Just over a year ago, my romance novel Heart of the Ozarks debuted from Rebel Ink Press. Many readers enjoy the story and the setting. Here’s what one reviewer had to say and then I’m sharing both the blurb and the first chapter. If you like it, buy links follow the chapter!
I have read several of Murphy’s books and always love her rich characterizations, her endless ability to make the reader ‘see’ what she sees in the gorgeous landscapes of the Ozarks where she lives, along with her lovely story telling. I loved Cole and Maggie, and their story is tender and touching in Heart of the Ozarks. Keep up the good work Lee Ann. – Alberta, Manic Readers
Here’s the blurb and first chapter:
After St. Louis TV weathercaster Cole Celinksi loses his almost estranged wife and three children in a car crash, his boss orders him to take a leave of absence. Against his will, Cole leaves the city in late May to find the rest and relaxation everyone else thinks he needs. Without anywhere else to go, Cole heads for Lake Dreams, a resort on the quiet side of Lake Taneycomo in the Ozarks he visited each summer as a child with his grandparents. Some of his best memories were made in the lakeside vacation haven with his summer friend, Maggie.
Upon his arrival, Cole learns Maggie now runs the place. Twenty years have passed but from the minute he returns, they reconnect and soon their mutual attraction ignites. He fishes in the lake, takes Maggie to visit some of the places he remembers and begins to find out who he truly is. Before he can heal, he must learn to deal with his loss and to see if he can create a new family with Maggie and her children. It’s a task he’s not sure he can handle but if he wants to be with Maggie, he must. A near tragedy brings them all together into a close knit unit and afterward, Cole may be able to make his dreams reality.
Heading south out of St. Louis on I-55, multiple lanes of traffic diverged, merging until Cole Celinksi traveled a traditional four lane interstate highway. He paid little attention to the standard scenery of billboards, truck stops and exits until he reached Sikeston. Then Cole changed over to Highway 60, an older two lane road dating back to the early days of automobile travel and followed it west toward his destination. Forced to reduce his speed, Cole noticed how the terrain shifted. The highway zoomed through fertile farm fields and small towns so similar he couldn’t tell one from another most of the time. Cole hadn’t traveled this route in years but the biggest changes he could see were the fast food places and the national convenience store chains. When he’d come this way riding in the back seat of his grandparents’ roomy old Impala, most filling stations were locally owned and the restaurants along the way were mom and pop cafes. Cole spotted a few of those but didn’t stop, decided to drive onward. Small tracts of wannabee suburbs cropped up in former orchards and on what he recalled used to be farmland.
Billboards advertising Branson attractions began to show up along the road and increased in frequency as he neared Springfield, Missouri. The ones depicting happy families at amusement parks and other venues hurt to see. Cole had planned to bring his family to Branson, down to the place he spent so many happy summer vacations, but he never got around to doing it. For a few moments Cole indulged in a fantasy of Brock riding the vintage steam train with him through the woods at Silver Dollar City or Brianna twirling one of the hand-painted parasols along one of the amusement park’s tree shaded lanes. Cole almost smiled as he fantasized pushing Becca up and down the steep hills in her stroller. She’d laugh at everything and stretch out her tiny hands, wanting all the pretties she saw. He imagined Victoria admiring the glass blowers, turning molten glass into beautiful creations with her artistic eye and then decided she’d been more likely to mock the rustic atmosphere, making sport of the hillbilly motif. Cole shifted his thoughts, thrusting all the images away. As much as memories hurt, daydreams slashed his heart with crueler cuts.
At Springfield, his tenuous good mood long gone, Cole drove deeper into the city to find someplace to eat. He wasn’t really hungry. Since the accident, his appetite remained absent most of the time and his stomach hurt more often than ever before, but he needed a break from driving and something to shift his focus. A headache tightened around his skull so he pulled into a Steak N Shake and ordered a double steak burger with fries and a chocolate shake. He dry swallowed four aspirin while he waited for his food. Although everything tasted good, he ate with little enthusiasm. A couple with two kids, one in a high chair, chattered nearby and although he did his best to ignore them, he couldn’t.
