RITA Finalist, RWA Top 10 Books of the Year
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In the Midnight Rain
LOOKING FOR THE PAST…
Ellie Connor is a biographer with a special talent for piecing together fragments of the past. Her latest project, though, promises to be her most challenging–and personal. Not only is she researching the life of a blues singer who disappeared mysteriously forty years ago, but Ellie is also trying to find the truth about the parents she never knew. The love child of a restless woman who died young and an anonymous father, Ellie has little to go on but a faded postcard her mother sent from a small East Texas town–the hometown of her latest subject.
COULD MEAN FINDING HER FUTURE
It is there that Ellie meets Blue Reynard, a man with deep roots and wide connections who may help her find answers. With a piercing gaze and cool grin, Blue is as sultry and seductive as the Southern night air. Beneath his charming surface, however, lies a soul damaged by loss. Despite her better judgment, Ellie finds herself irresistibly drawn to Blue’s passion–and his pain. But Ellie’s been lured by sweet talk and hot kisses before. How can she possibly stay with blue when every instinct tells her to run?
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
My grandmother has been telling me stories as along as I can remember, and the weft and warp of those stories was never woven in fairy tales or proverbs. Her method of instruction has always been tales of sin and redemption from real life–the triumphs and falls of women and men who were tempted and seduced by the wide array of sins–and how they paid if they fell, or how they triumphed if they resisted.
She never hurried through them–they’re laced with details as rich as one of her pecan pies–washed with a moody Southern quality and a thick kind of light. As a child, I loved doing any kind of kitchen chore with her because I knew she’d start telling stories. I lived for that sudden shift in her cornflower blue eyes, that slight unfocusing on the present as she looked the past and she would begin, “I remember when…”
Even better than the stories of sin and temptation, I loved the ones about people who had tried to do the right thing, and only made things worse. My grandma would say it was the finger of God, teaching a lesson, and we should be thankful, but I always privately wondered just exactly how you could manage to be thankful if God kept knocking you over with that finger.
There’s plenty of sin and redemption, temptation and triumph, in MIDNIGHT RAIN, which was born out of those long hours doing chores at my grandma’s side. Ellie Connor, tough and earnest, smart and vulnerable, arrives in the little East Texas town of Pine Bend to uncover the secrets of a mysterious and beautiful woman who disappeared more than a generation ago–and also do a little poking around about the mysteries of her own life. It’s there, in the sleepy, haunted little town that Ellie also finds Blue Reynard, a man as beautiful as he is lost, with a whisky-dark voice and a dangerously seductive understanding of the secrets of a woman’s heart. Blue is everything Ellie has vowed to avoid, and everything she can’t resist.
This is a story about community, about discovery and loss and the way we each find a way to get through those long rainy nights that fall in every life. It’s most especially a very sexy, emotional romance, and I hope you’ll enjoy as much I enjoyed writing it.
Oh, and by the way, Grandma makes an appearance. Bet you won’t have any trouble at all recognizing her.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Sometimes, when the wind was just right, she could hear the blues.
Once the rainy winter passed into spring, she liked to sit on her porch late at night, held in a kind of wonder beneath the moon and tall pines. She rocked in a cane-bottomed chair, smelling the green and copper moisture coming off the water, and she listened, nodding in time as cicadas and crickets whistled their song to the night. From the dark trees sometimes came the whirring, nearly silent beat of wings, followed by a swallowed screech of death, a sound not everyone could hear, but she did. She heard everything.
What she liked best was hearing the blues. The music sailed down the channel made by the river, ghostly guitar and haunted harmonica, even the hint of a man’s ragged voice. It came from Hopkins’ juke joint, upriver a mile or two on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River, and spilled with yellow light and blue cigarette smoke into a forest as dark as sin, as warm as a lover’s mouth. It floated toward her over the stillness hanging above the water. Sometimes she imagined they were playing it just for her.
