sunday stories: books that inspire

October 8, 2017

forgive me, but this is a long one today. i spent the weekend at a writers conference and am desperate to immerse myself in some stories that have helped me in the past...

so i am the daughter of english teachers, which means there are a LOT of books in my house. WALLS full of them. so many books that my parents had to knock a wall in what once was my older brother's room which became my father's office after jon graduated college and got his own place so that they could put a built-in bookcase there to store still MORE books. and it's not just that they have these things for show. they've read. EVERY. ONE. there are books on philosophy, education, religion, romance... there are dramas and comedies and horror stories. my house could be a damned bookstore.

even if this weren't the case, even if there were no books in my house, i would have been an avid reader anyway. i feel like every night as a child, my mother would come into my room on several occasions and pry books out of my hands, insisting i'd go to sleep. i'd hide them beneath covers. i'd stash them under my bed or behind my nightstand. and as soon as she was gone, i'd whip them out again, flip back to whatever page i'd been reading -- usually with so little light that i could barely make out the words -- and jump back into the story. every time she came in, that light got dimmer, until finally she'd turn it out and i was forced to sleep.

and then, like my brothers, i grew bored with books. i wanted to swim, to ride my bike... to explore my neighborhood... and yes, the ideas i had swirling in my noggin. but i never wanted to write any of them down. i took walks, wandering as i wondered. it wasn't until i was a junior in high school that i remember wanting to read something other than the texts assigned by my teachers. the first books i remember wanting to read after that hiatus were: gentle rogue, tender rebel and love only once by johanna lindsey; the silence of the lambs and red dragon by thomas harris; paradise, whitney my love and once and always by judith mcnaught; and honest illusions by nora roberts.

that last one... that's the one that really hooked me. i loved the characters and the story and the way roberts told it. i could not get my hands on her novels fast enough. the more i read, the more i wanted to write like her. i'd floated through college, never really knowing what the hell i wanted to do with myself, what i wanted for myself except to be done, to be free of academia because, after all those years of public school as the superintendent's daughter, after nearly six years in college, of going what the fuck are you doing here? i wanted out. i didn't care how i made that happen, so i looked at all the hours i had... ALL the hours because i took ALL kinds of stupid classes like judicial systems and principles of accounting that i did NOT need AT ALL, and saw that i had the most hours in english and the second most in art so i changed my major and minor to those subjects, respectively, and took the classes... and it was in those last three semesters that i discovered nora.

and fell in love with books about love. and not just about people loving other people, but people learning to love their lives... because i'd never loved mine. and it occurred to me that i could do this. i could write stories just like this, so that maybe girls like me, who had no idea how to love the world, might find some solace in the stories i could tell, some solidarity... and maybe they could love the world better than i could. maybe writing those stories could help me love the world a little better.

so.... after that hellacious diatribe, i have for you ten stories, and they're all by nora... because hers are the ones that do it best, that sort of motivated me to wander the interior landscapes of my psyche, to write down what i saw and heard.

one. daring to dream.
"shit. she'd never humiliate herself by admitting that for the second time in her life she'd been trapped naked in a gym locker. she'll be more subtle than that. i say within a week we all have new identities. the slut, the shrew, and the dyke."

"i might like being the shrew," laura decided. "being the wimp gets old fast." 

"you were never the wimp," margo said loyally.

"oh, yes, i've been a practicing wimp for years. it's going to take some doing to make the leap to shrew. but i might give it a shot. josh?" she blinked as her brother walked into the salon, looking hot and harrassed. 

"ladies." he plopped down in a vacant chair, picked up margo's glass of water, guzzled it down." well don't you all look...." he paused, skimmed his eyes over three faces packed in green goo. "hideous. been having fun? ...i was into my second set with carl brewster on the courts here. you know carl brewster, television journalist, investigative reporter, and anchor on informed, that long-running, highly-rated, and revered newsmagazine."

the tone of his voice had laura biting her lip. "i've heard of it. how is carl?"

"oh, fit and sassy, not that i wasn't whipping his ass, but i digress. informed is planning to do a series of reports on the fine hotels of the world, with templeton, of course, as a highlight. i've spent weeks arranging for various crews to film our hotels, interview staff, certain guests. all to show the viewing public the fine, upstanding, sophisticated, and unrivaled class and hospitality of templeton worldwide... naturally when carl suggested we get some clips of the two of us playing tennis at our landmark resort here in monterey, i agreed. a nice, human touch, the vp of templeton enjoying the pleasant surroundings where his guests are always pampered and satisfied... imagine my surprise, my distress, when one of our regular patrons raced screaming into camera range, her templeton spa robe flapping open, her eyes wild as she sputtered accusations about being attacked -- bodily attacked by laura templeton ridgeway and her cohorts."

