Homesong

Finalist for the 2010 Bronte Prize for Romantic Fiction!

In a small town, everyone knows everything about everybody. Or do they?

For twenty years, Kate Doyle has been haunted by the night when she was forced to flee from her tiny Virginia home town and abandon her childhood sweetheart, Reed Fitzgerald. So when Kate, now in her mid-30s, escapes her unhappy life in Washington, DC and takes a much-needed vacation, the last thing she expects is to be reunited with Reed. Now, under the warm clear Caribbean sun, amid ancient churches and pink flamingos, Kate and Reed seek to revive the love that they thought was gone forever.

But will small-town secrets ruin their last chance for happiness? Woven into the modern tale of Kate and Reed are the tales of those who came before them. Their mothers: teenagers in the chaotic 1960s, best friends who are in love with the same man although only one of them knows it. Reed’s grandmother: already a bitter old woman by the 1930s, she would do anything to carry on the family name…and would drive away anyone who came between her and her grandson. And even the founder of the town: in 1865, what guilty secret drove one man to bring his two daughters across the ocean from Ireland and settle in the dark Virginia hills?

At its heart, Homesong is the story of a small town: its lies and truths, its beginnings and endings. It’s about proud secrets, unrestrained joy, and the old adage that you may leave your home, but it never really leaves you.

Coming soon in paperback, Nook and Kobo!
Read an excerpt:

Prologue

 Everything about the little house said dead and gone.

It stood, empty and alone, at the intersection of two old dirt roads. Scraggly bushes had grown up over the peeling walls, poking their way inside through broken windowpanes. The skeletal remains of an old vegetable garden jutted long bony fingers out of the brown scrap of yard by the front door, and the house’s shingled sides had been spray-painted with graffiti. But that too had turned brown, as if even the vandals had moved on to greener pastures.

Reed sat silently in his car, biting his thumb as he looked out at the place where he had grown up. Cicadas, stirred by the heavy heat of the early August morning, whirred their drowsing song in the tall grass by the side of the road. The sun hadn’t even crested the far hills yet, and already the inside of his ancient yellow VW felt like an oven. Sweat gathered along his hairline to drip down his neck, sticking his shirt to the small of his back.

It was strange to think that he hadn’t laid eyes on the place in almost a year. He had been born in that house, as had generations of Fitzgeralds before him. His grandmother had raised him there: he had crawled along the bare, uneven floorboards, taken his first wobbly steps in the patchy front yard.

The old place had never been beautiful. It wasn’t some picturesque cottage nestled in the heart of rural Virginia. It was a squat, ugly dwelling that had seen too many deaths and not enough births, but which knew the pain of both.

The original foundation had been laid by a long-ago Fitzgerald ancestor in the hardscrabble years following the Civil War — a tough little house built by a tough little man, who had gone on to found the very town that sprawled not two miles from here. Later, the Fitzgerald family had built themselves a home more suited to their own sense of importance: an elegant country house high on the hill. The gracious building had ridden the crest of the hill as pretty as a boat on the water. From the front of its wide wraparound porch, you could look right past this tiny hovel to the town that lay beyond.

The big house had burned down when Reed’s grandmother was a child, but money and a kind of careless confidence had resurrected it in the late1960s, just a few years before Reed had been born. A new family had come in from out of town, snapped up the land, and rebuilt the house from the original blueprints. Outsiders, his grandmother always said, her voice thick with anger.

Kate’s family, Reed reminded himself, trying not to notice the way his heart snaked in his chest at the thought of her. He tugged the handle and pushed the car door with his shoulder, ignoring the painful squeal of rusty hinges as it swung open. He unfolded himself from the front seat, peeling carefully away from the old plastic covers, then stretched his long and lanky frame before leaning back against the car, crossing his ankles with a nonchalance that he didn’t really feel.

If he turned his head and looked upward, he would have been able to see that big house — empty now, but still all white and shining with majestic beauty. Instead, he shoved his hands into his pockets and looked down, contemplating the dirt at his feet. He was on his way out of town. Everything he owned was packed into two cardboard boxes on the cracked back seat of his car. One box held his clothes, which were secondhand but clean and carefully folded. The other held a dozen books and what Grand had once scornfully called the family legacy — an old photo album covered in crumbling black leather, and lined with stained and threadbare purple silk.

And that was it. That was all that was left of his family. Generations of men and women who had lived and loved, killed and healed, taught and raised children. And with all of that history, there was nothing left but a broken, faded photo album at the bottom of an old cardboard box. By this time next week, even the shack in front of him would be gone.

