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Coming Soon

Dove Pond NC Series, Book I

JULY 30, 2019

"If you liked PRACTICAL MAGIC or GARDEN SPELLS, you'll love this book!" - Susan Andersen, NYT best-selling author

A charming and evocative story about a picturesque Southern town, two fiercely independent women, and a magical friendship that will change their lives forever.

The residents of Dove Pond, North Carolina, know three things: they have the finest bar-b-que this side of Atlanta, their Apple Festival is the best that ever was, and the town has phenomenal good luck whenever the Dove family has seven daughters. Fortunately, that time is now, because Dove Pond desperately needs a miracle.

The seventh daughter, Sarah Dove, believes in all things magical. Books have whispered their secrets to her since she was a child. Now the town librarian, she makes sure every book finds the reader who most needs it. But recently the books have been whispering something different—that change is about to come to Dove Pond. Sarah is soon convinced that the legendary Dove Pond good luck has arrived in the form of new resident, Grace Wheeler.

After the tragic death of her sister, Grace has moved to Dove Pond with her grieving young niece and ailing foster mother hoping to retrench financially and emotionally before returning to her fast-paced city life. But she soon learns that life in a not-so-sleepy town isn’t as quiet as she’d hoped. Despite her best efforts to focus on her family, she can’t avoid the townspeople, especially her next-door neighbors, the quirky and talkative Sarah Dove and cynical veteran Chris Parker. Grace’s situation grows more complicated when she assumes her duties as town clerk and discovers that Dove Pond is on the verge of financial ruin.

Already overburdened by her own cares, Grace tries to stay aloof from the town’s issues, but she’s never been good at resisting a challenge. With Sarah’s encouragement, and inspired by the wise words of a special book, Grace decides to save her new town. And in her quest, she discovers the rich comfort of being a part of a loving community, the tantalizing promise of new love, and the heartfelt power of finding just the right book.

1794: CHARLOTTE

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EXCERPT from THE BOOK CHARMER

Prologue

Sarah

Dove Pond, NC
July 24, 2001

On the Saturday after her seventh birthday, a book spoke to Sarah May Dove. If she’d been older, she might have been surprised or even shocked, but as she was only seven and still a stubborn and devoted believer in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, she didn’t even blink.

In fact, after a moment’s thought, she decided that books always spoke inside the quiet of one’s head, although usually only while being read. So hearing a book speak didn’t faze her in the slightest.

Besides, she was a Dove, and everyone knew the Dove family was special. Every chance her mom got, she proudly pointed out that when the Doves had seven daughters, as they did now, good things happened to their hometown of Dove Pond.

Mom wasn’t just bragging; history had proven this true. In 1735, a seventh Dove daughter, Ella, was born to the Dove family. When she turned seven years of age, the town was suffering under a severe, crippling drought. Ella, a soft-hearted child who loved animals, cried at the thought of all the thirsty farm animals. As her tears fell, clouds gathered, and it began to rain. From then on, every time Ella cried, it rained. It was said that whenever local farmers wanted it to rain, they would bring Ella onions. And when they wanted sunshine, they brought her cake.

In 1829, another seventh daughter arrived. Mary Dove was said to have hair the color of spun gold and a propensity for finding lost jewelry, much to the delight of the townswomen. One hot summer day, while wading in the creek which wandered through town, Mary kicked over a rock and uncovered a large gold nugget. Thus began the Dove Pond gold rush. The gold rush lasted a remarkable thirty-two years, long enough to whip up a building frenzy that left behind the marble-fronted town hall, eight brand new brick buildings on Main Street, a new school, and several streets of stately homes, all of which still stood today.

Sarah, her sisters, and her mother lived in one of those houses, a sprawling structure with so many creaks and leaks that it couldn’t keep out the smothering summer heat no matter how many window air conditioners they added. Because of this, every Saturday throughout the summer, Sarah and her sisters retreated to the deliciously cool air conditioning in the Dove Pond Library.

Sarah loved those trips to the library. As she was the youngest by five years and had no interest in either make-up or boys, the only things her sisters cared about, she filled her days with books. Every Saturday, after their mother dropped them off, Sarah’s sisters would cluster around the fashion magazines, whispering and giggling, while she roamed the aisles alone looking for books about dragons.

Sarah wished with all her heart that dragons were real instead of existing only between the pages of certain books. Fortunately for her, there were lots of books with dragons. Although only seven, she’d been reading since she was three, a fact her mother told anyone who would listen. Sarah was a voracious reader and she’d found friends hiding between the pages of books. For her, the trips to the library meant more than the refreshing burst of air conditioning. They were life.

