About the Author
Angela Hunt is the bestselling author of more than 100 books, including The Tale of Three Trees, Don’t Bet Against Me, The Note, and The Nativity Story. Her nonfiction book Don’t Bet Against Me, written with Deanna Favre, spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Angela and her husband make their home in Florida with their dogs.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Five Miles South Of Peculiar
Residents of Jackson County, Florida, held their breath the morning of July 3, 1968, when old man Caldwell took to his bed complaining of a monstrous headache. As the clock struck two, he sat up, sneezed, wheezed, and lay back down, expiring before his head hit the pillow. The doc pronounced him at 2:03, then placed a call to the county seat. Someone in the county clerk’s office reportedly clicked a stopwatch and set it in the safe. County officials and city planners nodded to one another with greedy smiles, knowing that Charles Caldwell’s precious estate, known to all as Sycamores, would officially become county property at 2:03 p.m. on July 3, 2018. As to what purpose the property would serve, no one dared offer an opinion. But they could spend the next fifty years dreaming . . .
Darlene Caldwell Young, who was only six when her grandpa died, would later take quiet pride in the fact that her family home was not built on the sweat of slaves or the commerce of cotton, but on the courage, cunning, and risk necessary to garner a fortune during Prohibition. Though a current visitor to Sycamores would find alcohol only in bottles of vanilla, rum, and peppermint extract, Darlene considered her grandfather a genius. He not only managed to shelter Sycamores from taxes, but also devised the charitable gift annuity that provided a monthly income for any immediate Caldwell descendant residing on the property.
That income allowed life at Sycamores to continue as it always had, with a sedate and stately elegance. “Chase” Caldwell’s progeny were more than willing to let the rest of the world rush and worry and gobble meals behind a steering wheel. At Sycamores, and in Peculiar, the nearest town, life was meant to be savored.
Ready to take a load off her feet one Friday morning, Darlene sank into a rocker on her front porch. She pulled a tattered Japanese fan from her apron pocket and snapped it open, then frantically thrashed at the hot air. The porch lay in deep shade, but beyond it simmered a sun-spangled garden where roses nodded their heavy heads and sunflowers followed the blazing torch in the sky. Next to the sunflowers, Nolie was staking the top-heavy gladiolas while her dogs, Lucy and Ricky, romped across the grass edging the mile-long driveway.
Darlene frowned. The grass looked to be ankle deep, but ever since Daddy’s accident Nolie didn’t like to ride the tractor mower. Darlene would cut the lawn herself, but in this heat, she’d have to do it either before sunup or after sundown, and she didn’t want to risk running over a possum or armadillo in the vague half-light.
“Lawn needs mowin’,” she called, trusting that Nolie could hear her above the barking dogs. “Do you think we could get Henry to find somebody to come out and take care of it?”
Nolie looked up, her eyes shadowed by the wide brim of her straw hat. “Didn’t we just cut it?”
“Been nearly two weeks.” Darlene fanned herself again. “Those dogs are gonna be itchin’ if the grass gets too long. We won’t be able to keep the fleas off ’em, and I’m not gonna put up with another infestation in the house.”
Nolie turned, the hot breeze ruffling her long pullover apron as she watched her pets play. “You’d better call Henry, then.” She picked up her gardening basket. “Ask if he can find someone regular.”
“Only till the heat passes. Might as well save some money and do it myself once the weather cools off.”
Nolie waved in silent agreement as she followed the dogs and walked toward the driveway.
Inhaling the sweet scent of the honeysuckle vines, Darlene propped her hand on her chin and watched her baby sister. Oh, to be young and carefree again. Though Nolie had recently celebrated her fortieth birthday, her face was still unlined and her figure trim. Come to think of it, Nolie was still a child in many ways. Not surprising, considering she’d never been married, never raised children, and never been widowed. Darlene had borne the stress of all three, and wore the resulting laugh lines and worry ridges on her face.
Darlene straightened as an unfamiliar vehicle slowed on the highway and turned onto the property. A red pickup rattled over the gravel drive, its bed covered with a bright blue tarp and bulging like a Gypsy’s wagon. Nolie slowed as the truck drew closer, then the driver stopped and leaned over to lower his passenger window.
A chill climbed the chinks of Darlene’s spine as she stood and walked to the edge of the porch. This was how every TV crime show began—a suspicious vehicle pulled up beside an innocent woman while the driver asked about a missing puppy or for directions to the police station. But this road led to Sycamores and nowhere else, so the stranger had either made a wrong turn or was fixin’ to kidnap one of the Caldwell women.
Darlene clenched her teeth. “Don’t be a dumbbell, Nolie. Don’t you get in that truck.”
