So, many of you have started reading my latest novel, How The Heart Breaks. As you are aware, I modified the release schedule for this novel, trying a new approach. Rather than waiting until the book was complete, I decided to release this story in installments (2-3 chapters at a time) in an effort to get content out to you as quickly as possible. So far, I've had mixed reviews as some readers love the idea of reading along as the story is being written, while others prefer to wait until it is complete so they can consume the story at one time. There is no right or wrong approach as every reader is different.
This morning, I published the 6th Installment, which is available exclusively on Amazon, and am quickly assembling the remaining installments, which will round out the novel. You can expect the completed novel to come out sometime toward the middle of June, if not sooner, depending on editing, etc.
Because you are a loyal group, I am including installment #2 below. You can find the first installment in a previous blog from March 31. Enjoy!
By the time Nick returned home, he was surprised that Eve was still on his mind. It was a thirty-five-minute drive from the university to his farm, so there had been plenty of time for his mind to wander, and yet as he parked the truck and cut the engine, there she was. It had to be the skirt, he thought as he descended the hill to where he kept the horses.
There was no denying Eve Gentry had the looks but there was something more. Even in the brevity of their meeting he could sense her wit and intelligence, not to mention her confidence. It had been many years since Nick had been impressed by a woman, but as he reached the gate there was little doubt in his mind Eve was no ordinary woman.
For the past three years, Nick had called the town of Sharps Chapel home. The town itself lay twenty miles south of the university, a few miles off Highway 33, on the banks of Norris Lake. When he first moved to the area fourteen years earlier, he and his wife had settled in Speedwell, which lay on the other side of the ridge, between Harrogate and La Follette. They adored the wide, sprawling Powell Valley with its grand views of the high bluffs and proximity to the river, but ever since the accident, he couldn't stomach the thought of living with all those memories.
Sharps Chapel was a quiet place, which suited Nick. He spent most of his time on the farm piddling in his workshop or down at the stables with the horses, but in the evening, he could be found sitting on the shore of the lake, staring out at the water and thinking of the life he once knew.
Since he wasn't independently wealthy, he ran a small tack business, which he operated out of an old tobacco barn he’d spent the previous two years restoring. Nick grew up around horses, so when it came to riding gear, grooming equipment, blankets, and feed, no one knew the business better than him. His area of expertise, however, was restoring old saddles, a skill he acquired while spending hours as a teenager working on his grandfather’s horse farm.
When Nick was finished feeding the horses, he made his way up the hill to his two-story farmhouse. Once inside, the first thing he did after saying hello to a picture of his wife and daughter, was check the messages on his machine. He wasn't fond of cell phones, so he relied on an answering machine, which sat on the counter between the living room and kitchen.
The red light on the display told him he had two new messages. One was from Henry Brooks, a local farmer who was looking for a blanket for one of his horses, and the other was from a woman name Marjorie Cantrell, a longtime client who was driving up from Maynardville and was expected to be there around two. According to her message, she had a couple of saddles that needed repairing. Marjorie had been coming to Nick since he started his business two years earlier. In fact, she had been his first customer, and he was eternally grateful to her since she and her husband John had sent dozens of clients to him. They owned and operated a sprawling horse farm in the small town of Maynardville, which sat halfway between Knoxville and Sharps Chapel, and as far as the horse community went, they were considered to be well connected.
Nick glanced at the clock—eleven on the nose. There's still time for a ride, he told himself as he moseyed into the kitchen for a bite to eat. After lunch, Nick walked down to the pasture. He took his time getting down the hill, admiring the endless blue sky above him. It was the perfect autumn day. Temps were in the seventies and there was only a hint of a breeze. Days like this were the reason he had chosen East Tennessee in the first place.
As he approached the fence, a pair of horses named Shadow and Cinnamon walked over to greet him.
"Hey girls," he said as they lowered their heads and brushed against him. "How are you today?"