She’d close her eyes and let that music creep under her skin, seep into her bones. She let a part of herself get up and dance while she rocked steady in her chair. Every so often, she let that ghost of herself sing along while she silently nodded her head to the beat. The slow, sexlike rhythm filled her with memories of a man’s low, dark laughter and a baby’s sweet cry; with the song of Sunday-morning church and the blaze of morning over the east Texas pines.
She rocked and danced, nodded and sang, and thought as long as she could die with the blues in her ears, everything would be all right.
The sky was overcast and threatening rain by the time Ellie Connor made it to Pine Bend at seven o’clock on a Thursday evening.
She was tired. Tired of driving. Tired of spinning the radio dial every forty miles—why did the preaching stations always seem to have the longest signal?—tired of the sight of white lines swooping under her tires.
She’d started out this morning at seven planning to arrive in Pine Bend by midafternoon in her unfashionable but generally reliable Buick. She’d had a cute little Toyota for a while, but her work often took her to small towns across America, and if there were problems on the road, she had discovered it was far better to drive American. Since she’d lost a gasket in the wilds of deepest Arkansas, this was the trip that proved the rule.
The gasket had delayed her arrival by three hours, but at last she took a right off the highway and drove through a small East Texas town that was closing itself down for the evening. She had to stop at a gas station to get directions to the house, but finally she turned onto a narrow road made almost claustrophobic by the thick trees that crept right up to its edge. It hadn’t been paved in a lot of years, and Ellie counted her blessings—at least she didn’t have to look at dotted lines anymore.
Something interfered with the radio, and she turned it off with a snap. “Almost there, darlin’,” she said to her dog April, who sat in the seat next to her.
April lifted her nose to the opening in the window, blinking against the wind, or maybe in anticipation of finally escaping the car. Half husky and half border collie, the dog was good-natured, eternally patient, and very smart. Ellie reached over to rub her ears and came away with a handful of molting dog fur.
As the car rounded a bend in the road, the land opened up to show sky and fields. A break in the fast moving clouds overhead suddenly freed a single flame of sunlight, bright gold against the purpling canvas of sky. Treetops showed black against the gold, intricately lacy and detailed, and for a minute, Ellie forgot her weariness. She leaned over the steering wheel, feeling a stretch along her shoulders, and admired the sight. “Beautiful,” she said aloud.
Ellie’s grandmother would have said it was a finger of God. Of course, Geraldine Connor saw the finger of God in just about everything, but Ellie hoped it was a good omen.
April whined, pushing her nose hard against the crack in the window, and Ellie took pity and pushed the button to lower the passenger-side glass. April stuck her head out gleefully, letting her tongue loll in the wind, scenting only heaven-knew-what dog pleasures on that soft air. Handicapped by human olfactory senses, Ellie smelled only the first weeds of summer and the coppery hints of the Sabine River that ran somewhere beyond the dense trees.
The road bent, leaning into a wide, long curve that ended abruptly in an expanse of cleared land. And there, perched atop a rise, was the house, an imposing and boxy structure painted white. Around it spread wide, verdant grass, and beyond the lawn, a collection of long, serious-looking greenhouses. Trees met the property in a protective circle, giving it the feeling of a walled estate. Roses in a gypsy profusion of color lined the porch and drive.
Ellie smiled. It was a house with a name, naturally: Fox River, which she supposed was a play on the name of the owner, Laurence Reynard.
Dr. Reynard, in fact, though she didn’t know what the doctorate was in. She knew little of him at all, apart from the E-mail letters she’d received and the notes he’d posted in a blues newsgroup. In those writings, he was by turns eccentric and brilliant. She suspected he drank.
She’d been corresponding with him for months about Pine Bend and Mabel Beauvais, a blues singer native to the town, a mysterious and romantic figure who was the subject of Ellie’s latest biography. Ellie had had some reservations about accepting Reynard’s offer to stay in his guest house while she completed her research, but the truth was, she did not travel without her dog, and it was sometimes more than a little difficult to find a rental that didn’t charge an arm and a leg extra for her.
