It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me a review copy.***
“Shar” grew up in western Michigan and graduated from Spring Arbor University with a degree in education. She traveled the world with a musical group before returning home to marry Cecil MacLaren whom she’d known since childhood. Together they raised two daughters (and now have three grandchildren). As retirement approached, Shar asked God for a new mission that would fill her heart with the same kind of passion she’d felt for teaching and raising her family. She found her mission in Christian fiction writing, crafting plotlines that bring her characters face-to-face with God’s grace and restorative power. Since 2007 she’s released nine successful books – two historical series and three stand-alone contemporary novels – that have earned her numerous awards and an ever-increasing base of loyal readers who are comforted, inspired, and entertained by her books.
Visit the author’s website.
Life is far from a breeze for Olivia Beckman, owner of Livvie’s Kitchen, a favorite of locals in Wabash, Indiana. It’s the 1920’s and the widowed mother of two is struggling to make ends meet—no simple feat when her cook turns in his resignation. A late night patron soon solves the problem, though. Looking for work and carrying his only earthly possessions — a harmonica and a Bible — Will Taylor is an experienced cook eager for work. What Will doesn’t share is that his experience comes from ten years working behind bars in the prison cafeteria. He manages to bake his way into the stomachs of his customers—and into Livvie’s heart as well. Both Livvie and Will are hesitant, though, bearing deep wounds from the past. A recipe for love between them will require sharing secrets, braving dangers, and believing God for a bright future.
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (July 5, 2011)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
“Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song.”
Smoke rings rose and circled the heads of Charley Arnold and Roy Scott as they sat in Livvie’s Kitchen and partook of steaming coffee, savory roast beef and gravy, and conversation, guffawing every so often at each other’s blather. Neither seemed to care much who heard them, since the whole place buzzed with boisterous midday talk. Folks came to her restaurant to fill their stomachs, Livvie Beckman knew, but, for many, getting an earful of gossip was just as satisfying.
Behind the counter in the kitchen, utensils banged against metal and pots and pans sizzled and boiled with steam and smoke. “Order’s up!” hollered the cook, Joe Stewart. On cue, Livvie carried the two hamburger platters to Pete and Susie Jones’s table and set them down with a hasty smile. Her knee-length, floral cotton skirt flared as she turned, mopping her brow and blowing several strawberry blonde strands of damp hair off her face, and hustled to the counter. “You boys put out those disgusting nicotine sticks,” she scolded Charley and Roy on the run. “How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t allow smoking in this establishment? We don’t even have ashtrays.”
“Aw, Livvie, how you expect us t’ enjoy a proper cup o’ coffee without a cigarette?” Charley whined to her back. “’Sides, ar’ saucers work fine for ashtrays.”
“Saucers are not ashtrays,” stated old Evelyn Garner from the booth behind the two men. She craned her long, skinny neck and trained her owl eyes on them, her lips pinched together in a tight frown. Her husband, Ira Garner, had nothing to say, of course. He rarely did, preferring to let his wife do the talking. Instead, he slurped wordlessly on his tomato soup.
Livvie snatched up the next order slip from the counter and gave it a glance. Then, she lifted two more plates, one of macaroni and cheese, the other of a chicken drumstick and mashed potatoes, and whirled back around, eyeing both men sternly. “I expect you to follow my rules, boys”—she marched past them—“or go next door to Isaac’s, where the smoke’s as thick as cow dung.”
Her saucy remark gave rise to riotous hoots. “You tell ’em, Liv,” someone said—Harv Brewster, perhaps? With the racket of babies crying, patrons chattering, the cash register clinking as Cora Mae Livingston tallied somebody’s order, the screen door flapping open and shut, and car horns honking outside, Livvie couldn’t discern who said what. Oh, how she wished she had the funds to hire a few more waitresses. Some days, business didn’t call for it, but, today, it screamed, “Help!”
“You best listen, fellas. When Livvie Beckman speaks, she means every word,” said another. She turned at the husky male voice but couldn’t identify its source.
“Lady, you oughtta go to preachin’ school,” said yet another unknown speaker.
“She’s somethin’, ain’t she?” There was no mistaking Coot Hermanson’s croaky pipes. Her most loyal customer, also the oldest by far, gave her one of his famous, toothy grins over his coffee cup, which he held with trembling hands. No one really knew Coot’s age, and most people suspected he didn’t know it, himself, but Livvie thought he looked to be a hundred; ninety-nine, at the very least. But that didn’t keep him from showing up at her diner on Market Street every day, huffing from the two-block walk, his faithful black mongrel, Reggie, parked on his haunches under the red and white awning out front, waiting for his usual handout of leftover bacon or the heels of a fresh-baked loaf of bread.