He finished, gathered his trash and left. Back in the car, he checked a map for the best route to Branson and tried to figure out how to reach the old resort on the far side of the lake. Cole puzzled over the map for a few minutes then headed out down US 65, a four-lane modern highway. At Branson, he opted for the downtown exit but when he rolled up the ramp, Cole stared at the new version of the place he recalled. Multiple businesses in every direction boggled his mind but he followed Highway 76 as it wound through the traditional old downtown area. Nothing jogged his memory until he descended into the few blocks of old cafes and the big five and dime store on the corner. Cole turned right and traveled past a supermarket he recalled but the bridge across Lake Taneycomo wasn’t the same. He crossed anyway and followed the narrow blacktop road around the base of a hill, hugging his side of the road because the oncoming traffic moved with speed.
The farther he traveled from Branson, the more things looked the way he remembered. Cole passed a big camp he didn’t recall but along the route the lake views, steep rugged hills and scenery all resonated. This was the heart of the Ozarks. That’s what his grandparents used to call this country, he recalled with bittersweet nostalgia. Cole turned at the faded sign announcing “Lake Dreams Resort” and followed the drive back to the cabins. He smiled to see each remained a dull rusty red, a shade he’d always called “barn paint” although he didn’t recall why. The main cabin, a two story house with an office in front, boasted a wide covered porch. Although everything resembled what he remembered, the place looked a bit unkempt and neglected. His tires crunched across the gravel as Cole halted at the office and stared at the other cabins, strung up the hill like a bead necklace. Without warning or conscious effort, memories washed over him, stronger than the sunlight streaming through the windshield.
He woke up early, before daylight and ran down the hill from the big cabin at the end of the row to the lake. Although the main view looked north, if you stood on the shore and stared right, the sunrise came up like a picture framed between the two shores. Mist wreathed around trees and hovered over the water like a ghost but Cole wasn’t afraid. He was ten now, a big boy. As he watched the first lights turn the sky pastel pink to contrast with the summer blue, he heard footsteps behind him and he turned to see Maggie.
Her red hair hung in twin braids down her chest and the patched overalls, hand-me-downs from her older brother, were a little short. She called them ‘high water britches’ with the same humor she applied to everything. Her parents ran the resort and she’d been his vacation playmate as long as he could remember. Cole couldn’t decide if he wanted her more for a kid sister or as a girlfriend but Pop said they were too young to even think about being anything but pals.
Cole’s lips stretched in a spontaneous smile. Although he seldom smiled these days and when he did, he forced his expression to be polite, now he savored the sweet burst of memory. Maggie and Cole swam together, first in the ice cold resort pool and then in the waters of Lake Taneycomo. Sometimes they fished from the rickety old dock and caught a few fish, nothing fancy, just bream, some bass, and the occasional rainbow trout stocked in the waters by the state. She caught lightning bugs, the bright little insects he’d always known as fireflies. They ran over the shoreline, up into the hills, and enjoyed summer the way kids should, outdoor and barefoot most of the time. Sometimes he joined her family in the evening for a simple supper and watched television with them. His grandparents liked Maggie and a few times, Cole invited her to join them on an outing to Silver Dollar City or Shepherd of the Hills or the Baldknobbers show.
He’d come here every summer until his granpa died, the winter Cole turned eighteen. During his last vacation here, he’d been seventeen and Maggie sweet sixteen. The first couple of days, shyness kept them on their best manners but when he kissed her one night down by the lake, bashful went out the window. That year they strolled hand in hand all over the property and even went across the lake on the Fourth of July to watch professional fireworks with her family, and he stole every kiss he could. They wrote a few letters but as the months sped past and their lives grew complicated with high school events and activities, the letters dwindled then stopped. Then his grandpa died in the fall and he’d never heard from Maggie again.
Until surfing the internet one late, sleepless night, Cole had no clue the resort still existed but once he found the website, he knew he’d come back. He planned to wait until he could ask for vacation time but the television station where he did prime time weather acted before Cole could make any plans. Sitting in the car now, staring out at the snatches of lake visible through the trees, Cole recalled the day the station manager and news director called him into the office.
“We need to talk,” Lucille, the station manager, said as she poured another cup of coffee from the carafe on her desk. “I’m worried about you and so is the rest of the staff, Cole. Your performance hasn’t been up to par lately and I think you need some time off to clear your head.”