On the Saturday after her seventh birthday, Sarah ignored her sisters’ giggles as they clustered around one of their stupid magazines and headed for the young adult section. She had just walked past the glass display case that contained relics explaining the history of Dove Pond, when a dusty, paper-rattled voice rang out.

Read me.

The words echoed inside her head, without true sound, yet with a presence so keen that Sarah stopped in her tracks, her gaze locked on the glass case.

A small book propped in the center of the case rustled impatiently. Read me now.

Sarah dropped her backpack on the floor and walked to the case. She placed her hands flat on the cool, smooth glass, and stared at the book, an old, cracked-leather journal that rested among some other early artifacts in a display about the founding of Dove Pond.

She knew this particular book, even though she’d never seen it outside of the case. It was an old journal and had been written in 1702 by Charlotte Dove, the seventh daughter of the founding family of Dove Pond and one of Sarah’s ancestors. Every Founder’s Day, portions of it were reprinted in the local paper. Sarah knew the oft repeated passages well, especially the few paragraphs where fourteen-year-old Charlotte Dove described in breathtaking detail the exact moment the Dove family crossed the crest of Black Mountain, North Carolina, to look down into the green valley below. There they’d seen a single pond glistening in the morning sun like a sapphire set on a bed of emerald velvet, and had decided that here was where they’d stay.

And so Dove Pond had been born.

There’s more to the story, the book said.

“Like what?” Sarah asked.

You’ll know when you read me.

Sarah considered this. She was only allowed to check out two books and they would have to last her all week, so she had to be very careful which ones she picked. “You don’t look all that big.”

I have 87 pages.

Which wasn’t much, especially as it was hand written. She could read that in a few hours. “Are there dragons?”

No. The book’s sharp irritation was evident even through the thick glass.

Sarah dropped her hands from the glass case. “I want a book with dragons.”

The book fluttered with irritation. Read me, it repeated sharply. You have to.

If there was one thing Sarah Dove didn’t like, it was being told what to do. With six older sisters, that happened way too often as it was. So instead of agreeing to read the book, she simply said, “No, thank you,” and turned to leave.

A boy she knew from school stood not four feet away, staring at her.

Blake McIntyre was a year older than Sarah. Whenever her sisters were anywhere near his older brother Carter, who was a senior in high school, they became giggly and weird, which annoyed Sarah so much that she took it out on Blake whenever she saw him. It would have been more meaningful to take out her irritation on Carter, but he was never around. Meanwhile she saw Blake on the bus every day, and so she teased him mercilessly.

He looked past her to the case and then back. “Who are you talking to?” Despite his bold tone, his face burned bright red.

“I’m talking to myself. Who else?”

He shifted from one foot to the other, his bookbag hanging heavy on his shoulder. After an awkward moment, he said in a stiff tone, “I never talk to myself.”

She shrugged. “That’s because you wouldn’t listen.”

His brows snapped together. “You don’t know that.”

She offered a scoffing smile, one she’d learned from her oldest sister, Madison, who seemed to instinctually know how to cut a person to the quick. “Don’t I?”

His face turned an even brighter red and, after an awkward moment he muttered something under his breath and, with a final, confused look from her to the case and then back, he left.

The book barely waited for him to leave before it hissed, Open the case. It’s not locked.

“Nope.” She scooped up her bookbag from where she’d left it on the floor. “I need a book with dragons.”

You’ll be back! the book whispered angrily. Wait and see! You need me!

Sarah ignored it and headed upstairs to the young adult section. She was happy when she reached the books she really liked, the ones that didn’t snap at her, but instead told stories of dragons and swords and girls who made things happen.

For the next month, every time Sarah returned to the library, the book fussed at her. First it would demand, and then beg, and when that didn’t work, it would snarl and fume. Irked by the book’s insistence, Sarah started using another path to reach the stairs to the fiction section, avoiding the display case all together.

As the weeks passed, Sarah discovered she could hear other books, too, although their voices were silkier and whisper-soft. They weren’t demanding like the journal, but instead tried to tempt her.

You’d enjoy reading me, a very pretty book with a red cover told her one Saturday.

She thought about that. “Do you have dragons?” she asked.

No, but there’s a unicorn on page 142.

She liked unicorns, but not as much as dragons. Sarah mentioned this to the book and because it was much politer than the journal, the book sighed its regret. Another time then, it said. When you’re tired of dragons.