Before scooting past him, she stooped to tap him with her elbow. “I’ll be right back to fill that coffee cup, Coot,” she whispered into his good ear.
He lifted an ancient white eyebrow and winked. “You take your time, missy,” he wheezed back before she straightened and hurried along.
Of all her regulars, Coot probably knew her best—knew about the tough façade she put on, day in and day out; recognized the rawness of her heart, the ache she still carried from the loss of her beloved Frank. More than a year had come and gone since her husband’s passing, but it still hurt to the heavens to think about him. More painful still were her desperate attempts to keep his memory alive for her sons, Alex and Nathan. She’d often rehash how she’d met their father at a church picnic when the two were only teenagers; how he’d enjoyed fishing, hunting, and building things with his bare hands; and how, as he’d gotten older, his love of the culinary arts had planted within him a seed of desire to one day open his own restaurant. She’d tell them how they’d worked so hard to scrimp and save, even while raising a family, and how thrilled Frank had been when that dream had finally come to fruition.
What she didn’t tell her boys was how much she struggled to keep her passion for the restaurant alive in their daddy’s absence. Oh, she had Joe, of course, but he’d dropped the news last week that he’d picked up a new kitchen job in a Chicago diner—some well-known establishment, he’d said—and he could hardly have turned it down, especially with his daughter and grandchildren begging him to move closer to them. Wabash had been home to Joe Stewart since childhood, but his wife had died some five years ago, and he had little to keep him here. It made sense, Livvie supposed, but it didn’t make her life any easier having to find a replacement.
She set down two plates for a couple she’d never seen before, a middle-aged man and his wife. Strangers were always passing through Wabash on their ways north or south, so it wasn’t unusual for her not to know them. “You folks enjoy your lunch,” she said with a smile.
“Thank you kindly,” the man said, licking his lips and loosening his tie. “This meal looks mighty fine.”
Livvie nodded, then made for the coffeepot behind the counter, sensing it was time for a round of refills.
A cloud of smoke still surrounded Charley and Roy’s table, though their cigarettes looked to be nearing their ends. She decided not to mention anything further about their annoying behavior unless they lit up again. Those fools had little compunction and even less consideration for the feelings of others. She would have liked to ban them from her restaurant, if it weren’t for the revenue they brought in with their almost daily visits. Gracious, it cost an awful lot to keep a restaurant going. She would sell it tomorrow if she had a backup plan, but she didn’t. Besides, Frank would bust out of his casket if she hung a “For Sale” sign on the front door. The diner had been his dream, one she’d adopted with gusto because she’d loved him so much, but she hadn’t envisioned his leaving her in the thick of it before they’d paid off their mortgage on the three-story building and turned a good profit on the restaurant.
Oh, why had God taken Frank at such a young age? He’d been thirty-one, married for ten years and a restaurant owner for five. Couldn’t God have intervened and sent an angel just in time to keep Frank from stepping in front of that horse-drawn wagon hauling furniture? And why, for mercy’s sake, did the accident have to occur right in front of the restaurant, drawing a huge crowd and forever etching in her mind’s eye the sight of her beloved lying in the middle of the street, blood oozing from his nose and mouth, his eyes open but not really seeing? Coot often told her that God had her best interests in mind and that she needed to trust Him with her whole heart, but how could she, when it seemed like few things ever went right for her, and she had to work so hard to stay afloat? Goodness, she barely had a minute to spare for her own children.
Swallowing a sigh, she hefted up the coffeepot, which had finished percolating, and started the round of refills, beginning with Coot Hermanson.
Will Taylor ground out his last cigarette with the sole of his worn shoe as he leaned against the wall of the train car, his head pounding with every jolt, the whir and buzz of metal against metal ripping through his head. He stared down at his empty pack of Luckies and turned up his mouth in the corner, giving a little huff of self-disgust. He didn’t really smoke—not anymore. But, when he’d left Welfare Island State Penitentiary in New York City in the wee hours of the morning, one of the guards had handed him a fresh pack, along with the few belongings he had to his name, and he’d smoked the entire thing to help pass the time.
