Bonnie Hearn Hill

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

I WISH YOU MISSED ME

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

Megan puts on the large, white-framed sunglasses, even though it’s starting to get dark out. The dress Will insisted she wear is too low cut for an evening in a pub and too sexy, even for her. She ties his red bandana around her neck and makes a double knot, turning it into kind of a cowboy kerchief.

‘You ready yet?’ Will calls from outside the cabin. Then he walks inside and his boots squeak to a stop on the wood floor when he sees her. ‘Nice.’ He circles her slowly and then stops so they are eye to eye. ‘Very nice. But take your hair down, will you?’

‘I thought a ballerina bun would look better with this dress.’

‘You’re not paid to think.’ He grins and swats her on the ass. ‘Come on, beautiful. Time’s a-wasting.’

She shakes out her hair, pulls it behind her ears and over one shoulder. The cracked bathroom mirror makes her look as if she has five eyes. Megan blinks all of them and says, ‘Let’s go.’

He’s promised this will be the last one and she believes him. Will is many things but not a liar. Not to her, anyway.

They pause at the top of the stairs and the sound of the creek in back, combined with the redwood scent of the deck after a morning of rain, reminds her why she came here with him and why she stays. Not that she needs reminders.

‘What are you thinking?’ he asks.

Just like that, she remembers something. ‘I was supposed to help Priscilla and the other women make blueberry jam tonight.’

‘Like she will care if you don’t show up?’ He starts down the stairs. ‘Priscilla. Michael. I’ll never figure out these people.’

‘Good people,’ she reminds him. ‘They took us in with no questions.’

‘And they leave jars of jam in those little stands with no one manning them. Like anyone would actually leave money in the freaking jar.’ He reaches the ground ahead of her and puts out his hand.

‘But they do.’

‘You’ve got that right.’ He helps her over the space at the bottom where the last step is missing and then puts his arm around her waist as they walk to the driveway. ‘Why would anybody leave money when they take jam from a stand with no one in charge? Once I’m back in school I’m going to write a paper on that one.’

‘Me too,’ she says, and they laugh because they both know that only one of them will be returning to school.

‘Ready?’ he asks when they reach the car, and she tells him the truth because she is sure he knows it anyway.

‘Ready to get it over with.’

 

 

 

I Wish You Missed Me

Synopsis:

 

Farley Black, Kit Doyle’s former radio co-host, is missing. When Kit and her friend, former street person Virgie Logan, head north to California’s redwood country in search of the truth, a series of menacing incidents convinces Kit that she’s being watched. Someone is tracking her every move. As her unknown pursuer grows bolder and more reckless, Kit realizes she isn’t just looking for Farley – but running from a killer.

 

 

 

THE RIVER BELOW

BONNIE HEARN HILL

ONE

 

Claire would remember the moment like a snapshot, the late afternoon a cold black-and-white with just a touch of gold that lit the water. After working two weeks straight on the restoration project, she and Tessa had taken off and driven to San Francisco, some three hours north. They drove without music, as they always did, no need for background noise. Tessa had been obsessed with finding the vines she had spotted online, and Claire felt the outing would be good for them. They both needed a break from routine and the pressures of their lives—Claire’s divorce, Tessa’s preoccupation with Jake’s going away to college.

When they pulled back in to the greenhouse later that day, what little sun the afternoon had held faded into the horizon.

“All that to buy some reclaimed forty-year-old grapevines.” Tessa tugged at the blue knit cap that hid everything but her eyes and fringe of dark bangs.

“But it was fun, and you were right. It will be a good project for the schools or maybe the Green Thumbs,” Claire said. “Besides, this is raisin country. We should have grapes in our community garden.”

Tessa shook her head. “Eric is really going to think I’m crazy now.”

“He’ll be fine.” Claire turned onto the narrow drive that led to their offices, buzzed down her window, and let the river breeze blow in. “It’s not the first impulsive thing we’ve done.”

“Still, he’s going to think it’s weird.” The joy drained from Tessa’s voice, and she wrapped her arms around herself. “Let’s not tell him.”

Her response surprised Claire. Eric seemed preoccupied with his case. He wouldn’t care how they’d spent their day.

