"To every thing there is
a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven . . .
A time to love, and a time
to hate; a time of
war, and a time of peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 & 8
September 5, 1984
Atlanta Memorial Hospital
Rachel Williams ached all over and her muscles
were stiff from hours of sitting . . . waiting . . . praying.
The only sounds in the glass-fronted C.C.U. room were the rhythmic
beeps of the heart monitor that kept syncopated time with the
noisy respirator. After a brief glance that encompassed the narrow
bed and the once vital man who lay beneath the sheet, she stood,
stretched, then walked slowly toward the only window in the room.
With a shaky hand, she parted the blinds.
Darkness. No stars. No moon. Only the lonely, twinkling lights
of a city gone to sleep.
How strange, she thought. Darkness, life. Light, death. It should
have been just the opposite. But for her, nothing had ever been
as it should. Not since the beginning of her life with Tim, then
her life with Jon. The darkness of a terrible war was her life
with Tim. The flashing lights of a car, a drunk driver . . .
She squeezed her eyes shut then opened them. No. She mustn't
think of Tim now. Tim was her past, gone forever. Jon was both
her past and present, her savior after Tim. And Jon was still her
future, she added fiercely . . . still alive. But just barely.
Jon, along with J.J., Liz, and Crystal were her
Jon's son, now a grown man and a far cry from the little boy she
had raised since he was three; and Liz, Rachel's daughter, the
fatherless baby that Jon had so unselfishly claimed as his own;
and finally Crystal, the granddaughter that both she and Jon had
been so proud of, had tried so hard to help Liz raise in spite
of Liz's alcoholic husband, another casualty of yet another war.
Rachel winced. Poor Crystal. So troubled, so confused.
Would J.J. be able to persuade her to come home now that Jon
dear God," she whispered. "Don't take Jon from us. Don't
let him die . . . “
The swishing of the door opening and the almost silent tread
of rubber soled shoes interrupted Rachel's prayer.
It was only Margaret making her regular nightly
rounds. Out of the four nurses who attended Jon, Margaret was
Her no-nonsense attitude and down-to-earth manner always put Rachel
at ease. Margaret was not one to fawn and solicit like the rest.
It didn't matter to her that Jon had financed one of the most modern
research wings at Atlanta Memorial, the largest research hospital
in the south. And it didn't matter to Margaret that just one word
from Rachel could cost the nurse her job. Margaret’s sole
concern was her patient’s welfare, a trait Rachel respected
with all of her being.
Several moments passed as Margaret checked Jon’s vital
signs, then Rachel felt Margaret's plump hand softly pat her shoulder. "No
change," she said. "He's still the same."
The tightness along the back of Rachel's neck eased a bit, and
she let out the breath she'd been holding. Thank you, Lord. Then
again she offered up the silent litany she'd repeated during the
last three days. Please don't take Jon from me. Not yet. Please.
"Why don't you get some sleep?” Margaret said. “It's
Rachel shrugged. "Maybe. In a little while."
"I promise to wake you if there's the least
Rachel tried to smile. Margaret was a nag but a well meaning
nag. No one seemed to understand that sleep wasn't important, not
for her. Only Jon's recovery was important.
"Come on." Margaret patted the small cot that had been
placed in the room just for Rachel, an almost unheard of precedent
in the C.C.U. Ward. "Just rest a few minutes."
Rachel glanced over at her husband and then at the monitors.
Margaret said nothing had changed, that he was the same. And she
trusted Margaret. Without a word, Rachel nodded. Tomorrow would
come all too soon, and deep down, she had a feeling she would need
her wits about her for the ordeal she would have to face.
She still couldn't believe the events of the past three days.
First Jon's massive heart attack, then the strange, disturbing
visit from his attorney.
Rachel, only vaguely aware that Margaret had left the room, sat
on the edge of the cot and felt her stomach knot with apprehension.
