Adelina finds the warmth of family, the hope of faith, and the joy of love melting away the deep wounds of her past.
But when Reese discovers that he's a pawn in her climb up the academic ladder, will he forgive Adelina s deceit or will their miscommunication end in two broken lives?
Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes romance peppered with grace and humor. She currently resides in the lovely mountains of Asheville, NC where she is the mom of 5 great kids, speech-pathologist to about fifty more, lover of chocolate, jazz, and Jesus, and proud AlleyCat over at a group writing blog, The Writer’s Alley. Her debut historical romance novel, The Thorn Bearer, released in May 2015, with the second arriving in February 2016. Her first contemporary romance debuts in April 2016.
Check out the interview HERE.
“There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years!”
-Dr. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady
PhD was not supposed to smell like this. Adelina Roseland dropped a box of research articles onto the floor and stifled a deep breath as the strong aroma of damp grass and naturally fertilized farmland wafted in from the open window. The entire scene defied any prestige the brass placard on her mahogany desk could have given:
Adelina N. Roseland, PhD
Department of Communicative Disorders, Blue Ridge University
Her dream job dangled in front of her, so running wasn’t an option. She’d worked much too hard. Focused. Driven. A bit obsessive, if her previous ex-boyfriends had anything to say, but not a runner.
She pushed the window closed and turned to take in the four white walls of her new office. Small, tidy, with a noticeable lack of the class and charm of Charlottesville, but her own. She drew in a deep breath and infused her thoughts with courage she didn’t quite feel. The small university might be in the middle of nowhere, but she had been hand-picked for this experimental satellite program from her coveted University of Virginia. Maybe an element of prestige hung somewhere between the farmland and fertilizer. Besides, being the newest faculty member and the youngest had its price, but she’d pay it.
A smile quivered. Her dad’s old adage echoed in her head, strengthening her will. “Everybody starts somewhere, Dee.” Ransom, VA was a start, but certainly not an end.
She reached into her bag and claimed the desk as her own with one single inspiration – her father’s picture. His intense eyes gazed back at her from the frame, reminding her not only of their shared-gold hue but their shared dream for her life. Full professor at UVA Charlottesville.
At his memory the usual ache around her heart flared to full sting. She could almost hear his baritone voice; almost smell his scent of soap and pipe tobacco. Determination fisted her hands. She’d prove herself to him even now. Make him proud and recover something of what her mother damaged.
“I see you’ve found your office.”
Dr. Alexander Murdock’s voice sliced into her solitude like missed high notes on a fiddle. Straight to her last nerve. Why did her immediate supervisor have to be him? Hadn’t four years as his research assistant been enough punishment? How could she become her own academic with him staring down his Grecian nose at her? She steadied her expression and turned to face him.
He was a life-sized Ken doll, complete with vacant expression and hollow chest. His porcelain smile even sparkled in the morning sunlight. He advanced into the room; Grecian nose to the heavens, as if waiting for a drum roll to begin. Or had it already started pounding a rhythm inside her head? She almost prayed for strength. Almost.
“What might I do for you, Dr. Murdock?” Adelina tightened her arms across her chest, his annoying presence the possible root of her quick-recurring migraines. Oh well, it was either clench her jaw and instigate a headache, or say something she’d live to regret a long time, like the length of her freshly-signed contract. She bit back a sigh, refusing to give him the satisfaction.
He shook his head as he walked passed her, taking his eternal smirk and overpowering Polo cologne to the other side of the room. “Dr. Murdock?”
An ache hinted at the edge of her forehead. Yep, migraine-cause confirmed.
“Adelina, we’re colleagues now. Call me Alex. Besides, as much research as we’ve done together, we already have the start of a good friendship. Right?”
Sure, if slave and master fit the start of a good friendship. Adelina forced a smile. “How often should I expect your visits?” Please say never.
