Stephanie Wells Mason

Romance Author

First Chapter

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Enjoy the Prologue and First Chapter of On the Way Home, a beautiful new LDS romance, available now from Eagle Gate, a Deseret Book imprint

On the Way Home

By

Stephanie Wells Mason

Prologue

February 18, 2000

London Elliot tried to open her eyes to make sense of the noise and flashing lights. Everything around her was so chaotic and she felt so dazed. She heard voices close by, but the words made no sense.

“Are you getting a heartbeat from him yet?”

“No. Try it again.”

“Anything?”

“Nothing. I think it’s too late.”

“Guy didn’t stand a chance. Too much damage.”

Nothing made sense. London focused on the sounds, spinning up and then down, up and then down again. Where was it coming from? Why wouldn’t it stop? She couldn’t focus enough to tell what was happening.

“Brock . . . ?” She called out. Her voice was faint. “Marty . . . where’s Corkie . . . ?”

She tried to relax, to remember where she was and how she had gotten there. Maybe that would help to clear her head.

A conversation came to her mind. It must have just happened this evening.

“Kids, go get in the car. We’re going out!” Brock had shouted as he rushed in the house after work, a smile from ear to ear.

“Wow, you look happy. What’s up?” London had come in the front room, drying her hands on a dishtowel.

“We did it, London. We got the school-district contract. And a promotion to go with it! We’re celebrating. Get your shoes on, and let’s go.”

“I’m so proud of you!” She had walked forward and wrapped her arms around Brock’s neck, kissing him good and hard to show how proud she was. She knew how hard he had worked for this deal. A promotion meant a raise. Which meant getting a new car. No more paying for repairs on their twelve-year-old van. Maybe they could start saving for a real vacation.

“So where are we going tonight, Mr. Elliot?” she asked.

“Chen’s for dinner!” He kissed her back with a long embrace.

She could still remember the warmth of his breath and the thought that things were looking up for them.

It was snowing when they left home. Light snow sat on drifts that already lined the highway. The snow had begun to melt during the day, and the roads had been cleared. But a new storm had moved in suddenly, as was often the case in February. The roads would soon be snow-packed again, crews plowing through the night. She thought of the white blanket of snow muffling the sounds of semi-trucks traveling the dark roads.

They’d chosen to go to Columbia Falls instead of staying in Kalispell. Chen’s was a small Thai restaurant—Brock’s favorite.

But where was she now? London tried again to open her eyes and saw red lights spinning. She couldn’t move, but still didn’t understand why. She felt fuzzy, like things were happening around her, but as if she wasn’t really there.

Again she called out. “Brock . . . I can’t move. Brock?”

A soothing voice was next to her. “Just relax, Mrs. Elliot. We’re going to get you some help really soon. Just lie still.”

She was confused. “My kids . . . Brock? Where are my kids?”

“They’re fine, Mrs. Elliot. Take it easy. There’s been an accident. We’re going to put this IV in your arm and get you to the hospital.”

Accident? The word triggered a memory. She drew in a breath that brought a sharp pain to her chest. Bright headlights. Too bright, and coming fast. Then the car twisting, sliding. She’d screamed.

After that, there was only darkness.

The memory settled on her, blotting out the sirens and the flashing lights. She felt cold and alone. Still she couldn’t move.

At that moment a small voice called out from the darkness. “Mommy?”


Chapter 1

January 16, 2003

London flung her arm over and slammed her hand on the snooze button—horrible sound. One she dreaded every day. After a few minutes of fighting her desire for sleep, she managed to slowly pry her eyelids apart and tried to focus on the red numbers inches from her face: 3:02. Eight more minutes wouldn’t hurt anyone. But no matter how she longed for sleep to come again, the eight minutes before the dreaded beeping was lost to worries and anxiety over the coming day. Work. Kids. Bills. It was always the same. As she lay there for the last warm minutes of the morning, she knew it probably always would be like this.

Kicking back the heavy quilt, and fumbling her way to the pile of clothes left from the previous day, she shivered as she reached for an over-sized sweatshirt. The furnace had yet to come on, and the house was down to a chilly 58 degrees. It was a rude awakening, but the money saved on the heating bill was worth a few minutes of shivering. Besides, as soon as she stepped out the door, the shivering would only get worse.

With the sweatshirt over her flannel pajamas, she grabbed two pairs of socks and headed to the bathroom. She paused to peek in the small pink bedroom. The nightlight still glowed, casting a faint light on the dark curls splayed out on the pillow. The sleeping girl was the image of her mother, with the same dark, curly hair, translucent white skin, and blue eyes. Her expression looked serious, even with her eyes closed. After tiptoeing quietly across the room, she bent and kissed the soft cheeks of her twelve-year-old daughter. “Bye, Sweetie. I’m leaving. The phone is right here. Call if you need me.”