Which would never happen. “Of course,” Sarah replied politely as she moved down the shelves.

Later that day, sitting on the back seat of the van with her bookbag in her lap, Sarah asked her sister Ava, who was closest to Sarah in age, if books ever talked to her.

Ava snorted rudely. “No, but I wish plants could.” Ava was always growing something. Their back yard was filled with flowers, all because of her. Mom said Ava had a ‘green thumb,’ which was true. Ava’s thumb, like the rest of her hands, had a faint green tint. “It’s grass stain,” Ava had said. “From working in the garden.” But Sarah didn’t believe her. They were Doves, after all.

She looked at Ava now and wondered what it would be like if flowers could talk. After thinking about it (and remembering that some plants had thorns and pricklers and could cause itchy rashes), Sarah decided she’d rather have books talk to her than anything else. Well, all books except one.

When they reached home, Sarah – always the last one out of the van – waited for the screen door to bang closed behind her annoying sisters before she hefted her bookbag over her shoulder and went around the porch to the backyard. No one would miss her until dinner and she couldn’t wait to read the books she’d checked out of the library.

As she walked by the rusty swing set, she glanced to the house next door where Travis Parker lived. She and Trav had been in the same class since Kindergarten and she considered him her best friend. He wasn’t home this summer as he was staying with his grandpa at his farm outside of Atlanta. She wished Trav was here, because she’d tell him about the talking book and how rude it was. He’d probably laugh at her, but that was ok. She laughed at him, too, so it all worked out.

She stopped to kick off her shoes, sighing happily as her toes sank into the cool, soft grass. Stuffing her shoes into her backpack, she hurried past Ava’s flowers where they lined the path to the huge, sprawling willow at the very back of the yard.

Hundreds of years old, the tree rose into the sky and then bent over to trail its leafy branches in the shallow creek that wandered across the back corner of the yard. Sarah loved this tree and she was pretty sure it loved her, too.

With a quick glance at the house to make sure none of her sisters were watching, Sarah slipped behind the tree to her special place. The back of the trunk had been hollowed out by a long-ago lightning strike. Over the years, the wood had worn smooth by rain and wind until it fit her perfectly when she sat against the trunk and hid her from anyone in the house.

Sarah opened her backpack and reached in for one of her books . . . and then frowned. In her hand was the cranky journal, the cracked leather cover rough under her fingers. “How did you get here?”

Does it matter? I’m here, so read me.

The note of satisfaction in its voice irked Sarah. “No.” She put the book aside and dug into her bookbag, looking for the two books she’d checked out, both about dragons and elven warriors. After a moment, she looked back at the book. “Where are they?”

Not here. So read me.

For a wild moment, Sarah thought about throwing the book into Sweet Creek. She’d been looking forward to reading her dragon-themed books. But one look at the cracked leather cover and yellow-edged pages made her reluctantly abandon the idea. It was an old, old book, over two hundred years old, and was important to the town, which was why it had been locked in the case. Maybe that is why it’s so cranky. It’s old and it was locked away. That would make me cranky, too.

With a deep sigh, she picked up the book, placed it on her lap, and spread her hand over the leather cover. She only meant to feel the cracked leather, but to her astonishment, words and pictures flew through her mind. She saw a graceful, but ink-stained hand writing the words in the journal using a quill dipped in ink. She saw sunsets and sunrises and a long, long trip on a creaky wagon. She saw the glimmer of a silver lake in the middle of a green valley, and a tree crashing to the forest floor on its way to becoming the floor boards for a house. She saw a blue-eyed boy with hair the same color as hers looking back over his shoulder and smiling, and a group of men straining on ropes tied to a wall being lifted into place in a building that she recognized as the Baptist Church.

She saw all of this and more at a breathtaking pace, her hand growing warmer as the pictures grew more vivid, more real. Faster and faster they came until, finally, her head aching slightly, she yanked her hand from the cover and stared down at her burning palm.

The book whispered a reluctant apology.

She curled her fingers over her palm and knew the book had been right. “I need to read you.”

Yessss.

Sarah settled against the tree, opened the book, and was soon lost in the scribbled words. And as she did so, Sarah saw her town the way Charlotte Dove had seen it in 1702. Sarah saw Dove Pond being born and then growing one building at a time. She saw people who came and stayed. People who fell in love and married, had children and then grew old and died. She saw each and every moment Dove Pond had existed, even beyond the pages of the book, and as she read the journal, she realized that she lived in a place like no other.