Sharing the mostly empty freight car with him were a dozen or so other men, the majority of whom wore unkempt beards, ragged clothing, and long faces. They also stank to the heavens. He figured he fit right in with the lot of them. Frankly, they all looked like a bunch of bums—and probably were, for that matter. Why else would they have jumped aboard the freight car at various stations while the yardmen had their backs turned instead of purchasing a ticket for a passenger car? Will had intended to pay his fare, and he’d even found himself standing in the queue outside the ticket booth, but when he’d counted his meager stash of cash, he’d fallen out of line. Thankfully, the dense morning fog had made his train-jumping maneuver a cinch. If only it could have had the same effect on his conscience. He’d just been released from prison. Couldn’t he get through his first day of freedom without breaking the law?
“Where you headed, mister?” the man closest to him asked.
He could count on one hand the number of minutes anybody on that dark, dingy car had spent engaged in conversation in the hours they’d been riding, and he didn’t much feel like talking now. Yet he turned to the fellow, anyway. “Wabash, Indiana,” he answered. “Heard it’s a nice place.”
Actually, he knew nothing about it, save for the state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which spoke about the river running through it. He’d determined his destination just that morning while poring over a map in the train station, thinking that any other place in the country would beat where he’d spent the last ten years. When he’d overheard someone mention Wabash, he’d found it on the map and, knowing it had its own song, set his mind on going there.
He didn’t know a soul in Wabash, which made the place all the more appealing. Best to make a fresh start anonymously. Of course, he had no idea what he’d do to make a living, and it might be that he’d have to move on to the next town if jobs there were scarce. But he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
His stomach growled, so he opened his knapsack and took out an apple, just one of the few items he’d lifted from the jail kitchen the previous night—with the approval of Harry Wilkinson, the kitchen supervisor. The friends he’d made at Welfare Island were few, as he couldn’t trust most folks any farther than he could pitch them, but he did consider Harry a friend, having worked alongside him for the past four years. Harry had told him about the love of God and convinced him not six months ago to give his heart over to Him, saying he’d need a good friend when he left the island and could do no better than the Creator of the universe. Will had agreed, of course, but he sure was green in the faith department, even though he’d taken to reading the Bible Harry had given him—his first and only—almost every night before laying his head on his flat, frayed pillow.
“Wabash, eh?” the man said, breaking into his musings. “I heard of it. Ain’t that the first electrically lighted city in the world? I do believe that’s their claim to fame.”
“That right? I wouldn’t know.”
“What takes you to Wabash?” he persisted, pulling on his straggly beard.
Will pulled on his own thick beard, mostly brown with some flecks of blond, briefly wondering if he ought to shave it off before he went in search of a job. He’d seen his reflection in a mirror that morning for the first time in a week and had nearly fallen over. In fact, he’d had to do some mental calculations to convince himself that he was actually thirty-four years old, not forty-three. Prison had not been kind to his appearance; where he’d slaved under the hot summer sun, digging trenches and hoeing the prison garden, and spent the winters hauling coal and chopping logs. While the work had put him in excellent shape physically, the sun and wind had wreaked havoc on his skin, freckling his nose and arms and wrinkling his forehead. When he hadn’t been outside, he’d worked in a scorching-hot kitchen, stirring kettles of soup, peeling potatoes, cutting slabs of beef, filleting fish, and plucking chickens’ feathers.
“Wabash seemed as good a place as any,” he replied after some thought, determined to keep his answers short and vague.
The fellow peered at him with arched eyebrows. “Where you come from, anyway?”
A chuckle floated through the air but quickly drowned in the train’s blaring whistle. The man dug into his side pocket and brought out a cigar, stuck it in his mouth, and lit the end, then took a deep drag before blowing out a long stream of smoke. He gave a thoughtful nod and gazed off. “Yeah, I know. Me, too.” Across the dark space, the others shifted or slept, legs crossed at the ankles, heads bobbing, not seeming to care about the conversation, if they even heard it.
Will might have inquired after his traveling companion, but his years behind bars had taught him plenty—most important, not to trust his fellow man, and certainly never to divulge his personal history. And posing questions to others would only invite inquiries about himself.
He chomped down his final bite of apple, then tossed the chiseled core onto the floor, figuring a rodent would appreciate it later. Then, he wiped his hands on his pant legs, reached inside his hip pocket, and pulled out his trusty harmonica. Moistening his lips, he brought the instrument to his mouth and started breathing into it, cupping it like he might a beautiful woman’s face. Music had always soothed whatever ailed him, and, ever since he’d picked up the skill as a youngster under his grandfather’s tutelage, he’d often whiled away the hours playing this humble instrument.