“I’ll keep close contact with you via email and visit once a month to ensure the program has a firm foundation.” He rapped the desk with his knuckles and stepped to one of the empty bookshelves, examining a few trinkets she’d haphazardly placed there.
He touched her silver ballerina figurine, a twelfth birthday present from Jason – and silly way to keep her brother nearby. Alex’s fingers drifted over Desperaux, the peace lily which had survived all four of her moves in the past five years. If nothing else, the poor plant deserved a consistent owner if it couldn’t get a consistent home.
He finally tilted her Calvin and Hobbes year-of-quotes book up toward him before she could stop him. She’d just read the one for today as she’d unpacked it. You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help. She struggled to control her grin. Apropos for the moment, but no less cringe-worthy. His lips didn’t so much as tip.
Who didn’t grin at Calvin and Hobbes? It was nearly unthinkable.
“Isn’t Appalachia part of your heritage or something like that? One of the reasons you’ll thrive in this position, I suspect.” He relaxed back into her office chair and propped one ankle on the opposite knee. “Besides, everybody has to start somewhere.”
It sounded better when her father said it.
Dr. Murdock pulled his iPhone from his jacket pocket and thumbed over the screen. Dee swallowed the little taste of envy in her throat. After seven years of college life, scrounging for money, surviving on coffee and microwavable mac-n-cheese, and shopping consignment, she had her priorities in order. Keurig machine and a new car before an iPhone. But that would be next.
“Is there a particular reason you traveled the three hours to see me, Dr−”. Dee stifled a groan. “Alex?”
“I have to make one visit a month.” He looked up from his screen, shrugged, and returned to his email list. “It made sense to come before my schedule became too busy.”
“Of course.” Dee rolled her eyes and then contemplated ways to get Alex out of her office chair- or out of her office in general.
“Dr. Lindsey’s secretary said your new landlady is quite a character.” Alex murmured. “Whatever that means.”
Obviously Mr. Clueless had never dealt with ‘character’ landlords in his gilded world. It figured. Of course, life in affluent St. Louis probably held no comparison to backwoods Virginia. Her stomach started into a freefall. She hoped for cartoon-like characters instead her previous Elvis-lives-character-landlord. There was something uncomfortable about a man with more bling.
“How does it feel to return to your roots?” The glint in Alex’s eyes was unmistakable and downright impish.
He had no idea about the Appalachian culture. Andy Griffith shone Hollywood’s light on it, but she knew the dark side all-too well. One of the many reasons she never wanted to return. Her mother’s dreams usually included a long-necked bottle and blood-shot eyes. Painful proof that most of Appalachia wasn’t filled with Mayberry’s charm or happily-ever-afters.
His expression sobered and a strange sort of longing filled his eyes. “Is it home for you?”
Dee hesitated. “No, never for me.” Growing up in the culture singed any desire to return. Even the unearthly pull of those gorgeous mountains beyond the window had her heart palpating a retreat rhythm. The sudden urge to click her heels together three times and repeat There’s no place like home almost overtook her, but —she didn’t have a home. And she wasn’t a quitter. Ever.
Alex cleared his throat and stood, eyes fixed out the window. “The town seems idyllic – something off a movie. I just thought, maybe it was a good place to call home, that’s all.” The contemplative look on his face evaporated with his shrug. “Who needs to worry about home when we have our work, right?”
His declaration shook to her core. Maybe because it felt truer than she wanted. What else did she have but her job, really?
Alex flipped through a text on her desk. “Oh, and I need to get a copy of those last ten cases you completed.”
“My cases?” Adelina’s emotional downward spiral came to a lurching halt. “Why?”
“I’ll need the information for my presentation at ASHA in November.”
Within one second all heat left her body and then rushed back in a wave of fire. He wouldn’t.
“ASHA? You’re going to present my research at the national convention?”
“Your research?” Alex shook his head as if to console her. “You wouldn’t have your research had I not agreed to supervise it. My name is on all the documentation and we started it together.”