As she pulled into the half-circle drive, however, Ellie’s reservations seeped back in. E-mail removed every gauge of character a body relied upon: you couldn’t see the shifty eyes or the poor handwriting or restless gestures that warned of instability. And arriving in the soft gray twilight put her at a disadvantage. She’d deliberately planned to get here in daylight in case the situation didn’t feel right, but that blown gasket had set her back too many hours. At the moment, she was too tired to care where she slept as long as her dog was in her room.
• • •
Pulling the emergency brake, she peered through the windshield at the wide veranda. Two men sat there, one white, one black. It hadn’t occurred to her that Reynard might be black, though thinking of it now, she realized it was perfectly possible. She gave the horn a soft toot—something she hadn’t done in years but that suddenly seemed right—and the white guy dipped his chin in greeting.
Ellie stepped out of the car and simply stood there a minute, relieved to change postures. The air smelled heavily of sweet magnolia and rose, thick and dizzying, a scent so blatantly sensual that she felt it in her lungs, on her skin. She breathed it in with pleasure as she approached the porch, brushing her hands down the front of her khaki shorts, trying to smooth the wrinkles out. “How you doing?” she said in greeting.
They both gave her a nod, but nobody jumped up to welcome her. Ellie hesitated, wondering suddenly if she had the address wrong or something.
A raggedy-looking mutt was not nearly as reserved as the men. It jumped up and barked an urgent alert. Anxious to make a pit stop, April started to follow Ellie out of the car, but Ellie said, “Stay,” and with a little whine, she did.
A low voice said, “Sasha, hush.” The dog swallowed the last bark and perched on the edge of the steps and waited for Ellie to come a little closer. Its tail wagged its whole rear end.
Ellie resisted the urge to fiddle with her hair. It was mussed and wild with humidity, but nothing short of a shower was going to fix it. She settled for shoving her sunglasses on top of her head, which drew the worst of it out of her face so she could at least see as she walked to the bottom of the steps and looked at the men in the low gray light, trying to decide if she had the right place.
The black man was the older of the pair, maybe in his mid-forties or a little more. Judging by the length of his legs, propped on the porch railing, he was tall, and his skin was the color of polished pecan. A neatly trimmed goatee with a few betraying curls of white framed a serious mouth. His eyes were large and still.
Ellie could imagine this face behind the notes Reynard had written.
But it was the other man who snared her attention. Darkness lay in the hollows below slashes of cheekbone, and along the fine line of his jaw; peered out from large eyes of a color impossible to determine in the low light. Her mind catalogued other details, his bare feet and worn jeans, the shadow of unshaved beard. His hair was thick and long, of indeterminate color. A skinny white cat sat serenely at his ankle.
Ellie looked from one to the other. “I give up,” she said. “Which of you is Dr. Reynard?”
The white man rose with a half smile. Ellie had the faint sense that she’d been tested, but also that she’d passed. “That would be me,” he said. “You must be Miz Connor.” It was a bourbon voice, smoky and gold and dangerous, and Ellie heard the unmistakable sound of money in the blurred Southern vowels. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Ellie took a breath against the sudden wish to stand straighter, toss her head, somehow be prettier. “You somehow don’t look the way I pictured you, Dr. Reynard, ” she said mildly.
“Call me Blue. Nobody calls me anything but Blue around here.” He inclined his head, and a wash of that thick, wavy hair touched his shoulder. “You’re not what I was expecting, either, to tell you the truth.”
“I’ll tell if you will.”
He paused, then gave her a slow grin, one that hid all the darkness and brought out the charm. “A woman named Ellie who writes biographies says middle-aged librarian to me.” The grin said he knew she’d forgive him.
“Ditto,” Ellie said. “A man who spends all his free time talking trash in blues newsgroups with a whisky at his elbow—I was thinking a Keith Richards lookalike. Middle-aged and worn out.”