He talked to them for a few minutes, looking them over from tip to tail to ensure they were healthy, then went in and replaced the water. He grabbed a saddle from inside the stables and placed it on Shadow.
“You’ll have your turn tomorrow,” he told Cinnamon as she watched with envy.
Nick took off across the pasture toward the woods, taking the same path he always took.
When the old Caldwell Farm had come up for sale nearly three years earlier, Nick got it for a steal. He had been searching for a place where his horses would have more room, and the fifty acres of pasture, woods, and ridges was the perfect spot. His property stretched from the highway at the bottom of the hill, to the top of the ridge, and down the other side, where it ended at the water's edge. Aside from the sprawling pastures, there were ponds and creeks and paths to walk and ride, so he never got bored and neither did the horses. In his mind, a better property didn't exist anywhere on God's green earth.
As he ascended the hill, his thoughts drifted once more to Eve. Before he realized it, a smile had begun in the corners of his mouth. Nick caught himself, dropping the smile as he looked to the heavens and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
When he crested the ridge, he stopped and turned back. With the oranges and golds ablaze beneath the midday sun, the view of the valley below was spectacular. Nick waited at the top of the hill and considered heading back, but Shadow had other plans. She bent her head toward the lake, prodding Nick forward. A check of the time told him he still had over an hour before Marjorie would arrive, so he took off down the slope in a full gallop, coming to a stop only when they had reached the edge of the water. Shadow, having exhausted herself from the descent, drank from the lake while Nick skipped rocks across the water.
A pontoon boat passed by, sending waves toward the shoreline. Nick backed away a safe distance so he wouldn’t get wet and watched as it disappeared on the other side of a long point that jutted out into the main channel.
After a few more minutes, when both he and Shadow were fully rested, Nick climbed back up on the saddle and pointed her back up the hill.
Before Marjorie arrived, Nick returned Shadow to the pasture and hosed her down. Then, he went inside his workshop and flipped on the lights, found the radio, and turned the dial until he found a soft rock station. He always thought better with music. Grabbing the broom from the corner where he’d last left it, he went about sweeping the floors until the place was adequate.
At five minutes before two he heard the roar of a vehicle coming up the drive.
Right on time, he thought as he glanced down at his watch. He went to the window and observed a blue Chevy Silverado as it came to a stop amidst a cloud of dust.
When the dust cleared, a tall woman with dark hair stepped out and stretched her legs and back. She wore a Stetson and a pink shirt that was tucked neatly into her jeans. Around her waist was a brown leather belt with a silver belt buckle that glittered in the sunlight. And she wore low-cut boots, the tops of which were hidden beneath her jeans.
"My, my, my," she said, smiling warmly as her crystal blue eyes found Nick. "You get more handsome every time I see you. Must be something in the water up here."
Even at fifty-four, Marjorie Cantrell still had a reputation for being flirtatious. It was all innocent, of course, but it was just her way.
“Don’t let John hear you say that,” joked Nick as he went out to greet her.
"How are you, darlin?" she asked, giving him a hug.
"Doing well, Marjorie. It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” she said, taking a step back.
“So, your message sounded urgent. What did you bring me today?" he asked, peeking over her shoulder and into the bed of the truck.
"A couple of saddles that need fixing. They belonged to the girls when they were growing up. I'm thinking of handing them down to the grandkids for their birthday, but they need some TLC. Do you think you could work your magic?"
Nick went to the truck for a closer look. From what he could tell, the leather was dry rotted in few places, but nothing he couldn't fix.
"Shouldn’t be any problem," he said, turning back to her.
"That's what I thought you'd say," she grinned. "Oh, I'm also looking for a new pair of riding boots. You got anything new since the last time I was here?"
"Sure do. A new shipment came in just this last week. Take a look around while I get these into the shop."
Marjorie went inside while Nick lowered the tailgate. He stacked the saddles on top of each other and carried them to the side of the barn where he made all the repairs. Then, once he had them secured on the benches, he opened the door that led into the shop and joined Marjorie.