It was there, under the dripping limbs of the weeping willow tree, on the grassy banks of Sweet Creek, and deep within the pages of her ancestor’s journal that Sarah May Dove fell in love with her hometown.

Later, when she was older and had time to think about it, she’d realize that was what the book had wanted all along. But at the time, she was merely lost to the drama, the excitement Charlotte Dove spilled onto the pages, and the beauty of the people who’d made Dove Pond live.

Sometime later, the screen door slammed. “Sarahhhhh!” Sarah’s oldest sister Madison, who was as bossy as she was long legged and tall, yelled again. “Dinnnnnerrrr!”

Sarah frowned and rubbed her eyes. How long had she been reading? It couldn’t have been long, because the book only had 87 pages and yet the sun was much lower than when she’d first sat down.

“Sarrrrahhhh!” Madison yelled again, more sharply this time. Sarah’s mom said something from inside the house and after a pause, Madison disappeared, the screen door slamming closed behind her. She’d be back, though. Madison wasn’t the sort of person who quit.

Sarah closed the book and hugged it against her chest. The words, invisible but vibrant, soaked through the cover. If she closed her eyes, she would see the story once again, as if she were still reading.

A faint breeze arose, rustling the grasses and lifting the scent of the damp evening air, fireflies just beginning to dance across the yard as if offering to lead her home.

Read the rest, the book demanded.

“I will,” Sarah said. “But after dinner when no one will bother me.” She picked up her bookbag and slipped the book inside and then stood, her legs stiff. “I promise.”

She couldn’t stop now and both she and the book knew it. Later, while everyone slept, she’d crawl deep under the covers with her flashlight and read until the middle of the night, devouring every last word the way a starving person would a meal, savoring each bite even while ripping furiously into the next one.

But for now, she shouldered her bookbag and slipped out of her hiding place into the cooling evening. With the book muttering irritably from her backpack, she followed the line of fireflies across the yard and went inside.

******

Grace

Whitlow, NC
The same day

“I’m a good girl. I’m a good girl. I’m a good girl.” Grace Michelle Wheeler whispered the words under her breath from where she sat beside her sister in the back of their case worker’s car. Grace said the words a lot, hoping against hope they’d come true. But somehow, they never did.

If Grace had been a good girl, her mother wouldn’t have left her and Hannah on the church steps and then run off with Jake, the greasy haired man from the corner Fast Mart who smelled like old burritos.

If Grace had been a good girl, neither she nor Hannah would be where they were now, sitting in the back of their caseworker’s car, on the way to yet another foster home.

If Grace had been a good girl, they’d never have to worry about food to eat, or a place to live.

Grace met Miss Wanda’s gaze in the rear-view mirror. The caseworker’s round, damp face puckered with disappointment. “You’re too old for such behavior. Why, you’re going to be in fifth grade next year.”

Grace jutted out her chin. “I’m not sorry.”

The caseworker flushed. “You should be! You have to do better. You have to.”

Grace knew she had to do better. But no matter how good she was, how careful she was, things happened. Things she couldn’t control. At the last place she got into a fistfight with the Henderson’s redheaded son Mark. If he’d made fun of her, she’d have ignored him, because she was used to that sort of thing. But this time, he’d been mean to Hannah and Grace had seen red.

Grace saw red a lot. Sometimes the color floated above her, not hot as she’d always thought red would be, but icy and frozen, a blast of frigid air waiting to drop on her head and freeze her in place mid-flight. And when it happened, when the red enveloped her and threatened to trap her in place, she fought, swinging hard fists and kicking with all of her might. This time, she’d smashed Mark’s fat nose until it bled. He’d sobbed like the stuffed marshmallow he was until his parents had come running and pulled her off him.

Through the fading haze, she’d heard Mark denying he’d done anything wrong. Grace had a history of lashing out, so she hadn’t offered a word to defend herself, knowing it would be useless. Besides, she couldn’t blame the Hendersons for taking their son’s word over hers. They were only doing what real parents were supposed to. She wasn’t surprised when they’d called Miss Wanda and demanded that Grace be moved to another home, although they hoped to keep Hannah.

Everyone wanted to keep sweet, blond-haired, blue-eyed Hannah, and no one wanted wild, brown-haired, green-eyed Grace. When Miss Wanda had explained that Grace and Hannah were sisters and had to be together, the Hendersons let them both go. And so, here they were. Homeless again.

