Excerpt – Dreams for Stones

 

Discussion Questions for Book Groups

 

Chapter One

Alan Francini smoothed a saddle pad onto Sonoro’s back. The horse danced sideways before settling and nudging the man’s shoulder, blowing softly. Alan stood for a moment, his forehead against the animal’s neck, then reached for the saddle and, with one smooth motion, swung it into position. He tightened the cinch, mounted and, turning Sonoro toward the foothills, loosened the reins.

Their swift passage through the brisk air chilled Alan’s face, pulling tears from his eyes. He ignored the wet on his cheeks, focusing instead on the dull staccato rhythm of hooves on frozen ground, the click of iron shoe against cold stone, and the huff of Sonoro’s breathing visible in the icy air.

2inchcoverwsWhen they reached the alpine meadow with its tiny topaz lake, he left the stallion to graze and walked to the edge of the water. The day he and Meg discovered it, the lake had been blue and mirror still, reflecting mountains, trees and sky in all their perfection, like a second reality.

Now that day was the only memory he was able to look at directly, without flinching. The only day in all their days together that hadn’t shifted and splintered into sharp-edged, unrelenting pain.

A cloud slid across the sun and the lake darkened, its opaque surface shivering with each gust of wind. Early April. An uncertain time of year. As uncertain as the possibility of joy.

He picked up a stone, tossed it into the gray lake and stood waiting until the widening ripples from the splash touched the shore at his feet.

Then he remounted and rode back the way he had come.

Alan was halfway through chores Easter morning when his sister showed up. Elaine swung on the door of the stall he was cleaning, chewing a stem of alfalfa, looking more like a young girl than a woman of thirty-three

He reached over and pulled the hay from her mouth. “Bad habit, Laine.”

She wrinkled her nose and yanked a fresh stem free. “So how go the Denver State tenure wars?”

“Dossier’s due next fall.” He went back to forking used straw into the wheelbarrow.

“You have a take on how it’ll go?”

“New department head might be the sticking point.” At Hilary Hilstrom’s first faculty meeting she’d laid out her “vision” to turn DSU into a fiction-writing mecca.

“So? Send her roses and a box of very expensive chocolates.”

He took in a deep breath of air scented not with roses and chocolate but with hay and horse and turned to tell Elaine he couldn’t think of a worse thing to do.

She grinned. “Gotcha. So why’s she the sticking point?”

“She came to observe my class. Unannounced.” He continued to work, his muscles loosening and warming, sweat dampening his shirt, as he recalled Hilstrom’s visit. He’d done the math. The woman was at least fifty, but fighting it with short skirts and too much makeup.

The day she came to his class, she sat in the back of the room, a perfectly groomed, lavender-garbed apparition, while he struggled to get a reaction to a piece of experimental fiction out of students more likely to have lavender hair than lavender clothes. Eventually he succeeded, and caught up in the discussion, he forgot Hilstrom until the students filed out.

She had paused in the doorway, tapping her reading glasses against her teeth. “That was certainly an interesting approach, Alan.” Her tone made it unclear whether she considered it a good interesting or a bad interesting.

Elaine wiggled her fingers at him. “About that visit?”

He didn’t want to rehash it, bad enough to have lived through it once, but maybe he could come up with a story to amuse her. It would be nice to keep her hanging around for a while.

“We were reading The Taming of the Shrew. I invited her to read Katherine’s part.”

“Tell me you’re joking.”

“Trust me, Hilary Hilstrom is no joke.” And wasn’t that the truth. He kept his face turned away, as he continued to work.

“Did she do it?”

“She did.”

“And?”

He leaned on the pitchfork and thought about where to take the story as the horses chomped steadily through their morning hay and oats.

And then he had it. “Hilstrom was so dramatic, the football player reading Petruccio forgot he was acting and kissed her.” Alan smiled at the vision of Hilstrom, those damn glasses on her nose where they belonged for once, and a block-shaped lineman with no neck, leaning in, eyes closed, lips puckered.

“If that really happened, your goose is cooked.”

“Yep. Unless he was a damn good kisser.” He tossed the last of the used straw into the wheelbarrow. “She appeared bemused.”

Elaine laughed. “By the muse or the guy?”

Alan shrugged, pleased with the success of his tale. As he passed her, Elaine turned and followed him.

“You made that up, right?”

He dumped the contents of the barrow, straightened and met her gaze with a solemn look. “Nope. Cooked goose. That’s me. Easter dinner.”

He saw she half-believed him, although as a clinical psychologist, she usually recognized bullfeathers immediately. But then it had been a very long time since he last joked with her.