"Find anything you like?" he asked, sliding the door closed behind him.
"Sure did," she said, holding a pair of brown boots with a pink stripe. "You've doubled your inventory since I was last here. Business must be doing well?"
"Picking up," he said modestly. "It’s taken a while but seems like the word in finally starting to get around."
"Good for you," she said sincerely, turning her eyes to him. "I'm glad. You have an eye for this sort of thing, and your attention to detail is impeccable. I’ve been meaning to tell you John and I got some friends who own a farm in Rutledge, Dan and Marlene Bitter. They'll be paying you a visit in a few weeks. Should be a large order, too. They've got thirty horses at their place."
"Wow," he said, thinking a job like that could carry him comfortably through the winter. "I appreciate you and John spreading the word. If not for the two of you, I don’t think I would have made it."
"That’s what friends are for," she replied as she rifled through a box of spurs. "We're glad to help. Besides, as much as it pains me to say it, this is a dying art, and you are definitely an artist."
Nick’s ego swelled.
There was no question Marjorie was Nick's biggest fan. It was by accident she had found him in the first place, but sometimes that's how the best relationships, business or otherwise, begin. When she started coming to him regularly, he sat down with her one afternoon and told her his life story. That was an afternoon she would never forget. Since that day, she hadn't even considered going anywhere else. When it came to tack, Nick was her man.
"How long do you think it will take—for the saddles?" asked Marjorie as she perused a wall of horse bridles and reins.
"Give me a few weeks and I'll have them looking good as new," he assured her.
"Fantastic. Ring up these boots if you don't mind and throw in a couple bags of feed while you're at it. We just got a new colt on the farm and he's eating everything in sight."
"Yes ma'am," said Nick, reaching around behind the counter where he kept the feed. "So, a new colt, huh? Was that John's idea?"
"You know him too well,” she said with one eyebrow raised. “He's had his eyes on a colt for a long time and we found a deal we couldn't pass up. He's a chestnut named Trotter."
"Well, I can't wait to come see him," said Nick as he rang her up.
Marjorie paid him and he helped her load the bags into the back of her truck.
"Tell John I said hello," Nick told her as closed the tailgate.
"Will do," she said as she started up the engine. "By the way, what's going on at the house at the bottom of the hill?"
Nick’s eyes drifted in that direction. "Last I heard a couple of investors came in a few months ago and started restoring the old place. Looking to make a profit off it, I guess. They’ll probably have it on the market soon."
"You'll finally have a neighbor,” she said, turning back to gauge his reaction. “Hope it turns out to be someone good. Perhaps a single young lady,” she winked. Marjorie was sympathetic to Nick’s situation, having lost a brother when she was a teenager. That didn’t stop her from suggesting he start dating again, something she went out of her way to remind him of every time she saw him.
Nick rolled his eyes.
"Well, I'll be seeing you, Nick, and try your best to stay out of trouble, will ya?"
"I'll do my best," he said and as he watched her descend the hill, his eyes went back to the house.
When Marjorie was gone, Nick went inside and got straight to work. He wasn't one to procrastinate and enjoyed jumping right into a new project. The music kept him in rhythm and if he didn't force himself to stop, he'd stay out in the barn until midnight. But today was different and his mind, which was normally sharp and focused, was a thousand miles away.
A little after five, Nick got up and stretched his legs. He was tired and decided to close up early. His hours were flexible because he wanted to come and go as he pleased, but since he'd already spent a few hours restoring the saddles Marjorie had brought him, he was ready to throw in the towel. So, he turned out the lights, locked up, and walked up to the house to wash up for dinner.
That night, after the sun went down, Nick went out onto the front porch and sat in his rocker while he sipped on a glass of sweet tea. He enjoyed the cool evenings that autumn brought, and since there would only be a handful of nights like this one, he took advantage of it.