The miles sped by out the car window, and Grace pressed her fist against her aching stomach. She knew what was ahead. There’d be another home with different rules from the last, rules she and Hannah were somehow already supposed to know. And another school with whispering girls and mocking boys who’d notice their chopped haircuts and hand-me-down clothes and would regard them as intruders. And teachers who would frown at such late, end-of-the-year transfers and shake their heads when they realized how far behind they both were. That was the price one paid for moving schools, being either too behind or too ahead. It was always one or the other. And being unaccepted was the price one paid for not already belonging. There was no cure for it. It was how it was, and how it would always be.

Suddenly tired, Grace leaned her head against the window and sat that Miss Wanda was looking through the rearview mirror at Hannah. The case worker’s face softened until it reminded Grace of fresh baked bread.

People always did that when they looked at Hannah. While Grace fought her way through life, her hair tangled and her fists tight, Hannah floated along on a silver cloud, her feet never muddy, her hair as silky smooth as her smile. She never allowed other people and their hard words to affect her. Grace was proud her little sister was able to keep the muck of their life from splattering onto her smiles.

For Grace, Hannah was everything. And so long as Hannah loved her, Grace would find the strength to deal with the rest of the stuff they had to put up with. They were a family, the two of them, and no one could change that. When Grace grew up, she’d take care of them both. She’d get a job, one with a desk and folders and Post-It Notes, and she and Hannah would have enough food and the best clothes and house that money could buy and they’d live together forever.

Miss Wanda turned the rusty Honda into a long, narrow dirt road. The car bumped along the drive, kicking up enough dust to dim the morning sun. When they reached the end of the road and parked, the dust settled around them, coating the car in a red haze.

Grace craned her neck to look out the window. A chipped, white painted house sat in a yard packed with flowers of every kind and color, captured in place by a crooked white picket fence. Three mutts pressed their noses through the slats, tongues lolling as they panted heavily.

Miss Wanda opened their door and then waddled to the trunk to get their duffle bags while Grace helped Hannah with her seatbelt. They climbed out of the car into the moist, humid air.

Grace held Hannah’s hand, which was hot and a little sticky from the peppermints Miss Wanda had given them when she’d first picked them up.

“Good lord!” Mrs. Wanda huffed as she hauled their duffle bags from her trunk. “Grace, what’s in your bag? It weighs a ton.”

Grace didn’t answer. Up until a year ago, everything she’d owned hadn’t been enough to fill her bag more than a third of the way full. But now it was stuffed with important things she’d started collecting for when she and Hannah had their first home. They weren’t new, but Grace would replace them after she got her first paycheck. Right now, inside the duffle bag were two mugs that were slightly stained, but almost like new, both rescued from a trashcan at school; two forks and spoons taken from a church dinner when no one was watching; and a dented pot she’d found in the weeds behind the parking lot while waiting for Mrs. Henderson to finish a meeting. There were other things, too – a forgotten beach towel she’d found in a moldy box in the Hendersons’ garage, a shiny canister that had once held dog biscuits but had been thrown out when the seal had stretched, and other items, all ready for when Grace was old enough to strike out on her own. She only wished that time was now.

Face red from exertion, Miss Wanda dropped the duffle bags beside the car and took a deep breath. “There. We’re unloaded.” She proffered another fake smile. “Smell that fresh air? This is much better than being in the city, isn’t it? I think you’ll like living with Mrs. Giano.”

Grace stared past her to the house which, despite the cacophony of flowers in the yard, had a tired, baked-in-the-sun air. “That’s not a house. It’s a shack.”

Miss Wanda flushed. “Grace Wheeler, you shut your mouth! Mrs. Giano may not be as well off as some of the other foster parents, but she has a sufficient income and is very good with the children she takes.” The caseworker hesitated and then added in a defensive tone, “I’ve known Mrs. Giano since I was a little girl. In fact, I’m the one who talked her into being a foster parent. We grew up in the same town, and while she may be a little different, she’s kind and smart and . . .” As Miss Wanda’s voice trailed off, her gaze moved to the house. After a moment, she added in a murmur as if talking to herself, “She’s special.”

Unimpressed, Grace looked at the yard where the flowers crowded toward the small house, as if trying to climb in. One vine had even managed to find a hold on the peeling paint of a clapboard wall, making it look like it was tapping on the window. The dogs panted loudly in the quiet, watching them through the cracks in the faded wood fence, their wagging tails stirring the flowers.