As soon as Claire parked, Tessa jumped out of the car, opened the back door, and began unloading the vines.

Claire followed. “I think you had too much caffeine, Tess.”

Tessa shook her head. “I’m all right. And these are just perfect. Wally will love them, won’t he?”

“Wally?” Claire stiffened.

“Right. Wally.” She leaned into the car again and lifted out a gnarled trunk. “You know how much he loves helping us plant the stuff we find.”

“Tessa,” Claire, said. “Wally’s been dead almost three months. We went to his memorial service together.”

The smile on Tessa’s face went rigid. “Oh, that’s right.” She looked away from Claire, down into the bundle of vines she held. “Well, let’s get these into the shed and pick up dinner on the way home.”

Clues had shown up earlier, but Claire had ignored them. She explained away the forgotten appointments, the mix-ups in plans for lunch and coffee. She could not explain away this, though.

“Wait a minute.” Claire forced herself to speak slowly, without judgment. “Wally was our friend, OK? Explain to me how you could forget he died.”

“It just slipped my mind, that’s all. I remember now, though.” She seemed to shift gears, and her smile became engaging, convincing. “I’ll call and tell Eric we’re on the way.”

They stopped at the market and shopped, Tessa carrying on a running monologue about the price of organic lemons and wondering aloud if high-pH water would be the new trend of the year. Eric had texted Tessa he was running late too, so he wouldn’t even know that they had sneaked off on a day trip. Claire doubted he would mind. Her concern was what Tessa had said about Wally.

It didn’t seem to bother her though. As Claire drove them home from Whole Foods, Tessa made fun of the overdone Christmas decorations in front of the houses facing the river bluffs, “the rich side of the street,” they always called it, even though Tessa lived there. If the developers had their way, the river would be a memory, and the towns of Central California, including this one, would all blend together like exits on a freeway. They would disappear into the mass of franchise restaurants and pseudo-Mediterranean shopping malls that made up Southern California. These hills and the drops to the fog-shrouded river below separated and saved them. As long as they had the wetlands, scarce and threatened as they might be, there would be no housing developments replacing the water, and the city would end at the river.

Tessa pointed at an illuminated merry-go-round decoration in front of a two-story Tudor, its balcony draped with lights. “Here we are trying to save the environment, and people are putting up garbage like that.”

She sounded like herself again. Only then did Claire realize how tightly she had been gripping the steering wheel.

“Traffic’s crazy this week,” she said. “I can pick you up for work tomorrow.”

“Eric offered to drive me.” Tessa paused. “It’s about the only time we get to be together these days. He’s working on that case around the clock, and I understand. The woman’s life is at stake.”

“A woman who may have murdered her husband in his sleep.” Claire spoke before she could stop herself.

“Gloria Sudbury is innocent. It was self-defense.”

“If you say so.” Claire tried to laugh it off.

“Eric says so.”

He met them in the driveway. Claire had never seen Eric without a coat and tie, and tonight was no exception. His silver-gray jacket almost matched his hair. His lips pressed together in a smile she had once thought of as arrogant but now knew was a professional mask to hide his emotions from the public. Somewhere along the way, it had crept into his private life.

Few men made Claire forget how tall she was, and the fact that Eric did was due to his attitude as much as his height. He had a way of speaking, of moving, that made him look impenetrable. Now, he loomed outside the open door of the garage. If this were a courtroom, Claire would want him on her side, as he had been not long ago. When he walked into her divorce hearing, she could feel the rustle of astonishment in the room. Iconic, high-fee criminal attorneys didn’t usually dirty the mahogany of their lives by arguing a custody case between an environmental scientist and her ex. Yet, thanks to their friendship, Eric had insisted on handling the legal details as effortlessly as if offering to take out the trash.

“There you are,” he said to Tessa through Claire’s open window. “Hi, Claire.”

Claire stepped out and, even as she responded to his polite hug with a reciprocal squeeze, she knew she needed to go home and think about whether or not to tell him how concerned she was about Tessa.

“I’ll bet you’re wondering what happened to dinner.” Tessa lifted a bag in each hand. “It’s crab season, and these are already cracked. I bought a couple of overpriced lemons too. And for dessert, I picked up farmhouse cheddar, apples, and what looks like a really amazing port.”