As he sat there, staring down the hill, he thought about what Marjorie had said before she left. For some time, Nick had been hoping for a neighbor. After the accident, he had shut himself off from the world and everyone in it, but lately he was starting to realize he needed more than himself and his horses to talk to. Despite his desire to keep everything bottled up inside, he was changing—slowly, but changing nonetheless—and the thought of that terrified him.
Before he called it a night, Eve crossed his mind one last time. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, she had made an impression on him. He thought back to her perfect skin, those endless blue-green eyes, and the way she looked in that skirt. Finally, he stood and walked back inside the house as he attempted to shake her from his mind. He had only spent ten minutes with her, but he realized she was one of those special people, the kind that stick with you long after you’ve left their presence.
Twenty miles away, Eve Gentry was arriving home after a long day of work. Midterms were over, but since she had chosen for her students to write essays, she was forced to grade them the hard way, which meant she had to read each one, word for word. Fortunately, she had the entire weekend to pour through them. Rather than procrastinate, she had spent the afternoon reading through the first dozen.
She flipped on the lights and kicked off her heels as she let down her hair and changed into something comfortable—sweatpants and an old University of Texas t-shirt. It was two sizes too big, but it had belonged to her father before he died, so there was sentimental value.
She found a DIY show on TV then went into the kitchen and poured a glass of wine. After a sip, she turned up the heat a couple of degrees on the thermostat and went to the couch to curl up with a blanket.
As she took another sip of wine, she thought about the hot chocolate she'd had that morning, and the man who had so generously delivered it to her.
Nick Sullivan, she thought, replaying the encounter in her head. She wasn't willing to admit it, at least not aloud, but he had made an impression on her. Perhaps it was his rugged good looks or the fact that he had gone out of his way to make a special delivery, just for her. Either way, he was the only man she'd met since arriving in Tennessee that hadn't come onto her with a cheesy pickup line.
When the first glass of wine was gone, Eve went into the kitchen and warmed up a bowl of spaghetti from the night before. She wasn't one to let anything go to waste. When she was full, she poured another glass of wine, then went to the couch and laid down to rest. The next thing she knew, it was after three. The TV and lights were still on, so she got up and stumbled her way into the bedroom where she crawled beneath the covers and shut her eyes.
Saturday morning, Eve woke a little after seven. She wasn't typically an early riser, but sleep was difficult to come by since the lady living next door was already up and singing to her cats. Her morning routine had been the same since she arrived three months earlier. She woke, pulled her hair into a ponytail, made breakfast, and searched the paper for a permanent place to live. The apartment she was living in wasn't bad, and it was only a mile from the university, but despite the proximity to school, she wanted a place of her own. She enjoyed space and loved the idea of a couple of acres with a view of the mountains or lake or both, though she realized what she was searching for was something of a needle in a haystack.
Her job at the university paid well, but she'd had quite the windfall after her divorce to David, so she could afford about anything she wanted. Besides, real estate was cheap compared to Dallas, so she could afford to be more selective. When it came to Eve, settling wasn’t an option.
As she scanned the paper, she circled a couple of places she thought she might like to go see. A local woman named Sally Walker was her realtor. She had helped Eve locate the apartment and even then Eve had told her to be patient because once she got settled, she'd be looking for something much nicer.
She called up Sally and asked if she had time to show her some properties that afternoon. Sally said she was free after two, so they agreed to meet at the Frostee Freeze in Tazewell for a quick bite, then they would go property hunting.
While she waited, Eve graded a few more of the essays. She reached into her briefcase and pulled out the stack of blue books and rifled through the ones she had already graded, setting them to one side. As she was combing through what remained of the tests, she noticed a piece of paper sticking out from between them.
"What's this?" she whispered, taking a closer look. The flyer was an advertisement for a small farm within a half hour of the university. Admittedly, she wanted to be closer to school, but if the views were anything like the pictures, she just had to see the place. Oddly, there was no name or contact information, but she assumed the owner had made the flyer. Perhaps someone came by earlier in the day and laid it on her desk while was down the hall talking to Professor Neely. Surely, that must be it.