Everything was unfamiliar, and awkward, and new. Grace was tired of new. She wanted something familiar and comfortable, although right now, she couldn’t think of anything that was either of those. The urge to run shivered through her. “No. We don’t want to stay here.”

“Want? Lord, child, you’ll be lucky if you’re allowed to stay. Mrs. Giano’s very picky about who she takes.”

“She gets to pick?”

Miss Wanda cut Grace a hard look. “They all get to pick. Mrs. Giano only lets a very few, certain children stay. In fact, it’s been almost a year since she’s had any.” The caseworker eyed the open window before adding in a low voice, “We’re to go to the porch. Mrs. Giano will come and look at you there.”

Grace’s chest burned. She knew what Mrs. Giano would see and it wouldn’t be good, at least not for Grace. The red frost hovered overhead. The uncertainty made things worse, freezing her blood while angry, icy strands shot her body. “I don’t care if she looks at us.” Grace raised her voice. “I’m going to be looking at her, too. And I might not like her, so—”

Grace!” the caseworker hissed. “Stop it! If this doesn’t work, then—” Miss Wanda cast a meaning glance at Hannah.

The world stuttered to a sudden halt, cut in place like a too-sharp picture. Grace, still holding Hannah’s hand, choking out a ragged “No!”

Genuine pity flashed across Miss Wanda’s plump face, the tears in her eyes more frightening than anything she’d said. “I’m sorry, Grace, but that’s the way it is. And it’s your own fault. This is the third placement in less than a year. My supervisor has had it. I had to beg her to let us try this. This is your last chance”

Hannah looked up at Grace. “What does she mean?”

We’ll be separated. I’ll go to the group home, and you’ll be placed with a family, and we’ll never see each other except for holidays, if even then. And you’ll grow up without me and we’ll no longer feel like sisters even though we are. That’s what Grace should have said. She never lied to Hannah. You didn’t lie to the people you loved. But the horribleness of being away from Hannah froze Grace’s tongue and she could no more answer than she could think.

Her terror must have shown, for Hannah’s expression softened into a faraway look as if she had gone to a better place. Humming softly, Hannah began to turn away, her fingers slipping from Grace’s.

Loneliness swamped Grace and she gripped her sister’s hand tighter. “It will be fine,” she said desperately.

Hannah looked back at her, doubt clouding her usually clear blue eyes.

“I promise, Hannah.” Whatever happened, she would never part from Hannah. Never. I’ll be good. I’ll be good. I’ll be good. A huge pressure settled on her chest, the red net hanging so low that it fluttered over her, tugging painfully. Ignoring it, she looked Miss Wanda right in the eye. “Hannah and I will make Mrs. Giano like us.”

Relief flickered across the caseworker’s doughy face. “Good. That’s exactly what needs to happen. I’ll do what I can, but it’s really up to you.” Her gaze softened. “This is a wonderful home, although you’ll be changing schools again. Still, you can always make new friends, can’t you?”

It wasn’t a question, so Grace didn’t answer. She didn’t have friends. She had nothing in common with the girls in her classes. Their worlds consisted of things Grace had never known, things like birthday cakes, homes they were never forced to move from, and parents who loved them. They didn’t know or understand her world, what it felt like to go hungry, to be left alone for days at a time only to be placed into a foster system that tossed her about like a ball in a game. And she was fine with that because she had Hannah who was both Grace’s sister and her best friend. That was all she needed. Just Hannah.

“Let’s go, girls!” Miss Wanda smiled her too-sunny smile as she picked up the duffle bags, grimacing once more at the weight. She swung Hannah’s lighter bag over her shoulder and lumbered to the gate, the other bag bumping heavily against her shin. She flipped up the latch and opened the gate. “Go on in.”

The dogs crowded forward, tails wagging as Grace and Hannah walked past Miss. Wanda into the small yard. The caseworker closed the gate behind her and then led the way up the cracked concrete sidewalk to the porch, chatting breathlessly and exclaiming over Mrs. Giano’s excellent cooking and how much they’d like having so many pets.

Hannah released Grace’s hand, cooing at the dogs as she bent down to welcome wet kisses. She loved animals. At times, Grace wondered if her sister loved them more than people. Grace didn’t blame her if she did.

They climbed the stairs to the porch. It was a rickety place, the porch, but someone had tried to make it pretty. The wood slatted floor had been painted an ocean blue, and two white wicker chairs filled with plump, colorful pillows sat beneath a window. A small metal table stood between them and held two books, both of which had pages yellowed with age.