The day Jon had been rushed to the emergency room, his attorney
had shown up at the hospital. That he'd come hadn't surprised her,
since Jack Warren headed up a small but prestigious firm that worked
exclusively for Jon. A well-groomed, ultra-conservative man in
his mid-forties, Jack had been waiting for her when she'd stepped
out of C.C.U.
"Oh God, Rachel." He'd hugged her briefly then pulled
away. "I'm so sorry."
Rachel had simply nodded, still feeling too numbed by Jon's heart
attack to really comprehend what was going on around her.
With his arm around her shoulder, Jack urged her toward a nearby
waiting room then motioned at a chair near the window. As soon
as she sat down, he began pacing back and forth in front of her.
"I hate to be the bearer of more bad news—" He
abruptly stopped. Taking her hand in his, he knelt down beside
her. "I wouldn't bother you unless it was urgent, but I don't
know what else to do."
Something about the desperation in his tone got
through enough to jolt her out of her stupor. "You’re
scaring me, Jack. What is it?"
"I had visitors yesterday—a woman and a man," he
told her. "They barged into my office without an appointment." Jack
released her hand long enough to shove his fingers through his
"Come on, Jack. Just spit it out."
For long seconds he gazed starkly into her eyes. "She—the
woman—claims that she's Jon's wife, and the man says he's
Rachel was so stunned she couldn't utter a sound. Even the thought
of such a thing was preposterous.
"She has proof," he continued. "Legal
Rachel immediately thought of the many trips Jon had made to
Europe during their married life. He'd had opportunity for an affair
. . . Then she dismissed the thought. Jon was a good man, devoted
to her and their children. He would never betray them.
"It's a lie," she was finally able to whisper. "I'm
Jon's wife. Have been for over forty years. Legal documents can
"There's more," Jack continued. "The
woman wouldn't elaborate, but she also indicated that there is
something so sinister
in Jon's past, something to do with World War II, that if it were
made known, the whole world would sit up and take notice."
"Sinister? The War?" There wasn't a
sinister bone in Jon's body. The woman was lying. She had to
be. And Rachel refused
to think about any other possibility.
Then Jack told her that the woman had threatened to go to the
press with her ludicrous claims. And Jack, like Rachel, had sense
enough to know that the news media was the last thing they needed
right now. So far, they'd been able to keep the news of Jon's heart
attack quiet. Even the hint of scandal on top of Jon's sudden illness
would effect too many lives, too many jobs.
After talking a while longer, they had finally agreed that she
would meet with the woman . . . tomorrow.
Rachel looked up and stared at Jon. It was still hard to believe
that he might die, and even harder to believe there was a possibility
he could have deceived her for so many years. Since his heart attack,
he hadn't regained consciousness, and the doctors had given her
little hope that he would. The sudden thought that Jon could die
without her ever hearing the truth from his lips caused her blood
to run cold.
“No,” she whispered fiercely. She couldn’t
think that way. Jon was not going to die, and she already knew
the truth. The woman was an imposter, a charlatan. Tomorrow, she
would face this fraud and expose her.
Rachel lay back on the hard cot fully dressed. It didn't matter
what she looked like tonight. Jon wouldn't know and Margaret didn't
care. The morning was time enough to once again look sleek and
sophisticated . . . and in control. In the morning she could once
again become Mrs. Jonathan Williams. But tonight, she needed to
gather her strength for the ordeal ahead. For reasons she didn't
completely understand, she felt the pull of her past, her heritage.
Tonight she needed to remember what it felt like to be Rachel Thompson
again and how she got to where she was.
Remembering the past always made her strong . . .
Rural north Louisiana
Spring was late and the bitter cold of winter hung on with a
vengeance in rural north Louisiana. The cotton-haired, frail
girl shivered against the biting wind.
She hugged her baggy sweater close as she waited at the edge of the dense
woods. She didn't want to be late for school, but she didn't
want to miss Tim either.
He had promised to walk with her this morning and you didn't make promises
to your best friend and then break them. So she waited.
Timothy Daniel Davis was thirteen to Rachel Thompson's
eleven, but he was still the best friend she had. Tim never poked
fun at the blouses her mama made from flour sacks, and he didn't
think she was stupid because she got poor grades.