A surprised chuckle rolled out of him. “Dissipated, maybe,” he said, lifting a finger. “Worn and ragged by hard living, definitely. But I don’t spend all my time on the computer. Just nighttime.”
The black man laughed softly. Ellie had forgotten he was there. Reynard gestured. “Miz Connor, this is Marcus Williams.”
Ellie nodded politely. “How do you do?”
He answered, “Just fine, thank you,” a Southernism she’d forgotten.
“Well,” Reynard said, straightening, “can I get you something? I have some sweet tea, maybe some lemonade, and”—he held up his tumbler with a sideways grin—”good Kentucky bourbon.”
“Much as I’d love to, I’m going to have to say no tonight. I’d just like to get settled.” From the car came a deep, pointed bark. Ellie glanced over her shoulder. “And my dog urgently wants to get out.”
“No need to make him suffer.” He gestured. “Go on and let him out.”
“She,” Ellie corrected automatically, and hesitated. “You sure?”
“She won’t cause any damage my own haven’t at some time or another.” April, as if overhearing the conversation, let loose another sharp alert. The mutt on the porch, unable to resist any longer, rushed down the steps and licked Ellie’s fingers. Reynard grinned. “Let your dog out, sugar, before she busts.”
“Thank you.” Ellie hurried back to the car, the mutt at her heels, and opened the door. “Come on, sweetie.” April leaped out and rushed to the grass to squat with an almost bashful look of relief on her face. To keep the mutt busy, Ellie rubbed her soft gold ears. “You’re kind of cute.”
From the porch, the black man snorted. “Ratdog.”
Ellie smiled over her shoulder. “She must belong to you, then, Dr. Reynard.”
“Marcus is a dog snob, that’s all. Don’t mind him.” He whistled softly, and the mutt ran full tilt up the stairs, halting barely in time to avoid smashing into his knees. He bent down to give her that hearty pat men seemed to always bestow on dogs. As if to claim his attention, the skinny white cat circled around his ankles and Reynard stroked her back absently.
Watching, Ellie felt a little of the vague tension in her ease. He didn’t appear to be unbalanced or particularly strange—it was probably safe enough. As if he noticed, Reynard straightened and eyed her, taking a swallow of the whisky in his hand. In the dusky stillness, ice clinked. “Now that your dog’s all right, are you sure you don’t want something to drink?”
His voice mesmerized her, that slow rolling depth, and it took a moment before she realized he’d asked her a question.
Which was answer enough in her mind. “No, thank you. Really.”
“I’ll get the key, then. If you want to drive on back down the road, I’ll meet you over there.” He pointed through the deepening gloom toward a path that seemed to lead to the greenhouses, which glowed a soft green against the twilight.
Ellie finally spied the small house set beneath a stand of live oak and loblolly pines. She clicked her tongue for her dog. “Nice to meet you,” she said to Marcus.
“Good luck with your biography.”
“He told you?”
“Mabel’s our only claim to fame, so we’re kind of proprietary.”
Ellie smiled. “I promise to do my best.”
“Can’t ask no more than that, I reckon.”
She whistled for April and got back in the car, only realizing as she drove that she was humming under her breath. “There’s a red house over yonder …” and her mind was playing it, the Jimi Hendrix version, threaded with that smoky sex sound that had made him such a god among women.
She rolled her eyes at her subconscious, which had an annoying habit of coughing up the most embarrassing, corny soundtrack for her life—like flying into LAX and finding herself humming “LA International Airport”—and made herself stop before he heard her.
Blue. She glanced in the rearview mirror. She wished his name were Laurence.
• • •
As he cut through the open meadow between the house and the old slave quarters, converted in the twenties to a guest house, Blue told himself it was liquor making his skin feel hot. He’d worked hard in the sun all day, the warmest they’d had so far. Probably had a little sunburn. And the bourbon on an empty stomach had gone to his head.