While Hannah continued to coo at the dogs, Grace wandered toward the books. She didn’t like to read, but as school detention often consisted of writing lines over and over while seated at a cubical in the school library, she’d seen the title of this one before. It was James and the Giant Peach. The second book was fatter, intimidatingly so, the words Little Women scrawled over the cover in gold, sweeping letters. Grace wondered how little the women were. Were they just short, or were they fairy-sized? She hoped they were fairy-sized.

Miss Wanda dropped the duffle bags onto the wood porch and fanned her red face with a limp hand. “Good God, Grace, your bag feels like you’ve got rocks in there. I—” She sniffed the air and instantly brightened. “Bacon! Mrs. Giano must be fixing breakfast."

Grace’s stomach growled, but she ignored it and picked up the fat book. She opened it and was surprised to find that it smelled like cake. She wished she could sit in one of these cushioned chairs and read the book about little, tiny women and their adventur—

The screen door banged open and Mrs. Giano stepped outside, the fattest cat Grace had ever seen following her.

Mrs. Giano was small and not so young, although her movements were quick like a wren’s. She wore a dress printed with so many flowers that if she’d fallen in her own yard, Grace didn’t think they would be able to find her.

“Good morning!” Miss Wanda pulled the book from Grace’s hand and put it back on the table and then collected Hannah. The caseworker pushed them in front of her, her hands as heavy as sandbags on their shoulders. “These are the girls I told you about. Girls, this is Mrs. Giano.”

The woman walked toward them, the smell of bacon and pancakes wafting with her. She was short with black hair so vivid it couldn’t be real, and piercing, dark eyes that seemed to see everything at once. Her cat walked with her, ignoring the dogs, who were now falling over themselves trying not to look at it. Apparently the dogs mistakenly believed the fat house cat was a lion in disguise.

“Good morning.” Mrs. Giano’s voice was as colorful as her clothing, syrup slow and rich. She stopped in front of them, hands folded, one brow lifted, no smile on her pointed face. “And what are your names?”

“This is Grace. She just turned ten. And this—“ Miss Wanda thrust Hannah slightly forward. “—is Hannah, who is seven years old.”

Mrs. Giano eyed Hannah for a long moment, and Grace waited for the inevitable gushing.

But instead, Mrs. Giano crossed her arms over her narrow chest, and said nothing.

Miss Wanda’s smile faltered, and she said in a hopeful voice, “Hannah is a wonderful child. Everyone says so. She’s never in trouble and has very good manners.”

Mrs. Giano bent to examine Hannah more closely.

Hannah returned the look, her distant smile never changing.

Mrs. Giano straightened. “Lord, child, but you are trouble, aren’t you?”

Miss Wanda’s eyed widened.

But Hannah’s smile just grew. “What’s your cat’s name?”

“Theo.”

“I want to pat him.” Hannah reached out her hand.

The cat arched, hissing.

Mrs. Giano didn’t look surprised. “Perhaps another time.”

Hannah shrugged and turned her attention back to the dogs.

Miss Wanda blinked rapidly. “Mrs. Giano, Hannah is never trouble. It’s Grace who—” The caseworker caught herself. “But she promises to be good this time. And she will, won’t you, Grace?”

Mrs. Giano’s dark gaze moved to Grace.

Grace lifted her chin and stared back, desperately wanting to say something smart or funny that would make this woman like her enough to let them stay. But the more Grace wanted it, the angrier she became.

She hated this.

Hated the feeling she needed food and a place to live.

That she had to beg to exist.

To even breathe.

The longer she and Mrs. Giano locked gazes, the madder Grace got, and the lower the red frost came.

“Stop staring like that!” Miss Wanda hissed, her hand tighter on Grace’s shoulder.

But Grace couldn’t. She was locked in battle, and she wouldn’t – couldn’t give up.

Something silky wrapped around her ankle. Startled, she looked down.

Theo blinked up at her, and she realized his eyes were green just like hers.

He butted his head against her ankle and purred loudly.

Mrs. Giano smiled. “He likes you.”

Grace didn’t know what to say. She watched the cat twisting around her leg, and she was afraid to pet it for fear it might hiss the way it had at Hannah.

“Mrs. Giano, please,” Miss Wanda said in a breathless desperate tone. “Give them a chance. I promise they’re both good girls. Grace just needs a steady home life and she’ll—”

Pssht. I can see the girl myself.” Mrs. Giano’s gaze moved from where Grace now patted Theo to the small table where the books rested. “I saw you with the book. So you like to read, do you?”