She surged forward, hands on her hips. “Your signature might be the only effort you put into it.” But he was right. Every piece of research held his golden seal of approval.
His gaze held a singe of warning. “Supervisor clearly gives me specific rights to it, Adelina. You know that.”
“Perhaps technically.” She lifted her chin in challenge. “But not ethically. You know the work I’ve done, better than anyone.”
Alex drew out a long sigh. “You are a very bright woman, and no doubt you will be in top form to present at the National Conference soon. But you lack an important ingredient for the success associated with such an honor.” He sobered, like he just might have found a heart. “You have excellent theory, you’re a solid clinician and researcher, but you have practically no experience. This presentation is part of a round table discussion with the experts. You’re not ready for that.” He leaned back in her office chair and stared with that pasted smile sticking to his face.
“You just received your doctorate in May, Adelina. I spent two years in a clinical setting in California before even applying for a university appointment.”
Her eyebrows lifted so high she thought they might go into orbit along with her blood pressure. Not ready? “It took me six years to finish my PhD, and four of those years were spent devouring research on accent modification. I followed through with all the protocol. I found the subjects to evaluate and treat. I wrote the paper. And I should present those findings at ASHA. It’s my research.”
Well, that got him out of her office chair. He stood to his full height, eyes narrowed. “Self-promotion has never been your strong suit, Adelina. Do you think you’re ready for the pressure of researchers grilling you?” Both palms lifted with his shrug. “But, by all means, if you’re ready, you need to prove it.”
“I can prove it.”
“You’ve not shown a lot of personal initiative so far. You’ve been more of a follower.”
Her cheeks flamed hot enough to evaporate her makeup. Presenting at ASHA was one step closer to tenure. And a round table discussion? Right up there with being the dean’s daughter: A professional goldmine and probably a first class ticket to Charlottesville.
“During the past two years, I’ve helped over forty clients reduce their accents. Two native Appalachian speakers even went on to land jobs in fortune 500 companies. I have experience and saw faster results with my clients than you did.” She sounded like a whiney four year old, just short of stomping her foot. “You’re jealous.”
He and every ounce of his cologne stepped closer. “And I’ve seen over three hundred clients and presented at ASHA on four separate occasions, as well as several other national conferences. My expertise isn’t as focused on accent modification as yours, because I’ve spread my research out with the Aphasic population, but I am clearly more qualified to –“
“It’s my research, Alex. I have the knowledge and skills, and I can prove it.”
His tone almost mocked her ability – or at least it sounded that way to her nagging insecurities. “I can take any hillbilly in this town and pass her off as a Harvard grad in twelve, maybe even ten weeks.”
“Ten weeks?” His grin grew so wide she knew he was trying to hold his laugh in check. “I’ll admit you’re good, but not that good.”
“You pick anybody. I can do it and when I do, I’ll present at ASHA in your place.”
“What? That’s ridiculous.”
“And if I don’t…” She racked her brain for an ultimatum, something powerful. Something to get his attention. “I won’t share with the board some of the discrepancies I found in your research.” She leveled him with a stare. “Careless, shall we say, mistakes that made your research just a bit better than it truly was?”
Well, there went the idea of not offending her supervisor. Brilliant, Dee. Kiss Charlottesville good-bye.
“’S’cuse me.” A deep rumble of words pulled her attention to the doorway and away from the sparks igniting Alex’s eyes.
A rugged-looking man stood framed by the doorway, muscular arms tan against a pale blue shirt half hidden underneath dark overalls. He towered over her, the nervous movement of the cap in his hands a clear contrast to the strength in his size. He was as out of his element as she was.
His jaw line was shaded by five o’clock. No more like ten o’clock shadow. Midnight hair tossed in a disarray of curls topped his head and spilled over his forehead to enhance the depth of his dark eyes. There was an intoxicating strength about him.
“Need any help, ma’am?” He shot Alex a severe look.