Her grin fading, she stepped closer and touched his arm. “Alan, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Knew it was too good to be true you actually came to help me muck out,” he said, hoping to lighten her up.

“We’re making the announcement at dinner, but…” She bit her lip, her fingers worrying the fabric of his shirt. “I didn’t want to spring it on you in front of everybody. But, well, I’m going to have a baby.”

He sucked in a quick breath and let it out slow, trying not to let the emotions set loose by her words take hold. “Hey, that’s great news, Laine.” He pulled her into his arms. “Bet Ted is thrilled, and the folks will be ecstatic.”

“It’s just. Times like this.” Her voice caught, and she pressed her head against his shoulder. “Meg…she ought to be here. You know.”

“Yeah.” He spoke softly, because suddenly he found it impossible to get all the air he needed.

“Sometimes I can’t stand it.” The fierce words were interlaced with tears. “I miss her so much.”

Yeah. He did, too. And always would.

Elaine scrubbed at her eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t know I was going to do that.” She stumbled out of his arms and went over to the nearest stall. The occupant stuck its head over the door, whickering a greeting, and Elaine stroked the shaggy neck, lifting and untangling the mane with her fingers.

The sun slanted across his sister’s hair, burnishing the honey with gold, and for an instant it was as if Meg stood there, saying, “Alan, look at this. Her mane’s all tangled and after I just combed it. Bet she got into those brambles going after berries again, the greedy gut.”

The twist of pain was so powerful, Alan doubled over. When he straightened, he was relieved to find Elaine hadn’t noticed.

He shook his head to clear it, then hooked a bale of fresh straw and hauled it over to the clean stall. When he looked up, he found Elaine watching him, a worried look on her face.

He spoke as gently as possible. “It’s okay, Laine. I think your having a baby is wonderful.”

He led Sonoro back into the clean stall and took his time unclipping the lead, stroking the soft muzzle, running his hands down each leg, picking up and checking each hoof. By the time he finished, Elaine had gone back to the house.

He breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be alone again in the quiet of the barn with creatures that couldn’t speak.

Chapter Two

Kathy Jamison stood at the entrance to the botanical gardens, her gaze focused on the man walking toward her. She had the urge to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Instead, she rubbed her thumb against the diamond ring Greg had placed on her finger a month ago and knew she was most definitely awake. And reality was better than any dream.

Greg reached her and bent his head to kiss her before taking her hands in his and swinging her into an impromptu waltz, singing, “California Here I Come”.

Kathy’s smile slid away and her whole body stiffened with alarm. “California?”

“Yep. Can you believe it? The fellowship came through. San Francisco. Only the best toxicology residency in the country. My pick of positions when I finish.”

Kathy stepped away, trying for perspective, dread replacing joy. “But-but, I thought… That is, we agreed. You’d apply for the residency here, and we wouldn’t need to move.”

People eddied around them as they faced each other in the center of the path.

“Well, yeah, but that was only if San Francisco didn’t come through.” Greg recaptured her hand. “You knew I went for the interview.”

Because he didn’t want to upset the head of Emergency Medicine at St. Joseph’s who’d recommended him, but it wasn’t supposed to mean anything. “You said you didn’t have a chance.”

“You know how it goes. Want something too much, it practically guarantees you won’t get it.”

Like her wanting to stay in Denver.

But if he wanted San Francisco , why hadn’t he shared that with her? Instead he’d joked about what a disaster the trip had been, how he forgot to pack dress shoes and worried about it until an inept waiter made it a moot point by dumping coffee on him at breakfast.

They’d laughed about it, and somehow she’d failed to notice how much it mattered to him. But he had to know leaving Denver mattered to her.

He pulled on her hand. “Come on. We’re blocking traffic.”

CO13smallShe went along with him, her thoughts still churning, numb to the sight of daffodils and budding trees as he led the way to the Japanese garden where he’d asked her to marry him. When they reached the bench in the corner, he sat and pulled her down beside him wrapping his arm around her. She leaned away.

“What is it?” He cocked his head, giving her what she thought of as his doctor look. “You aren’t coming down with something are you?”

“I may be.” Her throat tightened, and her nose itched.

“A cold?”

She shook her head. “About San Francisco. Have you accepted?”

“Of course.”

Of course? Could the man she loved be oblivious? “Don’t you think we need to talk about it?”

“What’s to talk about?” He looked puzzled.

That we agreed. We wouldn’t leave Denver. “The University of Colorado, maybe. Did you hear from them yet?” It was a struggle but she’d managed to keep her tone calm.

“They called last week.”

“And?”

He shrugged. “They offered me the spot.”