Rachel stooped down to rub her bare feet. They ached and felt stiff from the
cold ground but she didn’t really care. She hated her new shoes. They were
hard and pinched, and they had already rubbed a blister on her heel.
Suddenly she wiggled her toes and laughed. She had hid the ugly
Oxfords and her socks beneath a small brush pile near the dirt
trail a ways back. If Daddy ever found out, he'd wallop her within
an inch of her life. She giggled again. He wouldn't find out. She'd
pick them up on her way home that afternoon.
The rustle of dry winter leaves broke the quiet stillness, and
she shivered once again against the piercing wind as she turned,
searching for the cause of the noise.
Panting and out of breath, a tall, gangly boy
in faded, patched overalls rushed toward her. "Come on,
Rach. We'll both be late if we don't hurry. Old man Jones would
just love to crack
my knuckles again."
Rachel didn't argue with Tim. Without a word she took off beside
him, trying hard to keep up. Ignoring the pain of the pea gravel
biting into her bare feet, she ran as if her very life depended
on it. She hated old man Jones, and she didn't want to give him
reason to punish either of them.
She could hear the final bell ringing in the distance and her
heart beat faster.
They were late.
Ezekiel Jones stood tall and forbidding by his desk, his dark,
beady eyes watching as Rachel and Tim rushed into the classroom.
Rachel hurried over to the fifth grade section while Tim walked
quickly to the other side, where the seventh graders sat.
It wasn't the stares and whispers that bothered Rachel. She didn't
care what the others thought. She'd long grown used to being the
object of ridicule from her classmates.
No, their stares didn't even register. It was the hard gleam
in old man Jones' eyes and the grim set of his hawk-like face that
sent a shiver down her spine which had nothing to do with the drafty
schoolroom. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy the punishments he dished
Rachel felt the sting of tears threaten and she swallowed several
times. If the look on his face was anything to go by, she and Tim
were in trouble for sure. Rachel glanced over at Tim who was staring
at the top of his desk.
The harsh, loud sound of her name reverberated throughout the
room, and Rachel jerked her gaze back to the teacher.
"Front and center, young lady," he commanded.
Once again Rachel looked at Tim. He cut his eyes toward her,
then raised his gaze to openly glare at the teacher. As she got
up and slowly walked to the front of the classroom, her heart began
to thud within her chest and her legs felt like mushy oatmeal.
Daddy had warned her from the first day that she had entered
school that she was to be a good girl and never shame herself or
her family. He'd said they might be dirt poor, but they still had
their pride and their God fearing, honest name. He had told her
that whatever punishment she got at school, he would give her the
same when he found out. She had never been punished . . . until
And Daddy would find out, she knew with certainty. Her two younger
sisters would hear about it and delight in telling him.
"You're late," Ezekiel Jones accused.
Rachel could only stare at him while her insides quaked.
"You know as well as everyone else what that means." Without
waiting for her to answer, he turned and reached down beside his
desk for the whipping stick.
The stick was a little larger than a foot-long ruler, and made
of hickory. It was long, flat and ugly, with little round holes
bored out to make sure that every stinging blow was felt.
Rachel bit her bottom lip to hold back a sob. She remembered
well the day Ezekiel Jones bragged about tricking one of his former
students into making it for him, and how that same student was
the first to have it used on him.
"Hand out flat. Five raps across the knuckles."
Rachel felt cold and hot at the same time. Her eyes blurred,
and the tears she tried so bravely to keep from shedding trickled
down her cheeks.
She glanced quickly at Tim, praying that he wouldn't think she
was a baby for crying. As she held out her quivering hand, she
saw Tim turn pale and grip the sides of his desk.
Just as the teacher raised the whipping stick,
Tim abruptly stood, almost knocking over his desk. "Mr. Jones, sir," he
said, his voice strong, clear and urgent.
Ezekiel Jones hesitated, the stick still in mid-air. "Yes.