As if she’d heard and wanted to rebel, Nolie stepped over the shallow drainage ditch at the side of the drive and walked toward the vehicle. Without even a moment’s hesitation she reached for the door handle and hopped into the cab.
Honestly! That girl had no awareness of danger, no understanding of propriety, and absolutely no common sense. Darlene had spent many a sleepless night worrying about what would happen if Nolie met a dangerous killer who summoned her into his car—well, now she knew. Nolie would not only get in, she’d invite the maniac home for supper.
Even Darlene’s children had never been that trusting.
Darlene stood in hypnotized horror. If that truck started kickin’ up dust in a sudden U-turn, she was calling the sheriff and raising holy heck—
But the pickup continued rumbling toward the house, its giant tires making soft popping sounds as it rolled over the gravel. Darlene pressed her lips together, then stepped inside the foyer, where Daddy’s shotgun leaned against the marble windowsill.
The stranger in the truck might not have evil intentions, but when two single women lived only a short distance from the state hospital for the criminally insane, Darlene would rather be safe than sorry.
Nolie pushed at the brim of her hat to better see the man who’d identified himself as Erik Payne. He was certainly spruced up for a hot day in May—the middle-aged man wore a white shirt, a red tie, and dark blue trousers with a crease so sharp it might have been topstitched. He looked like a politician on parade, but what kind of man deliberately chose to hang a tie around his neck in this heat? Then again, he said he was from Chattahoochee, and everyone knew that place was home to the Florida State Mental Hospital.
She pursed her lips, dreading what Darlene would say about her getting into this man’s pickup. Darly would take one look at him and figure he was a recovering mental patient, an escaped criminal, or, given his red, white, and blue attire, a desperate politician.
Nolie tilted her head. “You say you’re from Chattahoochee?”
He kept his gaze on the driveway as the truck rolled forward. “Yes, ma’am. Before I lost my job I was pastor of the First Community Church there. You ever hear of it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t get over that way much.” She shifted her gaze from his clean-shaven face to his hands. Smooth and pale, with clean and evenly trimmed nails, they looked like a preacher’s hands.
“So.” The reverend cleared his throat as he applied the brakes and stopped a few feet from the front sidewalk. “Should I be nervous about talking to your sister?”
“Why would you be?”
“Didn’t you notice? The woman’s carrying a shotgun.”
Nolie laughed. “She won’t hurt you. But she sees herself as bein’ in charge of the house, so she tends to be a little overprotective. She’s the one to talk to if you’re lookin’ for work.” She gripped the door handle and grinned. “And you’re in luck—I happen to know she’s looking for someone to mow the lawn and all like that. Since she started having hot flashes, Darlene can’t take the heat.”
A wave of crimson brightened the preacher’s face as he shut off the engine and pocketed his keys. “Alrighty, then. I guess I’m as ready to meet her as I’ll ever be.”
“Her name’s Darlene Young. Come on with me and I’ll introduce you.”
Nolie slid out of the truck and stopped to pat Lucy’s and Ricky’s heads—the anxious dogs had followed the pickup after Nolie hopped in. After seeing that she was okay, they positioned themselves like armed guards between the approaching preacher and their mistress.
Erik lifted both hands. “Do those lions bite?”
“They’re Leonbergers, and they’ve never bitten anyone—yet.” Nolie stepped toward Erik, then looked at the dogs and touched the stranger’s arm. “It’s okay, baby dogs. This man is a friend.”
The dogs’ stiff tails relaxed to swing back and forth in happy arcs. “They’re beautiful,” Erik said, following Nolie as she led the way up the sidewalk. “I’ve never heard of that breed.”
“Not many people have,” Nolie answered, pleased by his interest. “They’re a lot more common in Europe than over here. I had these two flown over from Germany when they were pups.”
Giving the preacher another reassuring smile, Nolie turned toward the porch—and stifled a groan. Darlene stood between the center columns at the top of the stairs, holding the shotgun as if she meant business. “Darly”—Nolie gave her a warning look—“you can put the gun away.”
Her sister eyed the stranger with a steely gaze. “I don’t know this fellow.”
“That’s only because you’ve never met him. Darlene, I’d like you to meet Reverend Erik Payne. Reverend Payne, this is my sister Darlene Young.”
The minister took a hesitant step forward, his hand extended. “Mrs. Young. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Darlene lowered the gun and shook his hand without smiling. “What brings you all the way out here, Reverend Payne? We don’t need any more Bibles—we already have one for every room and a twenty-pounder on the coffee table.”