He must have played half a dozen songs—“Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” “Over There,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Sidewalks of New York,” and even “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”—before the shrill train whistle announced their arrival in Wabash. Another stowaway pulled the car door open a crack to peek out and establish their whereabouts.
Quickly, Will stuffed his mouth organ inside his pocket, then stretched his back, the taut muscles tingling from being stationary for so long. At least his pounding headache had relented, replaced now by a mess of tangled nerves. “Reserved excitement” is how he would have described his emotion.
“Nice playin’,” said a man whose face was hidden by the shadow of his low-lying hat. He tipped the brim at Will and gave a slow nod. “You’ve got a way with that thing. Almost put me in a lonesome-type mood.”
“Thanks. For the compliment, I mean. Sorry ’bout your gloomy mood. Didn’t mean to bring that on.”
“Ain’t nothin’. I been jumpin’ trains fer as long as I can remember. Gettin’ the lonelies every now and again is somethin’ to be ’spected, I s’pose.”
“That’s for sure,” mumbled another man, sitting in a corner with his legs stretched out. Will glanced at the sole of his boot and noticed his sock pushing through a gaping hole. Something like a rock turned over in his gut. These guys made a habit of hopping on trains, living off handouts, and roaming the countryside. Vagabonds, they were. He hoped never to see the inside of another freight car, and, by gum, he’d make sure he didn’t—with the Lord’s help, of course. He had enough money to last a couple of weeks, so long as he holed up someplace dirt-cheap and watched what he spent on food. He prayed he’d land a job—any job—in that time. He wouldn’t be choosy in the beginning; he couldn’t afford to be. If he had to haul garbage, well, so be it. He couldn’t expect to do much more than that, not with a criminal record. His hope was that no one would inquire. After all, who but somebody downright desperate would hire an ex-con? Not that he planned to volunteer that bit of information, but he supposed anybody could go digging if they really wanted to know.
He hadn’t changed his name, against Harry’s advice. “I’m not going to run for the rest of my life, Harry,” he’d argued. “Heck, I served my time. It’s not that I plan to broadcast it, mind you, but I’m not going to carry the weight of it forever, either. I wasn’t the only one involved in that stupid burglary.” Though he did shoulder most of the responsibility for committing it. The others had left him to do most of the dirty work, and they’d run off when the law had shown up.
Harry had nodded in silence, then reached up to lay a bony hand on Will’s hulking shoulder. Few people ever laid a hand on him and got away with it, so, naturally, he’d started to pull away, but Harry had held firm, forcing Will to loosen up. “You got a good point there, Will. You’re a good man, you know that?” He hadn’t known that, and he’d appreciated Harry’s vote of confidence. “You just got to go out there and be yourself. Folks will believe in you if you take the first step, start seeing your own self-worth. The Lord sees it, and you need to look at yourself through His eyes. Before you know it, your past will no longer matter—not to you or to anyone else.”
The train brakes screeched for all of a minute, with smoke rising up from the tracks and seeping in through the cracks of the dirty floor. Will choked back the burning residue and stood up, then gazed down at his strange companions, feeling a certain kinship he’d never expected. “You men be safe, now,” he said, passing his gaze over each one. Several of them acknowledged him with a nod, but most just gave him a vacant stare. The fellow at the back of the car who’d spent the entire day sleeping in the shadows finally lifted his face a notch and looked at him—vigilantly, Will thought. Yet he shook off any uneasiness.
The one who’d first struck up a conversation with him, short-lived as it had been, raised his bearded chin. The two made eye contact. “You watch yourself out there, fella. You got to move fast once your feet hit that dirt. Anybody sees you jumpin’ off is sure to report you, and if it’s one of the yardmen, well, you may as well kiss your hiney good-bye. They got weapons on them, and they don’t look kindly on us spongers.”
“Thanks. I’ll be on guard.” Little did the man know how adept he was at handling himself. The years he’d served in the state pen had taught him survival skills he hoped never to have to use in the outside world.
When the train finally stopped, he reached inside his shirt pocket and peeked at his watch, which was missing its chain. Ten minutes after seven. He pulled the sliding door open just enough to fit his bulky body through, then poked his head out and looked around. Finding the coast clear, thanks to a long freight train parked on neighboring tracks, he gave the fellows one last nod, then leaped from the car and slunk off into the gathering dusk, his sack of meager possessions slung over his shoulder.
First item on his short agenda: look for a restaurant where he could silence his grumbling stomach.