"oh, josh. i'm so sorry." laura turned her head away, hoping he'd take it for shame. it would never, never do to laugh...

"she started it," kate said, then winced when he turned flinty eyes on her. "well, she did."

"i'm sure mom and dad will understand that completely."

even the stalwart kate could be cowed. "it was margo's idea."

margo hissed through her teeth, "traitor. she called kate a lesbian... i suppose you'd have let her get away with it. she's been trying to damage the shop. she said nasty things to laura... and just the other day she came into the shop and called me a slut. a second-class slut."

"and your answer was go gang up on her, three to one, smack her around, strip her naked, and shove her into a locker? ...pitiful insults from crazy women don't bother me. and your timing was rare and perfect... i'd just begun to get carl to nibble at the idea of doing a sidebar story on the latest innovation of a templeton heir. laura templeton ridgeway's partnership with old and dear friends margo sullivan -- yes, the margo sullivan, and kate powell. smart, savvy women creating and running a smart, savvy business."

"were going to get air on informed? that's fabulous."

he shot margo a disgusted look. "christ, you are an idiot. what you're going to get, unless i can do some fast and sweet talking, is sued and very possibly charged in a criminal action. she's claiming assault, verbal and physical abuse -- and now that i know kate's a lesbian, that explains the sexual abuse she tossed in... she came shrieking across the court. i'd just hit a line drive, barely missed beaning her... suddenly i've got my arms full of this half-naked, spitting, swearing, clawing mass who's screaming that my sister, her lesbian companion, and my whore attacked her... though i didn't appreciate the term, i deduced you must be my whore. the lesbian companion might have stumped me, but for process of elimination" (pages 266-271).

two. holding the dream.
"you want me to take the dress out of the bag." with a fierce smile, kate leaned over the counter. "why don't you--"

"oh, the australian crystals just make those earrings, don't they?" dashing around the counter, margo gave kate a shove that knocked her a full foot sideways. "i have a bracelet that's just made to go with them. kate, why don't you take the dress back out while i unlock the case?"

"i'll take the damn dress back out," kate muttered with her back turned. "but i'm not putting it in again. no one can make me." spoiling for a fight, she scowled as the door jingled open. her scowl only deepened at byron's quick smile.

"hello, ladies. i'll just browse until you're free."

"you're free," margo said meaningfully to kate. "i'll finish up here."

one devil was the same as another, kate supposed and walked reluctantly out from behind the counter. "looking for something?"

"mother's day. i bought my mother's birthday present in here a couple of months ago, and it made me a hero. i figured i'd stick with a winner." he reached out, skimmed a knuckle along her jaw. "how are you feeling?"

"fine." embarrassed at the memory of sobbing in his arms, she turned stiffly away. "did you have anything in mind?"

in answer, he put a hand on her shoulder, turned her around. "i thought we'd parted on semi-friendly terms at least."

"we did." she reeled herself in. there was no point in blaming him, though it was more satisfying. "i'm just a little tired. i nearly punched that customer... i think my coworkers are plotting my demise." ...when he continued to study her, she shifted. "you did come in for a gift, right -- not to check up on me or anything?"

"i can do both."

"i'd rather you--" the door opened again, heralding the entrance of three laughing, chattering women. kate grabbed byron's arm in a steely grip. "okay, i'm with you. you need my undivided attention. i'll give you ten percent off if you take up all my time until they leave."

"a real people person, aren't you, katherine?"

"i'm a desperate woman. don't screw with me" (pages 91-93).

three. finding the dream.
"i'm not the country club type, josh." as if someone had already forced him into a suit, michael rolled his shoulders.

"i'd consider it a favor."

scowling, michael measured out a grin. "i hate it when you do that."

"and i'd be able to introduce you to a lot of potential horse owners... it's not like a date... it's just that laura's feeling like a third wheel at these things. i didn't realize it myself, but margo pointed it out... then i realized how often laura either skips going to events, or cuts out early. it would be nice for her to have an escort, that's all."

"a woman like your sister ought to have a platoon of likely escorts lined up and waiting." and all with a proper pedigree, michael thought.

"yeah, well, she doesn't seem interested in swimming with the sharks in the dating pool... she knows you, mick. she'd be comfortable with you. and it would give you the chance to make some contacts. everybody's happy."