What is it, Mr. Davis?" he asked impatiently, a deep frown
distorting his face.
"Please, sir. I want to take Rachel's punishment.
It's my fault we were late."
Rachel ignored the giggles and snickers from their classmates.
She ventured a side-glance at the teacher, and her stomach turned
queasy. With a sinking feeling, she knew that Ezekiel Jones would
allow it. He didn't like Tim and took great pleasure in finding
reasons to punish him. Tim never cried out like some of the other
boys, and Rachel secretly thought that was why old man Jones liked
to punish him, to see if he could break him.
"Let me be sure I understand you, Mr. Davis.
You're willing to be punished twice?"
Tim nodded yes.
After several long moments, an evil smile pulled
at Ezekiel Jones' lips. "Very well. I will allow it." He gave Rachel a
shove. "Be seated, Miss Thompson." He slapped the whipping
stick against his palm while he waited for Tim to come forward.
Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand and
trying to control the sob building in her chest, Rachel started
slowly toward her
desk. As she passed Tim, he whispered. "It's okay, Rach. Just
But Rachel did look. She stared straight into Tim's dark brown
eyes as he held out his fist for the blows.
Rachel jerked with the sound of each blow, but other than a quick
blink, Tim didn't flinch as he held Rachel's gaze, conveying a
silent message, a message that said she shouldn't be afraid for
him, a message that said Ezekiel Jones wouldn't break him this
As the sound of the last whack cracked throughout
the room, Rachel knew that she would never love anyone else as
much as she loved Timothy Daniel Davis.
That afternoon, with a tentative farewell touch to Tim's swollen
hand, she promised to meet him again the next morning. Halfway
down the dirt path that led home, she remembered her shoes. With
a rueful glance at her feet, she shrugged. Daddy would never know
how dirty her feet were once she put on her socks and shoes.
When Rachel reached the curve in the path, her stomach growled
and her mouth began to water as she thought about the cold sweet
potato she knew would be waiting at home. She began to skip.
Just as she rounded the curve, she abruptly stopped, almost stumbling
as she took in the sight before her.
Where was the brush pile?
Staring straight ahead, she blinked several times. Rachel felt
frozen and couldn't move. An untidy black square had been burned
into the earth like a huge, ragged eye patch. The smell of smoke
still lingered in the cold air, teasing her with its acrid scent.
Where once trees had grown, there was nothing left but smoldering
stumps. And where once green grass and vines had tangled beneath
the trees, nothing but charred earth remained.
With a sinking feeling, Rachel knew that the owner
had decided to clear the spot, probably for a garden. The brush
pile was gone—and
so were her shoes. All reduced to ashes.
Rachel slowly made her way home. Tim wouldn't be there to take
her punishment this time, and she knew she deserved whatever Daddy
gave her. It had taken him two weeks of splitting cross ties just
to make enough money to buy the ugly Oxfords, the only shoes she
When she faced her father that evening, she knew that she would
never forget the rage in his eyes, nor the hurt and disappointment,
as long as she lived.
"I'm sorry, Daddy," she whimpered.
"Sorry don't make it right," he shouted as he reached
up and took down the razor strap that hung by the wash basin. "Sorry
won't git another pair of shoes. I sweated blood to git the money
to buy them shoes, money we could have used for that new plow I
been saving for. I figured since you're the oldest, you would ‘preciate
having new ones instead of making do with your mama's hand-me-downs." He
shook his head. "Stubborn—you always was too stubborn
and headstrong for your own good. Guess you’ll have to learn
the hard way." He grabbed her by the arm. "You should
have knowed better."
The blows stung Rachel's legs, and she felt as if she had stumbled
into a hornet's nest by the time her father had finished.
Later that night, as she tried smothering her sobs in her feather
pillow, Rachel kept telling herself over and over that one day,
when she grew up, she would have so many shoes that she could throw
them away if she wanted to. One day she would marry Tim and they
would get rich.
Excerpt from Rachel's
Copyright 2006 by Barbara Colley
Publisher: Harlequin Line: Reader's Choice
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