Adelina blinked out of her trance and snagged a breath, casting a glance back at Alex whose jaw was set for battle. The last thing she should feel toward the burly farmer in the doorway was safety, but something about her knight-in-overalls almost had her stepping closer to his side to take cover.
“No, thank you.” Adelina smiled. “Can I help you?”
His gaze zeroed back to her face. Alive and intense, those creamy brown eyes fastened on hers, like he could see all the way to her childhood memories. There was a gentleness in them, a shared understanding she didn’t quite comprehend, but it shook her. A strange tingling sensation quivered in her chest and she stepped back into her desk. She pinched the edge of it so hard the corner of the wood pricked the inside of her palm, shaking her free of his hold on her thoughts. Good. She didn’t like intruders.
“I’m real sorry for presenting myself like this.” He patted a tanned hand against his chest. “I wasn’t plannin’ on coming into town today.” He offered a grin that didn’t quite match the farmer motif; a perfect row of white teeth. Actually, framed by his midnight moustache and beard his smile almost gleamed. “You know a Dr. Roseland?”
Adelina worked to keep the surprise from her expression. “Dr. Adelina Roseland?”
His eyes widened. “Adelina?” He tried the name on his tongue, a kettle drum of consonants. “Well now, Mama ain’t said nothin’ about the doc being a …”
How on earth could he make the word mama sound so sweet, even with his vowel-mutilation? In her experience, the two rarely fit together.
“I’m Dr. Roseland.” Adelina extended her hand. Warning rhythms pounded in her head, but she offered him the friendliest smile she could muster.
His dark brow tilted a question followed by another glimmer of teeth. “Nice to meetcha.” He stepped further into the room, all 200-something pounds of him, and took her hand. His skin was rough, but not his touch. She looked up from their clasped hands and an overwhelming sense of ‘home’ washed over her, warming untouched places in her heart.
Home? Heat drained from her face and she pulled her hand from his. Ransom, Virginia was not her home.
“Name’s Reese Mitchell. Welcome to Ransom.”
The warm fuzzy feelings in her chest died with the turn of his speech. The poor man could injure more vowels in a single sentence than all the Beverly Hillbillies combined.
“Thank you, Mr. Mitchell.” Dee’s smile tightened as she gestured to Alex. “This is Dr. Alex Murdock.”
The men exchanged a nod, measuring each other like two dogs. Well, in this standoff, her odds were on the mountain man.
“I didn’t mean no bother. I was sent to help you with your boxes and things.”
He furrowed his shaggy brows and ran a hand through his hair, upsetting more curls. Something just wasn’t fair about a man with hair that pretty.
“You were sent?” Four huge boxes of books still waited in the trunk of her car. Had Dr. Russell sent her some help? Maybe country manners weren’t so bad. The only thing Alex offered to take off her hands was her research. “I do have a few more boxes in my car.”
He plopped the cap back on his head, and his eyes lit with boyish humor. “I can get ‘em.”
Dee squelched a reflexive smile forcing professional distance she usually had no difficulty maintaining. Mr. Mitchell’s thought-stopping gaze captured hers again, almost as if he was gauging if she was fine or not. Could he tell? What did he care if her life ended in the next five minutes? Or worse, her career?
“That’s very kind of you. Thank you.” She kept her attention away from Alex and turned for her purse, but his stare burned a hole in the side of her face. How could she have been stupid enough to offer an ultimatum? Threatening her supervising faculty member on first day? She kept her bottom lip from a slight quiver.
“Are you a farmer, Mr. Mitchell?” Alex broke the awkward silence.
“I am.” He replied.
“Have you been in Ransom long?”
Dee shot Alex a severe look. He didn’t even try to hide his sardonic grin. Someday, she hoped someone knocked him from his pedestal a few notches.
Mr. Mitchell’s smile stilled. “Most of it. I finished some schoolin’ in other places, but mostly I’ve stayed close.”
“Schoolin, eh?” Alex did nothing to hide the humor in his voice. “I guess farmin’ is a close-to-home kind of job.”