For an instant his image wavered as if she were seeing it in a funhouse mirror. “You didn’t tell me.” They offered you the spot. They offered you the spot!

“I was waiting to see if San Francisco called. Look, Kit, if you wrote a novel, and you got an offer from Random House and another from Podunk Press, which would you choose?”

If she said anything more right now she’d likely regret it. Instead, she switched her focus to a middle-aged couple walking through the garden. The man leaned toward the woman and said something that made her laugh. Kathy watched the two until she thought she could speak without raising her voice. “The University of Colorado isn’t exactly Podunk U.”

“True, but San Francisco, Kit. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Did Greg’s rich baritone carry a hint of irritation? But what right did he have to be irritated? Her life was the one being uprooted, and he needed to show some sensitivity to that fact.

“It’s only two years, babe. No biggie. Besides, it’s not like you’ve lived in Denver your whole life or anything.”

He gave her his most ingratiating smile, and an overwhelming urge to shake him had her clutching her hands together.

“You’ll love San Francisco.”

Wrong. Denver was her home now. She’d chosen it, let herself get attached. Promised herself she wasn’t moving again. And two years was more than nothing. It was as long as she’d lived any one place when she was growing up.

Moving. With a father in the Air Force, she knew all about it, and she’d had enough. Enough of leaving behind all that had become familiar and dear. Enough of starting over with new friends, new neighbors, new schools. New dentists, new doctors, new jobs. Enough of packing and unpacking. Enough wrong turns and ending up in wrong places.

Just enough.

She tried to speak, but her throat felt like it was full of sand. She swallowed. “So, tell me. Is this how you plan to handle decisions affecting the two of us once we’re married?” Her voice began to spiral, like a car going out of control on an icy curve. “You decide, then you tell me what you’ve decided.” She clamped her lips shut, moving her fingers in a silent count.

“Of course not. But it’s my career so really that makes it my decision.”

“So. Does that mean since I’m the one who gets pregnant, it’s my choice whether we have children?”

“That’s ridiculous. Kids would affect both our lives.”

“And your decision to go to San Francisco doesn’t affect my life?”

Greg cleared his throat, lifted his eyes to hers and spoke with apparent sincerity. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have accepted without discussing it with you.”

Darn right, he shouldn’t have. She took three more breaths, staring at him, willing him to look away. He didn’t.

“I’m really, really sorry,” he said.

He did look sincere. And regretful. She continued to glare at him.

Finally he lowered his gaze. “I didn’t think. Being engaged—it’s so new. I just didn’t realize. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I accept your apology.” Her voice was stiff and jerky, but she made no effort to smooth it.

He reached for her hand, and she let him have it.

“You are so damn beautiful.”

He almost got away with it—distracting her from her anger, not to mention from the fact they hadn’t resolved anything.

“We still need to figure out what we’re going to do,” she said.

“I thought we had.”

She tipped her chin to meet his eyes.

“We’re going to San Francisco, and…” His voice drifted to a halt.

Her world sped up, then abruptly slowed. Images hurtling by too quickly for her to identify came into stark focus. Beyond the clear blue of his eyes and the gold of his hair. Beyond the breadth of his shoulders and the corded muscles of his arms, how well did she know this man? And was this what being married to him would be like? Sudden announcements—he’d bought a house, a car, changed jobs—without it ever occurring to him to consult her before he did it?

A fleck of lint clung to the side of his mouth. Her eyes locked on that speck.

“What?” Greg swiped at his face, dislodging the lint.

Kathy blinked, noticing for the first time his hair was beginning to thin at the temples. A sudden image of Greg with thinning hair and an expanding paunch made her smile.

He grinned back. “Good. It’s settled then.”

She closed her eyes, shutting out the vivid blue of the sky and the fresh spring green, struggling to come to terms with the idea.

“You’re scaring me, babe. Come on. It’s not the end of the world, you know.”

But it was the end of something.

“What can I do to make this easier for you?”

She wished she knew.

Later, she decided if this had happened to a friend—a fiancé announcing a major decision without any consideration for her friend’s wants and needs—she’d have advised that friend to tell the fiancé, now downgraded to eye-of-newt, what he could do with his decision.

But look at her. Note how she’d handled her fiancé’s announcement—made without any concern for her dreams and hopes—that they were moving to San Francisco.

Yeah, look at her.

She was packing, dammit.

And why was that, exactly?

Because she loved him, of course. It was their first…no not a fight. A difference of opinion. He hadn’t stopped to think, but once he did, he’d apologized. Sincerely.

Sitting next to him, listening to his reasons, seeing how much he wanted to go to San Francisco, she’d been unable to deny him.