"i'm not happy when i have to wear a tie." he glanced over his shoulder and grinned. "not like you, harvard, in your fancy italian suit. get the hell out of my barn."

"come on, mick. it's just one night out of your fascinating and fun-filled life. we'll hit the game room, play some billiards, tell some lies."

there was that, michael considered... "i can still bury your ass at pool."

"i'll lend you a tie."

"fuck you... laura might not go for this little arrangement of yours."

"i can handle laura..."

she was furious, livid. and trapped. they'd ganged up on her... josh and margo and kate... the arrangement would suit everyone. they wouldn't have to worry about her driving there and back alone or about her feeling awkward at an event designed for couples. michael would gain an entree and make contacts in the horse world.

oh, yeah, it suited everyone just fine. everyone but herself.

it was humiliating... a thirty-year-old woman being fixed up by her big brother. worse, now michael knew that she was a pathetic divorcee who couldn't get her own date. as if she wanted one in the first place...

"which i don't," she told the dog, who had come into her room to watch her every move with adoring eyes. "i don't even want to go to the damn country club tonight. i'm tired."

...he'd never used the front door at templeton house... the entrance was so damned imposing... it didn't make him feel welcome.

nor did ann sullivan when she opened the door to his knock... "i'll tell miss laura that you're here."

but as she turned to do so, laura came down the wide, curving steps. though michael would tell himself later that he was a fool, his heart stopped (pages 84-89).

four. born in fire.
"i'm a glass artist, mr. sweeney, not a painter."

he shot her a look, set her sketch down again. "if you were to sign that, i could get a hundred pounds for it... and the piece you've just finished? how much will you ask for it?"

"and why would that be your business?"

"perhaps i'd like to buy it."

she considered, scooting up on the edge of a bench and swinging her feet. no one could tell her the worth of her work, not even herself. but a price had to be set... she would calculate the time spent on producing the piece, her own feelings toward it, then factor in her opinion of the purchaser.

her opinion of rogan sweeney was going to cost him dear.

"two hundred and fifty pounds," she decided. a hundred of that was due to his gold cuff links.

"i'll write you a check." then he smiled, and maggie realized she was grateful he didn't seem to use that particular weapon often... "and though i'll add it to my personal collection -- for sentiment, shall we say? -- i could easily get double that for it at my gallery."

"'tis a wonder you stay in business, mr. sweeney, soaking your clients that way."

"you underestimate yourself, miss concannon... that's why you need me."

...she was at a disadvantage, sitting on the bench with him hovering over her. and she didn't care for it. "i don't want anyone messing in my work... i don't want a manager."

"ah, but you need one, margaret mary. you need one badly."

"a lot you know about what i'd be needing," she mumbled and began to pace. "some dublin sharpie with fancy shoes."

twice as much... twice what she'd asked. and there was mother to care for, and the bills to pay, and sweet jesus, the price of chemicals was murderous.

"what i need's peace and quiet. and room." she whirled back at him. his very presence in the studio was crowding her. "room. i don't need someone like you coming along and telling me we need three vases for next week, or twenty paperweights, or a half dozen goblets with pink stems. i'm not an assembly line, sweeney. i'm an artist."

very calmly, he took a pad and a gold pen out of his pocket and began to write.

"what are you doing there?"

"i'm noting down that you're not to be given orders for vases, paperweights or goblets with pink stems."

her mouth twitched once before she controlled it. "i won't take orders, at all" (pages 39-41).

five. born in ice.
and it couldn't be put off any longer, she told herself. shouldn't be. she moved briskly into the room where grayson had worked. it needed a good dusting, she thought and ran a finger gently over the edge of the desk... how could she have known it would feel so empty?

she shook herself. it was only a room, after all. waiting now for the next guest to come. and she would put the very next one into it, she promised... she moved into the bath, taking the towels he'd used from the bar where they'd dried.

and she could smell him.

the pain came so quickly, so fiercely, she nearly staggered under it. blindly, she stumbled back into the bedroom, sat on the bed, and burying her face in the towels, wept.

gray could hear her crying as he came up the stairs. it was a wild sound of grieving that stunned him, made him slow his pace before he faced it.

from the doorway he saw her, rocking herself for comfort, with her face pressed into the towels.

not cool, he thought, or controlled. not levelheaded... "well," he said in an easy voice, "you sure as hell had me fooled... no, don't stop crying, keep right on. it does me good to know what a fake you are. 'let me help you pack, gray. why don't i fix you some food for your trip? i'll get along just dandy without you'... you had me going, really had me. you never even looked back. that's what was wrong with the scene. it didn't play" (pages 364-365).

six. sea swept.
"always squabbling."

the voice, weak and slurred, caused all three men to jolt to attention.

