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A Romantic Suspense Novel
BY TESS THOMPSON
Brett Cameron’s world implodes when he loses his wife Hannah. He has almost given up on happiness, when from across a crowded restaurant, he hears her distinctive laugh, and suddenly everything changes. He is sure the woman he saw was Hannah, but that was impossible. Everyone thought she was dead. Brett and his brother Quinn begin a desperate search for the truth about Hannah’s life that is shrouded in secrets. The quest leads them from Atlanta to Charleston and Savannah where they face a web of lies and evil.
Greensboro, North Carolina
26 Years Earlier
“Patty Jean! You get your butt down here right now,” Ed Campbell said. His tone sounded more agitated than angry. He was standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up toward the closed door to his daughter’s room. Dressed in his only Sunday suit, he had been waiting for at least fifteen minutes, and kept fingering his hat and looking at his pocket watch.
Sometimes he got teased about carrying an old-fashioned timepiece, but his job as the foreman on a construction crew made wearing a wrist watch dangerous. He had once rushed a co-worker to the hospital because the other man’s wrist had been caught on a sharp, protruding, twisted shaft of steel. The man had been lucky not to lose a hand in the freak accident. Ed threw his watch away that very day and bought a pocket watch and chain.
Touching it often calmed him down, but that was not the case today. Sometimes his only daughter could make him want to chew nails. She was blonde, beautiful, and bossy. He had tried to do his best with her, but raising a spirited girl wasn’t easy for the big guy.
After his wife Mavis died when Patty Jean was ten, he had managed to care for her with the help of kind neighbors and a church after-school daycare located a few blocks from their house. For a year or two, she had been a sweet, obedient, young child. But that was then.
Now, at sixteen, she had suddenly become a different person. One he did not know how to handle or control. He was accustomed to giving orders, not taking them from the likes of her. Even though he stood tall at six-foot-two and weighed well over two-hundred and fifty pounds, this teen-aged girl had him whipped, and he knew it.
Patty Jean opened the door a crack and then disappeared back inside for a moment as if she had forgotten something. Then she flounced down the stairs two steps at a time. He could smell her perfume before he saw her. It was cheap and cloying.
“What’s the big hurry, Daddy? It’s not like the preacher is going to say anything we haven’t heard a hundred times before. After all, how many times can a person say, ‘Amen’.”
Ed could feel his blood pressure rising. He took a deep breath and when he spoke his voice was deep and booming. “If you think you are going to church looking like that, you’ve got another think coming.”
“Like what?” she sputtered bristling with indignation as she brushed past him and opened the front door. She was halfway down the porch steps when he reached out and grabbed her arm.
“I said, you are not going out looking like that. I mean it, Patty Jean. Don’t cross me now, or you’ll spend the rest of the day in your room.”
She shot him a cold look. “Fine with me. I didn’t want to go anyway.” She shrugged out of his grasp and turned to go back into the house. A few moments later, he heard the door slam shut.
Knowing that he had lost the battle, he got into the car and turned on the ignition. This war was making an old man out of him. As much as he loved that girl, he sometimes wished somebody else would raise her. But, there was nobody else. Well, shit, he thought. Tag. You’re it.
~ ~ ~
Patty Jean stood in front of the full-length mirror and examined her image. Her pale lavender dress, nipped in to accentuate her tiny waist, and the scooped neckline showed off her full breasts. Her long blond hair looked too good for her to sit here and rot all day, she thought. She decided to go out even though she wasn’t supposed to. She wasn’t worried about her father finding out. After church, he would probably come home and take a nap. He wouldn’t come into her room. She knew that for sure. The last time he had been inside her room, he had seen underwear and bras strewn around and a box of tampons on her dresser. He took one look, turned beet red, coughed, and left in a hurry.
She made her way to the mall and walked around looking in shop windows, hoping to find some of her friends. Today wasn’t her lucky day. No one she knew was anywhere around. She was all dressed up with nowhere to go and feeling more depressed by the moment when she heard laughter.
A group of girls from school sat in the food court drinking Cokes. They waved her over. “Well, look at you,” a short, dark-haired girl said. She was wearing cutoff jeans and a tank top. “What fashion magazine did you fall out of?”
“Daddy wanted me to go to church, but I was disrespectful, so I’m being punished.”
They laughed in unison. “You call going shopping punishment?” one of them said.
She sat down in one of the plastic chairs and put her elbows on the table. “I’m window shopping,” she said. “It’s not like I ever have any money to spend.” Then, knowing how whiney she sounded, she turned to the girls and smiled. “Daddy thinks I’m in my room. He has no idea I’m at the mall.”
“You take a lot of chances, Patty. You’re lucky your dad is a nice man.”