“You two enjoy,” Claire said. “I need to get going.”

“Nonsense.” Tessa walked toward the door.

“Don’t rush off,” Eric said. “I just got here myself. Let’s hit the wine and worry about food when we feel like it.”

His gaze drifted to Tessa, and Claire realized he wasn’t looking at his wife in a casual way. He was studying her, his manner expectant. Tessa seemed to sense his scrutiny and turned around.

“Please stay.” In spite of Tessa’s smile, her voice sounded tight. She took Claire’s arm. “You’re part of the family. Come on.”

As she started to protest, Eric took her other arm. “She’s right, Claire. Come inside.”

She could tell by the easy way he moved ahead and held open the door to the house for them that he thought she was resisting because they had gone from two couples to one couple and a best friend.

“I guess I could have one glass of wine,” Claire said. “But then, I really do need to get home.”

They walked inside, past the black-and-white tiled entry hall and its multifaceted crystal chandelier, into the living room with a forest-green velvet sofa trimmed in rosewood, matching coffee table, and above the fireplace, a framed red-and-black kimono, its stiff arms extended.

The dining room, a study in neutrals, ranged from white to taupe, with an occasional green spike of a plant. They sat at the round cherry wood table overlooking what was now the blackness of the river.

Tessa insisted on serving them. One of her many strengths included infusing a simple gathering with the energy of a party. Just the right knife, crystal glasses, paper-thin slices of roast beef, a bowl of horseradish and crème fraîche, and tart little cornichons shared an oval serving platter.

“Appetizers,” Tessa said, “while I slice the cheddar.”

The smell of roasting garlic and the piano concerto in the background softened the formality of the room. Still wearing her blue hat, Tessa was magic. Although almost forty-six, she moved like a dancer covering every undiscovered spot on the stage.

But she had forgotten that Wally died. She had forgotten that horrible funeral service they had attended and how the two of them had snuck out early so they wouldn’t have to confront the open casket.

That was why Claire hadn’t wanted to come inside. It would be worse than a lie to pretend everything was fine. Although she had no idea how to do it, she had known that if she stepped into this house, she would have to talk to Eric.

“I’ll be right back,” Tessa said and headed for the kitchen.

Claire looked out the window. “I can’t believe your Meyer lemon survived the freeze.” What a clumsy beginning.

“Thanks to you for telling us what to feed it.” Eric glanced at the tree, lit by a spotlight on their patio, and bit into one of the French pickles.

“How’s your case coming?” she asked.

“I’m going to win, in spite of the bad press. No, because of it.” He loosened his tie, and the vulnerability in his expression made her more comfortable.

“Eric?”

He glanced at her beside him at the table. “More wine?” He asked, as public smile returned.

“My head’s already buzzing.” But she reached for her glass anyway.

“What’s wrong, Claire?” His voice lowered. “Is Danny still trying to keep Liz from you? If so, I’ll kick his ass.” He laughed. “Metaphorically, and maybe literally as well.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what?” The commanding attorney tone took over his voice. “Tell me.”

“Do you remember Wally?”

He sighed in a way that held as much relief as anything else. “That old restoration tech guy you and Tessa hung out with when she first started volunteering?”

Claire nodded. “You know he died, right?”

“Of course, and not long ago.” Eric took his tie the rest of the way off and draped it over the back of his chair. “Why would you ask me that? You and Tessa went to the memorial.”

Claire reached for her glass of wine and swallowed as much as she could.

“Except,” she finally said. “Tessa doesn’t remember.”

He seemed to freeze.

“Of course she does.”

“Well, you’re right. She does when you remind her.” She reached for his arm, but quickly removed her hand. “But then she forgets. She’s been forgetting other things too.”

He got up from the table and strode toward the view that high-profile cases like the current one had paid for. When he turned to face her, she imagined herself in a courtroom.

“She’s distracted. Jake just left for college. Call it the empty-nest syndrome. She’s stuck in this big house without her son, and I’ve got to admit, I’ve been preoccupied with this case.”

“I understand that,” Claire said.

