writing, but traveling, reading, needlework, quilting, and renovating and decorating old houses. She is the author of three additional books, Night and Day, Stormy Weather (Book One of the Maple Valley Trilogy) and Water Lily (Book Two of the Maple Valley Trilogy).