Anyway, she took it as an omen. She studied the flyer closer and found a pair of interlocking hearts in the top right corner. Cute, she thought. Definitely a woman's touch.
A little after one, Eve put on a pair of jeans and a burnt orange sweater. Then, she slipped on her brown leather riding boots, grabbed the flyer from the kitchen counter, and set off to meet Sally.
The Frostee Freeze Drive In sat at the corner of Youngstown Road and Broad Street, behind the auto parts store. The place had been around since the fifties and everyone from Knoxville to Morristown to London knew about the place. After all, it wasn’t just a place to grab a great burger or milkshake. It was a landmark.
Sally was already sitting at a booth when Eve arrived, so she joined her and ordered a cheeseburger with fries.
"First time at the Frostee Freeze?" Sally asked as she watched Eve surveying the room.
"Guilty as charged," she confirmed.
"My daddy used to bring me here when I was a little girl," said Sally, smiling as she thought back.
Sally couldn't have been a day over forty-five, but she appeared much younger. She obviously took care of herself, and from what Eve had gathered, she and her family had been in the real estate business for many years.
"My late day appointment cancelled this afternoon," said Sally as she sipped Coke through a red and white straw. "So, if you have any other properties you'd like to tour, I have the entire afternoon."
"Great," said Eve, reaching for the flyer in her pocket. She unfolded the paper and handed it to Sally. "What can you tell me about this place?"
Sally looked at it curiously, then asked, "where did you find this?"
"Someone left it on my desk yesterday. There’s no address or name on it. Do you know the place?"
"Sure do. It's about fifteen minutes south of here, out near the lake. The Greers used to own it, but they sold to an investment group about a year ago. Last I heard, they were supposed to go in and restore it to its former glory. I can make a call and find out more, if you’d like.”
“That’d be great,” replied Eve, feeling the excitement swell inside her.
“Excuse me, will you?" Sally stepped outside to make the call. Meanwhile, Eve grabbed her cell and checked her messages. There was one from mom saying she loved her and one from her sister Cassie in all caps. CALL ME WHEN YOU CAN.
Eve found her name in contacts and pressed call.
"Eve, oh thank God," said Cassie, sounding as if she were in a panic.
"What's wrong?" Eve asked, trying to keep her voice down. Immediately, she felt a sense of dread in her stomach. The last time her sister had sent her a cryptic text was the beginning of the worst day of her life.
"I'm at Hammakers and wanted to know what you want for your birthday."
"Cassie, are you kidding me? You had me thinking something was wrong."
"Sorry. I just know how you are at returning my calls." She paused. "Your birthday is in less than a week and I wanted to make sure my gift reached you on time this year."
"Anything you decide to get will be fine, Cassie. Honestly, I can't think of a thing I need, so..." Her voice trailed off as Cassie sighed on the other end of the line.
Her younger sister had a talent for pushing her buttons. Eve and Cassie were only two years apart, but they weren't close, not like Eve and Charlotte. Charlotte was the oldest by four years, but she and Eve had been best friends for as long as Eve could remember.
"I appreciate the thought," Eve said calmly, hoping to avoid an argument. There had been enough of that at the funeral the winter before. "A gift card or a bottle of wine will be fine, you pick," she said, wishing her sister the best.
She hung up just as Sally came back to the table.
"Well, I got us in," she beamed. "Three o'clock today. The place isn't technically on the market yet, but they agreed to let us have a look. You probably already know this, but the real estate market has really exploded over the last couple of years, especially the closer you get to the lake. I'm not trying to rush you, but if you like what you see today, you may want to consider putting in an offer."
Eve knew part of what Sally was telling her was the truth. She had done her research. The other part was purely a sales tactic. She had heard the same speech two months earlier when Sally was showing her apartments, and though she didn’t appreciate being strongarmed, Sally did it in a way that wasn’t off-putting.