And so would he.

College. Reed felt a nervous grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. Two years ago, if anyone had asked him whether he would go to college, he would have scowled and spit a “Hell no” out the side of his mouth. Despite all of Kate’s enthusiastic dreaming, despite her faith in him, the thought of him pursuing a higher education had seemed so remote that he’d never seriously considered it. He certainly never would have believed that he would end up heading off to university, with a scholarship letter in his pocket and a dorm room already waiting for him.

But anger and desperation could make some potent magic. He had finally gotten his act together, and now he was on his way out of this small town, heading to New York, the biggest big city of them all. The idea made his gut clench with excitement and fear, but he clamped down tightly on both and tried to focus on his purpose.

He had stopped here on his way out of town, knowing that he had to have a last look, not knowing when or if he would ever return. He had intended to walk through the little house one last time, to say a final goodbye and thank you to his grandmother. But now he felt strangely unwilling to take the first step up the overgrown walkway. As if moving forward would somehow be going back. As if the front door would open and his grandmother would be standing there, instead of lying in the family graveyard half a mile down the road. As if the house would swallow him whole, and he’d be trapped there forever.

He turned to look at the empty fields around him. In his grandmother’s youth, all of this land had belonged to his family. The little valley had once been green and alive with corn and tobacco crops. Even after his great-grandfather Gussy had gambled it all away, others had worked the land, given it a purpose and a life. But now that too was gone. The fields had gone to seed, the green grass to dust. In a few days, the house would be bulldozed, the land raked and mowed over, and a condominium community would be built there.

The thought of it made Reed ache in a place that he could not have named. But in a secret place it also made him glad, because now there was nothing to hold him here. It was as if the cancer that killed Grand had also poisoned the very soil around them. When she died, she took with her all the ties he might have had to these few acres of earth that had once been called Fitzgerald land.

Reed squared his shoulders. Time to get this over with.

He crossed the yard in four easy strides. He could remember when it had taken five times that many steps for him to get up the front walk. But his legs had been shorter then. Shorter legs and a lighter heart — that was how he thought of his childhood.

On the tiny front porch, he turned and looked out over the land again. He imagined his grandmother standing here, on this same exact spot, year after year, watching the world go by. She had been born in 1900, not exactly a time of great opportunity for women. But she had been whip-smart and from a wealthy family — for her, the possibilities could have been endless.

“But life has a way of fucking you over,” she once told him, with a gleam in her eye. “The trick is to try to out-fuck it.”

She had moved into the little house when she was twelve, along with her mother and their last remaining servant. After the big house had burned down, taking her father’s life with it. After they had discovered they were bankrupt, and the government seized their land for back taxes. After everything had gone to hell.

For her, there had been no great future, no college, no world travel. There was just this little scrap of land, with its broken-down shack of a house, and the wrenching scrape of poverty.

With effort, Reed swung his eyes upward, finally bringing his gaze to the house that stood on the hill. It was so beautiful that it hurt his eyes just to look at it. When Kate lived there, it had been like his second home. He had run down its wide hallways, scuffed up its glowing hardwood floors with his young feet. He had played under the high ceilings and sat before roaring fires in its carved fireplaces. But Grand had hated the place, and small wonder. To her it had been an abomination, like the resurrected corpse of a dead child. It stood as a reminder to everything that she had lost, everything that had been taken away from her. The two houses faced each other across a great divide — not just the physical divide of hill and valley, but a divide of fortune, a divide of fate.

Which would be worse, looking out the front door and seeing the burnt-out shell of your former home, or seeing that home resurrected, given new beauty and vitality, and knowing others were living there?

Well, there really wasn’t any contest, now was there?

The front door was unlocked — it wasn’t like there was anything inside worth stealing — and when Reed pushed, it swung open with a horror-movie squeal. He gave himself a minute to allow his eyes to adjust to the murky interior. Then he crossed the threshold.

Weak sunlight slanted through the broken windows, revealing the place to him in patches of dusty light. He stepped forward into the living room, gazing at the space that he had once known so well. The graffiti artists hadn’t limited themselves to the outside of the place, they had made use of the interior walls as well, no doubt seeing them as canvases on which they could paint their angry art.

Well, Grand had always been a supporter of the independent arts — not to mention an avid cusser — so he didn’t suppose she would have minded.