"dad." ethan leaned forward first, his heart fluttering in his chest.

"i'll get the doctor."

"no. stay," ray mumbled before phillip could rush out of the room. it was a hideous effort, this coming back, even for a moment. and ray understood he had moments only. already his mind and body seemed separate things, though he could feel the pressure of hands on his hands, hear the sound of his sons' voices, and the fear and anger in them... his sons, he thought, three wonderful gifts of fate. he'd done his best by them, tried to show them how to become men. now he needed them for one more. needed them to stay a unit without him and tend the child.

"the boy... the boy's mine. yours now. keep the boy, whatever happens, you see to him, cam. you'll understand him best." the big hand, once so strong and vital, tried desperately to squeeze. "your word on it."

"we'll take care of him... we'll take care of him until you're on your feet again."

"ethan." ray sucked in another breath that wheezed through the respirator. "he'll need your patience, your heart. you're a fine waterman because of them."

"don't worry about seth. we'll look after him."


"right here." he moved closer, bending low. "we're all right here."

"such good brains. you'll figure out how to make it all work. don't let the boy go. you're brothers. remember you're brothers. so proud of you. all of you. quinns." he smiled a little, and stopped fighting. "you have to let me go now."

"i'm going to get the doctor." panicked, phillip rushed out of the room while cam and ethan tried to will their father back to consciousness.

no one noticed the boy who stayed curled in the chair, his eyes squeezed tightly shut against hot tears (pages 23-24).

seven. rising tides.
he removed the boots on the back porch. his mother had scalded his skin often enough in his youth about tracking mud for the habit to stick to the man. still, he didn't think anything of letting the wet dog nose in the door ahead of him.

until he saw the gleaming floor and counters.

shit, was all he could think as he studied the pawprints and heard simon's happy bark of greeting. there was a squeal, more barking, then laughter.

"you're soaking wet!" the female voice was low and smooth and amused. it was also very firm and made ethan wince with guilt. "out, simon! out you go. you just dry off on the front porch."

there was another squeal, baby giggles, and the accompanying laughter of a young boy. the gang's all here, ethan thought, rubbing rain from his hair. the minute he heard footsteps heading in his direction, he made a beeline for the broom closet and a mop.

he didn't often move fast, but he could when he had to.

"oh, ethan." grace monroe stood with her hands on her narrow hips, looking from him to the pawprints on her just-waxed floor.

"i'll get it. sorry." he could see that the mop was still damp and decided it was best not to look at her directly. "wasn't thinking," he muttered, filling a bucket at the sink. "didn't know you were coming by today."

"oh, so you let wet dogs run through the house and dirty up the floors when i'm not coming by?"

he jerked a shoulder. "floor was dirty when i left this morning, didn't figure a little wet would hurt it any." then he relaxed a little. it always seemed to take him a few minutes to relax around grace these days (page 13).

eight. inner harbor.
it had been more than six years since she'd bought seth a gift, she thought. she was going to make up for that.

it had to be just the right pencils, the perfect collection of chalks. she examined watercolor brushes as if the wrong choice would mean the end of the world as she knew it. she tested the weight and thickness of drawing paper for twenty minutes, then agonized over a carrier for all the supplies...

"seth, take sybill into the living room so you can open your gift."

"sure." he waited for sybill to stand, then with a jerk of his shoulder started out.

"i got it in baltimore," she began, miserably awkward, "so if it doesn't suit, if you don't like it, phillip could exchange things for you."

"okay." he pulled a box out of the first bag, sat indian-style on the floor, and within seconds was tearing the paper it had taken her untold agonies to choose to shreds.

"you could have used newspaper," phillip told her and, chuckling, nudged her into a chair.

"it's a box," seth said, puzzled, and sybill's heart sank at his disinterested tone... but he caught the hard beam in phillip's eye and made an effort. "it's a nice box." but he wanted to roll his eyes. then he idly flicked the brass hook, flipped the top. "holy shit!"

"christ, seth," cam muttered it, glancing over his shoulder as anna walked in from the kitchen.

"man, look at all this stuff! it's got, like, everything. charcoals and pastels and pencils." now he looked at sybill with that staggered shock. "i get to have it all?"

