If running late showed a streak of rebellion, Miranda Hanford was already in trouble. Pulling her van to the side of the narrow road, she tallied the other vehicles lined up on the shoulder. She wasn’t the last to arrive at Mason’s emergency meeting. She could steal a moment with Jezebel.
She picked up her camera and climbed out. Working quickly in the cold, she framed the last sliver of sun, as red as a forest fire above the pine-stubbled peaks. In the foreground, a maple sapling curled its bare limbs around the sunset, unwilling to let go—like sweet, stubborn Martha at bedtime, refusing to believe the day was over.
Miranda clicked the shutter. Before the sun abandoned the Blue Ridge to the night, she nailed five promising shots. She tucked the camera into its case and locked it in the van. An old lady who’d seen more of the world than her owner ever would, Jezebel deserved tender care.
Holding her cape closed, Miranda hurried up the long, steep driveway. Mason had called only the single women for this meeting. Six who hadn’t married yet and two widows.
She hated that word. Widows were supposed to be meek, gray things with grandchildren and arthritis.
Around the last bend of the driveway, the lights of the house shone their welcome. Snow flurries swirled like silver glitter as she ran up the steps to the porch.
She knocked lightly and joined the women in the living room. They’d congregated in a semi-circle of folding chairs near the feeble warmth of the fireplace, their hands clasped in their laps and their voices subdued. Like the others, Miranda left her cape on, but a draft crept under her skirt and up her legs like icy fingers. She sat beside Lenore Schwartz, the other widow.
“Where’s Nicole?” someone asked.
No one knew. Abigail too was missing, her absence making the room colder still. If Mason’s wife had been home, she would have been dispensing hugs and peppermint tea.
The ladies hushed when their pastor strode into the room. Mason crossed to the hearth and picked up the poker. He shoved the logs into compliance, making sparks fly.
Amid the smell of smoke and ashes, he hung up the poker. He cut a handsome figure, his temples barely touched with gray and his face remarkably unlined for his fifty-some years.
“Ladies, thank you for coming on such short notice. I want to share what I announced at the men’s meeting last night.” He paused, surveying the semi-circle like a watchful shepherd inspecting his lambs.
One of the flawed lambs, Miranda shifted in her chair. It squeaked in the silence.
“I have a word from the Lord.” Again, Mason took a moment to study the women. “I am to move from Slades Creek.”
Mason leaving town? Miranda’s heart made an unexpected leap, but Lenore bleated in distress and twisted her age-spotted hands together.
“We’re moving to North Carolina,” he said, “to a beautiful little town called McCabe. Where people take care of themselves and each other. Where the government stays out of people’s business.”
Miranda fidgeted again, and her chair betrayed her restlessness with another creak. If the government didn’t stay out of people’s business in Georgia, it wasn’t likely to be much better in North Carolina.
“If it’s the Lord’s will, it’s the Lord’s will,” Lenore said, “but I don’t know how we’ll get along without you and Abigail. We’ll miss you terribly.”
“No, you won’t.” Mason smiled. “You’re coming with us. All of you. It’s a new beginning for the whole church. There are jobs in McCabe. Inexpensive housing too, and clean air and water. It’s practically paradise.”
A wave of excited whispers rustled through the room, but defiance woke within Miranda and prowled like an angry cat. She couldn’t leave Slades Creek. She wouldn’t.
“I’ve already put our house on the market,” Mason said, “and the other men will follow suit as soon as they can.” He nodded at Lenore, then Miranda, the only single women in the church who owned homes. “I’ll be glad to help you start the process.”
Some of the men might have argued, but these women without men didn’t. They embraced their marching orders with joy.
All but Miranda. She saw an escape route.
Yet, as Mason answered questions with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes, she felt a pang of loss. The church had become her family. She would miss the women, especially Abigail. Friends, secret-sharers, burden-bearers, these women were the sisters Miranda had never had. The mother she’d lost to an Ohio jail.
Once the discussion had played itself out, she spoke, veiling her agitation with a downcast gaze and a respectful tone. “I’ll miss everyone—very much—but Carl wouldn’t have wanted me to move.”
The room hushed to a shocked stillness, punctuated by the snapping and hissing of the fire.
“I only want to honor his wishes,” she added. “He always said we should hang onto the land, no matter what. For the children’s sake. He said it’s as good as money in the bank.”
Mason’s silver-blue eyes flashed a warning. “We’ll discuss it later, Miranda.”
She studied the blunt toes of her sturdy brown shoes. Now she’d reinforced her status as a troublemaker.
But so what? Her pastor was leaving town. And soon.
She frowned. Why the rush? Well, Mason and Abigail could hurry. They had no family. No children to uproot from their home or leave behind.
Miranda looked up, startled, when a paper appeared before her, in Mason’s hands. She took it, and he gave one to Lenore too.
“A checklist to help expedite the process,” he said. “Weed out, fix up, sell. It’s almost spring. The perfect time to attract buyers.”
The photocopied list was written in Mason’s neat, square printing. With bullet points. With tips for increasing the value of a home. With phone numbers of handymen, painters, and real estate companies. He’d even included the donation drop-off hours for the local thrift store.
He dismissed the meeting. Each woman folded her chair and leaned it against the wall beside the piano. Abigail’s living room returned to normal except for her absence.
“Somebody needs to tell Nicole,” Lenore said. “I wonder why she never showed up. And where’s Abigail?”
Mason laughed and opened the front door, admitting a gust of cold. “Why should my wife attend a meeting of single ladies?”
Because she’d attended every other women’s meeting, Miranda thought, wondering if Abigail’s absence was related to Nicole’s.