But as Ellie stepped out of the car at the guest house, he found his attention snared again. She was not his usual type. He liked soft, shapely blondes. Women who wore gauzy sundresses you could see through just a little bit. Women with easy laughter and soft edges and no causes to champion. The less serious the better.
Bimbos, Marcus called them. Blue preferred to think of them as easy to get along with.
Either way, Ellie Connor did not fit the profile. Small and too thin, with angles instead of softness, khaki shorts instead of floaty skirts, and curly black hair that fell in her face instead of that swing of blonde he found so appealing. From her posts, he’d known she was strong and smart and knew her mind, an impression reinforced now by the set of her chin and the sharp, no-nonsense way she met their eyes back there. It wouldn’t surprise him at all if she had a revolver in the glove box—she struck him as a woman who wouldn’t leave much up to fate.
But even she had to struggle, trying to lift a big suitcase out of the trunk.
Blue stepped forward. “Let me get that for you.”
He grabbed it while she picked up some other things and followed him to the porch, waiting behind him silently as he unlocked the door. Inside, he flipped on the lamp by the desk. “This is it. Small, but comfortable.”
She put a soft-sided case on the table. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and it sounded sincere.
“Thought you’d like it,” Blue said, shoving hair out of his eyes. “I took the liberty of dragging out some of the material we talked about”—he pointed to a neat stack of books and files on the desk—”and had Lanie—she’s my aunt, who lives with me—order some groceries to be delivered. She got most of the staples, coffee and milk and things, but if there’s something you don’t see, just holler. Nearest store is about five miles down the road, back the way you came.”
For a moment, she just looked around her. In a lazy way, he zeroed in on that mouth again. She might not be his type in a lot of ways, but that was one hell of a mouth. Bee-stung, his mama would have said.
The light was better in here, and he could see the exotic cast to her features, a faint tilt to her eyes, high cheekbones; together with all that glossy black hair it made him think maybe Russian or East European.
“Ah!” she said suddenly, and moved across the room to the counter, putting her hands on a CD player. “Excellent. I carry a portable with me, but this is much better.” She turned, and looked straight at him. “It’s really very nice of you to offer your hospitality this way,” she said, and a knowing glitter by her eyes. “Although I suspect you were drinking when you extended the invitation.”
Blue winced. “Guilty.” Not unusual of a late evening, which was when he generally signed on to the Internet, looking for a good argument. “How’d you know?”
“Your notes have a different tone. And you transpose letters.”
He crossed his arms, smiling to cover his discomfort. “Here I thought I was being so sly, and all the time, I might as well have been hootin’ in some club.”
“Not exactly. It was really just a guess.”
“Well, bourbon or not, I was sincere. The place is yours as long as you need it. I’m glad you’re doing the biography. It’s long overdue.”
“And whatever the circumstances, I’m grateful. I really hate looking for a place to keep April, and I won’t leave her in a kennel.”
At the sound of her name, the dog swept her tail over the hardwood floor. “That speaks well of you, Miz Connor.”
She looked at him, all calm sober eyes, and Blue looked back, and all the months of notes back and forth rose up between them. He’d liked her sharpness, a certain diffidence edged with wry humor. They’d stuck mainly to discussing the blues, but every so often, they’d go off on a sidetrack and he’d catch an intriguing glimpse of something more: a hint of anger, or maybe just passion, mixed in with the steadiness.
“It’s really a shock to see how different you are from how I imagined you,” he said impulsively.
Something flickered in her eyes, there and gone so fast he couldn’t really place it, before she tucked her hands in her back pockets and turned her face away. A sliver of gold light from the lamp edged her jaw, and Blue found himself thinking he liked that clean line. She had very fine skin. It made him think of the petals of an orchid in one of the greenhouses. “Ditto,” she said, and again raised her head and looked at him with that directness.
He wasn’t used to women who looked so straight at him.