For a moment, Grace – so desperate for acceptance – thought about lying, but somehow Mrs. Giano’s gaze no longer felt so challenging. “I don’t like to read,” Grace said. “It’s hard sometimes.”

A sliver of a smile crossed Mrs. Giano’s narrow face. “You’ll get better with practice. I promise.”

I promise” the woman had said. That meant Grace would be around longer than ten minutes. A tiny sprout of hope bloomed into her heart, but the frosty haze over her head rippled a stern warning. She’d hoped before and it hadn’t helped. She knew from experience that hoping was dangerous and painful.

Don’t give in, she warned herself. Her jaw tightened, and she said in a sharp tone, “I might not ever like to read, even if I do practice.”

Miss Wanda puffed out a muted, anxious noise.

Mrs. Giano’s gaze narrowed and then slowly moved from Grace’s face to over her head. Mrs. Giano’s expression softened and she tsked. “That’s not good for such a little one, is it?”

Grace didn’t know what to say. No one had ever acknowledged the red frost that followed her. And certainly no one had looked worried about it. “It won’t leave.”

Mrs. Giano nodded slowly. “It will take some work, but we will make it go away.”

Miss Wanda frowned, obviously confused. “Mrs. Giano, what—”

“I’ll take them.”

Grace’s knees quivered, and her chest eased as air rushed in.

The cat meowed loudly, as if echoing his owner.

Miss Wanda said in a cautious tone, “Both of them?”

Mrs. Giano shot the caseworker a hard, impatient glance. “Of course, both.” She turned to Grace and Hannah. “You may call me Mama G. That is easier than Giano. Now, come in and have breakfast. I made scrambled eggs, bacon, and biscuits. All of us should eat, except—” She pointed a finger at one of the dogs. “—you. You stole some of my bacon from the counter, so you will eat last.”

The dog, a spotted mongrel with one ragged ear, didn’t seem surprised to have been singled out. In fact, Grace thought he looked almost embarrassed. Ears down, tail hesitantly wagging, he went to the end of the porch and lay down in a spot of sun as if resigned to his fate.

Inside, a bell dinged. “Ah. The biscuits are ready.”

As soon as Mama Giano mentioned ‘biscuits,’ the air was filled anew with the rich scent, as if it had been waiting inside for its cue. “I’d better get them before they burn. Come.” The screen door slammed behind the woman as she disappeared into the cool darkness of her home.

Theo, his green eyes locked on Grace’s face, wound back and forth around her legs as she stared at the door, her heart aching in a new, unfamiliar way. She wanted so badly to believe everything she’d seen so far. That this place might really be different. That she and Hannah had finally found a place to stay that would last longer than a few months.

Life had taught Grace that that was unlikely, even impossible, but her bones ached with how so, so much she wanted it to be true

“Well!” Miss Wanda puffed out a heavy sigh of relief. “That went better than I’d hoped, although—" Her gaze flickered to Hannah, and she seemed on the verge of blurting out something. But after a moment’s struggle, she shook her head and forced a bright smile. “I’ll get Hannah’s bag. Grace, you can carry yours.”

Grace left the cat and got her duffle bag, half dragging it beside her, the pot clanging against the cups. She moved slowly, lingering so that she was well behind Miss Wanda and Hannah.

As soon as the screen door slammed behind them, Grace dropped the bag and looked around. The stuffed-cushions chairs beckoned while the fluttering breeze played with the nodding flowers. The scent of bacon and biscuits made her stomach ache with something other than sadness.

The cat sauntered around the now-dozing dog and came to sit beside Grace. He leaned against her, warm and fluffy, his black silk fur soft against Grace’s leg. The slow twitch of his tail and the deep purr rumbling from his chest made the moment sweet.

Grace closed her eyes and lifted her face to the spill of sunlight that slanted under the porch roof. “We are going to be ok,” she whispered.

For once, she wasn’t saying it to make herself or Hannah feel better.

This time, she meant it.

Calm settled over Grace, unfamiliar and rare, yet as warm and comforting as a towel fresh from the dryer. It wrapped around her, easing her heart and softening her anger.

It would be years before she figured out what the delicious feeling was, but every day after, she would remember it as clearly as if it were still there. For it had been in that moment there, on the porch of Mama G’s small, weathered, clapboard house as it baked in the morning summer sun, a fat cat leaning against her leg, that Grace discovered what it felt like to come home.