“Okay, Mom,” came the sleepy voice as she faintly stirred.

London pulled the covers up around the angelic face and tucked them tighter around Marty’s shoulders, trying to keep the chill of the room from intruding on her slumber. “I love you, honey.”

“Hmm, love you too, Mom.” Another half-coherent response. Then, as though just recognizing the source of the voice that so lovingly whispered to her, she opened her eyes briefly and said with a little more zeal, “Drive carefully!”

“I always do, love. Just for you.”

The sky was brilliant with stars. Few nights were as clear as this one. At times the clear winter nights of northern Montana displayed the galaxy and all its brilliance as precisely as a telescope. Other times, the midnight sky was as pink as a sunset, the low clouds reflecting every light from the world below. The new moon was invisibleand the night was dark and cold.

London sat in the van, engine idling, waiting for a hole to melt through the heavy frost coating the windshield. 3:18. Still plenty of time to get to work.

I just hope they aren’t late today, she thought. She hated it when the papers were late. It threw off her schedule for the whole day, sending her scrambling around, trying to get lunches made before driving the kids to school. Making them late again. They hated being late. Their teachers had already sent home notices about their regular tardiness, and the principal had requested a conference with London.

She knew she should talk with him, but under the circumstances, she could hardly tell him the truth. The school would probably turn her over to Child Protective Services for leaving Marty and Corkie alone in the middle of the night. But what else could she do? She had to work. At least this allowed her to be there when the kids got home from school, and she could be available in the day for the occasional school field trips or to care for them when they were sick. She didn’t have to call a boss to take the day off. She could be a real stay-at-home-mom. They needed her there, and she wanted more than anything to be there for them.

Slowly she backed out of her parking spacein the alley behind her small rental house. The ice crunched loudly under her tires. She hoped the neighbors were sound asleep and couldn’t hear the car or be bothered by the headlights. There wasn’t much space in the narrow alley between the six-foot piles of snow left from the plow, and the smaller piles she’d created clearing her parking space. It made maneuvering somewhat tricky, and she was careful not to back into one of the hardened piles, which would take out a tail light. After a lifetime of winters in Montana, she was accustomed to the tight spaces left after the heavy snows and had become an expert at turning—or rather, sliding—to avoid accumulated snow and ice.

There was something strange about being out in the middle of the night: the unusual stillness, the deafening quiet. The world was asleep under a blanket of snow. It was peaceful. A calm before the storms of the day. And while the world slept, London worked.

She had been delivering papers for ten months now. She’d started early April, when spring was supposed to be around the corner, but still had a long way to go before it reached Kalispell. The nights were still cold then, the frost often covered the ground. Mud, so thick in the daytime, inevitably ended up caked on the children’s shoes as they played on the school field, became hardened mounds during the night. At least the majority of the ice had melted by April, and the roads were clear, with the promise of warmer days to come.

The summer months had been more tolerable. By 4 a.m. the northern sun was lighting the sky, which made delivering papers go faster. London always loved seeing the first orange rays sneak from behind the majestic peaks of Glacier National Park, telling her it was going to be a great day. The summer months allowed London the luxury of walking some of her routes, or even running, after she got back into shape.

But it was still January, so she sat huddled in her fifteen-year-old mini-van with the defrost on, blowing frigid air while her numb fingers steered toward the paper dock of the Kalispell Chronicle.

She didn’t regret her choice to take this job, no matter how much she hated it. In fact, she considered it a blessing to have a job that allowed her to be with her children and keep them out of daycare. She’d been down that route when Brock had first been killed. The kids had been miserable.

The shock of Brock’s death had taken a toll on all of them. They had planned to invest in life insurance just as soon as they could afford it, to be better prepared for emergencies. They just hadn’t planned on needing it so soon. There were so many places for Brock’s paycheck to go: rent, groceries, gas, utilities, car insurance. There never seemed to be enough left to even spend on a date or buying some sorely needed clothes. They managed, but that was all.

On the rare occasions when London and Brock had been able to sit and talk without the children interrupting, they had dreamed of the day when they could take a real vacation. Disneyland, maybe, or the beach on the Oregon Coast. Just the idea of going grocery shopping and buying a few extra treats without having to worry about the cost would have seemed like heaven. They didn’t live extravagantly and weren’t looking to. They just wanted to live with a few more comforts and a small cushion for security. It seemed they were forever working toward that goal. And now that Brock was gone, London would continue to work toward it on her own. It was just going to take a whole lot longer to get there.