As if she thought better of it, she moved to the table and unzipped the soft-sided case, revealing dozens of CDs in their plastic cases, and scooped up a handful. It was a restless gesture, the kind of thing a person did to fill up an awkward moment, and Blue realized he ought to take the hint and leave her to settle in.
But a person’s taste in music said more about them than they ever realized, and he couldn’t resist peeking into the case. “What do you have here?” He pointed. “Mind if I look?”
“No. Of course not.”
The CDs were piled in a jumble. “They have cases now that’ll stack ’em up for you.”
She made a rueful noise. “Yes, but they don’t carry enough.” She smiled at him, a quick bright flash. “I need my dog and my CDs to feel secure.”
He lowered his head, oddly unsettled. He looked at the titles, wondering if he really wanted to know that much more about her, but he didn’t stop sorting through them. Blues, of course. He tsked and took out a Lightnin’ Hopkins recording, shaking his head.
She plucked it out of his hands. “You’ve made your feelings plain about the Delta style, Dr. Reynard. Unhand my classics.”
He grinned. They’d had quite an argument about various styles. Blue didn’t like the tinny sound of Delta, and she didn’t care for jazz, which he considered just short of sacrilege. “Gonna have to turn you on to some good jazz, darlin’,” he murmured, and bent back to the case.
Besides the blues, there was a huge variety. A little alternative rock and roll, some country he thought of as “story” songs, some classical. “Baroque, huh?” he said, pulling out a couple of cases from that period and flipping them over to look at the lists.
A flicker of surprise crossed her face. “You like it?”
“You sound surprised, sugar.” He tossed the CDs back, the unsettled feeling growing along the back of his neck. “A man might say the same about you. Never saw you in the other music newsgroups.”
“Do you visit others?”
“Some.” That made him think about her comments on his drinking when he posted. Embarrassing. “Well,” he said, straightening. “I guess I’ll leave you alone. In the morning, I’ll be glad to take you around town—show you where the library is, and introduce you to some of the folks who might have some stories to tell.”
“You don’t have to put yourself out, Dr. Reynard.”
“Blue,” she repeated. “I’m sure I can find my way around.”
“I’m sure you can. But things’ll go better if you let me take you.” He lifted a shoulder. “It’s a small town.”
Still, she hesitated. Then, “All right. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” he said. On the way out, he paused to scratch April’s ear.
Out in the night, with lightning bugs winking all through the grass, Blue stopped, feeling a little off-balance. He put a hand to his ribs and took in some air, then blew it out and shook his shoulders a little. In his mind’s eye, he saw the bubiging, soft-sided case and the big, well-trained dog. Security, she’d said. Music and a dog. Security for Miss Ellie Connor with the tough set of her shoulders and her head-on way of looking at him.
He shook his head. Probably just a case of the girls looking prettier at closing time. He needed some food, some sleep. But when he stepped back up on the porch, he said, “She’s not just into the blues. She’s got classical in there. And REM. Even some Reba McEntire.”
Marcus nodded and wordlessly handed him a fresh glass of bourbon, an offering of solace.
Blue drank it down, taking refuge in the burn, then poured another and put the bottle down on the wooden floor of the porch. After a long space of time, filled only with the lowering depths of the night and the faint squeak of the porch swing, he rubbed his ribs again.
“Not one of your bimbos there, that’s for sure,” Marcus said.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Hell of a mouth.”
“Yep.” Blue drank.
A dark, rolling laugh boomed into the quiet. “Oh, how the mighty do fall!”
“Not my type.”
“Mmmm. I saw that.” Marcus stood and put his glass on a wicker table. He pulled his keys out of his pocket. “I think I’ll go curl up with my woman.”
“Hell with you, Marcus.”
Laughter was the only reply.
“A beautifully told story that explores the importance of family and the healing power of love.”
“A magnificent story as warm and rich as a southern night.”
“Intriguing and absorbing.”