Compromise. Essential to any relationship. This time, his turn, next time, hers. Sacrificing for someone you loved was noble. And since that afternoon, they’d worked things out. Everything was fine again. Would be fine. The bright glow had dimmed only a little. After all, his dedication to his career was one of the reasons she loved him.

She’d dated enough to know a man who treated her with such care and thoughtfulness—well, most of the time—wasn’t as rare as hens’ teeth. But men like that sure weren’t thick on the ground either.

With a sigh, she opened the bottom drawer of the dresser, lifted out a pile of sweaters, and plopped them willy-nilly into one of the cartons Greg had dropped off.

San Francisco. It was, as he’d pointed out, only two years. She could manage two years. Except…

She froze in the act of adding a pair of jeans to the sweaters and sat back on her heels. How could she have overlooked that one, casual line. “My pick of positions when I finish.”

She’d been so focused on the main issue of the move, she’d let him slip right by her the hint that after his residency he might accept a position someplace he considered more prestigious than Denver.

But would he, really?

Before he announced his plan to go to San Francisco, she would have said no way.

And now? She narrowed her eyes, staring at the photo of Greg on the small table to her right.

Darn right he would.

So, was this how she planned to handle it? Pack and meekly tag along? As if everything she wanted, needed was unimportant when stacked up against Greg’s “career”.

Startled, she stared at the shreds of cardboard in her hands and realized she was halfway through tearing apart a box.

Listen to your heart, Kathleen. It’s telling you what to do.

Well, this was certainly a fine time for her Emily tape to start.

Except, it was really. The exact right time.

Because whenever she was confused or worried, all she needed to do was tap into an Emily memory or dig out one of Emily’s diaries, the way some people do the Bible. She’d pick up one of the small, leather books, open it at random and read. It always calmed her, and from that calm, her answer would come.

“Kathy dear, how is the packing coming?” Kathy’s tiny landlady stood in the doorway, her halo of white hair backlit by light from the hall window.

Kathy shifted her gaze from Mrs. Costello to the shreds of cardboard. “Oh, just peachy.”

“That’s good to hear.” Mrs. C raised her eyebrows a notch, eyeing the demolished box. “You know, dear, we’re going to miss you something fierce when you leave.”

“Oh, and I’m going to miss you, Mrs. C.” Kathy scrambled to her feet to give her landlady, who smelled of warm bread and cinnamon, a hug. Mrs. C’s foundation garment made her feel stiff, but Kathy recognized the returned affection in the pats the older woman gave her.

Mrs. C stepped back and used her apron to wipe moisture from her eyes. “What a couple of sillies we are.” She patted Kathy’s arm. “You go on with your packing, dear. You don’t want to hold up that young man of yours. I just wanted to tell you, dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes.”

Kathy leaned on the doorjamb after Mrs. C left, looking at her room: the floral carpet with its pattern of pink cabbage roses, the four-poster bed with its white chenille spread, the vanity with its stiffly starched doily centered on top. Chances were it had looked exactly the same for at least fifty years; but maybe that was why she was so attached to it.

When she’d rented the room, she planned on staying only a week or two, until she found someone to share the expense of an apartment, but five years had passed, and she was still here. She’d stayed, not only because Mrs. C was a wonderful cook and the house only a short walk to Calico Cat Books where she worked, but because she’d grown to love the Costellos who treated her like a favorite granddaughter.

She’d even chosen to remain after her engagement to Greg, despite his efforts to get her to move in with him. But really, it made no sense to add a forty-minute commute to each end of her day when Greg spent most of his nights at the hospital.

And did it make any more sense for her to leave a job and a city she loved for the short time Greg would be in San Francisco?

Of course, staying in Denver would mean putting off the wedding, and Greg probably wouldn’t be happy about that.

Still…

She closed her eyes, concentrating. I have an idea. It’s not ideal, but I know we can make it work. Why don’t I stay in Denver? You’ll be so busy at the hospital, you won’t have all that much free time, so really it makes sense. And whenever you get a break, I’ll come for a visit.

Okay, not bad. It could use sharpening, but those were the main points.

She had a sudden vivid picture of Greg running his hands through his hair the way he did when he was tired or nervous. “But if you really loved me, you’d come with me.”

Her eyes flew open. The words rang so clear, she almost expected Greg to be standing in front of her.

But was that really what he’d say?

Probably.

We’ll stay close. By writing and talking, she told the phantom Greg. Two years is nothing. Good. His own argument used against him. Before you know it, you’ll be finished and moving back to Denver. The time will fly.

“I need to think about all this, Kitten. I didn’t expect it.”

She hated being called Kitten, but it wasn’t easy to point that out to someone who wasn’t there.

 

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