“Do you?”

The question echoed in her ears. He didn’t have to say more. A rush of heat shot to her face at the reminder that Claire’s own empty nest had not been by choice.

“I’m just trying to help, Eric. This isn’t easy for me. I love Tessa.”

“So do I.” He sat down beside her again, farther away than before. “Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”

She had tried and failed. “If that’s what you want,” she said.

Tessa returned to the room. Her chili-pepper apron looked painted on her black shirt.

“Where’ve you been, Tess?” Eric asked. “What took you so long? We missed you.”

She didn’t seem to hear. “I was just looking for…” She caught sight of the roast beef platter on the table and smiled. “Oh, there it is.”

Eric and Claire’s eyes met, and without a word, they agreed to ignore that, too.

“Sit down with us.” Eric reached for Tessa’s hand. “Come sit.”

Claire couldn’t take any more. She didn’t know what to do or say. “I wish I could stay,” she said, “but I really need to get home.”

***

When Claire leaves, she takes the light with her. Part of that light is in her hair, the occasional strands of silver in her dark braid shining like the stars outside. Most of Claire’s light is in her face, though, the high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. As dark as they are, Claire’s eyes shine too.

Tessa stands at the sink and looks outside for the girl on the river. Earlier, a glint of blue flashed and then disappeared behind one of the eucalyptus trees. She looks down at the suds on her fingers as she dips a plate in the water and feels ashamed, not sure why. Her bra strap slips down under the sleeve of her top, and she doesn’t bother to push it up, not with her wet hands. Her mind follows the path of the day, the long drive and curving lines of traffic, then the nursery, the vines, the greenhouse. Claire’s laughter is sudden and natural now. She’s no longer guarded and unfriendly the way she was when they met. But she wasn’t laughing tonight.

“Need any help?” Eric stands in the doorway. He’s lost his tie but still looks professional.

“I want a Christmas tree,” she says.

“What’s wrong with the one we have? I can bring it in from the garage, and we can put it in the living room, the same as always.”

She closes her eyes, but all she can see in her mind is the tree down the street, all those lights.

“Tessa?” His voice is thick. “I miss Jake, too.”

Through the windows behind him, the colors of sunset on the river blend into night.

She puts her hand on her hip, smiles, and eyes him in the way she knows will get his attention.

“It’s late,” he says, but moves next to her anyway, puts his arms around her.

“Finally,” Tessa whispers, and folds into him.

 

 

About the Author

Bonnie Hearn Hill’s seventeenth novel, I Wish You Missed Me, was published by Severn House in 2017, and The River Below will publish in the UK in September 2017 and the United States in January 2018. Huelga, a film set during the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 and based on one of her books, is currently in pre-production. She lives in Central California near the bluffs of the San Joaquin River, where the novel is set. A California native, she is passionate about how conflict changes us and both allows and forces us to discover new truths about ourselves. She has appeared on a Central California television station’s book segment for fourteen years.

 

 

 

The Woman Who Owns Your Teeth

Bonnie Hearn Hill

 

Mort and Kendra connected the way many people did in the Tower District, at The Chicken Pie Shop, a fashionably drab café where the food never tasted quite as good as you remembered. But it was close to her house, and if she didn’t have something to offer her ex when he stopped on his way to Bakersfield, she’d never hear the end of it.

She and Mort had seen each other around town in the six years she had been teaching English and he had worked on the line at the Sun-Maid Raisin plant. She was what others would call a good woman, which meant that she went to great lengths to avoid speaking ill of anyone, even her ex. Mort was a performance poet who read shirtless, even now that most of the hair on his chest was gray.

Later, she told Mort that when she stepped inside and saw him holding court at that corner table of college students, she purposely turned up her phone when it burst into Wagner’s Symphony In C Major. And Mort said that was fine because he had been waiting for her to walk through the door all the time.

Once she had his attention, Kendra let the call go to voicemail. Mort grinned up at her and invited her to join him, and the college kids drifted away, as if in a single stream. Kendra had no intention of carrying their conversation past the two plastic glasses of iced tea, hers turquoise, his amber, appropriate in a way she knew was true but that made no sense to her. She didn’t notice his teeth then, only his eyes, which did most of his smiling for him. They were light-colored, and when he talked to her, the coarse skin around them crinkled, and she felt herself blush.