When they had finished their lunch, Eve got in Sally's car and they began their search for the perfect property. The first place they looked at was on Lone Mountain Road, near the golf course. Eve liked the area and the house, the only drawback being it was built on the side of a hill, which would have been treacherous in the winter. The second place was further south in the neighboring town of New Tazewell, a couple of miles past the DeRoyal plant. The property itself was great—flat with an amazing view of the valley—but the house left a lot to be desired, and even though the price was right, Eve did not want to take on a project.
Then, when the time came to go to the farm, Eve felt the excitement building inside her once more. She glanced down at the flyer again, and as she did, she imagined herself waking to a beautiful sunrise, sitting in a rocker on the wrap-around porch with a cup of coffee while she peered out across the open pastures. Perhaps a deer or two would be drinking from the stream that skirted the property. In her mind, a scene from a novel, or at least a Hallmark movie, was beginning to take shape.
They turned off Highway 33 onto Sharps Chapel Road. The road was narrow and winding, but it was framed by enormous, beautiful oak trees. Once they passed the hairline curve, the road straightened and broke free of the trees. Before them was wave after wave of gorgeous rolling farmland.
“It’s beautiful out here,” Eve commented as she took in the scenery with her eyes.
“Yes, it is,” Sally agreed as she searched for the driveway. "There," she said as she pointed off to the right.
As the white farmhouse with black shutters came into view, Eve's eye lit up. It was exactly what she had been hoping for. Sally turned on the blinker and slowed the car, allowing a pickup to exit the drive before she turned in.
"16 Valley Road," said Sally as she pulled up in front of the house and killed the engine.
Eve didn't say a word. She was too busy taking in the surroundings.
"Come on, let's get inside," Sally suggested. She was nearly as anxious as Eve to see the inside of the house. This was a fantastic property. Even if Eve didn't buy it, someone would, and she was already calculating the commission in her head.
They found the key beneath the mat, then unlocked the door and went inside. Everything had been redone, down to the hardwood floors and crown molding. Most of the woodwork was original, except for the new mantle over the fireplace. There were granite countertops and stainless appliances and a giant island in the center of an open kitchen with a white farmhouse sink.
"Well, I can tell you whoever did the renovations did an excellent job," said Sally, admiring the craftsmanship. "They spared no expense."
Eve agreed and went about the house, upstairs and down, soaking in every last detail. Next, she peered out the window and marveled at the lush pasture that surrounded her, and off in the distance were thick forests of cedar and pine. It was just as she imagined it.
"How much land comes with the house?" Eve asked.
"Says here five acres, give or take," said Sally. "You ready for the upkeep?"
Eve considered that for a moment. In her mind she enjoyed the thoughts of long, wispy grass. But the reality was someone would have to maintain the place.
"Surely, I can hire someone for that, right?"
She stared out the window again, this time setting her gaze further up the hill. There was only one house on that side of the street, and it sat back at the foot of the ridge, several hundred yards away.
"What do you think?" Sally asked. She already knew the answer, so now she was in closing mode.
"I think I'm in love," Eve commented. "It's exactly what I've been looking for. Okay," she began as she prepared herself for the worst, "what are they wanting for this place?”
"Four twenty-five," said Sally, holding back a grin. She knew it was a steal.
"Are you joking?" Eve asked, hardly believing her luck.
"I'd say take the evening and think about it but—"
"—At that price, what’s there to think about?" Eve took another look around, but she was already decorating in her head. "I want this place, and I'll be making an all-cash offer, if that makes a difference?"
"Yes. It certainly does,” Sally confirmed. “Tell you what, let me make a call and get the paperwork started. I'll work my magic and call you as soon as I know something for sure. How does that sound?"
"Thanks, Sally. You're the best," said Eve, giving her a hug.
When they were finished, Sally dropped Eve off at the restaurant to get her car. Even before she got home, Sally had called to tell her she got the house. Eve’s first call was to her friend Kathleen to tell her the good news.