"it goes together... you draw so well, i thought... you may want to experiment with other mediums. the other box has more supplies."


"watercolors and brushes, some paper..." she leaned over to take one of the brushes... as she spoke, she forgot her nerves, smiled at him.

the light from the lamp slanted over her face, caught something in her eyes that jiggled at the corners of his memory.

"did you have a picture on the wall? flowers, white flowers in a blue vase?"

her fingers tightened on the brush. "yes, in my bedroom in new york. one of my watercolors. not a very good one."

"and you had colored bottles on the table. lots of them, different sizes and stuff."

"perfume bottles." her throat was closing again, so she was forced to clear it. "i used to collect them."

"you let me sleep in your bed with you." his eyes narrowed as he concentrated on the vague blips of memory. soft smells, soft voice, colors and shapes. "you told me some story, about a frog."

the frog prince. into her mind flashed the image of how a little boy had curled against her, the bedside lamp holding back the dark for both of them, his bright blue eyes intense on her face as she calmed his fears with a tale of magic and happily ever after.

"you had-- when you came to visit, you had bad dreams. you were just a little boy."

"i had a puppy. you bought me a puppy."

"not a real one, just a stuffed toy." her vision was blurring, her throat closing, her heart breaking. "you... you didn't have any toys with you. when i brought it home, you asked me whose it was, and i told you it was yours. that's what you called it. yours. she didn't take it when she-- i have to go."

she shot to her feet. "i'm sorry. i have to go." and bolted out the door (pages 238-269).

nine. tears of the moon.
he didn't hear the banging at the front door, the clomp of bootsteps down the hallway, or the muttered curse.

typical, brenna thought. lost in some dream world again while life went on around him. she didn't know why she'd bothered to knock in the first place -- he rarely heard it, and they'd been running tame in each other's houses since childhood.

well, they weren't children anymore, and she'd as soon knock as walk in on something she shouldn't.

he could have had a woman in here, for all she knew. the man attracted them like sugar water attracted bees. not that he was sweet, necessarily. though he could be.

god, he was pretty... not that he ever looked at her like she was a woman.

just as well, she assured herself, and shifted her stance. she didn't have time to hang around mooning over the likes of shawn gallagher. some people had work to do.

fixing a thin sneer on her face, she deliberately lowered her toolbox and let it fall with a terrible clatter. that he jumped like a rabbit under the gun pleased her.

"christ jesus!" he scraped his chair around, thumped a hand to his heart as if to get it pumping again. "what's the matter?"

"nothing." she continued to sneer. "butterfingers," she said sweetly and picked up her dented toolbox again. "give you a start, did i?"

"you damn near killed me."

"well, i knocked, but you didn't bother to come to the door" (pages 5-6).

ten. heart of the sea.
"you're going to need more help in here, aidan."

"i've given that some thought... darcy'll be talking to some people when the time comes."

as if hitting the cue, darcy's voice rang through the kitchen doorway in a peal of heartfelt and inventive curses.

"you're a miserable excuse for a blind donkey's ass, and why you require a head hard as a rock when you've nothing inside it needing protection, i'll never know, for you're as brainless as a turnip and twice as disagreeable."

when trevor cocked his head in question, aidan merely continued to work his taps. "it's a bit of a temper our sister has, and shawn needs only to exist to provoke it."

"a shrew is it? i'll give you a shrew, you slant-eyed, toothless toad."

there was an audible thud, a yelp, more cursing, then darcy, face flushed, eyes lightning-hot, swung through the door with a large and loaded tray on her hip.

"brenna, i brained your husband with a stewpot -- though why an intelligent woman such as yourself would choose to wed a baboon like that escapes me."

"i hope it wasn't full, as he makes a fine stew."

"it was empty. you get a better ring that way." she tossed her head, drew in a long breath, and let it out again with a satisfied huff. shifting the tray, she turned toward the pass-through and spotted trevor.

temper vanished from her face like magic... "well, now, look who's come in out of the rainy evening... would you mind flipping up the pass-through, darling? i've my hands a bit full at the moment."

she'd been balancing trays one-handed more than half her life, but she liked to see him move. the hum in her throat was a sound of pure appreciation when he slid off the stool and walked over to do as she'd asked.

"it's nice to be rescued by a strong, handsome man."

"mind yourself, trev, there's a viper under that comely face." this was shawn's opinion, and he gave it a bit testily as he came out to serve another pair of orders at the bar.

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