Mr. Mitchell’s eyes narrowed a moment and he stood a bit straighter. He was even taller than he looked at first. “Home is a good place to be, Dr. Murdock. But I don’t mind some adventure now and then. Got myself an interview up near Chicago soon.”
Dee braced herself for Alex’s reply.
“Do you? For farming?”
“Agricultural engineering firm. Seems that even big city folks are lookin’ for hardworkin’ country folks. Or at least I hope so.” He looked back at Dee, no smile in his eyes. “How ‘bout them keys, Doc?”
“Well, that’s interesting.” His words came out slow, almost premeditated.
She risked a look at Alex. The expression on his face made her do a double-take. He looked happy. Too happy.
“Besides, Adelina,” Alex’s grin lifted in a mischievous twist. “We needed to finish our discussion so I can be on my way.”
Warning lights flashed in her head. Perhaps keeping Mr. Mitchell as a human shield wouldn’t be a bad idea. At least he seemed genuine.
She hesitated a moment before offering her keys to her country stranger. What if he stole her car or her CD player that skipped every two songs? One glance into those honest eyes tweaked guilt at the thought. Besides, if he was desperate enough to steal her twenty year old Jetta, he was more desperate than she was.
“It’s a blue Jetta out in the front lot of the building. Two boxes in the trunk are labeled ‘office’. Oh, and there’s one box in the back seat too, but the back left door handle is broken, so you’ll have to come through the right.”
A shaded grin quirked up one side of his moustache and lit his eyes. “Yes ma’am.”
“And you might have to jiggle the key a little in the keyhole to get the doors to unlock.” His large hand wrapped around hers, keys and all. Warmth moved up her arm.
The look in his eyes held her in place, even thinned the air around her. Pure kindness tinged with good-natured humor. Her lips itched to respond with a smile from her soul, but she stopped, and swallowed to wet her dry throat. Change was never easy, but this was ridiculous. She released her keys and stepped back.
With one last look at Alex and a quick glance back to her, the farmer stepped from the room, taking a hint of her courage with him.
As soon as the door clicked closed, Alex turned on her. “We have a deal.”
“You and Mr. Cow-man. Ten weeks.” His eyes sparkled like a mischievous elf’s.
The implications of his statement took a full fifteen seconds to register in Adelina’s mind. “No, no way. Are you crazy?” She waved toward the boxes. “I haven’t even unpacked yet. You can’t be serious. I am not going to bring Mr. Cow…um…Mitchell into this.”
“Too much of a challenge?”
“No, I just —“
“Oh, I see,” Alex’s eyes narrowed into green slits. “You planned on picking someone who couldn’t roll their ‘r’s?” He shook his head and walked passed her to the closed door.
Adelina clenched her fists and exhaled a shaky breath. Calm, remain calm. You are more mature than he is.
“You know that’s not—”
“Once you gain more experience, right?”
“Fine, I’ll do it.” The words jumped out before she could catch them.
Alex’s grin slowly spread across his face and she had a sudden thought of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. “Ten weeks, which should make the great unveiling at the department Autumn Leaves Gala in Charlottesville. Perfect.” Alex reached for the door. “By then if you can pass him off as a sophisticated intellectual, no hint of the cowboy who just walked in this room, I’ll even buy you dinner at ASHA after your presentation.”
What had she done?
Alex stopped, hand on the door knob, his expression sobered, almost vulnerable. “How did you know about the data changes in the research?”
Adelina stepped back, uncertain how to respond to this Alex Murdock. Not a hint of cynicism in his eyes. He was waiting, sincerely waiting, for her response.
“I’ve been your research assistant for four years. How would I not know?”
“And you never told anyone?” He stared at her for a moment, his expression softening until she felt like she didn't know him at all. He cleared his throat and opened the door. “Well, good luck, Adelina.”