He'd opened his mouth to protest and closed it within seconds. Shame flushed his face with enough heat he felt it and Cole couldn’t argue. Since the night of the accident, when Victoria loaded up all three kids to head to the grocery store and bring home the cheeseburger he craved, he’d operated on auto pilot. Disbelief shifted to shock and then apathy in the early days as he struggled to deal with the loss and guilt. Each day the alarm clock woke him and he rose, showered, dressed and went to the station to check weather data for the evening programs. Although Cole seldom missed work, his mind sometimes froze and he might sit at his desk motionless for a long period. When it happened live on the air, he figured repercussions would come and they did. The last thing he wanted, though, was empty time on his hands so he said, “I’ll do better, Lucille. I promise. But I need to work. It’s all I’ve got.”
“This isn’t an option,” she told him, steel in her voice. “You’ll take a leave of absence and in three months, we’ll see how you’re doing and if you want to come back or what.”
He’d expected a week, two at the most, and he would've balked at three but now he was facing twelve. Cole always figured he possessed job security after ten years on air as the top rated weather forecaster in the greater St. Louis area but apparently he’d been wrong. “Who’s going to take my slot?”
“Janine can do it until we see how things go for you,” Mark, the news director chimed in. Later, over drinks downtown Mark would swear he’d been against the leave of absence but it didn’t matter to Cole. He envisioned the pretty, perky Janine, just out of college, taking his slot and figured on his return, he’d be asked to do weekends or the morning show, both a major demotion.
Without options, Cole took his leave of absence and his half time pay for the period. He booked a cabin online, the same one his grandparents always rented at Lake Dreams, packed his bags, and put all his monthly bills on auto pay. He made a few phone calls to the small circle of people who still meant anything in his life and left The Lou on Thursday morning before the long Memorial Day weekend.
“Are you going out to the cemetery before you leave?” His mother asked.
Cole resisted an urge to slam down the telephone and counted to ten before he answered. “No, Mom, I’m not. I don’t want to see the new markers or leave some pitiful plastic floral wreath or anything else.”
He hadn’t been out to the graves since the day of the joint funeral services and didn’t think he'd visit. His family wasn’t there, just their mangled physical remains beneath six feet of good Missouri dirt. He’d rather remember them as they were. Cole didn’t want to replace their faces with images of granite markers inscribed with their names and hateful dates.
“You should,” she chided. “You need closure.”
Cole hated that word. His family died on a dark November night on a street slickened with the first snow of the season, weather he’d predicted himself. Since then everyone pushed this notion of closure. He didn’t even understand what it meant but he knew he needed to deal with his grief and his guilt. If he’d have gone to the store, he would’ve been driving and he could’ve handled the skid. Cole liked to think so anyway and he beat himself up with the idea as often as he could. His friends talked about closure often and so did his co-workers.
“I don’t know what I need,” he told his mother. “But it’s not closure.”
“You need to cry for them, too, son,” she said. “You won’t ever get over this until you do.”
And he hadn’t cried, not when he got word of their death, at the funeral, or since. He mourned. Grief gnawed on him day and night and guilt dug wounds into his soul but tears remained elusive.
Sitting outside the familiar old office and main cabin, Cole wondered what might fill his emptiness, salve his hurts, and ease his pain. He still had no clue but being here, in a place his wife and kids never visited and would now never see offered change. Maybe it was a step in the right direction. As he checked his wallet to make sure his driver’s license and the credit card he’d used to make the reservations were accessible, Cole wondered what happened to Maggie. The resort was run by Maggie's family, the Tatum's, when they were younger but the owners listed on the website now were Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Brown. To Cole's urban mind, it sounded like an old couple, someone folksy and quaint. He hoped they weren’t nosey because after the drive down accompanied by the stroll down memory lane all he wanted was a drink and a long, hot bath. Then he’d sit out on the porch and stare at the lake while he attempted to figure just what the hell he was going to do for the next three months.
Just as Cole stepped out of the car, two kids shot past him running as hard as they could. He watched as the boy, probably thirteen, maybe fourteen or so, dashed behind the main cabin toward the lake followed by an older teenage girl with long auburn hair trailing down her back in curls. Although much older than Brock, Brianna, or Becca, the sight of children jolted his heart and he shook his head. I didn’t expect there’d be any kids around. His desire for straight Irish whiskey ramped up to a new level of need and he wondered if he could get out of the cabin reservation if this turned out to be a mistake. As he slammed the car door, the girl returned and he saw her face.
“Maggie?” he gasped, knowing it couldn’t be because Maggie would be two years younger than him. “Is it you?”