“Please, call me Erik. And I’m not selling anything.” He pulled a folded handkerchief from his pocket and wiped perspiration from his forehead. “Since you asked, ma’am, I was pastoring a church in Chattahoochee until those folks decided the time had come for me to move on. With the employment situation being what it is, one of the deacons gave me your name—he said you and your sister might be willing to take in a stray. I’m not looking for a handout, mind you, but a job and a place to live for a short while. I had to leave the parsonage, so I’ve been staying in a cheap hotel off the highway while I look for work.”
Nolie tugged on Darlene’s apron. “You were just sayin’ we need a man to mow the lawn. And wouldn’t it be nice to have someone replace that old siding on the guesthouse? He could do that and a lot of other chores around here. I know you have a long list of things that need fixin’.”
Darlene glanced back at the old house behind her. Nolie knew her sister was thinking about the shutters that needed painting, the mud-dauber nests needing to be knocked down, and the guesthouse that could use a face-lift . . .
“That’s just part of owning an old house. No matter where I sit, I find myself lookin’ at somethin’ that needs doin’.” Darlene shifted her gaze back to the minister. “Before we can commence, Reverend Payne, I have to ask somethin’ and I’d appreciate an honest answer. Why did that congregation ask you to leave?”
The minister blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Did they catch you stealing from the offering plate? Or were you spending too much time counseling somebody’s wife?”
Nolie lowered her gaze, afraid the minister would see the blush she could feel burning her face. Darly had never been one to mince words, but why did she have to be so blunt with a man of the cloth?
The reverend’s mouth twisted as he loosened the knot of his tie. “Nothing like that, ma’am. I—well, I was five years married when I took the church. My wife supported me all the time I was going to school and seminary, but once we went to Chattahoochee and actually got into the work of the ministry, she decided she didn’t like being a pastor’s wife. She didn’t like living in a parsonage, she didn’t like going to parishioners’ baby showers, and she didn’t like sharing me with a hundred other people. So a year ago she picked up and left, and after six months she divorced me. The church was good enough to allow us some time in case God wanted to restore our marriage, but when that didn’t happen, the church decided that a divorced man couldn’t be a good example to the flock. They asked me to leave, so here I am. And that’s probably a whole lot more than you wanted to hear.”
Nolie studied her sister, but she’d never been good at guessing Darlene’s thoughts. Anything could be going on behind that implacable expression.
The preacher dabbed at his forehead again, then shoved his handkerchief back into his pocket. “That’s God’s truth, ma’am; you can call and ask anyone in Chattahoochee.”
Darlene leaned the shotgun against a porch column, then folded her arms. “What could you actually do for us, Reverend Payne?”
He glanced at Nolie as a half smile crossed his face. “Honestly, ladies, I haven’t done much manual labor lately. But as a kid I did some painting, lawn mowing, and gardening. You tell me what needs to be done, and if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll go to the hardware store and find somebody who can teach me.”
Darlene looked away a moment, then nodded. “In return for your help we’ll give you use of the guesthouse and supper every day. But how long do you think you’d be stayin’?”
He took a deep breath and scratched his chin. “I don’t rightly know about that. I do know I’ve been called to the ministry, so as soon as I’m settled, I’m going to start sending out resumes. God called me to preach and teach, so that’s what I intend to do . . . just as soon as the Lord opens a door.”
Nolie smiled. “So we’d be waitin’ on God with you.”
“That’s the gist of it, yes ma’am. Would that be acceptable?”
“Hold on a minute.” Darlene narrowed her gaze. “The man who sent you to Sycamores—he got a name?”
A smile finally broke through Darlene’s inflexible mask. “All right, then. I know Beverage, and I know he wouldn’t have sent you to us if you couldn’t be trusted.” She nodded at Nolie. “I s’pose we can work something out. You agree, Magnolia?”
Nolie stared in pleased surprise, then grinned. “I don’t see why not.”
The minister practically melted in relief. “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you, ladies.”
Nolie smiled, glorying in the moment. She’d been holding her breath, hoping Darlene would see that the good and Christian thing to do would be to help this man regain his footing. He had a look in his brown eyes, the same look she saw when one of her dogs got hurt, and she couldn’t bear to see any living creature in pain.
Like Momma always said, far too many people were quick to dish out advice when what a hurting person really needed was a helping hand.
“I say, ‘Welcome to Sycamores.’” Nolie grinned as the dogs picked up on her excitement and began to bark. “Come on. I’ll walk you over to the guesthouse. It’s not fancy and it needs some work, but it’ll keep you cool at night and dry in the rain.”
“No matter what it looks like,” the reverend said, following her, “it’ll serve as an answer to prayer until it’s time for m...
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