“Well, tell her we missed her.” Lenore turned to Miranda. “You’ll find another nice piece of property, honey. You’ll find a new husband, too. You’re so young.” Lenore seized her over-sized handbag in one hand and her cane in the other and led the charge to the front door. “All you pretty young things, you’ll find husbands there.”
Miranda hung back as the chattering pack traipsed onto the porch, exchanging their good-nights. When Mason closed the door on the cold and faced her, she’d never felt so much like an ungrateful and obstinate child.
“Miranda, Miranda,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I hope you aren’t serious about staying behind.”
“I am.” She folded his checklist in half, then in half again. “I can’t imagine uprooting the children. And the land has been in Carl’s mother’s family for generations. I can’t sell.”
“Land is only land. Your children are young enough to adjust to a move. So are you. You’re young enough to start over.”
The paper rustled in her fingers as she folded it twice more, making it a tiny rectangle. “I don’t want to start over. I want to raise my family right here in Slades Creek.”
“It’ll be harder to raise your family if you don’t have help from the church when you can’t quite pay the bills.”
“And what if there’s a good, godly man waiting for you in McCabe? What if God plans to play matchmaker? Don’t take this lightly, Miranda. If you deny God the chance to act, you may be depriving yourself of a husband. Depriving your children of a father. You need to hear from God about this. It’s a question that deserves fasting and prayer.”
She would start fasting, all right. She’d fast down to skin and bones so no man in his right mind would want her.
“You’d better start packing,” Mason added. “The move will take you beyond the chastisement of God to true repentance and blessings.”
“Wouldn’t the church be better off if a black sheep like me stayed behind? I know I’ve been a trial to you and Abigail.”
“No, no. Black sheep or not, you’re part of my flock. Of course you’ll move. And you’ll be careful not to sow seeds of rebellion in the others.”
She hesitated, wary of his new sternness. “I need to do what’s best for my children.”
“Then you’ll submit to the authority God has placed over you.” Mason shook his head. “I’ve invested in your life for years, Miranda. I’m the one who made sure Carl had excellent life insurance, and I’m the one who writes the checks from the benevolence fund. You would have lost your property years ago if I hadn’t looked after you, and now you won’t listen to my guidance?”
He still spoke softly, but this wasn’t the genial pastor who preached on Sundays and prayed for the sick and made a mean chili for potluck suppers. This was a different man. A hard, unreasonable man.
“What’s right for the church as a whole isn’t necessarily right for me,” she said, quaking inside.
“Remember, Miranda, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’”
The prowling cat inside her tested its claws. “I’m no witch, and it’s not rebellion to make my own decisions.”
“Before you make this particular decision, remember you’re still paying for some of Carl’s unwise choices.”
Her knees went weak. “What does that have to do with it?”
“This is your opportunity to put some distance between yourself and the things you’d like to keep quiet. If the state ever gets wind of what happened, if DFCS steps in . . . .”
She twisted her hands together behind her back. “I’ll take my chances.”
“Don’t be foolish. As you said, you have to do what’s best for the children. You want to protect them, don’t you?”
Tears stung her eyes. “Of course. Always.”
“Then you’ll move to McCabe.” Mason came closer, exhaling minty toothpaste. “I won’t be held accountable for the consequences if you stay.”
The veiled threat took her breath away.
She imagined a car in her driveway. A car that bore the state seal on its doors. At the wheel, a social worker who had the right to tear a woman’s children from her arms and feed them to the foster-care system, backed up by the Bartram County Sheriff’s Department. It happened, all too often. It happened even to parents who’d done nothing wrong.
“Agreed?” he asked. “You’ll sell? You’ll move with the rest of us?”
She shivered. She’d seen his anger before, she’d even been the target of it, but she’d never seen him as an enemy.
Now, though, he had threatened her children.
Slowly, she nodded. Fingers crossed behind her back. A liar.
Mason squinted, seeming to assess her sincerity. His somber expression warmed with that Hollywood smile. “Excellent. Now, don’t make waves. Don’t try to sway anyone into staying behind. Good night, Miranda.” He dismissed her with a nod.
Speechless, she stepped outside, jamming the checklist into the pocket of her cape. Night had fallen, and the cold mountain air chilled her to the core. She stared numbly at a cardboard box in the corner of the porch, stuffed so full of clothing that its flaps refused to stay folded down.
Abigail must have started weeding out their closets for the move. Her Christmas pullover lay on top, the same red as the construction-paper hearts the girls had cut out for Valentine’s Day. Abigail’s sister had mailed it from Topeka, but Mason said the color wasn’t appropriate for a pastor’s wife and the neckline was indecent.
Rubbish. It was perfectly modest.
Miranda tiptoed across the porch and snatched the sweater. She tucked it under her cape and ran down the steps. Now she was a thief too, but what was one more black mark against her?
She jogged down the steep driveway, slick with the barely-there snowfall. “I’m not moving. You can’t make me.” The jolting of her footsteps made her voice bounce as if she were jiggling a baby on her knee. That was what finally made her cry.
Her children. He had threatened to send the state after her children. They’d be like the family that had been in the news, their little ones scattered to different foster homes and the parents helpless against the authorities.
In the morning, she would ask her attorney about naming a new guardian. Someone outside the church. Someone with no ties to Mason. She had no family though, with Auntie Lou long gone. No brothers, no sisters, no cousins.
Jack? It might have to be him, but she couldn’t call him yet. Couldn’t risk giving him the idea of showing up on her doorstep again. Not until it was safe.
With unsteady fingers, she unlocked the van. She fumbled the key into the ignition and shone the headlights on the dark, twisting road before her. She hadn’t felt so alone in years. Nine years.
It was even longer since she’d felt free.