“Is that so? Well then you go live with him if you think he’s so great.”
A few minutes later, the whole group of teens at the table drifted away and she was left sitting there all alone. As usual, she had quickly worn out her welcome with the other girls. She knew she was in a mood, but so what? They were all boring anyway.
She had almost decided to walk home when a tall boy with the bluest eyes she had ever seen took a seat across the table from her in one of the plastic chairs. He had a brown crew cut waxed into a fan over his eyes and an ordinary face – until he smiled.
When his Elvis lips curved upward, and she saw his straight white teeth, she had to stop herself from making a strange swooning noise.
“Hi, beautiful,” he said. “Whatca’ doin’ here all by yourself on a Sunday morning?”
“I could ask you the same thing, but it’s none of my business.” She was annoyed by the question but basked in the glow of his compliment.
“Well, I’m looking for someone to go the movies with me and share some popcorn. Know anybody like that?”
“I might,” she said and turned on her full flirtatious charm. “I’d like to know your name first.”
He grinned again. “It’s Danny. Danny Ford.”
She reached her arm across the table and held out her hand. Her pink fingernails glistened in the fluorescent lights of the food court. “Nice to meet you, Danny Ford.”
~ ~ ~
Danny put his arm across the back of her seat as soon as they sat down in the theater. As he reached across to sample the popcorn she held on her lap, his arm brushed the side of her breast. And then, he gently turned her face toward his and kissed her. The scent of Polo cologne and the salty taste of popcorn on his tongue left her breathless.
From that moment on, they were inseparable. Danny was eighteen and a senior in high school. He worked unloading boxes at an after-school job in a local warehouse and headed straight to Patty Jean’s house at five o’clock. He got to second base within a week and was rounding for a homerun before Patty’s father had a clue what was going on. Patty Jean’s virginity was gone and her libido was awake and hungry.
On weekends, they spent hours alone in Patty Jean’s room while Ed was at church, or even when he was at home taking a nap. At night, they often had sex in the backseat of Danny’s old car, and if they saw the lights of an approaching vehicle, the whole event had to happen quickly. They could not keep their hands off one another, and using protection was a haphazard occurrence depending on how much of a hurry they were in.
Patty Jean was Danny’s date to the Senior Prom and was the envy of every other girl in her sophomore class. Danny was the perfect combination of danger and desire. He held her close and kissed her as they danced while taking sips of vodka he had hidden in a flask inside his jacket.
Patty was looking forward to spending the summer with Danny. They could go swimming in the lake, take long rides at night, get greasy hamburgers and fries at Dairy Queen, and not have to worry about finding time to be alone. Her father would be gone all day, and the house would be empty.
The morning she woke up sick was the last day her world was a happy place. She barely made it to the bathroom before she threw up what little she had in her stomach and ended up with dry heaves.
She told her father she had eaten something that didn’t agree with her, and she told Danny she had the flu. She looked in the top drawer of her dresser and stared at the full box of Tampax sitting there. All the white cylinders were lined up in perfect rows. She remembered buying that box at Walgreens. It only took her about three minutes to count backwards and figure out that she had not had her period in over two months.
She buried her face in her pillow and let the sobs rack her body. How had this happened? It couldn’t be true. Could it?
But it was. She waited a full week to tell Danny. He was so happy about being out of high school, and so excited about their summer ahead, she didn’t have the heart to tell him that by the end of summer she would be five months pregnant and showing.
~ ~ ~
Danny put the car in park and turned in his seat to face her. “Okay, Patty Jean, what’s so urgent? I’ve been trying to see you for days and you keep putting me off.” He reached over to grope her breast and she pushed him away. “What’s going on?”
She put her hand on her stomach and looked into his bright blue eyes. “I … I’m … pregnant.” He didn’t say anything for the longest time and silence filled every inch of space in the car.
He opened his mouth and then closed it again. The second time his voice sounded more like a croak. “Are you sure? Have you seen a doctor?”
“No. How could I without telling my dad.” She frowned. “I’ve been sick as a dog, my breasts are sore, and I haven’t had my monthly for two months going on three.”
“Three months? No way. You waited this long to tell me? Now what the hell are we going to do? I’m sure it’s too late for an abortion.”
Patty Jean’s eyes spilled over with tears. “That’s it? That’s your solution?” Her voice was shrill. “To kill the baby?” She reached for the door handle on the car and pulled it up.
She had never been more hurt in her life except for when she stood by her mother’s grave on a rainy morning and watched them lower the casket into the ground. Did she mean that little to him? Would he not even consider making her his wife and helping her raise the child they had created?
“Patty Jean, wait!” he said. “Let’s talk about this.”