His footsteps echoed as he walked through the empty rooms. Cobwebs hung like memories in the air. In the kitchen, he touched the faded yellow wallpaper, trying to summon up images of his grandmother from every corner of his mind. Her tiny frame and lined face…gnarled fingers with short-clipped nails…her harsh, uncompromising discipline, and her quick, unexpected kindnesses….

For God’s sake, Reed thought with a sudden grin, had he ever given her a moment’s peace? There hadn’t been a rule that he hadn’t broken, not a class he hadn’t cut. He smoked; he shoplifted; he vandalized. He was a terror, and he knew it. More than that, he liked it. Everyone who knew him knew that he would come to a bad end one day. Everyone. Especially Reed himself.

But Grand had never given up on him, had she? No, and he had felt the back of her hand more than once as proof of her dedication. But he had never minded that, because he knew that every crime carried a punishment. And eventually, in a weird way, the punishments themselves had become a kind of validation. They made him feel like he was worth protecting.

Besides, he had outgrown his grandmother by the time he was eleven. And by the time he was thirteen, when she backhanded him, it had made him want to laugh at the way she had to reach up to get to his face.

But he had never actually laughed at her, of course. Even he wouldn’t have been so bold.

He gazed around the kitchen, bereft of its furniture and fixtures. Even the cabinets had been pulled down off the walls and hauled away. But all he had to do was blink, and he could see Grand flipping pancakes over the stove for Sunday breakfast. He could hear the folktales she used to tell him, stories that had been around since before even she had been born. And he could see the two of them seated at the kitchen table on a weeknight, playing cards while she lectured him on politics and he tried hard to catch her cheating.

Reed frowned, remembering that Kate had often joined them, both for pancakes and for cards. And the stories, which were always her favorite. Where his memories of Grand were already faded and dim, his memories of Kate were alive and fully colored.

Anger rose up inside him, making his fist clench and his throat close up. Kate. He couldn’t get away from her. He wanted to spit out her name, then spit out her memory so he would carry it no longer.

He turned on his heel and stalked out of the kitchen, away from the memory. But there were ghosts of her in every room. In his old bedroom, smaller now than he could ever have believed possible, he saw seven-year-old Kate, dressed in overalls and helping to paint the walls, her hair cut into a wild, curling pageboy. He blinked and saw fourteen-year-old Kate climbing recklessly through his bedroom window, lying on top of his old patchwork quilt, sharing plans for the future and torturing him with her nearness.

And sixteen-year-old Kate, pale and trembling after they had found Harry Block’s mangled body in the old barn. Reed had held her tightly and whispered into her ears, and she had clung to him like he was the only thing keeping her from being swept away down the wild, raging river of fate.

His grandmother had always warned him against Kate’s family, saying that the Doyles felt they were too good for this town. Reed had never believed it. He had told himself that Grand was just bitter, angry at the way her life had turned out. He knew down to the marrow of his bones that Kate was good, that she loved him and would never hurt him. Her parents had always treated him like family.

But Grand had been right. She had been right all along. The Doyles had packed up and left town in the middle of the night. They had left behind no forwarding address, no goodbye, no nothing. Just a thousand unanswered questions, and a raw and aching hole where his heart used to be. They had shaken the dust of this crummy little town off their feet and not looked back.

But then again, wasn’t that just what he planned to do?

Damn straight it was.

So what was stopping him? The car was packed and gassed, ready and waiting for him. It was a long drive to New York, and he was burning daylight, as Kate’s father used to say.

He had come to the house to say goodbye to his grandmother; it was his only stop on the way out of town. The family burial plot was just half a mile down the road, but he had no desire to visit dead ancestors, people who had once owned half the land in town and lost it. He didn’t know what would become of the little cemetery once the house was bulldozed and the land razed. Didn’t know, and didn’t care.

And he didn’t want to say goodbye to his grandmother where she was dead and buried. He wanted to say goodbye to her where she was still alive. And that was here, in this house. Besides, nothing would have gotten her spitting mad like the thought of her grandson spending money on flowers, then standing beside her gravesite, weeping delicately into a handkerchief.

No, Grand would be the first one to tell him to save his money for gas, to save his tears for later. She would tell him to get the hell out of Angel River, and never look back.

And Kate, what would she tell him? What lofty advice would she give him, were she here to give it? Reed thought about that briefly, then realized that Kate had nothing to say. She was more dead to him than his grandmother was. He would never see her again.

Down the road, in another state, his life awaited him. And he was ready for it. He summoned his courage, murmured a final thanks to his grandmother, and headed for his car.

He didn’t bother to close the door behind him.

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