She shook her head back and forth before she found her tongue. “No, sir,” she said, her voice much more soprano than Maggie’s alto. “I’m Kaitlin Brown but Maggie’s my mom. You must be Mister Celinksi.”
Cole nodded, his mind reeling. This mirror image of the teenaged Maggie he remembered pronounced his name correctly. A desire to turn around, jump back in the car and runaway struck him with such force he almost did just that. He could imagine it with clarity. If Maggie still worked here, then she knew he was coming and she’d had time to prepare but Cole wasn’t ready for this. Blindsided, Cole didn’t know if he could handle a reunion now. If he’d known he could’ve thought about what to say, planned it all out, been composed. Instead, he struggled to breathe and feared he might suffer a panic attack. Since he’d lost his family, Cole had suffered two and honestly, he'd rather not repeat the experience.
“Yes, that’s me,” he answered when he could draw enough breath to speak. “I guess your mom’s expecting me.”
“Yes, sir,” Kaitlin said, staring at him. The boy she’d chased earlier appeared at her side and she caught him in a modified head lock. “This is my brother, Kiefer.”
“Hey, is he the guy Mom said used to come here every summer? You know the one she’s got pictures of,” Kiefer blurted out as his sister put a hand over his mouth.
Cole heard their exchange and went into freeze frame. His mind whirled with facts--Maggie married, two kids, maybe more. The girl gave her last name as Brown and Cole remembered the owners listed on the website. He'd see them in a few moments which meant he’d have to shake her husband’s hand, make polite chit chat and spend the summer watching her very alive children cavorting. No way. He reached for the door handle to make a fast getaway.
Her voice reached him and trapped him in place. He’d have recognized it anywhere. Cole withdrew his hand and turned toward the porch.
Maggie stood there dressed in faded gray jeans and a light blue tank top. Her hair cascaded in curls over her shoulders toward her waist. Her smile kindled something deep within, stirring the ashes he thought were dead and gray.
“Hello, Maggie,” Cole said. “I didn’t know until just a minute ago you still owned the place.”
Her smile flickered but didn’t vanish. “I’ve never been anywhere else. I've always lived here.”
A stranger wouldn’t catch the rueful note in her voice but Cole did. She’d planned to go to college far away and travel the world before settling down somewhere exotic. The very last thing the girl he once knew wanted was to stay here. He wondered what happened to change her plans then he remembered his dreams of becoming an explorer or a fighter jet pilot and shook his head, amused.
“I always thought I’d be back,” Cole told her with honesty. “It just took me a lot longer than I dreamed it might.”
“Come on in,” Maggie said. “I’ll get you checked in then you can go up to the cabin. I bet you’re tired after driving down from St. Louis.”
“I’m beat,” he admitted, conveniently leaving out it wasn’t the drive but the nagging insomnia that was really to blame.
The room serving as the office had little changed since he last stood here. The same worn counter divided the room and the 1950’s vintage pop machine still hummed, filled with short glass bottles. He wondered where she found them these days as he stepped up to sign the guest register and Maggie recorded his arrival on a laptop. That was a change, he thought, and although the postcards were different, the rack holding them wasn’t. Cole looked over the pictures on the wall, recognizing some, others not, as he handed over his Visa card. Maggie handed him a pen so he could sign the ticket and he admired her hands. Her slender, shapely fingers moved with grace but he liked the freckles dotting the backs of them most of all.
“Here’s the key,” Maggie offered, handing him a single key on a battered key chain. “There should be plenty of towels and toilet tissue. I cleaned the cabin myself but if you need anything, just holler. You’ll have to really holler or come down because we still don’t have phones in any of the cabins.”
“That’s good,” Cole said. He’d brought along his cell but he planned to keep it turned off most of the time. “Thanks, Maggie.”
“Sure,” she replied, flashing him another awesome smile. “When you get rested and settled in, you’ll have to come down for supper or something one evening so we can catch up.”
“I’d like that,” Cole said, although he hated the idea of talking under the eye of anyone named ‘Dwight’. He really didn’t want to meet her husband or see the kids much. Spending time with Maggie would be great but exposure to a complete family was more than he thought he could manage right now. “I’ll let you know.”
“All right,” Maggie answered.
He almost made it to the door before she spoke again. “Cole?”
“I’m glad you decided to come back.”
He hesitated for a long moment and without looking at her or turning around said “Me, too.”
Nothing else seemed worth saying, not now, so he headed out to the car and up the hill to the cabin he’d rented for the summer.