She took one more look at him and got out of the car and made her way into the house where she would ruin her father’s day and break his heart.
~ ~ ~
Ed’s eyes filled with tears, but he sniffed and blew his nose on his handkerchief. He pulled his daughter into an awkward hug. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to say. I sure as hell don’t know what to do. I need to ponder it a while, but don’t you worry, we’ll figure this one out.”
He wasn’t sure about Danny Ford. Did that young man have the strength of character to stand by his daughter? Probably not, but he intended to have a heart-to-heart with the young man and see what his intentions were. In the meantime, he needed to talk to the preacher. Surely this kind of thing was not new. It was just new to Ed. Raising a child was hard. Raising a daughter was impossible without a woman’s touch. He missed Mavis more and more every day.
The preacher told him about a home for unwed mothers in Charleston that provided prenatal care to young, unwed girls and found good adoptive parents for their babies. All the facility expected was a one-time donation and a signature that severed all parental rights after the child was born.
Ed hoped that Patty Jean and Danny would figure it out for themselves, but that didn’t happen. Two weeks after he found out he was going to be a father, Danny Ford drove out of town without a word of goodbye.
Patty Jean cried so hard Ed was sure she was going to miscarry, but she didn’t, and after she accepted the fact that she was going to be a mother at sixteen and completely lose her chance of having a carefree, teenage high school experience, she agreed to go to Charleston and give the baby up for adoption.
~ ~ ~
Now, nearly seven months later, Ed Campbell downed another cold mug of Budweiser, belched, and tapped on the bar for another round. The surly bartender set another glass of light-gold liquid on the sticky surface. Ed could smell the droplets of old, stale beer that had sloshed down the sides of the pints that were served by the dozen. The light in the room was dim, but he could make out a line of people seated on the high stools and hunched over their glasses.
He wasn’t ordinarily a drinking man, but you would never know it tonight. He had been sitting here at the Handle Bar for over two hours, and every time he tried to stand up his legs buckled, so he decided to stay there on the stool until he could figure out what to do.
What he couldn’t understand was how he got himself into this fix. Here he was all alone in this world with a pregnant daughter who was about to pop. He knew there was no way she was capable of caring for a baby, and he sure as hell knew he couldn’t do it again. Look how his first try at parenting had turned out.
He knew he had made the right decision, but he missed his daughter, and he hated the idea of missing out on his first grandchild’s birth.
He tried to pinpoint the moment when he had lost control of his little girl, and the day she started running him in circles. He sat there with his chin cupped in his hand and fought back tears.
Then, after way too many beers, Ed had the bartender at the Handle Bar call him a cab. The night was still except for the sharp bark of his neighbor’s dog. He staggered up the driveway and let himself in the back door.
He walked into the dark, empty kitchen filled with the smell of old, half-eaten pizza and saw the red light flashing on the answering machine. Hoping it was Patty Jean, he took off his jacket and made his way across the room. He felt guilty for missing her call while he had been tossing back drinks at the bar. The telephone was his only contact with his daughter after she went to Charleston.
He pushed the play button and listened to the message twice. “Mr. Campbell, this is Doctor Hightower. Please return my call as soon as possible, no matter what time you get this message. My number is 843-002-1245.”
Ed sat down in one of the kitchen chairs and ran his hands through his hair. He rubbed his forehead and tried to gather his thoughts. Who was Doctor Hightower and why was he calling? Ed looked at the clock. It was two-thirty in the morning. Call now? Was he serious?
Then he remembered. He put his hand on the phone and then removed it as if he had touched something hot. Finally, as his heart beat rapidly in his chest, he carefully punched in the numbers.
Later that night, after Reverend Wilson prayed with him and helped him breathe in slowly and then exhale in a whoosh several times until he could stop hyperventilating, he was able to remember what the doctor said.
“Mr. Campbell, I regret having to tell you this. After giving birth, Patty Jean began hemorrhaging. We did everything we could to save her, but I’m so sorry to say that she is gone. She died at eleven-fifteen last night.”
Charlene Tess and Judi Thompson are sisters who live over 1400 miles apart. They combined their two last names into the pen name Tess Thompson and write novels as a team. This is the sixth novel they have written together.
Charlene Tess is a retired writing teacher and writes educational materials for TeachersPayTeachers.com. Her published works include ten novels, five nonfiction books, and numerous educational materials. Charlene lives with her husband Jerry in Colorado.
Judi Thompson has been writing since her early teens. She lives with her husband Roger in Texas. She is a retired supervisor for special education in a local school district. Judi is the author of six novels and is currently collaborating on another novel with her sister.
Links to Tess’s website, blog, books, etc.
BOOKS BY TESS THOMPSON
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