“How about a late lunch?” he asked in the bluster of a voice she remembered from his readings at her school. It was a smoker’s voice, but there were no cigarettes on the table, and if there had been the slightest odor of nicotine clinging to him, she would have detected it.

“I can’t,” she said. “My ex is coming, and I need to get something for him.”

“You’re going to feed your ex?”

“We don’t hate each other.” The server returned with a take-out box, and Kendra breathed in the thick, suffocating scent of gravy. “Besides, I wouldn’t feel right not letting him see Gracie.”

“Your daughter?” he asked.

“Our Maltese.”

He laughed and then said, “You’re a good woman. You know that?”

And because Kendra wasn’t sure how to reply, she said, “Well, she’s his dog too.”

Wagner’s symphony blared again, and this time she answered. It was her ex.

“He’s running late,” she told Mort. “He won’t have time to stop after all.”

“Well, you see,” he said, and in some strange way, she did.

They shared the chicken pie right out of the open box, and in a couple of weeks, Mort moved into her house. When her friend Beth, the art teacher, asked how it was working out, Kendra talked about how Mort loved her cooking, and how he let Gracie sleep on his chest. Then, because she and Beth had seen each other through some bad times, she added, “A little rough around the edges, but I can fix that.”

The changes were subtle. A hair trim, not short, she told him, just shaped. A corduroy jacket he wore open over a black t-shirt. And the teeth. At first he protested that it was too much money, but she reminded him of the school credit union and the fact that she had just paid off her trip to Florence.

She changed herself too, made her presence more visible with longer skirts, a paisley scarf, and silver bangles that sounded like wind chimes when she moved her arms. They began going to poetry readings at the art museum. She joined the board, and at her suggestion, the other members agreed that Mort could read at the June event as long as he kept his shirt on.

The Friday before that reading, Beth and Kendra met for margaritas.

“What’s wrong?” Beth asked after they sat down.

“He hasn’t changed,” Kendra told her. “I’ve tried everything.”

“He owes you,” Beth said. “I mean, you paid for his clothes. You paid for his teeth.”

“That’s not the point.” She sucked the margarita straw until needles of pain shot through her temples.

“What is the point?” Beth asked.

Kendra thought about the sports channel, about the friends she hadn’t been able to cleanse from his life. The disinterest in bed. His. Hers. Theirs.

Later, she would make a point of never speaking ill of him. Later, he would say, “Kendra? She’s a good woman.”

On that Saturday night, Mort in his corduroy jacket, they drove Olive Avenue east, past the Chicken Pie Shop and the Tower Theatre, to the art museum, where once she spotted the full parking lot, Kendra could finally unclench her fists and relax her jaw.

Mort opened. The younger poet closed. Kendra left her seat and helped the others arrange wine, mixed nuts, and Costco cheesecakes along the table in the lobby. Maybe now, she thought. Maybe now.

When the reading ended, Mort and the young poet walked out together. Kendra tried to meet Mort’s eyes above the crowd, but he moved on stiff legs like a man lost in fog. Finally, he found his way to the table.

“Cheesecake,” he said, and she handed him a knife.

“Be careful though. It’s still pretty cold.”

“Looks fine.” He sawed off a piece, held it over a paper plate, and bit in.

Then he groaned and set down the plate. His gleaming teeth in the cheesecake slice hung there like fingernails digging into the edge of a cliff.

No one laughed. No one whispered. The members of the audience drifted away, as if in a single stream, into the gallery of plein air and portraits, into the art.

When they returned, Kendra and Mort stood, unsmiling, beside that still-frozen cheesecake and the premature slice with its ragged marks. Everything else was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________

 

BIO

 

Bonnie Hearn Hill’s seventeenth novel, I Wish You Missed Me, was published by Severn House in 2017, and The River Below will publish in the UK in September 2017 and the United States in January 2018. Huelga, a film set during the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 and based on one of her books, is currently in pre-production. A California native, she has appeared on a Central California television station’s book segment for fourteen years.

 

 

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