The paper dock was alive with movement—people carrying bundles of newspapers to their cars through the haze of chilled exhaust fumes rising from tail pipes. London waited in the parking lot for a space to open up next to the loading dock. After ten months at the job, she recognized which vehicles belonged to which drivers. Her turn would be soon.

The delivery system was divided into districts according to the travel distance from the dock. The carriers traveling to Columbia Falls, Whitefish, and Big Fork collected their papers first, as they had a fifteen-mile drive. Carriers with large routes—over three hundred papers—collected theirs next, and those with a hundred papers or fewer had to wait until last. The four routes that London delivered to consisted of nearly five hundred papers—all due by 6:30 a.m. It was a lot to get out in three short hours, but three of the four routes were next to each other, and London had worked out a time-efficient plan that made for little backtracking. The fourth route, although large at over a hundred papers, consisted mostly of residents in a retirement home. She could deliver to them simply by walking the hallways and placing each paper at a door. It saved her time and money not to have to put rubber bands around them, and since the hallways weren’t subject to harsh weather, they were safe from being blown away.

London pulled into the empty space in front of the large conveyor belt, unlocked the doors and hopped out. She stepped inside the office and scanned the desk for her route sheets—all six of them.  After quickly reviewing them for any changes in delivery, she stepped out again and nearly ran into her boss.  “Morning, Jack,” she said before turning to hoist two heavy bundles of newspaper from the conveyor belt. “It’s a cold one!”

“Hey, London. Lucky for me, I can grow my own coat!” London’s boss, Jack, had a thick, dark beard that he let fill in during winter months. He grabbed three bundles from the belt and followed London to her van. “Thermometer says three degrees, but I’d guess the wind is bringing it down to negative two or lower. Think of it this way—at least it’s clear out. And when it gets this cold, you can walk on top of the snow instead of tromping through it.”

“Always the positive thinker,” London said. “You know, if you could just convince Mr. Hunsaker to renege on the whole paper-on-the-doorstep rule, I wouldn’t have to tromp through any snow. I could just toss it from the car window to the driveway.”

“I know, I know. Believe me, I wish I could convince him. He thinks it’ll put a dent into circulation numbers. He must assume the entire population is too lazy to walk out to the driveway to pick up their papers. I might have to agree with him there if the number of complaints I get is any indication. Not all my carriers are as conscientious as you, London.”

“You just keep thinking that. Can’t say that I’m always perfect at getting them on the doorstep, but as long as you aren’t getting complaints from my routes, you didn’t hear me say that.” She gave a conspiratorial wink as she placed the last bundle in the back seat of the van and closed the door. “Thanks for the help.”

“No problem. Just trying to butter you up so you won’t tell me ‘No . . . ’”

“Won’t tell you no to what?”

“I’m down four routes today. I was planning on doing two, and Kelly said she could do one. I was hoping you’d do the other. It’s only sixty more papers, and they’re almost all mailbox delivery, so you’d hardly have to get out of the car. It’ll pay an extra thirty cents per paper . . . ”

Money always spoke to her. She had told Jack about her situation, and though he never mentioned it, he often tried to help by giving her opportunities to earn more. Besides, she knew she was one of his fastest and most reliable carriers. He could depend on her to do a good job, and her customers rarely called to complain.

“Okay . . . ” London hedged out on a sigh. “I’ll do it. What’s a few more papers and another crazy day? You grab me the route list, and I’ll get some more bundles.”

“Thanks, London. I owe ya.”

“Yeah, you do. Now hurry before my fingers fall off from frostbite.”

London began to plan what she would need to do to get all five routes delivered without making the kids late for school. She’d call Marty about 6:30 to let her know she’d be late getting back. Marty would have to get Corkie up and make lunches, but as long as Jack was right about not having to get out of the car too much, she could probably be home by 7:30. That would leave her fifteen minutes before she needed to leave to drive the kids to school. A few harried minutes of rushing would be worth the extra money. It might even be enough to buy Corkie a new pair of boots so he could quit coming home with blisters on his toes.

Jack handed London the route list as she slammed the van’s side door. “You’ve got my number if you can’t find one of the addresses. I’ll keep my phone close. And London, thanks again. I owe you. You’re a lifesaver!”

“Yeah, yeah. You may not think that when I call you on your IOU.” She walked around to the driver side and climbed in. “Have a good one, Jack. And keep warm!” With a pile of rubber bands on the dashboard and a stack of newspapers in the passenger seat piled as high as if someone were actually sitting there, London backed out of the lot and slowly drove away.

Here we go again, she thought, turning up the radio as the DJ announced one of her favorite country western songs. Another day, another dollar.

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