He walked down the hall and out of sight. Very odd. Maybe there was something more to Dr. Murdock than a perfectly pressed suit and a hot-head. She sighed. She didn’t have time to sort it out right now, and she really didn’t want any reason to like him. Not even a little. Her cup was already overflowing with more trouble than she cared to taste.
She turned on her heels and moved back to her desk. How was she going to do this? Her shoulders relaxed and she collapsed into her desk chair. The majesty of a blue cascade of mountains drew her attention to the horizon out her window. Her father had called the Blue Ridge Mountains, God’s country. A place she didn’t belong. Especially since she and God hadn’t been on speaking terms for a while.
Another glance at her father’s framed face renewed the unwanted warmth in her eyes, especially on this day – when he couldn’t see the results of all her hard work. She trailed a finger along the edge of the frame, tears tingling at the bridge of her nose. She wouldn’t let his dream die with him. She would make him proud.
Her throat tightened as unbidden memories peeked into the present. She pushed them away, determined to leave her unsavory past in the place where all bad memories go: one-on-one intensive psychotherapy.
Mr. Mitchell moved into the room, a book box under each arm as if they didn’t weigh seventy pounds apiece. “Where would you like these, Doc?”
She stiffened at his pet name for her. “By those bookshelves would be fine, Mr. Mitchell. Thank you.”
The T-shirt stretched taunt across his broad shoulders as he placed the boxes on the floor. She quickly looked away, heat rising to her face.
“Is that all?”
“For now. I still have some boxes to sort through once I reach my rental house.”
Mr. Mitchell offered another white smile, a startling contrast to the unruly, black shade covering his jaw. She had a list of important things to accomplish during her first six months at this tiny school, and reforming Reese Mitchell was not on the list. Until now? There had to be another way.
She hoped she returned his smile. Keep the natives happy. Impress them and you impress the higher-ups. Besides, if this wager worked out, she’d be practically married to the farmer for ten weeks. Ten weeks of intensive speech therapy with a backwoods, mountain, cattle-farmer? A prayer came to mind out of nowhere. Help me, God.
Mr. Mitchell dusted his hat against his overalls and lifted guilty eyes to her. “Again, I’m real sorry ‘bout showin’ up like this.” He looked down at his work-worn overalls and scraped a hand through his dark curls.
Her fingers twitched.
“I usually clean up better when I come into town, but I had to run Mama to the hospital.”
“The tough old bird fell off a ladder ‘bout four hours ago while she was paintin’. Cracked a few ribs. Didn’t tell nobody for two hours.” He offered a crooked smile and her heart stumbled into a different rhythm.
“Mama didn’t want to miss her appointment with ya.”
“Her appointment? With me?”
“Yeah, to take you to your house.”
“My house?” Thoughts tinkered to a crawl and the spot just above Adelina’s right eyebrow began to throb. She felt sick.
“The house you’re gonna live in while you’re here?” Reese slowed his speech even more than it already was. “The one at Mitchell’s Crossroads.”
Mitchell’s Crossroads? Reese Mitchell. A sudden sense of dread whooshed through her and drained her face of heat.
“It’s our family’s old house, spittin’ distance from the new farm. My mama’s yer landlady.”
“My landlady?” She knew he spoke English, after all speech clarity was her specialty. But his words and her hopes weren’t matching up. “Your mother is my landlady?”
His smile quirked into a fake, this-woman-is-crazy-grin. Could he tell she was fighting the impulse to run away and never return? Whatever drew her to this cowboy frightened her all the way down to her second-hand heels.
“We’ll take good care of ya, Doc. The last professor who stayed with us didn’t leave for eight years.”
Nobody could take care of her that well.
She stared at Reese Mitchell, willing him to disappear or tell her it’s all a joke or provide some ruby red slippers. Something. Anything. Silence invaded the moment. He took in a deep breath, scanned the room, and finally set his big, brown gaze back on hers.
“Well Doc, if yer ready, let me take you home.”
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